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indieWIRE INTERVIEW: Hans Canosa, director of “Conversations With Other Women”

indieWIRE INTERVIEW: Hans Canosa, director of "Conversations With Other Women"

Director Hans Canosa‘s romance/drama “Conversations With Other Women” stars Helena Bonham Carter and Aaron Eckhart as a pair who meet and flirt at a wedding reception. The sexual tension rises as the two leave the party and head to a hotel room, where the night turns into a bounty of passion, but then changes to remorse. Canosa joined the filmmaking scene with “Alma Mater,” which won the audience award at the Austin Film Festival in 2002. In his chat with indieWIRE, Canosa shares how “Conversations” came together, trying to find that elusive financier, and how fundamentalist Christianity brought him to film.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in the United States, but much of my childhood was spent in Southeast Asia. My parents are fundamentalist Christians, and I grew up on a series of mission compounds.

What were the circumstances that led you to become a filmmaker?

Since my parents’ religion takes the Second Commandment literally — “Thou shalt have no graven images or likeness of anything in heaven or on earth,” I was not allowed to see television, theater or movies as a child. So of course I was destined to become a filmmaker.

Despite living on these restrictive mission compounds with a prohibition against film, I still knew that movies existed; studio marketing departments make sure of that. I remember handing out religious tracts under a billboard for “The Empire Strikes Back” in Tokyo, and seeing movie posters in a Cambodian refugee camp (right next to the Coca Cola machines). The moment when I converted to the religion of cinema came before I’d even seen a movie. It was almost like a fairy tale — I found a mysterious book in my grandparents’ attic. It was “The Making of Kubrick’s 2001” and I read all 350 pages of it in an hour, just devoured it.

I realized that I had to see a movie as soon as possible, and that the guy in that book had the greatest job in the world. At age 15, I finally snuck away from the mission compound, got to a laserdisc player and saw my first two movies in a wonderful double feature: “Citizen Kane” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” As you can imagine, that evening pretty much showed me that cinema is limitless, can do anything. Two years later, when I saw my first movie in an actual movie theater, the experience was terrifying and wonderful and holy all at once. Of course, since you can’t choose what’s playing in theatres, I wasn’t able to select so auspicious a title as my laserdisc initiation. “The Secret of My Success,” a Michael J. Fox sex comedy, was my theatrical primal scene.

But I don’t think of that as any less of a cinematic experience, because when you’ve grown up starved for film, every movie is sacred and exciting and powerful. I don’t resent that starvation any more, because it gave me the gift of seeing movies with completely fresh eyes. When I saw “Citizen Kane,” I wasn’t looking at it through decades of homage and critical study, I just watched an amazing film. I watched “Psycho” the way audiences in 1960 saw it, before parodies and ripoffs and remakes watered it down. I’d never even seen the shower scene out of context — I got to see it as a wide-eyed first-time audience member. So I embrace this gift, because even after viewing thousands of films, I still go into every one believing in the magic of movies.

How did you learn about filmmaking?

A combination of living life while paying attention to it, and of course an obsessive consumption of films. I watch as many films as I possibly can because this is the language with which we tell our stories. How can you push that language or develop it without learning as much as you possibly can?

Did you go to film school?

I attended film school but dropped out. I left the same day that they stopped letting us use the equipment. The writing teacher told us that we’d spend the next year just working on a feature script. He also told us the right kind of screenplay to develop, a model that seemed to me to be designed as a sort of social realist Sundance sycophancy. He said that there was nothing new to do in genre films, and his example of the most exhausted genre was vampires. It’s simply absurd to say that there is one right kind of film to write, or that there is nothing new to do in any genre. I love vampires! And I’d already created a beautiful supernatural romance involving a vampire girl and a human. I was flying to Melbourne the next day to meet with an Australian production company that wanted to option it. I had two more feature scripts completed, neither of which conformed to the teacher’s model, thank God. So after the class I went to the chairman’s office and told her I wasn’t going to be back next year.

Where did the initial idea for “Conversations with Other Women” come from?

The night that I saw my first movie in a theater, I dreamed the idea for this movie. The experience of seeing a movie, which I’d craved for so many years, was a truly overwhelming experience. I had a nightmare in which I was back in the movie theater and immediately became aware that the characters were dying whenever they were off screen. The visceral experience of the cut was somehow traumatic for me. Whenever the characters were not on screen, I could feel them dying, and desperately trying to break back through onto the screen. They could only live when on camera. Suddenly I realized that there was too much light coming from the back of my dream theater–it couldn’t just be the projector’s light. I turned around and saw that another screen had appeared in the rear of the audience, so there were now two screens on which the characters could live. The audiences’ seats could now swivel, and they watched the rest of that movie turning between both screens. For many years, I imagined making a film on two screens, perhaps as a museum installation. But people tend not to want to give you money to make museum installations.

The most emotional moments of any film usually happen in simple shot/reverse shot. Even two hobbits hauling a ring up a mountain still have their big moments in close-ups cutting between the characters. When I was thinking about making the lowest budgeted script possible, I realized that if I brought the two screens together and made a two character film, I’d have something that might be crazily experimental but could at least play in movie theaters. By putting the shot/reverse shot on the screen at the same time, I could let the audience participate in the cutting of the film by choosing which actor to watch as they act and react in extended takes captured with two cameras.

I also imagined so many other storytelling opportunities on the two screens: flashbacks (or storytelling) that would not interrupt present action; multiple emotions (takes) for a line to reflect conflicted emotions; moments of imagination or fantasy for either character juxtaposed with reality; and so many other great character- and story-based techniques. If I was going to embark on this experiment, I wanted the story to be universal, about real characters with real emotions. If it wasn’t, all of those editing techniques would just be gimmicks. So I approached my screenwriting partner Gabrielle Zevin with the split screen idea. She was working on a story that had great appeal to me because it reminded me of a night I’d spent with an ex-girlfriend. This story begged a universal question: “What would happen if you had a second chance with someone you’d once loved?” Gabrielle wove all of these elements together into the script for “Conversations.”

What are your biggest creative influences?

My collaborators. The most powerful influences should come in the present tense, with all of your fellow filmmakers. Sharing creation at every point in the process is joyous: sitting alone with my screenwriter, rehearsing and shooting with my actors, preparing and shooting with my crew, sitting with one or two people in an editing room, then bringing the cut film back into a crowd with everyone in post.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?

Getting to a script that someone would let me make. After I dropped out of film school, Gabrielle and I were fortunate enough to option four scripts, including one to a studio. But even as we designed the scripts for successively lower budgets, they were still all too high to entrust to me as a first time director. After trying to make any of these projects go for several years, I went back to editing a student film that I’d shot but had abandoned in rough cut stage to pursue the optioned scripts. When that film was invited to several festivals in fall 2002, I asked Gabrielle to write one more script, this one applying my crazy split screen idea to the story of two people in a New York hotel room. I wanted to have our lowest low budget script ready to go if I ran into someone at the festivals who wanted to finance a movie.

I never met that fabled person at a festival, but fortunately I had the makings of “Conversations” around me already. My casting director on one of the optioned scripts, Kerry Barden, who had also produced a play I directed several years earlier, came onto “Conversations” as a casting director and producer. Gabrielle completed the script in October, 2002 and by January, 2003 we had our first “name” actor interested in the script. For the next two years we pursued talent and financing. We had seven indie “names” attached to the project through that time, but never a man and woman at the same time! Finally in November, 2004 we had Aaron Eckhart and Helena Bonham Carter available to shoot for the first two weeks of December. But we only had two weeks until that time and one of those weeks was Thanksgiving week. The producers all sat me down and asked me if I could really pull it off with two weeks of pre-pro and two weeks shooting. There’s really only one answer to that question.

What were some of the other biggest challenges you faced in making the movie?

The two biggest challenges we faced in making the movie (aside from the aforementioned four week combined pre-pro and shoot) were losing my editor three weeks after production, and trying to pull off 117 visual effects shots with pretty much no budget for VFX.

The original editor took three weeks to do an assembly, but when he compared it to my storyboards and notes, he felt he was so far off that he had to quit. He said that because the split screen storytelling was so different than traditional editing, he just didn’t think he could do it. He suggested that since I had the whole movie in my head, I should cut it. Since I’d never edited a feature before, my producers didn’t want me to do it. For three weeks we interviewed other editors, but none of them was a fit. In the meantime, I asked my visual effects supervisor and producer Kwesi Collisson to teach me to use Final Cut, which he did, and three hours later I was cutting. I edited one scene, Aaron’s emotional plea while Helena is in the shower. When I showed this to the producers, they liked the scene. They suggested that I keep cutting while we continued to interview editors. We never hired another editor, and I wasn’t ever officially hired (and definitely wasn’t paid to edit it) but in the end I was the editor.

During the shoot we thought we’d have about 20 visual effects shots, all realistic effects like compositing background plates into car shots or adding color and luminosity to uncontrollable elevator buttons. Obviously this is a two-character piece, so we weren’t creating dinosaurs or explosions. As I worked through the cut, we found that more and more shots became necessary. Our final tally was 117. Kwesi got several bids from VFX houses, all of which came in at a higher number than our entire budget! Thank God Kwesi is a Mac guru and was willing to work his ass off. He did 112 of the shots himself using Photoshop and/or After Effects in three months of eighteen-hour days, seven-day weeks. A friend of Kwesi’s accomplished the other five shots on Shake. The same digital tools that paint big budget fantasy landscapes can also let a low budget film that can’t afford to hire enough extras or return to a location create a B-roll shot of people dancing in a ballroom. Just composite green screened extras against an empty, still frame background plate stolen from the head of a take. What a great time for filmmaking!

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in securing distribution for the movie?

I really can’t believe how fortunate we’ve been. When I started the movie, I told the producers that I honestly didn’t know if anyone would ever want to distribute it. I know they were particularly concerned about foreign territories, with 82 pages of English dialogue and the split screen. But the movie sold for theatrical distribution in over 30 countries. Fabrication Films also had four offers for domestic distribution, but they were willing to spend more on P&A then any of the offers, so they’re distributing it themselves.

How did you finance the film?

We were really fortunate to always have at least one talent element attached as we pursued the money, so we always had a lot of financing interest in the project. I met with the same succession of wanna-be’s, has beens and con men that any aspiring filmmaker meets in the financing journey, but finally landed with a great producer and production company that let me make my movie. There were literally six degrees of separation from myself to the two guys who finally wrote checks. One of my friends knew a guy here in New York who knew a guy in L.A. who knew a guy from Israel who knew another guy from L.A. who was starting a production company who knew two guys with money in Texas and North Carolina.

What is your definition of “independent film”?

I think that whatever the budget number, whatever production entity or specialty arm or even studio funds it, an independent film is one that originates with a filmmaker and gets made the way he or she wants it made. George Lucas made the “Star Wars” prequels with (a lot of) his own money, and he told the stories he wanted to tell his own way, which is as independent as it gets. I just made this film with a very small amount of other people’s money, but got to make the film that was in my head with very little compromise. I think that we as audience members can instinctively feel the difference between a film that started with an idea and came from a human being versus a product that evolved from whatever amorphous corporate force brings those other “vehicles” into being.

What are some of your all-time favorite films, and why?

When people find out that you are a filmmaker, one of the first questions they ask (after ‘Have you made a movie that I would have seen?’ and ‘Have you met anyone famous?’) is ‘What is your favorite movie?’ There are so many favorites that I find it almost impossible to answer. I used to answer “Persona” by Ingmar Bergman, because I love the fact that he made something so crazy and experimental that is also so emotional. He might be the most inspirational filmmaker, because he wields cinema as an instrument of personal and spiritual expression perhaps more powerfully than anyone else in the history of the medium.

But after getting an unbroken series confounded expressions, I realized that not only was “Persona” a completely obscure answer, but I sounded like an elitist asshole. So I have a different answer today that is just as honest. I now answer “Tootsie.” I think that movie is almost perfect — it makes you laugh and cry, it has great writing, acting, cinematography, editing, design and directing, and most importantly, EVERYONE HAS SEEN IT. My conversations have been a lot longer and a lot more fun since this became my standard answer.

What are your personal goals as a filmmaker?

I think that the best way to learn about making movies is actually making them, and I have more stories to tell on film than I could in this lifetime. So I want to make as many as I can.

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