By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.
Even though it’s set during a world war, it’s not a ‘lest we forget movie’, it’s not a past based thing. It’s a movie that is about the now….this dehumanization is universal.” – Roseanne Liang
With its world premiere at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival, Chinese-New Zealander filmmaker Roseanne Liang’s horror-action film Shadow in the Cloud stars Chloë Grace Moretz as Maude, a WAAF officer given a mysterious last-minute mission and forced to join a mission in rickety World War II fighter plane crewed by aggressive and frequently openly misogynist male colleagues. Condemned to spend the flight away from these men, she is locked in the ball turret underneath the plane which gives her a particularly clear view of another unwanted passenger; a monstrous gremlin plaguing the flight, brought to life through a special effects team including New Zealand’s legendary Weta Workshop of Lord of the Rings fame.
With Maude carrying an urgent package that she must protect at all costs, Shadow in the Cloud is divided neatly into two parts. The first focuses almost solely on Moretz trapped in the claustrophobic ball turret, sexually harassed and openly derided by her male colleagues as she struggles to get them to believe what she is witnessing taking place on the outside of the plane. The film’s second half is more action than dialogue-driven, as loyalties are revealed, secrets shared, and the true nature of Maude’s mission is uncovered as they battle the troublemaking, grotesque monster.
Shadow in the Cloud is, at its heart, a film about a capable, strong woman who perseveres in the face of the harassment, aggression, and undisguised abuse of power of the male-dominated professional context in which the film itself. On this front, it is difficult to deny that there are parallels to be made between the film’s story and the project’s troubled production history, where the high-profile original writer was removed from the project after a shocking series of sexual assault allegations were revealed. I choose not to mention his name here because that makes this film about him, which it is not; as Moretz told the Guardian in April 2019, “we’ve completely distanced ourselves from him. We’ve rewritten it several times now. His name is kind of far away from the project.” She continues, “Communication is key and being held accountable is key. It’s a really horrific thing to hear those stories.”
Shadow in the Cloud is, at its heart, a film about believing women and – as I discussed with Liang in our not-exactly-spoiler-free interview below, while told through a feminist lens, it is a film which speaks to broader truths about power and our capacity for humanity through a distinctly fun genre framework.
Film festivals such as TIFF must be very demanding in terms of you having to be able to do so many interviews, Roseanne!
What a delight to be able to talk with people who are enthused about your film, who’ve seen it and liked it and to be able to just rant about what a joy it was to make – it’s like childbirth and just forgetting about the pain and having this cute baby to talk about.
I love that metaphor! I often talk about filmmaking the idea of midwifery, you need to build a team around you to tell you when to breathe and when to give it that big final push….
So true! I’ve never thought about the midwife aspect of it. I always think about it from the pain point of view – you’re the one doing the contractions, you’re the one going through all the pain and the doubt and the loss of faith and all that stuff emotionally. But we don’t need to talk about childbirth!
We absolutely do! I can’t remember the last horror film I saw with a woman breastfeeding that wasn’t configured as an act of horror spectacle. It’s just one of those things that is often constructed as transgressive and in your film it is very much the opposite. It’s something from my life I rarely see normalized in cinema, horror especially.
I’m a mum too, and know how sacred breastfeeding is. You’re right, I hadn’t thought about it that way – the mother with the baby at her teat has been debased so many times and it’s wild to me that it isn’t a boring trope already, the heroic feat of breastfeeding.
I suspect a lot of women who have been able to breastfeed would instantly recognise this. Breasts are so ubiquitously sexualized in cinema, but we can use them for other things….
Exactly! These are more than jubbly things that are nice to look at and make you feel funny in your pants; they are these practical amazing life-giving things. We can have both, and I don’t see why it’s so hard to chew gum and walk at the same time.
Horror is considered – falsely of course – to be such a male terrain both in terms of creators and especially in terms of spectators, the assumption that its men that watch horror films has been really debunked.
We grew up watching horror films! We grew up loving them. I don’t understand it. But the thing with Shadow in the Cloud, I genuinely don’t want to scare away any men from watching the movie, since I think there’s certainly a lot for men to enjoy. But I am a fan of horror and genre films, of course!
It’s also just a really fun horror film, which I think is quite hard to do – I was just gobsmacked by how rapidly that first half just belted along when it’s effectively just one shot of Chloe in the ball turret. It’s really extraordinary filmmaking.
It was always part of why it was such an exciting challenge to me as a storyteller: it certainly produces a sense of ‘are you sure we’re not going to get bored?’. And my answer was ‘let’s see! Let’s see if we can tell the story through her’. There are precedents for this kind of filmmaking – like Buried (Rodrigo Cortés, 2010) and Locke (Steven Knight, 2013) – but I think it’s also different here in that you bring the horror elements onto it, I love that kind of challenge.
There’s also the temporal dislocation here, too; it’s a period film but feels so contemporary. I’m really fascinated by the relationship between making a period film on one hand, but having it be so relevant to the contemporary experience of many women in terms of the workplace harassment she experiences.
That’s another reason why I felt drawn to this film; even though it’s set during a world war, it’s not a ‘lest we forget movie’, it’s not a past based thing. It’s a movie that is about the now, and what this setting gives us is an amazing rich, lush foundation with which to contemporary ideas. It was really hard to balance; we did go deep into the research and listened to a lot of period recordings of the 1940s air force talk, and it is pretty dry. These guys in the sky talking to each other, they sound like radio plays – “oh gee whiz, we’re gonna do this and go there – and I did ask myself, “do I want to put the energy with the 1940s way of speaking into it?”. We have a little shade of that, but also the profanity, the choices that we made in terms of how people spoke during that time – they did use the f-word.
The word snafu comes from that period – situation normal all fucked up – they used that language, and we actually had a historical consultant to make sure that we were true to that time because certain epithets and certain names that you use for certain genitalia came into vogue at different times throughout history, and we wanted to be both true to that time and as you say, keep it feel really contemporary and I think a lot of women can relate. At the same time, I don’t want it just to be for women, I want it to be for any person who has been belittled or out of their depth when faced with the wolf pack. I think everyone deals with it, from a CEO to a janitor. I don’t want it to be just about gender, but every woman knows the feeling
That universality is really crucial, and I thought a lot watching the film in the first part especially was Randall Jarrell’s The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner from 1945, which although uses motherhood imagery is really about dehumanization. You’re approaching the material through a clearly feminist lens but it’s about this broader notion of dehumanization.
The Death of Ball Turret Gunner was very much a starting point for us thinking about this – it’s about a male gunner, I was a child once in my mother once and now I’m being washed out of the ball turret after being killed – I love that you’ve identified that, this dehumanization is universal. It’s part of life, especially in this world now, especially with all the things we’re thinking about as a society. What makes us human? Why are we supposedly better than animals?
I read this article in The Guardian about what items in an archeological dig might show the beginnings of civilization, and the writer was asking ‘is it a pickaxe, is it a wheel, a tool?’, and the anthropologist said ‘no, it’s the broken femur’. A broken femur – someone broke their leg, and someone had to nurse that person, someone had to get food for that person. A broken femur would be death in the animal world, but in the civilised world, that person has been cared for by someone. It is our care of each other as a society that raises us above animals. These ideas of what makes us human. What is humanity, what makes us cohesive as a society – it’s all part of a bigger discussion we need to be having right now.
You’ve mentioned that you did a lot of research and I’m assuming the discovery of the stock footage that bookends the film was clearly part of that research. I’m really interested in the thematics and the structural idea of having the animation at the start and the stock footage at the end.
That was something discovered very much near the end of post. We did a bunch of research into female auxiliary pilots; I didn’t even know they existed. The fact was that the allied forces were running out of male pilots because the war was dragging on, and they were forced to look to female pilots to do delivery runs and to be mechanics for these crafts. These women were flying solo through inclimate weather, landing sometimes at night and on runways by themselves, and dozens of women were lost in action doing these delivery missions solo, and they are a part of history that I don’t think has been in the movies – I’d hope someone will make a movie about those women.
This movie is a genre film, so it’s not 100% true and historical fact, but I really wanted to honour them. It’s a dimension of the world war that isn’t often celebrated.
The beginning of the film [with the period gremlin PSA cartoon] came out of test screenings where audiences were confused as to why there even the element of the gremlins in this movie – when most people think of gremlins they think of the 1984 Joe Dante film, the silliness and the madcapness of those movies. But gremlins have a historical significance – what aliens are to Rosewell, gremlins are to World War II pilots. Roald Dahl wrote stories about gremlins and I read accounts of air force pilots from that time swearing they were real, there were diagrams – I mean, who knows what happens to one’s mind when you are up in the air in a little tin can and breathing through oxygen mask; we can’t make assumptions about what one’s state of mind is like.
This was a real part of history, and pretty much untalked about, unsung and unknown. The confusion of the test audience made us realise we needed to include a PSA from that time to explain that gremlins were a danger during that time. We also had the most perfect historical reference, this series of actual characters made by Chuck Jones, written by Doctor Seuss, called Private Snafu about how to be a good soldier. They were these comedy PSA cartoons that would be shown, projected on a sheet, and shown to troops for entertainment but also infotainment. We took that inspiration for the beginning animation for the Private Snafu character.
I’d like to follow up this focus on research in terms of Chloe’s involvement in the film. Obviously you two worked very closely together on this; how deeply did she get as a performer into this side of things?
We got into it deep. Her research was on a more visceral, experiential level. First of all, she actually did a flight simulation in a Hercules, and she simulated turning it upside down and landing it. And the pilot instructor was ‘no, you’re never going to get it, you can’t – you only just started learning’. But she was one of the most incredibly technically skilled people I’ve ever worked with; she landed that plane in the simulation! She turned it upside down and the instructor was amazed. There was a local aviation museum and an old timer took us through and she looked at the controls and at things like where you are sitting in the bomber, and we learned that if you had to pee you had to pee right there and then – where you are sitting. You sit in your pee. So that was the technical experiential research that she went through, then there was the emotional experiential research; she went to a class of new mothers in LA who were breastfeeding. It was a breastfeeding class, which isn’t all that easy to begin with – it’s harder for some women than others, and it can be tremendously traumatic when you can’t get that latch right and the baby is not into it or is having difficulty feeding. Chloe went to a breastfeeding class to talk to these women about their experiences, and when she was in Auckland for the first weeks of prep, she actually met with survivors of domestic abuse and they shared their experiences face to face with her and she listened. She took on all that experience and I think it’s all in there in some shape, and I think the film is stronger for it.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic from Melbourne, Australia, who has written six books on cult, horror and exploitation film including Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011), Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2015), the Bram Stoker Award nominated Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes Without Faces (University of Wales Press, 2019), and the single-film focused monographs Suspiria (Auteur, 2016), Ms. 45 (Columbia University Press, 2017) and The Hitcher (Arrow Books, 2018). She is also the co-editor, with Dean Brandum, of ReFocus: the Films of Elaine May (Edinburgh University Press, 2019). Alexandra is a board member of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, and a programmer at Fantastic Fest, the largest genre film festival in the United States. Her most recent book is 1000 Women in Horror: 1895-2018 (BearManor Media, 2020).