On Grief and The Severing

Director Mark Pellington on how his latest feature, an experimental dance film, helped him express his ongoing sense of loss as never before.

It begins with words and ends with bodies.

What is in the dark bodies that we live in and die in?

How do you make a film about that feeling? How do you make a film about losing some thing, losing someone, so brutal that it rips you apart? How do you make a film to express the torment that your soul endures?

We often return to plots and stories, and in my journey of grief and loss and prolonged grief and prolonged loss, from 2004 to 2019, I tried to express myself in various forms – music video interpretation of songs from the Foo Fighters to Moby, from Linkin Park to Keane. I tried in films, through mouthpieces such as Jon Hamm and Amanda Seyfried or great wordsmiths like Alex Ross Perry.

Cinematographer Evelin van Rei during the filming of The Severing.

I tried photographs, poetry, text and still collage, all expressions of that feeling of being detached from the real world and from the self. That was the foundation for The Severing.

I felt those other mediums only expressed my grief in a certain way, and a way that didn’t capture the physicality of the stress of the emotion, the body’s holding of the burden.

In 2019, I was asked to do a music video for my speed metal friend Phil Rind of Sacred Reich. I agreed to do a couple of pieces as long as one of them would be for “Manifest Reality,” a fast head-splitting metal song. Through it, I wanted to capture the physical body expressing the things I felt. No words, no story, no plot – pure, sheer, raw physicality.

I came to realize that grief lies in the body, grief lies in the physical, it lies in the DNA … making dance the best non-verbal vessel to communicate this “story” of feeling leaden, overwhelmed, invisible. It’s the way to express what it feels like to be severed or to feel nothing.

I approached choreographer Nina McNeely, whose work I’d seen in Gasper Noé’s film Climax, and asked her if she would be interested in working with me on the video. She was a fan of Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” video that I made, which seemed to influence every dark soul kid born after 1980. I love Nina’s spirit, and her DIY attitude. She got some incredible dancers, and the fantastic Blake Armstrong painted their bodies, turning them into these post-skeletal Caravaggio paintings.

An image from Mark Pellington’s The Severing.

I brought in Evelin van Rei, a Dutch photographer and D.P. I loved, and asked her if she wanted to shoot for me – we had one light in a warehouse in Vernon, California. It was a shithole, a dark, dank, subterranean-looking environment, with a little bit of natural light and one bare bulb creating the atmosphere for Nina to let these dancers unleash their feelings.

We made the video, yet I wanted to honor the way these dancers moved and let their dances unfold without cuts and without manipulation, so I asked the editor Sergio Pinheiro to lay out all the raw footage in a longform piece. I had a rough structure anchored by dancer Courtney Scarr as a three-piece trio of dances interrupted by couples in groups. My experience in grief was this – it was very difficult to reconnect to the world in relationships or in group endeavors. That’s what came across in my interpretation of their motions. I sat with Courtney and Nina and some of the phrases they connected to watching their footage follows:

The floor grounds you …

It is the only variable that doesn’t change

It feels the same always

The only thing you can count on

Separating yourself physically from the thought …

It is me
I am the extraction

Breath in measures

Residue and tangible

I am preying on the camera

I’m still playing dead … knowing

Grief (make)

I’m believable

Second. Life

Forwarding your > Body to the floor

Talking to the souls in the floor

Because the light is even more painful

Physically scaled pain slings

Hands up to God

My abstracted language as signpost

These text fragments became the structural signposts for the film. I gave them all and a sketch of the structure to Sergio and he then cut it all. The music score at that time was ambient, dissonant non-melodic textures that I compiled from friends and source material I had from The Mothman Prophecies and other projects; Jeff Rona, tomandandy, Big Black Delta and John Avarese all gave me these pieces to use.

Choroegrapher Nina McFeely, director Mark Pellington and cinematographer Evelin van Rei during the making of The Severing.

But The Severing now sat dormant, unexplored and unseen. It got rejected from a few festivals until my guardian angel, Paul Rachman at Slamdance, said, “So this is exactly the kind of movie that Slamdance is all about – pure experimental.”

I agreed.

I readily accepted Paul’s enthusiasm, and we screened the film during the COVID break at the 2022 virtual Slamdance festival, but actually got a really great response from many critics and viewers. We had a presentation at the American Cinematheque, where the large format was mind-blowing. On the big screen, The Severing is incredible.

Before that screening, we made a big change, though.

As I was watching it, I felt that the dissonance and darkness of music with no melody wasn’t what I felt anymore about this experience. So I asked Peter G. Adams, the composer on my film Survive, if he would be interested in rescoring some pieces of The Severing. He took the film to the next level of tragedy and emotional connection and really made it a poignant, painful love story – at least that’s how I look at it now. It’s a goodbye to someone I loved, to the mother of my child and my late wife, so 18 years later, the words from the dancers go through the soul of the floor, in the spirit of flesh, to someone departed in a beautiful elegy.

A shot from Mark Pellington’s The Severing.

Nina brought these dancers into my life to express these feelings for themselves and for others. Pete and Sergio added their beautiful, interpretive artistry, and the result is this: The Severing.

These words resonate

The Severing
Coming back to life

Escape … while someone’s talking about love

But it is isolation and love, yes?
Labor … yeah, exactly
Same in the womb

We lose it outside of the pain

Featured image shows choroegrapher Nina McFeely, director Mark Pellington and cinematographer Evelin van Rei on the set of The Severing; all images courtesy Mark Pellington.

Mark Pellington is a filmmaker, writer and artist based in Los Angeles. He is internationally recognized as one of the world’s premier music video directors and has also gained wide recognition for his film and television work. His best-known films include the controversial political thriller Arlington Road, starring Jeff Bridges and Tim Robbins, cult favorite The Mothman Prophesies, starring Richard Gere, Laura Linney and Debra Messing, The Last Word, with Amanda Seyfried and Shirley MacLaine, and Nostalgia, starring Jon Hamm, Nick Offerman, Amber Tamblyn, Patton Oswalt, Catherine Keener, Ellen Burstyn and Bruce Dern. The Director’s Edit of his first film, Going All the Way, came out in fall 2022 and his latest feature, the cathartic dance film The Severing, is now in select theaters through Kino Lorber.