Neil Young: If nobody walked out of the film, I would feel as I had failed

Neil Young at the Viennale Zentrale in 2017. Photo Credits: Marina D. Richter

The British film critic, curator, programmer and festival advisor Neil Young has made his first feature-length film Rihaction  which has just had its world-premiere at the Diagonale.  The film is completely based on 37 YouTube reaction videos on the performance by Tom Holland in the popular American musical competition series ‘Lip Sync Battle’, where he recreated Rihanna’s video ‘Umbrella’, showing his impressive dancing skills. “Rihaction” is probably the longest of experimental films screened on festivals in recent times, stretching over 108 minutes. Ubiquarian spoke to Neil Young about his fascination with the reaction videos culture, and about his dislike for the black screens with white titles.

This is your first feature film after 12 shorts, of which only two were shown at festivals. Why choosing this subject matter for the first feature?

The show caught my attention some time ago, and then I discovered that there was this whole group of films that have been made about it, and they are all Interesting to me in different ways. I watched the reaction videos quite many times late in the evening after coming in. You realise there is a lot of them out there and illuminating in a wrong way. I thought about what would happen if I put them all together – if it would be a film or just a bunch of videos. The more I thought about it, it seemed to be not just an entertaining thing, but there was more subtext going on about how people represent themselves on the internet and how they see themselves. I became more interested and eventually I said: “let’s see if I can make a film out of this and if anybody is interested in watching it”. Fortunately, the programmers at the Diagonale thought it was worth a while, but it feels like a very personal project for me and it’s very strange to see it in a cinema because it’s a matter of personal interest, and I was pleasantly surprised that is appears to be interesting for other people as well.

This is not a film one should watch on a computer.

It indeed plays better on a big screen or being projected in similar, because it is obviously a YouTube film. If you watch it on your computer, the temptation is to start opening windows and treating it like a YouTube clip which it isn’t. It’s a  film.

You didn’t leave out any of the people who reacted on the Tom Holland performance in the Lip Sync Battle footage on YouTube. Didn’t you think of compressing the material a bit?

Yeah, it could be shorter, but on the other hand, I think to demand of the audience to experience this over 100 minutes is sort of connected with Tom Holland going for it and going to the extreme. It is a demanding film and I am aware that it’s repetitive and it is quite long for an experimental film, but I think that the length gives you time to dwell on different things rather than taking the surface value. I’ve just watched it again on the big screen and it’s the first time I’ve seen it in the cinema, and I am happy with the length. It’s not for everybody, there were also some walkouts. But if nobody walked out, I would feel as I had failed. In this category of the innovative cinema if there is anything longer than 20-25 minutes, it is going to be tougher. Maybe they don’t watch experimental films or maybe they thought ‘oh, it’s just a bunch of YouTube clips’. As I say, I am happy that the majority of people did stay.

When carefully watching the film, it becomes obvious to the viewer that the videos are not just piled up.

The half-way point is the clip with three men comenting, being the only video with more than two people. The initial point was to start with Ibukola’s video because that’s where you can also see Zendaya’s performance. And it was always to end with Mad Joe, because his reaction is the most extreme and he leaves the frame. I knew that the three guys were going to be in the middle, because their reactions were like anything else. We had to pay attention to the order of videos, and  we made sure that the opening is arresting, and that there is a climax in the last few. So, the last 4-5 are all kind of extreme in their way. If you got all this way down, you should be rewarded for it with nice, juicy ones. But then again, the truth is some videos are less interesting than the others by their nature. What’s interesting for me is not necessarily what’s interesting for somebody else. Those that I may consider more dull ones, which therefore are shorter, maybe to the others are the most stimulating ones. I kind of tried to keep my own preferences out of it, because it was really a record of the fact that there are these 37 videos, and each of them is a valid reaction. The 38th rendition of the song is the full rendition of the end credits.

I don’t have a feeling that there was much of the editing done on the video material.

Some of the clips were 10 minutes long in their original format. We obviously wanted to trim it down to the part in which you see Tom Holland performing to ‘Singing in the Rain’ and then Rihanna. I did make a decision of not altering anything within the clip. I would just take something of the beginning and something of the end, but I wouldn’t do it within the clip. Many of YouTubers do their own editing, and there are some really strange edits that go on. As long as you are aware that this is what this 37 people or groups of people have done, and it is presented as they’d done it, it is respectful of their clips. If I start to interfere and make changes, it becomes a completely different thing. I’d rather present them as they think they were worth putting on the internet. I am sure there are other reaction videos that haven’t been posted. It’s 37 people who would like to see the world reacting on their videos. Upon finishing the film, I discovered the 38th which was submitted in February, almost two years after the performance. And of course, the thing with the reaction videos is that the reaction has to be spontaneous. If you know what someone is going to do, and if you know what it is, then your reaction is not going to be an honest one. Part of the culture of reaction is that you have to be sincere. It has to be a genuine and spontaneous reaction.

There are blue and red screens between the videos, which were kind of dramatically introduced at the film’s beginning with a stroboscopic effect involved.

The whole idea with it was to introduce the concept of red and blue which plays through the rest of the film. And also, I don’t like films that start with black screen. I think that one of the biggest clichés in the cinema is that if you start a film with black screen, the titles in white and some sound, end tune to the end of the film. I just didn’t like to use black. I watch a lot of films as a film critic and programmer, and my heart sinks every time I see yet another film with black screen and white titles. I think that there are million ways to start a film and people do it the same way, which speaks about a wider problem in film culture which might I am trying to go against. Also, any cut to black is horrible.

I didn’t do the editing myself, my collaborator did it. Dominik Sobolewski is a friend who edits a lot of videos, it’s part of his job. I’ve known him for quite some time, and when I was thinking about who could put a good editing job based on what I tell them to do without coming up with many problems, he was the obvious one to consider.