Interview : Miguel Gomes on Tabu

It may be somewhat premature only half way through August to be calling a film the best of the year, but so remarkable a picture is Miguel Gomes’ third feature Tabu that it’s going to take something pretty special in the coming months to topple it from such a position.

I was lucky to spend some time with the filmmaker in London after Tabu’s Edinburgh premiere to talk about the film, and will be posting a review ahead of its UK release on September 7th.

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There are so many striking images in Tabu. Did any in particular serve as seeds for the idea of the film?

In this case there was no particular image that appeared to me and gave birth to the rest of the film. There were two sources, both very different things. One was a story that was told to me by a relative of mine. She spoke of her neighbour, a very senile old woman with an African maid of whom she was very suspicious. She accused her of being a witch who would shut her in her room at night, but then she was more than a little paranoid and senile. I was interested in these stories that seemed ridiculous, but at the same time became attached to these characters; older, lonely women that have very normal lives but are eccentric in some way. You don’t get to see these types of older women much in cinema, they’re not marginal characters but integrated into society and that’s what I wanted my film to be about. In my previous film (Our Beloved Month of August), which contained lots of songs, I discovered that one of them was performed by a Portuguese band who played in Mozambique in the 60s. I met these guys and they showed me photos of them playing in Mozambique in their white suits, telling me stories of how they picked up girls and sang hits by Elvis and the Beatles. So, it came from these two things that appeared not to have a connection. This is how and why I make films. I get attached to a collection of things; songs, stories and yeah, sometimes images, and in a mysterious way over which I have no control, it all comes together and I know there’s a film coming.

It’s a beautifully stylised film. Did all the aesthetic decisions as to the aspect ratio, the different film stocks etc. come early in the process?

It all came pretty early. One of the things that was important to the appearance of Tabu came from seeing a film in Cannes with my cinematographer. It was shot on black and white film stock and I asked him, “Can you do that?”. Things are changing in the world of cinema, from traditional film stock to digital, so I thought this may be one of my last chances to shoot on film. From the beginning I’d decided I wanted to make a connection to ‘extinguished things’, one of them being forms of cinema, but also memory in a more general sense. In the first part of the film a character called Aurora disappears, only existing as a ghost in another character’s memory in the second half. So we have these memories of her in Africa fifty years earlier, and it becomes about a society that is also extinguished. I wanted to create a dialogue between this and extinguished forms of cinema; of course silent films, but also classical American cinema, and I wanted to do it the proper way, with materials that are on the verge of disappearing, as it was done over decades and decades of film history. I thought this was the only honest way to do it.

The title is taken from Murnau’s 1931 film of the same name, and there are clear links between the two throughout, but were there any other particular cinematic antecedents that fed directly into Tabu?

Several things happen with me at the same time. Neurologically speaking, I have a feeble memory. I remember certain films, but usually I can’t remember the majority that I’ve seen. They all get mixed up in my brain, no matter how wonderful or magnificent they may be. Murnau’s Tabu, for me, is like a symbol of cinema. It’s one of the most beautiful films ever made, and in my mind becomes representative of all cinema. There were good and bad silent films, of course, but with my memory as it is, I don’t need to remember specific titles or directors, Murnau can stand for all of them.

Was it difficult to avoid the trap of pastiche?

I don’t like to talk badly of other films. I used to be a film critic and said plenty of bad things then, so I don’t have to do that any more. I will say though, that I think The Artist is well done, but personally, when watching it, I can’t believe that I’m living through the 1920s. I know that I’m Portuguese and living in 2012, so to achieve the real feelings of silent film, you need to invent a way to get there. Not just reproducing the aesthetic of silent film, not just imitating. We use a specific technique in the second half of Tabu that results from a story being told in retrospect, in memory. You don’t remember the exact words that were said at the time, so in that way I was able to eliminate dialogue. It becomes an exercise in memory; you can remember certain images, certain details, but you don’t remember the words themselves. I could use the music, the background sounds and the narration instead. There’s no dialogue, so in one respect it’s silent, but it has a larger soundscape than any of my films, so in that respect it’s not a silent film at all.

The second half of Tabu is called ‘Paradise’. Do you think paradise is a concept that only exists in old Hollywood movies?

I think that there is a connection between cinema and memory. Memory can be paradise as much as it can be hell. I don’t believe in any other paradises, so I believe the only one we have is the recollection of happiness. Cinema allows that. It’s like a time machine that lets you go back into the past. In this film the past is paradise at certain moments and hell at others. It’s paradise for Aurora and Ventura when they are in love but not for the servants sweeping the floor.

The loss of paradise inferred from the structure of the film seems directly related to the loss of youth, the loss of innocence.

It’s exactly that. Though for historical reasons, it’s also about the loss of land, of a regime. I think it takes a very ironic stance against the regime. It’s about white people and their concerns, they’re falling in love without any awareness of what’s going on around them. They’re politically and socially unaware of a society that’s killing itself around them. It’s like they’re playing out a film, playing Out of Africa, they don’t care, and I imagine they’ll be very surprised when the Empire comes crashing down around them. So in that respect, for them it’s not about the loss of land and the regime, it’s about the loss of youth and innocence, the loss of a time when they were happier, less lonely. I wanted to place the contemporary section first to add an extra weight to the second. You get to see all the young guys and girls in the second part playing around, but with the sadness that derives from the first section adding another level underneath what you’re seeing.

That sadness is most obviously felt in Aurora and Ventura’s story. The way the film is structured, we know the outcome of their love affair even as we see it begin. For me though, the real sadness and melancholy is felt in Pilar’s story, the one listening to a tale of a great love lost who has never experienced anything like that herself. She seems to be constantly searching for some kind of connection that always eludes her; the Polish student stands her up, she’s crying in the cinema alone whilst her date snores beside her, even her relationship with Aurora seems rather one-sided…

Yeah, she’s like the viewer, I guess. The second half of the story won’t change anything for Aurora or Santa, but like all of us, Pilar has this romantic desire to hear stories, stories of history or fiction. That’s why she goes to the cinema, to fulfil a certain emptiness that exists in her life. I’ve elected Pilar as the central character in the film, a woman looking for human bonds that’s abandoned by the student at the start of the film. She wants to connect with Aurora, maybe to take the place of the daughter that Aurora seems not to care about. She’s looking everywhere for these connections, but the only one that seems willing is the painter, and he’s a pain in the ass. As well-intentioned as Pilar is, there are limits. In the first section of the film there’s a vague sensation that something went wrong, we don’t know what, but there’s a feeling that something went wrong with society along the way that affected the lives of these people. There’s an emptiness in comparison to the adventures we see in the second half, but also a vague sensation of guilt. Aurora feels guilty, even if she comes across on the surface as just a senile old woman, we find out the source of this guilt in the second part. Pilar is one of those very Catholic, well-intentioned people that is acutely aware that the world is unfair, so she tries to fix it, well aware that this is an impossible task. She wants to take on everybody’s guilt, take the guilt of society onto her own shoulders, which is why she’s the central character of the first part, even if it’s Aurora’s story that takes over the second half of the film. Pilar annoys me, the way she’s so naïve, but it moves me too, the way she takes on everyone’s burdens to try and make the world a better place. She won’t get anywhere, but there’s definitely something moving when we see these white people in the second half playing rock music, having the time of their lives, in a way very different from Pilar’s life. Then we see them doing stupid stuff, like killing each other. In a very abstract way, she’s carrying the cross for a life she has not lived. I asked the actress playing Pilar to wear a particular expression, to have her mouth slightly open, like a cinema viewer amazed at what she’s seeing on screen. With Aurora, I wanted her to behave like a movie star, like she’s on the other side of the screen to Pilar, performing a show for which Pilar is just the spectator.

The world of Tabu is one of ghosts and dreams, where both hold extraordinary power. Dreams of fighting monkeys, where melancholy souls become trapped in crocodiles. Images from dreams, old movies and memories flow into each other throughout the film, but Aurora disavows this at the start, “I’m such a fool : people’s lives are not like dreams”, she says. Your outlook seems much more romantic than this though.

Yeah. If Pilar stands for the viewer, for those sitting in the audience watching, then yeah. She wants to have all these emotions that are associated with cinema, all these stories and adventures are something that she desires, just like the viewer. Aurora, she knows better, she’s on the other side of the spectacle. She’s the actress, she’s manipulating things to put on the show. To justify her gambling at the start, she invents a film. We don’t even know in the second part whether this Ventura guy is talking nonsense. He certainly seems to be. Nonsense about Kaliphs and revoultions in the Arabic peninsula. He could be crazy for all we know. What’s important though, is how we need these stories, Pilar and ourselves, we need them. There’s a book I read called Arabian Nights, literally a book about the absolute desire to listen to stories. It’s a collection of stories structured around the tale of a prince who marries a new bride every night, killing them at the end of the story he makes them tell him. He’s fooled by one though. Sheherazade doesn’t finish her stories, she leaves them each night hanging in the middle so that he won’t kill her, desperate for her to continue the tale the next night. It makes the desire for fiction a matter of life and death. Ever since I first read it as a kid, it made a huge impression on me. Why tell one story, when I can tell many.

Can you talk about what you wanted to do with the opening section of Tabu?

It’s a film that Pilar is watching in the cinema. It’s introducing Africa, our first crocodile, the idea of doomed love and the idea of time. The crocodile eats the explorer and the last sentence of the narration is “Through time and for centuries to come, this melancholic crocodile and this ghost would be seen together for eternity”. I wanted the rest of the film to get back to this idea of time and romanticism. I liked the idea of the crocodile digesting this explorer, attaching the crocodiles in the film to the idea of time, witnesses to doomed love stories and the rise and fall of human societies. They look so old, so ancient. We usually associate elephants with the idea of memory, but I wanted crocodiles to bear witness to the madness of man through history. The crocodiles were there before men and maybe they’ll be there after them too.

You said earlier that you didn’t believe in paradise in a spiritual sense, but with the ghosts of the film and spirits of people living on for eternity in crocodiles, there seems to be a more Eastern kind of spirituality at work, not dissimilar to the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

Of course. I mean, I’m not Catholic, I don’t believe in hell or paradise or anything like that, but I’m Portuguese, so we all have roots in Catholicism. I really enjoy Apichatpong’s films and I think we definitely share something in that we both have a belief in stories. He made an installation before Uncle Boonmee called Primitive, and I think we both share this desire to return to something primitive, to the beginning of stories, which in turn are the beginning of cinema. We both love stories that strive to be unrealistic. Trying to fight against the currency of mainstream cinema, to fight against realism, against naturalism. I like artificial things, the idea of cinema not trying to reproduce reality because it will always be doomed to failure. Cinema cannot compete against reality. I’m interested in a cinema that can be ‘honestly unreal’. If you can be moved by these unreal things, then there is truth in that.

Tabu will be released by New Wave Films on 7th September

Our Beloved Month of August is available on DVD  from Second Run

Interview : Theo Angelopoulos

With three remarkable new DVD boxsets of his work released by Artificial Eye this month, many for the first time, Palme D’Or winning director Theo Angelopoulos’s films are works of singular beauty. As renowned for his breathtaking single-take sequence shots as for his willingness to confront Greece’s turbulent political history, his films are expansive, richly poetic meditations on the Greek condition. Currently in pre-production on his fourteenth feature, I had the chance to ask perhaps the greatest living filmmaker some questions about his work.

You appeared to be against the idea of releasing many of your films on video and DVD for some time, preferring them to experienced on the big screen, where the impact of their scale can be best appreciated. What made you change your mind?

Times change and one must accept the fact that today the distribution of films today is not confined exclusively to theatrical release. There are generations that discover films through the Internet or on DVD.

You’ve spoken previously of your love for American genre cinema, can you talk a little about how it’s specifically influenced your work?

In the early post-war years, apart from the Greek melodramatic period films the only cinema present were American films that came along with the Marshall Plan. Most of them were nothing special but there were some that left their mark on subsequent film generations. Later, in the Paris of the Nouvelle Vague, the acquaintance with American cinema and its most important films is well known historically. When we talk about influences there are those that are obvious and those that function beneath the surface as a sort of darkness of inspiration. Let’s say that that’s what happened to me too.

How do you write your screenplays? Do you begin with an idea for a shot or a sequence or with dialogue? Are they intricate shooting scripts from the start?

The point of departure may be an image, a meeting, a journey, an old story that emerges and seeks to become an image. A scene of a wedding that takes place on the borders between two countries divided by a river in the film The Suspended Step of the Stork with the bridegroom on one side of the river and the bride on the opposite side began with an image I saw in Harlem in New York. Two young black boys were rehearsing on a deserted street.

Images are born on journeys. I don’t need to keep notes. They are born with their lines, their colors, with their style. The hundreds of photographs serve as memory. Yet nothing finishes before shooting. During the shooting of the film everything is recreated on the basis of the new reality. Actors, the unforeseen, fortunate or unfortunate, sudden ideas. And yet the beginning of the beginning has preceded it. Long before. When, out of nothing, the idea for a film is born. Out of nothing? No and yes.

How do you go about planning your extraordinary sequence shots? How did you

decide that this technique would form such a fundamental part of your style as a


If we mean the choice to work with long takes I must say that it was not a logical decision but a natural choice. A need to incorporate natural time in the space as a unity of space and time. Space that becomes time. A need for the so-called dead time between the action and its anticipation, which is usually eliminated in the cutting room by the editor, to function musically like pauses. A perception of the shot as a living cell that inhales, delivers the main word and exhales. A fascinating and dangerous choice that continues to the present day.

Is your use of sound and music, and its editing, something planned as meticulously in advance of shooting, or an aspect you focus on more in the post-production stage?

The sound and the music are of course planned in advance of shooting but are completed after shooting is finished, during the editing stage. When the image seems to be seeking its second completion.

How did the political climate in the 1970s affect both the content and production of your films from that period? How much of the elliptical nature of your films; what doesn’t appear on screen, were a direct result of political censorship at the time? How much do you rely on the audience to fill in these gaps?

Many who have done me the honor of occupying themselves with my work think that the way I write is the result of political choice. That’s quite how it is. Of course when I made Days of ‘36, a film on dictatorship, during a period of dictatorship, and it was impossible to use direct references, I sought a secret language. The allusions of history. The “dead time” of a conspiracy. Suppression. Elliptical speech as aesthetic principle. A film in which all the important things seem to be taking place off camera. As regards the audience, I must relate a scene. The period of dictatorship, the screening of the film Days of ‘36. The film ends and there’s the audience and behind the audience the police in plain clothes.

A member of the audience: “In that scene did you mean what we thought you meant?”

Reply: Yes…


The same thing was repeated during the entire run of the film with abstract questions and abstract answers. The audience must be considered as the product of an era and the problems that the era itself has created.

Can you talk a little about the relationship between cinema, realism and theatricality in The Travelling Players and The Hunters? The role reversals in the beach scene in The Travelling Players for example, the use of the stage in both films…

The use of long takes is usually considered theatricality on a superficial level. What are known in the French terminology as “plans-séquence” (sequence shots). In these shots, when they unfold in an interior space, the space appears to take on the character of a scene and the actors move freely, as though on the stage of a theater. These characteristics give the person looking at it narrowly the impression of theatricality. But that’s not what defines theatricality.

If I were to attempt to define it I would say that it is a degree of hyperbole, as regards speech and movement. On the other hand a stage is a restriction, not a choice and viewing is head-on. Speech comes first and of course the actor who is performing. One could say that what the spectator unconsciously does during a play, namely focusing his attention on the actor who is performing or on whatever specifically interests him on the stage, is to create shots shifting his interest visually and mentally from one element to the other. In cinema this is done with the different shots which are not determined by the audience but by the director of the film. The function, however, is the same – a voyage of the gaze in an imaginary space.

These films seem less inclined to individuate the characters, more concerned with the effects of history on a kind of collective conscience or memory than more specific psychologising. Can you talk about the use of such explicitly Brechtian techniques in your early films?

A Brechtian approach certainly exists. Besides, that period was strongly influenced by so-called alienation in Brecht, not just in my work but also in that of many other film directors of the previous generation and of mine. Of course we cannot talk about a method in cinema but rather of an approach that can bear a distant or closer relation to what is called alienation, in which there is no individual psychology.

Can you talk about the function of myth in your films?

Beyond incorporating within the framework of the film an archetypal element loaded with implications of primordial conflicts and existential vanity, the presence of myth in my films forms the basis of the unquestionably materialistic relationship with tradition. The key to this relationship is not the mechanical reproduction of myth and its external embodiment in the fabric of a modern tale for the purpose of affirming its eternal and unchanging nature. Quite the contrary, it is its critical abolition by confining it within a purely fictitious narrative without the fundamental implication of necessity.

We live in a culture that has inherited these myths and we must destroy them at all costs and give them a human dimension. I don’t accept destiny or the idea of fate. By entering the historical reality myth becomes a real story with a different dimension. It is not interpretation: I give it a human dimension, because it is man who makes history and not myth.

Do you ever find there’s a degree of conflict between the exquisite beauty and control of the images you create and the message or statement you’d like these images to express? At which point does the instinctive overtake the intellectual?

As far as I’m concerned, to a very great degree. Even when there’s conflict I prefer the first thought, the first choice. Let’s say for that which comes as an impulse to impose itself. Of course the danger of beauty undermining expression is always present.

Your early films especially are deeply political in content. Were you ever concerned that the singular nature of your cinematic language prevented what you wanted to communicate from reaching a wider audience?

I couldn’t answer the question because it has never been something that

concerned me…

How has the climate changed over the years in terms of getting films made?

It has changed a lot. But mostly for coming generations and those who are demanding, those for whom there are no easy choices. When I first entered the landscape of cinema it was almost magical. For quite some time now it is changing dramatically. Economic circumstances are contributing to this change in climate.

Do you have any interest in digital technology?

To the extent that it offers possibilities, yes. Besides, it is obvious that the road leads almost fatefully in this direction.

What are your views on the films responsible for the current boom in Greek cinema? Those of the likes of Yorgos Lanthimos and Athina Tsangari…

I found them exceptionally interesting, as I also find the rest of their generation of filmmakers interesting. I hope that this new generation will lead to a true Nouvelle Vague.

Are we likely to see another Angelopoulos film soon?

I am in pre-production for the third part of the trilogy which I began with The Weeping Meadow and continued with The Dust of Time. Its title, temporary or permanent, is The Other Sea.

The Theo Angelopoulos Collection Volume One is reviewed here

The Theo Angelopoulos Collection : Volume 1 is available here now, with Volume 2 available here from January 9th, alongside The Dust of Time. Volume 3 will be released on February 27th.

Interview : Alexei Popogrebsky

Winner of Best Film at last year’s London Film Festival, and the Silver Bear at Berlin for the performances of its two actors and the luminous cinematography, Alexei Popogrebsky’s How I Ended This Summer is a stunning tale of isolation and paranoia set in the Arctic Circle. Both an intense study of human relationships in a psychological pressure cooker formed by the hostile landscape, and a survival thriller as taut as a (polar) bear trap, it was filmed over three months in Chukotka, on Russia’s north-eastern coast. I was able to catch up with the film’s director during a fleeting visit to London this week ahead of the film’s general release at the end of the month.

Can you talk a little about the genesis of the project, was the location the primary source of inspiration for the story?

Well, it’s deeply rooted in my childhood, but not in the Freudian sense. Many years before I had any idea I’d be making films, I came across a book called Diaries of a Polar Pilot, I was maybe eight years old and fascinated with it because of how different their experience was from my own, living in the city. Reading that, I projected myself into their situation, assuming that I probably wouldn’t be able to handle it. The next book I came across was an account of a failed expedition to conquer the North Pole in 1912, and again through reading that and imagining their experience literally blew my mind. From there I started collecting pretty much every non-fiction book on Polar expeditions that I could find in Russia.

Did that research include much on the ‘isolation sickness’ the characters in the film experience?

For me, the most fascinating part was not the sickness or people going crazy, it was when a completely ‘abnormal’ or ‘extreme’ experience becomes routine, it’s something very human and very intense. In the books that I enjoyed the most, like Fridtjof Nansen’s account of his expeditions, there are details of everyday life, the daily routine, they’re there for years, often in darkness, and that’s what’s so fascinating, that humans are animals that can adapt to anything, really. So, it’s not so much about ‘sickness’, which is maybe a side-product, but more the details of mundane, everyday life in such conditions. You can read an intense book about war, for example, I mean what could be less human than war, but people still create room for very human details and daily routines.

Pavel seems to have agreed to take on the job in the film without fully understanding the implications of his decision. He seems to be there for the ‘experience’, unaware of the potential effects of such complete isolation. I wonder if you experienced anything similar yourself, whether your filmmaking adventure in such a hostile environment as Chukotka was something you could ever prepare for completely?

Luckily, by the time we started shooting the film we were fully prepared. We were there previously, with my DoP and production designer, and had spent two weeks living at the station. Preparation is always key to the success of any expedition. We’d agreed with Grigory (Dobrygin, the actor playing Pavel) that he wouldn’t get to read the script, it was his first film, he was still a student at drama school, and I was a little concerned that he would become too self-aware, too self-conscious. If he read the whole script he’d be thinking “it develops like this, which means I have to do this here…”, there’d be too much rationalisation of action. But it also really helped me, I had a very detailed script, which if you were to re-read now, you’d see 95% of it is on screen, and the goal was to shoot chronologically but also very flexibly, and we always had a few scenes on which we could go back and forth on any particular day as the conditions changed, the weather was constantly shifting there. With my detailed script in mind, and based on what was happening at any given time, I’d re-write the scenes for the next day and hand them out to the actors and crew.

So how conducive was the environment to improvisation, both with your actors and your camera?

There’s a saying that you can only truly improvise when you know the basis very, very well, which is especially true for the actors. When they know the scene well, they’re able to improvise best because they have this inner map of how the scene should play out, onto which they can then project themselves. Overall I think there are two major schools of acting, when somebody brilliantly portrays someone else and then gets an Oscar for wearing a fake nose, which I’m not against, I think she’s a great actress and it was a great nose, but then there’s Stanislavsky, the founder of method acting. “Me, in the given circumstances”, “I, in the given circumstances”, that is the most powerful tool an actor can use in film. I always try to find the right actor, for example I wrote this part especially for Sergei Puskepalis and once I’d found Grigory I re-wrote his part with him in mind, to accommodate his personality, his character. With this method of shooting, the circumstances were there, it was all about creating the right environment for the actors, and for us, to allow the characters to emerge organically through the process. In terms of nature, with digital cameras and a very tight crew, we were able to be very flexible. There was a day when we were supposed to shoot on one base, but seeing that the sea looked particularly good that day, it meant we were able to go to the abandoned Polar station which was about twelve miles across the ocean. It would have had to have been an adjacent scene though, as I wanted to maintain chronology as far as possible during the shoot. If you compare pictures of Grigory from the beginning and the end of the film, it’s like two completely different people, it wasn’t about make-up, it was about ageing him through the experience itself.

Sergei is very much the dominant character in the film and also the more experienced actor, and with this being Grigory’s first film as you said, how was their on-screen relationship reflected in their process as actors? Did you have much rehearsal time?

I try not to rehearse, and especially shooting digitally, the takes become the rehearsal. With the actors, I’d maybe spend half an hour discussing the choreography, who goes where, so that the grip and the DoP can set up the lights and the boom operator knows where they’ll probably be, then we just go for the first take. Sometimes it’d be five takes, sometimes twenty-five, as long as it took for the mise-en-scene and the scene to develop. I didn’t want to play any mind games with the actors, I believe that with trust there you can achieve so much more than through manipulation. There are some people who are manipulators by nature, like Lars von Trier for example, he’s brilliant at that, but I have a very different personality, I don’t want to do something that’s not natural to me. The actors had this almost father and son relationship, they’d spend time together, joke around, but because the trust was there, all the fear you see from Grigory on screen really came from the strength of Sergei’s performance.

That comes out especially in the scene where they’re outside, salting the fish. It’s immediately very tender but with a palpable undercurrent of tension.

That scene was completely improvised. We set up two cameras and I just told Grigory that if he gets an opportunity to break the news to Sergei then he should, so it was up to Sergei to make sure no such opportunities presented themselves.

You studied as a psychologist prior to becoming a filmmaker, yet explicit psychological motivation is something you steer clear of in the film, especially in relation to Pavel’s actions. There’s a tendency in much cinema today to over-analyse, or spell out the reasons for a character’s actions, to provide definitive motivation, whereas Pavel seems to act very impetuously, almost entirely by instinct. Do you think the survival instinct bypasses rationalisation of action, or do you think a degree of ambiguity creates drama in its unpredictability? I’m thinking especially about the writing process, how difficult it is to communicate the unsaid in the script stages.

Firstly, this clear-cut, ‘film’ motivation that exists in Hollywood cinema doesn’t really exist in life. Luckily, life is so much more subtle and rich than that, and what we call motivation is usually post-factum rationalisation of whatever impulses and reasons we prescribe to our or another person’s actions. It’s good for the industry of psychoanalysis to suggest that there are people who can analyse and ascribe various reasons and causes to anything, but it doesn’t really work like that in life and I certainly don’t think it should work like that in film. Sidney Lumet talks about a certain ‘rubber duck syndrome’ in American films, everything boils down to a childhood trauma in which the protagonist is deprived of his favourite rubber duck as a kid, or something like that, and a lot of films tend to work that way. When I write my scripts, I’ll spend a year with the story in my head before committing anything to paper, I want to get to a point where the characters begin to behave or act by themselves, almost independently of me, beyond my own intentions. I know the structure should work a certain way, but sometimes the character doesn’t want to go where I’m trying to make him go, it just doesn’t fit, almost as though the structure or the story is rejecting that idea and I have to accept that after a while a character begins to have his own truth. I try not to use rationalised motivation and it always make me laugh inside when some frustrated audience member asks “what was the motivation for Pavel not breaking the news to Sergei?”, and I’d always respond “well, if he did break the news to Sergei, what would be the motivation for that?”. I studied psychology for nine years, and of those nine years, ‘motivation’ was a two year course, it’s not something that gives its answers up easily.

Is Pavel’s fear of Sergei simply a result of him not knowing how to deal with somebody who’s interpersonal skills have eroded through such extensive time alone, or does it say something more universal, about inter-generational relationships, about the sense of entitlement and complacency of today’s post-Soviet youth versus the more serious, controlled work ethic of Sergei?

All of the above. We really have two very different people, from different times and different generations and particularly from completely different sets of life experiences. For one of them, the back story had been there for many years, in fact Sergei Puskepalis, and I found this out only after choosing the location, lived in that very region for nine years when he was a kid. Pavel, who just came for the summer from the big city, he’s us, he’s the Twitter guy, the consumer of experience. It seems nowadays that we don’t trust that we’ve had this or that experience unless we Tweet about it. So it’s all those things, not just that the older one is from a Soviet background, they could be Brazilians, or Brits, anybody, obviously the nuances would have to be adjusted, but the core of the story is how one relates to circumstances.

The thriller/genre elements seem to reveal themselves very organically as the film progresses, was it a difficult balance, deciding how far to push those elements of the story?

The challenge here was to incorporate genre elements without using clichéd genre tools. There are so many instances that with sound, editing and framing those elements present themselves, which the audience loves, the game of cat-and-mouse, but we tried to avoid that as much as possible. Without spoiling the film for those readers that haven’t seen it, the only time we gave ourselves the freedom to play with those elements was in the scene in the abandoned station, which I thought was necessary as it played with Pavel’s perspective of what was happening, he thinks he’s being chased by Sergei and as a product of the big city, where he’s seen all those types of films, he projects those fears onto his circumstances.

The music and sound design in the film is extraordinary, how much of that was decided in post-production, or were you clear prior to shooting quite how important a part of the film it would play?

Thank you, it’s something I was really passionate about. All of the sounds you hear were captured on location, but not necessarily as we were filming. We knew we’d have to cover all the foley with the actors on set, simply because of the unique setting. After we’d shot a scene, we’d set aside half an hour to do the sound takes, and all the atmosphere takes were done with six-channel microphones, hours and hours of it. The music is all original and there’s also ‘music’ that you might not perceive as such, which my composer made out of wind noises, there’s radio static that is harmonised to become musical in nature, albeit hopefully unperceived.

I’ve got to ask about the polar bear, it’s one of the most heart-stopping moments in the film…

The bear was in the script, doing exactly what you see on screen, and I was completely prepared to come back to Moscow and create a CGI bear, but luckily one turned up whilst we were shooting…

That must have been terrifying, how did you get him to run towards the camera like that? And how did you keep your cameraman behind the camera?

He’s running towards the camera because me and the assistant cinematographer are behind him making lots of noise. We were so in awe of our luck and our ability to direct nature that we perhaps got a little carried away. I had a reality check a few weeks later when I was alone, my crew were some kilometres away, and I came across a bear by myself and it was the single most primitive, terrifying experience of my life.

What did you do?

I ran for my life.


How I Ended This Summer will be released by New Wave Films on April 22nd 2011 and will be reviewed in full shortly.

Photography by Christopher Lane ©2011

Tangled : Glen Keane, Nathan Greno & Byron Howard

To celebrate the launch of the BFI’s Disney 50 season, screening all 50 of the studio’s animated features on the big screen throughout 2011, Disney legend Glen Keane was in town to promote their 50th feature, Tangled, alongside the film’s directors Byron Howard and Nathan Greno. Keane is responsible for the character design of Ariel from The Little Mermaid, The Beast from Beauty & The Beast, alongside AladdinTarzan, Pocahontas, the list really does go on, and is one of the greatest living animators. Below they talk about their work on what is perhaps the strongest Disney feature since The Lion King.

I wonder if we could just start with talking a little about the genesis of the film? Way back in the 1940s, Disney himself was contemplating the idea of a Rapunzel film and finally, all these years later, it comes to fruition. I know it was a project that Glen was very passionate about and had worked on earlier, then after a health scare you [Greno & Howard] took over before he came back in a different role. Could you perhaps talk a little about the project from that perspective?

Glen : I was working fourteen years ago on Tarzan, and typically as you’re animating, it’s kind of a lonely job, you’re in your office by yourself thinking ‘What am I going to do next?’. There’s something about these characters that have a burning desire inside of them that I’m really attracted to, they believe the impossible is possible and fairytales seem to touch that the most for me, out of all the kinds of stories. This particular story of a girl who’s born from this magical flower and has this gift inside of her that has to be shared, I really related to it. Maybe it’s being an artist at Disney for 36 years, you start to think you’re in a tower sometimes, how do you break out? How do you become yourself? I started to develop it and at a certain point presented it to Michael Eisner and he said ‘Yes! Let’s do it!’ I’d done all these drawings but he said ‘There’s one thing Glen, I want you to do it in CG’ and I said ‘Michael, do you like these drawings? Because you can’t do them in CG! You can’t get everything I love about hand-drawn animation in CG!’ and he said ‘But that’s why I want you to do it that way, find a way to take the best of both worlds, put them together.’ I really thought it was a very honest challenge, so I took that and continued to work on it until about 2008 when I had a heart attack and had to step back from it. Fortunately Byron and Nathan were there and I don’t think you can direct a picture without making it your own, and they took the story and started again. I think you’re always building on something that’s there underneath you, but they really took the film and made it as personal as I was making it. I was really thankful that they were there. So I continued on in a role overseeing the animation and if I had been directing, I wouldn’t have been able to spend the time drawing and working with them to bring the things that I think, personally, I can bring to a film. It worked out much better this way.

Byron : Nathan and I have been at Disney for about 15 years and we’d always wanted to work with Glen. He’s the guy, a Disney legend. He designed Ariel and the Beast from Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, so when we had the opportunity to direct the film of course we said yes, but we wanted Glen to be there with us, working with the animators. You see how beautiful the animation is in the film and that’s because Glen’s influence is in there, so every animation session Nathan and I would be there in front of this group of about forty animators acting out the movie scene by scene. He would be Flyn and I would be Rapunzel sometimes, we’d switch back and forth, and the interesting thing was Glen would be there with an electronic drawing tablet called a Syntique and he’d be watching us very quietly when two seconds later there’d be this beautiful drawing of Nathan or myself or one of the other animators as Rapunzel or Flyn. Then the animators would take that back to their desks and make their animations a thousand times better than it was. You can see the results on screen, that collaboration.

Nathan : Everyone in the studio loves Glen, he’s been a mentor for all of us, you can’t put a price on this guy. When he had to step out of his original role and John Lasseter came to us and asked if we’d like to continue with the movie, Byron and I wanted to do it for Glen. Like Glen was saying, you have to bring your own vision to one of these films., you can’t just take what was there and keep going but to Glen’s credit he had a number of great things already in place, so we could see what he had done in different stages of the development process, which was really helpful, we got a lot out of that. Then we started asking ourselves ‘What kind of movie do we want to make?’, we talked about the kind of movies we like, we like hilarious films, we like big action movies, we talked about the kind of Disney movies we liked and we got a little greedy, we wanted all of this stuff in this one movie. The tough part was that we wanted it to be a Disney movie, we wanted it to feel like something that would really sit on the shelf alongside Cinderella and Pinocchio but we wanted it to be a contemporary film as well, so how do you do that? There’s an expectation, it’s a Disney fairytale, there’s something the audience wants when they see one of those movies, so we had to make sure we got that right. When you say you’re going to do contemporary, there have been films like Shrek, I’m not putting down Shrek, but that pokes fun at these kinds of movies, it’s very snarky, but that’s what that movie is. We wanted to do something very sincere, a very real telling of this story, so we were trying to find a balance, looking at films from the 1940s and 1950s that Walt Disney had made and we thought, if we can take that look and all that heart and emotion and put it into a contemporary film, we thought that could be our balance. It’d be CG, so we could take the house style of those other films and through the computer it’d become something fresh and new again. We’re competing against modern movies, we can’t just say ‘Here’s a 1950s tale everybody!’, I don’t think that would play that well.

It’s a huge achievement. I think there’s 46,000 lanterns in one scene, you’ve got to animate the 70ft of hair and make it feel real, 140,000 individual strands of hair which all bend and move in a certain way, it must have been a huge challenge for the animators.

Byron : Glen is obsessed with the hair.

Glen : I am.

Your original vision is hand-drawn, and your tradition is hand-drawn animation, and I know there’s an element of that with the storyboarding and so forth, but how did you find it, moving from one world to another?

Glen : It’s interesting, you have to put down your pencil in a way. I haven’t been animating myself, I don’t know how to animate on the computer. I had two guys who were phenomenal animators by my side, John Kahrs and Clay Kaytis, and we kind of filled in the gaps where each of us was weak. They were the guys who really found tools for me to participate, so I could actually contribute. There’s something that’s really unusual when you draw, it’s intuitive and the computer is not intuitive at all. The way you would design a face in a computer animated film, you’d design half of it and you’d hit duplicate and the second half is exactly like the first half. There’s no human being whose right side of their face looks like the left side of their face, if you do you’re a robot, you’d immediately be repulsed by someone you’d meet who looked like that. Now, every CG film, that’s how characters are designed, except this one. We never hit that duplicate button, we sculpted one side and we sculpted the other side, her teeth are just a little bit wonky, one eye is often just a little bit bigger than the other, there’s an imperfection that we’re drawn to. I remember reading a book once called Feminine Beauty which analysed what attracts us to a beautiful woman, it mentioned a strangeness, something just a little off that we put a lot of effort into. I remember something that Byron and Nathan were pushing constantly was ‘breathing’, a sense that the character’s living, it adds a lot to your acceptance of these characters as real.

Byron : In terms of the hair, it looks amazing and natural on screen but that was seven years in development. We had this team of very brilliant mathematicians and tech guys who were figuring this stuff out. Even as late as last year it just wasn’t working, we’d have scenes that were going terribly, terribly wrong with Rapunzel’s hair, her ‘bad hair days’, and we sat down with our guys and said ‘We have to make this work, otherwise we’re not going to be able to finish the film’. No one had done this before, even on Monsters Inc. which was a number of years ago, fur was a brand new thing for CG, which was remarkable at the time but even now you’ll see a lot of CG films where characters have short, bobbed hair that doesn’t intersect with the shoulders because it’s just so incredibly difficult. You have to take into account the 140,000 strands, individual objects that are colliding with the shoulders and have to look natural, they have to be art directed by Glen’s drawings. Not only do they have to look natural and shiny, they have to look natural when we have her do these wild things with it, she’s got to lasso Flyn, she’s got to tie him up, swing from it, she’s got to go underwater, which you’re never supposed to do with CG hair, it’s totally taboo. This is the cutting edge of hair technology, seriously, anything you wanna know about hair…

Glen : In the computer, the simple things are extremely difficult and the seemingly difficult, complex things are really easy. If you wanted to build New York City and have it explode, in the computer it’s no problem, the software people say ‘Yeah, we can do that’, but if you want Rapunzel to touch her hair suddenly it’s ‘No! Do not touch her hair!’ This is an eighteen year old girl! She thinks by touching her hair! We had to really overcome that challenge.

One thing I think has become incredibly important, and one of the reason Disney films have been so successful, is that you really work hard to hone the story down first, before you get anywhere near ‘novelty voice casting’. It seems the same with Tangled, could you talk a little about that process?

Nathan : Story really has to come first. Even if you have amazing animation or amazing effects, if your story isn’t working, your audience isn’t going to invest in the film, they check out. There’s something that I learned before I got into the directing side of things, I had twelve or thirteen years of being in the story department and I’d been on films in the past where I’d get sequences and I’d think ‘I really don’t want to board this one, why’d I get stuck with this?’. I’d always do my best, give it 110 per cent but there was a philosophy which we brought to our story room that, we’d tell our artists when we’re beating out the story, trying to figure out what this movie’s about, that if you ever get a sequence that you don’t want to do then there’s something wrong with the movie, there’s something wrong with hat sequence and we should sit back and re-examine it instead of just moving forward with something that’s already broken. From the get-go your sequence has to be super strong then that will turn into great layout which will then turn into great animation. We’ve been on movies in the past where the director will say ‘Well, we’ll fix it in animation’ but no, you’ll plus it in animation. We do these screenings for our crew where it’s all storyboard, with us doing the acting, and if we can make our crew cry or laugh with us doing our hammy acting, you know it’s going to be better every step of the way.

I know, Glen, you’re in town with your wife Linda, and I was struck by the similarities between her and the character of Ariel in The Little Mermaid whom you designed, and that your family have featured in some way in many of your character designs. Could you talk a little about that?

Glen : My dad is a cartoonist who based his cartoon strips on his own family, so it’s natural for me to do the same. On The Little Mermaid, when it came time to design Ariel, the directors asked me ‘Can you draw a pretty girl?’ and I said I’d been drawing my wife for ten years at that point, so I naturally designed Ariel to look like her…

She is in fact a real mermaid, no?

Glen : That’s right, maybe the shells are a little smaller than Ariel’s… Sorry Linda… You know, every animator drew the shells according to his preference and they change size quite often if you watch carefully. My son Max, when it came time to do Tarzan, was constantly skateboarding everywhere. I’d just been animating Tarzan swinging on a vine and it had felt really boring and passive, but when I saw my son doing these extreme sports, I thought ‘Man, that’s so much more interesting. What if Tarzan was a tree surfer?’. That whole influence went into the character. Early on with Rapunzel, I thought ‘Who do I know who has that creativity?’ and I remembered my daughter when she was a little kid asking my wife if she could paint the ceiling, my wife wouldn’t let her but by the time we got to making this film, my daughter was graduating from art school in Paris so we hired her, an when you see Rapunzel paint on the walls, that’s actually my daughter Claire’s painting.

Interview : Im Sang-soo

As passionate and engaging as Korean filmmaker Im Sang-soo is in conversation, the answer he gave to my first question took me by surprise. He’s clearly a confident chap, not only in taking on perhaps the most famous and respected work in Korean cinema but also in his readiness to dismiss one of his country’s cinematic icons, positioning himself from the start as not “a fan”. Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid (Hanyo, 1960), which he has adapted this year, is by general consensus one of the most revered Korean films of all time, and watching it again yesterday (in a double bill with Sang-soo’s remake I hasten to add), it’s not hard to see why it’s reputation has continued to grow over the last fifty years. A shocking, nightmarish vision of adultery and obsessive psychosis, it’s a thoroughly modern film seemingly well ahead of its time, depicting an affair between a middle class school teacher and his eponymous newly employed maid. Children are thrown down stairs, lovelorn suicides abound and whilst there’s nary a sympathetic character, it’s shot through with enough unpredictable turns of perverse impulsiveness and violence that it’s impossible not to be seduced by even the most histrionically melodramatic beats.

I can understand Im Sang-soo’s wish to separate himself from such a prominently damoclean work, but it’s a foolhardy task. Comparisons will be inevitable, and judging from his take on the story, a touch of modesty might have engendered a little more sympathy towards his adaptation. It’s not a terrible film by any means, simply unnecessary, adding little to the story aside from a glossy production design and a shallow socio-economical subtext, still present in Kim Ki-young’s film but deployed much more subtly than the achingly obvious critique of class divisions and social resentments on display here. It plays closer to the American ‘erotic thrillers’ by the likes of Adrian Lyne and Brian De Palma in the ‘80s and ‘90s, eschewing the overriding weirdness of the original for a more mainstream and conventional genre sensibility.

It’s a shame in a way, his choosing this as his sixth feature, as his previous works have shown a promise at odds with what is essentially a remake in the most cynically American sense (taking an established property for adaptation means an already curious, if not expectant audience) yet his earlier films have shown a keen eye for both subversive political enquiries (The President’s Last Bang) and frank explorations of sexuality, particularly from a female perspective (Girl’s Night Out, A Good Lawyer’s Wife).

Jeon Do-yeon (Secret Sunshine) gives a committed central performance as the new maid but the supposed magnetism of Lee Jung-jae as the husband is seemingly bolted onto the character simply by virtue of his patriarchal status rather than uncovered in any sense through performance, and Kim Ki-young veteran Yoon Yeo-jeong (Woman of Fire, The Insect Woman) is a relentless scene-stealer, which I don’t intend as a compliment. The comparisons to Chabrol and Hitchcock that have been applied are overly generous, it’s too studied and affected in its execution for that, but Lee Hyung-deok’s stately cinematography does make the most of Lee Ha-jun’s opulent production design and the narrative denouement is satisfyingly startling, even if it is let down by a nonsensical coda of surrealist whimsy.

It was interesting to hear about the conditions of Korean filmmaking prior to the ‘90s New Wave, and irrespective of this filmmaker’s opinion, I’ll certainly be digging deeper into Kim Ki-young’s back catalogue at the first opportunity, as hard as many of his films are to come by. Whilst this interpretation of The Housemaid is engaging enough, it’s pleasures are mostly of a superficial, aesthetic nature and provide little beyond the occasionally well-crafted image (even these often overcooked) , and pales in comparison to the1960 original which I can’t recommend highly enough, especially as it’s currently available for free at, whose new Playstation 3 application launched last week and will guarantee the loss of many evenings in the coming months.

With so many films being remade these days, it’s a brave choice to tackle a film of such high regard in Korean cinema. What was the genesis of your decision to reinvent such an established classic?

There are many fans of director Kim Ki-young amongst the young filmmakers working today, but personally I’m not one of them. Although his works are legendary and have had a remarkable impact on the Korean film industry, as a young filmmaker myself I felt I couldn’t simply obey and respect the general consensus, I felt I had to challenge it.

What was your reason for changing the socio-economic setting of the film, placing it in the household of an aristocratic family rather than the middle-class home of the teacher in Kim Ki-young’s film?

England has a great sense of history and tradition behind its notion of society, and although Korea has its own history, it’s a country that has been divided since the war, so South Korea’s social identity hasn’t been around quite so long. Every society has it’s ‘aristocracy’, it’s ‘rich man’s society’, but the less amount of time this ‘high society’ has been around, the more problematic it becomes, it’s influence is all the more overbearing. In Korea today, it’s the super-rich who dictate the way the country is heading, politically and socially, they’re the ones behind the curtain pulling the strings and my version of The Housemaid is an anthropological study of those hidden behind said curtain. It’s something I wish to pursue in future films.

There’s certainly a clear political subtext in all of your films, much more so than many of your contemporaries, even this one which is perhaps the closest you’ve come to making a genre film. Do you consider yourself to be a political filmmaker or is it something that naturally comes out in the writing process, something unavoidable when setting your film in a contemporary context?

I am a very political person, which I guess makes me a political filmmaker. As one of the major filmmakers in Korea this is quite dangerous for me working within the mainstream market. I can’t discuss these things when I’m doing interviews with Korean journalists, I normally just say The Housemaid is a genre film, but even though I say this they know it’s not true. The fact that I don’t discuss my politics and that the journalists over there know not to ask is just another reflection of how powerful the super-rich have become within Korean society.

The film begins and ends with a suicide, the first being a girl of whom we learn little else, the audience seem to forget about her in the same way the family forget about Eun-yi at the end. Why did you choose to begin the film with this scene in particular?

A girl does jump from a building, committing suicide, and we are momentarily shocked, but we forget and we never know why as the story of our protagonists begins. That story however, is also about why our protagonist commits suicide at the end, and when that happens you think back to the first, naturally thinking that this girl must also have had a story as sad as the one we’ve seen. This current age of globalisation has resulted in many super-rich people across the globe, but it remains the case that poverty has become much worse as a result as well, and it’s a sad fact that many of the impoverished are committing suicide, notably so in Korea.

Can you speak a little about the final sequence of the film, what your intentions were? It’s a highly stylised scene, almost surreal.

We ran out of money, so there wasn’t a lot we could do (laughs). My friend had lent me a very expensive painting of Marilyn Monroe and although it doesn’t play a huge part in the film, at the child’s birthday party, because the child has experienced such trauma they give her this expensive painting as a gift. The mother sings in the same way Monroe sang to JFK as a way of relieving the tension of what the child has been through. Whether this will actually cure the child, who having seen the suicide of the housemaid will take something from it, or whether she’ll ultimately become a monster like her father is up to the audience to decide.

Do you have much time to rehearse with your actors prior to shooting? Are you happy for your actors to improvise or find their own way once on set, or are you quite clear in what you want beforehand?

It depends on both the film and the actors. With this film there wasn’t much by way of script readings or rehearsals, especially with Jeon Do-yeon. But with the little girl, Lee Jung-jae and the young mother, I called them in separately to rehearse a little, so it really does depend on the actors you’re working with. Once we’re on set, I’m not keen on actors improvising their own dialogue but I do change a lot of the script myself as we’re going along.

Your films often deal in a very frank way with female sexuality, something matched by the fearless performances from your lead actresses, the wonderful So-ri Moon in A Good Lawyer’s Wife, the trio of women in Girl’s Night Out and again Jeon Do-yeon in The Housemaid. What is it that draws you towards exploring sexuality from a female perspective rather than a male? The men seem to get short shrift in your films, is that intended as a commentary on the social patriarchalism of Korean society?

Frank depictions of sexuality are a characteristic of my work. There’s a perception that Asians are shy and introverted, in particular Asian women, so I’m trying to subvert or critique that stereotype by saying that New Asian women do talk, and must talk about sex. It’s not that they’re shy because they don’t have anything to say, which I hope my films express. Male patriarchalism and machismo doesn’t just oppress women, it’s also detrimental to society as a whole and is definitely something I feel must be suppressed.

You’ve spoken of the influence of Alfred Hitchcock in the making of The Housemaid. What exactly did you take from his work that you wanted to inject into your film? Were there particular films or sequences that were especially influential, or was it just an overall tone you were aiming for?

Rebecca was a huge influence, I first saw it when I was ten years old and watched it again in preparation for The Housemaid. Hitchcock’s notion of suspense was something that I researched and contemplated a great deal when planning this movie. For example, if this were a scene in a film, where we are now, and there was a bomb underneath this table here and it suddenly exploded, that would create surprise rather than suspense. In order to create suspense you’d have to show the bomb being planted first. We’d be having this discussion as before but the audience would be aware that the bomb was there. It’s the sense of anticipation that Hitchcock defines as suspense and which I tried to incorporate into the film. The audience know that the housemaid and the husband have had sex, but his wife doesn’t, so when she finds out and the housemaid is unaware that she now knows, it creates a sense of suspense for the audience, not knowing how the ostensibly simple story will resolve itself dramatically.

There’s a tradition the world over when a new generation of filmmakers take up the mantle of their predecessors, often moving the cinema of their particular country in a new direction, a kind of rebellion against what came before. Aside from Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid and maybe Aimless Bullet, it’s difficult to see much Korean cinema in the West prior to the so-called New Wave of the early ‘90s. What is your relationship to your Korean predecessors, did you take much from them when forging your own career, or would you say that Western cinema was a greater influence on your own style?

It’s true that a new generation of filmmakers arose in the ‘90s and that the films from before then are not known outside of Korea. Exactly at the same moment that this new wave was taking place, Korea became politically stabilised via democracy and capitalism, through which there were also new developments in literature and other forms of culture from an emerging generation of artists. At the same time though, film beforehand was controlled not by the mafia exactly, but by street gangs who were more or less in charge of all facets of production and it was almost impossible for good filmmakers to develop. Those who grew up watching European and American cinema became the new generation of intellectuals, eventually given the opportunity for their voices to be heard. In Germany and France the next generation of filmmakers and artists would produce manifestos for change, but in Korea, due to the power exerted by the street gangs, that was nigh on impossible. It still exists to a certain degree today.

What were the main differences in Kim Soo-hyun’s original draft of the screenplay for The Housemaid? Why did you choose to go in your own direction?

You’ve really done your research! (laughs). Kim Soo-hyun is a legendary writer, but it was the producer who initially asked her to write the screenplay as the film was having difficulty getting off the ground. The writer then specified myself as director, which is how I initially got involved, but I didn’t like her script at all so I told the producer that if I’m to be involved, I need to be able to rewrite the script myself and only on that condition would I continue to direct. So I did, I completely rewrote it. Whether my version or Kim Soo-hyun’s is better? Well the investors preferred mine, and it’s my script that ultimately got made! She’s a very powerful and influential writer, but also very arrogant, she was furious that a young director like Im Sang-soo would dare change her work (laughs)

Photography by Christopher Lane © 2010

Interview : Kim Jee-woon

The recent boom in Korean cinema in the West seemingly began with the importation of its home-grown horror hits, hitching a ride on the backs of Japanese pictures such as The Ring (1998) and Audition (1999) during a brief flirtation with the J-horror phenomenon. Genre movies are always the first to be discovered, curious fanboys fed-up with American cinema’s tiresome recycling of its own genre formulas began looking to the East to sate their hunger for something new, and whilst the mainstream may take a little longer to catch on it inevitably does, ultimately leading to the recycling of Eastern genre cinema by American studios until the bubble eventually bursts.

It’s always been the case, Kurosawa was a firm favourite over here long before Mizoguchi and Naruse ever got the chance, many of his films dealing as they do with more palatable and accessible (to Western tastes) genre sensibilities. Once a cinematic cultural identity is discovered though, whilst some may move onto the next big thing, others remain curious of what else a country may have to offer beyond the easy sell of its genre movies, hence the recent Hong-sang Soo retrospective, Korea’s answer to mumblecore (mumblekor I suppose) and the growing success of the London Korean Film Festival (last week receiving the first East Asian red carpet Leicester Square premiere). But it’ll always remain the genre films which have the biggest chance of garnering mainstream appeal, the likes of Bong-joon Ho’s The Host (2006) and Park-chan Wook’s Oldboy (2003) being the most famous examples.

For me though, there’s always been one director who stands out from the pack in this respect, producing film after film which play with established genre forms, merging Eastern and Western influences to create his own uniquely stylised hybrids, a kind of Korean Tarantino if you will. From the blackly comic The Quiet Family (1998) to the zany sports-movie themed The Foul King (2000), director Kim Jee-woon achieved quite a success last year with his Leone-riffing Manchurian western The Good, The Bad & The Weird (2008), his beautifully made horror film A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) initially bringing him to our attention during the J-horror boom and his Hong-Kong neo-noir A Bittersweet Life (2005) cementing his reputation as a talent to watch, meshing as it did the films of Jean-Pierre Melville, John Woo and Martin Scorsese to dazzling effect.

His latest picture I Saw The Devil (2010) will most likely elevate him to the Bong-joon Ho level of success he’s deserved for a while when it’s released next year. An astonishingly violent serial killer picture starring Choi-min Sik (octopus lover of Oldboy fame), it was denied a certificate twice in his native Korea and raises the bar for cinematic excess. The director was in town this weekend for the UK premiere of the film at the London Korean Film Festival, and I managed to grab half an hour with him earlier today to talk about his work.

You’ve spoken about wanting to make a ‘gore thriller’ with regards to I Saw The Devil, and all your films tend to play on established genre tropes. Do your ideas generally begin with characters and story, which you then work into a specific genre, or do you decide on a particular genre first and then try to find a story to fit the style you wish to work within?

I think I usually think of the genre first and then what story could effectively work within that particular genre. So with A Bittersweet Life I tried to express the Noir genre, which the filmmaking style would then reflect, the light and darkness of life, its ups and downs and how one’s status and existence can break and fall to rock bottom just in one moment. Similarly in The Good, The Bad, The Weird I was reflecting the Western genre, I wanted to show crazy men on horses firing guns, that was my starting point, the story grew from there.

I Saw The Devil features two extraordinary performances from the two leads, both of whom you’ve worked with before. Could you talk a little about your process when directing actors? Are you very precise with what you’re looking for, or are you happy to allow for exploration during production?

I try to be as clear as possible with the actors upfront, what they need to do in a general sense, but I don’t give any demands with regards to performance, I just let them give their own interpretation of the scene. Only if that interpretation is completely at odds with my own perception of how it should be will I start to dictate how I want it done. Generally ideas come on the day, during production, I’m a firm believer that the answers to a scene can be found on set. So to give an example, sometimes when I’m writing or refining a scene I’m unsure how to express a certain moment on paper, but when we’re actually shooting it, once the camera’s in place and the actors are in costume and make-up, the answers will present themselves suddenly. All the answers can be found on set, I’ll often just arrive with a general sense of the scene hoping to make discoveries once the camera’s rolling.

Does the same apply to the larger set-pieces, or are they clearly storyboarded in advance? I’m thinking particularly of the brilliant greenhouse sequence in this film, when Soo-hyun first finds Kyung-chul.

I always produce storyboards in advance, but with the greenhouse scene the location changed at the last minute. It didn’t affect me too much as I carry a general sense of the sequence in my head, even when such problems arise I know what I’m going for well enough to maintain the overall sense of where we’re heading. Mistakes can often bring spontaneity and freshness to a scene, I’m working with actors not machines so being able to capture happy accidents on the day can often lead to better ideas than I’d planned.

You’ve only worked with one cinematographer more than once (Mo Gae-lee). Could you talk a little about your working relationship and how you go about ‘casting’ them?

I used the same cinematographer for this film as A Tale of Two Sisters, which was his debut, and for A Bittersweet Life that was that cinematographer’s debut also. I can’t say there are any particular standards by which I cast, I looked at their previous work on short films and although they may not have made features before, I can see the potential in their work. The cinematographer is the person I have the most detailed discussions with regarding the film, and to a lesser extent the artistic director, but they’re both immensely important to me. It’s necessary that we share similar points of view, but I also need them to view my ideas and actions objectively, they can’t be afraid to reign me in when I’m going over the top or to show me things I’ve missed. A cinematographer has to be like a wife who’s nagging me all the time.

All of your protagonists tend to be solitary figures, lone-wolves either on the fringes of society or uncomfortable with the world in which they live. Certainly in this film, but Song Kang-ho in The Foul King is also an outsider searching for purpose through wrestling and the whole family unit in The Quiet Family separate themselves completely from society, decamping to the mountains. What is it that attracts you to this type of character when you’re writing?

I’m not too sure (laughs). Some say that all my films have a sense of sadness to them, I don’t know why, but I like my films to have an air of sadness, even with my action or horror films. Not in a way that makes you cry per se, more forlorn I suppose. I guess it reflects my perception of life, that life is somewhat sad. No matter what film I make, all my characters lean in this direction, perhaps I think that all people ultimately feel this way. In Korea, a journalist once commented that watching my films is like looking at an Edward Hopper painting, particularly A Bittersweet Life. Maybe it’s a product of living in an urban environment, it just breeds loneliness.

Your music choices are always an integral part of your films, from the Western pop songs in The Quiet Family to the more baroque qualities of the music in I Saw The Devil. Is that something which emerges during the writing process or only later during post-production?

When I’m planning a film I tend to listen to music first, it fuels my imagination. With A Tale Of Two Sisters I found myself listening to lots of slow, sad classical music, with The Good, The Bad, The Weird lots of Latin music. This time my discussions with my music director mainly focussed on rhythm, we wanted music which was both rhythmic and minimal, but because of the energy expressed by the actors once we were into production, we ultimately felt we needed something more powerful to match the impact of their performances, so the tone of the music became much larger and stronger than I’d anticipated. I tend to listen repetitively to music as a working process, but it can often change dramatically, as it did with I Saw The Devil.

I’d like you to talk about the violence in I Saw The Devil. The audience’s relationship to Soo-hyun’s actions shifts as the film progresses, from a certain complicity in his quest for vengeance at the start to a more questioning stance as his actions become increasingly violent. You’ve spoken about this in the Nietzschean sense of his having to become the monster to defeat the monster, which I understand, but why do you feel it’s also necessary to depict the acts of the psychopath, Kyung-chul in the way that you do? I’m thinking particularly of the scene with the schoolgirl victim in which you use a POV shot, a first person perspective which provides a certain complicity for the audience with his horrific actions. If your film is about the notion of vengeance and our response to it, why do we need to be complicit with the antagonist also for that point to be made?

Within the horror and thriller genres, there are archetypal characters which are monster or devil-like, and in order to succeed in those particular genres you have to creatively shape these characters. This is not just my view, Hitchcock and Truffaut both spoke of this a great deal, that in films with monsters, the monster must be the one portrayed most effectively and most powerfully. Because these characters need to express their self-perceived power, if there were moments when it was difficult or uncomfortable to watch it’s because I wanted to show how horrible it was for those being victimised and the sense of power the monster has over his victims. That’s why I choose to shoot it that way, it’s an attempt to express the mind of a monster. William Friedkin has said that the most successful director is one that doesn’t lose the audience’s attention for one moment, that’s why I try to have such frequent changes in tone. Sometimes there are humorous moments, sometimes moments of discomfort and horror, it’s all to provoke as diverse a range of emotions from the audience as possible.

You’ve had problems with the censors in Korea with this film, do you think there’s ever a place for censorship in art? Are there some lines which should never be crossed, regardless of the artist’s intentions?

A true and healthy society, when dealing with dark and disturbing material, should allow the audience to pass judgement on what is deemed acceptable, it’s not the job of the authorities or a committee to decide what is ‘healthy’ or not. Society is perfectly capable of defining its own limits. A diseased society is one which suffers from the issues expressed in this film, but a society which tries to hide such issues suffers a greater disease.

I Saw The Devil will be released by Optimum Films in 2011