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Piecing Together the Puzzle of ‘Under the Silver Lake’

Clues, secret codes and (possible) conspiracies for cinephiles

Under the Silver Lake is my own version of the Los Angeles story—a story that is in my opinion best told through the lens of the detective genre,” says the film’s writer and director David Robert Mitchell. It’s “a world of sunlit swimming pools, dark shadows, secret passages, debutante daughters, mysterious murders—the iconic imagery of a city built on dreams and moving pictures. A lot of this movie builds on my own obsession with cinema, using certain films and filmmakers as inspirations.”

In the film, explains Mark Olsen, Andrew Garfield “plays Sam, a young man in Los Angeles who is just drifting through his own life. No sooner has he met Sarah (Riley Keough), a young woman in his apartment complex, than she has abruptly moved out, sending him on a search that comes to include a series of murdered dogs, a disappeared billionaire, a cult-tinged rock group and a web of overlapping conspiracies.” To read the full article, click here.

Under the Silver Lake follows a labyrinthine conspiracy that Sam discovers through secret codes embedded in advertising, songs and movies. Mitchell explains the story “is about the hidden meaning buried within the things we love—the movies, music, and magazines that define our culture. Pop culture is now the only culture—a lake we all swim in. But there are things happening, unbeknownst to us, beneath the surface of the waterline.”

“David is a pop culture vacuum, and he’s managed to take in everything that’s happening in pop culture now, in addition to expanding his deep appreciation and understanding of pop culture in the ’80s and ’90s,” notes producer Chris Bender. “On one level, this is the story of a young man searching for a missing woman—a man who seemingly might be losing his mind while uncovering some bigger meaning.”

“The story explores a world of hidden messages in everyday objects and products,” adds producer Jake Weiner. “The movie itself is layer upon layer of secrets and codes. Dropping a clue here and a code there, David ties everything imaginable together—only to create even more layers. You might not figure everything out on first viewing, but after subsequent views you come to see the bigger story he’s telling.”

Admits Mitchell, “Under the Silver Lake has many hidden elements waiting to be discovered. Some are literal and some are thematic. The film avoids providing obvious answers, and that’s intentional. It’s a movie designed for audiences to think about, debate, and hopefully watch again.”

“The entire film is built around [Sam’s] perspective,” Mitchell tells Olsen. “I don’t want to suggest something is less real than something else. I wouldn’t want to break it down that way. It does an injustice to the movie to some degree. I’ll let people decide that for themselves. But overall the entire movie, it’s Sam’s film … everything is through his eyes, this is the way he is experiencing it, the way he feels about it. From the first frame to the end. If that helps.” To read the full interview, click here.

“Since we experience the movie from Sam’s POV, we tried to reflect Sam’s emotional state into the photography and create a version of Los Angeles that’s both familiar, but somewhat unique and mysterious,” says cinematographer Mike Gioulakis. Overall, we wanted to create a style that had shadows and deep contrast and used references from The Third Man, A Touch of Evil, The Big Sleep, After Hours, and Taxi Driver, at the same time delivering a stylized but motivated look that wasn’t completely a period feel.”

The biggest challenge for editor Julio Perez IV was making the film’s multiple layers come across effectively on screen: “It wasn’t just a question of editing for the surface meaning—the text—but also the subtext, the sub-subtext and the supertext, communicating all the layers and meaning through the whole wild adventure, that labyrinth of story,” he says. 

“Amid all the twists, niches and dark corners, we had to constantly remind ourselves to unspool the delicate narrative thread that leads us back to the beginning of the story.”

Modulating the script’s very specific tone was another challenge for Perez: “As an editor, I deal with rhythms and tempos, and when you’re dealing with suspense, it’s all about attack and release, inertia and impact and tension and catharsis.”