Good Manners/Juliana Rojas

The story is simple: Clara is hired to nurse Anna through her pregnancy. They become lovers. When Anna dies in childbirth, Clara keeps the child and raises it as her own.The film itself is anything but simple, though. A mixture of horror, fantasy, fairy tale, and musical, it defies expectations and offers unlimited surprises. Click here for trailer. Availability: Opens New York City, July 27, IFC Center; LA, August 17, Laemmle Royal.  Thanks to Carlos A. Gutiérrez, Cinema Tropical, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: The film got its start when your codirector, Marco Dutra, had a  strange dream. How did you turn that dream into a film?

Clara cares for Anna.

Clara cares for Anna.

JR: His dream didn’t have a narrative, but it was a very strong situation that we found very attractive. It was about two women living in an isolated place and raising a monster child. We were really attracted to it both because of these two female characters who are resisting and protecting a creature from the world and also because this creature is half child and half monster. We thought those two parts coexisting in the same individual would be an interesting conflict.

From the start we wanted to make it a werewolf story. First, we really like the werewolf  tale. We studied it and know that it’s present in many cultures all over the world. In Brazil it’s very strong, especially in the countryside. Stories about werewolves are passed on for generations there. I have uncles who are farmers who used to tell me those stories. In Brazil, the curse of the werewolf is mixed with religion. Usually the reason why you become a werewolf is connected to some transgression you’ve committed against religious morality. You can become a werewolf if you’re not baptized or if you commit infidelity or if you commit incest or if you have relations with a priest, so we thought that was really interesting, and it made us think a lot about our country.

It’s also a very strong, touching tale because it talks about a creature that is half human and half animal. We all exist with a balance between our rational side and our instincts, because we need to live—we need our rationality to evolve and to live in society—but we also need our instincts because they’re our passion and make us want to stay alive and to love and to protect.

We started to build the whole film with this idea of contrasts between two parts. The narrative itself has two parts. We created a São Paulo that is kind of stylized but shows the social differences and the racial issues that are connected to those social differences. We also see two sides of motherhood, both biological motherhood and adoptive motherhood. We tried to see the doubles in all the layers of the film.

 

DT: Like many fairy tales, this story uses those social issues as subtext. How did you use filmic elements—story, script, music, set design—to convey the elements of class, desire, loneliness?

Clara's neighborhood in Sao Paulo.

Clara’s neighborhood in Sao Paulo.

 

 

 

JR: We really wanted to make a fairy tale in São Paulo that had a balance between a magical, supernatural side and the realistic presence of the city, as well as those geographical sociopolitical issues, so for us it was very delicate, especially in the way we portrayed the landscapes. We used a technique called matte painting. We painted over a shot that we’d already filmed to give an artificial aspect but still respecting what was strong about the real part of the city.

Matte painting.

Matte painting.

Thinking about two parts, we tried to build the production design, use of colors, and score to develop in a way that each part would have its identity but also would have elements of dialogue between one another. The first part, in the rich neighborhood where Anna lives, is like the castle in the fairy tale. It was cold, they have less human contact, it’s mostly just the two women in the whole first part. There’s a more restricted use of colors. There isn’t much nature, it’s more electronics and devices. The second part is like the woods in the fairy tale, or the village. In the second part we tried to have more colors and more life and more sounds and more interaction with other characters to have a sense of community. We tried to build the city in a kind of allegorical way but maintain its geographical social issues.

 

DT: In American horror films, the horror element is the focus of the film. In this film, it’s much more natural and organic to the rest of the action. When Dona Amelia discovers that Joel is a werewolf, she’s not alarmed—she just says, “I’m calling a priest.”

JR: Although we have realistic references, this film is a fantasy world, where the characters are more willing to accept things. It’s a fairy tale in São Paulo, so because it’s a fairy tale, there’s more flexibility about reason. When you do a very naturalistic film, you’re stuck to rationality. In this film, we are more in the between: between rationality and dream and fantasy. That’s what allows the film to travel to different genres, because not only do we have horror elements but we also have musical elements and comedy elements, so it was important to have that freedom.

 

DT: Is that that acceptance of the fantasy element also an aspect of Brazilian culture? Is there a touch of magical realism?

JR: We don’t have much of that in film or television, although in cinema novo they play with baroque, which is also a kind of genre and a kind of fantasy. There’s a lot of freedom in that. Our folklore is very strong, and Brazil is a very big country. We have many different regions that have their own folklore, so I think that affects us.

 

DT: Your answer to my previous question made me think of Jacques Demy. Was he a reference for this film?

JR: Yes. He was not the main reference, but we talked about him—not only Umbrellas of Cherbourg but another one called Donkey Skin, with Catherine Deneuve transformed into a donkey. It’s a really interesting film and also very free, because it’s like a fairy tale but also has a lot of humor. We talked a lot about that film.

 

DT: That’s precisely the film I was thinking of. Your film uses a lot of music; does the song in the music box have any particular significance?

Clara cares for Joel.

Clara cares for Joel.

JR: It’s an original song. Marco and I wrote the lyrics, and Marco wrote the music. It was also sung in the first versions of the script. It’s a lullaby from Anna’s childhood, but as the film goes on it becomes Clara’s lullaby to Joel. When we were writing, we thought to bring those elements so that it would have meaning for both Anna and Clara. For Anna, we tried to write the lyrics for a mother singing to child, but we also included nonhuman mothers, like many kinds of animals. This is a reminder from the countryside, because Anna talks about the little horse. That has strong significance for Anna, but it’s also a mother singing to a child about freedom, so that was important from the point of view of Clara singing to Joel.

One of our inspirations is the song “Baby Mine” from  Dumbo. Dumbo’s mother is locked in a cage. She tried to defend Dumbo from being mocked, and the people from the circus thought she was crazy, so they locked her up. Dumbo goes to her cage in the middle of the night to try to see her, but he can’t get in. He puts his trunk in the cage, and she touches it with her trunk and sings that song. It’s very beautiful, and all the other animals of the circus really love it. That was our inspiration.

Joel.

Joel.

DT: The production design and cinematography were fantastic. Can you talk about working with your DP and set designer?

JR: We worked really closely with our cinematographer,  Rui Poças [who recently shot Zama], and Fernando Zuccolotto, the set designer, because we wanted to make a fantastic universe. For us it was very important to create the rules: which colors we could use; what the references for that universe would be; how could we balance horror with fantasy and fairy tale? We talked a lot about color palette. One of our interests was the work of Mary Blair, who did a lot of illustrations and set design for Disney. We talked about how she used colors and how she used different layers to create a set. We talked a lot about other Disney works, especially Sleeping Beauty, the use of color and lighting and shadows to create horror. We talked a lot about Jacques Tourneur, especially Cat People and I Walk With a Zombie and how he used shadow in a very dramatic way, as well as  offscreen sounds and offscreen atmosphere to create tension.

We also spent a lot of time discussing Night of the Hunter. It’s a very theatrical film, and it’s very interesting. It’s also like a dark fairy tale,with two children in danger. The director [Charles Laughton!] uses shadows and different dramatic layers to create that atmosphere. Marco and Julian and Fernando and I shared a lot of references. Both Julian and Fernando are very connected with the dramaturgy—what’s happening in the scene, and what emotion we need to pass on in the scene. It was also very important to choose the way we were shooting and which lens was appropriate for each shot. It was very collaborative work with both of them.

 

DT: In another interview, you said you like the element of surprise. Hitchcock famously described the difference between surprise and suspense. Why do you like surprise, and how did you achieve it in this film?

JR: Maybe I like surprise because I’ve seen a lot of films, and it gives me a lot of pleasure when I see a story and don’t know where it’s going to take me. It’s very good to feel out of control, like you don’t know what’s going to happen and suddenly you think it’s going in a certain way and then it goes in another. I’m not only talking about plot; I’m also talking mood and rhythm. I also like films that make me think about them after they’re finished, like they didn’t give me exactly what I wanted. It’s good that you don’t get all you want and that the film also has space for the audience to project and understand things. It’s important to have that relationship between the movie and the spectator. I’m excited by that, so we tried to do that. When we were creating the film, we tried to make a film that we would like to watch, a film that would give us the most pleasure.

 

DT: So you’re not talking about the kind of surprise where someone pops out of a dark corner and scares you.

JR: No, no, it’s more about you thinking this is going to be a certain kind of film and then it’s a different kind and out of your comfort zone. Something you can’t quite classify or put a label on. I like that.

 

DT: You and Marco have collaborated on a number of short films, and this is the second feature you’ve done together. Why do you like collaborating, and what does it bring to the mix?

JR: Marco and I met in the first year of film school, when we were really young. I was seventeen, he was eighteen. We’ve been friends for almost twenty years now. It’s a very interesting friendship. We first got together because we both like the same kinds of films. After school we would go to the cinema or rent some horror films. We also really liked musicals. In school we also learned a lot about cinema together, both theory and in practice by making our first films and our first narratives. That’s a really strong bond, and we have a lot of synchrony because of that.

Of course we’ve changed over the years. We’ve gotten more mature, and now we have tastes of our own, different tastes, but it’s still really important to have that kind of connection to someone. We talk a lot about what we want to do and how we’re going to develop the story. We don’t divide functions—we do everything together, from the writing to postproduction. Sometimes we disagree, but when we do, we talk until we find a solution that suits both of us. That makes us go to places we would never have gone if we’d been alone, so that’s really interesting to be challenged by the other and to be taken to other places. We support each other when we want to do things that are risky and crazy, like doing the songs in the middle of the film. It’s really important to have that support and to have someone share your excitement and your doubts. We want to continue doing the partnership, but we also have to work alone. That doesn’t interfere. Sometimes we do things alone, and sometimes we do things together, and it’s really good.

 

DT: Is there anything you want to add?

JR: I hope people are open to the film and have fun watching it. I’m curious to see how the American public is going to react.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2018

What Will People Say/Iram Haq

Nisha lives with her family in Norway, where she was born.  Her parents are Indian immigrants from Pakistan. When Nisha inevitably breaks her family’s rigid taboos, she is brutally abducted and sent to the “home country.” Reflecting writer/director Iram Haq’s personal story, What Will People Say unflinchingly lays bare the violence engendered by fear and isolation. Availability: Opens New York City, July 13, IFC Center, L.A. August 3 with national rollout to follow. Click here for the trailer. Thanks to Sara Sampson and David Ninh, Kino Lorber, for arranging this interview.

DT: Much of this film is autobiographical. Can you talk about the process of turning your own life experience into a piece of art.

IH: This was a story I wanted to tell for many years, because I experienced this when I was fourteen. It’s not one-to-one my story—it’s fictionalized. I wanted to tell this story, but I didn’t know how to tell it. I knew that I needed to be braver than I was, and I knew that I wanted to tell it in my way. I used up many years to adjust it, and it took a long while before I started to write it. That was also a journey, because one of the earliest drafts was really black-and-white. It was an angry young woman who wrote this story. I had to keep working on it because I wanted to tell it also from the father’s point of view. I wanted to understand the father.

Adil Hussain as the father.

Adil Hussain as the father.

I was not very close to my family, but while I was writing this, my father became ill. He had ten months more to live. I went to visit him in the hospital, and he said he was sorry for everything he did.

DT: Unprovoked?

IH: I didn’t say anything. He just said, “I’m sorry for everything.” It changed my script. It changed me a lot. I got the chance to be very, very close to him and also learn who he was, why he did the things he did when I was young. We started a friendship, and I asked him questions about why he did these things to me.

He was so full of fear. He was an immigrant, he was not integrated into the society, because he came from Pakistan, he had to work and send money back home, and take care of the family. He never had the chance to integrate, and that’s why he found my lifestyle very scary. I was rushing into a new world, into Western society, as a young girl. He comes from a very conservative family, so I think it was a big surprise for him—not surprise, but he was full of fear—and he handled the whole situation really badly.

I also had an ethical problem. How could I make this movie now, because we were becoming good friends. I asked him, “What do you think? I want to make this film.” And he said, “Yeah, I think it’s so important that you make this movie. I think it’s so important that you tell people how evil people can be when they are full of fear.”  That really helped me get the courage to tell it and also to change the script so we have love for both characters [Nisha, Iram’s alter ego, and the father].

 

DT: I had a long discussion with a film school friend about the final shot. You’ve made two very successful features now; how do you arrive at your final shot?

IH: I wrote both features by myself. I know more or less where it’s going to end, but it’s also a process on the other side, because you don’t know exactly how it’s going to end. You have an idea where this film is going to stop. For me it’s important to have a good idea what the end will be like, but not to the point where you see the shot. I was not so aware of it before getting close to the end of shooting, and the editing process changes it a little too.

 

SPOILER ALERT

DT: For me, the final shot of this film radically changes its meaning, because it becomes the father’s film; this has enormous significance in terms of the possibility of personal and cultural change.

IH: He sees himself in the reflection. We already saw her little sister, who was watching her big sister leave, and the next one is going to be her. The father sees his daughter, their eyes meet, he sets her free, and he also sees himself in the reflection; it’s he who has to work on himself, it’s not the girl, and it also gives hope for the younger sister.

END OF SPOILER ALERT

 

DT: In some ways, growing up as the daughter of Pakistani immigrants in Norway gave you an outsider’s perspective. What did that allow you to see about both cultures that you were occupying—the Pakistani and the Norwegian?

Maria Mozhdah as Nisha, writer/director Iram Haq's filmic counterpart.

Maria Mozhdah as Nisha, writer/director Iram Haq’s filmic counterpart.

IH: Dealing with it is always a delicate matter, because I’m telling one story, I’m not telling everybody’s story. The good thing is that I have the inside view from both cultures. For this problem, which is about social control—how we control our youth, especially girls with an immigrant background from a Pakistani family, for example—the Norwegians don’t know what’s going on in these kinds of families. In the film you see that the social workers don’t know how to handle it. They can see this is a problem, and they don’t know what to do. That’s something I can show because I know how the Norwegian social workers work. I also have the insight of the mentality and way of thinking of the Pakistanis, so I feel very lucky, kind of rich, because I have two cultures which I understand pretty well.

 

DT: There was that marvelous moment in the film when Nisha, the character representing you, says, “I’m here to explore my parents’ culture,” and her little cousin says, “Your culture.” To what extent did Pakistani culture become your culture after your year in Pakistan?

Nisha with her cousins in Pakistan. copyright_Mer_Film

Nisha with her cousins in Pakistan.
copyright_Mer_Film

IH: That year really changed my life in so many ways. I grew up so quickly; it was like taking away my childhood. You have to be grown up because nobody is there for you. You have to learn this society, the language, how to read and write, to handle situations. Coming back to Norway, it was also very hard to find my place. To have two identities was very hard, because for many years I tried to not have anything to do with the Pakistani part of me. I’m Norwegian, I just have black hair; my parents are Pakistani but I have nothing to do with it. But the older I get the more aware of it I am, because sometimes it’s the Pakistani music or food I feel more connected to. I know now that I can choose from both cultures, but when I was younger I had to choose: either/or. I couldn’t have both. I was frozen out of the Pakistani community in Norway, so I had to think I was totally Norwegian, because there was no choice; I just had Norwegian to choose. But today, as a grown-up woman, I can choose both as much as I want.

 

DT: Why were you frozen out of the Pakistani community?

IH: When I was a teenager I left my family, as in the movie. Everybody froze me out, so I had to just accept that and choose the other option, which was Norwegian. That was very hard when I was young and really hard to find my identity. Who am I? I look different. My behavior is different. I was really looking for something.  didn’t know what it was, but today things are more balanced.

 

DT: Did your year in Pakistan give you insight into what it means to be an immigrant?

Nisha's year in Pakistan.

Nisha’s year in Pakistan.

IH: In a way, but for me it was more like looking at my parents than looking at myself in Pakistan. I really felt sorry for my father, for example, who was really not good at being part of Norwegian society. I could really see how much of a struggle it was for them to fit in a society where there was no one like them. Of course we had the Pakistani community, but we were not really a part of the bigger society, and that made the world very small for my family. I didn’t want to be a part of that. I wanted to be a part of normal Norwegian society. I was born there, I speak the language fluently, I have Norwegian friends. I didn’t want to keep myself just with them [the family], because they were afraid of the difference.

 

DT: From your firsthand experience, how possible do you think it is in the world today, where things are becoming more integrated in some ways but in some ways more fascist, to both assimilate and maintain your own community at the same time?

IH: I hope it’s possible to keep the culture you come from and integrate into the society you’re living in. I think there are people who can do that, but for my family it was very, very hard to be both, as I saw it. Maybe not for other people, but my family was different: They were not typical Pakistanis either because they were Indian immigrants from Pakistan, with slightly different behavior from the Pakistanis. So we were also outcasts between them. But the problems I experienced were not unusual…this is a problem we have in Scandinavia and many Western countries, where Pakistani girls and girls from other countries get kidnapped or killed by their families. This doesn’t happens in the US, but this happens in Europe.

 

DT: The cliff scene was one of the most shocking and brutal I’ve ever seen. What was it like for your actors?

The cliff scene.

The cliff scene.

IH: I wrote that scene on Christmas Eve. The young girl who plays Nisha [Maria Mozhdah] played in some small TV serials when she was ten, but this was her first film. She was seventeen when we shot, and we worked very, very closely. She’s lovely. The actor who plays the father [Adil Hussain] is a famous Indian actor. My work was to give them not just the idea but all my emotions around those kinds of situations. But of course it was really hard for them to make that scene. There were several scenes that were hard to do, for example when the father had to spit on Nisha’s face, and the police scene of course. It was really, really emotionally hard for him, really hard for her as well, but they were brilliant and we were all so close, so it went really well.

 

DT: You’ve been a writer, director, and actor. Does working on certain films change you as a person?

IH: For me it was weird. It was like opening Pandora’s box to start to look at all the emotions and what happened to me, which I hadn’t been thinking about much all those years. Even though I knew I wanted to make this movie, I didn’t want to open up and look at what happened when I was young. I tried to give the script away. I wanted someone else to write it for me because it was so hard. I ended up writing it for myself because I didn’t find the right writer. At the beginning I just wanted to throw up, and then slowly the script started to change and got a fictionalized feeling. That helped, but scenes like when she’s with the father on the cliff, when he cried, I cried behind the monitor. It was emotional for me to see and understand her emotions and my father’s emotions and what I went through. Suddenly I could see my life from outside. It gave me some new ideas; of course it’s too early to say how I’ve changed, because we released the film last year, but definitely it made some changes in my life. Telling this story is also something like a closure, because there were so many years that I didn’t talk about it. Not because I didn’t want to talk about it—I just kind of forgot that I was kidnapped. Once in a while people are surprised, because they didn’t know anything about my background. Many people thought I was adopted. It was really interesting to dig deep into my own issues, why I had those issues, and how they’re linked to what happened at that time. Those things got more clear.

 

DT: One thing that struck me is how weak the men are.

Nisha and her cousin.

Nisha and her cousin.

IH: The men are weak but the women are also socially controlling. The girls, the mother, the aunt, it’s a cultural problem too. They’re full of violence as well, so it’s not just the men. They all are part of it: it’s as if someone else is handling them like marionettes, making them do things. The brother understands Nisha in a way, but he is so into pleasing his father and mother that he doesn’t care about her.

 

DT: The most shocking was the cousin in Pakistan, who was asked if he wants to marry Nisha after the event with the police and he says, “I’ll do whatever you want.”

IH: You believe that these men are so macho, so strong, but it’s not necessarily like this. In my experience I have seen many Pakistani men being more weak than the women, who can be so strong.

 

DT: What do you want audiences to take away from this film?

IH: I really hope that people will not see it as a black-and-white story, that they’ll also see that everyone is in a jail here—the father, the brother, the mother, the little sister, and Nisha. They all are into What Will People Say. They’re in a jail, all of them. I want people to see the struggle, what’s happening, and also I want audiences not to close their eyes if they know, if they have any idea about someone else experiencing this kind of problem. Try to care.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2018

Boundaries/Shana Feste

 Through iconic, larger-than-life characters—types rather than real people—the great comedies from the ’40s offered poignant insights into the human condition. Shana Feste’s Boundaries delivers the same kind of insights with the same kind of icons, but what makes the film remarkable is that these icons come straight out of  real life: writer/director Shana Feste’s real life. Christopher Plummer is more magnificent than ever as Shana’s dope-dealing, freewheeling, deadbeat dad; Vera Farmiga is sometimes heartbreaking and always beautiful as Shana Feste herself; and Kristen Schaal is wacky and wonderful as Shana’s sister. With Peter Fonda, Christopher Lloyd, and Lewis MacDougall. The difference between Boundaries and other contemporary comedies is subtle, but its effect is real and bountiful. •Availability: Opens New York and LA, June 22. Click here for trailer and theater listings. Thanks to Gary Springer, Springer Associates PR, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: In comedies from the ’40s, like You Can’t Take It With You, Sullivan’s Travels, Shop Around the Corner, the characters are more like icons than people from real life, but at the same time, these films say an enormous amount about the human condition. I was wondering if those comedies served as a model for your film.

Left to right: Christopher Plummer as Jack and Lewis MacDougall as Henry Photo by Lindsay Elliott, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: Christopher Plummer as Jack and Lewis MacDougall as Henry
Photo by Lindsay Elliott, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

SF: The truth is those characters were all real characters. They weren’t larger than life to me. That was my father [played by Christopher Plummer]. I really wrote him. That is his dialogue. That is how he speaks, that is how he acts. My sister [played by Kristen Schaal]—if you go to her house, you will see a framed picture of a momma dog with her pup crossing a stream. Jed [played by Halldor Bjarnason] is a real-life character. I probably exaggerated myself [played by Vera Farmiga] the most, because when you write yourself you’re usually the most boring character on the screen. I’m a total recluse and I’m happy never talking to anybody; I don’t really make the best protagonist, so I take the most liberties with myself. But about what you said at the end: I hope my film says something larger about forgiveness and seeing your parent for who they really are and what that journey is, ultimately not with a happy hopeful ending but an ending of honesty, where I can say, OK, I don’t know where this is going to go. I see you now for who you are, I’ve accepted that, and who knows where we go from here.

 

DT: The sequence of faces at the end was an interesting choice.

SF: It started because we were thinking about how to open the movie. I thought I’d love to do some animal portraits and show these funky-looking animals that are all flawed—that are missing something that would make them cuter, whether it’s an ear, fur, an eye—and shoot a really beautiful portrait of them and try to capture their essence, and that’s how I’ll start the film. Once I shot those portraits, Sara Mishara, who’s our DP, and I fell in love with them, and we said, what if we shot portraits of the other characters in the movie and bookended it? Originally we were going to bookend it with all of Henry’s new friends at school, so we shot portraits of all of these misfit kids who were really beautiful. But then we started shooting portraits of our main characters. Sometimes I would take six or seven minutes with a camera on them and just wait until I got that one moment when I thought, That’s you. Sometimes I would talk and ask questions, otherwise I’d just shoot and they would do whatever they were doing and I would wait until I got that moment.

 

DT: We always prioritize everything we do—that’s just life. Does working with such great actors affect your priorities on set? In other words, do you shoot differently when you’re working with actors of that caliber?

SF: When you’re working with actors of this caliber, your direction has to be totally articulate. If you’re being sloppy, and you haven’t really thought out the scene and you just say, “OK, I guess I want it to be funny, so what would be funny, let’s do this scene as if you’re punishing her,” Christopher Plummer will punish her. He will get that exactly right. So if you haven’t totally thought about your direction, you’re not going to get what you want, because he can play anything and the slightest adjustment is a huge difference in his performance. So maybe you thought about punishing her but he’s really punishing her and it’s really intense and it’s not funny at all. So maybe I’ll say, “Let’s try and make her feel guilty.” Then he makes her feel guilty and that’s not funny enough, maybe it’s hitting too close to home. Every direction has to be completely thought out with actors like Chris and Vera.

 

Left to right: Christopher Plummer as Jack and Peter Fonda as Joey Photo by Lindsay Elliott, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: Christopher Plummer as Jack and Peter Fonda as Joey
Photo by Lindsay Elliott, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

DT: The scene with Christopher Plummer and Peter Fonda was hysterical. Was it improvised at all?

SF: When we first shot that scene it was about ten minutes. They were goofing off, they were ad libbing, they were laughing, having fun. I thought, This movie is only an hour and a half, I cannot be in this room for ten minutes, as amazing as it was to watch these two icons in this scene together. So we kept making adjustments to pick up the pace and take out some of the improvisation, leave some of it in. I would have been happy with a ten-minute scene, because just watching them work was all kind of magic to me.

DT: Sure.

SF: They had a real chemistry, they had a real bond. They were friends before we made this picture, so they had this natural ease. When Peter Fonda answered the door and embraced Christopher Plummer, I thought, My God, Peter Fonda’s either an amazing actor or they really genuinely like each other. It was a little bit of both.

 

DT: Talk a little more about working with the actors, because the acting was huge.

SF: That’s what excites me as a director, because I’m a writer. I write roles that I think actors are going to want to play and that can attract the best actors. When I get on set, sometimes it’s difficult for me to even see anything besides the actors, because that is why I do what I do. I love working with actors, so when I have Chris [Plummer] and Vera [Farmiga] and Lewis [MacDougall] and Peter [Fonda] I could spend hours directing them and not thinking about anything else—where the camera is, what they’re wearing.

I think that one of my biggest challenges as a director is to force myself to see the big picture and get out of my utopia of my actors’ world. But with this film it was fun again; it was really fun to see how much the scene could change with different direction and with different blocking. I could have spent days shooting one scene with them, because every time we did it with the slightest adjustment it would mean something completely different. I was constantly being surprised by their choices, so creating a space for actors to play like that, especially when every one of them… It was like going to camp—guess who’s coming on Thursday, Bobby Carnavale! And Monday we’re going to meet Christopher Lloyd! It was such a gift for a director who loves working with actors, because literally every three days I got someone new that totally changed the energy of the set.

 

DT: I wonder if the vitality of the acting would have changed had you been more concerned about camera angles and setup.

SF: It’s my least favorite part of the job anyways, so that’s why I always work with a DP I know I can trust and rely on. I say to my DPs upfront, “I’m going to get lost in the performances sometimes. That’s where I’m going to be, so I really need you to be my eyes.” We have a lot of discussions and prep about photography and ways we want to shoot, because once I get on set, they have to tear me away from the actors.

 

DT: That’s not a bad thing. As a writer/director, how does the director in you respond when the writing gets off course, when people start improvising and taking it in a direction you don’t want it to go?

Left to right: Kristen Schaal as Jojo and Vera Farmiga as Laura Photo by Lindsay Elliott, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: Kristen Schaal as Jojo and Vera Farmiga as Laura
Photo by Lindsay Elliott, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

SF: Sometimes it’s amazing. When Kristen Schaal starts to improv, I’m thinking, Keep going, because you make me sound like a comedy writer. She would take my material and make it a hundred times funnier. What was interesting was watching her and Christopher Plummer work together because Christopher Plummer is trained in the theater, so he sticks to the page, he sticks to the dialogue. He has every single line memorized, and he doesn’t do a lot of improvisation. Kristen Schaal is all improvisation, so having those two characters come together was very much like the real characters in real life, it was kind of hit and miss, but when they came together… There was a scene where they’re looking at that painting and Kristen Schall says—this was an improv line—“Guess how much I paid for this painting. You’ll never guess.” That wasn’t a line, that was improv, so Christopher Plummer wasn’t going to respond. She didn’t have the right line, so he just sat there. They all just sat there, and no one answered, which made her improv another line, which was “That’s right. It was free.” It was this perfect moment where these two different styles came up against each other and created something funny.

 

DT:  It’s hard to believe this was a fairly low-budget film. How did you make it look so good?

SF:   We shot in Vancouver. Everywhere you go there’s a film production shooting, so you’re thinking, Where am I going to find a location that’s not been overshot and seen in a million Canadian Hallmark movies? That’s where our production designer came in. He scoured Vancouver for locations we’d never seen before, like Stanley’s house, which was architecturally really interesting, with cool lines. Just finding these amazing locations made the budget seem much bigger.

Left to right: Vera Farmiga as Laura, Christopher Lloyd as Stanley and Lewis MacDougall as Henry Photo by Lindsay Elliott, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: Vera Farmiga as Laura, Christopher Lloyd as Stanley and Lewis
MacDougall as Henry
Photo by Lindsay Elliott, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

 

And shooting anamorphically. We shot with older lenses from the ’60s that gave it more of an appearance of film, because I wanted to shoot on film but obviously we couldn’t afford to do that. And then fighting for things that gave us a lot of production value: a lot of animals constantly, a lot of driving scenes, a lot of broken-down Rolls Royces, and a huge ensemble cast. It was a labor of love for a lot of people.

 

DT: Can you talk about the dangers of working with autobiographical material?

SF: There are some days I wish I’d gone a little deeper in this film, and I think that’s always a challenge. How deep can I go? How honest can I go? And am I really being honest? I wrote the first draft of the script and really thought it was OK. I wanted to make a movie about some anger I’m feeling toward my father, and I wrote the first draft of the script, and there was no anger. None of it. I was in such denial of my own anger that I couldn’t even put it on the page when I was trying to put it on the page. I think the danger is taking something that’s totally authentic and true to you and it ends up not being authentic because you’re scared of where the material might go. You’re scared of who’s going to watch it. I was scared of what my father would think when he watched the film, what my brothers would think, what my sister thought of the movie, how I would possibly be perceived. All of that fear is really hard. It gets in the way of writing honestly.

DT: That’s interesting, because that’s not how the film comes across.

SF: I hope not, but I can’t even watch it. I’ve never watched a film I’ve made. I always watch mistakes. It’s like watching yourself naked on the screen. I’ve had three children, so I can’t watch that, I can never watch that again. I just see all the things I should have done differently whenever I watch a movie afterwards.

 

DT: How cathartic can art ultimately be?

SF: I think that’s why I’m a screenwriter, because anyone with a childhood trauma can rewrite their own happy endings. My first film was about grief [The Greatest]. My father lost a child before I was born. It would have been my brother Mark. He talked about it one time on one road trip with me. He told me, “You would have had a brother.” He told me how he died; I’m 42, and he never mentioned it again, never spoke about it. So my first film was about the death of a son, it was all about grief. Every single member of the family was talking about it. They had open discussions about it. It was a way for me to explore what it was like to grow up with a grieving parent. So for me writing is incredibly cathartic because I get to work out so many of the things I’m going through at the moment. With Boundaries it was working with what it was like to be a misfit growing up and what it was like to feel like you didn’t belong, and how hard it is to come to terms with your own anger as a woman, because I have such a resistance to anger in my own life. It’s really hard for me to get in touch with, and this film was a real exercise—a cathartic exercise— in how to embrace my own anger, just like I embrace all my other emotions.

 

DT: Ultimately your character was successful, the same way you’re successful. So is the anger getting lost, is the anger being sublimated? Where is the anger? That’s what struck me about the film: there was so little anger in a situation that should have been enraging.

SF: Sometimes I think maybe there should have been more. Maybe i should have… Maybe it wasn’t enough…  I wanted to make a movie where we could laugh about childhood trauma. Sometimes I feel like I should have erred more on the anger side, but ultimately the truth is, my dad did change, and as much as I never thought he would, ultimately he did change. He moved in with my family when he was sick, and he spent the last three years of his life with us, and I saw him parent my son in the way he probably should have parented me. He said to me—and I’ll never forget it—he said, “Bean, you didn’t get the father you deserved.”  Once he said that, that’s an anger melter. I just said OK. I think it’s the gaslighting, the thinking, not knowing if you deserve love or if you didn’t deserve love, or why they were gone, but when he actually took onus and said, “No it was me, you didn’t get the father you deserved,” it allowed me to completely forgive him.

 

Left to right: Lewis MacDougall as Henry and Vera Farmiga as Laura Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: Lewis MacDougall as Henry and Vera Farmiga as Laura
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

DT: What do you want audiences to take away from the film?

SF: The real reason I wrote it is that I was in the Lacy Street animal shelter, where I rescue animals, and I had just found a home for a pit bull, which are incredibly hard to place. I was coming back into the shelter, and I saw people turning in their family dogs, I saw abused animals, and I felt so overwhelmed. What I’m doing—and I think I’m doing a tremendous amount, because it’s taking up almost 75 percent of my life, rescuing animals two or three times a month—I’m doing this huge thing in my own life, it’s making a huge impact on me, and then I go to the shelters and I feel like it’s totally fruitless. It’s this ongoing problem. I thought, Is there a way I could incorporate this into my film and shine a bigger light on animal rescue? I really wanted this film at its heart to be about animals that really are incapable of hurting you, and to shine a light on something that’s so important in my own life, which is rescue. So what do I want people to take away from it? I would love people to be inspired to adopt a pet after watching this film. Nothing would make me happier. The highlight of my day is when I rescue a dog for someone and two years later they send me a picture of the dog having a good time. So nothing would make me happier than if I got a call and someone said, “I saw Boundaries and I went to the shelter and got this amazing ten-year-old cat.”

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2018

 

Summer 1993/Carla Simon

When Frida’s mom dies, the six-year-old has to leave her home in Barcelona to live with family in the Catalan countryside. This vivid tale of childhood grief, confusion, and, ultimately, joy is based on filmmaker Carla Simon’s own childhood memories.  The film is in the Catalan language and was released in Spain during the year that Catalonia declared its independence from Spain and Catalan president  Carles Puigdemont was forced to flee the country to avoid arrest. Such is the beauty of Summer 1993, however, that Spain chose it as its official entry to the Academy Awards.  Click here for trailer. Availability: New York City, May 25, at the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center, with national rollout to follow. Click here for screening schedule. Thanks to Susan Norget and Marija Silk, Susan Norget Film Promotion, for arranging this interview.

DT: You do a remarkable job of simultaneously capturing Frida’s character from the inside and the outside, showing the narrator’s point of view and the character’s point of view at the same time. Can you talk about that aspect of the film, especially in terms of the camera work?

Laia Arigas as Frida in Summer 1993.

Laia Arigas as Frida in Summer 1993.

CS: That was a discussion we had during the whole process, even from the script. At the beginning I had some scenes that Frida was not in, then we realized that if we wanted to see from her point of view, she had to be in all the scenes. I talked a lot about this with my DOP all through the shoot. Basically I told him that I think the film is about the girl and I really want to portray her point of view—that’s what I know best—but at the same time, what I discovered while writing the script was that the characters who surround her are very interesting and have feelings that I also wanted to portray. So each time we shot we would focus on the girl but also feel that if we wanted to go to another character, we would just go and show something about them. In the editing it was the same. We always had in mind that this is a story about Frida. All the closeups we took of her are in the film, but sometimes we had to give space to show how the other characters feel.

DT: There’s one shot in particular where you start on Frida and pan over to the statue she’s looking at. It was sort of an old-fashioned way of tracking her point of view.

CS: In terms of camera we decided to not be too intrusive and not think about very complicated choreographies with the girls. We wanted the camera adapted to them instead of them adapting to the camera, so to do that was to just almost put the camera in a corner and work from there. We realized that pans were very important, so in order to show that it was Frida’s point of view we eneded up doing a lot of this, just going from her to what she’s watching. We also had this idea of shooting with a long shot in the sense of being in the moment with this family, to just be with Frida but then show what she’s watching.

 

DT: Can you talk about working with child actors, specifically these two? Both of them were terrific.

Paula Robles as Anna and Laia Artigas as Frida in Summer 1993.

Paula Robles as Anna and Laia Artigas as Frida in Summer 1993.

CS: I love working with kids because it’s a game for them, so you enter this world and approach the filmmaking as a game. The first thing was to find the right girls. We looked for girls who would be like the characters in terms of personality, so we asked them a lot of personal questions to see how they were in life. This was interesting, because you can ask an adult to create the character, but for a kid that’s difficult. In the end, Laia [Artigas] has a lot of Frida, and Paula [Robles] has a lot of Anna. The combination between them was also important. We tried different pairs. The relationship that Paula and Laia created in a natural way was very similar to the one we’d scripted, so we were very happy with this. It was very useful.

Then we spent a lot of time together. Over two months we met often with the girls and the adults, and we improvised moments that happened before the summer of 1993 to create a shared memory between the girls and the characters so they’d lived something together. Sometimes I acted the mom. For example, the scene where Frida is imitating the mom;  I had done that before, smoking and saying, “I cannot play with you because I am too tired.” When we got to shooting the scene, I said to Laia, “Remember when I said, ‘I’m too tired’? Now you have to imitate me.” We did all that up until the moment that Frida finds out that her mom died and she’s going to live with her uncle.

Frida imitating her mom.

Frida imitating her mom.

We also spent a couple of weeks on location rehearsing specific scenes. We didn’t really talk about the script because the important thing was to create an intimacy between the actors and also to go through all the scenes for them to know what we’re going to do and for me to know how to get what I needed from them. The shoot was fast—six weeks, maximum eight hours per day. What I did was talk a lot with the girls during the takes; I would guide them, telling them what to do, then we took out my voice in postproduction. If I wanted them to say something very specific, I would just say it and they would repeat it, while there were some scenes where they have a bit more freedom and could just play it their way.

 

DT: There’s a lot of political stuff going on in your neighborhood. [N.B.: This interview was conducted in May 2018, seven months after the Catalan parliament declared independence from Spain on October 27, 2017. Spain’s senate imposed direct rule over the previously autonomous region, and Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia’s leader, fled Spain on charges of rebellion. Five months later, he was arrested in Germany. As of May 2018, Germany is seeking to extradite Puigdemont on lesser charges.] Did that affect distribution of your film?

CS: I think so. It’s been a crazy year because of all that was happening. We had the film in theaters, and it lasted forever—we released in June and it stayed in theaters until February, although not a lot of theaters. At some point we released the film just with subtitles, but when it was chosen to represent Spain for the Oscars, we dubbed it, so there were more theaters that played it. It’s not a political film; it’s very local, so people didn’t read it as a political film at all. It was beautiful that it was chosen specifically this year to represent Spain.

DT: It’s mind-blowing.

CS: It was like, Art is something else, it’s above all these problems, and the language to tell the story doesn’t matter if the story touches people. I was asked all the time, What’s your position? [on Catalan independence], and I thought, I don’t have to tell my position. I’m a filmmaker, and these are two different things. It’s been a crazy year. It’s still a crazy year.

 

DT: In the film there’s an underlying sense of danger and threat, but it’s balanced with the beauty of the surroundings and the beauty of the family. How did you go about building that balance? What did you focus on?

CS: Frida goes from living in the city to living in the middle of nature. This is beautiful and poetic and amazing, but it’s also a threat. She feels it like that. Sometimes it’s disgusting even, and she needs to get used to that, but it’s not so easy. This is something I remember very much—suddenly seeing all these animals and feeling a bit scared, so I wanted this to be present somehow. Frida has lots of fears; she can’t understand the situation she’s in, she doesn’t know how to manage her emotions, how to express her real feelings. And in the end, children are always surrounded by danger. Anything can happen to a child, but it usually doesn’t happen. I wanted to have this feeling that these girls are free to be the way they want but they are endangered somehow. To me this danger was interesting to have and to feel. Also, it holds the audience and keeps them engaged in the film.

 

DT: You studied film in California, London, and Barcelona. Did you find the approaches to cinema different in each city, or was it basically the same thing wherever you went?

CS:  It was different. When I decided I wanted to make films, I couldn’t afford film school, so I went to Barcelona to study for a degree in audiovisual communication. This was a very general degree: we did radio, TV, journalism, and a bit of cinema. I watched a lot of films, I learned a lot about films, but I didn’t really do anything. For me it was really life-changing when I spent the year in California. Suddenly I  realized it was possible, because you [Americans] have this energy that if you want to make films, you have to make films. That’s what I took from my experience in the United States. I came back and said, If I want to make films, I make films. That was very cool.

I felt I really needed to make more films and keep studying, so  I asked for a scholarship to go to London and study at the London Film School. For me it was a beautiful experience, because first of all it’s very multicultural. You have people from all over the world, and it really makes you ask, Who are you? What makes you special? What are your stories? I learned to give value to my family, to my place, I had a teacher who always said, You should start talking about what you know, and that’s why it was so important to me to make this film.

In London they are very critical. We used to have our shorts screened while we sat in front of everyone and a panel of experts gave us feedback. We couldn’t say anything, which was a bit difficult to take, but I really, really learned a lot.  I finished in 2014, which is when I started writing the script for Summer 1993.

 

DT: You’ve worked on TV shows, short films, and documentaries. How did those formats prepare you for this film?

Bruna Cusi as Marga and David Verdaguer as Esteve in Summer 1993, Carla Simon's autobiographical memoir.

Bruna Cusi as Marga and David Verdaguer as Esteve in Summer 1993, Carla Simon’s autobiographical memoir.

CS: In California we made a couple of short films that were very experimental, so when I  went to the TV show it was very interesting, because I focused more on the narrative, how to tell a story for the audience. I did a documentary at the London Film School about young people born with HIV. They didn’t want to show themselves, so we recorded voice interviews, then had actors miming their voices. It was strange, but it was a way to put bodies to the interviews. I learned that documentary is really, really creative and free. The approach to people was very useful for me, because in the end it’s the way I’m working now with film. I need to talk a lot to real people because I like this attachment to reality and to portray something that exists. This approach to people was very useful in terms of talking to my family for Summer 1993  and also for the project I’m writing now. I think it gave me tools in that sense.

 

DT: You created a group called Young for Film.

CS: That was in London. It was a very nice experience. I’ve been working with kids since I was a teenager. I missed that when I was in London, so a group of us from the London Film School created Young for Film to teach film to kids. The group dissolved when I came back to Spain, but now I’m teaching film to young people through a project called Cinema en Curs. It takes filmmakers  together with teachers from public primary and high schools, and we make short films and teach films, so I’m still doing that in another form.

 

DT: Is there anything you want to add—anything you want to say to your audience that you can’t say through the film?

CS: It sounds like a very dramatic plot, but the film is not dramatic. It’s life, I would say. For me it’s important that people come out with a feeling of valuing their own family relationships. You see a story where there is a group of people that have to construct a family, but we all have a family, we have a dad and mom, sisters, whatever, and we take it for granted. This is a story that shows you shouldn’t take it for granted and you have to give value to that.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2018

In the Last Days of the City/Tamer El Said

As the Arab world is poised on the brink of revolution, four friends from four cities—Cairo, Beirut, Baghdad, and Berlin—meet to help Khalid make a film about his beloved hometown. Through images that capture the essence of Cairo with exquisite sensitivity, Tamer El Said portrays a generation consumed by passion, self-doubt, despair, and a deep recognition of what they stand to both gain and lose. Click here for the trailer. Availability: New York City, April 27, at the Museum of Modern Art, with national rollout to follow. Thanks to Sylvia Savadjian for arranging this interview.

 

LastDaysofCity4_friends in car-640x480DT:  The way you captured the city of Cairo was fantastic, but beyond that, the images were incredibly beautiful in their own right. In the film, your characters talk about the act of shooting Cairo. What was your guiding principle in deciding what images to capture?

 

TES: I always find that when there is something in reality that is superstrong and intense and full of emotions and we try to capture it and put it on a big screen, we lose something. I wondered a lot about the process of capturing the image, because when we try to interfere too much, it changes the soul or the spirit of what we are trying to capture. Cairo is a very big city. It’s full of contradictions. It has its own rhythm—if you try to impose something on it, the city will reject it and won’t allow you to.

When I started to film Cairo, I was trying to take the lead, but soon enough I realized that this was not possible. I can’t make a city follow me, so the approach I took was to surrender to the city and allow it to take the upper hand and carry on. I was just there to see what the city gave me and try to build on it. It’s a very fine line, a very minor difference between following the city or making the city follow you, but it’s also a lesson about how you deal with your ego. Would you like to impose yourself on the city, or do you want the city to give you part of itself? If you want the city to give you its soul, you need to be patient and accept the rhythm that the city creates.

Basically the idea was to use the city as a backdrop without interfering at all, allowing the actors to be part of this scene and creating a room for improvisation and interaction that happens between the city and the actors, and to allow ourselves to have this freedom to dance with the city. I didn’t have an image in my head that I wanted to create. It’s about what the city proposed, and I built on it.

 

LastDaysofCity6_Khaled and old woman-640x480

DT: The demolition sequence in Alexandria was particularly moving. What did you want to achieve there?

TES: We live in this region where the meaning of loss is very special or very different in a way. When I was young, there was a very old bridge in Cairo that all of a sudden they decided to completely demolish. One day I was walking by this bridge and an old woman who was there asked me, “Do they really want to demolish this bridge?” When I said yes, she said, “But then what would I show to my grandsons when they grow up? On this bridge I met my husband, their grandfather.”

It’s not about the steel; they don’t allow her to keep this memory. It’s like hijacking the memory of this woman, and in a way it’s hijacking the collective memory of ourselves. And then the city itself is losing what gives it a certain character. For me this goes with everything. The film is about someone who is trying to be connected to his hometown, to his city. He starts to capture something, and the more he goes through his past, the more he realizes how he is a stranger in his hometown.

At one point he feels like even physically the city is demolishing. This is part of the overall feeling that we had back in those years, in 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009, when we were thinking something big was coming but didn’t know what it was exactly. You have very mixed feelings toward it because you feel we cannot carry on like this but you also don’t know what’s coming, and because you don’t know what’s coming, you’re also very scared of this thing happening. Because from one side it might become a new beginning, but from the other side it might take with it everything you love, and maybe it will bring something even worse. This is exactly what the film is about: what does it mean to feel that the world around you is changing and you don’t have a chance, you have nothing to do with it, and you only have a camera? How do you interact with this?

 

DT: You talk about the uncertainty of the future and its effect on the present, but you also feel the vast weight of history and its effect on the present. You essentially have the present being pulled from both sides.

TES: For sure. For me what makes Khaled a cinematic character is the fact that he has a very heavy past that he cannot carry on his shoulders anymore. He lives in a very suffocating present and cannot see a future. Every time he tries to find an exit for himself, it’s blocked, wherever he goes. This is also something related to my generation growing up in this part of the world. It took me a long time to understand that life is not like this. Why do we always have to pay this very high price of losing people we love, of always feeling threatened in our hometowns and feeling so connected and disconnected at the same time. This is something that comes from a very long history, which, on the individual level and on the collective level, is making our present very suffocating.

LastDaysofCity1_Kahled looking at Cairo-640x480

DT: In that sense is Khaled a metaphor for what’s happening in the Arab world today?

TES: Of course there’s a level of self-reflection, and when I’m saying self-reflection, the theme also includes all these questions about my role toward everything that is happening around me. What is my role as a filmmaker, and what is my role as a citizen? Also what is my role as someone who is part of the people who are making art in the bigger scene?

Khaled’s arc in the film is about him understanding that he himself is part of his problems. It’s also questioning his positions in many situations, his passive reactions toward many things around him. His incapacity to interfere with everything happening around him, like when he filmed the man beating the woman on the rooftop. It’s not only about domestic violence; there’s also a class issue here. He is able to film them because he’s living in his house and they live on the roof and he can see them from this high angle. There’s another question: Is he allowed to film them? And was it more important to film them or to interfere and stop this domestic violence from happening?

This happens in different places in the film, like when he sees the demonstrators but doesn’t attend the demonstration. All these things are also questioning our responsibility toward what’s happening around us. This is definitely a part of how I was thinking of the film.

 

DT: I loved the part about Abdel Halim Hafez, the famous Egyptian singer. What was that all about?

TES: It happened to me when I was a kid. My father was working on this radio program and one day he took me with him to the station. That day we met Abdel Halim Hafez in the elevator. It marked my life, of course, because he was a very famous star.

LastDaysofCity2_flower and lens in window-640x480At the time, there were no video cameras yet, so people either used super 8 cameras or made tape recordings to preserve their memories. While making the film, I found a tape from my childhood my father and I made the day we met Abdel Hafim Hafez, where my father was asking me, “What did we do today and who did we meet and where did we go?” I decided to use this tape, but redoing it with my actors, just to have his name in the film.

 

DT: The film took ten years to make. Why so long?

TES: There are many reasons. First of all, you have to confront the difficulty of making such a film in this region. There’s no infrastructure, and there’s no production model that allows such a film to be done. In a way the film had to build its own infrastructure and create a new production model that would allow us to do the film the way we wanted. When you ask, “Why so long?” I would say that over these ten years I was a filmmaker for only a few days. Most of this ten years was consumed, and taken, and spent with building up [a context that would] allow these few days to happen. Without building this infrastructure, without setting up the conditions that allowed us to make the film the way we wanted, it would have been impossible to make the film. This was a huge, huge, huge  battle that was bigger than the film. We did the film without having a reference to follow, creating a production model of the film while we were making the film itself, in every aspect of the production.

Second, the film was never clear on paper, and I’m sure you can understand why. Every time I tried to pitch the film to people, people were afraid of giving me money. I’m a first-time filmmaker and I produced the film myself, which is the most dangerous equation. Everybody was very skeptical about it. At one place, they said, “The only way we would finance this film is if this was your fourth film. How can we guarantee that you can deliver such a film that is not even clear on paper?” I didn’t have any proof that I could deliver, so raising the money to make this film was very difficult. We had to raise the money while we were making the film itself, so we had to film, stop, look for money, find some, film again, stop, look for money and find some. The same went for postproduction. So this mix between being a filmmaker and producer at the same time in a pretty independent film…

On another level, we didn’t want to make any compromises on our standards. We needed to make good sound, good image, good postproduction that allowed this image and sound to meld; on this level compromise was not really possible. In this film, which is about a big city like Cairo, the film has to stand as big as the city. That was another challenge that took a lot of time. I also wanted to work with people who could add something to the film, and that too was very difficult to find. My crew came from more than ten countries, without having any budget for them. When you look at the credits it seems like we had a big, big production, but actually the budget of the film was very, very, very small compared to similar films. So if you don’t have the money, then time is the price, because you have to do everything yourself or with very few people.

And then there was another thing. In the middle of this ten years there was a big revolution in my country, which changed the whole equation again. For example, I couldn’t work at all. I wanted to be part of this moment, not as a filmmaker but as a citizen. I thought, This doesn’t happen  every day that my home country is changing. I was so lucky to witness this in my life, and I wanted to be part of it. I’m a first-time filmmaker, I’m a first-time producer, and I made all the mistakes that you can imagine for a first-time filmmaker/producer, but that was also the only choice I had, because no one agreed to produce the film because no one believed I could deliver it.

 

DT: In the 1940s and 50s, Egyptian movies were the height of Arab cinema. What happened? Or to put it in other words, what is the state of Egyptian cinema today?

TES: To answer this question needs a thesis, but I will try to explain. What happened is basically that Egyptian cinema is a big industry, and because it’s a big industry it doesn’t accept any voice out of the mainstream, so this marginalized independent cinema doesn’t exist anymore. There is no infrastructure for it. Over the years, the state preferred to control everything, so there is no room for independent filmmaking to exist. The laws, the structure of the industry, and these big companies create a monopoly controlling the whole scene. Someone like me and a few others who are trying to make a cinema outside of this mainstream are not welcome. On any level.

At the same time, thanks to the new technology, this medium of filmmaking has become more democratized and allows many people to make their dreams come true and make new films. This is what happened with me and many others—we benefit from the new technology, which makes equipment cheap. This is not an easy option, because a lot of control comes from state censorship, which doesn’t allow us to feel things the way we do. This is a broader picture of how the situation is today. On the other side, I’m very optimistic about the future of Egyptian cinema because I can see a new generation of many filmmakers who have a very different approach to the reality of today. These filmmakers are increasing every day, and they find a way to support each other and make new films. They are making their films outside of the mainstream, and they don’t want to wait. They want to capture this reality in a different way and present it to the world, so I’m actually very optimistic.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2018

Zama/Lucrecia Martel

In Antonio Di Benedetto’s brilliant existential novel, the semi-aristocratic Don Diego de Zama is stationed in Asunción, now Paraguay’s capital but then a backwater of the Spanish Empire, as a functionary for the Spanish Crown. He dreams and plots for a better posting, where his family can join him. His fruitless efforts last more than a decade; in desperation, with the hopes of making his mark as a warrior and thereby earning the promotion he could not get as a functionary, he finally joins a posse in search of the bandit Vicuna Porto.  The novel is strange, mysterious, and illuminating. Lucrecia Martel’s film not only captures the essence of Di Benedetto’s masterwork; it goes one step further and crystallizes the novel’s capacity to confound and reveal at the very same time. Unlike other adaptations, this film cannot be separated from the book, not because it is dependent on the written words but because it reflects them back from a new angle. Both book and film must not be missed. Click here for trailer and screenings near you.   •Availability: Opens New York City April 13, Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center; Chicago, Gene Siskel Film Center.  Thanks to Courtney Ott, Cinetic Media, for arranging this interview. Thanks to Carlos Gutierrez for translating. A Strand Releasing film.

 

DT: I normally view books and films as totally independent entities, but I had a different experience with Zama. The book and the film are totally separate, but you and Di Benedetto seemed to me like a daughter and father working together on the family farm, side by side. Perhaps the daughter will plant a different crop, but she and her father are still tilling the same land. That being said, how did you translate the book into the film? More specifically, what was the conceptual process of imagining the film?

LM: The truth is, I probably would have said something different before making this film. When we talk about film and literature, we think about two completely separate entities. We see literature as impressionable characters and cinema as sound and images, but I learned through this process that there’s something very similar between the reader of literature and the screenwriter. When you read a novel, you’re submitted into a rhythm and an intensity that’s very similar to when you’re writing a screenplay. For me the distance is not that great, because basically what’s needed is a reader who gets affected by the text. It’s basically the same process.

 

Daniel Giménez Cacho in Zama (2017)

Daniel Giménez Cacho in Zama (2017)

 

DT: One of the outstanding features of the book was its “enigmatic temporality”—a phrase from Esther Allen, who translated Zama into English. How did you deal with the challenge of portraying ambiguous time in a medium that’s constantly in the present?

LM: That’s another myth about period films, because ultimately what is the time of the film? The book was written in 1957 and tells the story of the end of the 18th century, and it’s shot in the first decade of the 2000s. So what is the time of the film? I think it’s ultimately a mistake to think of the time of the film as one that’s set in the storyline. I experienced this as well.  I think the period piece is inevitably a film about the present. And there’s another idea, that the storyline gets confused with the film; the film is minimized to its plot and the time of the plot of the storyline.

 

DT: For Zama the character, time is interwoven with identity and place. Is that typical of Zama’s class?

LM: What the film narrates is an intimate drama of any bourgeoisie in Latin America, particularly today, particularly in Argentina. The drama of Zama is the drama of any petit bourgeois in Latin America. The impossibility of being in a place, being in internal transit.

DT: And what about identity?

LM: In terms of identity what interested me most about the novel is what one is forced to be by being someone. What we consider positive in terms of identity I see as something negative, actually. Being someone is actually a restriction of freedom. I thought the Internet would allow for that, for identity to thrive, but I think it was the opposite, it was a failure.

 

DT: The third challenge I saw with making the book into a film was dealing with Zama’s alternating hallucinations and sense of reality. As a filmmaker, what elements of the medium did you use to distinguish between his illusions and reality?

LM: For me that’s why the work with sound requires so much care, so much attention. The sound is what allows for the audience to be submerged in this state and not trust the images; it allows for the audience to see beyond the images. This sound immersion becomes very particular in allowing the viewer to see beyond the images by not confirming what you’re seeing with the images but taking a step forward.  It demands a very specific type of work. In cinema, Foley basically re-creates the sounds of what’s seen, but sadly most of what is done in sound design is done as Foley; sound designers make the sound of what’s being seen just to underline the images but not to create something different.

DT: Do you think that aspect of sound functions because sound works more unconsciously? People think about the images they see, but they have an unconscious or subconscious perception of the sound?

LM: I think there can only be unconscious perception of sound if sound does not reference what you see on screen. It’s a tough balancing act because you have to give audiences enough clues not to make it look like delirium but also enough things for them to not reference what’s onscreen. Sound is more savage, it’s less domesticated. Usually sound just makes a re-formation of the images. I think romantic comedies are the lowest genre because very few times they question reality, if ever.

 

DT: Di Benedetto wrote two screenplays. Did you watch the films or read the screenplays?

LM: No, unfortunately, no.

 

DT: In many ways, the film, like the book, is about nothingness. Nevertheless, it was completely gripping. How do you dissect nothingness to make something thrilling?

Daniel Giménez Cacho in Zama (2017)

Daniel Giménez Cacho in Zama (2017)

LM: I think the great malady of our time is believing entirely in plot, in storyline. Make believe that the storyline is everything, that the plot is everything. For me, identifying the plot with the film is exactly like not understanding the difference between a house and a home. One is the skeleton, the structure, but what gives content is something different, something completely else. So knowing that difference, that the film is not the plot itself, is key. People think it’s very difficult to make this kind of film, but it’s actually not more difficult or easier, it’s just a different system of beliefs, a different notion of time, a different notion of  cause and effect. With a timeline where there’s the future, the past, and the beginning, you have a construction that is so elementary it doesn’t allow us to talk about emotions.

DT: When I said nothing, I meant it in an existential sense.

LM: I understand the perception of nothingness, but I see the film as full of emotional moments. I don’t see the nothingness, I don’t think it actually exists. We’re just used to being taken by the hand everywhere—by the nose in this case. It’s like an amusement park, but in this particular case we arrived at the amusement park and the lights are out, so where are we heading?

 

DT: That’s a great image. You changed certain details in the book. For instance, at the end of the film, Zama is rescued by the Indian, not the blond boy. How did you decide which details to change, which to keep, which to throw away?

LM: The first things I took out were the dreams and the symbolic elements—for example, the blond kid. I used different kids, not one blond kid. Something I decided to keep was his attention to his desire, which he can’t complete, can’t accomplish. Another important thing I  kept was identity, particularly with Vicuna Porto; that he embodies evilness. For any government it’s easier that someone embodies evilness because that avoids critical thinking, it’s an easy way out.  In this country it’s very obvious, Trump is always creating enemies, Iranians and Koreans, creating this enemy as a way to avoid people.

 

Still from ZAMA (2017)

Still from ZAMA (2017)

DT: I thought the film was a tremendous translation of the book, but you even went one step further. You crystallized the essence of the book with Vicuna Porto. He’s this weird character—he’s like Puck, sometimes really evil, sometimes kind of funny—but there’s this moment where he’s completely honest and says to Zama, “You know where the cocos are, right?” It was as if all of the pretense and false identity and everything else fall away even though they are actually embodied in that moment, which wasn’t in the book. Was that intentional on your part?

LM: For me it was very important, toward the end, that it’s just an absurd preoccupation, someone who fervently believes in something that ultimately is absurd. I think that existential experience actually happens to all of us, that we’re always blind about something absurd, and moments like illness or the death of someone close makes us question why we have worked so hard to achieve so little, so it’s incredible that we can keep our lives going like this. Because it’s everyday life it’s hard to grasp those moments of questioning. Vicuna Porto makes precisely that point at the end:  he’s worrying about the coconuts. When I read the novel, I had this euphoria that I understood something about existence that I don’t know how to explain, but it was a moment of great happiness, with no reason or explanation. So years later, this is what I brought: this sense of euphoria.

 

DT: When Matheus Nachtergaele, who played Vicuna Porto, asked that question about the coconuts, did you as a filmmaker have a feeling of “Oh my God, I got it”?

LM: It’s very difficult to have that certainty when you’re in the middle of shooting, because those moments can be misleading. However, when Matheus was acting I knew we were going in the right direction. He’s a great actor. He looks a little bit like Jack Nicholson. Thank you for reading this wonderful book.

 

DT: It’s one of my favorites. Thank you for making this wonderful film.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2018

Foxtrot/Samuel Maoz (director) and Lior Ashkenazi (actor)

When Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) and Dafna (Sarah Adler) are told that their son has been killed in the line of duty, they separately descend into their own personal horror rather than face the trauma together. Director Samuel Maoz employs the never-ending circularity of the foxtrot as a metaphor, melding tragicomic surrealism, highly choreographed cinematography, and a remarkable performance from Lior Ashkenazi to convey the truth that our private lives are inseparable from our communal history.  To view the trailer, click here •Availability: Opens in New York and L.A. March 2.  Thank to Gary Springer, Springer Associates PR, for arranging this interview. 

Itay Exlroad as Dancer Solider Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Itay Exlroad as Dancer Solider
Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

 

DT: Samuel, your previous film Lebanon was shot entirely inside a tank. Needless to say, it was highly claustrophobic.  In Foxtrot, much of the film is shot in the desert, yet you managed to create that same feeling of claustrophobia, even though it takes place in the middle of these vast open spaces. How did you do that?

SM: We’re looking at one point at the end of the day. Usually in films you go from place to place, with many locations. The fact that with this film you’re stuck in the same point creates that feeling, I think.

LA: It’s the same as if you were in the middle of the sea. There’s nothing in the scenery…it’s all the same. You see sand. It’s open wide but without any details.

SM: It’s like being isolated.

LA: It’s like being on the sun or the moon. This is the claustrophobia. It’s not the same as claustrophobia in a small room, but wherever you look, you see the same, so in a way, there’s nowhere to run.

SM: There’s no way out.

LA: There’s no escape.

 

DT: The film reminded me of Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming:” “Things fall apart/the center does not hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” At the end of Foxtrot, I felt like we had arrived at the end of things, like there’s nowhere to go, there’s no possibility of moving forward from here.

LA: That’s the focus of what the film is talking about: that’s the foxtrot [dance]. You need someone from the outside to take you by the hand and take you out of this circle that repeats itself.

SM: For me the conclusion of the film is that fate cannot be changed, not because it’s divine but because of the nature of the Israeli traumatic man/woman who shaped the nature of the collective, now stuck in trauma.

DT: That’s what was so depressing.

SM: The truth is that the little step that can save us from the loop of the foxtrot must be done by the leadership. Only not this leadership—they do the opposite. They press on the buttons of the trauma and they do it with slogans that have nothing to do with reality except maybe the emotional memory of the ancient trauma, the old trauma whose instinctual nature is stronger than any instinctual power, is stronger than any reality and logic. They used to say to us, “We are in existential danger.” This is the mother of slogans. When I hear politicians in Israel say “We are a technological superpower, we have the strongest army and a nuclear weapon because we are in existential danger” it’s more or less like saying, I’m young and strong and healthy because I’m sick.

Our culture minister, for example, attacked the film without seeing it, before it was released. In her attack she actually confirmed the film’s message, because she pressed on people’s buttons with slogans that bring them to their feet. “Foxtrot is destroying the country,” she said, as if the film was a nuclear weapon that will erase us from the map. In her attack, she once again lifted a mirror to the radical split in Israeli society.

DT: What specifically did she object to?

SM:In the beginning she said she’s against the film because there’s a scene where the army breaks into a Palestinian home and slaughters the family. A journalist who saw the film at an academy screening told her, “We saw the film and there is no such scene.”  The next day, she said, “It’s because of the scene where they bury the car.” When she was told that the scene is about something wider, that it’s allegorical, she said, “The fact that the director ends the film with this scene says that this was his message.” Then they told her, “We saw the film and it doesn’t end with this scene.” Anyway, the struggle is not only for the film itself, it became a struggle for freedom of speech and expression.

Left to right: Gefen Barkai as Squad Commander. Shaul Amir as Soldier with Headphones. Dekel Adin as Soldier Rolling Cans and Yonatan Shiray as Jonathan Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: Gefen Barkai as Squad Commander. Shaul Amir as Soldier with Headphones. Dekel Adin as Soldier Rolling Cans and Yonatan Shiray as Jonathan
Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

DT: Actually, that brings me to my next question. Like people, countries suffer psychological wounds from their own history. These wounds become the country’s DNA.

SM: Exactly.

DT: In the United States, our psychological wound is slavery. We’ve never gotten over it, and that’s why we can’t heal the racial divide. I’m wondering if in Israel it’s the Holocaust, and whether that’s a wound that will ever go away.

SM: Exactly.

LA: Yes. It’s the Holocaust. The leadership usually uses the Holocaust to present us as the victims. I don’t believe I’m a victim, neither does my generation. Maybe our grandparents did.

SM: The common image of the post-traumatic man is a cliche. People expect him to have nightmares, he’s alone, uncommunicative. For Michael [the protagonist of the film, played by Lior Askhenazi], like many of his generation, it’s a case of repression and denial. He would do anything to prove that he is alive and that he would benefit from it somehow: he would be the successful businessman, raise a family, arm himself with buying an expensive apartment and luxury, but in a desperate attempt to hide his weakness, his secret. From outside everything seems to be fine, but from inside his soul is bleeding, and when he has nowhere to go in his experience, he kicks the dog. In Israeli society there are many versions of Michael, because his generation—my generation, the second generation of the Holocaust survivors—couldn’t complain about anything. Our teachers, our parents were naturally not very stable, because they’d experienced perhaps the worst trauma in human history. They used to wave the numbers on their arms and shout at us from the morning to the evening that they survived the Holocaust and who are we to complain. When I got a 7 in math at school, my mother said, “For a 7 in math I survived the Holocaust?” When we came back from the war with two hands, two legs, ten fingers, without any burning marks but expressing that we felt hurt inside, it was unacceptable. They used to tell us, “Get over it, be a man, we survived the Holocaust.” So we couldn’t complain, we had to repress, so we have become an additional generation of traumatic victims. This is the endless traumatic circle that I’m talking about. I think we need another three, four, five, I don’t know how many generations…

 

DT: It should have been forty years in the desert, but we’re already past that. Lior,  this is quite a change from your role in Norman. I’ve seen you in many films, but in this one, you just…seemed like yourself in a way I’ve never seen. I don’t know if it was the particular role—

Lior Ashkenazi as Michael Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Lior Ashkenazi as Michael
Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

LA: It’s a mixture of things. I’m not acting, actually. It’s not about acting. In Israel you’re surrounded by people who’ve lost dear ones in terror attacks, in the war, so you know them. They have their daily life, everything is OK, but there’s something that’s not quite right. You can’t point to it, you can’t say, Ah, this is it. It’s not about a sad face or depression. We were trying to find out how I could bring it out without doing a sad face, so I thought it could be done physically.  I didn’t sleep the two days preceding the shoot.

SM: He was exhausted.

LA: Just to exhaust myself. Now that I tell you that, you can see it, because it’s almost like slow motion. The eyes are falling down, when I’m leaning on the furniture, I needed to lean because I was falling down from exhaustion.

SM: Lior didn’t want to tell me because he thought I wouldn’t like it.

LA: I was afraid to tell Samuel.

SM: I told him I liked it because I really believe that when you need to deal with something emotional or mental, the best way to do it is through something physical.

When I was preparing to shoot Lebanon, I thought, How can I explain to an actor what it’s like to be inside a tank and suddenly someone attacks you? I could use my best description and they would say, Yeah, yeah yeah, but they wouldn’t understand anything. So I took each one of them and put them inside a container. It’s 122 degrees, it’s dark, you can’t sit, but after you survive the first five minutes you get over it because the body recognizes emergency conditions and starts to save energy. You start to breathe slowly and you start to feel like you are floating. You’re saving energy, and it’s OK. After half an hour, I had someone beat on the outside of the container with an iron pipe. When the actor came out of the container after 90 minutes, I could see in his eyes that I didn’t need to explain anything, because he understood.

I even had an actor who couldn’t shoot a gun. How could I explain that to him?  I took him and a prop gun to a friend’s apartment in the center of Tel Aviv. I took the actor to the window, gave him the toy gun, and said, “Put him in the cross hairs and press the trigger.” It’s a toy, a prop, everybody knows it, but the feeling that someone is in your cross hairs… He couldn’t do it, and suddenly [he understood].

 

DT: The film is based in part on a real-life incident with your daughter. Can you tell us about that, because I think it puts the film in context.

SM: My daughter never woke up early enough to get to school on time, so in order for her not to be late, she would ask me to call a taxi. This habit started to cost us quite a bit of money, and it also seemed to me to be bad education, so one morning I got mad and told her, “You will get the bus like everyone else does. If you’re late, you’re late.”  There was a big argument, and I was mad, and I told her quite firmly, “You are taking the bus. Now go.” Her bus was line 5, a quite famous line in Tel Aviv. Twenty minutes after she left, I heard on the radio that a terrorist blew himself up on line 5 and that dozens of people had been killed. I tried to call her, of course, but the cellular service had collapsed because of the unexpected load—this was at the beginning of cell phones in Israel.

She returned home an hour later. She told us that when she got to the station, she saw the bus, started to run, waved at the driver, but the bus left the station and she took the next bus. That was the worst hour in my life. It was worse than the entire Lebanon war. I asked myself, What can I learn from this experience? and very quickly I understood that I couldn’t learn anything.

LA: He could just make a movie.

SM: I didn’t want to investigate or explore but to deal with the gap between the things we control and those that are beyond our control. To explore this limbo where we make decisions. We also tried to do a kind of Greek tragedy in which the hero creates his own punishment and fights against anyone who tries to save him. He’s obviously unaware of the outcome that his actions will bring about. This is the difference between a casual coincidence and a spooky coincidence that looks like a plan of fate, because chaos is certain, the punishment corresponds with the sin almost in its exact form, and there is something round and complete in such a dramatic form.

 

DT: It’s a little like film noir, where character is destiny. Let’s talk about the overhead shots and that gorgeous 360 degree pan. Samuel, what do those shots mean to you as a director, and Lior, as an actor, are you aware of the camera’s position?

Lior Ashkenazi as Michael Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Lior Ashkenazi as Michael and Yehuda Almagor as Avigdor, Michael’s brother.
Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

SM: I couldn’t make those shots if Lior wasn’t aware. I need a partner. I will give an example. For the first overhead shot when he’s going to open the door, the long closeup when they trick him and leave, I chose the floor. I do not do realistic cinema. My cinema is more experiential. I try to penetrate, reflect the thoughts of my characters. First I told my DOP, “That floor will make us dizzy.” Next, cinematographers usually do their movement with the movement of the actor. So I told my DOP, “Let’s go against his movements because the audience will lose their orientation.”

But to do this, you must have an actor who’s aware of the camera, because he needs to do five or six steps very, very slowly, to take his time. I know actors who I could continue to shoot to this day and they still wouldn’t be able to do this shot. I know that Lior can squeeze his soul, he can really feel, but deep inside there is a computer program working in the background that makes him aware of the camera.

LA: It’s also a choreography. I  didn’t just speak with Samuel; I was also [communicating] with the DOP. I needed to be aware of what the camera was doing  because the timing was split second, a hairsbreadth…I’m standing up, I know the camera now has to finish the turn and then I can start walking, but not like people normally walk, I’m walking there very, very slowly because of the camera…

SM: He takes time to lean on the table…

LA: It was like a dance.

SM: I believe in low tech when you create those shots. In Lebanon, where we were on a studio set, I needed to simulate the movement of the tank. They sent the script to Cinecitta in Italy because they have a platform they used to lend to American films for helicopter scenes. They told me, “Listen, we love the script, for you it’s $250,000.” So my production designer went to a junkyard and bought a wagon for $300, because it was simply a matter of balance—two people here, two people there, and two wheels in the middle. Here, in Foxtrot, it’s the DOP that controlled the movement, along with the two grips, one with the crane and one with the dolly. It’s the combination of three people who need to synchronize between themselves and the actor. The actor must depend on them, they can’t rely on him.

DT: Lior, are you watching them while the camera is rolling?

LA: No. We are just doing it.

SM: We shot a first take, and then I showed it to Lior. He’s the kind of actor—

LA: I need to see what just happened, and then I can be much better, because I know, OK this is the shot, I understand it now, I know the timing, so let’s do it.

DT: Is that the way you work all the time?

LA: Usually.

SM: Not all directors will show the take to the actors because the actors will say, “This angle is not good…”

 

LA: The light, the angle.

SM: But I believe this is the best way to learn. If you’re an actor, you need to get used to yourself from all different angles.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2018

The Insult/Ziad Doueiri

When a Palestinian refugee insults a Lebanese Christian in Beirut, the Palestinian’s refusal to apologize sparks a national crisis. With director Ziad Doueiri’s ubiquitous honesty and intelligence, this Academy Award hopeful examines the excesses of hate, the Middle East’s addiction to words, and paths to reconciliation. Availability: Opens New York City, January 12, Lincoln Plaza Cinema, with national rollout to follow. Thanks to Aimee Morris, Sophie Gluck & Associates, for arranging this interview.

DT: Ziad, in your last film, The Attack, Israelis and Palestinians are each other’s enemies.  When I interviewed you for that film, you said, “I went to Israel and met these Israeli actors and they’re fantastic. The whole image of the ultimate enemy became demystified. I’m facing the enemy and I’m liking him.” Is it the same with the characters in The Insult?

ZD: It’s the same. The Insult is my reexamination of the Christian  narrative, which I grew up hating all my life. I guess I spent all my life hating people and then saying, Let me think about it. We grew up thinking that the Christian political thinking was associated with a betrayal of the country. We thought that the Christians in Lebanon—and I’m talking about the Christians not in terms of religion but in terms of political parties: Bashir Gemayel, the Lebanese forces, the Christian parties—were betraying Lebanon. Those people were associating themselves with the enemies of Lebanon, etc., etc., so their narrative for me as a child did not exist.

As time passes, you sit down and say, Let’s see, did they really not suffer as much? We always believed that the Muslims and the left wing are the people who suffered and the Christians did not suffer, they did not go through dilemmas. And then you start understanding their point of view, and you slowly demystify this thing. This film is about demystifying things, actually. I made a film because I had to go through my own thinking.

 

DT: Making a film is a huge project. It takes a lot of money and time and effort. People make them for different reasons. Guillermo Del Toro made Shape of Water for one reason, Quentin Tarantino made Pulp Fiction for another reason. Considering your background and the family you grew up in—very intellectual, very political, very left wing—I feel like your reason for making films is catharsis.

ZD: It’s telling the truth. I want to tell the truth. It’s so important that I don’t give the impression that I’m an idealist and want a larger-than-life figure. I hate those things. I want to tell you something: after The Insult came out in Lebanon and all these festivals, Venice, Valladolid, Telluride, a lot of journalists started asking me questions. At the beginning I did not know how to answer that fundamental question, Why are you making this movie? What inspired this movie? It’s not that I didn’t know the answer, I just had to figure it out, because it was so subconscious. And I started thinking in very practical terms in order to answer the journalists and give them the answers they were looking for, which consequently made me think about what voice was behind the writing of the film. It’s not insignificant. It’s significant, it’s just so buried in me.

It’s about being fair. Let me elaborate—what I’m telling you is very real. It’s not at all intellectual, and it’s not at all analytical. It’s very real. When I grew up in 1975, the war started, and all I can remember—I was twelve years old—is a lot of things that were happening in my daily life that were not fair. For example—it’s so banal—we got stopped at checkpoints day in, day out.

DT: That’s not banal.

ZD: No, but at that time it looked like just another event. Then Lebanon was invaded by armies. That’s a big theory, but Ziad growing up saw those invasions, because I had to run with my family into the shelters. I played with a rock band as a teenager. One day the left-wing militia came inside the basement and took all of my instruments, my bass guitar and everything. My dad came down and we tried to argue with them, but they were stronger than us because they had weapons. I looked at my dad and said, as I’d said all throughout my years, “This is unfair.” When you’re young, you don’t react intellectually—you say, “Why are they taking my instruments?” In 1977 I wanted to go visit my cousins who lived in Holland. We went to the Dutch embassy, and they did not give us a visa because there were restrictions on Lebanese citizens back then. I thought it was unfair. I thought it was unfair that I could not go on vacation. So many of these events happened day in, day out, not just one every six months. It was all the time, so you grow up and you say, “It’s not fair.”

The word fairness is something I hold onto. I’m still in the process of analyzing why I did The Insult, of understanding the woodpecker behind my brain. It’s fairness. I fucked up a lot in my life, I have a lot of immoral stuff in my life, but fairness is something I hold onto. I am so fair. The idea of The Insult is about a man to whom injustice was done, and he believes that he has to get it back. That’s what Toni Hanna’s character is. I don’t want to give an intellectual feeling to my explanation, because I’m really trying to answer from my gut. Being arrested, and being stopped, and being insulted and all these things have been buried since my childhood.

DT: That’s why I say it’s cathartic.

ZD: Yes. Yes.

 

DT: The film is very multilayered, but the particular juxtaposition between the private apology and the public insult was especially meaningful.

ZD: We did that on purpose, after having thought a lot about it. When Toni tells Yasser, “I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out,” there was a very big reason we made it on a Sunday. In the preceding scene, the boss tells the Palestinian [Yasser], “I want you to apologize.” The Palestinian is trying to avoid it, and he says, “He’s closed on Sunday,” to which the boss replies, “He’s open seven days a week.” It was not accidental that we picked Sunday, because we wanted the insult to be in private. On Sunday nobody goes to work—it’s only Toni and the mechanic. When he insulted him—it’s true, he insulted him during the day, but there were no workers, no Syrians around, no construction workers—we wanted to make it just in a private way in order to balance it in the end, when the Palestinian comes at night and the apology has to be private. It was not actually public. That’s what we wanted. We thought about all these things.

 

DT: Early in the film, I had a rather banal, but total, revelation. Because I wasn’t attuned to all of the social and cultural nuances, I only had a general understanding of the nature of Yasser’s insult. And I’m watching Toni and  wondering, Why is Toni so full of hate? All he has to do to rid himself of this situation is get rid of his hate. Then I remembered how I—a Jew—felt watching The Attack, and I realized there’s a complete difference when you’re looking at hate—

ZD: —from the outside. That’s right.

DT: It’s not going to get solved until we get rid of the hate.

ZD: It’s not going to be solved until you meet your enemy face-to-face. I’m saying this on a very personal level: When you don’t know your enemy, your hiding in fear becomes multiplied. If you think he’s scary and you don’t see him, you think he’s ten times more scary. When you meet him, it becomes demystified. I’m telling you, I sat down with Israelis just as much as I sat down with Christians from the right-wing party, and during the first interaction, something that holds you breaks down. And suddenly you start reaching behind him, and you start finding more similarity than difference.

But that doesn’t apply to everyone. I am like this. There are people who live through their hate no matter what you do. You put them in therapy for ten years and they can’t get over it. I’m the kind who has a tendency to be curious about the other side. In The Attack, I’ve been curious about understanding the Israeli perspective, and in The Insult and West Beirut I’ve been curious about understanding the Christian perspective. I’m curious, that’s it. It’s not more than that. For me there are no taboos that are not to be broken. I’m willing to go wherever…it’s the idea of fairness.

 

DT: You wrote the script with Joelle Touma, who’s Christian.

ZD: My ex-wife. She’s not a believer. We’re both very secular, but she grew up in a family that had sympathy for right-wing politics. They had their reasons, of course, but right wing, left wing doesn’t mean anything today. It’s all over the place.

 

DT: In a way the story is absurd, with a simple insult escalating into this national crisis. But you shot it in a hyperreal manner, so real that I wondered whether the film was based on an actual incident. Is it absurd? Is it real? Or is it both?

ZD: It’s not absurd. It happens. The whole screenwriting process started because of a very similar incident that actually happened to me. I was living in Beirut a few years ago, and I was watering my plants, when the water fell on one of the workers. We had an exchange; we insulted each other. He said, “You motherfucker,” and I said, “No, you’re the motherfucker.” We started yelling at each other, and I noticed that he had a Palestinian accent, and I just said that phrase: “I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out.” This is how it started. So it is not unreal. This is how it happened.

The question to ask is, In Lebanon, in the Arab world, could a simple insult develop into a national crisis? It can. It did happen. Several times. In writing the script, I took it to where it could have happened, but it didn’t happen with me because the Palestinian didn’t make a big deal of it. He was hurt and that was it. But in Lebanon words weigh heavy. They’re loaded. I could insult your mom, your dad, I could say, Screw your mom, and it wouldn’t matter. But there are certain subjects, like religion, that are loaded. If I say, I’m going to screw your religion, this is likely to create a huge problem. This is how it is in the Middle East. It’s very, very sensitive. People give too much attention to words. They don’t take it in a slight manner. It’s very, very heavy.

 

DT:  I’ve never been to Lebanon, but my impression is that it’s a very cosmopolitan, very secular country. Perhaps it’s not that way anymore.

ZD: It’s very secular and it’s very cosmopolitan and it’s very religious and it’s very chauvinistic, and it’s very provincial. It has everything. This is what is so interesting about Lebanon. It’s why I keep going back there in writing my stories, because it’s a melting pot of not just all cultures but all religions, all classes, all political affiliations. It has everything within a very confined space. Lebanon is the country of paradox. Such paradox. And it’s so dynamic. This is what I like about it, while sometimes I hate it.

The Insult created a lot of problems. The Attack created a lot of problems—that’s why it was banned. I want to say, Guys, get over yourselves, we’re just making movies. But the Arab population has not reconciled with itself yet, and as long as you don’t reconcile, you’re going to jump on that caravan, jump against that camp. I’m being very pragmatic. I’m not being analytical here; this is how it is. When Salman Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses, there was a price on his head that lasted twenty years. The queen of England literally put him under protection for twenty years. People take these things very, very seriously, so when we wrote The Insult, we did not walk a tightrope. We did not censor ourselves. We said things very bluntly, the way it is. But we knew it was going to touch on certain sensibilities. We knew it, even though that was not the purpose. Our purpose in writing this film, Joelle and I, was not to provoke, or accuse, or demonize. Not at all—otherwise you will screw up your film. We just wanted to tell a story about a man who has something very deeply buried in him and how he seeks to resolve it at the end. This is the Middle East; what can you do?

 

DT: At this point, your films are shown not just in the Middle East—they’re shown all over the world. While you’re writing or filming, do you make concessions to Western audiences?

ZD: Not at all. I can assure you we did not make any concessions. Look, I lived in the States for eighteen years. I worked in America [e.g., as Quentin Tarantino’s camera assistant on Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction,  From Dusk Til Dawn, Jackie Brown]. I worked with the people. I didn’t come here as a tourist. The best way to learn about a culture is to work with its people. For eighteen years I learned Americanisms, the way of working on a film set, this society. It’s not insignificant.

Therefore when you learn the language and you learn the mentality and you learn what’s behind the psychology—there’s my rapport with you, and there’s my rapport with our subconscious—it’s going to affect the way you write. There are certain phrases I use when I write. I wrote this film in English, through the final draft, and then I translated it to Arabic.

So to answer your question, Did I make any concessions? Not at all. I managed—not because I’m smart, but because I lived in America as long as I lived in Lebanon—to find the phrases, how to build dialogue, and how to build story in a way that both cultures could understand, without confusing one or the other. Where I sometimes missed the point is some of the humorous phrases. There are certain phrases that made the Americans laugh when the Lebanese didn’t. For example, when the president says, “If I want to choose between stability and integrity, I’ll choose stability.” This is an American way of being humorous. In Lebanon, they didn’t get it. They don’t think that way. It’s not part of our colloquial language to say “If I want to choose between stability and integrity, I’ll choose stability.” This is an American idiom. An American way of thinking. Another example: When Tony takes the disc and says, “BOC, it’s missing the S” [i.e., to indicate that the disc brake in question was a Chinese knock-off rather than a German original].  The Americans smiled at this, but the Lebanese didn’t get it. When Tony says, “If I have to choose between secondhand German or brand-new Chinese, I choose secondhand German,” this is an American form of humor that the Lebanese didn’t understand. The Americans laughed even though it’s in Arabic.

This is the way your brain gets wired; sometime you blend what works for two cultures and sometimes you miss the point, especially with comedy or humorous lines. It’s very funny that the Lebanese didn’t get it. But to tell you the truth, in all modesty I felt myself well placed to be able to tell a completely Lebanese story and still have Americans relate to it. By the way, my film gets the most understood and appreciated in America and Lebanon and much less in France, because where is the French part of this psychology? Had I lived half my life in France, I would be doing a hybrid product, but my hybrid product as it is, is Lebanese American. The French financed the film, but Americans get it.

 

DT: Let me ask you one more question. You’re working on a project about the Camp David accords.

ZD: I don’t want to talk about it. It’s too early. I have to take a little break for just a couple of weeks.

 

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2018

1945/Ferenc Torok (director) and Gabor Szanto (screenwriter)

When two Orthodox Jews return to a small village in Hungary at the end of World War II, the local Christians are thrown into an ever-deepening personal and social quagmire. Director Ferenc Torok and screenwriter Gabor Szanto speak with Director Talk about the history behind this strangely beautiful film. •Availability: Opens November 1, New York City, Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, with national rollout to follow. Click here for trailer and theater listings near you. Thanks to Aimee Morris and Sophie Gluck, Sophie Gluck & Associates, for arranging this interview.

DT: What struck me most about the film was the absolute otherness of the Jews.

Town clerk István Szentes (Péter Rudolf) argues with his son Árpád (Bence Tasnádi) on his wedding day. Photo credit: Lenke Szilagyi / Menemsha Films

Town clerk István Szentes (Péter Rudolf) argues with his son Árpád (Bence Tasnádi) on his wedding day. Photo credit: Lenke Szilagyi / Menemsha Films

GS: In the original short story, they were Orthodox Jews whose clothes and behavior are different from the villagers’, so it was natural that we also represent their characters in the movie this way. This otherness comes from their religion, their tradition, their very strong morality. They came to this village for a religious purpose, for a moral purpose, and it’s an absolutely different kind of behavior from the villagers’ behavior, whose morality is deteriorated and who have very material desires, very, very money-centered desires. That is the opposition between the two main parts of the story.

 

DT: Ferenc, how did you go about capturing that as a director?

FT: The point of view of the survivors, the two Orthodox Jews, is basic in Gabor’s short story. After that, we built up the village society, starting with the young generation, the son of the clerk. Toward the end of our work—it was close to ten years we spent developing this script—we focused on the guilty parts of the society, the collaborators, the clerk, the policeman, the priests. That was our way of discovering this story: layers.

As for directing, the visuals were really important in this story. That’s why we use black- and-white as straight dramatic compositions. Also the expressivity is dramatic. It’s not really a dialogue movie; there’s a lot of silence and a lot of atmospheric voices, music, horses. This is really important. This is a non-dialogue movie, so the atmosphere is much more important.

 

DT: You captured the cult of silence really perfectly. How did that affect Hungarian society in particular?

GS: There was a long silence around responsibility for the Holocaust and the persecution of the Jews, because forty years of Communist regime didn’t help the process of focusing and making it clear what the responsibility was and how big the responsibility was. So the whole Hungarian society woke up after the political change in 1990 like from a dream, and they didn’t remember. The society didn’t want to remember, and it was lengthy work to put it into the center of the public debate. A very long process.

I absolutely remember that in the first one and a half decades of freedom, after 1990, it was very difficult for me to publish stories, not just on post-Holocaust issues but on contemporary Jewish issues, because the reviews, the cultural life didn’t care too much. People felt it belonged to a former age, the issue of religion is not so important, the issue of Jewish identity, the issues of post-Holocaust questions, we are over it now. I really felt walls around the topic—I really felt walls around me, because I constantly wrote these kinds of stories. A big part of my writings came from this source and used this material, not just post-Holocaust Jewish topics but Jewish lives, Jewish dilemmas under the Communist period, the questions of revival and the possibility of identity revival—or the failure of identity revival—after the political change. I focused on these topics, and  I felt the walls for a very long time.

In the last five to ten years, society has started to be more open to these topics, not only in the nature of protest but as a countereffect to Holocaust deniers and people who denied Hungary’s responsibility. Talking about these topics came as a counter-reaction, so the whole media became open and the whole intellectual life became open to these topics that were very important for me.

FT: And also in our generation it became an important topic. We are close to fifty now, the second or third generation after the war. We’ve become serious grown-up people, and we need to answer to our kids, so it’s also our own way to know the facts and react to them.

There was another problem. Along with the liberal democracy that emerged in the 1990s after the big Communist silence and taboo came the extreme right—sometimes fascists—speaking in everyday politics. Not only politics; in the pubs and in the street too. During the Communist time it was pushed down, and when it came out in the beginning of the ’90s, everybody started to get afraid: What’s going on?  Can we keep silent while they make these anti-Semitic topics again? So it was a counter-reaction, because not only good things came out with freedom.

 

DT: I’d like to talk about the artistic importance of the single gesture, like tipping one’s hat as a sign of respect.

FT: Yes, in Christian culture, but it’s a little bit opposite in Jewish culture. It’s really funny how gestures with the hat are really different in these two really close religious cultures. But these small details are just for really good critical viewers.

DT: That’s sort of what I’m asking. When you’re writing or directing, do you consciously say, What small detail can I  put in?

GS: Absolutely. There was a moment in this film, for example—the situation at the railway station when the young Russian stops the young Jew and wants to take his cap. While Ferenc was shooting, he called me and said, “We need a scene at the railway station.” There were parallel story lines, and we needed a scene there. In an hour I sent him the scene. It was wonderful, because in this moment we got the platonistic idea that this scene existed somewhere and we had to find it because it was so important: how the Russians behave in front of the young Jew. There is aggression and there is playing in it, and the older officer who feels it too much.

FT: There is peacetime now, so don’t get aggressive with these guys. The basic gestures are normal, but the first gesture is aggressive.

 

DT: In April, the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation hosted an event in Budapest to prepare educators to teach your film.

GS: We have a connection with the educators of the Shoah Foundation, and they created educational material for the film. It’s already translated into English, so it will be available in the US too.

It’s a very unique time of history and a very unique perspective on post-Holocaust issues, this question of homecoming, the meeting between the survivors and the local people in Hungary. Not just in Hungary; it’s a very European story. We won a prize in the Netherlands, where the audience said, “This is our story!” There were survivors in the Netherlands who went back to Amsterdam and found local people living in their houses. So it’s a very European story.

Town clerk István Szentes (Péter Rudolf) worries about his town’s unwelcome visitors, while Mr. and Mrs. Kustár (József Szarvas, Ági Szirtes) linger in the background. Photo credit: Lenke Szilagyi / Menemsha Films

Town clerk István Szentes (Péter Rudolf) worries about his town’s unwelcome visitors, while Mr. and Mrs. Kustár (József Szarvas, Ági Szirtes) linger in the background. Photo credit: Lenke Szilagyi / Menemsha Films

FT: And in France, and of course East Europe too. In the last few months, the reactions in the Western European countries are really new for us. There was a different development after the wars, with a capitalist liberal Holland or Belgium or France, while we in Hungary are this Soviet dictatorship. But we had the same taboo, and together we recognized each other, we being the small, secret collaborating countries who always said, “It was the Germans. It was the Nazis.”  It was a comfortable issue for a long time.

GS: Outsourcing the responsibility. It was not, as people said, the Germans but the local societies and especially the local political powers in East Europe who collaborated with the Nazis because they had their own agenda. What they wanted to have from the Germans, from the Nazis—they gave their loyalty for it.

 

DT: Hungary passed a law in 1939 making it legal to confiscate Jewish lands. That was one way that fascist regimes worked: they co-opted local populations. They had to give them something, so they gave them other people’s property.

FT: They corrupted them. And the Communists continued it later on.

Hermann Sámuel (Iván Angelus) and his son (Marcell Nagy) arrive via train to a small village in Hungary full of secrets. Photo credit: Lenke Szilagyi / Menemsha Films

Hermann Sámuel (Iván Angelus) and his son (Marcell Nagy) arrive via train to a small village in Hungary full of secrets. Photo credit: Lenke Szilagyi / Menemsha Films

GS:  There were several smaller anti-Jewish laws between 1920 and 1938, but from ’38 there were three very strong anti-Jewish laws against the community and private persons that step by step pushed the Jews from Hungarian society. In 1944, after the deportation, even during the process of deportation, the country offered a great part of Jewish property to local villagers, who got it at auction. They got the property at discounted prices. It was a very cruel tool to make the people collaborators, because the human being is weak. The human being can be corrupted.

FT: And the people were really poor.

GS: There was real poverty all over Central Europe, so it was a very easy way to corrupt the people. There is evil in human nature. There was anti-Semitism—and still is anti-Semitism all over the world in different levels—but it couldn’t happen without this kind of government gesture, this very tricky way of pulling the people into sins.

FT: It was evil business because the political power needed the factories. The commercial companies and the banks of course got involved. It was absolutely a different level, but they were in the same part of the story.

GS: Three or four years later, the Communist powers also did the same. They confiscated the factories, the fields, the big shops from the owners, from the bourgeoisie. They nationalized or gave some part of this property to other parts of society. They gave it to the poor people or they made kolkhoz from it.

DT: I never thought of it that way.

GS: This is a crucial point in Central Europe four years later—change in ownership of the property. Behind every political change there is this factor of taking the property and giving it to somebody else.

FT: That’s also a reason behind the taboos and the secrets. After ’48, after three years of the Holocaust and the war, the state backed everything, and society had no kind of property, no houses, no factories. It was a common Soviet example.

GS: If  you had a shop with more than five employees, it was nationalized. Everything belonged to the state. They killed private property.

FT: And in 1990 they started the new capitalism and redistribution of everything.

 

DT: Getting back to the film, how much is based on your short story, Gabor, and how much of it is autobiographical?

GS: It’s not autobiographical. It has historical records behind it, interviews, historical facts. It’s a fictional story, but I was involved in these stories because my parents were survivors of the Holocaust. They were kids when they were deported to Austrian camps by the Germans with the Hungarians’ help.

My grandmothers and parents survived. My grandfather died at the eastern front as a member of a forced labor battalion. Men of a certain age who had Jewish origins were sent there to work for the army because they didn’t get guns. They were secondary citizens. They had to go there, and they disappeared. I heard these kinds of stories from the family, and I was very much involved in them.

 

DT: How was the film received in Hungary?

FT: Good. We were afraid before the premiere. We’d worked on the film for twelve years, and the postproduction and distribution in Hungary were not easy. Nobody liked this movie.

GS: They were afraid of it.

FT: Everybody was afraid of it. We stayed with the project because we believed it’s a good movie and an important movie. We believed in the audience but of course we were afraid of the audience because maybe they’d say it’s against Hungary, or it’s not true, or it’s a Jewish movie…

GS: …and it’s black-and-white and it’s historical.

DT: It had everything against it!

GS: And in spite of all odds, there were 40,000 people who went to watch it, which in the case of an art-house movie in Hungary is a success.

FT: It was really important when international film festivals selected the movie, because after we had success abroad we started to release it in Hungary. It’s really surprising the reaction in Hungary is so positive. It’s not only from the Jewish community.

GS: It’s all over the media.

FT: The conservatives respect this work—not only the film, the whole gesture. Hungarians need it. It’s not a complete democracy, but I believe something is moving. We’ve grown up to the level of getting a mirror and thinking about the facts. We’re working on it.

GS: Ninety percent of the reviews were absolutely enthusiastic. They realized that the movie is partly symbolic but it touched the problem in a very realistic way. It has a very strong moral but it’s not judgmental. It’s very realistic. It shows the colorful reaction of the soul, the human being, it doesn’t want to homogenize, it’s not a stick with which you beat somebody’s hand. It tries to understand what happened; how could that have happened?

FT:  Also important are the different relations and points of view about the old guilt. The characters aren’t just black-and-white, guilty or innocent, Hungarian is bad, Jewish  is good. No. We worked on different attitudes and different ages, different ways of thinking. We are not homogeneous. Hungarian society has differences—women, young people…

 

DT: I was also struck by how anonymous the Jews were. They were just sort of…

GS: Ghosts.

DT: Exactly. The audience has no idea who they are. They are catalysts. They aren’t really characters.

SPOILER ALERT

FT: I think this secret is the best idea of the script and the short story. If these two Jews were from the village and knew the villagers and wanted something from them, it would be a drama, verbal, maybe with fighting. But this way the gossip starts…

GS: People wonder who they are…

FT: It’s like a bad dream or a frustration, where everybody stays alone with this scene.

GS: Because the secret—and everybody has secrets—of who they are catalyzed the process. People have to come out with their secrets, they have inner conflicts because their secrets come up.

 

END SPOILER ALERT

 

DT: How did your actors respond to the material the first time you showed it to them?

GS: They loved the screenplay.

FT: Peter Rudolf, who plays the protagonist, had a really, really good attitude. When he read the script, he understood everything. It’s not really a complicated story, but we need to understand it. Of course it wasn’t easy, because Peter needed to gain fifteen kilograms and become bald. He’s a comedian and a well-known Hungarian actor, but he believed it was important. It’s also a really good turn because it’s a different role for him. It’s not a positive character. But for an actor a negative character is sometimes much more interesting.

 

DT: Can you talk about the music?  When the Jews approach the cemetery, there was a melody that sounded very much like Kol Nidre [very solemn prayer recited on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement].

GS: It is, it is, by Jancsi Toll, a Gypsy musician from 1924.

FT: It’s an archival recording of Kol Nidre by a Gypsy violinist.

DT: Why was a Gypsy playing Kol Nidre?

GS: In Central Europe there were several klezmer bands that played with Gypsy musicians. The Gypsy musicians knew the tunes of the Jewish melodies, and Gypsy and Jewish musicians played together at wedding ceremonies or other occasions.

FT: The violin is a Gypsy character in Hungarian or East European music. They are so good and so sensitive.

DT: But why Kol Nidre? It’s not a wedding song at all.

GS: It’s a big question. Kol Nidre has a concrete meaning. For me, who knows what Kol Nidre is, it was a bit strange, but it was so strong, it was so powerful, and in a way it represents the Hungarian guilt and the Hungarian confession of guilt by way of a Jewish melody. It’s an artistic mixture.

 

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

 

Caroline Champetier (Cinematographer)/Career Retrospective

Cinematography takes on new meaning when viewed through the lens of Caroline Champetier. Under her masterful eye, colors become characters, and human flesh acquires a heavenly corporeality. Her credits include Gang of Four (Jacques Rivette),  La Sentinelle (Arnaud Desplechin), Toute Une Nuit (Chantal Akerman), Holy Motors (Léos Carax), Hannah Arendt (Margarethe von Trotta),  Grandeur et Decadence d’un Petit Commerce de Cinema (Jean-Luc Godard). Her cinematography is brilliant because the way she sees is different from the way we see. Champetier’s work was recently honored by the CinéSalon series Caroline Champetier: Shaping the Light, at the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF), New York’s premiere French cultural center. Thanks to Natascha Bodemann for arranging this interview.

 

DT: Many of your films seem to have a color theme, like reds or greens or browns. Do you work those out with the director beforehand, or is that the job of the set designer?

Gang of Four © Cohen Media Group

Gang of Four © Cohen Media Group

CC: To find good ones for the movie, I choose. It can change. But the most important for me is definitely to have a good reflection for skin. The skin of the actress or actor is very important, so I go to that.

DT: Is shooting faces different from shooting objects?

CC: Definitely it’s very different, because skin is alive. Objects are not always alive. Light gives light to an object, but skin, a face, even without light, is alive. What you have to do is understand the light of the face, of the skin, and go with. The work is to understand, to go with, not just flash something but to see it. The question of the cinematographer is not just to see. It’s to understand, and it’s to go with.

 

DT: When you shoot the same location over and over again for scenes that have similar action, do you reconfigure the lighting every time?

CC: Yes. It’s different depending on the light of the day. If the set is indoors, I can organize something that’s OK for all day, because you know the sun is not going in. When it’s not this situation, I have to protect from the sun or go with the sun. It’s a question of what we have already spoken about, and definitely what is important for me is to spend time on the different sets of a movie.

DT: Before you shoot?

CC: Before I shoot. It can be days, it can be weeks. For The Innocents I worked weeks before the shooting. I spent a good time in the convent to see how the light was going on and to understand my possibilities for lighting.

 

DT: There are two shots in particular I’d like to discuss. In Gang of Four, you shoot inside the metro at a train going in the opposite direction, but you also have reflections on the window of the train you’re in.

CC: I like reflections. I think it’s very interesting to see reflections when you are in a car, when you are in a train. This is to give a different level of reality. And in this train you are outside the night, the town, of what is happening, what is in the train, with the light and the people going on. A different level of reality.

 

DT: The other shot was in Holy Motors. It’s very subtle. It’s the shot of a little girl in a red-and-white sweater. You start with a closeup on the girl and you pull out through the widow.

CC: Yes. It’s Leos Carax’s daughter. She was behind this window. It’s a zoom. There is a bit of reflection of the sky in the window, and this little girl is real and not real. Like an apparition.

 

DT: Let’s talk about how you make exterior shots. In Band of Four, there’s a really high-contrast shot, where two people are wearing dark jackets as they stand on a balcony overlooking the city. The sky seems really washed out, but you get this incredible detail in the city below.

CC: That was a time I made more contrast photography. There is a lot of detail because there was very good film stock at that time.

DT: What did you use?

CC: Kodak. I think it’s 5247. It was very, very good stock. I was really in love with Kodak color. It was a very stable stock for chromatic questions like that.

 

DT: Let’s go back to Holy Motors.

Holy Motors. ©-Indomina-GroupPhotofest.

Holy Motors. ©-Indomina-GroupPhotofest.

CC: Holy Motors was shot on digital. It’s the first time the American camera Red went to France.

DT: You used a Red!

CC: It was really smart shooting with the Red in France. I introduced this new captor. It was a very interesting thing to shoot with this captor. This camera was like a little box. I could be very, very little in the limo with this little box and my lenses, and it could also be a big, big camera when I wanted to put it on a train or on a dolly. It was like a construction beam. To wield your tool.

DT: The smokestacks and the golden statues on the bridge really popped against the gray sky. Now I understand why.

CC: Yes. For me it’s not perfect. I understand you, because it’s Paris, so it’s a poetic view of Paris, but for me it was not exactly what I wanted it to be. There is just a bit too much contrast.

DT: Did you shoot the entire film with the Red?

CC: Absolutely. But each time it was a different Red, because this little box, when I adjust the lenses with it, it can be like a Panasonic 100—a very, very, little one, and then when I put on a zoom… I can make my own tool. I think Red was very clever to introduce this camera because now all the masters wanted to have a little camera like that.

 

DT: Your whites are always spectacular. It’s almost as if they’re tinged with blue.

CC: Yes, white is really important. To have a real white, when we were shooting on stock, the time you spent with the colorist was important. But now you have infinite possibilities. The FRW is more large than what you see in reality, so you have to work before the movie to make the curve where you want it to be and to have the exact color you want. This is the great, great work now. You can see that in The Innocents, and you will be able to see that in Les Gardiennes, because I made a great deal of work on the color, and you see the color in comparison with the white.

DT: Is that an artifact of working digitally?

CC: Yes, yes.

 

DT: But when you were shooting film stock, how did you handle white?

CC: It was the way to light it. It’s the way to see it in comparison to the other colors. The time I spend with the lab to grade it. The grading time for me is very important time, when you grade the movie, while you are adjusting the color after the editing. I am very, very sharp on that. I am very demanding. You see I have a little eye deformation. I see four colors.  Everybody sees chrome, and I see quadrichrome.

 

DT: It seems like there are certain things that you love to shoot, like smoke, and cigarettes, and glowing lights. Do you ask the director to put those things in the film, and if so, what do you like about them?

CC: Yes, it’s important to have things like that, because it gives reality to the light. It gives speech to the light. Many American movies are very good with smoke, with fog. I think fog is a beautiful way to see light.

DT: It also works with reflection, since you only see the light because it’s reflected off the water droplets in the fog.

CC: Absolutely.

 

DT: What shoot did you enjoy the most? You’ve done so many, but which was your favorite?

CC: I think Holy Motors. It was incredible to shoot, because we prepared a lot. There was four months’ preparation, and when we started the shooting, we were really ready to achieve the movie. Of Gods and Men was a beautiful movie to shoot because of all these men, because of Morocco, because of the Atlas Mountains and this landscape. I also remember The Innocents, we were so close with all these women in the convent. It’s difficult to choose, because now I remember also shooting with Godard. It was such a deep time, such a learning time for me. It’s definitely difficult to choose.

Of Gods and Men ©Sony-Pictures-Classics

Of Gods and Men ©Sony-Pictures-Classics

 

DT: Speaking about Of Gods and Men, I get a lump in my throat whenever I think of the scene where they’re singing. Do you ever get emotional when you’re shooting?

CC: Yes. Definitely. Yes. Sometimes I even cry. Of course. I am the first audience. So if you’re moved, I am moved too. Yes of course.

DT: That’s a great image—you with the camera crying. That’s beautiful.  When did you know you wanted to be a cinematographer?

CC: It’s a strange story. I was a young woman, and when I understood there was no woman in this business, I wanted to do it. It was like a provocation.

DT: Did you have an interest in still photography before that?

CC: Yes. My father was an architect, and I was really trained to look, to see. My pleasure was with the eye. Definitely. I didn’t sing…for me, looking at is a real philosophy. A real position in life. And to be careful of what I see.

 

DT: God bless you for choosing that profession, because you are really extraordinary. Thank you.

 

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