Someone pointed out that I have to stop making films about people with backpacks. It's a bit sick, isn't it? My next movie won't have a single backpack in it.
Filmmakers coming up through the ranks in contemporary cinema are often forced to make a lot of noise in order to catch our attention. Julia Loktev’s second feature, Day Night Day Night, told the story of a young would-be suicide bomber making her way toward Times Square to detonate. It’s worth remembering how enthusiastically the film was received; the Colorado-raised Russian writer/director was recognized as “Someone to Watch” at the Independent Spirit Awards in 2007. There’s no mistaking the skill with which the sometime video artist—her installations have showed at the Tate Modern and PS1—explores tension and strain in her work, deals with uncomfortable situations and asks viewers to wake up to find themselves surrounded by strange chaos.
The Loneliest Planet marks Loktev’s third feature, a slow-burning tale loosely based on Tim Bassell’s short story, Expensive Trips Nowhere. Appropriately elemental and color-drenched given its setting, the story revolves around an innocent hiking adventure around the Caucauses of Georgia for two young lovers, Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg) a few months prior to their wedding. They enlist a mountain guide named Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze) to steer them through the grass-clad mountains and it’s during their journey that they come upon three locals in a near-death encounter that tears a rift between Alex and Nica. Thereafter, Alex tries to win his way back into the shell-shocked Nica’s affections, but it casts a profound pall over their adventure.
The Loneliest Planet opens this Friday, October 26 in New York and Los Angeles.
What is the significance behind the title The Loneliest Planet for you?
I think it works on a number of different levels. There are the most obvious associations, but there’s also different ways of looking at it; undercurrents that I’m sort of sneaking in there. I don’t know… It just seemed to fit. It was either that or Green Grass, Red Hair, you know? [Laughs]
How did you end up setting this story in the country of Georgia? Was it a place you were very familiar with or did you scout the location specifically for this film?
There were a bunch of factors that came together. For one, this film is based on a short story by Tom Bissell and I had remembered it while traveling in Georgia. So that was a weird coincidence to make the film. At the same time, I think it’s a story that could take place in so many different parts of the world. The idea of travelers hiring a guide in town to bring them up to the mountains is something that happens every day. Somehow these particular mountains in Georgia just seemed right; the visual quality of the mountains that were so green and lush. Georgia is a place that we don’t have much preconceptions about and we don’t really have a very clear image of it in our minds. It has a fairly young tourism industry, so things aren’t so fixed like in places with a very developed tourism industry. I’m originally from Russia, so I grew up with this idea of Georgia being a vacation paradise of the Soviet Union. My parents had gone to Georgia and my mom hiked in the Caucauses. Also, it was easy for me to get around in Russia and I felt very much at home. I was able to communicate with people over the age of twenty since the young ones don’t speak Russian and the older ones do.
You have Gael [Garcia Bernal], a big name in film. I know Hani [Furstenberg] has been a working actress for a long time in Israel. She’s such a huge talent.
She’s in this play now called Through the Yellow Hour, which I’m excited to see.
And the mountaineer that you cast is a mountaineer in real life and he’s a nonprofessional actor. How did you go about assembling this cast?
You’re right. Gael was certainly well-known. Hani had previously done films and was heavily involved in theater. And then this mountaineer goes up a mountain. It almost sounds like a joke, you know? [Laughs] But it was the way these three fit together that ultimately makes the film work. The chemistry and dynamics between the three of them is the most important thing driving the story. I think Gael was the first person we cast and then we found the chemistry between Gael and Hani. Bidzina Gujabidze [the mountaineer] was an amazing discovery that we made.
Is your directing approach any different when you work with untrained talent?
I think each actor, weather they’re professional or non-professional, likes to work differently and you just try to communicate with them about that. It’s really about the individual person. The person might need something different from you, a director, as well. You just have to find those clues.
You have a knack for discovering unknowns. Luisa Williams from your previous film, Day Night Day Night, being one of them. What did you see in her that convinced you she might be right for that particular part?
Oh god, she’s amazing. In the case of Luisa, we had done crazy open calls and saw hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of girls. We just couldn’t find the right girl for that part. When she came along after all of those exhaustive auditions, I knew in a second that she was it. I thought she is the one and she was! You just know… Maybe it’s love at first sight or something cheesy like that.
What did you have her do in the auditioning process?
Our running joke was that she ate her way to the role. [Laughs] I had her eat so much… In all seriousness, we tried a lot of different things. We worked together for months and months, and it was very much a collaborative process. There was a lot of preparation involved. In this case with The Loneliest Planet, it was very different because we didn’t have the luxury of working together for several months. We all met up in Georgia a little before the shoot. It was very much about using the reality of the situation, the circumstances and the basic questions in the script, and playing off that.
Were you constantly discovering things that you wanted to incorporate into the film while traveling during the shoot or was everything heavily scripted prior to filming?
It was an interesting process, especially since I had been in the mountains scouting the locations for awhile prior to the shoot. I spent a long time in that village and in those mountains. But I was also constantly revising the script to incorporate the landscapes. For example, I had a guide with me while scouting and if he told me a joke or made an off-color comment, I might write that down and put it into the script. If I stumble on a cable bridge near the village, I might decide to put that in. By the time we actually shoot, so much of what’s around us has made it’s way into the script already. Of course, there are things that you discover right on the spot as well. But the film was actually more scripted than people think. People have asked me if things were improvised and most things weren’t. It was more about creating certain situations. There are scenes in the guesthouse at the beginning of the film with Gael and Hani interacting with the Georgian family. For that, we really did go to the family’s house and spent a day with them. We put fictional characters into a documentary world.
I love the scene with the rock in the boot. Was something like that scripted?
The rock in the boot actually came from the Tom Bissell short story, which is the crazy thing. That little detail opens the short story.
Did Tom ask you to remain very faithful to the source material with your adaptation?
No, not at all. We had a funny correspondence actually. He told me, “I love that you kept my favorite things from the short story: The central turning point, the river and the rock in the boot.” It was really the central incident and the idea of something like that happening that was so provocative to me. I didn’t know how I would feel about it or how to feel about it. I began with the turning point and the other things were sort of built around that, not to mention the landscape. Something like the rock in the boot stayed in because I thought it was a beautiful moment and enjoyed the simplicity of it.
You have developed an aesthetic that observes realism through the lens of prominent colors and showy sound design where your eyes and ears become fixated.
I actually write sound into the script. Sometimes I might not have specific dialogue in the script, but I’ll have details like the sound of a squeaky shoe. I know that sounds kind of absurd… And although I do tend to think in terms of pictures and sound, in the case of both, it’s something that always grows out of what I see. In terms of The Loneliest Planet, it’s very dominantly green and has a girl with red hair, which is what people remember from the film visually. But truth be told, the mountains were indeed bright green and the girl did have vibrant red hair. I work with what I have and try not to get in the way of bringing out what’s there. It was the same way with Times Square in Day Night Day Night where you want to exaggerate the feeling of actually being there with the use of vibrant colors.
Truthfully, I like looking around and seeing what’s there and respond to it. I remember this very funny interview mishap with a Russian newspaper. I said something really simple: “I’m interested in the physical aspect of spaces and the physical aspect of faces.” They printed: “I’m interested in the metaphysical aspect of spaces and the metaphysical aspect of faces.” It was one of the best transcription errors ever. I can get excited by something like looking at the back of Bidiza’s head; he has an entire mountain range on the back of his scalp! I see it and become obsessed with it. Movies let you get really obsessive about something for a while before your obsession moves onto something else. You can get obsessed about the color of a backpack for weeks and then you’re obsessed with the sound that a river makes. Someone pointed out that I have to stop making films about people with backpacks. It’s a bit sick, isn’t it? My next movie won’t have a single backpack in it. [Laughs]
Are you eyeing anything in particular for your next project? What do you want your trajectory to be like in terms of the kind of films you want to continue making?
I try to do something different with each new project. Day Night Day Night was about a girl who wants to be in a relationship to no one but herself in the middle of a city. With The Loneliest Planet, I wanted to do something different and went into the mountains; it was nice to film something that revolves around relationships. I don’t know what I’ll end up doing next. Certainly, after filming in the mountains, I want to film inside a studio where you have more control over everything and it’s easier… I’m obviously joking, but I always want to react against something I’ve already done.
What do you, maybe secretly, hope people get out of watching your films?
I hope they get something out of it. I don’t know if one should think of it that way. You try to give what you can and what people take from it is very individual. My role is to make the offerings.
Are you ever surprised by how people interpret your work?
Oh god, constantly! Constantly. Again, I think it would be inappropriate for me to tell them they’re wrong. Once the film is out there, people can look at it however they want to look at it. People catch themes and certain dynamics that you never even thought of. It’s like, “Oh, that’s nice! But I didn’t do it on purpose…” [Laughs] And then other times, I guess people say things that seem kind of rocky. It has so much to do with emotional reactions with The Loneliest Planet because it’s a story about relationships. I can never predict what someone might think after watching a movie. It’s more about them than it is about the film because, in this case, I’ve had people say that things are very clear; their relationship is over and they can never be together. Other people will say that they don’t understand what the big deal is in regard to the pivotal incident. It becomes so much more about a person’s own view on love, forgiveness, men, women and these big personal issues.
What have you learned as a filmmaker at this point in your career?
That you fuck up every time, but hopefully something good comes together in the end. [Laughs] Inevitably, that’s what you do every day.