Foreign Oscar Nominees Talk Their Process And How They Avoid The (Melo)drama
We recently had the opportunity to sit in on a panel at the American Cinematheque with some of the best foreign film nominees at last month's Golden Globes (and 2 that have gone on to become Oscar nominees): Luca Guadagnino, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Susanne Bier and Aleksei Uchitel (Radu Mihaileanu, director of "The Concert" was still on a plane coming in from France). Moderating the panel was Screen International Editor, Mike Goodridge, who led a fascinating discussion that in the end, came to about 2 hours. While we haven't recreated every word for you here, we have a few choice moments that captured the theme of the afternoon: working outside of one's cultural comfort zone, and finding the truth in that storytelling.
Each of the four films represented had an element of national identity re-examined, with all of the filmmakers working in cultures, and even countries, outside of their own. Guadagnino's "I Am Love" follows a Russian woman who loses herself in Milanese high society, "Biutiful" unveils a different side of Barcelona, where Spanish language makes way for Chinese and Senegalese. Susanne Bier's "In A Better World" breaks down our concept of where terror comes from, and explores the human nature in bullying, telling the story of both school boys in Denmark, and a village ruled by a decidedly bigger bully in Africa, while Uchitel's "The Edge" depicts the uneasy relations and strong prejudices between Germans and Russians in post-World War II Eastern Europe.
"I think in the world, that film should be universal," explained Iñárritu, whose film "Biutiful" is also in the running for Oscar, "If it's a Spanish painter painting Paris with Italian materials do you ask where the painting comes from? I don't know if that's relevant... I feel privileged to consider myself a filmmaker as a part of the world community of world filmmakers, that are lucky enough or privileged enough to be able to explore other realities."
Working outside of their own cultural understanding, each of the directors had their own approach to researching the worlds of their films. For Guadagnino, who when asked if he would ever write a script based on his own life just laughed and shook his head, this was the best part. "The fun part of the process for us [he and Tilda Swinton, the star of "I Am Love" and one of the producers] was to go up to tea parties with the ladies of Milan soceity and the Russian people, to try to nail down the practical things of people that we wanted to tell a story about." Iñárritu had a similar process of immersion, moving his family to Barcelona for a year, "I just want to impregnate myself to become comfortable with the knowledge and then I can play with it... I try to be very faithful to what is going on there." Guadagnino agreed "being very obsessive, being very knowledgeable about what you want to say what is the world you want to portray." In the case of Uchitel's period film, doing research was a way of finding truth, "the second world war is a main event in our history...[it's an] important thing for us to look at it from an another angle and understand what really happened, and this is one of the main goals of Russian cinema makers. I made quite a few documentaries before becoming a feature director so for me it was imperative to make it absolutely truthful."
But Bier (who went on to win the globe during the January 16th ceremony and is now also in the running for an Oscar) has a process that was somewhat of a different kind of immersion. A part of the Dogme 95 movement, her notion of truth is based out of the actions and reactions of her actors, often rewriting or improvising within scenes on the spot and tweaking them over and over until they feel right, "For me it has always been extremely important that there is a state of unknown, and likewise, working with the actors, I talk to them and I work with them until a point." Rehearsing only the day of, Bier starts with just the actors, then brings in the crew, then works with everyone together before filming begins, "it's a very thorough kind of rehearsal but part of the build up is also having it at a point of," she pauses, "it's a bit like love in a way, like you want to talk about certain things but you don't want to put everything in the washing machine. It has to be that sort of sloppy romantic element of the unknown." She said "I guess I"m not a great fan of too much discussion, I'm much more a fan of just having that sort of subconscious automatic movement forward."
But capturing such human drama can often lead into (dreaded) melodramatic territory, yet these filmmakers seem to have it under control. Bier, as Goodridge puts it, turns her "bullshit detector" on. "Sometimes, even the most brilliant actors, particularly if they are too well prepared will have an entry or will do a scene where you actually feel the beats," she said, "and I think once you feel beats, it's over it doesn't work, it becomes melodramatic and forced and unnatural and not convincing, so I guess I have that sort of extreme detector of 'do I trust it?'" she said. Iñárritu, who also frequently walks the tightrope between realism and melodrama looks for the truth in the situation as well, "it is about the execution, there's extremely melodramatic situations in the world everyday and in every hospital you will find stories that if somebody [were to] write no one will believe them." Also the director behind "21 Grams" he gives an example of one of it's more heart-wrenching scenes,"Sean [Penn] saying to Naomi [Watts] you know, I have your husband's heart," he laughs," this is the most radioactive and melodramatic piece of material you can run into in your life, how can you be doing that and not make people laugh? .... when I was doing that film, I researched those donations, a lot of things happen like that, it's true, it happens a lot and it's just how true the actors can be there."
When working with Javier Bardem in "Biutiful" (who also received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Uxbal in the film), Iñárritu gave him a character biography, something he does for all of the scripts he writes, but rarely gives to his actors. "In his case I decided to give it to him, I thought it was useful for him, it was a very specific part." He also created an emotional map, "I diagrammed something that was an ellipsis that was going inside [itself]. An elliptic thing was going interior going in these existential questions of his life, his actions as a father , the actions of his father he never met, and all these existential crises that he’s living.. There was another kind of diagram that was from the inside to the exterior, going against the force of the other one... all that we was controlling was getting out of control... " and lastly there was the spiritual aspect of Uxbal's character, and his ability to talk to the dead, "so all of these three things I put into, I tried in every scene, he has to, in a way, converge these 3 elements."
Of her writing process, says Bier, "I think my movies are very much about asking questions and not suggesting answers," a sentiment that could be applied to many of these filmmakers, "and I think that's sort of the fun with film and having the curiosity about the topic within the movie and it's like the main thing and in a way that part of what's driving us when we work on the script."
It's this curiosity about the world and the truth in it that makes any of these films well worth watching. Uchitel, who teaches at a prominent Russian film academy, summed the afternoon up well with a story about an aspiring filmmaker in one of his classes, "I have a Mexican student, so I asked her, why you came [to Russia]? She said, 'I don't understand a thing here, but that's why I like it.'"
[photo credit: Zimbio/Bauer Griffin]