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Marrakech Film Festival '11: Nuri Bilge Ceylan Talks Giving Up Total Control & His Accidental Embrace Of Genre Elements

Photo of Christopher Bell By Christopher Bell | The Playlist December 10, 2011 at 11:35AM

Remember when there was all that hubub this summer about the necessary art of "slow and boring" cinema? Well, none of those filmmakers listed got anything on the work of Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan.
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Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Remember when there was all that hubub this summer about the necessary art of "slow and boring" cinema? Well, none of those filmmakers listed got anything on the work of Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan. While this writer is an unabashed fanatic, you can't really say that "Distant" or even the new "Once Upon a Time In Anatolia" are easy to swallow. While extremely mesmeric, the general contemplative nature and unhurried pace of his films is not for everybody. However, those willing to give his quiet cinema a shot are generally taken by his keen observations of human nature and life moments. In addition, as an established photographer, his gorgeous cinematography gives an attention to lighting and location rarely seen -- it's consistently stunning and always adds another dimension to his work.

Still, for a masterful filmmaker and a Cannes favorite (his last four movies have come home with an award), he's not as talked about as his arthouse and foreign film contemporaries -- rarely do you see a mention, even when there's a new film around the corner. Case in point: there was little buzz for 'Anatolia' after Cannes (even when it walked away with a Grand Jury Prize), even as it traveled festival-to-festival afterward. Admittedly, the lengthy runtime probably tempered more than a few festival goers, but it's still a masterful work from a seasoned vet, one that we hope gets some more attention when it receives its theatrical roll-out next year.

We caught up with the director at the Marrakech Film Festival in Morocco, and with some prodding we were able to pull out some of his secrets and methods.

No Politics, No Genre
From near the beginning of his film career, Ceylan has often had political issues running through his films. These range from small asides such as a landowner in "Clouds of May" burnt out by constant fights with the government to making up an entire premise in "Three Monkeys." Despite issues with his country's officials, the director stresses that these do not necessarily reflect his opinions, and that he personally has no disillusion with the country. "There's nothing political about it. People like to read the films as political, especially in Turkey. But I try to fight that assessment as much as possible. Of course I have my political opinions, but they are not the most important thing to me and I generally hide them. I'm more interested in the inner-world of the characters, and if you talk too much about politics than that's all people will want to talk about," he says. 

Similarly, the recent inclusion of genre elements cropping up in his latest output wasn't intentional, and the director claims that's simply where the story took him -- he only realized they had them after reading the reviews. "Honestly, in my personal life I don't watch much thrillers. When I made 'Three Monkeys' or 'Anatolia,' I never thought I was making a genre movie, I just wanted to tell a story which was important to me. Later people wrote that they were kind of thrillers," he explained. As for whether he would tackle any other genres? "I'm not fond of that approach, it's a bit constricting. But again, you never know, it might just happen unintentionally."

Shoot To Edit
Watching 'Anatolia' you quickly realize it's quite different than his previous work. It's a beastly, very literary film, that while just as meditative as his early films, it contains much more dialogue and traditional storytelling. "As opposed to my other films, this is the most detailed script of mine," he revealed. "Still, there are new ideas you find in shooting because that's the only time you see it in reality. Your mind is faster then, so I always incorporate new ideas. You're never sure which one will work so you shoot everything."

And this process of "shooting everything" allows Ceylan more freedom when it comes time to shape the picture. "Editing is the only place where you really have time. There you can see the final result and you can construct the real balance of the film." If it sounds like he's a staunch supporter of the digital age, well, the proof is in the pudding -- he hasn't shot on film since "Clouds of May" in 1999. "Digital is very good for me, and I think the actors also feel better. It's a more lax set. The previously psychology kills many things: sometimes it creates a good concentration, but most of the time I feel nervous. Your mind isn't clear, you cannot think very well."

Giving Up Total Control
After swearing off celluloid, the director also relinquished his cinematography position to another DP. It was assumed that this was only due to the fact that his next movie, "Climates," featured him in a prominent role. However, two additional films later, it became a preference. "I left it completely. I don't want to spend energy there, it's not necessary. I can see better from the monitor. I get a better view and understanding of the camera movements, etc."

This kind of openness also bled into other departments, such as the writing room, which was a prospect he was initially very wary of. "At first I imagined it and thought it would not be possible, but now I actually prefer it. With company it can be better; your thinking is quicker if you are talking about things. They moderate you. And you can concentrate better on certain subjects by talking with others." However, this collaborative spirit didn't extend to all aspects of the filmmaking process. "I never completely gave up the editing, because that's the filmmaking for me. We started with two editors, after three months the other one left and the next three months I worked alone. It's good to talk with somebody all the time, but sometimes you need to be alone, such as in the editing room."

Shhh! Rehearsals!
Along with the arrival of meatier storylines and thriller components, both 'Monkeys' and 'Anatolia' came complete with trained actors. Ceylan had previously filled his roles with amateurs, ranging from friends and family to even himself and his wife. Despite the varying skill levels, the director was always reluctant to rehearse and avoided doing any before actual production days. "I believe it kills the freshness, and since we are shooting digital it's cheap so I always just shoot my rehearsals. Sometimes it's very fresh and you can't repeat them. In fact, for some actors they are best in the rehearsals and they can never repeat it," the filmmaker admits. To keep his cast completely unaware of his search for organic performances, he sneakily captures things on the down-low. "I'll hide that I'm shooting the rehearsals, sometimes I don't even watch them and go somewhere else but still shoot them. I try all sorts of methods in this way."

Personal Project Next?
Very little information was given as to what will come next, but the director was able to comment on his recent turn towards commercialism (of course, that's very relative considering his output) and his shying away from the tinier, more personal films he had been generally known for. "It's only by coincidence that I've gone down this road. At one point I was at a fork for those kind of subjects and I just happened to choose those ('Monkeys' and 'Anatolia')." We assumed that whatever was next would be more akin to his earlier, simpler stuff just because of the immensity of his latest, and it seems we might be correct. "After my last two films some new stuff has been collected about my dry personal life," he laughed, "But that's also a part of life, and there are things in those ideas that are worth trying. I'm not sure which of these will motivate me yet."- Interview by Jessica Kiang.

This article is related to: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, Marrakech Film Festival


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