The Little Lower Layers
Posted Apr 11, 2022
Wu Tsang and Sophia Al-Maria
Right after completing the main work of editing the film MOBY DICK; or, The Whale, the director, Wu Tsang, and the writer of the screenplay, Sophia Al-Maria, sat down to reflect on their process. In their conversation they discuss their readings of Melville’s novel, collaboration, and the role of spoken language in their shared practice of world-building. [Editor’s note: This conversation is a condensed version of a text originally published by Schauspielhaus Zürich.]

Wu Tsang:
Sophia, I wanted to have this conversation with you because this process begins with the writing.

Sophia Al-Maria:
This process began with the reading. And you had done a lot of reading.

That’s true, the reading comes even before the writing! But I don’t usually work with scripts, so I am most curious to know about your process. This project absolutely could not exist without a script. Particularly because of the way we filmed it using Virtual Production. It’s been transformative for me to get to work with you in this way, as the writer. What was your impression?

MOBY-DICK is a very wandering, spiraling, floating spermaceti of a book.

I was thrilled! There was a lot of splashing around in the text! And enough listening to sea shanties to last me this lifetime. I’d had a few working experiences with you that felt refreshing and freeing, which I wanted more of and felt appropriate for this text, because Moby-Dick is a very wandering, spiraling, floating spermaceti of a book.

I agree that it was freeing to take on Moby-Dick; it’s on the level of being a myth of our times. I felt no pressure to be faithful to the story or to the writing in the novel. What makes something a good adaptation?

Well, the thing about Moby-Dick is that it’s so well known but also kind of not known at all. For that reason it feels very “open-source” and collaborative as a text. There is so much room in the images and almost psychedelic dérives Melville goes on for the reader/adaptor to wander and riff. But Moby-Dick had an obvious entry point which was the “labor” theme you were pointing out with C. L. R. James [in his book Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways]. So coming through that lens was super exciting. James’s reading was a guiding principle.

[When we started work on this project,] you almost gave the oral history of Moby-Dick, which is how our histories are translated, the ones that are lesser known, the little lower layers of transmission.

What does that mean to you, “the little lower layers”? It’s also one of my favorite lines in the book.

I don’t know why of all the words in the book that’s the thing that always floats to the top. For me, the “little lower layers” conjure up the sort of shrift text, the metadata, the extracts [Melville’s opening compendium of quotes about whales]. But also the dermal layers of the whale comes to mind. What does it feel like for you?

Well, all of that, and I guess I’m drawn to the alliteration, the way it sounds. It feels cheeky in your mouth. I love Melville’s language in 2022, because some of it feels really old-fashioned, but some of it feels like it’s reinventing, in the ways we are always reinventing language. It takes on a whole new meaning in the contemporary context. The lower layers feel queer or subterranean or something.

Yes! There’s def something subterfuge-y about it! One thing we did discuss was the dialogue, and how much talking there should be or shouldn’t be. And the choice to make it silent, for example, is really bold.

I remember it felt like a leap, in the early stages editing. Like, we always planned to remove the voices—but it still felt scary when the time came to commit. Because during the process, the dialogue drove the whole thing for me, in terms of directing and the actors’ performances. Every character on screen has a voice that I became so attached to, so even though the audience won’t have heard their voices, I believe they are still present somehow.

The lower layers feel queer or subterranean…

One of my first memories of the seeds of this project was you reading it aloud to me and Tosh [Basco], and your delivery of Ahab’s salty sea dog dialogue was so good! What’s your interest in silent movies?

With Moved by the Motion, the collaborative group, we’re often working in that nonverbal space of affect or imagery: how to create a feeling or an atmosphere that people can experience when we don’t share a common language. And I guess in the specific instance of Moby-Dick, it seemed kind of perverse in a good way—to take the language away because the novel is so wordy.

I love this perverse choice. It’s almost like having to huff the fumes of the book. The smell of the spermaceti.

Related Program

MOBY DICK; or, The Whale Read more about “MOBY DICK; or, The Whale” All details for “MOBY DICK; or, The Whale”
APR 15 – 17, 2022
The great American novel told through captivating silent film with live orchestral accompaniment
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