Imagine having a dream, writing a screenplay based on your night’s slumber, then turning that story into an award-winning screenplay that takes you to the Sundance Labs. After a chance meeting with an actor at a festival party, the established, name talent expresses interest in this story. The film is made, seen at Sundance and sold. The scenario may seem like a one in a million chance at best or simply an unlikely daydream at worst.
“I guess that’s called beginner’s luck,” “Cold Souls” writer/director Sophie Barthes told indieWIRE in New York earlier this week. Her film, starring actor Paul Giamatti, played out in this unlikely way, and is being released theatrically by Samuel Goldwyn today (Friday, August 7). Not bad for a young French-born New Yorker who has only directed two shorts.
Three years ago, Barthes read C.G. Jung’s “Modern Man in Search of a Soul,” which she says fueled a vivid dream that forms the basis for “Cold Souls.” “I try to be disciplined and write down all my dreams,” she said. “With this, I thought maybe it could be a play or another short film, but I noticed it had all the elements necessary for a narrative film. I shared the story with people and they were laughing and reacting well. The story at first seemed absurd, but people were laughing.”
A surreal comedy, “Cold Souls” revolves around the strange industry of extracting and trading souls as commodities. The film plays out on the edges of fantasy and reality with Paul Giamatti portraying an established American actor – named Paul Giamatti – who is trying in vain to perfect his interpretation of “Uncle Vanya.” Stymied by his anxiety, he happens across an article in The New Yorker about a high tech company that can alleviate personal trauma by removing souls. Giamatti goes for it, hoping the temporary removal of his soul will allow him to concentrate on the character in his performance. His plan to simply reinstate his soul hits a roadblock, however, when a soul-trafficking “mule” borrows his stored soul for a talentless Russian soap opera actress with powerful connections.
Barthes shared the dream which would eventually become “Cold Souls” with cinematographer Andrij Parekh, who she calls her “life and creative partner.” Ukrainian-born Parekh has served as D.P. on over three dozen movies, including “Half Nelson,” “The Treatment,” “Sugar” and “The Toe Tactic,” and took on the role for “Cold Souls” along with producer, though Barthes describes the film as very much a collaboration project. “We share the same sensibilities and we’ve done shorts together, but he has more experience. Visually, he has that style that’s very soulful. We were lucky because we had a year in which we could think how we wanted to create the film visually and we referenced photography and art from a group of people like Francis Bacon and Australian photographer Bill Henson. We immersed ourselves in this visualness. We wanted no primary colors, no red. Wanted to shoot with winter lighting.”
With the screenplay getting attention and Parekh on board, Barthes had to find a way to get Giamatti (“Cinderella Man”, “Sideways”) for the title role, not exactly an easy task considering she hadn’t directed a feature before, nor did she know him. She’s put all her proverbial eggs in one basket with Giamatti, but said couldn’t imagine another person assuming the character. If he turned her down, she wouldn’t have made the movie.
Fortunately for her film, she found herself alongside Giamatti at the ’06 Nantucket Film Festival where she won the screenplay competition.
“I felt like a stalker,” said Barthes laughing. “I had seen him at Sundance…but then I saw him [at Nantucket]. I felt like maybe it was a sign.” She continued, “I quickly drank a glass of champagne and just did it – and he reacted well. I told him the dream and we connected. It worked, “I thought [afterward], ‘OK, we were all just a bit drunk and this won’t go anywhere’ – but two days later, I heard back.”
Not only did she hear back, the script received the backing of New York production company Touchy Feely Films, headed by Giamatti and his wife Elizabeth Giamatti and Dan Carey in addition to Journeyman Pictures, headed by Paul Mezey and Jeremy Kipp Walker. “When Paul and Liz came back from the Nantucket Film Festival and described their chance meeting with Sophie and the project she was working on, I knew right away that it would be something that would appeal to Paul as an actor and would be a great fit for our company,” said Carey about the project in press notes about the production in which he served as producer.
With her dream actor on board, there was still a bit of an issue with the character’s name – Paul Giamatti. “He didn’t want the character to be Paul,” said Barthes who then launched into a philosophical rant on fame and the public’s perception of celebrity. “I wanted to play with this idea that we all think we ‘know’ actors and somehow they belong to us. The problem is, we don’t know them. We think we know how they are as personalities, but really we don’t. Just like Marilyn Monroe – everyone wanted a piece of her and people thought they knew her and thought she belonged to them. That’s why I wanted Paul to play Paul, so I gave him his name.”
Post “Cold Souls,” Barthes is already pursuing a follow up feature which she said is also sci-fi. And while she is planning to remain in New York, she feels torn between the approach to cinema in her native France and the United States.
“I would love to work in both systems,” said Barthes who went on to explain what she sees as differences between the U.S., France and even Asia. “Authors are more respected in France perhaps. You retain the rights of your project, which is hugely different in the Anglo-Saxon way. But it is so strict here with the development of a script; it goes through many levels of approval, then re-writes. It’s so different from France, or even for like Wong Kar-wai [in Hong Kong] who is used to having a ten page [outline] and then going to the shoot.” Continuing she adds, “But people in America are more receptive to new ideas. And it seems that only in America that you can approach a Paul Giamatti and he’ll listen to you…”