Suicide bomber as a tourist? Or a tourist as a suicide bomber? Julia Loktev‘s artful and haunting feature “Day Night Day Night” sharpens its focus by refusing to take a side. The film follows an anonymous girl (Luisa Williams) as she’s loaded with a backpack of explosives, and her suspenseful walk through Times Square. Rather than taking a typical, network-TV approach, Loktev finds poetry in the finer details lingering in the shadow of a potentially catastrophic event. An award winner at Cannes, Woodstock, and Montreal film festivals, “Day Night Day Night” is currently in release by IFC First Take.
What attracted you to filmmaking?
I don’t remember what made me want to become a filmmaker. All I remember is I was 21 and was planning to become an architect. And one day I realized I would make a terrible architect and should be a filmmaker instead. I hope I’ve become a not-so-terrible filmmaker.
How did the initial idea for “Day Night Day Night” come about?
The seed of the film came from an article I read in a Russian newspaper about a girl wandering down one of Moscow’s main streets with a bomb her bag. I can’t tell you what drew me to the story without giving away the ending. All I can say is it was everything I didn’t expect this story to be. Coincidentally, just a week before, I had been walking down the same route as a tourist with a small backpack. It occurred to me that if someone looked at me and looked at this girl wandering around this city we didn’t know, we probably didn’t look so different from the outside. The entire story was happening under the skin.
I started reading articles about suicide bombers, always focusing on these details that made no sense, and yet made perfect sense. I was struck by the story of a girl who had lunch in a cafe before blowing it up, another girl who backed out when the organizers asked her to wear crop-top that exposed her belly, still another girl who, on her way to ramming a truck bomb into a Russian army convoy, stopped at the market to buy some bananas. In some ways, the film is about “the bananas.”
Talk about the film’s style…
The film is divided into two visually and sonically distinct parts, shot like two different movies. The first part, PREPARATION, is all about control. It’s hermetically sealed, an isolation tank. The first part is about a plan. Like the floor plan of a building, plans are simple and clear. Everything extra is eliminated; every gesture is carefully measured. The colors are de-saturated, shades of gray, grayish blue. The shots are precisely composed, stark, geometric. The sound is silence punctuated by ruptures.
The second part, ACTION, throws us out in the city, out in the street, out of control. We sent our fictional character into a documentary world, shooting in the middle of Times Square, often shooting with just myself, the actress Luisa Williams and DP Benoit Debie making our way through a dense New York crowd. Out in the street, the plan comes up against the real world. Out in the street, things get messy. The colors become supersaturated. The camera is handheld, loose, on the move. The sound of the city pushes in from all sides.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
Directing a film is a bit like trying to work through a very private thinking process in public. You’re surrounded by people, by collaborators, and yet you’re also very much alone. You wake up every day of the shoot thinking, “Today is the day I’m going to screw it up.” And then you start working, and something clicks, and you get the sense that it’s actually coming together, that something exciting is happening. But then you think, “Well, there’s always tomorrow to screw it up.” And the more risks you take, the more opportunities you give yourself to screw it up. But that’s what makes it thrilling for me.
When I told people I wanted to shoot a film in the middle of the crowd in Times Square, everyone said I was completely crazy. Most of the time, when people shoot in New York, the first thing they do is block off the street and redecorate the store signs. They take out the real life and they replace it with artificial life. We wanted to work with the real street, working off the energy of the street. Times Square is amazingly well-cast, and it’s beautifully art-directed. Luckily, my two main collaborators Luisa and Benoit were both incredibly game. When Luisa had to run out into traffic, she just ran out in the street and Benoit would run after her. We tried to play off the street, often casting people right on the spot.
How did the financing and casting for the film come together?
Funding. From the start, I decided I’d rather make the film for less money but to have complete creative control. I’m very well aware that bigger budgets can lead to bigger compromises. The project was selected by CineMart at the Rotterdam International Film Festival, which was kind of like speed-dating with European funders. Through CineMart we hooked up with ZDF‘s Das Kleine Fernsehspiel, who provided most of the funding. I also won the Richard Vague Film Production Award from NYU, designed to fund features by alumni. The budget was small, but it allowed me to make the film I wanted to make, to have final cut.
Casting. From the start, I also decided that I wanted the girl to be an unknown face, a tabula rasa, someone you could project onto. We put out an open call and saw over 650 girls — and not a single right one. I was desperate. We had no girl; we had no film. Then a few days after the auditions were over, I received an email from a girl named Luisa. She was working as a nanny and was taking the kid to the aquarium on the Coney Island boardwalk when she saw a flyer for the auditions on a lamppost. She had missed the auditions, but thought she’d write anyway, just in case we hadn’t found anyone. We think it was kismet.
What are some of the creative influences?
Godard, Dreyer, Bresson, Melville, Vertov, Rossellini, Teshigahara, post-war urban Kurosawa, Soviet films of the ’60s, Jacques Tati, Busby Berkeley, oh wait I’m going on a tangent…
I’m also very much influenced by architecture, graphic design, music, literature, newspapers, the street, the subway…
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker?
Love, sex, violence, death… hmm… maybe that’s enough for the
What is your next project?
It will probably involve love, sex, violence, death…
What is your definition of “independent film”?
There is no independent film. It’s just a matter of what you depend on — money, luck, circumstance, friends, the kindness of strangers, blind faith, blissful ignorance, your own bullheadedness…
What are your interests outside of film?
I also like to shimmy.