Women and Hollywood: Where did you get the idea for this film?
Julia Loktev: I was actually traveling in Georgia with my boyfriend at the time when I remembered this short story I had read by Tom Bissell, which was about a couple traveling with a guide in Kazakhstan. I had read it a couple of years back. We weren’t traveling with a guide, and we weren’t in the mountains, but something about being in that space of traveling made me remember it.
WaH: Silence is almost a character in the film. It must be quite a challenge to have no dialogue and still make the scene interesting. Please talk about that.
JL: Well to me the most interesting things can be an actor’s facial expression, a gesture, the movement of a body — all those things that we are saying to each other in-between the words. For me cinema is image, sound, and the faces and bodies and, yes, voices, of my actors, and sometimes the words that they are saying, but not only the words.
WaH: The key to this film is a moment in time that changes the relationship between Alex and Nica. Without giving away the moment, talk about how you were able to achieve this shift in the interpersonal dynamics between the actors.
JL: The film is about this drastic incident which happens in the middle of their trek deep in the mountains and that really challenges their relationship. They are more than a day’s walk from the nearest village when it happens, so they have to go on. And for me, the interesting question was how do they go on? What do they do when they have no idea what to do or what to say? As you say, it’s this real emotional shift. And after the drastic shift, their emotions keep on shifting from moment to moment. And both Gael and Hani were very attuned to the specifics of each moment. They were really able to make these emotional shifts palpable. We shot more or less in sequence, especially in this second half of the film, which I think helped. But really it’s the fantastic actors.
WaH: I’ve read about the movie where people describe it as a look at gender politics today. Do you agree with that? If yes, why?
JL: I don’t think it’s a conventionally political film in any sense of the word. It does have to do with the question of what does it mean to be a man now, what do we expect from men? I think that’s a very confusing question. It’s certainly confusing for me.
WaH: Talk about why you placed the film in the Caucasus mountains.
JL: I was born in Russia, at a time that Georgia and Russia were still part of the same country the Soviet Union. So in a sense, Georgia feels very close to home for me. But for me, part of the appeal is that it’s a place most Americans can’t picture in their mind. It doesn’t come with a lot of preconceptions. It’s also a place where the tourist industry is quite young, so you can still have a lot of interaction with people. For example, the couple in the film is staying in a guesthouse, with a Georgian family, complete with grandma and a bunch of kids running around, which is where travelers would stay in this area. And then there are the incredible mountains of this particular area of Georgia, which are really unlike any mountains I’ve ever seen, enormous and lush and green, but completely open, without any trees. It’s almost a science fiction landscape.
WaH: How did you come to cast Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg?
JL: They’re both very talented actors, and I could just picture each of them in their part. But most important is how they fit together – the chemistry between them, and they had from the get go. They really fit together. You can see them as a real couple. They play off each other, almost bounce off each. And they had an incredible trust between them. Really half of directing is just casting.
WaH: What was the hardest part and biggest challenge of the shoot?
JL: The sun the sun the sun. Working out in nature was an incredibly humbling experience. I wanted a very specific visual look for the film, and we were working with a very small crew and a small budget and a tight schedule, and working out in the middle of the mountains. You can’t negotiate with the nature, you can’t coax it, ask it to do what you what. You can only adapt to it. And for us that meant shooting in very short windows of opportunities when the light was right. I have never been so aware of every tiny nuance in the change of light.
WaH: Talk about the importance of getting a Gotham nomination even before your film opens.
JL: I’m very honored to be nominated, and it’s nice timing right before the film’s release. It’s fantastic to be nominated. What else can I say?
WaH: What advice do you have for other female directors?
JL: This is going to sound cliché perhaps, but I would say to not second-guess yourself. It’s difficult to talk about because gender does play into directing, of course, but it’s very hard to talk about. Maybe the worst part is what you internalize. As a woman, I suspect I spend more time worrying about whether I said something wrong, whether I was too forceful, whether I sounded bitchy maybe. I hate that I worry about this, but I admit that I do. I think if I were a guy, I probably wouldn’t be worrying about these things so much. I was a bit worried about shooting in Georgia because it’s more traditional patriarchal society. But working with the Georgian crew guys was fantastic. I remember them saying to me, “Julia, you are a brave woman. And we are your men! We are your front guard. We are your rear guard. We are your men!” And I thought, wow, you know, I could get used to this!
The Loneliest Planet opens today.