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Meet the 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | “HERE” Director Braden King

Meet the 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | "HERE" Director Braden King

Will (Ben Foster) is a satellite-mapping engineer conducting a survey of Armenia. One morning at his hotel, he meets Gadarine (Lubna Azabal), an Armenian expatriate and photographer, who has recently returned home. The pair impulsively decide to drive across the country together.

An unlikely love story, “HERE” is also a cerebral, self-reflexive road movie that arrives at a fascinating intersection of forms. The film was born from a non-narrative multimedia piece (2008 Sundance Film Festival, New Frontier); it was a collaboration among director Braden King, a composer, and a video artist, parts of which migrated into this script (developed through the Sundance Institute Feature Film Program). King’s atmospheric, contemplative aesthetic encourages us to examine the personal relationship we all form to both physical space and story space.

Because of his work (called ground-truthing), Will comes to view the land as a source of faulty data, while Gadarine sees it as a way to redefine her relationship with home. As HERE suggests, “truth is conjecture.” [Description courtesy of Sundance Institute]

U.S. Dramatic Competition
Director: Braden King
Screenwriter: Braden King, Dani Valent
Cast: Ben Foster, Lubna Azabal, Narek Nersisyan, Yuri Kostanyan, Sofik Sarkisyan
Executive Producer: Julia King
Producer: Braden King, Lars Knudsen, Jay Van Hoy
Composer: Michael Krassner, Boxhead Ensemble
Cinematographer: Lol Crawley
Editor: Andrew Hafitz, Paul Zucker, David Barker
Sound Designer: Kent Sparling

Responses courtesy of “HERE” director Braden King.

Looking at movies as “a mirror”

My high school (New Trier, in the north suburbs of Chicago) had a very strong arts program. I was deeply involved with photography and music from about twelve or thirteen years old. At the same time, John Hughes was making his teen classics in and around the area, there was something very powerful about having my immediate surroundings and those intense, formative teenage years mediated back to me in real-time.

Seeing “The Breakfast Club” at thirteen or fourteen was the first time I can remember realizing that movies could be something other than escape or entertainment; they could serve as a mirror, a way to work yourself out. From that point on, I just knew. An obsession was born that led to many afternoons and evenings at the Fine Arts Theater on South Michigan Avenue, across from the Art Institute. Sneaking into the always-closed balcony of that classic movie house with a girlfriend and a bottle of wine to see something like “Wings of Desire” – those were indelible experiences. We’d stagger back out onto the dusk-lit street, unable to speak. The world had shifted. I always dreamed of seeing one of my own films there someday, but sadly, like so many others, the Fine Arts is now dark.

Recalling nomadic lovers as inspiration and discovering Armenia…

The path to “HERE” was one of following the breadcrumbs. I didn’t wake up one day with a fully-formed story about an American mapmaker working in Armenia. In fact, as we neared picture-lock, I found a long-forgotten, seventeen year-old folder of notes that contained some of the seeds that this film grew from. “HERE” has been trying to find its way into the world for a long time.

Early inspirations included wanting to create something that felt like a lot of the cross-country road trips I’d taken in my twenties – sometimes alone, sometimes with friends, sometimes with fleeting, nomadic lovers. I had no idea what the story would be, but I always had a very strong sense of its atmosphere and tone. I slowly got interested in maps, orientation, how we find and define ourselves through our relationships.

I was already obsessed with landscape. I met my co-writer, Dani Valent, through mutual friends in the band Dirty Three back in 2000. Armenia made itself known through another friend, the Armenian filmmaker Garine Torossian, who thought it could serve as an appropriate backdrop for the story I was trying to sketch out. After receiving a Creative Capital grant to develop the project in 2005, I traveled there for the first time and instantly found that she was right. I scouted the country for three or four weeks and returned to New York finally ready to sit down and write the script.

Deadly snakes and military run-in & “living the film…

My methodology on “HERE” had a lot to do with being quiet – looking, listening, observing. I tried to set up a situation in which the cast, crew and I could explore ourselves in the same ways the film’s characters do.

“HERE” director Braden King. Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.

We were the first American feature film ever to shoot in Armenia. It was a grand adventure, full of intense challenge and hardship but also great reward. The shoot was a kind of crazed, contemporary combination of FITZCARRALDO and The Rolling Thunder Revue. We spent five months in Armenia; I don’t think we were ever in a given base camp for more than two or three days over the course of the eight week shoot. There were deadly snakes, run-ins with the military, many moments in which I was absolutely sure it would all fall apart. But we learned things about ourselves that you can’t learn any other way. I think the film reflects that in myriad, unconscious ways. We were living the film’s themes; it’s a map of itself.

A five foot viper and the help of the “gods of cinema.”

There was one quite specific, very wide, landscape shot that was originally meant to be the film’s final image. It had to be done at dawn. We’d scheduled it at the end of an all-night shoot [and] the plan was to wrap out of our night location before the sun came up, drive an hour out of Yerevan, set up and be ready to go at the day’s first light.

Though we were utterly exhausted, everything went more or less according to plan until my 1st AD, Chris Carroll, shouted at me to freeze as I walked out in the dark to show the crew where I wanted the camera. He told me to look down without moving. I was straddling a five-foot long viper, one of Armenia’s deadliest snakes. Their venom can kill you in fifteen minutes. Over my strong objection, it was decided that we were pulling out. I went to bed that morning convinced I was never going to get the last shot of my film.

But then, a few days later, we spotted another, far more beautiful landscape while shooting the film’s final pickups and decided to go for the shot just as the sun went down (shooting dusk for dawn). It worked out far better than the first location would have. Lesson learned: if you’re patient and pay attention, the gods of cinema will guide you and, eventually, offer their gifts.

Leaving the filmmaking “comfort zone”…

My career up until “HERE” had been pretty solitary and hand-made. I was fortunate to receive the kind of institutional support that I did on this film – various grants and an invitation to participate in the Sundance Institute’s Writers and Directors Labs, which were truly life-changing experiences.

While I’d been directing commercials and music videos for some time, I was still a bit naive about the industry. It took me a while to understand that filmmaking can’t always be the magic, sacred endeavor I’d always wanted it to be, especially when working on this scale. Everything everyone tells you is true – these things take years, pounds of flesh and unwavering faith. I think I’m more able to take the highs and low in stride than I was when “HERE” began. Making these films is like being on a rollercoaster that never quite comes back into the station. Thankfully after a while, you become desensitized to both the heights and sudden, long drops. It just starts to become where you live.

And the hopeful result?

We worked hard to create a film that’s as experiential and romantic as all the best road trips are (and I mean “romantic” in every sense of the word). Hopefully, “HERE” rewards the viewer in unique ways depending on the life and relationship experiences they bring to it; a film should exist between the screen and the audience. I’ll be thrilled if we discover that we’ve drawn out some small sliver of that kind of interactivity when the film premieres out in Park City.

“HERE” kind of wears its influences on its sleeve, I think.

“HERE”‘s larger context and goes to New Frontier…

“HERE” (the feature film) is just one part of a larger, multi-platform project that includes much more abstract live film and music events, video installations and gallery exhibitions. In addition to premiering “HERE” at Sundance, we will be mounting a more intimate version of a related piece that originally premiered at The Museum of Modern Art in April, 2010. It’s called “HERE [THE STORY SLEEPS].” It features live musical accompaniment by composer Michael Krassner and Tim Rutili from the band Califone. That show will be at New Frontier on January 27. That piece and others like it will tour internationally throughout 2011 in a helix-like relationship with the feature film.

And what’s coming.

Otherwise, I’m avidly reading scripts while continuing to develop my own new stories and projects. Though not necessarily autobiographical, “HERE” is definitely a personal film that took a long time to get off the ground. It’s extremely cathartic and rewarding to complete something like that, but I love to direct and I want to get on to something new as soon as I can. I’m anxious to combine the interests that led me to “HERE” with the directorial lessons and skills I took away from it to push my envelope as a filmmaker much further. Smart, tightly scripted projects with a global focus and/or strong sense of place and atmosphere are proving to be a strong draw.

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