Angad [Aulakh] and I didn’t imagine we would make our first feature in Iceland, let alone with such a pedigree of people.
First-time feature filmmaker Angad Aulakh’s thematic and aesthetic signatures are found front and center throughout Autumn Lights, a pondering let-it-wash-over-you kind of movie that rewards handsomely to those most patient of viewers. An intimate exploration of obsession and loneliness set against a sweeping postcard-Iceland—idyllic, and at others, haunting—the film’s curious anachronism and languid dreamlike quality prove mesmerizing and maddening in equal measures.
Autumn Lights follows David (Guy Kent), an adrift American photographer who gets caught up in a criminal investigation upon discovering a body washed up on a beach in a remote Icelandic community. Now bound to the place he doesn’t call home, he acquaints himself with the few inhabitants in the area, among them Marie (Marta Gastini), an Italian woman whose shiftiness betrays not only her beautiful face but her Icelandic husband Jóhann’s (Sveinn Ólafur Gunnarsson) own unruffled demeanor. As days pass, David’s fascination with the mysterious couple intensifies, eclipsing his memory of the dead woman who inadvertently set him on this particular trajectory.
To take us behind-the-scenes of Autumn Lights in our latest edition of This Course is its leading star and producer Kent. The goal of this ongoing series of food and conversation is to keep things as transparent as possible. It’s essentially an open dialogue, in this instance over lunch at Rose Cafe in Venice Beach, where we discuss a myriad of things, including Kent’s Los Angeles story, his experience working with an Icelandic cast and crew, and finding a creative partner in Aulakh.
Autumn Lights will hit select theaters on October 21 with a day-and-date VOD debut.
I’m sorry to start this off on a random note, but you sound like Thor. It just came to mind.
[Laughs] When I finished film school, I was in my early twenties and going on these auditions, but I sounded like I was in my thirties and no one would believe how old I actually was. I very much felt like an in-between then, and realized that I had to sort of create opportunities for myself.
Where does your Los Angeles story begin? How did you find your way into the business?
I grew up in Brentwood. I have family in the industry and a lot of my family friends are in the business as well. I actually wanted to be a doctor for a really long time. I was pretty set on going to medical school until the beginning of high school. I didn’t think being an actor was an actual job. I was certainly around it, but it never dawned on me it was something I could do as a profession.
And support you financially.
Exactly. But I always had interest in it, ever since elementary school. In high school, I started doing theater and wrote scripts. I actually had a show on public-access TV during high school. I guess you could say it was non-fiction. We basically went street by street and found all the cool hidden things no one knew about, and that kind of got my feet wet. Then I applied to the film program at USC and went there. At that point, I just wanted to be acting already. It’s crazy because everyone who’s successful will tell you, “Always have a back-up plan!” and it’s like, “Did you guys have a back-up plan?” [Laughs] I definitely never had one. I think you have to have complete and utter commitment like, “It’s this or nothing” sort of mentality. That’s the way I always looked at it.
Somewhere along the way, you and Angad Aulakh obviously found one another.
We did, and we embarked on this ridiculously tireless pursuit of getting a movie made. Angad has a very specific worldview. There’s a very specific viewpoint in the kinds of stories he likes to tell. When he has a story in mind, he writes very quickly. We were working on getting some other scripts off the ground and we found some momentum, but we really wanted to be shooting already. We’re both very, very impatient people when it comes to this stuff. It’s like, if something wasn’t really moving at the pace we wanted it to and we saw that the movie wasn’t going to get greenlit at a certain time, we just moved on. But each of those scripts moved us in the direction towards getting something made. That’s how Autumn Lights happened, and it happened very quickly.
Were there very practical reasons why Autumn Lights was easier to get made?
A lot of it was practical, yeah. Aside from the fact that the story had to be kept small, maintaining a certain level of quality was incredibly important to the both of us. Iceland is very film-friendly and they have incredible incentive programs. They want things to be shot there and they have these incredible crews. The people on our Icelandic unit also worked on Games of Thrones, [Darren Aronofsky's] Noah, and other large productions. You also wonder, “Where in the world do we have family, and how can we take advantage of that?” We were really inspired by the Borderline guys and Brit Marling. There are many examples of those kinds of people in the past sort of five years who made opportunities for themselves. Of course, they also did it in a very professional way.
We’re moving into our next project now and the industry is such a hostile environment! [Laughs] People respect work and films so it’s not so much that the love isn’t there, but the opportunity to make certain kinds of films happen is just evaporating and that’s incredibly daunting. I have to constantly remind myself every day not to focus on that stuff because it’s always going to be an uphill battle, and it’s extremely uphill right now. We’re very inspired by creating our own opportunities and not thinking about the negativity that’s endlessly waiting for you if you do think about that stuff. Being strategic is also very much a part of the process because it is a business. You have to surround yourself with the right team and people you believe in who also believe in you.
How did you personally relate to your character in Autumn Lights?
We’re similar in a lot of ways, but also very different. David is very reserved with his emotions, and I’m not that way at all. Angad wanted to make David as understated as possible. He’s in this crazy environment with these very colorful characters. He’s our eyes into the film so he needed to be that everyman—someone a little more grounded. Oftentimes you see characters who have these sweeping emotions where it’s sort of all over the place, which is fine and there are incredible performances that come out of that, but we wanted to subvert it and do something a bit different.
There’s this feeling when you watch the movie that these characters don’t quite belong in the same temporal space. It’s like, “Why are these people hanging out with each other?”
No, absolutely! These characters are almost impressionistic. When you force these unique characters and their situations into the same space, it’s bizarre and unexpected. Angad doesn’t like to pinpoint things to a specific time period. And not only are the characters anachronistic, we discussed how much David needed to be a man from a different generation. David holds himself in a way that a lot of guys—a lot of people in general—don’t carry themselves anymore. The facade is very much how he presents himself to the world, but he’s quite different on the inside.
David is hard to read, that’s for sure.
He’s very enigmatic and hard to read. I would say that all the characters are, aside from maybe Liv [Salome R. Gunnarsdottir] and some of the other outlying characters that almost border on being really specific. You’re not quite sure where some of these characters exist on a moral spectrum.
You want to connect with David because he’s the quasi-normal one, but Marie, despite all of her unsavoriness, really worked away at some of my very real anxieties and insecurities.
They all sort of have qualities about them that we can relate to in a universal way, yet they also have qualities to them that might be unsavory. David is in some ways the worst of them all if you look at his actions. It’s like the love we have for our best friends where we don’t necessarily agree with everything they do or say—you notice it, but you don’t make a judgement on it. You can look at Marie’s questionable qualities, but you also see that she’s struggling with a lot of internal issues.
You sort of give her a pass because she’s so upfront about her flaws. She’s not detestable.
One–hundred–percent. The characters are deeply complex. They put a mirror up to you.
Iceland seems serene, but also terrifying if you imagine yourself out there alone.
Oh my god, Iceland was quite the experience. It’s an experience that I’m going to carry with me for the rest of my life. It’s a place that I would one day want to bring my own family back to. It’s the most beautiful place. You can literally pick up a camera and put it in any direction for an amazing shot. The light and geography are so dramatic. Reykjavík is a gem of a city. I actually didn’t know a whole lot going into it like, “What are we getting ourselves into right now?” [Laughs] Iceland has now obviously become the “hot” place to check out. There’s less than something like 350,000 people in the entire country. I think there are 150,000 or less people living in Reykjavík.
It’s small enough where everyone’s in everyone else’s business?
It goes that you swipe enough on Tinder in Iceland and you end up swiping your cousins. But despite there being so few people there, it definitely has a metropolitan feel to it. It’s a small town, sure, but it still has great restaurants, an incredible art scene for music and film, and stuff like that. We got involved in the artist community there and everyone was so nice and friendly, and well traveled. They put a strong emphasis on seeing the world and being world citizens. I tell everyone to go to Iceland. They have their own Coca-Cola factory, which is sort of mind-boggling.
I’m intrigued by this idea of working with a foreign film crew on their turf and their terms.
We were already acquainted with Scandinavian cinema and became even more acquainted with Icelandic cinema, which is fantastic. We got to pick every single cast member from the movies we’d seen. It was incredible to be able to work with such incredible talent there like, “I can’t believe this is real.” It was a real learning experience seeing them work, talking to them, and being there in rehearsals because it is so different. They’re all at the height of their careers in Iceland and doing really incredible work. We were definitely pinching ourselves. Angad and I didn’t imagine we would make our first feature in Iceland, let alone with such a pedigree of people.
What kinds of filmmakers do you find yourself most drawn to these days?
I have a list of directors that I want to work with in a folder on my desktop and it’s ever-growing. Angad is my producing partner and he’s like family to me so I’ll leave him out of this. It spans all genres. I think the relationship between the actor and the director is the most important on set because it’s the most delicate and mercurial. I love what Nicolas Winding Refn is doing. I loved Drive in particular and thought that was a masterpiece. I loved Bronson, too. Tom Hardy was incredible.
It made Tom Hardy. That’s a great example of like, “It only takes one opportunity.”
Another really important thing is how a movie lives on, rather than what the reviews say. If a movie is truly worth its weight, it will find its place. I’m new to the game, but I don’t think anything could ever scare me so much that I wouldn’t try it. That kind of tunnel vision is necessary.
I’m skipping around here a bit, but what made you want to become a doctor initially?
Well, my dad’s a doctor and I was always interested in medicine. It’s something that still fascinates me to this day. I also love science. I’m a huge history and science nerd, still to this day.
The other interests you have outside of film can only add more depth to your craft. I can’t think of many occupations out there where this also applies. Actors observe in order to copy.
I would go up for these period roles when I started auditioning a lot and I was so excited because it felt like homework doing the research. I would watch all these documentaries and prepare for the role as if I already had it. Very simply, you get to learn about something that’s not in your everyday life. That not only broadens your understanding of the world, but makes you more useful to society. That’s one of the aspects of acting that I find so enriching. You learn a lot as a producer, too. I definitely tend to gravitate towards things that are outside of my everyday. I like doing homework.
You must’ve loved going to school.
Oh god, no! [Laughs] I keep saying this, but I just wanted to be an adult. I was doing everything I could to not have the “college experience.” But, you know, everyone has their own version of it.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind looking back on the Autumn Lights shoot?
I got sick halfway through filming. I have horrible environmental allergies. This one particular week, everything just decided to bloom in Iceland. I remember shooting the scene where David gets into this mini fight towards the end of the film. I was smoking cigarettes in the scene, which, by the way, is not great for my allergies. So between that and everything being in bloom, I woke up like death the next day. It was so bad. It’s light 24 hours a day during that time of year in Iceland, so it was like 11PM when we shot that and it was still bright out. I was dying and trying to get all of my functions back together because it was so late in the day. But, you know, you go with it.
Do you have a dream role? Is there something quite specific that you’re keen on trying out?
I’m not married to a specific genre by any means, but I am specific taste-wise. I have predilections, but I don’t think I would ever outright say “No” to something. Tilda Swinton is one of my favorite actresses of all time and she’s a true chameleon, which is not only rare, but something that I strive for. I enjoy that kind of boundless creativity. It has so much to do with working with people as well because that excites me so much. I don’t think so much in terms of kinds of roles.
I’m sure that’s also ever-changing because you never know what might come along.
Whatever Angad and I end up making next, whether that’s the first film we tried to get off the ground or an entirely different one, my character will be the antithesis of David. Everything about him will be a one-eighty. It’s exciting thing to have that variety. When I was young, I wanted to be James Bond. I wanted to be the American Bond. I wanted to be the Sean Connery Bond.
So not Pierce Brosnan?
[Laughs] They’re all great Bonds! Again, it’s so much about working with cool artists for me, whether it’s on something mainstream or not. I’m drawn to unique visions and people who have an originality. I like unconventional characters that scare you. I like being pushed to the point of, “Can I really do this?” That’s something I asked myself every day while getting Autumn Lights made. This is the kind of stuff I’m striving to find, not only as an actor but as a producer, too. It’s vital.
Will you revisit those earlier scripts you were trying to get off the ground with Angad?
Oh yeah, we very much intend to. It’s great because we have a slate of films now. It’s not like Autumn Lights is a mixture of the scripts that came before it. They’re all very, very different.