On a brisk evening in April, things are finally beginning to feel like springtime at Arroz Studios. There’s a quiet excitement buzzing through the clusters of people who’ve gathered about the courtyard in between the rows of chairs, hammocks, and couches that all face toward the towering, inflatable projection screen that’s been blown up on the far side of the space.
All the attendees wait patiently for the sun to set behind the walls of the studio so that the film can begin, sipping on beers and snacking on pizza. Four friends stand and smile off to the right of the screen, exchanging embraces and handshakes with a seemingly endless stream of friends, family, and fans. These four gentlemen are stars Frederick Douglas, Renato Untenberg, Markus Treppo, and director George Daniell, here at Arroz Studios to introduce to the world their charming short film, The Windmill of Death.
Windmill is the second short film directed by Daniell, and essentially picks up where the first, Valley of the Cats, released in 2020, left off. Two brothers, played by Douglas and Treppo, wander the Portuguese countryside after their brief brush with insanity that brings the first film to a close.
In the first few moments of Windmill, the brothers find an intriguing missing-person sign, posted by the missing man himself. Once they catch up with this mysterious and nameless character, played by Untenberg, the duo becomes a trio, and they continue their wandering through a sparsely populated, surreal, yet still inviting purgatory of the Portuguese countryside. Daniell’s 8mm camera follows the band of lollygaggers with warm familiarity as they hurry to nowhere with their motorcycle and their football, waxing on about the 1998 World Cup, lost loves, and brotherhood.
When I sat down for a zoom call with three members of the quartet, Daniell, Douglas, and Untenberg, it quickly became clear that Windmill is one of those special pieces of art that hid from its creators until the very end of its production. In fact, up until the premiere screening at Arroz Studios on April 2nd, Daniell was the only member of the core crew who had seen the finished piece.
The journey that led the four filmmakers to their premiere was organic and gleefully unpredictable, two qualities that are well reflected in their film.
The duology of The Valley of the Cats and The Windmill of Death had its genesis in the wide-open space and time of Portugal’s first COVID-19 lockdown in March of 2020. Daniell, Douglas, and Treppo escaped Lisbon to a house in the hills of Sintra, and took advantage of the unprecedented suspension of the hustle-and-bustle of the real world to pursue some creative projects that had been on the backburner. One such project, born from Daniell’s desire to make a film, paired with musical ambitions shared by Treppo and Douglas, would grow from a few music videos and casual, cleverly staged interactions into the offbeat and endearing hangout film, The Valley of the Cats, that was quietly uploaded to Vimeo in August 2020, and later released on YouTube through NoBudge.
Untenberg, after watching Valley from his home in Austria, got the Windmill ball rolling by pitching the idea of continuing the story of the wandering brothers. With no destination in mind, they decided to continue the journey.
By July 2021, the gang of four were gathered in Sintra, with just five days to film before Untenberg would have to fly back to Austria, and no script to speak of. In that short time, through experimentation and creative openness, the four friends managed to develop a piece of fiction that has its roots in the authenticity of the happy coincidences and unplanned events of the filming process.
Turning their desire for a sequel into a cohesive film was a matter of going with the flow and putting together the pieces as they revealed themselves. Daniell’s visions of the three heroes piled onto a motorbike half their size turned into a highlight of the film, a masterfully constructed and outrageously funny sequence filmed before the overarching story of Windmill was built around it. Many scenes of the film were written on the fly, just minutes before the camera started rolling. In what could be luck, pure artistic serendipity, or, more likely, a mixture of the two, the motorcycle scene and many of the other previously disjointed events and ideas fell neatly into place as filming went on.
The spontaneity of the writing process is handsomely complemented by the inventiveness of the practical production of the film. Working with an effectively nonexistent budget and no equipment apart from their trusty Sony Hi8 Handycam and an additional VIDEO8 camera, the team pulls off some impressively mature and put-together camerawork. While Daniell is officially credited as the director and lead filmmaker, Windmill is a team effort through and through. Special recognition must be given to Treppo, who, in addition to acting as the silent and shaken brother who goes by the name Squarehands, is responsible for making many of the more challenging shots and scenes possible. In Daniell’s words, Treppo “counts for quite a few people you would get on a film set… rolled into one.” Treppo’s practical ingenuity, with the help of Daneill’s eye and editing, elevates the limitations of their VHS cameras to a level of cinematic finesse rarely seen in independent, no-budget film. Visually, The Windmill of Death is a treat.
Windmill’s soundtrack enhances the effectiveness of its atmosphere even further, and largely consists of original pieces by Untenberg and Austrian band Flirtmachine that masterfully set the often surprising tone of the film.
While gentle and groovy tunes, complete with wandering guitars, drums, and keys, reflect the warm, lighthearted aspects of our adventurers and their shenanigans, pleasantly jarring, intense synths accentuate the surrealism of Windmill’s environments. Again, the beauty of experimentation shines in the sounds of Windmill. With few guidelines to work off of, Flirtmachine and Renato Untenberg created a soundscape that feels inherent and inseparable from the rest of the film.
Reflecting on the experience, Untenberg said, “we didn’t really have a plan, but just an idea, a feeling for something we wanted to do.” The range and diversity of Flirtmachine and Untenberg’s musical prowess is the perfect fit for a film that denies the limitations of genre.
The wondrous marriage of Windmill’s inventive filming techniques and engrossing soundscapes is perhaps best displayed during a scene near the middle of the film, when our heroes take a dip in a seemingly abandoned pool. The camera joins them underneath the surface of the water and follows as they throw themselves around, countless minuscule air bubbles flying every which way. The grain of the HI8 camera softens this murky aquatic scene, and little rips in reality are expressed with characteristically clever editing. A particularly beautiful composition of airy synths patiently layered on top of each other, the work of Camila de Laborde, permeates the scene from above, below, and all around, and amplifies even further the subtle sense of otherworldliness that is so snugly tucked into various aspects of Windmill.
The Windmill of Death is a reminder of what can be achieved when filmmaking is approached with genuine joy and a motivated sense of curiosity. Through the authenticity of their process, Daniell, Douglas, Untenberg, and Treppo have created a film with an equally authentic heart. The final product of their work and experimentation is an endearing look at the little moments and interactions that comprise the bonds of friendship and brotherhood, told through a clever lens of surrealism that never takes itself too seriously. As hilarious as it is heartfelt, as deceptively simple as it is imaginative, The Windmill of Death is well deserving of the roar of applause that erupted from the crowd when the credits rolled at the film’s premiere.
Watch the first film of the duology, The Valley of the Cats, here, and follow director George Daniell on Instagram at @georgedaniell_ for updates on further screenings of The Windmill Death, including a special screening in Sintra slated for May, and a forthcoming digital release date.