“Donovan’s job was death”

Frank Lebon discusses his new cinematic trailer about a freelance crime scene cleaner
By J.L. Sirisuk | Film+TV | 12 July 2021

“Donovan’s job was death,” reads Matthew Bremner. With his non-fiction narrative, The Cleaner, investigative journalist Bremner and filmmaker Frank Lebon take us to Mexico City and examine the complexities of death while bringing life to the story of freelance crime scene cleaner Donovan Tavera. The story follows Donovan from case to case as he ruminates on life and the respect given to the dead during his clean-up jobs. He listens to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde en route to each scene – an operatic meditation on love and death and every sort of duality, then shifts to Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden. By cleaning every drop of blood, every remnant of violence that occurred to a life, he’s clearing a space of its phantom traumas. 

Complementing the piece is a short film by photographer-filmmaker Frank Lebon, whose work transcends traditional parameters. Running at nearly nine minutes, the film presents a haunting series of visuals – the streets of Mexico City, churches, blood, cemetery nightscapes, and Donovan himself as we hear voices of the city’s inhabitants sharing personal tales of death. The Cleaner is now available exclusively on the Alexander app, which brings together storytellers, actors and filmmakers/photographers to create an immersive experience around non-fiction stories. Below we speak to Lebon about his experience creating the film in Mexico City. 

J.L. Sirisuk: How did the connection between you and Matthew Bremner begin?
Frank Lebon: I’d heard of the Alexander app through my friend Hector who had put them on my radar after hearing about the feature Matthew was working on. He knew that I was working on a personal project about blood. I’d just ordered a microscope to start shooting some samples, so its subject matter instantly struck a chord. What I love about the story is that it resonates with the mild fetish I have for detective, film noir style stories and despite it being about crime-scene clean-up, it was about so much more than death. You end up romanticising Donovan’s story and when you talk to him he indulges, he reads Sherlock Holmes and when he talks about death it becomes a metaphysical discussion. Yet at the end of the day, he’s a cleaner. 

JLS: What provoked you to want to contribute the visual elements?
FL: I didn’t want to get caught up in the narrative, for me it was more about the subtext to the story as a whole. Initially, when you read something like what Matthew wrote, you picture these scenes and you think, “My god, we can shoot this in an interesting way,” but the reason I wanted to get on board was because I knew it talked about something larger. Mexico has a huge tradition with death, it’s part of their culture in a nuanced way and interviewing people who work in the industry of death held a particular fascination that yielded a new perspective. 

GALLERYStills from 'The Cleaner' by Frank Lebon

Looking at the people who work in the industry of death opened my eyes to the mundane, everydayness of it.”

JLS: People have thought about death and mortality more than usual during these times. In terms of Matthew’s piece and Donovan’s views on death, did anything within you shift – did it affect your views?
FL: Obviously this subject matter is really heavy. Sometimes when you’re working on something like this, you try to force a change to arrive at a moment of realisation. I met with a producer while we were out and he told me the story of his childhood best friend who shot himself in the head with a shotgun and his mom asked him to come clean it up. It was interesting to hear people’s stories confronting death, loss, grief but the emotional climax of the film for me was when my dad and I listed all the names of people who have died who were close to us at the end of the film.

What I realised through the shooting and editing of the film was how therapeutic it was to talk about death so openly regardless of its proximity. As an English person, we normally don’t talk about death all too much, so it was definitely an excuse for dialogue. There was an emotional climax when we opened up about our experiences with death and then were brought back down when Donovan said, “It’s not my life. It’s my job.” While there was a sense of catharsis in confronting it, I realised there was also an extremely matter-of-fact way of looking at death. Looking at the people who work in the industry of death opened my eyes to the mundane, everydayness of it.

JLS: After your experience reading The Cleaner, what was it like to meet Donovan?
FL: He was so calm and collected. Kudos to Matthew for really capturing his character on the page because when I met him in person, it all made sense. From the original draft that Matthew sent me, I rewrote it into an internal monologue. The idea was to play with this cliché of a detective who has this rambling monologue at a crime scene on a dictaphone. I adapted it and tried to make it more poetic and abstract and when [Donovan] read it, it was this beautiful moment – he was shaking afterwards. He asked, “How do you guys know me so well? This is my head. What you got me to read is how my head works.” It felt like through writing and film, Matthew and I were able to perfectly convey Donovan’s inner feelings, and that meant a lot to me. 

JLS: What was the process like of putting this project together in Mexico?
FL: I wanted to approach this project as if it were a personal project in terms of the way I thought about it and shot it. We got in touch with the production company out there and didn’t have a plan until we were there. Me, my oldest friend who produces stuff for me, and my assistant went out there with a few cameras, the idea was to be super low key and nimble with a checklist of things we wanted to get. Usually I get really worried about planning but I know from experience that turning up to a country that I’ve never been to before is one of the most inspiring things to do and Mexico was somewhere I’d never been so I ran with the adrenaline.

I was motivated to shoot everything because I was seeing it with fresh eyes. It was a fluid experience to show up, observe and piece it all together spontaneously based on emotional resonance. When I returned to London to put the film together, I did so all by hand, piece by piece of the super-8 film. As I was doing this, I cut myself on the film and so there are blotches of red that appear on it. To further enhance these abstractions, we then attached my mini DV camera to a microscope and I shot some images of my friends’ blood on it and included that as well. It was interesting to see the shooting process migrate from Mexico to London, carrying with it these undertones of normalising what is normally thought of as morbid or taboo. 

What I love about the story is that it resonates with the mild fetish I have for detective, film noir style stories…”

JLS: You mention a fascination with blood and detective work, are there any works of literature that you particularly enjoy?
FL: There are countless murder mystery films that I love. One in particular I’m fond of is A Touch of Evil, which inspired a lot of the street scenes in The Cleaner in terms of how I wanted it to feel. I wanted there to be a real, visceral element to the city’s depiction. Another novel that I read as a child was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The main character reminds me of Donovan because it’s about this obsessive-compulsive teenager who solves a murder by using his compulsion disorder as a tool. 

JLS: Your film definitely adds another dimension to The Cleaner – it’s a perfect union.
FL: I liked Matthew’s feature so much because it really was a character study. My film hopefully ties that character study into a larger question for the audience to engage with deeper, and that leaves room for introspection. There are a few moments where Matthew gets a bit philosophical and I hope my film does something similar while making it more accessible to confront the existential. Both his story and my film should be able to exist as individual entities and can be appreciated for almost entirely different reasons, so together we’ve created a full-bodied experience through Alexander. 

Find more information about the Alexander app here.

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