“All these ideas of progress, consumerism, unrealizable utopias and white man dictatorships are leading this planet to an absolute disaster.” Chino Moya’s astonishing feature debut, “Undergods”, is a dystopian warning on the systematic decline of our times through moral and cultural poverty. The film boasts the distinctive artistic sensibilities that made Moya a world-renowned photographer and music video director. Ahead of the “Undergods” world premiere at Fantasia Fest 2020, I talked with the Spanish filmmaker about society, sci-fi, morality and the long process to make the film, among many other things.
“Undergods” opens with two corpse collectors roaming the streets of a devastated city where gigantic buildings in ruins populate the horizon. While doing their work, they exchange three unsettling tales about European middle-class men whose worlds crumble after the visit of an unexpected stranger. This leads to overlapping narratives with the common thread of crumbling morality and social collapse.
The film has touches of ‘70s sci-fi media and is constructed like ‘80s anthology films. Both the style and narrative are heavily influenced by the times in which Moya grew up: just after Franco’s decades long dictatorship ended but before democracy and capitalism had settled in Spain.
“There was a state-sponsored economy which led to savage capitalism in the ‘80s. Many themes in the film are inspired by that,” said Moya. “I also wanted to mirror the social and economic proposals that rose between the 20th and 21st centuries: from the fascist and communist utopias that resulted in World War II and the failure of the Soviet Union to the democratic, free-choice utopias and savage neoliberalism which, as we are finding out right now, are nothing more than a poverty-inducing dream. These proposals were imposed by Western white men and have been boisterous failures, at least from my point of view.”
To write “Undergods,” Moya mixed those complex ideas with fantasy and dark humor along with the influences of his ‘80s childhood. As a seven-year-old, Moya was watching films like John Carpenter’s “The Thing” with no restriction whatsoever.
“As a young child, I made my way through ‘80s horror canon films like ‘The Exorcist,’ ‘The Shining,’ ‘Poltergeist,’ ‘The Thing’ and ‘Alien,’ plus a large quantity of B-movies and then “Star Wars.” I also read tons of Marvel and adult sci-fi comics, some of which were borderline pornographic. Nobody said or asked anything. And I wasn’t the only one doing it,” he said. “There was little censorship during those years. Spain had gone from being a Catholic totalitarian conservative state to a place where everything was allowed. Sex and drugs were allowed, encouraged and accepted. Therefore, I was lucky to be able to watch whatever I wanted. Many of those horror and sci-fi movies, books and comics influenced this film.”
Sci-fi and horror are all over one of the film’s most harrowing concepts: a prison-like factory inspired by real-life gulags and concentration camps, where ‘workers’ are cruelly exploited. “It’s an extreme representation of what humans do to ourselves,” explained Moya. “It’s an interesting subject to explore. How did we get to such a level of cruelty, brutality and savagery among our species?”
“Communist and fascist utopias, as well as both capitalism and neoliberalism have a fascination for the idea of progress. Everything is based on generating, working and building, but at the end, we’ve just harmed the planet,” explained Moya. “In the movie we see this factory where humans are subjected to a brutal process in a place that is supposed to generate something. But since the system is so collapsed, they aren’t generating anything.”
Soon after visiting this nightmarish place, we are transported to a modern day factory. The conditions are different but the ideas are eerily similar. “Both factories are very dehumanized spaces where man is just another cog in a big machinery,” said the director. “It’s a metaphor on modernism and the automaton life we carry. We come and go to work, we take the elevator, the subway, the bus. We sit in an office and queue to buy food or go to the bank. It’s a world we have created for ourselves. The factories are an extreme version of all of that.”
During the story involving the second factory, we meet Rachel (Kate Dickie), a distressed wife trying to reintegrate her ex-husband Sam to modern life. This proves to be tricky. Sam mysteriously disappeared 15 years ago and after his sudden return, he is acting quite strange. Rachel is so desperate that she turns to a charlatan spiritual healer for help. But where did this idea come from?
“Initially, there was a fourth story involving a therapeutic healer of sorts. Several patients would talk and explain their fears to him. Unfortunately the screenplay was too long and we had to cut it,” said Moya. “I like the idea of self-help. In a world with no religion and no God to pray, people have to recur to these frauds. Instead of spirituality, you have a guy sitting in a shabby office selling CDs.”
Rachel is not only desperate but also ignorant, so she jumps at the opportunity to read magic poems to shine a ‘healing’ light over her ex-husband in an attempt to cure him. “It’s another theme of today’s world that I wanted to talk about: spiritual, intellectual and moral poverty. The president of the United States is a perfect example of this condition. Traditions, values, everything that gave structure to human beings and societies, are disappearing.”
But “Undergods” isn’t just trying to paint a grim future. It wants to achieve a moral improvement by raising awareness of the lack of value in today’s society. Chino had to explain his pessimistic approach during a key pitch meeting of the film.
“Pessimism helps you to change. If you think everything is fantastic and the world is doing great, then things will stay the same until the poles melt, another virus comes or something so big happens that there won’t be turning back,” said Moya while explaining the main intent of the film. “The state of the world is also related with a lack of morality, ethics and spirituality. We are in a superficial and individualistic state. My characters are like that. They only care about themselves.”
“I’m trying to make people realize that we’re heading into an abyss and we need to stop. I hope the film contributes a little bit in making audiences reassess ideas of individualism, selfishness, consumerism and the unbridled progress that is leading us nowhere. I want us to help each other a little more. Help neighbors, societies, countries and planet Earth,” reassured the Spanish director. “Amongst the negativity of the movie, my intention is ultimately positive. I want people to be aware of the craziness around us, and if possible, hit the brakes.”
These ideas are complemented by a rich audiovisual landscape. When examining Moya’s work as a commercial and video music director (e.g., St. Vincent’s “Digital Witness”), you can appreciate his fascination for architecture and surrealism. Those elements are present throughout “Undergods,” but more prominently in one of the story’s main constructs, a ravaged futuristic city that is reminiscent of Eastern Europe in the 1980s.
“I created it with the help of Elo Soode, a concept artist,” explained Moya. “The fallen constructions are metaphorical with the decline of masculinity that I explore in the film. It was a mix between my imagination, a little sci-fi and the communist architecture that has always been a fascination of mine. It’s an architecture so dehumanized that it belittles human beings. I was also inspired by Tarkovski’s ‘Stalker’ as well as Enki Bilal’s comics.”
Not a single part of the city is 100% CGI. All the planes are real-life streets that Moya and his crew shot in Belgrade. The visual effects team erased stuff like cars, stores and streetlights and started building the dystopian city from there.
However, it wasn’t easy for Chino and producer Sophie Venner to get the approval for “Undergods” and its risky screenplay. They spent many years getting rejected, but Chino was fixed on making the film. “I had the need to do this movie. Money or not, I was determined to shoot it even if I had to do it with an iPhone.”
When the British Film Institute (BFI) opened funding opportunities, Moya submitted the film and finally got a ray of hope. “They liked what they saw, called us and asked us for the screenplay. We started to pass the filters, but there was some reluctancy,” said Moya. However, in the middle of these filters, Brexit happened and Trump got elected.
“Suddenly, these ideas of white men and utopias made sense, and they started to understand and empathize with the film. After years of being denied, every answer was ‘yes.’ I was astonished that we got money from the United Kingdom. I couldn’t believe it. They are giving public money to a Spaniard!” said Moya. “Then we submitted it to Belgium and Estonia, and they gave us money too. All of a sudden, we had more investors than we needed. We even rejected some of them.”
But before BFI granted them funds, Ridley Scott’s production company was the first to help Moya. “They gave us money to keep going and gave us their office. Having meetings in Scott’s office with the ‘Alien’ egg and the ‘Blade Runner’ poster changed our perspective.”
“Undergods” ended up being a co-production between the United Kingdom, Estonia, Serbia, Belgium and Sweden. With so many countries involved, Moya and Venner had a complicated task ahead of them.
“In order for it to work, we had to have actors and a technical team from each of those countries. But that was just what we wanted. We never wanted a British film where everyone was from the UK. We wanted accents and Europeans,” he said. “It was a medley of people from all over Europe that had to come to Serbia to shoot. Then, post production was a tremendous mess because we were doing sound design in Belgium and effects in Sweden.”
The cast of “Underdogs” features an incredible array of European talent: Hungary’s Géza Röhrig (“Son of Saul”), Scotland’s Katie Dick (“The Witch”), England’s Tanya Reynolds (“Sex Education”), Belgium’s Jan Bijvoet (“Embrace of the Serpent”), Estonia’s Katariina Unt (“November”) and Ireland’s Ned Dennehy (“Mandy”), just to name a few.
“It was a difficult puzzle to assemble, and it was an absolute nightmare for producer Sophie, who I think is still dealing with funds and budgets. But in the end it helped us get a very talented crew,” said Moya. “Since physical mobility between [the] UK and the rest of Europe will soon be restricted (because of Brexit), this might be the last film with these characteristics.”
As for distribution, Moya would love for people to watch his film on the big screen but is open to the option of watching it at home. “It’s not that bad if people watch it in the dystopian conditions we are facing.” He also likes the idea of arranging a screening in an open place, “maybe take advantage of the idea and show it in a weird hangar or a ruined place where guards oblige you to wear masks,” he said.
Every New Year, Moya used to wish for one thing: to make a movie. Now that he’s achieved it, what would be his next New Year wish? “A second movie,” he said, grinning.
Given that “Undergods” is an absorbing, intelligent and carefully crafted debut with relevant topics about society, I hope that his New Year wish comes true again.
Ricardo is a Mexico City based bilingual writer, digital animation graduate and awards season nerd. He also enjoys pro wrestling, is a Paddington fan and is the founder of the film website “La Estatuilla.”