EDITORS NOTE: For the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival, indieWIRE will be publishing interviews with filmmakers in the Discovery section of the festival, which TIFF describes as a showcase for new and emerging filmmakers from contemporary international cinema.
Javor Gardev‘s “Zift” will be having its World Premiere in the Discovery section of the Toronto International Film Festival. The film follows “The Moth” (Zahary Baharov), a man freed on parole after spending time in a prison on a wrongful murder conviction. TIFF describes his first night out of jail as one in which he “draws the map of a diabolical city full of decaying neighbourhoods, gloomy streets and a bizarre parade of characters.” indieWIRE spoke to Gardev about the film and its screening at Toronto.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking and did that interest evolve while making your film?
My father used to take me regularly to the National Filmoteque in my native town of Sofia since I was four. Thus, I was exposed to the great film classics from an early age. Later, I developed passion for theater. I would try to watch as many stage plays and movies as I could possibly manage. I also played in TV performances for young viewers. During the summers of my adolescence, movies became essential part of the recreational romantics. We would climb the trees that surrounded open-space theaters at the Black-Sea resorts and watched gratis all the shows. Images from films became my personal icons. They were engraved in my mind for good.
Justifiably so, I turned to filmmaking after fourteen years of theater directing and philosophical wanderings. I debuted in the theater when I was 22. Now, I turned to filmmaking not to keep catching and feeding images to my mind, but to start making them. It turns out, I get a big kick out of this. During the making of “Zift” I developed a strong dependency on the intoxicating experience of moviemaking. I really miss the set. Now that the movie “Zift” is done, I feel the rush to go and get my movie fix not only in the theaters, but on the set again.
Please discuss how the idea for “Zift” came about…
The idea developed during a series of conversations with the author of the script Vladislav Todorov. We came to the conclusion that contemporary Bulgarian film deals mainly with everyday-life experiences or engages in constructing national identity drawing on the folklore tradition or revisiting traumatic moments of history. So, we thought that in such artistic context a radical genre attack could be refreshing and trigger a productive debate. We picked one of the sharpest genres of cinema and gave it a strong absurdist spin. The action is set in the midst of the ominously monumental spaces of the totalitarian state surrounded by a bleak zone of urban life packed with roguish riffraff and witty lowlife. We remember the days of “spotless” communism with our skin, its pompous ugliness and exuberant absurdities. So we decided to frame the banality of communist evil, to “estrange” it on screen, to render it utterly odd by using a set of genre devices — the hardboiled cliche of neo-noir. This mix allowed me to walk the knife-edge between auteur and genre cinema.
Please elaborate on your approach to making the film, including your influences as well as your overall goals for the project.
As far as the cinematography is concerned, with DOP Emil Christov we decided to make a black and white picture in 1:2.35 anamorphic format. “Zift” was shot in color but with regard to a black and white final version. The scenes from the 60s are shot with 35 mm camera, the ones from the 40s – with 16 mm, and the phantasmagoric visions with 8 mm.
In terms of visual graphics and retro-effect, we were looking for ways to create different visual textures that would signal the time switches. With the art directors Nikola Toromanov and Daniela Oleg Liahova we decided to create a dystopian appearance of the communist reality even in moments when the action takes us to easily recognizable, sacred sites of Bulgarian communism, such as the Mausoleum of the Leader. The structure has been demolished and we had to rebuild it with CGI. The original score by Kalin Nikolov had to enhance the sense of dystopia. At the same time the picture had to spur combined associations with the visual characteristics of classical noir of the 40s and 50s and the socialist propaganda film of the 20s. I was influenced by directors like Charles Vidor, Fritz Lang, Jules Dassin, Lars von Trier, The Coen Brothers and Alexey German. The critics at the Moscow International Film Festival also mentioned Jean-Pierre Melville, Guy Ritchie, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Quentin Tarantino.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced?
The biggest challenge for me as a debutant filmmaker was the preparation for shooting. I set myself on the ambitious task to draft comprehensive outlines — down to the greatest detail possible — of every single shot. With the help of two assistants, I turned those outlines into blocking diagrams. As a result, the crew on the set had on their disposal a book of about 1200 pages with charts and descriptions of the entire movie. Thus, I could pay more attention to my work with the actors. In this case, I have to admit, my stage experience helped me a lot. With the actors I was in charted waters and the enjoyment was unbelievable.
Casting was also challenging. Casting was also challenging. The main male actors Zachary Baharov, Vladimir Penev, and Mihail Mutafov were chosen without special audition. I just knew who should play these roles. Our discovery was Tanya Ilieva. Together with my casting assistant Antonia Ara Vladimirova we spent time hunting for faces in Sofia. And we were able to find an amazing bunch of characters and convinced them to play in the movie. In the jail scenes there are extras who were actually set free on the day before shooting.
What is your next project?
Together with Vladislav Todorov we are working on two new film projects that are on the stage of script development. The first one is called “Zincograph.” The genre could be termed “political psycho-thriller.” The premise is simple — what would happen if a maniacal former agent of the communist secret police takes a proactive approach, starts to “recruit” unsuspecting people to spy on each other and thus develops his own network of informants, strictly private and invisible for the institutions? This is a farcically sinister story driven by the workings of the mind of a former agent turned psychopathic schemer, who pulls a roguish act on the entire political system that has rejected him.
The second story is significantly more ambitious in terms of budgetary considerations. It is called “Neon” and its genre could be defined as “tragicomic dystopian adventure.” The story takes us into the far future of Neo Thrace — a fictional country created on the Balkans in the aftermath of the Grand Atomic Anomaly. Like in a crooked mirror, the country of Neo-Thrace reflects the totalitarian past and the present state of affairs in the Balkan region. We are actively looking for co-producers for both projects and I hope to find them in Toronto.
As far as my theater projects are concerned, I am presently rehearsing “Caligula” by Camus. It is a Bulgarian-French coproduction that will premiere in Bulgaria shortly after Toronto.
What are your goals for the Toronto International Film Festival?
For me personally, Toronto will test the potential of “Zift” on international stage. This will be the second major challenge for the film before its Bulgarian premiere in September and after the recognition that it received in Moscow. It was highly acclaimed by the jury of the main competition, by the Russian film critics, by cinefiles and bloggers. I am very eager to find out how “Zift” will connect with audiences and the professional community overseas. With the growing apprehension of a first-timer, I am waiting to hear their judgment. Well, I am sure, I’ll leave Toronto with unforgettable memories. Also, two of the producers of “Zift” – Matey Konstantinov and Ilian Djevelekov – will be in Toronto to explore the possibilities for international distribution. In this respect we are hopeful since we already got some serious offers from several major Russian and European distributers. I hope that Toronto, markedly one of the biggest film markets, will prove decisive for our film and the producers from Miramar Film will be there to make sure we do not miss this rare chance.
Naturally, as every sober man, I have three wild wishes that I will not be bashful to share:
Wild wish number one (modest): To sign with a major production company for a movie I’d like to make.
Wild wish number three (super ambitious): Dinner with Joel and Ethan Coen after the screening of “Burn After Reading.”