Filmmaker Julia Loktev.
I spoke with Director Julia Loktev in September about her latest film, The Loneliest Planet (NYFF '11), which is now playing in select theaters nationwide. Set in the mountains of Georgia (the country), the film follows a thirtysomething couple on vacation—Nica (Hani Furstenburg) and Alex (Gael García Bernal)—who hire a guide named Dato (played by real-life mountaineer Bidzina Gujabidze) to lead them through the beautiful, wild landscape. The fiancés' relationship is put to the test by the trying hike.
The Loneliest Planet interweaves the confounding vastness of the Georgian mountains with the never-quite-delimited intimacy of the two hikers and their guide. As with Loktev’s previous feature film Day Night Day Night (ND/NF '07)—a claustrophobic study of a waifish, pan-ethnic, aspiring suicide bomber—The Loneliest Planet highlights Loktev’s uncanny ability to put mise-en-scène into dialogue with the story it carries. Through this encoded conversation, her films become both starkly beautiful and calculatedly disruptive. Cuts, both sound and picture, interrupt the film perhaps as much as they conduct it.
The Loneliest Planet, in particular, cultivates its own inaccessibility, a gesture that can make the audience twitch and burn; the film is richer for it. Almost as soon as the camera unveils the landscape’s vast beauty, as a luscious soundtrack of strings nears a pregnant crescendo, sound and image both cut, warping the fiction and tempering it, both. These jagged cuts skillfully mirror the landscape and relationships they depict. They also make The Loneliest Planet a challenging film, and one very much worth seeing. Moments of overwhelming beauty consort with carefully sculpted ambiguity to form tableaux whose unique textures are singular in contemporary cinema. Whether in the Georgian mountains, the tumult of Times Square, or the confines of her mother’s home, Loktev is a director who makes familiar spaces seem strange and new.
The Loneliest Planet
Hani Furstenburg and Luisa Williams [who played the lead in Day Night Day Night] both have distinctive faces, but perhaps don’t have the typical movie star look. What do you look for in a face when casting?
That’s a good question. I think I just sense when it’s right. Hani is a really good example because she’s beautiful one moment, another moment, she almost looks like a child, or like she’s changed ages. She’s funny looking at other moments. I mean, she looks like Liv Ullmann! Well, when I first met her—she’s going to yell at me for this—I was thinking, "God, it’s the unholy cross of Liv Ullmann and Alfred E. Newman!"
You’ve worked with editor Michael Taylor on both Day Night Day Night and The Loneliest Planet. Would you talk about how you work together?
We edit together, and we have a funny relationship actually because I operate and Michael sits in the director’s chair. So, he’s a brilliant judge of performances and he’s very good at finding nuanced moments, but really I so enjoy the formal part. You know, the picture cuts and the sound cuts, on a very formal level, I can’t give it up. So in a way we reverse roles. We always work together and I think we work together really well.
I interviewed him for Day Night Day Night because I had cut Moment of Impact (NYFF '98) myself, but I like working with somebody. Ultimately, I like sitting there with someone and having a conversation. It’s much nicer than being stuck in a room alone.
Michael brings a very different aspect to it than I do. He was actually from a very different background. He was a script supervisor for a ton of films [Eat Drink Man Woman, 1994; Happiness, 1998; You Can Count on Me, 2000; Monster’s Ball, 2001], and then moved into editing from there, so he’s spent so much time on set. On The Loneliest Planet, Michael was also on set. I thought we’d begin the collaboration early on this one. It’s really great working relationship; he’s lovely to work with.
Are you looking to cultivate a certain feeling? Something disjunctive, something shocking for example?
I just want to be entirely in that space. I don’t want to glue one space to another. You know, you’re in one moment and then you’re in the next moment. I don’t see why one would want to suture that cut, or kind of smooth over from one thing to another. Because actually you’re here and now, you’re there.
And you like that feeling?
Yes, I like that. It pleases me somehow [laughing]. I think I look for the sharpest most unpleasant noises to cut on, truthfully.
Are there some films or filmmakers who do that for you?
I can’t even think of any really right now. I know there must be many.
Yes, exactly. And those are even more extreme sound cuts. Absolutely. But the difference is with Godard… Well, I’m thinking of Contempt for instance, there are sound cuts, but they’re not necessarily related to the picture cuts. For me it’s very organic: I just cut the sound right where the picture is.
So you wouldn’t say you’re playing with sound?
I’m constantly working with sound because I came to film from sound, so for me sound is huge. I spend a lot of time thinking about sounds, recording sounds, and making sure we get everything in extreme close-up, constructing it. It’s my favorite part, probably.
That’s a lovely string score you have in The Loneliest Planet.
It’s an existing piece by Richard Skelton that I found, and it just fit with the film. Strangely enough, I’ve heard people describe it as "from the Caucasus," but I’m like, "he’s an English musician! Working with an English landscape!"
There is either violence or implied violence in The Loneliest Planet, Day Night Day Night, Moment of Impact, and in the video art you’ve done. So what’s up with all this violence, Julia?
There’s violence in life [Laughs].
You’ve also made several video art pieces or installations: I Cried for You, in which people are asked to come and cry on cue for the camera, and also piece for Global Feminisms at the Brooklyn Museum. I think you’ve disowned that one. Correct me if I’m wrong.
The piece? [Laughing]
Yes. No, not the museum.
I haven’t disowned it. [Laughs] At least I don’t think so. It’s called Rough House. I did a live version of I Cried for You in Toronto a few years ago, and that was the last thing. Well, I think ultimately I’m much more interested in regular movies. You know, I like time. I like when people come at the beginning and stay until the end. So, I haven’t really been doing much installation work because it’s hard to get that sort of time in a gallery setting.
What is your relationship to the films of Chantal Akerman?
I like Chantal Akerman. Jeanne Dielman, Je, tu, il, elle, these were films I used to watch and that meant a lot to me. It’s something that I saw many years ago and it marked me. It’s one of those movies that you see and it changes the way you think about movies, perhaps. So, it’s not necessarily something I come back to.
Well, no that’s not a fair thing to say actually. It’s one of those things where it’s kind of always there in the back of your mind.
Day Night Day Night ((ND/NF '07)
What are some other films you like to rewatch?
Recently I’ve been rewatching Melville films. Le Cercle rouge, Le Deuxième souffle. The films I like are very different from the kinds of films people think I watch. I like gangster movies, I like Brian de Palma. For me the [Andrej] Zulawski retrospective was the highlight of my cinematic year last year. [Laughs] I think my tastes are very different from what I actually make. Maybe that will get more in sync going forward?
Would you make a comedy? There’s so much comedy in your films.
There’s always comedy, sure. But I also like music. I like dancing. I just did this kind of written piece on dancing with strangers.
So will you make a musical?
I would totally be into making a musical! But straight up comedy? No. I’m most interested in comedy in the midst of tragedy, especially in the most inappropriate moments.
When you watch a film, how do you like to feel?
I like to feel that I’m surprised. And I don’t mean by the plot developments, but by a sound, an image, to be caught off guard. I mean, simple things, I think, things most people would want. But I also like films I don’t understand completely. I think those are my favorite movies, where I don’t understand what went on. Recently, I was watching all those Zulawski films. I’m thinking of My Nights Are More Beautiful Than Your Days. I was like, "I don’t know what I just saw, but I loved it." I get very excited with that.
Do you try to do that with your films?
Not in that sense. I don’t want to make a film where people go see it and then the experience is done [when the movie ends]. To me the best thing I could hear about my movie is that "we went to a coffee shop and we argued about it for hours." Or, I think some critic wrote, "I’m not sure if I liked it, but I’m still thinking about it two weeks later." I think that’s really the best response you can have. There’s still something going on, after the film.
Julia Loktev and Film Society of Lincoln Center Program Director Richard Peña at the 2011 New York Film Festival. Photo: Godlis
Do you think the couple in The Loneliest Planet was fundamentally a good match?
They seemed to have a nice symbiosis; they seemed very comfortable with each other. They had an intimacy. They are at a stage in this relationship where they can just be together, explore the world together. They can be together silently. I always think that’s a mark of intimacy. … In any relationship, something can happen, that you’re not ready for, where it throws you for a [loop]. And you don’t know how to respond. And the film is about that, not knowing.
Knowing how to not know how to respond?
Yes, exactly, knowing how not to know. And that is the most difficult thing, when you don’t act how you would have liked to act. And that happens all the time. We screw up all the time. And people forgive each other all the time, and people sometimes resent each other all the time.
I remember hearing Gael García Bernal say during an interview that what he most liked about working with you was that you instilled, early on, an important question in them as actors, before shooting, so that they had something to follow internally. Does that description resonate with what you like to do or tried to do?
Yes, and I think it’s always about an unspoken question. That’s what it’s all about.
Were you able to anticipate the critics’ responses to Day Night Day Night and The Loneliest Planet?
You’re always pleased by the nice things people say, and shocked by the stupid things, and hurt by the mean things people say. For Day Night Day Night in particular I was surprised by a typical criticism that got repeated, where people wanted an explanation for why the main character was doing what she did. For me, I thought that was fairly self-evident and something people could get from other contexts. I sort of thought the film plugged into other contexts immediately, and people didn’t need to be told what they already know. I am surprised when people want to be told what they know already. I thought I would get blasted for a lot of different things, but not for that one. I thought the criticism I would get would be making a movie about a suicide bomber, but people reacted more to the fact that they wanted me justify her actions more. But, I didn’t want to get into justifying the cause, and have this thing where I was saying "here’s this poor little girl."
With The Loneliest Planet, I’m always surprised by people’s reactions, because I never know who is going to say what, even among friends. It’s so personal—I’ll put it that way. People have these incredibly unpredictable personal reactions to the movie. It ranges from "there’s no way this couple can ever be together again" to "what’s the big deal?" I’m utterly shocked sometimes by how people react. It’s not like it’s that women think this and men think that.
The Loneliest Planet is so much about confusion. I thought I might get blasted for the film being reactionary and anti-feminist, because you could see that reading in there; you could kind of go there. I thought someone might say "you made this film about a girl who thinks she’s independent, but she’s not so independent after all!" And I’m being sarcastic here. That would be a reductive reading. But in a way the film reaffirms very traditional gender roles.
They’re hiking a mountain. That’s a place where traditional gender roles would show, I’d think.
It reaffirms those traditional roles. That for me is the contradiction, for me personally. That I think of myself as a feminist, but I catch myself where I want a man to be a man. I want a man to be a real man. [Laughs].
Where did you get this tongue twister [that appears in The Loneliest Planet], “I take my bitch to the beach?” Is this an old CIA test for undercover Soviet spies?
No, it’s something I used to practice with my mother. You know, I was born in Russia, and my mother, like a typical Russian, says "bitch" like "beach" and "beach" like "bitch," and "shit" like "sheet" and "sheet" like "shit." [Laughs] So we used to practice those growing up with my mom, to train her to differentiate between these words.
Well, thank you. I look forward to speaking again as your next project develops.
Feminism aside, The Loneliest Planet is really about a man who doesn’t behave how he would expect to behave. It’s really about being confused by your own reactions, frankly. Because I don’t have a clear position that I could say I was trying to articulate other than “people are fucked up, and sometimes fuck up.”
The Loneliest Planet was a Main Slate selection in NYFF '11 and is now playing in more than a dozen cities nationwide.