Synthwave Soundscapes: An Interview with the Director of The Arcadian / Dekker Dreyer

There are a lot of movies that have latched onto the usage of a synthwave soundtrack. More often than not the audience doesn’t even realize what kind of music they’re listening to, they just realize it connect to some nostalgic part of them. That being said, very few films utilize these synthwave scores correctly. For every movie like Drive, Turbo Kid, and Kung Fury who do it right, you get countless others who don’t know what to do with these songs…they just feel latched on to capitalize. The Arcadian oozes the 1980’s aesthetic. More than that, it doesn’t just use a synthwave score, it embodies it like the movies I mentioned before. Just check out the trailer below!

And before you start thinking that director Dekker Dreyer jumped onto the synthwave bandwagon, you need to wait a second. This film was originally released in 2011 (with filming taking place before that, obviously), putting it right on the cutting edge of the genre and puts Dreyer in the rare company of a shortlist of filmmakers that saw (and heard) the magic of this music before anyone else did. Speaking of Dreyer, we were extremely fortunate over the past week to talk to him about the movie, the score, and what’s next for The Arcadian!

First of all, thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with us! You just screened The Arcadian in Italy and you’re showing in Los Angeles on Friday. What has your week been like?

It’s been a really great year for the film. It was shot several years ago and it’s been hiding away a little bit, but slowly it’s found some legs as a kind of midnight movie this year. I’m always overjoyed to meet the festivals and programmers who are showing it and championing it. It’s played in the US, Canada, UK, Europe, it’s crazy. The Arcadian is a very unusual movie and I’m not sure what genre it fits in to be honest with you and I’m not completely convinced that I like it on the big screen as much as a television, which is also strange to say. I tend to grind my teeth seeing it on the big screen, but other people love it larger than life. When we showed it in Italy this past week the theater was packed full of people and it was a late showing. We screened right after the awards ceremony for the Ravenna Nightmare festival and we were showing out of competition. That screening was at a cultural center with this incredible circular theater. The next day it showed at a multiplex called Cinemacity beside Thor and some other current stuff. The entire week was wild. We’d be walking down these little Italian cobblestone streets near the tomb of Dante Alighieri (of Dante’s Inferno fame) and we’d see flyers and posters for the movie everywhere we’d go. There was a great kind of underground lounge called Moog and it was covered in flyers for the screenings. It was surreal that the film is getting this warm reception and the soundtrack plays a huge part in that.

The Arcadian plays out in 10 episodic chapters. Why tell the story this way?

I get this question a lot at screenings. The film has a large number of characters and it’s really an ensemble piece. There are about eleven characters playing off of each other and no one dominates the film. I consider watching the Arcadian to seeing a super-condensed season of TV, which places it in a strange genre, but that’s how it feels. When you leave the film you feel like you’ve covered the major scenes of a Netflix series. Part of that pacing is because of my influences. I grew up on Japanese animation, but in the states we would often get a 90 minute movie that was a mashed together version of a 20 episode animated season. Galaxy Express 999 is an example of this. I think I internalized that idea of a grand scale in a compressed time and my mind tossed this film out. There’s a lot of material that we cover and making chapter breaks just felt like a natural way to tell the story.

Speaking of the story, can you tell us a little bit about how you brought it to life on screen?

I wish I had one of those war stories about how the process of getting it from page to screen took years and involved a ton of blood, but it didn’t. My wife and creative partner Julia and I roughed in the story in a few weeks and we started reaching out to actors. The filming itself was very difficult. Part of the film was shot in Winter in Nova Scotia and it was raining on these remote little islands we had to take two barges to get to. Everyone was freezing and the wind was whipping around. We had a little tent with a propane heater, but it was miserable. The actor who plays Anchor actually had to climb out of the freezing North Atlantic ocean wearing a massive diving helmet. We found the only hotel for a hundred miles that had a little spa and it was closed for the season but we begged them to let him sit in the sauna so that he didn’t die from hypothermia. It was miserable. The city chapters were shot in Los Angeles and we didn’t have the same level of insanity. We were able to shoot normal days.

The film is so visually striking…like the 1980’s were filtered through the lens of a Japanese anime. What were some things you drew from creatively when settling on a “look” for The Arcadian?

The look was there from the beginning and you’re exactly right. It lives somewhere between old BBC shows like Day of the Triffids and anime. We also use a lot of long takes and locked camera and so many of the shots are like paintings. We wanted everything to feel slow and deliberate and focus on the actors. If you go into the film expecting an action movie you’re going to be disappointed. It’s more of a samurai film or western wrapped in these neon colors and destruction. My other directing work looks similar. I’m in love with animation and I really wanted an animated credit sequence so I drew one. The film was a lot of fun because I was free to experiment.

You were able to work with an incredible cast of instantly recognizable talent. Were there any This Is Spinal Tap moments on set or was it a smooth shoot?

We were very lucky that we got everyone we asked to be in the film. Lance Henriksen from Aliens, Brian Thompson from Cobra, Sab Shimono from Water World, Bill Cobbs from everything… it’s a dream cast for making an homage to those underground kind of weird movies from the late 70s and 80s. I think it’s actually a Terminator reunion for Brian and Lance. We had one funny moment with Brian, who’s a friend, where his character was supposed to wear a surgical mask. He thought his character should wear a black one. They don’t make black surgical masks. He ran away from set and no one knew where he was. He’s in the middle of South Central darting from tailor to tailor, these little mom and pop shops — he comes back with a newly created one of a kind black mask about and hour or so later. It was amazing.

Alright, let’s jump into my wheelhouse! You have a brilliant synthwave score in The Arcadian! Can you tell us about the artists involved in the soundtrack?

Perturbator was the first artist I called because I love his music and I wanted to get some of it on the film. If you haven’t seen him live I think he’s touring and you need to see him. I emailed him directly and sent some clips and talked a little bit and we were able to make a deal work with his label. We also have Trial by Laser who I adore and I’d worked with before. Revan Fette is also on the soundtrack and he’s another emerging synthwave artist from the East Coast. It was a dream getting this soundtrack together.

What brought synthwave into the picture as a way to score the film?

It was hard figuring out how to score this film. We shot it before synthwave was a thing and there were some false starts. We tried doing this orchestral thing and it didn’t work. We tried this John Boorman kind of big Zardoz soundtrack with psychedelic organs and it didn’t work. We tried to have a kind of screaming guitar sound like Heavy Metal movie, which I love, but it didn’t work. I was really at a dead end and Julia had gotten Perturbator’s music from her cousin and she sent it to me and I felt John Carpenter and that whole era, which the film already lived in and it was perfect. So the film really grew into itself specifically because synthwave happened at around the same time. The Arcadian wouldn’t exist if synthwave didn’t exist.

On the music front, you’ve actually directed some music videos, haven’t you?

I have! I recently directed the video for the Mystery Skulls track “Music” and it’s neon and sci-fi and epic and everyone should go watch it. I also directed Trial by Laser’s VR video for Warp Chase and there’s actually a special edition that Digital Domain commissioned for their VR platform available now. The special edition was just completed last month and I think it’s been released. It’s a very fun video with Tron referenced and Omni magazine cover references. My company, Clever Fox has also produced music video work like the virtual reality experience for Disturbed’s hit version of The Sound of Silence. I love working in the music video genre.

The Arcadian has been a part of quite a few film festivals! Are there any plans to bring the film to a home audience?

We’re deciding exactly how to bring it to a wider audience, but I’m not sure what that will be. The best way to find out is to join my facebook community “Movie Cult” and we’ll announce plans as soon as we have them. I’m 99% sure we’ll be streaming very soon.

Any parting words before we go?

I’m excited that so many people are discovering The Arcadian and embracing this strange little genre-bending film. I hope that more people get a chance to see it and I’m humbled that it’s becoming a midnight movie all around the world. Our next screening is on November 10th at the Kapow Intergalactic Film Festival in LA so come check it out if you’re in the area.

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