Movies That Live in Our Subconscious

Artemis Shaw and Prashanth Kamalakanthan, whose feature New Strains plays First Look this weekend, share the childhood films that hit home.

We shot our new film, New Strains, entirely alone during the spring 2020 lockdown. We were two filmmakers who’d rarely ventured in front of the camera. Within the constraints of quarantine, however, we became D.P.s, sound mixers, and lead actors, in addition to writer-directors.

The film, a sci-fi-inflected rom-com, takes place in an alternate timeline, where the major symptom of a mysterious global pandemic is cognitive decline. We watch as our protagonists – who may or may not be infected – devolve deeper and deeper into a childlike state. Their story reflects our own experience of quarantine, when we were unexpectedly gifted, for the first time in our adult lives, with enough free time to be genuinely bored – and thus, unselfconsciously creative.

Artemis Shaw and Prashanth Kamalakanthan in New Strains.

As a result, New Strains feels somewhat like an exquisite corpse drawing. We never pitched this film to anybody, so we were never forced to justify making it. Now, as the movie begins to play for audiences, we’re suddenly pushed to examine what was going on in our brains during the early days of quarantine, and notice influences we hadn’t considered before.

So, let’s dive right in: some important films we saw as children, which may or may not have seeped into our subconscious minds…

Artemis, Age 8: Romeo + Juliet (1996)
New Strains is quite specific in its depictions of the playful intimacies within a relationship. One particular scene in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet had an outsized notion on my childhood perception of romance. It’s the morning after Romeo and Juliet have done the deed, and they’re canoodling in bed. Romeo throws the bedsheet over their heads and suddenly, they’re enveloped by white sheets in this heavenly glow. For a long time, the scene was my number one romantic fantasy: just laughing and giggling under the bedsheets. It’s something I desperately wanted as a teen but probably didn’t experience till my twenties, because even if you find love in high school, you don’t have much time to just hang out in bed together when you’re not ferociously dry humping.

I watched the scene again recently. It is actually an uncomfortable watch. It’s singles: Leo DiCaprio and Clare Danes almost looking down the barrel of the lens, looking incredibly young, with an eerie string soundtrack. You just imagine two teenagers gazing up at a burly 50-year-old D.P., straddling them.

Prashanth, Age 6: The Lion King (1994)
Unlike Artemis, I didn’t watch many movies until college. I remember thinking when I was a kid that movies were just too fast. I was more a bookworm.

My big film in early childhood was a popular one: The Lion King. I remember playing the VHS tape so many times, it got worn down and became unwatchable. I’d bring it along for the summers when my family flew to India as a family. Now more than the movie itself, what stays with me is all the bonding and the experiences around it. Because I’d force my grandparents to watch it with me, plus all the local kids when they’d visit…

This was at my grandparents’ apartment in Coimbatore, a beautiful part of the country. We were in a squat, stained Indian concrete apartment tower with a shared interior courtyard. We’d stick our heads out of the window and hear what everybody was up to in all the other apartments in the building. We’d yell stuff. We’d go up to the roof and drop things on people, then duck the angry watchman. I remember him really well: this tiny hunchbacked old man, spurting red paan juice 24/7. He tried to tell us he could never help us find our cricket balls because there were tigers and lions in the woods behind the building …

Artemis, Age 6: Mr. Bean (1990)
On Sunday nights growing up, my entire family would watch the British television show Mr. Bean on PBS. I thought it was the funniest thing in the whole world.

Many people don’t realize that Mr. Bean is an alien, or at least abducted them. It’s actually a great example of lo-fi sci-fi. In the opening credits, Mr. Bean drops from the sky onto an empty street and wanders away. It’s never a plot point; the opening credits just explain why he’s such a weirdo. The magic of Mr. Bean is the physicality of his performance. I’m still very drawn to uncanny body movements in performance, like clown theater. That was something I sought to explore while being in front of the camera for the first time in New Strains.

Prashanth, Age 9: Halloweentown (1998)
One fine day when I got home from school, my parents plopped down on the couch across from me, wearing the widest grins. They suggested I try the remote, and I did – only to discover the greatest gift you could give a growing young lad back then: an upgraded cable package, featuring the Disney Channel. (No Nickelodeon yet; that was a few rungs later on the income ladder.)

There was one Disney original movie, Halloweentown, whose horror stuck with me for a long time. It gave me really scary nightmares for years. Essentially it’s about a Spirit Halloween that comes to town, where the customers get trapped in a Narnia/Jumanji-style alternate dimension, but where everyone is evil. The same people, the same town – but evil.

For the first time, I considered the idea of someone in an alternate timeline. The same person, but with a completely different light in their eyes. It’s the kind of thing that can happen in real life too, right? Crisis, torture, feature filmmaking…

Artemis, Age 8: Babylonia (1970)
My grandfather was a film producer during the Greek golden age of cinema in the ’60s. This makes me sound like I’m part of some kind of film dynasty, but I’m not; neither of his children went into the arts, and to this day, my mother continues to dissuade me from working in film. Also the two recorded Letterboxd viewers of my grandfather’s greatest hit, Babylonia, are by me and by presumably a distant cousin (he shares my grandfather’s first and last name).

Babylonia was adapted from a stage play. It has the quarantine movie vibe in that it’s all in one location, with actors operating in a bubble. It’s about a group of people on the eve of Greek Independence, each of whom represents a different archetype of Greek society at the time. It’s called Babylonia because before Greek unification, the regional dialects were very distinct from one another, and all the comedy rests on misunderstandings around language. The inciting incident is that one man mistakenly calls another man a piece of shit – when he’s actually talking about a delicious casserole.

I recall being really impressed that anyone in my family was associated with cinema. It may have kind of put the idea in my head that making movies was possible. It was also probably the first microbudget film I saw, before that term was a thing.

Prashanth, Age 10: Nayakan (1987)
Nayakan was the first “good movie” my dad showed me. We rented it from the Indian grocery store, where they had a small selection of mostly pirated VCDs.

Funny enough, Nayakan was inspired by The Godfather, another favorite film of my dad’s. But director Mani Ratnam and living legend Kamal Haasan in the title role wander way off from that original spark into a totally a groundbreaking direction in Indian cinema. On its face, it’s a biopic on the rise and fall of famous Tamil émigré to Bombay and underworld boss Varadarajan Mudaliar. But on a deeper level, it’s a scorching critique of Indian class society and capitalism, told from the perspective of an orphan boy who becomes a mafia don and a kind of Robin Hood figure. Amazing music, a really simple, emotional shooting style … lots to learn from still today.

I remember being shocked by its raw depictions of sex and crime, especially in the context of deep, intergenerational poverty, which was very eye-opening for me as a kid. It raised complicated questions, and probably did influence me early on to think critically about institutions and inherited morality of all kinds.

Artemis, Age 8: Clueless (1995)
I have always been an absolute Clueless diehard. While I recognized it was a comedy when I first saw it, I certainly didn’t realize that Cher was an unreliable narrator, that she herself was part of the satire.

This misunderstanding of satire, I think, played into the earliest movies I made as a kid. They were all parodies or spoofs of movies and TV shows. Or I thought they were. Watching them as an adult – as we did recently for New Strains – it just looks like I idolized them. There’s hours of footage of me, age 12, imitating Cher, or imitating Tyra Banks on America’s Next Top Model, with no identifiable parody to be found. I must have just liked the feeling of it.

Though not many people have seen my grown-up films, a frequent question I get is, “Is this satire or isn’t it?” We’ve even gotten that question about New Strains. In response, Prashanth likes to quote the disbanded rap group Das Racist: “We’re not joking / Just joking, we are joking / Just joking, we’re not joking.” And if your question is still, “Are you joking or not?” you missed the point.

Prashanth, Age 11: Rush Hour 2 (2001)
This film formed a crucial bridge between my childhood and teen years. A middle school buddy gifted it to me for my birthday, so it was the first DVD I owned personally. We must have memorized damn near every line. But I’ll tell you: it does not hold up, with all its late ’90s-style humor. Watching it now, it’s hard to get past the crass racism, sexism, homophobia … so I was trying to think why I once loved this movie so much.

Beyond just being tickled by the goofy, raunchy jokes, I think I felt seen by both sides of the narrative. Because it’s basically an odd-couple movie: there’s the black cop, Chris Tucker, and the Chinese cop, Jackie Chan, and they’re constantly getting into hijinks. I think I liked it so much because it wasn’t the default straight, white comedy of that era. It was about two racial outsiders in America. And watching it, I didn’t fully identify with either side. I was somewhere in the middle, hanging out.

Artemis Shaw is a filmmaker and educator from New York City inspired by Dada, Greek tragedy and growing up on the Internet. She is interested in tragicomedy and satire and works in collaboration. Shaw directed Aquaculture (2017) and Real Talk (2020); co-directed New Strains (2023), which won a Special Jury Award at IFFR 2023; and produced the film Have a Nice Life (2021). Shaw has taught film and run education programs at Tribeca Film Institute, Ghetto Film School, Museum of the Moving Image, Thaden School, and currently at NYU. Prashanth Kamalakanthan is a filmmaker and professor born in India and raised in North Carolina. He has a background in music, documentary, and photography and currently teaches film theory and screenwriting at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and previously at Brown University. Kamalakanthan has made films for The New York Times, Mother Jones, The Nation, and other media outlets. His debut feature, Have a Nice Life (2021), was followed by New Strains (2023), co-directed with Artemis Shaw, which won a Special Jury Award at IFFR 2023.