Australian director Peter Sant’s Maltese-language debut feature Of Time and the Sea, which follows a small family living underground on a mysterious island, boasts gorgeous cinematography and reuses various abandoned filmsets dotted all over Malta. Talking to The Fountain, Sant shares his thoughts on genre, cinematography as a means of storytelling and the power of film.

TF: Most reviews seem to have troubles pinpointing the genre of Of Time and the Sea, variously describing it as experimental, mystery, arthouse. Where would you position it yourself?

PS: I don’t see a problem with not being able to clearly specify the genre of a film. In fact, it seems far more interesting to me.

TF: The opening monologue tells us the setting are three separate islands, ‘The First’, ‘The Second’ and ‘The Third’, two of which we never see. There are undertones of both myth and sci-fi in this structure – what was the inspiration for it?

PS: The idea of referring to the islands as ‘First’, ‘Second’ and ‘Third’ stems from how the actual location (Malta) is a popular location double in cinema. Rather than presenting the islands as themselves, I decided to continue tradition by keeping it as an “eternal elsewhere”. And like the land, the human characters remain nameless. The decision not to show the other two islands was to provoke this sense of absence that persists in the film. This idea of absence perhaps becomes most evident through the lack of the mother figure in the family.

TF: The film has a fable-like quality and there is a strange, anticipatory atmosphere on the island that reminded me of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Is this the mood you were after?

PS: The tone of the film revealed itself very early on in the writing process. The film is composed of primarily static shots and most of the scenes are covered from only one angle. This way of shooting produced a performative quality and forms a big part of the overall mood. Then of course it’s angle, lens, the set, sound, lighting and the characters. More important, however, is this anticipatory sense that you mention. For me it was essential, especially given that the film is not structured dramatically by cause and effect but relies on sensory and experiential response.

TF: The cinematography and sound design are very meticulous and create a lot of dramatic tension. What was it like working within the Maltese landscape? What became important to you to point out?

PS: We spent a long time on set deciding where to place the camera. We began with a few strategies in mind, like using only either a slither of sky or land for the exteriors and the decision to do away with any practical lights for the interiors. Other than that, it was all decided entirely on feel. Unlike the camera, the audio post production wasn’t limited by budget – as I was doing it all alone, there was no budget. This meant that I could take the time and experiment at my own pace until I landed on something I was happy with. I worked a lot on the weight of atmospheres – like for the exteriors where there’s rocks on one side and sea on the other. I wanted to feel the weight of the stone and the expanse of the sea, so I created these lopsided atmospheres. There are also a lot of off-screen sounds: these tiny noises happening throughout, like the near-constant noise of a generator, as well as pianos and cymbals whose amplitudes are matched to that of the sea or winds. Malta, for the most part, is a very noisy place however – there are small pockets like Majjistral [Malta’s largest nature park] where nature dominates.

TF: The three central characters – an old patriarch and his two daughters – are all played by Maltese actors. How was the process of working together and communicating with each other?

PS: I met the main cast very early on in the process. Over the course of about a year, we’d go through the script, discuss the characters and some of the more abstract concepts behind the film and develop things as we went along. I tend not to direct the actors too much and let them take things where they think they should go. On set, I would scrap large chunks of dialogue and re-introduce portions that had been omitted from earlier drafts in order to trigger actual memory. Everyone spoke English, so communication wasn’t a problem for me, but I had to relinquish control of dialogue on set – as my understanding of the Maltese language is dismal – and trust the cast. I had a similar process with the script: it was written in English, translated to Maltese and translated back to English for the subtitles. These types of process always bring about interesting changes and help remove some of my ‘dirty fingerprints’.

TF: I wanted to ask about the visitors who cross the family’s path – there’s a Chinese traveller, a sousaphone player, a knight in armour and many more. Do you see these characters as archetypal or symbolic?

PS: For the most part, I would say that they’re symbolic. The knight first appears in a kind of dream sequence where he warns the so-called king to be wary of visitors. The same character returns as an obnoxious neighbour demanding a portion of the family’s rations, accusing them of having more than their fair share. So, his character exists in two conflicting worlds: the imaginary world of the old man as king and as a fellow citizen forced to live off rations in the wake of a malady.

Then there’s the Chinese billionaire who, due to his wealth and stature, is granted access to the island. He came with the belief that it is the last place on earth where people remember to forget. This character was conceived in response to the idea of data as being a weapon of power – and like any other type of weapon, it has its consequences. For his character, he simply ran out of capacity to remember and is convinced his mind is about to explode.

Finally, there’s the sousaphone player. He exists as a kind of false beacon of hope for the main character, who puts all her trust in him only to have it swept away when she discovers that he is nothing more than a plunderer.

TF: Something that kept puzzling me until the end was the microwavable food that appears out of nowhere on the island! Without giving away too much, what was this inspired by?

PS: The film is full of these little details – these clues, jokes that you either get or you don’t. I’m always surprised by the elements people have picked up on, and then of course there are those that take a more passive role and these things just pass them by. One of the main concerns in the film is repetition and memory. This comes to the foreground through the main character’s building of rubble walls and her monologue when she opens up to the sousaphone player in the sequence following their musical intercourse. The microwave is, at one level, a temporal disruption. In the first few scenes, the costumes, props and sets suggest the film is set in the past – and then suddenly, you hear a microwave bell and they sit down and peel back the plastic on their microwave meals. On the other hand, it also exists as a symbol of their predicament and the cyclical nature of their existence.

TF: Of Time and the Sea is your first feature film. What are some important things you learned in the process of making it that contrast with making short films?

PS: It has left me questioning the entire process. The process of scripting, financing, crewing and shooting is part of a giant machine that produces a certain type of product. Since then, I have made a number of shorts, some of which had no cast or crew and others with just a handful of people. I prefer smaller crews where simple things like moving from one location to another don’t turn out to be a massive ordeal and the shooting process is more a continuation of the development with the chance to experiment and explore new directions. The difference between the two is like taking your time walking somewhere and discovering things on the way as opposed to getting a cab where you’re forced to keep an eye on the meter.

TF: Is the finished film what you had imagined in the beginning? Or did any major challenges take place?

PS: Filmmaking is a constant battle – you’re forever putting out fires. I wouldn’t say there were any major challenges in the process, though. I was very aware of my limitations from the start and tried to use these to my advantage throughout. Like the sets, for instance: everything you see, every prop, every set is a leftover from one of the many films shot in Malta. This is also in line with my intentions behind it being a comment on the mechanism of cinema, the idea of Malta as an ‘eternal elsewhere’ and how you could view the big budget films that are shot there as an extension of the nation’s colonial past. An example being how these abandoned sets that are scattered throughout the island are no different to the red telephone boxes you see on the island.

TF: You have a background in Fine Arts and video installation. What does film do for you that other art forms don’t?

PS: Film has a lot of power at its disposal: sound and image can be combined to transport us into any direction possible. However, film – like music or sound – is approached by many with expectations. You watch a film, you expect a story. You put on music, you expect a song. But there are so many other possibilities; there are so many people working with sound and image in interesting and unique ways. There’ll always be great stories and great songs, but it’s these works that are difficult to categorize – the works that offer up a new logic – that interest me most.

TF: Have you got any upcoming plans for other Malta-based projects?

PS: I am currently working on a couple of short works as well another feature – for now, all are planned to be shot on Malta.

To view the trailer for Of Time and the Sea, click here