New York-based artist Fern Silva’s short film Ride Like Lightning, Crash Like Thunder (2017; 9 min; 16mm) was featured in the Forum Expanded program at Berlinale 2017. The film – set in Silva's current home of Hudson Valley, New York – is described as “a portrait of a multi-generational artist community, a meditation on landscape, and a swan song for the idyll of rural America.”
Berlinale's Forum section was introduced in 1970 to diversify the festival with experimental films that would inspire constructive debate amid tense political climates. The program’s founding principles seemed especially relevant at Berlinale 2017, which opened just weeks after the inauguration of U.S. President Donald J. Trump.
ScreenPrism spoke with filmmaker Fern Silva about the eery visual symbolism in Ride Like Lightning, Crash Like Thunder, his collaboration with musician Dan Seward of BunnyBrains, the meaning behind the film's title, and more. Learn more about Fern Silva’s work here.
ScreenPrism: What inspired you to make Ride Like Lightning, Crash Like Thunder?
Fern Silva: I was commissioned to make a film where I was living this past fall. Since I was teaching and spending most of my time in the Hudson Valley/Catskills regions of upstate New York, I decided to make this film there rather than New York City. I also had a mentor of mine pass away in the summer. His work and vision were very much influenced by the Hudson River and its various histories, so that was a big part of my thought process going into production.
"Ride Like Lightning, Crash Like Thunder" (2017)
What is the meaning behind the film's title?
It was a reference to when Rip Van Winkle gets lost in the Catskills and finds the ghosts of Henry Hudson and his crew in a cave drinking and bowling. It was said that the thunder and lightning came from them misbehaving on the mountainsides. After Rip consumes their liquid, he falls asleep for twenty years and wakes up to a world that is no longer free post-American Revolution. The title is also in the lyrics of a Big Youth song at the beginning of the film.
Can you talk a bit about the "creeping hand of history" that eerily appears throughout the film?
It was mostly another reference to the ghosts of Henry Hudson and his crew in Rip Van Winkle, but it was also a reference to the paranoia in the air. I made this film around the time of the presidential election so that was certainly lingering... and all of the election signs everywhere were impossible to escape. I also thought a lot about John Carpenter and specifically The Fog. Unfortunately, that hand might be creeping around the corner for some time now...
I loved the film's score. The music seemed to redefine otherwise peaceful, scenic imagery – hinting at something unsettling bubbling underneath the surface. Was this your intention? What was your collaboration with BunnyBrains like?
Dan Seward is amazing. I was a big fan of BunnyBrains growing up, and so it wouldn't be a stretch to think they influenced my creative practice starting at an early age. I was really happy to hear Dan was interested in scoring my film. It was also important to me that I'd work with someone that's been living and working up here for quite some time. It's a unique place that carried a particular mood and energy, I mean, you could feel it and it certainly comes out in Dan's sounds. There's a true darkness in the beauty of it, often emitted from the clouds hovering around. I gave Dan a rough cut, and he made a few tracks of sound with their own individual flavors to the length of the movie with specified cues. I mixed in whichever ones worked the best when I got them back.
Directors Fern Silva, Tomonari Nishikawa, and Maya Schweizer speaking at a Forum Expanded Q&A at Berlinale 2017
How was your time at Berlinale? Did you get a chance to see any other shorts or features?
I loved it. There were so many talented and inspiring people around and Berlin is an incredible city. My time there was very short so I only had the chance to catch a couple shorts programs and a feature. I found the Forum Expanded gallery exhibition at Akademie der Künste IMPRESSIVE.
What do you think it takes to make a great short film?
I'm not quite sure. I'm personally interested in experimentation, working with film as an artist, striking a balance between intuition and intentionality. Personally, I get excited about seeing films that feel radical in form and content. I think that's what makes a great film.
"Ride Like Lightning, Crash Like Thunder"
What advice would you give aspiring short filmmakers?
Nature must be respected, and if you're documenting a reflection of what is otherwise a reality, you must find a way to include yourself while being critical of your findings. Rules are made to be broken. Cinema consists of many visual and audio languages and histories – use as many as possible, and take as many risks as possible.