J. M. Stelly, thank you for having us! Congratulations on giving us such a striking window into darkness. In your directorial statement, you say: “I’ve always made it my mission to make thought-provoking films. Sometimes linear, sometimes off-center, I like to tell stories about the human condition and suffering, both outer and inner. I’ve spent years honing my approach and storytelling methods, and while I know my work isn’t for everyone, I know it attracts the right eyes, those who know how to look.” Could you elaborate on what it takes to have the “right eyes” or the “right eyes” in your opinion?

I think that, in general, the “right eyes” are not necessarily the same as those who would be attracted by films aimed more at the general public. My films tend to focus on more gloomy subjects. I grew up with the works of Lynch, Carpenter, Kubrick, Fincher and Cronenberg. These are the directors who made the biggest impression on me as a child, and even more so as an adult. When I make a film, it’s not to make money, but rather to purge something inside me. In doing so, I almost always repel some people and attract others. I don’t think it corresponds to any particular requirement, but rather to a taste for certain types of films and stories that are particularly suited to those who gravitate towards my art.

The way you use lighting is simply incredible. Interestingly, you also use silent effects such as scene title cards and voice-overs. You say you were “inspired by films of the past and German Expressionism”. Did Robert Wiene inspire you, and perhaps The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) in particular, given that it takes place during the First World War? We assume that many “movies from the past” have inspired your way of visually conveying narrative and emotion. Could you give us a few examples? For example, are we right to see an apparent reference to Franju, and in particular Les yeux sans visages, in the seance scene with the white mask?

Thank you for your kind words. Although I grew up watching films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or The Faceless Eyes, my choices regarding the way the film was shot and the lighting used were more or less out of my head and inspired by our environment. I’d say that silent cinema, and in particular these films, played an important role in inspiring me to make a silent film. I’d already worked on a short silent film called The Doctor’s Apprentice for a 48-hour festival in New Orleans, and I’d always wanted to make a feature-length SF film using nothing but candlelight. I think there’s something unique about silent films that most people don’t get to appreciate today. We can’t just look at them as if they were background noise, we have to take the time to see with other eyes and absorb what we see. Especially when the subject is as profound as this.

We found visual references to Norse mythology and The Game of Thrones! We also see an allusion to gothic literature, even Oscar Wilde’s only gothic novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, specifically in the line “I am the reflection of your past and your future”, not to mention the successive spectres that appear in Dickens’ A Christmas Tale. What do you think?

I’ve always thought that people extrapolate from art as they please. I never approach a project with literary or artistic references in mind. Nor am I trying to steal shots of other works of art as homage. However, it’s always nice when people perceive classic references in my work. That’s flattering. There are infinite occult references and hidden meanings in the film. I wanted a film where you see new things every time you look at it and explore the material it contains.

On the subject of your chapter The persistence of Darkness, we’re tempted to draw a parallel with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which inspired Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, regarding your unsettling treatment of the darkness potentially inherent in all human hearts. Is your film perhaps about the apocalypse of life?

The film itself is very much about self-acceptance. Between addiction, pain, darkness and the subjective nature of death. Humans often talk about the end of the world without realizing that the world will endure while we all die. Death is absolution. The emptiness in the film is something that lives in all of us. Darkness, on the other hand, speaks to us every day and calls out to us in some way. In Call of the Void, the painter is dead from the start, caught between life and death. Essentially in purgatory. In this purgatory, he is forced to accept his defeat and discover the truth, while the Void, the darkness, pushes him to perceive himself within this chaos. There is no light, no God, no heaven or hell. Only eternal loneliness accompanies awareness. Once you’ve accepted that, you’re free, you can self-absorb and move on. Forgiveness is, so to speak, “light” itself.

The main character struggles with opium addiction. But we don’t know whether the pursuit of the dragon is a consequence of madness or fear – “I feel a fear I haven’t felt since the war; it’s blinding” – or the cause of the rise of madness – “Has opium totally distorted my perception of my sanity?” -. It’s a vicious circle. Is the painter’s character comparable to Johnny Depp’s in From Hell?

Funny you should mention that. From Hell and the character of Inspector Abberline have always been a source of inspiration for some of my characters and their motivations. My character in The Demonologist was strongly inspired by this performance in the original version. For the role of The Painter, I was inspired by many of the things I’d observed in friends and family who suffered from drug addiction, while the Ouroboros symbol was meant to resemble the eternal struggle of time repeating itself. The dragon represents both dependence and suffering, as well as the eternal afterglow of emptiness.

Call of the Void is also an immersion in the unconscious. Your work is very introspective, and Rorschach ink blots are present in almost every painting towards the end. Could you shed some light on the use of the Rorschach psychological projective test?

I’ve always been intrigued by the nature of Rorschach tests, by the idea that you can gain insight into a person’s psychological state of mind through what they see in the abstraction of a Rorschach. In the film, the painter sees a number of them as a way of coping with his own mortality and the inevitability of death. At the same time, the audience can deduce their own thoughts from what they see in the same ink blots as the Painter.

Your work is a “profound look at the ravages of inner darkness and the loneliness we face in the absence of our inner light”. Are we right in thinking that your film is a call to find that inner light, after all?

Absolutely. I believe that everyone needs to accept their own shadows in order to discover the light that will enable them to free themselves from their own internal wounds. This film certainly has a lot to do with my own areas of darkness and how I chose to use art to paint a picture of that darkness through the life of the Painter.

Do you have any upcoming projects to share?

I have two other films that I finished around the same time as Call of the Void. One is called ABACUS and the other THEY ARE WATCHING. I’m currently looking for a distributor for these films. I have three other films in the pipeline and hope to shoot them this year.

What’s your vision of post-Covid cinema?

I think that long before COVID, streaming services and the delivery of live films to consumers were already under development. While cinemas continue to cater to the needs of studios, I think it would be a real change if studios and independent filmmakers were allowed easier access to theatrical distribution to generate more profits and expand audiences. Theatrical screenings are the main ambition of filmmakers, who above all want their art to be seen, and now that we’re emerging from a pandemic, what better way to celebrate cinema than to enable cinemas to facilitate and enhance the distribution of independent filmmakers’ work on the big screen?


J. M. Stelly

J. M. Stelly is a filmmaker from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA. Stelly directed her first film, Within Madness, in 2009. The film underwent years of editing and sequence additions before being distributed in the U.S. only by LC Films. Stelly has also worked with Warner Music and a number of artists on music videos for DOWN, COC, To Kill a Party and Jason Martin, to name but a few. Stelly has made a number of short films. “The Prologue”, presented by Eli Roth’s Crypt TV, received the most attention. In 2019, J. M. Stelly brought to the screen “The Demonologist”, his biggest film to date, about Uncork’d. He recently completed three feature films: ABACUS, THEY ARE WATCHING and CALL OF THE VOID. It has won 13 awards to date.


ITV 2023 Isabelle Rouault-Röhlich

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