‘Burning Gold’, a film by Matt McDermott, is an enigmatic dance performance film which addresses themes of climate change, isolation, representations of identity and the yearning for human connection. At surface level, the film features intriguing figures in stylised geometric costumes perform a dance in a rural setting as audiences swing between melancholia and liberation.
The geometric custom-made costumes, created by costume designer Jessica Evans, act as metaphorical distillations of persona, abstracting the human form into colourful geometric shapes while putting the three characters, representing sun, earth and water, at the backdrop of a rural landscape.
Gradually, as the film evolves, we are brought towards a sense of freedom and the dancers start shedding their costumes behind, to connect with nature and each other.
Poet, artist, songwriter and climate activist Love Ssega created the poem we hear in the background of the film - ‘How Do We Feel?’ - to reflect the questions we all, and the characters in ‘Burning Gold’, are asking. Touching on themes of disconnect, dread, freedom, nature and the human condition on Earth, the poem aligns fully with the creative mood of the project and nudges audiences to engage in important conversations.
LBB’s Zoe Antonov spoke with Matt about his inspirations, from paganism and folklore, what it was like creating the music, costumes and poetry with an incredible team of people, and why the questions posed in ‘Burning Gold’ are burning to be answered.
LBB> Tell me about the name - ‘Burning Gold’ - where did it come from?
Matt> The original film idea began in lockdown and we had the working title ‘Surfacing’. The project started as a collaboration between myself and my other half, designer Louise Wilkinson. We shot some initial photographs to test the idea with costumes we made ourselves. Louise and I were interested and inspired by the idea of human connection, particularly at a time when social distancing was enforcing barriers to the ways we connect with one another. We had the mindset to let the meaning evolve during the process of making the film.
‘Burning Gold’ was a phrase we loved when we found it researching folk law traditions and poetic meditations on landscapes and the seasons, such as the book ‘Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field’. We loved the evocative connotation of something precious being eroded or destroyed. It has a double meaning for us, the first being the conservation of the natural world and our appreciation of the simple things; and the abundance which the land provides us. The other being the beauty of authentic human connection - I see the film as a celebration of letting down barriers to connect with others and the natural world around us.
LBB> Why did you decide to collaborate with Love Ssega for the poem behind the film and how did you make sure it conveyed all the messaging you wanted to embed in the film itself? What was the process of writing the poem?
Matt> We felt that the film needed something else to compliment the music and to engage the audience directly and inspire more room for thought. Love Ssega is an incredible poet, artist, songwriter and climate activist. I became aware of his work through his recent project ‘Home-Zero’ at the National Gallery and he is this year’s Philharmonia’s Artist in Residence.
As the edit evolved, it became clear that ideas around nature and climate were coming to the fore. I invited Ssega to respond instinctively and he wrote the poem ‘How do we feel?’, which is the perfect final piece to the jigsaw. I gave him a complete free rein after our initial chat where we talked openly about the themes of climate change and how we connect with nature and each other.
We were on the same page with how he interpreted the film’s message and I trusted his judgement completely. When he sent the poem I loved it and had no changes, the words are a perfect fit and allow room for the music to breathe. He even recorded us the poem so we could take it straight into the final audio mix. Love Ssega’s poem elevated the film in a profound and thought provoking way.
LBB> Tell me about the costume design, from ideation to execution. What inspired the colours and shapes?
Matt> Louise and I both loved an art project from the ‘50s called the ‘The Mask Series’. A collaboration between a photographer and a cartoonist and the paper masks and costumes designed and made by Charles and Ray Eames.
Another big inspiration was the Bauhaus Ballet ‘A Dance of Geometry’ and Sonia Delaunay. In particular, her beautiful ballet costumes and Charles Fréger and his book ‘Wilder Mann’.
The costumes act as metaphorical distillations of persona, abstracting the human form into colourful geometric shapes - as if the characters have their own home-made protective suits of armour. This felt apt coming out of the pandemic, when everyone had to find different ways of coping during that time. I think the film questions if we still have some of this armour to shed.
Jessica Evans, our costume designer, was incredibly creative and enthusiastic to work with. Her blend of fashion skills combined with her research in MA Biodesign in the area of sustainability is both inspiring and fascinating. Louise created the 2D designs and colour palettes and we worked closely with Jessica to realise the costumes in 3D including a creative dress rehearsal session where we fitted toile versions of the costumes and developed ideas for the choreography and character motivations.
Initial sketches of the costume design
LBB> What do each of the three characters represent? Why was it important for them to be three?
Matt> Three characters seemed right from the offset - apart from it being a magic number! We had in our minds the three basic elements of nature - sun, water and land. We took inspiration from these elements in the costumes and they featured geometric shapes and colours inspired by the natural elements. We wanted to create striking designs in the costumes which highlight the amazing power and beauty of the natural world and how humans have always been linked to andinspired by nature.
LBB> How was the choreography constructed and who constructed it?
Matt> Louise and I discovered Alice + Synne’s work from their recent dance performance on London Southbank Bankside Beach, ‘Bodies of Water’. This was a meaningful and visually beautiful project with incredible costumes designed by Jessica Evans, featuring flowing and elegant silk, against the urban backdrop of London’s Southbank Bankside beach. It was a stunning project and we instantly wanted to work with them. Alice + Synne really engaged with our project and helped us develop the ideas. They brought on board our brilliant cast and the same costume designer, Jessica Evans, they had worked with on ‘Bodies of Water’.
I wanted the creative to evolve as we made the film. From the first calls and dress rehearsal we knew we had a wonderful team.
Following a discussion of the themes, we explored different styles of storytelling and emotions through movement using the beautiful score ‘Tide Within’ by Veera Lummi as our starting point. It was a very collaborative process and the dancers brought so much of themselves and responded emotionally to the natural environment and each other. This kept a spontaneous and improvisational dance style.
LBB> Tell me about the composition of the music and how it carries the message of the film?
Matt> The music ‘Tide Within’ was composed by Veera Lummi and performed by the Modulus Quartet. Again, we felt blessed to have found such talented collaborators. I reached out to Lynden Campbell [music supervisor] and she instantly felt Veera’s music would be a great match after I shared the idea with her. Veera was amazing to work with, she had already written ‘Tide Within’ which was yet to be recorded.
‘Tide Within’ was such a good fit. It was almost uncanny how closely linked it was to the concept of the film. Veera had been exploring similar subjects to us, with her exploration into the internal rises and falls we can all feel strongly, especially in the light of recent world events.
Veera> I wanted to reflect the inner tide we all have moving from not ‘being in sync’ to finding balance and flow.
LBB> What are the themes of the film that you would like audiences to see? Why did you want to explore them?
Matt> ‘Burning Gold’ explores the emotional effects of the pandemic, climate change and our human connection to nature and each other. Recent extreme global events such as the pandemic, climate disasters and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine have thrown up many questions around what it is to be human. We explored subconscious feelings relating to these recent crises which are brought to the surface in the film with enigmatic figures in stylised and dreamlike costumes.
There’s a feeling that the characters are somehow protecting themselves from the unnamed dangers. Separation and social divides, keeping a safe distance from the other people in your own bubble is a strange and inhuman notion. There is a mood of uneasiness and isolation which is, at times, broken with a joyful liberation and freedom.
My aim was to create a feeling of the current climate through the mood of the visuals. I believe the emotional effects of the pandemic are still present and the question of how we authentically connect with nature and each other following lockdown and in the current world climate is an important one.
LBB> Tell me about the location. From a production point of view, how did you scout it and what made it perfect?
Matt> We knew we wanted farming land - there was something about the idea of growth and renewal that resonated with us coming out of covid. I found the location by ringing around enquiring about farms near to where we shot our initial test photographs near Sevenoaks, Kent. In the end, a friendly guy at a local pub put me in touch with the farm owner. I was super lucky to find the farm as it offered us a variety of different visual backdrops, including the wheat fields and a river all close by.
The owner was super helpful and allowed us to recce to location prior to the shoot. The character’s costumes in the fields and natural areas created an intriguing juxtaposition between the clean geometric forms and the natural environment. There’s also a pagan/ folklore feel about the costumes and masks almost as if they’re part of a cult, or the costumes have been created for a ritual of worshipping earthly elements.
The beige, brown and green in the fields and rural landscapes fitted perfectly with the colour palette of the costumes. The visual beauty of nature and farming land is celebrated in the film and we hope it acts as a reminder that our precious natural places should be appreciated and taken care of.
LBB> What was the process like, filming in the middle of a field? Were there any intricacies to consider from an equipment and camera perspective?
Matt> It was a challenging shoot day, however, I was blown away by the positive and creative attitude of everyone involved. We filmed on one of the hottest days of the year and a lot of time was spent driving talent and the costumes back and forth from our base to the locations we were filming at. However, we all chipped in and I couldn’t have asked for a better natured and more positive cast and crew.
LBB> How long did the production process take from start to finish?
Matt> Well the initial idea started in the first lockdown and slowly evolved into a film idea.
It needed to be a summer shoot so we had to wait for the window when everyone was available. The stars didn’t align until last summer when we shot it. I knew it needed the right team with the right understating of the creative approach and can-do attitude to achieve the vision.
LBB> What are the questions that the film poses and did you reach the answers you were looking for?
Matt> The questions posed in Love Ssega’s beautiful and profound poem are fundamental.
‘How do we feel?’ touches on how we feel about nature, which is really saying how we feel about each other and our own lives and relationships. We are, in many ways, spiritually one and the same as nature. ‘What is a field? Another life or another meal?’ - I believe this means that if we destroy or don’t respect nature, it will fight back and ultimately we will destroy ourselves. ‘What’s underneath?’ touches on the subconscious feelings about the current climate and also the literal meaning of sun parched land or an empty sea, which are the effects of global warming. ‘What do we see?’ highlights the beauty of the natural world. I think it acts as a warning to say this land is precious and needs to be taken care of so future generations can enjoy it as we do.