Writer and director Marilyn Cooke stops by on Close-Up Culture to talk about her intriguing short film, No Ghost In The Morgue.
Medical student Keity wants to become a surgeon like her mother and grandmother. But after her first operation takes a dramatic turn, she has to accept an internship at the morgue. Between her dead patients, her unconventional colleagues and seeing her grandmother’s spirit, she tries to tough it out.
Hi Marilyn, welcome to Close-Up Culture. Can you tell us about No Ghost In The Morgue and your inspiration for it?
I had been wanting to make a film about grandmothers for a while. Originally the project was called Three Dreams, and it revolved around a young woman having recurring dreams of both her deceased grandmothers. I have a very strong connection to both my grandmothers and I love the idea of the matriarch, of the pillar who holds the family together, which I think is true in many families, and especially so in immigrant families. I think that these family bonds are foundational, but they can also generate anxiety because we know how hard our parents and/or grandparents had to work in order just to get to a new country, the country we just happened to be born in, and achieve a life. There is a sense that you want to honour their legacy.
I also wanted to focus on a lead character that is a Black woman finding herself, while also representing parts of Caribbean culture that are related to the conception of death and the importance of dreams.
So then I thought why not explore the experiences around death and family, and bring these ideas together of the morgue and spirits of grandmothers but in a beautiful and poetic way.
What interested you about the setting of a morgue?
When I was writing this film it was a tumultuous time in my personal life, and I think probably for a lot of people, because it was right at the beginning of the pandemic, which was a hectic time for all of us. I had a personal experience of one of my loved ones passing away, so I was thinking about death a lot and I kept having very vivid dreams of them. I spoke to the mortician, who was working with my loved one’s deceased body with a lot of compassion and care. It touched me very deeply and also got me curious about people who work with the dead, like at the morgue, how do you get started doing that.
No Ghost In The Morgue is shot in 16mm by Juliette Lossky. What mood and atmosphere did you want to create in the film?
The short juxtaposes the morgue and a garden of Eden-like dream world, which is a bit of an unusual mix. To reflect that, I really wanted to use a singular visual style and immersive soundscapes. We did that by focusing on showing the perspective of the dead. Because the film considers that they are humans in their own right, we wanted to integrate their perspective in that way, namely through a lot of topshots and flowing camera movement.
The sequences of the tropical garden daydreams were shot in 16mm film, and my cinematographer Juliette Losskyfocused on creating beautiful textures and lush light. The editing and ambient sound really make us glide into these daydreams gradually as well. The point of it all was to represent that the spirits of those we love are never too far away.
The rest of the film is shot on digital, because I wanted to create this sense of order and symmetry in the morgue and the other locations to distinguish it and make it seem like a colder, more rational world.
What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
Don’t be mistaken, this is not a horror movie! It’s a deeply human story about overcoming failure and finding your own place in the world. That’s really the point of the film – it’s that sometimes, in order to find yourself, you have to break free from what others expect from you and let go of the fear of disappointing people or not living up to their standards.
And also, that death is part of the life cycle that we should make friends with.
I understand you are now working on your first feature. Can you tell us anything about that?
Of course! There are no parrots in my next film (one piece of advice: avoid live parrots at all costs, especially if shooting on film). Right now I am writing a script for my first feature. It’s a comedy-drama with elements of fantasy, about a young woman who tries to find her biological father who is a climate refugee. It’s set in an alternate reality in the year 2030, where part of the Caribbean was swallowed up by the ocean because of climate change. It’s loosely inspired by Caribbean oral traditions and magical realism. I love blending genres and that’s something I really want to incorporate into my future work.
What are your plans and ambitions for the future?
I want to continue telling stories with relatable and complex female characters. What interests me are stories that explore the experiences of people of colour within rich and layered narratives.
I would love to work in English so my work could reach a larger audience. An all-time goal would be to collaborate with the likes of a Jordan Peele (Jordan, if you’re reading this, call me). Aim high, am I right?