Under the Influence: Zachary Wigon on The Heart Machine and Vilhelm Hammershoi

A new series on MovieMaker.com, Under the Influence charts the often-mysterious ways that art begets art, calling upon moviemakers to write about one creative work that informed and inspired their own. In this edition, director Zachary Wigon talks about the quietly devastating interior painting by Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi that informed the tone of his feature The Heart Machine, about a young couple in New York (played by John Gallagher Jr. and Kate Lyn Sheil) whose online relationship takes a paranoid turn.

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New York is defined by the condensed style of life it engenders, the manner in which it packs as much stuff as possible into every square corner, minute, and moment. Constantly thrust into contact with each other (wanted or otherwise), New Yorkers are forced to deal with the reality that the public and, sometimes, private lives and activities of their fellow citizens are constantly on display. Loneliness is something typically experienced in private, whereas socializing and leisure activities are definitely public acts.

The Heart Machine_Still 4_A FilmBuff Release

Kate Lyn Sheil plays the troubled Virginia in The Heart Machine

With The Heart Machine, I was interested in conveying the experience of living loneliness in New York, which is a specific kind of loneliness—a loneliness that is accentuated by the fact that it is adjacent to the bustling social lives of so many. I wanted to explore how it feels to be lonely while living in New York in one’s 20s—a decade and a city that suggest the opposite of loneliness. Whatever the popular wisdom may be, however, I believe there’s an emptiness at the center of the lives of many of my contemporaries (I’m 27 and I live in New York).

The Heart Machine_Director Zachary Wigon_photos courtesy of FilmBuff

Zachary Wigon, writer-director of The Heart Machine

The work of Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1916), a Danish painter who made beautiful, melancholic images of interiors and subjects, was an enormous influence in capturing this emotional quality in the film. Hammershoi’s paintings are dominated by hues of gray and blue, the light perpetually fading, darkness dominating interiors even as we glimpse that there is sunlight somewhere—just not “here,” in the space the painting is set.

Hammershoi

Vilhelm Hammershoi’s Interior From Strandgade With Sunlight on the Floor, 1901

Interior From Strandgade With Sunlight on the Floor is one such painting, and it was an enormous influence on The Heart Machine, visually as well as thematically. In the painting, a woman sits at a desk in a relatively unfurnished room, her back to the viewer, her face obstructed. Sunlight comes in from windowpanes at the center of the composition, but this sunlight is—ironically—perhaps the greatest source of melancholy in the work. Rather than adding warmth to the image, it only manages to create a mood of despondency, since the sunlight primarily serves to highlight, by contrast, how dark and gloomy the room itself is. The sunlight is central, but it is drowned out by the grays, blues and browns of Hammershoi’s palette.

There’s nothing like a note of happiness to reveal a greater expanse of sadness, and by placing the sunlight in the center of the otherwise maudlin painting, Hammershoi employed a juxtaposition we sought to replicate with The Heart Machine: depicting loneliness by contrast.

A still from the scene Kate Lyn Sheil

A still from the bar scene

There’s a scene in The Heart Machine where Virginia (Kate Lyn Sheil) goes into a bar to meet someone, only to learn that she’s been stood up. During the scene, images of revelers in the background and at the sides of the frame, coupled with the sounds of their jovial interactions, serve as an ironic counterpoint against Virginia’s loneliness and growing sense of rejection. It’s a formal move that we took from Interior From Strandgade With Sunlight on the Floor, and one whose results I am pleased with. MM

The Heart Machine opens on Friday, October 24, 2014 in New York at Cinema Village, and on various Video On Demand platforms. Images courtesy of FilmBuff.

Check out previous installments of Under the Influence here.

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