INTERVIEW: Momentum and Emotion, Emir Kusturica's "Black Cat, White Cat"
by Anthony Kaufman
"When you make movies the way I do, you invest everything you have," says renowned Yugoslav filmmaker Emir Kusturica. "And you do it like a crazy maniac." If you were one of the lucky few who saw his last film, the Palme d'Or winning "Underground," you'd know what he means: 50 years of Yugoslavia's history packed into 3 hours of bursting song, dance, drink and bloodshed. Kusturica's talent for exhilarating tales have made this Bosnian-born auteur one of the most awarded filmmakers in the world. (He is one of only three directors ever to win Cannes' top prize twice.) Kusturica's latest film is his most crazy, colorful and non-political film to date, "Black Cat, White Cat," a screwball story about gypsy rival families, tuba-filled music, double weddings, and life and death.
After repeated distribution delays from USA Films (most likely because of the renewed problems in the Balkans), "Black Cat, White Cat" finally begins its theatrical play this Friday. Kusturica sat down with indieWIRE for an in-depth interview during his visit to the New York Film Festival last year, to discuss his total and crazy devotion to cinema, his elaborate tracking shots, the importance of location and kitsch.
indieWIRE: How involved are you in the producing and business side of your films?
Emir Kusturica: That's probably the reason why I am still alive, because I've never done it. Thinking back, why do all these movies win awards and somehow screen everywhere? I think it's because I was never thinking about producing, which would have meant certain limits, like I'd start to think about financing and other problems. And then you'd lose the fight for the best quality movie. So I wouldn't be a good producer. I'd rather have somebody else.
iW: The last few movies you've done have been very big projects. "Black Cat, White Cat" seems like a huge production.
Kusturica: Only 4 and a half million dollars. I had bigger budgets on "Arizona Dream" and "Underground." This one looks richer. The main trick was finding a beautiful place with all this magnetism, and shooting during the day between 11 and 3 in the afternoon when the sun is out. That's probably the trick we found. And then everything you put in the frame looks much richer and bigger than it really is, which is the nature of the movie.
iW: A lot of the shots looked like very complicated orchestrations of camera and blocking movements?
Kusturica: It is, always. I'm just a troublemaker. I do it always more than I can bear at the moment and I always fight for this. Because I strongly believe that background, midground, and foreground are equally important. Most of the contemporary cinema industry thinks it's also important, but they always have all these close-ups. I don't think that way. That's probably why my films look more like documentaries, but at the same time, visually balanced. That's why you can see this kind of difference. The use of wide lenses means that you really have to open it and orchestrate so many things at the same time. When I was a student looking at Leonardo DaVinci and all those guys, Italian, Dutch or whatever, it's incredible how each piece of the painting fits to the main theme that they want to express. It's probably from this that I have always my fight, my desperate fight to integrate the details into the whole thing.
iW: Were there any times in "Black Cat, White Cat" where you were losing that fight?
Kusturica: It's incredible, because if you want to do it like this, even if it doesn't look complicated, you have to engage the gypsies with all possible means. From time to time, you have to do it like the way Madeline Albright is doing all around the world. One day, I threaten the gypsies, the other day, I was their best friend. To be a director of these things, it's not just necessary to be talented, it's more necessary to be endurable, and to make them -- even if they are not ready -- to make them do something you want them to do. That is also the pattern of auteur cinema that does not exist anymore. In my case, because it's a territory that's out of sight of the studios, I can still finance and find the money to make these types of films which have an elegance of expression in what happens in front of the lens, and at the same time have a taste of underground films.
iW: Have you had to fight for more money or more time?
Kusturica: This time, no. Even for Europe, it's a small budget. They were not extremely interested, and they let me go, because we shot a long time. When the movie stopped, we continued afterwards. There was a month and a half of rain in a movie that was supposed to be shot outside 75%, so we stopped and continued it the following year. And finished it without interruption.
iW: Can you talk more about the balance between the documentary feel you mentioned, but also a surrealism in your work?
Kusturica: It's very difficult to do it, but it's really something that is like a meeting point in between certain aesthetic patterns, like Jean Renoir and at the same time, the place where Italian Neorealism was discovering this spontaneous movements and new acting. So, it's almost impossible, but in the movies it's possible sometimes, to keep length, elegance, and movement that reminds of you the past and at the same time, to have extremely vivid midground and background. It gets kind of incredibly difficult. Every chosen set has to fit into this idea. The elegance is predetermined by the locations we found, the huge depth and beautifully colored locations. And in this background, you could put and integrate movement and actors the way you want. The poetry, in all of this, it's basically the game of kitsch, of this incredible movement of signals in these areas, from geese to ducks to dogs, the bottom line is you never lose the noise of the life -- you know what a mean?
iW: "Black Cat, White Cat," in particular, keeps a momentum throughout the movie. . . how did you achieve this?
Kusturica: Basically, it's predetermined by the space. If the space is filled with signals, than you can do it. That's why I want to be surrounded in each movie with the elements that I like to work with. Then I could rely on taking any of them. And make the base of the movie, vivid and strong. If I were offered to make a movie in a castle in the middle of France, I wouldn't know how to do it. We all like to go to a place where we can feel and make it the best way. Every movie that I do, if you analyze the stories, you can notice that in each story, that within the movie after the first 15 minutes, it could fall apart. Or every ten minutes it has the chance that you lose the thread. On the other hand, if you succeed in putting them together. Then the movie looks spontaneous and more like cinema.
iW: Did the gypsies have a script to go by?
Kusturica: We had a script, but the problem is these people don't read. So the question is to give them a walkman and learn the dialogue by audio. The advantage of the gypsy language, even though I don't understand it that much, the language is perfect melody. So if you propose the movie the way I do, then the language is just one part of the melody. Orchestrating all inside, and the language is following the meaning of what they say, and it's never the same as written. Language for them is not just regular communication where you exchange necessary information, it's singing, in a certain way.
iW: And their music?
Kusturica: The music is so incredible. It operates with a very unique rhythm, but at the same time, its melodies are very eclectic. Sometimes, you can detect Rock and Roll band riffs inside. And the music they play, is the music they play every day. Everyday for 20 years, they live by the weddings and the celebrations, so rarely they have one or two days during the week free. And moving from place to place, listening, integrating different pieces from others songs freely - they don't have a feeling of stealing.
iW: You had a relationship with French production company CIBY 2000, and now they don't exist? How are you getting financing now?
Kusturica: There are others in France, just as anxious to get involved. I have an idea that I could finance myself a movie on my name alone, I could find 5 or 6 million dollars. Which is something very interesting. That you can build all your life and finance yourself 5-6 million without problems. I have a lot of actors who are interested to work with me, whose name could bring another million. But I'm fine with this. The most difficult part of making movies is to keep making them. Maybe, you could make the biggest hit in the world, but then the big problem is what to do next and how to maintain devoted to a certain instinct that I have about films. When I close my eyes and I see exactly how it's supposed to look. And I fight for this. It's not easy. With this kind of complicated orchestrations, and no second unit director...no one else who could do it.
iW: Are the times when the picture in your head doesn't match the one you shot?
Kusturica: Yeah, yeah. Whatever you see in the movie is never visually, there are little details, but 85% of things you see is generated from this fucking brain. Which is when, as much as I'm getting older and getting more experienced, more and more I agree that film is about your musicality. Because how you put things inside and later, you edit, but basically you edit while you're doing it. It's a question of how your ear is nicely anticipating where certain things have to be placed in order that the whole thing functions. The important thing for me is to elegantly portray emotion. That's the aim of every frame. If the film is not emotional, then it operates on a superficial level.
iW: Could you create your images with $100,000 and a digital video camera?
Kusturica: Yeah. I don't have a problem doing that. Maybe, yes. I bought one, with 3 chips. A digital, it's very good. It could happen. Just go and make a movie just like this. Easily, with a group of people and go and just make it.
iW: How carefully do you map out with your crew beforehand these elaborate traveling shots?
Kusturica: Not really. They know something, but they are not -- that's the problem with the politics. It's too democratic in the movies. They know too much. They know certain things, but the best things are those that happen as a reaction to the material, the night before, the morning you come, that's what I believe movies are. There are scenes that we prepare, but the more you prepare, and the more it happens without mistakes, I have a good sense there's. . . . For example, the opening scene I shot three times. Each time, geometrically, everything was fine, but little details, they were supposed to act, the way I follow the boat passing and all that, was not good. It was good, but not giving the impression that the whole thing gives you certain emotional strength and impact. That's really a problem, because if you don't get it on set, no editing and no-post-production, none of this "we are going to do it in post-production." It doesn't help. Because everything you get in the frame is what you get.
iW: I'm always struck by how you can stay open to spontaneity when you have these elaborate set-ups.
Kusturica: Making movies is a dangerous job. Because you are always the one who stands at the center of the universe when making movies. And if you're talented enough to see the space, reduced to the certain lenses, then you can maximize the initial idea before it gets devaluated through the process of getting it back to the screen. And then above all, what is most beautiful in the cinema is always a gamble. It's a question of craziness. You take every frame as a fight for destiny in which each ray of light or darkness that comes has to be controlled like a fucking crazy. And if you count how many of these frames you have, and how many aspects of life and art you have to compromise, it's really crazy. It's devotion. It's total devotion.