First-time director Gela Babluani has made quite a splash in the festival circuit with his thriller, “13 (Tzameti).” The film, starring his brother, George Babluani, took the world cinema – dramatic prize at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival as well as prizes last year in Venice and his native Georgia at the Tbilisi International Film Festival. “13 (Tzameti)” is the story of Sebastian, a young man who finds and decides to follow instructions intended for someone else, not knowing where they will lead. When he reaches his destination, he finds himself in a secret degenerate world of mental chaos, in which men gamble on the lives of other men. Babluani discusses with indieWIRE his initial (and unsuccessful) foray into music, discovering the “How” and “What” of filmmaking, and mastering a sense of bravado in order to finish his project. Palm Pictures will open the film beginning in New York on Friday, July 28.
Where did you grow up, and where do you live now?
I was born and raised in Tbilsi, Georgia (then, part of the Soviet Union). I am 27 years old. To earn a living I did a lot of industrial films in France. I currently live in Paris.
What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?
First and foremost, I always wanted to be writer so I wrote a lot. I was concerned about whether my stories would be realistic or not… Would it really be possible to express this kind of reality? So I decided to take one of my stories and make a film out of it [and] find the real faces and sets, and to try to really construct something with images. Because I think when reading something on paper, everyone [visualizes] something different — but if you have an image everyone sees the same thing. I realize that writing and filmmaking are two separate things, but they are also connected. For example, if you write something for a film and for a story, they are very different kinds of writing. So I was caught in the vicious cycle of it. and I stayed within that circle.
My mother really wanted me to take up music when I was a child, and she really tried very hard. For three consecutive years I took an admissions test in order to enter music school. Even though half of the people on the admission committee were family friends, I never succeeded. The fourth time I applied, I was accepted. After I had finally passed the test some one played a chord on a piano and asked me to find the note. And when I thought I found the note, I really played it loudly, I guess it was the wrong note because people wondered if I had a hole in my ear. I had to study for nine years instead of seven because I got held back twice.
How did you learn about filmmaking?
I tried film school but it wasn’t for me. I think the rules of cinema can be learned very quickly, but you need to have passion. I also learned there are some things that just can’t be taught. I forgot who said this, perhaps my father, but something can either be learned in three days or three hundred years… Instead of film school, I watched a lot of films, but not for the technical aspects as much as the dramatic construction. Basically, I think film is two things: it is the “What” and “How.” And often the “How” determines the “What.”
When you watch Spielberg‘s “Duel,” there are actually three storylines presented without any real explanation. But the “What” is often very much reinforced by the “How.” And the “What” becomes obvious.
How did the initial idea for “13 Tzameti” come about?
I think that when you decide to make a film like “13 Tzameti,” it’s because you already have its basic idea in your head. I think those ideas really come from who you are [such as] your past experiences, your character, what interests you in life and what you want to talk about.
On the other hand, if you make a really stupid comedy no one ever asks you where the idea for the film comes from. Or even if you make a good comedy I don’t think those kinds of questions come up very often.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution for the movie?
I think that a first film is always a very delicate thing. And especially for this film. It was very complicated. There were about 600 people who worked on the film [though] at different stages. So it’s really challenging, especially when you are a first-time director and aren’t “known,” [but still have] to bring all these people together and make them believe in you. You don’t know them and they haven’t seen anything from you. I think that was the biggest problem at the beginning of shooting.
One of the actors in the film, Vania Vilers, told me after we finished shooting that it wasn’t a question of money for him wanting to be involved in “13 Tzameti.” He wanted to be involved because he felt that I was extremely motivated. He told me that when he first met me I behaved and acted as if I had $20 million. As if I was very important… as if I had some huge financial investments funding the film. And there was no money. I really think it is really a question of personal motivation. If you don’t believe in what you are doing, you really can’t do it.
The film was almost finished when I showed it to MK2 (in France). I had about an hour and ten minutes already shot. Based on the screenplay, no one wanted to see my film. But after seeing the first hour and ten minutes, MK2 came on board to help finance it.
What are your biggest creative influences?
I think the biggest inspiration actually comes from personal experiences and the things that interest you. It is very broad. The history of cinema is very rich. So I can’t really pick one person out. It’s just the cinema itself.
What is your definition of “independent film?”
It is a kind of film made with artistic freedom that is not crushed by financial interest. Where there is still an energy/excitement to the filmmaking process. It is the energy that is the primary thing.
What are your interests outside of film?
Traveling, spending time with my family and my golden retriever Zoya.
How do you define success as a filmmaker?
If you are able to make your films, and if you have the chance and the opportunity to continue to make the films you want to make. It is very difficult thing to do. I don’t want to always make the same kind of film. I’d like to make films in different countries and make each one different. And I think we all think about this one day: about not having the inspiration to make any other films. I hope that never happens. Fellini at the end of his career couldn’t bring himself to make any more films. It was not a question of money, it was more to do with personal issues.