The Westerner: An Interview With SUPERNORMAL Cinematographer Laurie Gilbert
At a glance, The Supernormal (1992) resembles the sort of sensational documentary travelogue that proliferated during the late 1970s and some of the 1980s as a response to Mondo Cane (1962) and its many imitators. Like those earlier button-pushers, The Supernormal is divided into a series of canned episodic sketches that contrast local superstitions, particularly fox demon sightings and adolescent exorcisms, with pseudo-civilized practices like, uh, plastic surgery. The Supernormal is milder than most Mondo movies though, and was produced by and for Hong Kong residents (hence the spotty English subtitles). It was also one of the highest grossing domestic films of that year and topped the box office for two consecutive weeks.
According to Australian cinematographer Laurie Gilbert, The Supernormal was intended to be a serious-minded exploration of the paranormal. Gilbert was hired because of his experience shooting “60 Minutes”-style news segments, so, as Gilbert noted in an email from earlier this year, “the production team believed that if spirits did actually manifest themselves during the production, I would have the ability to capture them on film and tell the story well.” I spoke with Gilbert about what inspired The Supernormal, as well as the challenges of shooting a movie that seemingly exoticizes its own target audience.
It's interesting to read that your background as a "gweilo", or outsider, was part of what made you an attractive hire in the eyes of the filmmakers. Do you think that, in addition to your professional experience, they thought you brought an outsider's objectivity to the subject?
I’m fairly certain the filmmakers made the film specifically for a Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Mainland Chinese market only. I don’t believe they ever intended it to be shown outside that region, except maybe as a domestic Laser Disc in Chinatowns, like in Sydney, for example. I’m not sure that they ever actually asked me what I thought, but when I was shooting the project, I was very aware that they fully believed in what they thought they saw, and what they believed was the story behind what they saw.
My acceptance and sensitivity to those beliefs was, despite being a westerner, one of the primary reasons the shoot progressed so well, and although there were language challenges, I respected the story they were trying to tell, and gave them the technical ability to shoot it.
There's a scene early on, when the filmmakers are about to interview a night watchman named Mr. Wong, and they say that the crew is "quite nervous” and “excited" at the thought of maybe seeing some fox goblins. Did you ever find that there was a conflict between what you believed and what the filmmakers seemed to believe?
It was never a conflict because it was a film about what they believed, not about what I believed. As a westerner, I was never “nervous” about anything in front of camera, only about the technicalities of chasing and properly exposing the hobgoblins and ghosts with a full size 35mm Arri BL!
It also seem like you were an outlier in terms of either your own skepticism, or just how you saw what the film and its subjects. Were you familiar with feng shui, taoism, or any of the specific stories, or beliefs that you were going to shoot?
When I was first asked to shoot the film, I did indeed research Feng Shui and many aspects of cultural beliefs of Hong Kong, if not Taiwan. Two of my corporate clients in Hong Kong were Standard Chartered Bank and Hong Kong Bank, both of whom integrate Feng Shui principles into their office architecture and other aspects of their banking practices. The financial success of these two institutions would indicate that their respect for local beliefs was probably a good business practice.
You mentioned that the filmmakers really believed in what they were filming. Can you give us an example or two of that, and how that affected what they wanted you to shoot?
One of the sequences we traveled to Taiwan to film involved a very famous priest whom I was told had supernatural powers: I was told that he could set paper alight, fly around the room, and travel through brick walls. We filmed him reciting incantations and making multiple theatrical gestures behind his altar. We had also been warned to keep filming him if he rose off the ground or moved strangely in any way. He never did, of course.
In another unusual sequence, we were taken to a temple of sorts with a small altar and seats for a congregation. I was told that the congregation, who were eventually blindfolded, believed that the priest could send their inner spirit “down to hell” for a quick visit and then bring them back again just as easily. They could then recount what they saw and how they felt. The director thought it might be a good idea to send me as a witness, so I was blindfolded, placed on the front row where the camera could see me, and the director operated the camera. With a blindfold creating total darkness, the repetitive chanting and tapping on a wooden bell was certainly hypnotic, and I would not be surprised if certain members of the audience went into a trance…but I just remained very relaxed. During the succeeding interviews that I shot, I think some people, including our cast and actors, had some fanciful stories to tell.
Did the filmmakers have any other films, or influences in mind when they made the film? I ask because the movie seems similar to the Mondo Cane movies, especially in terms of its ethnographic tour guide structure and focus on sensationalism...had you seen any of the “Mondo” shockumentaries before making The Supernormal?
No. I had not seen almost any films of this kind before I was hired to shoot The Supernormal. I’m not sure what films the local director and crew used as an influence or reference, but all of them were passionate about the Hong Kong film culture, and many of the crew were highly experienced shooting and lighting Hong Kong films of every kind.
What kind of equipment did you use, and how would you describe the location shooting? How long was the shoot, and what kind of budget was available to you?
I personally don’t know now what the production budget was, but I do remember a viewing session where the first week’s rushes were shown to “investors” and the reaction was extremely positive, so from then onward, reasonable money, to do what the filmmakers wanted to do, was never a problem. The shoot itself was at least six weeks long, and was shot on location in Hong Kong, China and Taiwan.
The 35mm film equipment used was “tried and tested and cost effective” rather than “state of the art”: an Arriflex 35BL with a reasonable lens package and as much standard industry lighting as each location required. Hong Kong crews are incredibly experienced, innovative, fast, and very efficient. Whereas foreign crews might order and rely on production equipment on set, like a smoke machine, for example. A Hong Kong crew will improvise at short notice, and create a backlit forest full of smoke in China with nothing but a tin bucket and monster incense sticks.
Location lighting was often “modified” for effect not by using industry equipment such as gobos, but simply by cutting leafy bushes and utilizing other debris lying on the perimeter of the location.
Were the shooting locations, shooting days, or just more generally, the subjects of the film already chosen before the shoot, or did that change at all as you shot?
I think the film locations definitely expanded after the financiers saw the original rushes and increased the budget to match the potential of the project. There were certainly additional sequences added and shot in both Taiwan and China as the filmmakers discovered other photogenic locations that exhibited a spiritual significance.
Did anybody challenge them about how to present stuff like the landlady's story about the fox goblin-adjacent house of widowers, or that anecdote about Ma Wa Ching, the woman that director Wu Sze Yuen claims is a fox goblin, but is only presented in photographs? Or did everybody assume: this is true, so we'll just use what we have on hand?
I never saw them challenged on location. In fact, the filmmakers always seemed to be surrounded by strong believers in what they were doing.
There are a couple of scenes where they say that you discovered something, specifically the fox-shaped tree during Mr. Wong's interview, as well as the underground room with the dog's coffin near that Taiwanese shrine. Is that how it happened, and if so, can you talk a little about shooting those locations (particularly anything you can recall about the area's "magnetic fields") and interacting with the people you were filming? Did they ever have any questions or suspicions about what you wanted from them, or how you saw them?
As a westerner my understanding of local dialects was very limited, and in Taiwan especially, where I was reliant on translations from Henry Chung, my very excellent camera assistant. It’s possible that there may have been a little politics at some locations, but of course, having a film crew there means the theatre of the occasion supersedes everything else. My guess is that “they never let the truth come in the way of a good story”, as the saying goes.
You're also on-camera during the interview with Mr. Tsao Man Shek, the man who claims to have become a 102 year-old fairy (or spirit/ghost) after he encounters a giant "Pakistan"-looking spirit, who told him that Hong Kong would be "prosperous" after the then-upcoming handover. What was that like?
Well, it was definitely what the filmmakers wanted to hear! I also remember that scene was shot during the very first week of production. It was what the investors wanted to see and hear themselves, and what they wanted the audience to see and hear, too. Sometimes, in other locations, it was extremely difficult for me to evaluate whether the person in front of me was an actor, a true believer, both at the same time, or something in-between.
In an early scene, there's some talk about of fairies, as the subtitles say instead of "ghosts", at Chung Hui at Loufu Mountain, the "number one fairy mountain" in mainland China (located in Guangdong province), which required you to pass through a "few important military zones" with the help of Chinese government officials. What was working with (or just getting permission) from the mainland government like? What kind of questions did they have about the filmmakers' intentions?
I’m not sure how the filmmakers gained the trust of the Mainland Authorities, but I do remember we were well escorted everywhere we went and supplied with “transportation services’ by the government: mini buses, etc., and possibly even approved accommodation. We ate locally in basic restaurants throughout the entire shoot. I remember being “entertained” at meals by local party officials in all the different regions we went to. I think the fact that the crew was Chinese and from Hong Kong gave the project credibility, and everyone was very hospitable…provided that we behaved ourselves!
What was filming in Taiwan like, especially at Taoist temples at Fao Kwong Mountain? Were there conditions to your shooting at these locations, or the rituals that were filmed there, like the monk that holds his breath for a half hour, and claims to be dead for that time? Or filming Ms. Wu Chung, the exorcist who treats a mute kid who suffers from "ghost sickness"?
I remember filming a woman shouting at and even hitting a young child, and trying to drive out a spirit who apparently possessed him. I wasn’t expecting that, and in a different situation would have probably been upset about it, but it was over before I really know what it was about.
How did you feel watching some of these exorcists, whom I imagine charged people or solicited donations, use the film as a way to advertise themselves, and their beliefs in stuff like "The Real Dragon", the reincarnated figure who, according to "old Chinese beliefs" would unify the nation? Or was this just another job for you?
You are right: it was just another job for me, but an interesting one, and one that allowed me to better understand the complexity of beliefs, and the culture of a region I had then just recently relocated to. I am still in Asia and have been here now for thirty years. As a professional director of photography, I have my own beliefs, but I don’t normally allow them to cast any judgement on those who appear in front of my cameras.
What was filming the plastic surgery-related scenes like for you? And were they as they were initially planned/described?
Surprising! I may be wrong, but I seem to remember it was all about someone changing their Feng Shui by adjusting their breast size. I can’t remember the original brief, but the whole process was pretty controlled.
What kind of job offers did you get after this film, and did it have any impact on your career, or how you worked at all? I know that there's a sequel, and was curious about that as well, especially since I didn't see your name attached to that project…
The Supernormal was the first film project the director had ever made, so after the success of the first week, he started to gain his confidence in the craft of film production, because he knew he could rely on his Western director of photography to give him the pictures. I also had some authority with the crew, based on my experience, which meant they gave him what he needed without his lack of actual experience being a problem for them. I imagine the more his confidence increased during and after the film was made, the more comfortable he became working and managing an experienced crew. Eventually, the product didn’t need a westerner as a marketing hook.
For most of my subsequent career in Hong Kong, my projects originated from Europe or the USA, so I was not really marketing my ability to Hong Kong Chinese producers. But the film was enormously significant in Hong Kong, and a commercial success for the industry.
Professional friendships made with the crew last to this day, and as I brought projects in from Europe and the USA, I immediately hired the well proven local talent I had worked with on The Supernormal.
A good example was A Day in the Life of Cinema, a Canal Plus documentary production shot globally. Elizabeth Cazer, the French director, and I shot sequences in Hong Kong, Macau, and Vietnam on feature films being made there. My Hong Kong camera assistant, gaffer, grip and crew came with Cazer and I to every country.
The Supernormal was never a film a western audience could relate to, understand, or applaud, but for a few of us, it was the right film in the right place at the right time to educate us all in different aspects either of local culture, or, in the case of the director, the craft of commercial filmmaking. Despite my personal experience at the time, I would liken it to a film school project more than anything else I have been involved in. It was what it was, full stop. Its primary identity really was as a vehicle to propel some passionate Hong Kong/Chinese filmmakers through the door and into the professional direction they wanted to go in the industry.
What would you say was the most challenging scene to shoot, and what would you say was the most representative?
I would have to say that whatever we shot in the first week or two were probably the most challenging scenes until we all found our Mojo, and our multi-lingual, multi-cultural crew understood what we were doing, and what to expect. It was absolutely nothing like anything I had previously shot in Australia or New Zealand. There wasn’t ever a script in English that I could understand, so I was winging it on a daily basis for most of the film. Still, that was a fun challenge, and that’s why I came to Kong Kong in the first place. It’s also why I stayed for nine years and shot almost 75 documentaries of different sorts in China in that time.
The most memorable scene to shoot was the Taiwanese priest, who everyone (except me) expected to levitate off the floor, and fly around the temple, leaving a faint trail of blue smoke.
Simon Abrams is a film critic whose work has appeared in various publications, including Ebert Voices, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and Vulture. He is also the co-author of "Guillermo del Toro's The Devil's Backbone" with Matt Zoller Seitz.