Three years after Julia Loktev’s minimalist suicide bomber story “Day Night Day Night” hit theaters, the director has returned with a new film that contains a similarly restrained style but deals with entirely separate issues.
“The Loneliest Planet,” which premiered at the Locarno Film Festival on Thursday, stars Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg as a young engaged couple traveling the Georgian mountainside with an enigmatic guide (Bidzina Gujabidze), facing troublesome cultural barriers and other unexpected developments that shake up their relationship. Intentionally slow, quiet and supremely observational, the movie proves Loktev hasn’t lost her touch.
After an afternoon press conference in Locarno, Loktev sat down with indieWIRE to discuss the time between her projects and the inspiration for her latest low-key effort.
It’s been four years since “Day Night Day Night.” What accounts for the gap?
Part of it is that it takes me awhile to figure out what I want to do. I work slowly. The other thing is that it’s just so damn hard to raise the money. We were going to shoot it one year earlier and the money didn’t come together. We almost shot it in China, in the Xinjiang Province, and then they had riots. It was initially supposed to take place in Georgia, and then we needed that last piece of money that wasn’t happening. It’s a story I wanted to set in the mountains, and in China you have a very short period of time to do that, because the mountains are covered in snow for three quarters of the year. I decided to make things easy for myself. We were getting towards the end of the summer and we had an investor who said, “Why don’t you come to China?” We went to the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and two weeks later they had riots. The government shut down the province. But the film was always meant to be in Georgia.
For me, it’s a very intimate thing. I’m from the Soviet Union and Georgia was the jewel of the Soviet Union. It’s where my parents traveled to when they were young. My mom hiked for three weeks across the Caucases when she was in university. The place had a mythical proportion in my mind, so it made sense to set it in Georgia. When were in China, we kept looking for landscapes that looked like Georgia. In the end, it came back to where it should be.
How long was the shoot?
The shoot itself was six weeks. It was a bigger budget. Not big enough, but bigger. “Big” is a relative term.
Both “The Loneliest Planet” and “”Day Night Day Night” are very slow, but contain a handful of suspenseful moments. They also both intentionally withhold crucial information about the characters. What do you make of those connections between the films?
I see a disturbing relationship between the two movies: I can’t make another film now about people walking around with backpacks. (laughs) It’s just pathological at this stage. No, I’m joking. For me, it seems like a very natural progress. It was very different in the sense that you’re going from Times Square to the middle of the mountains. I don’t know if I set out to have that progression. I treat each film differently, but there are probably some things about the way I treat the motion of people, their faces, the camera, that probably come through.
One significant difference is that you’re working with three main characters in “The Loneliest Planet” as opposed to just one in “Day Night Day Night.”
Exactly. I was thinking, “Oh my god, I’m going to make a film about people in relationships with each other, not just a girl’s relationship with her own mysterious faith.” For me, it’s all kind of a part of making films. I didn’t think of it very differently.
A lot of people compared “Day Night Day Night” to the work of Robert Bresson. What inspirations did you draw from for “The Loneliest Planet”?
There are specific things that I thought about. There are some Soviet films that have a very specific role for the landscape, where it really becomes a character. There’s a really beautiful movie called “The Unsent Letter,” from the director of “I Am Cuba.” It was this little film set in Siberia that had fundamentally little to do with this film but it was a film where the landscape became an intense character. In a weird way, I thought of “Stalker,” only because there are three people and it’s very, very green. I really love Rossellini’s “Voyage in Italy,” which has nothing to do with hiking in mountains. But it does have to do with a relationship and this strange coming apart, coming together progression and it’s kind of inexplicable.
Since a lot of the movie involves casual dialogue and small actions, it seems like there was a lot of improvisation.
There’s a heavy amount of improvisation but within very tight guidelines. I have a very clear idea of what I want to happen and we’ll probably get to it at some time, but when is less clear. That’s one of the pleasures of shooting. Everyone except for Gael and Hani [Furstenberg] in the film were not professional actors. That’s the fun of it: Shoving them into a real house with a grandmother [in the first scene of the film] and letting them hang out while giving them some guidelines.
How much of the story did you work out in advance?
The structures of the conversations were usually written, and then around them there was usually some space for the characters to dance around them. I’m an incredibly rigid control freak, but I like letting things get out of control and then reigning them in. But you start out with a definite ideal of what you’re trying to get.
On the one hand, you’ve made a relationship movie, but it’s also about the perils of tourism. How do you reconcile those two themes?
I didn’t want to make a “Hostel” thing, although I haven’t seen it, but there is a kind of genre of bad things happening to tourists. In generally, I’m utterly uninterested in films about bad things happening to good people. I’m interested in good people doing bad things. That’s what interested me in this film. It’s not like they’re these poor victims; they’re not. They’re victims of themselves, if anything.
How did you go about creating chemistry between your two actors? Gael Garcia Bernal is obviously a star, while Hani Furstenberg is not so widely known outside of the Israeli theater.
They had really nice chemistry together, so I didn’t have to do much for that. They’re both really open. They’re very curious, open people. They brought nice things out of each other. I can’t really take credit for that. I was interested in seeing a different side of Gael that I think we haven’t seen: Older, probably. He’s a mature actor. He’s 30 now. He’s not a kid anymore. I was interested in seeing a different aspect of him. It’s a very quiet character and he’s an amazing physical actor. He hardly speaks for the second half of the movie.
How did you get him interested in the part?
He said he had been dreaming of the Caucuses since he was nine and read “A Hero of Our Time” when he was 12. So apparently he had been harboring this fantasy of going there. It’s very easy to make films that make fun of tourists and I didn’t want to do that. One of those “let’s make fun of Americans” movies. So I think one of the things I wanted to do was reflect the kind of Americans I know: Half of them have accents, half of them were born somewhere else. That becomes a causality. This happens because they’re American. I liked that. Also, he’s very appealing, you’re comfortable in his masculinity, and I think he brought that comfortableness.
More superficially, he also brought star power, which you haven’t had in any of your previous works.
Yeah, that helped, but I think he kind of underplayed that in a way. It’s a very humble performance, it’s not flashy. He grew a beard. I’m obviously weird because I’m open across the board. I cast a well-known actor, Hani, who’s well known in Israel, and this guy who has never acted before but he’s a professional mountaineer. What does it mean to be an actor? I don’t want to say “actor” and “non-actor.” If someone is right for the role, they could be a professional or a mountaineer and it makes sense. I think that can be dangerous. When you mix a well-known actor with non-professionals it can be very dangerous.
How did you find the mountaineering character?
We had a line producer in Georgia who climbed over every rock. We were looking for someone who spoke English well enough to play a guide. I met with every English-speaking Georgian actor and then we started meeting with mountain guides. Part of the appeal to me was it would be someone who knows the part inside out. But also I think a guide is a performer. You have a new audience every week, you tell them jokes, you show them things, you’re playing for audiences all the time. Bidzina [Gujabidze, who plays the guide] has guided people on expeditions. He’s the top mountaineer in Georgia. He got stopped on the street more than Gael. He became our guide, literally, in the film.
How big was your crew?
About a dozen [people]. We had to carry everything. We had these amazing Georgian mountaineers who helped us carry things and were our drivers.
At the Locarno press conference, you mentioned that the audience laughed at certain moments in the film where you didn’t expect it, but not in a bad way.
At some point I knew that was going to happen. I hope that you don’t walk out of my films knowing what to think, and you don’t always react how you think you should react. That’s what the film is about: How do you think you respond to something and how do you respond to something?