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Homa Taj In Conversation with Swiss Filmmaker Nick Brandestini

LONDON – I first heard about Darwin at the Zurich Film Festival where everyone was raving about this documentary by a young Swiss director. In fact, the film won the Best Documentary Award at ZFF, followed by another (BDA) at Austin Film Festival, later in October. Since its premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in January (2011), Darwin has been receiving great reviews from critics around the world, including one (Variety) with which I wholeheartedly agree: “Undeniable poetry.” It wasn’t until London (55th BFI Film Festival) that I had the chance to see Darwin and meet Nick Brandestini …

Homa Nasab – How did you hear about Darwin? 

Nick Brandestini – I was interested in making a documentary film about a small, isolated community in the desert. My co-producers Sandra Ruch and Taylor Segrest, whom I met at a film festival and whom I wanted to work with, actually found the town of Darwin while researching on the Internet. My initial choice of a desert community turned out to be too small to make a feature film about. So this is how it all started. I did not know at the time what the film would eventually be about. This all became clearer during filming.

HN –  What inspired you to make a film about it? 

NB – For some reason, I was always fascinated with the Wild West and Ghost Towns. I made a few short documentaries before in Europe, and I wanted my first feature length film to take place in the US. My main inspiration was to learn more about the people who live in a place like Darwin. I love the environment of the desert, but could not understand why anybody would want to live there, away from everything. After making this film, I understand much better.

HN – How did you, as filmmaker, configure the narrative, the story of your film that is the portrait of a place where nothing happens?

NB – The fact that not much happens in Darwin was indeed a bit of a challenge. When you enter the town for the first time, you think it is an actual ghost town with no people in it. One of the few interactions the 35 residents have takes place at the post office when they pick up their mail. But not all go there every day. And the only major event where most of the town comes together is at the 4th of July celebration, which is also in the film. I think it is quite an emotional scene that illustrates or symbolizes the Darwin residents’ independence and own way of life.

During the making of Darwin my co-producers and I were constantly discussing how to shape the film. There were a lot of interesting individual scenes that we could work with, but not a single story that would involve all the residents. After a while we found that these scenes all dealt with similar, larger themes such as “religion”, “family relations”, “war & peace”, or “death.” This is why the film is divided into different chapters. And I think the film has a poetic or philosophical tone, without being too obvious about it. At least that was the intention.

HN – I understand that you self-funded the film so you didn’t have to worry about selling the idea of making a film about an uneventful ghost town with a population of 35. Aside from your beautifully handling of this apparently mundane subject, I am really touched by the fact that perhaps your film may not have been made 15-20 years ago, in the pre-digital age.

NB – While the film seems to have high production values, it is actually a low-budget film. Darwin also had a very small team. The core team consists of basically 4 people. And like you say, the film would not have been possible even 10 years ago. Today’s technology really helps filmmakers bring their visions to life. You don’t need to have expensive equipment anymore to make a film. The relatively small camera that I used (a Sony PMW-EX3) created great high-definition images that look very nice even on a big screen.

HN – The town’s population is comprised of a motley crew of characters. And, I mean that in an affectionate sense. Yet, you portray them without really judging them…

NB – I did not expect the people of Darwin to be “dangerous” or “crazy”, as some people would characterize them. I always wanted to portray the people of Darwin in a balanced way. Of course, I wanted to show some of the more eccentric and unusual aspects of the community too, but not focus on them. I was more interested in hearing the people’s stories, why they are in Darwin and what they like about it.

HN – How did you convince the residents of your good intentions to do a documentary on their town? Especially considering its somewhat poor reputation…

NB – Well, I was very careful not to rush things. And I really did not want to invade their lives too much. I think many people in Darwin are there because they prefer to be left alone. But I got along with the residents very well and they were very nice to me. And I think it also helped that I was from a foreign country and that the film crew consisted of just me.

HN – There is a navy base located near Darwin which, metaphorically speaking, feeds the town’s residents with some kind of apocalyptic fever…

NB – Yes, the next-door Navy Base clearly has an effect on the Darwin residents. Their water actually comes from a spring that is located on the base. The fact that nobody really knows what is happening there certainly feeds all kinds of speculation. Some people in town are quite matter-of-fact about it though. Monty for example says: As long as they don’t bomb my front yard, I have no problem with ‘em. And in fact, the relationship between Darwin and the base is generally quite good, even though some residents naturally feel bad vibes from its presence.

HN – Would you live in Darwin?

NB – I like to visit the place, but I could not imagine living there for longer periods of time.

HN – Have you been back since you finished filming?

NB – I have been back to Darwin to show the residents the film. It was a special premiere of “Darwin” in Darwin. That was in May 2011. It was one of the highlights of the “Darwin adventure.” I am very happy that the people of Darwin liked the film. I really wanted to create something that they approve and can also enjoy. In fact, they were laughing at the humorous moments like every other audience. In addition, they learned things about each other that they did not know before. I had a great time in Darwin and I will return again in the future.

HN – Where is the film showing next?

NB – The festival run of Darwin is beginning to slow down a little bit. However, I get quite a lot of invitations to submit the film. If a festival would like to screen it, I usually send them a copy. I am now also trying to get TV stations interested. And, I think there might be a theatrical run in my home country of Switzerland.


HN – What is your next project?

NB – That is a good question. I don’t have a specific one at the moment. I do however have a few ideas. And, for me, there are some “ingredients” the new project should have. It will probably be about people, and less focused on one single issue. I would also like the film to have a cinematic environment that is nice to look at. And, hopefully it will also offer opportunities for humor.

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Homa Taj In Conversation with Joachim Trier (OSLO August 31)

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I met Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier at the 55th BFI London Film Festival. His latest feature OSLO August 31 is a story that takes place in one day in the life of a young recovering drug addict. On August 31, the film’s protagonist, Anders, takes a short leave from his treatment center to interview for a job and catch up with old friends in Oslo. As with Trier’s critically acclaimed Reprise (2006), Oslo is a softly stylized film with incisive attention to details including its palette and sound. Oslo August 31 was part of the Official Selection at Cannes Film Festival 2011, and is shortlisted as one of Norway’s top three submissions for the 2012 Academy Awards.

Homa Taj- Where do you find your aesthetic inspiration…? Where do you go? Do you go inside (yourself) or look without…?

Joachim Trier – You have different phases in the process of creating an intuition… That is what we strive to achieve as directors/ filmmakers. For me it all started with cinema. My love for the medium. The possibility and the fact that even though you could use lens the same lens, or the same location, even almost the same framing… if you come back the next day or a few days later, the mimetics of cinema create a new image. Very often it’s almost impossible to reproduce exactly the same thing anyway. So you’re working up against – well, most of the time, the way I work – some otherness in reality that you can’t control. When I started out I was very inspired by the more formalist approach to cinema in my early shorts. I thought that the more similar the image in my head was to the one on the screen the more successful my film would be. It’s a cliche but it’s actually true that that is not the case. My attitude, of course, has changed tremendously since I’ve discovered things through accidents, and how to create a climate around the camera and the way I film. So though there is quite a clear strategy, a visual thematic strategy, there are elements that I don’t control.

HT – Such as …?

JT – This is often the case in performance. I try to create something that it is subtle and nuanced … in performance but I am quite aware of how I frame it. Though, the more I work the more I’m interested in realism. In the sense not of reductive realism but in the sense that [Andrei] Tarkovsky, the great filmmaker, speaks about it. He says that you can walk down the street and see a man one day and if you try to put your camera in your eyes’ position and cast a guy that looks like him you capture nothing because you will carry with you on that day the notion that he reminded you of an old friend with whom you haven’t spoken to … or you might have quarreled with your girlfriend, etc. All these affect your mindset of an image in a film or the context of it. I’ve been more and more drawn to how that process figures in narrative. So an image never stands alone. It’s always in relation to something else. So, this is where I find the difference between a single photo or a single painting and film. You could of course say that in relation to other graphic arts that are done in series. Obviously. And, you can also see story-telling within within an [artist’s] oeuvre. But, it’s a different type of story-telling. It’s not consciously controlling time. So the temporal aspect of an image in cinema is quite unique. And, I think that that is also why I am drawn to cinema for inspiration for cinema. I obviously love painting. Who doesn’t? Or still-photography. For my recent film I look at a lot of old Magnum photographers and street photographers from America. I mean Grant’s ability to make something iconoclastic from everyday situations will always be inspiring to all filmmakers. But having said that, I seldom allude or reference directly a piece of art. But it’s all there as a part of the intuition.

HT – I mean particularly looking at (traditional visual) art for texture, for palette… more the sensuality of the image rather than its imitative mise-en-scene inspirational quality. For example, how do you decide that your brown palette makes more aesthetic sense as it hints toward burgundy, etc.?

JT – That is very interesting. We – my cinematographer Jakob Ihre and myself – are working a lot with neutrals, for this film, trying to create good skin tones and clear whites. Things that balance the other colour elements in the image because we find that neutrality is the hardest to achieve, almost.

HT – Almost like using black & white? It’s harder than b&W in some ways.

JT – Yes, but I don’t work in black & white any longer.

HT – Right. I also mean black & white is so inherently dramatic. Whereas if you use a neutral palette …it’s hardest to endow it with life and vibrancy.

JT – Well, by neutrality I also mean balance. I mean balancing the colours/palette. I have become more and more interested in how things work. How relative things are in life in terms of colour and mood. And, I still think that we need to understand that cinematic eye is so far removed from the human eye that to strive for a sense of human perception – and I don’t mean in a reductive scientific way, I mean it in an artistic way, hopefully – is the most personal approach you can have to cinema. Actually, trying to understand how you differ from other people, and how you see things. I mean how do you look at a face? For example, I believe there are infinite possibilities in terms of the close-up. But people often say, “Ah, close-ups are boring. They are for television.” But, actually close-ups in cinema are quite unique. You’ll never in any other art form, as far as I am aware, can see an eye that is nine feet tall. It’s closer than you’ll ever get in reality. So the close-up in cinema is a very unique form of expression.

HT – It defies realism because it’s impossible.

JT – Yes, exactly. So the fact is that in cinema, whatever you do, you end up with an abstraction of something, one that is seemingly mimetic. Or it seems to (imitate) reality. There is abstraction going on all the time. So, that play fascinates me. I don’t mean to be academic. But since we are talking in the context of visual arts, I allow myself to talk more freely. I think about this all the time. Also, when I choose space, I think of how will different lenses create different spaces out of the same actual space that you are filming. I always say this to directors, when I hear them saying, “Oh, I leave the lens to the DP [Director of Photography].” No! That’s your job. You must know lenses. That is one of your main tools for creating (e)motion and image. So, lenses are very important.

HT – Speaking of filmmakers as inspiration, you mentioned Tarkovsky, who is one of (if not ‘the’) my favourite filmmaker(s). If I had to save an archive from burning to the ground, I would sadly grab all the Tarkovsky’s and cry over the Bergman’s, and Kurosawa’s and the rest… 

JT – [Laughs] Yes.

HN – And, it breaks my heart that they are available on DVD. I have all of them but never watched them… It is sublime.

JT – Yes. It is sublime, I agree with you.

HT – So, to whom do you turn when you look for inspiration in cinema? And, I don’t mean even when you are looking for something in particular … 

JT – People whom I come back to when I lose faith sometimes are… Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (1975). Antonioni and Bressan, too. People that have a classical sense of cinema… just that breaking point when modernity meet classicism. These filmmakers have a classical yearning for something that goes outside mainstream cinema. There is also a radicality to these people that I find inspiring. Kubrick.

HT – Pasolini.

JT – Yes, absolutely. There are so many. I find filmmakers who struggle with convention yet have the craft to really take, to lift the big machine somewhere new in terms of its visual potential… very inspiring. Those are the ones whom I admire the most.

HN – These filmmakers whom you mention are very fluent in the craft & technicality of cinema… but there is also an extreme poetic sense to their work. By that I mean, that they have to search above and beyond tradition to come up with alternative techniques that express their vision because nothing that had been done before them can fulfill that. 

JT – Exactly. I think that you are emphasizing an important aspect which is the fact that people like Eisenstein, Tarkovsky, and Hitchcock and Kubrick have been incredibly sophisticated technical directors. And, this is the things: you really need to know your tools. To be a film director is like being half-way between a military general and a poet. So you need both aspects, you need to be able to choreograph and push beyond the ambitions of the standard tripod and the camera in an aesthetic frame. You need to continually try to be creative about how to achieve images of movement. At the same time, to shield something definable, something that you are constantly worried will become too concrete and too banal… too explicit. It’s that balance of trying to get 200 people to get the same series of images which needs clarity. It needs mission. On the other hand, trying to create something that has subtlety, nuance and ambiguity, hopefully. I find that is the space of working as a film director for me. That is what I find fascinating time and time again.

HT – And, what about sound? Your films are very sound-sensitive… 

JT – Yes [laughs]. I grew up with a father who was a sound designer. And, a recorder as well. So I think that that is a whole dimension of cinema that I am fascinated by. I find sound and the use of light very similar. You start sensing in a very primal way when things are being contrived …too much. And, that is fair enough. I like (sound & lighting) effects but sometimes I find it more sophisticated when filmmakers manage to take what is seemingly already there and know exactly where the breaking point for stylization lies. You can play with it but manage to find something that is expressive in a subtler, harder way than just the obvious effects.

HT – Well, it takes a great degree of aesthetic, emotional and artistic maturity to achieve what you just described. It takes quite some time in order to reach that level of sophistication that you are talking about. 

JT – Sure, sure. I am still working hard to try to get somewhere.

HN – For example, in visual arts, especially contemporary art, everyone is obsessed with working with young artists. But, if I can help it, I don’t work with anyone under 45. I think that an artist just begins to realize what they are doing from their early ’40’s onward. And, from 40’s to the 70’s … that is actually the age range of artists with whom I like to work. 

JT – That is interesting!!

HN – Well, because I think that even in their late 30’s, artists are still ‘getting there.’ But once they hit 43-44-45, then …

JT – I am 37 now so I hope to get there… [laughs].

HN – Oops [Laugh].

JT – [Laughs] That is good to know.

HN – This was the case even when I was in my 20’s… 

JT – That is fascinating… [laughs]

HN – Well, I started in theatre and ended up in academia via film… I just came back from Frieze.

JT – So still a lot of people are doing appropriation art… [laughs]?

HN – Yes, plenty of happy, shiny stuff… And, they are not bio-degradable.

JT – I see this … art has become discursive which is painful for artists who fall outside the trend.

HN – Well, I was hoping that the recession would purge the market. But collectors are resorting to ‘known names’ who are the same ones who rose to prominence over the past 10-15 years. Ones who continue to create same mass-produced stuff (for the loss of a better word)… So, yes, I know a many really great mid-career artists whose works are not being shown and who are dis-illusioned. They feel as if they have missed their chance because they are not young and hip anymore and that they don’t satisfy the art world’s paedophilic obsession with youth. And, arts patrons/ buyers don’t want to take risks with new people. So you have an entire generation of artists whose works may be lost to the system… Uppa. Guess I got the last word!

JT – [Laughs].

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In Homa Taj In Conversation with Liza Johnson & her “Return” @ MoMA



I met American performance and video artist turned filmmaker Liza Johhnson at the Mayfair Hotel during the 55th BFI London Film Festival. Her film Return premiered at the Cannes Film Festival 2011, and is included in the Museum of Modern Art’s annual The Contenders series.

Homa Nasab – You have been working as a professional and successful artist for many years. How did you figure the transition between your work as a visual artist and directing films?

Liza Johnson – The art work that I have done has always been on film and video. So, (because of this), the tradition that I studied came out of conceptual and performance arts. It’s a very different tradition but for me there has always been a lot of points of contact.

HN – How long was the development period for Return?

LJ – I don’t know. I wrote the film and then we workshopped it at Sundance (Film Institute Screenwriters’ Workshop). Then I rewrote it. And then we went out to investors …one or two days before the economic crisis of 2008 which was not an awesome time [laughs]. But, at some point, maybe 1 1/2 years later, I am not exactly sure, at a certain point after that we met the right partner – financially speaking. So, I am not sure if that is actually longer than my peers and colleagues. Sometimes it just takes time to find the right partners. I don’t know if we were delayed by the economic crisis or if it is just hard to find the right match for your project.

HN – How was working on Return different from your earlier video work?

LJ – Working with an economy of means, we shot the film in 25 days and tried to make an opportunity for beautiful accidents and ephemeral effects.

HN – How did you come up with the idea of making a film about a soldier returning from war, etc…?

LJ – I had a friend who told me stories about his efforts to stay married after his military deployment. And, I don’t know how it is here in England, but in the US mostly when we talk about war as a public conversation … people talk about statistics. For example, “63 people died in a car bomb, etc.” Though my friend actually doesn’t have PTSD (Post Traumatic Syndrome Disorder) since his training made it possible for him to assimilate some very difficult things. But he could not describe what he went through to his wife. And, she could’t understand what he had gone through without his help. So they just could’t cross that gap. It was through him – meeting his friends and acquaintances – and by doing research on my own, I heard about experiences that were dramatically different from one another.

HN – Aside from hearing your friend’s stories, what ultimately inspired you to want to make a movie whose main theme is war?

LJ – Ultimately, I think that because of TV and policy conversations (on popular news programs) it wasn’t so much about watching other movies that made me want to look at the issue of war in a different way than how people talk on (American) TV.

HN – Doing film and performance art is very different from doing a long feature film, though…

LJ – Yes, of course. It is.

HN – As is writing a screenplay which, again, is a very particular form of storytelling…

LJ – Yes, it really is. Actually, Sundance really helped me because they have these workshops where you work on your scenes and people speak in a different vernacular. The economic context is totally different. And, basically, how you work is different.

HN – (How so?)

LJ – Well, for example, in performance and in conceptual art, the working question is: “What does this mean?” In narrative work, the question is, “What happens next?” Or “Who am I?” “Where have I been?” So, it’s also a very different way of talking about what you are doing. And, ultimately, a very different method of working.

But the grammar of my recent work is not so different. And, because the work I have been doing is very relational working with non-actors… some of the aspects are organically linked. But you are totally right.

HN – What percentage of your crew in Return is made up of non-actors?

LJ – Oh, for the film, all the actors are experienced. Though I do like working with non-professionals, in this film we mostly worked with Union actors – except for a few very small roles.

HN – The experience of War never ever leaves you. No, I didn’t serve in an army since I was very little [both laugh] during the Iran-Iraq War but… it just stays with you… That feeling of… death.

LJ – Yes, that is what I hear…

HN – I think that it actually affects your DNA [laughs]… So, it’s fascinating what you have done with the film.

LJ – Thank you.

HN – And, you! … Ok, so, what’s your next project?

LJ – I have a few projects … I am about to direct something that I haven’t written which is something I have never done. I also have a script that I wrote before Return. And, I have a couple of literary properties that I hope to adapt.

HN – What about your career as a traditional visual artist?

LJ – I think that I can keep working in that tradition also. For example, in the summer, I shot a film in Australia with non-actors and it is much more of a neo-realist project where as a group we did a workshop with a friend who has worked there for a long time. He is an anthropologist… almost like public art considering how would the group feel best represented, what stories did we want to tell, and how that all came together. And, then we acted it out. So, that project is almost done. And, I am hopeful that I will be able to do both kinds of work.

HN – Where are you going to show it?

LJ – I don’t know it. We only just finished cutting it.

HN – Who is your dealer?

LJ – I don’t have a gallerist. If you want to suggest one, I’ll go meet them [laughs].