EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling dramatic and documentary competition and American Spectrum directors who have films screening at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.
From the Sundance catalog: “In response to shiny, bigger, better American consumerism comes Cold Souls, a metaphysical tragicomedy in which souls can be extracted and traded as commodities. Balancing on a tightrope between deadpan humor and pathos, and between reality and fantasy, the film presents Paul Giamatti as himself, agonizing over his interpretation of Uncle Vanya. Paralyzed with anxiety, he stumbles upon a solution via a New Yorker article about a high-tech company promising to alleviate suffering by deep-freezing souls. Giamatti enlists their services, intending to reinstate his soul once he survives the performance. But complications ensue when a mysterious, soul-trafficking ‘mule,’ transporting product to and from Russia, ‘borrows’ Giamatti’s stored soul for an ambitious, but unfortunately talentless, soap-opera actress. Rendered soulless, he is left with no choice but to follow the trail back to bleak St. Petersburg. He comes to value that happiness isn’t merely the absence of pain, but the integration of the full range of emotion into life.”
Director: Sophie Barthes
Screenwriter: Sophie Barthes
Producers: Dan Carey, Elizabeth Giamatti, Paul Mezey, Andrij Parekh, Jeremy Kipp Walker
Cinematographer: Andrij Parekh
Editor: Andrew Mondshein
Production Designer: Elizabeth Mickle
Composer: Dickon Hinchliffe
Costume Designer: Erin Benach
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Dina Korzun, David Strathairn, Emily Watson, Katheryn Winnick, Lauren Ambrose
U.S.A., 2008, 97 mins., color
Please introduce yourself…
I was born in France. I had quite a nomadic childhood, growing up in six different countries in South America and the Middle East. Later on, I lived and worked in The Philippines, India, Mongolia, Lebanon, and Colombia. I have been living in New York for almost eight years now.
How did you learn the “craft” of filmmaking?
I studied International Affairs and Film at Columbia University. I took classes in documentary filmmaking, film theory and cinema history. Most of my practice in fiction filmmaking has been with cinematographer Andrij Parekh, who is my life partner and closest creative collaborator. We did a documentary together in Yemen, a short film in Ukraine, the short “Happiness” in New York, and he shot this first feature, “Cold Souls.” I also went to the Nantucket Screenwriters Colony and the Sundance Writers and Directors labs, where you can practice and learn from your mistakes in a safe and non-judgmental environment.
How or what prompted the idea for your film and how did it evolve?
The idea came from a very strange and funny dream I had three years ago. I use my dreams quite a lot in my writing process. In the dream, I am waiting in line in a futuristic office. I am holding a box, like everybody else in line. A secretary explains that the box contains our extracted souls. The doctor will examine it and assess its problems. Woody Allen is also in line, just in front of me. When his turn comes, he opens his box and discovers that his soul is a chickpea! He is furious. At this point, I feel extremely anxious. I look down at my container but the dream ends. So I never saw the shape of my soul! But I wrote a screenplay…
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…
The screenplay was developed from this dream and influenced by Carl Jung’s essays on the psyche. My first impulse was to write for Woody Allen, but I thought I would most probably never have access to him. When I saw American Splendor I was so impressed by Paul Giamatti’s presence and emotional charge on screen that I decided to write for him. I was lucky enough to win the Nantucket Film Festival screenplay competition and by a strange coincidence to meet Paul Giamatti, who was also attending the event to present an award to Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
As a first time director the biggest challenge is to protect your vision and remain true to yourself. You have to be strong and it can get pretty demoralizing when you are asked to compromise, or have to constantly explain or defend your intentions. We can’t imagine a painter being asked to add more blue or red on his canvass. But for some reason first time screenwriters and directors are under a lot of pressure. So you have to try to keep your sense of humor! I’ve been very fortunate to make the film with Andrij. We share the same sensibility as well as veteran producer Paul Mezey, who understands the vulnerability of a first time director. Once the shoot started it was an extremely enjoyable experience creatively and aesthetically.
What are some of your favorite films, and what are your other creative influences?
Jean Luc Godard’s “Alphaville,” Luis Bunuel’s “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” and Fellini’s “81/2” are among my favorite films. Maybe it sounds cliche but my favorite filmmaker is Bergman. I particularly like “Persona,” “The Silence” and “Hour of the Wolf.” And then of course Woody Allen, who has a one-bedroom apartment in my subconscious, I think! I’m also very influenced by Surrealism as a movement (film, painting, literature, poetry) and the Theater of the Absurd (Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean Tardieu).
How do you define success as a filmmaker? What are your personal goals as a filmmaker?
When you have an idea and write you hope that you will to connect to an audience, but honestly it’s impossible to know how it will be received. The only success that matters at a personal level is to have remained true to yourself and not compromised your vision. Success is a very dangerous thing if it comes too early. I feel that sometimes we can grow more from our failures than from our successes.
As a filmmaker my goal is to continue on this path, making films that are enjoyable and challenging to make from an intellectual and aesthetical point of view and to collaborate with creative talents whom I admire. I was blessed on “Cold Souls” to be working with such fantastic actors and our creative team.
What are your future projects?
I’m a bit superstitious about talking about the future but I have two stories in mind: a very surreal one, and a darker one, both linked to psychoanalysis.