“HERE” DIRECTOR BRADEN KING
Known for his stunning 1998 documentary, Dutch Harbor: Where the Sea Breaks Its Back, as well as countless music videos for musicians including Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Sonic Youth, and Dirty Three, director Braden King arrives at Sundance in Dramatic Competition with HERE.
Set in Armenia — and in many ways starring Armenia — HERE is a love story camouflaged as a road movie, or perhaps it’s the other way around. The atmospheric film follows Gadarine and Will (played by Lubna Azabal and Ben Foster), an Armenian art photographer and an American satellite-mapping engineer, from the exact moment they notice each other over breakfast. They become traveling partners and it’s quickly clear that their fascination with each other runs deeper than their work. Of course there will be romance; we could see it in their first glance.
HERE concerns itself with the way we see — both each other and the landscape. The film aims to unpack the subconscious life of our photographic records — be they color-saturated Polaroids or views of Earth from outer space. We all have personal histories that are both literal and emotional, and HERE is the story of a romance told in vibrant images. The tiny, dreamy moments spent gazing at the rushing world from a car window, or drinking and laughing with new and old friends — these are the memories that HERE burns into your brain.
FILMMAKER: Can you talk about the way you and Dani Valent collaborated on the script for HERE?
KING: Dani and I met in the summer of 2000 through mutual friends in the Australian band Dirty Three. At the time, she was working for Lonely Planet Guides, updating the New York book. We both had a lot of independent travel under our belts and we shared a lot of creative interests. Over drinks one night, I started telling her about this fairly abstract idea I had for a film about a mapmaker, and she told me about a compilation of short stories she’d been working on about mythical explorers that mapped the land in fantastic ways — navigating via the clouds instead of the stars, mapping the shadows on a given piece of land at different times of day, and so on. To us, these things seemed to fit together and complete each other. We sketched out a possible structure on a napkin — that was really the beginning of our collaboration.
For about four years after that we traded intermittent e-mails and phone calls (Dani lives in Melbourne, Australia — our entire collaboration took place long-distance). We compiled a lot of character and story notes in addition to thoughts on what the film should feel like. In 2004, I visited Armenia for the first time, locked down a lot of the locations I wanted to feature in the film, and from there we began to write the screenplay in earnest, again trading notes long-distance. We attended the 2007 Sundance Institute Writers Lab and then I went on to the Directors Lab that summer. We locked the script late that year and began the long trek to get it made.
FILMMAKER: I’ve read you talk about the need to create “necessary images” in films — a lovely sentiment I’ve heard articulated a bit differently (but with the same spirit) by Werner Herzog. What words would you use to describe the landscape of Armenia that made up the images of HERE?
KING: While I suppose a sentiment like that might sound pretentious, I think what I must have been referring to is a strong desire to capture sincere, personal images — images that have some kind of true meaning, images that tell their own stories. One of the things that drew me to Armenia was that it was almost completely unmapped territory cinematically. We were the first American feature to shoot there. I liked the idea that we might capture images that had never been seen in a feature film. We would be exploring in the same way that the film’s main characters are. I was consciously trying to unify the film’s production methods, story, images and themes; to me, the film, its production, our own trip through Armenia — it’s ultimately all the same story told and experienced in different forms.
FILMMAKER: HERE contains a number of “Explorer” interludes that you call the “story’s dreams.” You’ve mentioned that these interstitials — brief bits of color and sound, including narration about exploration — are in a certain way a tip of the cinematic hat to films like Breaking the Waves and My Own Private Idaho. Can you talk about the need for HERE to have a subconscious and a dreamlife beneath the story?
KING: At Sundance this week I’ve found myself talking about how blessed I was to work with these two incredibly gifted actors — Ben Foster and Lubna Azabal — but that there are actually four main characters in the film. The other two are the Armenian landscape and then the film itself. The structure of the film tells its own story and has a life of its own that’s not always in sync with the narrative. It dreams. It plays with the narrative. It interacts with it. If you watch closely, the film changes modes in subtle ways as you watch it. Its characters and story travel through different cinematic territories — fiction, non-fiction, narrative and non-narrative. The film itself can be looked at as a kind of cinema-map, complete with torn edges, taped-together panels and all kinds of notes scrawled in its margins. I’m interested in the unification of structure and story, in the idea that a film can be about something but that at the same time it can also be something.
FILMMAKER: Lubna Azabal and Ben Foster have such genuine, palpable on-screen chemistry. Can you talk about the dynamic you were looking forward in casting your two leads?
KING: Ben and Lubna brought such authentic, truthful and real performances to this film. We talked a lot about avoiding “movie” versions of the various relationship moments that the story explores and trying to work with a kind of in-the-moment authenticity and honesty. We embarked on a very real roadtrip together. I tried to set up a situation in which things weren’t too thought-out. I wanted both of them to be in the moment in the way you are when traveling like these characters in the film are. To be there. Ben and Lubna lived the story in such an exciting, real way. That truth comes through on the screen.
FILMMAKER: Lubna’s character (“Gadarine”) is an artistic photographer, while Ben’s character (“Will”) maps land using satellite technology. Do you feel that making a film is some of marriage of those two vocations?
KING: Film is the most right brain / left brain endeavor I can imagine. You’re dealing with incredible creativity and passion while at the same time have to juggle all kinds of logistics, schedule pressure, money and technology. The film asks a lot of questions about how logic and emotion inform each other. What are the meeting points of prose and poetry? Waking life and the dream? Narrative and non-narrative cinema? How do these things inform and complete each other? How do these characters inform and complete each other? The entire film, on every level, revolves around the push and pull surrounding these questions and relationships.
FILMMAKER: Armenia is such an old country with an incredibly rich history, and one of your protagonists uses the most modern technology available to map the land. Is the collision of old and new, earth and man’s technology, a theme you find yourself continually interested in?
KING: Definitely. (I don’t mean to be short, but you really hit the nail on the head with your question.) One thing the film is looking at is the limits of measurement. How far can you get before bumping up against the immeasurable, the Mystery? What are the limits of logic?
FILMMAKER: Does the idea that virtually the entire world is known — through GPS and satellite mapping — make you feel a twinge of… well, sadness? Is it the end of mystery (and by mystery, I mean the sort that captured the imagination of explorers of past centuries)? What are our new mysteries?
KING: While developing HERE, Dani Valent and I were constantly asking ourselves what “lost” and “found” mean anymore in the age of GPS and Google Maps. Will is looking for a way to get back into a less defined world. He’s unconsciously rebelling against his own work, which is taking away the very mystery of life that he loves so dearly.
The space between ruler units is infinite. That’s where the mystery lives and will always live. I still remember driving cross-country in my twenties and having to pull over to make phone calls with a calling card if I needed to talk to someone. There used to be days between spaces that don’t exist anymore when anyone can reach you at any time on a cell phone. At the same time, I think we’re all still searching for that sublime, immeasurable place or feeling. Will certainly is. And I think that’s what the best art is able to give us. Delivery to that immeasurable, undefinable plot of emotional or spiritual space that we can never quite touch any other way.
FILMMAKER: HERE is a road film that follows its leads into the Nagorno-Karabagh region, which is politically undefined. In developing the story, was it important for that the two characters, who’re falling for each other, wind up in a place that defies easy categorization/knowability? It’s such a lovely metaphor, and I’m just curious when the idea entered the story development process. Was it always clear you’d be able to film in that region?
KING: It was places like NKR that drew me to Armenia and the surrounding regions in the first place. When I was doing location research, I was floored to learn that a place like NKR — a real-world blank spot on the map — existed. There are so many historical and cultural realities bumping up against each other in Armenia. As I mentioned earlier, the country and its landscape literally became another character in the story. They served the story in such uncanny, exciting ways. We waited until we’d locked down a lot of the locations before sitting down to write the screenplay. That process allowed us to include a lot of the magic we’d found in our own wanderings. We never could have written some of these things. They were gifts.
FILMMAKER: I’m not sure if Sundance has both shown a feature and at the same festival shown a supporting project — in this case, the transmedia projection / live music project, HERE (THE STORY SLEEPS). Has it? And I’m very excited to see both projects at the festival (in some sense, the film — and the “dream” of the film). Are the features that you’re interested in making in the future necessarily going to have to have transmedia elements that spill past a 120-minute film, or was this something that just felt specifically appropriate for HERE?
KING: I don’t know if this is a first for Sundance, but I’m excited about it. The multimedia side of HERE wasn’t really a thought-out thing; it’s more just a part of my working method. My background is in the visual arts and music. In some ways, playing with images and sound in non-narrative contexts makes a lot more sense to me than stories do (though that’s definitely starting to change). My interest in film started with the particular ways in which the medium is able to convey atmosphere and tone. Narrative is the skeleton, the architecture that supports cinematic experience. These other platforms of the project are an opportunity to go back to pure tone, back to the source. Each side informs the other, and everything is part of the path to completion. I can see continuing to work in this way, but all of this seemed particularly appropriate given the story and themes that this film is exploring, the searching that it’s so acutely about.
FILMMAKER: Do you differentiate between the shorter-form work (music videos, etc.) you do and feature-length? What are the different challenges they present for you?
KING: You can move a lot faster with short-form pieces; they’re quicker and don’t require as much money, time, planning or thought. They can be a lot more spontaneous than a project like HERE has been. In many cases, that’s quite rejuvenating. But regardless of the length of a given piece, what I’m the most interested in is erasing lines of delineation. Can a music video for Sonic Youth also serve as a documentary elegy for the infamous and now-closed New York club CBGB? Can you use it to try to create come kind of document of what all the great shows you’ve ever been to felt like? How can one thing masquerade as another? How can we shake up the form? Questions like that are incredibly exciting to me.
FILMMAKER: Can you talk about the way you collaborate with Michael Krassner and the Boxhead Ensemble?
KING: Michael and I have been working together for almost 20 years. He’s a very close friend and collaborator; I can’t imagine making a film without him. We have a very organic way of working that’s been built up over the years of our friendship.
Michael is constantly building up a palette to work from over the course of the development of a given project. It’s an inspiring process that becomes a kind of conversation. Ultimately, the music is embedded in a given film on a very deep level. With HERE, Mike actually began working on music for while I was still writing the script. Or maybe even before I started. Later, we incorporated those sketches and ideas into the more formal scoring sessions.
Just after I wrapped production in Armenia, Michael came over with four incredible musicians: Shahzad Ismaily, Eyvind Kang, Laraine Kaizer and Jessika Kenney. For the first few days, we didn’t work on any music at all. We traveled to various locations, went on hikes and looked at art. We talked. After that, we spent about four days recording using mobile equipment. Some of the recording locations were actual sets used in the film, such as Krikor’s apartment. We also went out and found an old, dis-used Soviet recording studio that was just incredible. It was a converted cinema that had been bought and renovated just before the Soviet Union broke up by the famous Moscow label Melodia. But then independence happened and they never actually moved the equipment into it! I think we created the first recordings ever made there! We also spent a day recording inside the Sergei Parajanov museum, surrounded by his art and film clips — a truly magical experience. In addition to the American musicians, we brought in two extremely talented Armenian musicians — Vartan Baghdasaryan and Karine Hovhannisyan — to improvise with the core group. I couldn’t be more pleased with the music that this group created together. It doesn’t fit any existing categorizations. And the process of creating it grew directly out of the film’s story, themes, and production. It was another example of an attempt to live the film as we made it.
FILMMAKER: And how did you work with Lol Crawley? Was Ballast how you became initially aware of his work, or…?
KING: Lol and I met at Sundance in 2008 when he was here with Lance Hammer and Ballast. We had a fantastic collaboration on HERE. The rigors of the shoot and my goals for the visual style required a DP who could improvise and roll with the punches while still delivering a considered, thoughtful image. There is a real visual narrative to HERE — the images tell their own stories. They’re not simply recording dialogue and performances. Lol was so tuned into that while being able to turn on a dime or deal with whatever chaos might have been thrown our way at any given moment. A true partner in the creation of this film. I was very lucky to have found him.
FILMMAKER: How do you plan on spending your time at Sundance? Will you have time to see other films? Any films that you’re really looking forward to?
KING: So far, I’ve been pretty consumed with my screenings and the New Frontier multimedia event I directed on Thursday, HERE [ THE STORY SLEEPS ] – which featured live soundtrack accompaniment by Michael Krassner and Tim Rutili from Califone. I’m hoping to have a bit of time to see a few films later this week if things start to quiet down. I’m especially interested in catching up on a few films I haven’t had time to see while completing HERE ‚ Meek’s Cutoff and Attenberg come to mind. But it’s hard!
FILMMAKER: Do you know what the next film you’re going to make will be? Are there other “necessary images” that you’re excited to render on film?
KING: There’s a lot of travel coming up with HERE and the multimedia side of the project. From Sundance, we’re going to Berlin and then there are a few special screenings in Europe just after that. So I expect to be very involved with the various forms of HERE throughout much of 2011.
That said, I’m very anxious to shoot another film as soon as possible. I’m developing a few of my own projects, but I’m also reading scripts and trying to find something compelling that I can jump into right away. After the kind of intense searching I’ve been involved with on HERE for so many years, a relatively quick, tightly-scripted genre piece sounds extremely appealing. Thinking a little less and cleansing my palette with something slightly less heady seems like it could be a great change of pace. Smart, tightly-scripted projects with a global focus and/or strong sense of place and atmosphere are proving to be a strong draw.