Emru Townsend: If you ask me, I think a big point of Æon Flux is to pay attention to what you're watching, and to think about it. Am I far off the mark there?
Peter Chung: Well, that's the approach to storytelling, or filmmaking, that I was interested in using, and the story content is something else again. But that's really what I was interested in doing, because that's what interests me when I see a film, something which requires a certain amount of viewer participation.
[Through a fluke of satellite technology, I had only seen "Utopia or Deuteronopia", the first episode of Æon Flux's third season, without audio at the time of this interview. --Ed.]
I liked that undercurrent of people always being watched by somebody. There's always some camera, some person, some... thing floating around just looking at people all the time. Pretty creepy, actually. I liked it. I can't wait to find out what everyone's talking about, though. [laughs]
[laughs] Well, we were trying to play with dialogue there, because dialogue was something new to the show, obviously, and I was interested in making the dialogue somewhat mysterious. And the idea of people knowing that what they were saying was being observed, and recorded, and monitored, made them say things which weren't necessarily what they were thinking. They say things that they want other people to hear. In other words, you sort of have to interpret what people are saying, as well as what they're doing visually. So dialogue became another layer of stuff that you had to figure out.
Is this going to be a recurring theme?
It was really dealt with mostly in the first episode. The other episodes contain scenes of characters being observed and monitored, but it doesn't really play as much a part in the story as that one.
Æon Flux was one of those shorts that I found you could look at one way--you know, people can just look at it and say, "Wow! People shooting each other!"--this is in the first and second seasons, of course--but you can look at it another way, and really look at what's happening, and say, "Ah, okay!", like the one with the elevator running between five different floors. That one's great.
Yeah, that one's my favorite.
Yeah, I thought that one was very well handled. You sit there the first time, saying, "What? What?!" And you get the obvious joke at the end with the plug, but when you watch it a second time, you catch all the little details, you go, "Ooh, I see!" Or the one with the video camera where she goes to assassinate the guy in his house. It took me three times to watch it before I really paid attention to the time on the camera, on the videocassette, and on the clock. Then I realized, okay, this is what she's doing now, this is what happened a few minutes ago, and so on and so on. And after all that it fits together perfectly.
Part of the idea is that... MTV runs these shows over and over again--the new shows are being run three times a week--and I'm really interested in getting repeat viewers to watch it two or three times, as opposed to seeing a repeat and saying, "Oh, I've seen that already," and turning it off. They've been designed and written in order to be... deliberately, maybe, hard to understand the first time.
It's a delicate balance to get, because you can turn people off by confusing them, and just get them to disengage totally, which is not what I want. The strategy really is to get them to feel encouraged to pay closer attention. So far the response has been pretty good, but we'll have to see... I mean, the idea with the new series was that MTV wanted to reach more of a mass audience as opposed to sort of the cult following that the shorts had had. But I wasn't really interested in doing something formulaic in the way most shows are. I don't know if I've succeeded or not, I guess I'll find out when we see the ratings.
How do you reconcile that sort of thing? The first season, for instance: was Æon Flux something that was commissioned from you, was it submitted, or...
Yeah, it was submitted, I came up with the idea, and they said, "Well, this sounds fine." And they pretty much let me do exactly what I wanted to, they really left me alone. It got good enough responses for them to consider doing the series, but it took a long time for MTV to really feel secure about ordering a full-blown half-hour show. I feel like it was based more on them noticing that people they were showing it to were responding well to it, as opposed to believing firmly in the material for its own sake. I think their commitment to the show had more to do with the idea that it was going to get good ratings as opposed to believing in the artistic interests of the show, the artistic agenda of the show.
Do you find with the second season, which wasn't really planned the first time around, and the third season still, that you had to... I wouldn't say compromise, but either rework or rethink ideas in order to fit into what MTV was looking for?
Well, you know, I'm fairly realistic about that kind of thing, I've worked in the animation industry for about fifteen years, and, well, the character was really designed and conceived to be appealing, to be appealing on a visceral level, so that even if you didn't understand what was going on in the story, she'd be fun and entertaining to watch...
The skimpy outfit doesn't hurt, I suppose.
Yeah, exactly. It's just very loaded, visually, to anyone who's even paying even a casual glance at it. And that was my strategy all along, to tell extremely abstruse and kind of bizarre stories that were fairly non-commercial, fairly personal, with a character and a surface that was very appealing and accessible. I think a great deal of the time, MTV didn't really know what it was that they were buying [laughs]. But the fact that it looked neat and was fun to watch was enough.
Sort of like a Trojan horse, then, you get to do what you want, by sort of sneaking it in with these neato visuals everyone's going to like, regardless.
Yeah. Well, that's part of it. Part of it I think has to do with MTV's image of themselves as being an alternative to normal network TV. I don't know if you've seen some of the other stuff that they've done recently.
I've missed The Maxx entirely, though I'd like to see it.
And The Brothers Grunt, and stuff like that, they're definitely off the beaten track for American commercial television. I think MTV deserves a lot of credit. I think that they've been very good to work with in terms of not meddling that much creatively. I mean, they do meddle, but all networks do, and I think that considering the norm I think that they've been very, very open-minded. I've gotten away with a lot.
On the show itself, part of the... I guess you could call it the obvious message behind the first series... has to do to some degree with media, in terms of looking at the hero/villain relationship in movies and whatnot. That seems to be pretty clear... With the second season, with each one being a self-contained story, were you essentially trying to do the same thing, saying, Okay, here's an established convention that we have within something, say, within the action/adventure genre, and saying, well, let's mess with it a little bit here. Is that what you were going for, or were you going for a completely different tack?
Well, the consistent thread throughout all of those shorts in the second season was that she dies in each one. And she not only dies, but she fails to accomplish what she set out to accomplish in each one. In part, it was a response to my frustration to always seeing it being taken for granted that the protagonist would succeed in what they were doing and also survive in the end, which I think makes a lot of shows or films very... well, dishonest I guess is the word. Because they play this game of putting the hero in this life-or-death situation where you know they're not going to die, but the filmmakers sort of play this game of, "Well, he could die, at any moment..."
So I just felt, well, it would be interesting to just make that the presumption, that the character was going to die.
So instead of the climax being, "How, against all odds, is he going to survive," it's "How, through all these odds, is the hero going to somehow manage to screw up and get killed?"
Well, not really, no. What I was interested in doing was exploring different aspects of a character's death, and each one of the episodes was really about different aspects of death. That's what I was interested in dealing with. The elevator episode, for example, was really--to me--about how she sets out to do something, she dies in the middle of doing it, without having finished, and somebody else picks up the thread, and not understanding what she was trying to do, kind of screws things up. Sort of a nightmare scenario for anyone who's engaged in some kind of ongoing project, to think they're going to die in the middle of it without finishing it, and somebody else is going to finish it for them.