Julia Loktev, The Loneliest Planet
Following up on her tense, distressingly visceral narrative feature Day Night Day Night, which anatomized the final hours of a female suicide bomber preparing for an operation in Times Square, Brooklyn-based filmmaker Julia Loktev leaves the cramped urban space of contemporary Manhattan for the majestic wilds of the Caucasus Mountains in The Loneliest Planet, where a Western couple, Nica (Hani Furstenberg) and her fiancée Alex (Gael García Bernal), have embarked on a hiking holiday in post-Soviet Georgia. Navigating their way through the emerald landscape with the help of a guide, Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze), whose war-scarred personal history seems to hang around his fatigued eyes like soot, Nica and Alex are game participants in their less-than-luxurious travel adventure, delighting in their ability to “rough it.” (The film opens with a jolting shot of Nica bouncing in a tub naked, in a kind of ecstatic discomfort, while Alex ferries over buckets of hot water to douse her with. In another early scene, they drink beer at a grim watering hole with blaring music and staggering locals, heedless of their slightly absurd effort to fit in.) The allure of the unfamiliar extends to language as well, both in the couple’s hapless efforts at communication with villagers as they attempt to arrange an expedition and in the cleaving of their own mother tongue. (One of Nica’s favorite trail sports with Alex is conjugating verbs in Spanish, his native language.)
These subtle disparities and disquieting realities come to a head at a crucial moment on their journey when the trio is approached by a clutch of rough-looking men with unclear motives and Alex, with a single involuntary gesture, displays awful cowardice. For the rest of the film (based on Tom Bissell’s story “Expensive Trips Nowhere”), the couple silently struggles to reconcile that action, which ruptures the rugged tranquility of their environment and becomes an unspoken psychological barrier to any form of continued intimacy between them. Recently nominated for a Gotham Award for Best Feature, The Loneliest Planet makes the most of its setting, often framing the characters in extreme long shot against jaw-droppingly beautiful backdrops that dwarf their barely discernible presence in the frame. These interludes punctuate a strikingly composed film centered largely around walking, with Loktev’s camera moving through an environment that is remote and exotic, just as Alex and Nica have become remote and exotic to each other. It’s a place where silences and small gestures–like the shot of Alex’s trembling hand reaching gingerly for a lock of his alienated fianceé’s red hair–speak volumes.
Filmmaker spoke with Loktev about defining moments, shooting in exotic locales, and the emotional qualities of sound. The Loneliest Planet opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles.
Filmmaker: There seems to be a concern in your work with a defining moment, an instant in which everything changes, from your documentary Moment of Impact, which was about your father’s car accident, to The Loneliest Planet, where a single, freighted action becomes the pivot point of the entire film.
Loktev: Probably this is some kind of pathology that I need to get away from in the next movie! [Laughs] It’s something I definitely realized after the fact. These films all do hinge on a kind of drastic moment.
Filmmaker: And in The Loneliest Planet, this key moment arrives right in the middle of the film.
Loktev: My first film, as you mentioned, was about my dad, who was hit by a car while crossing a street between two garage sales. For my family, there was a life before that split second and an entirely different life after. This happened when I was 19 and it was such a defining moment in my life and so transformative. In film you expect things to have foreshadowing and a buildup, and in life some things don’t. They come out of the blue and knock you off your feet.
Filmmaker: So perhaps it’s become a structure of feeling in your art and how you express yourself.
Loktev: That’s probably all the more reason not to do it, now that I’ve noticed it.
Filmmaker: Tom Bissell is one of my favorite writers. How did you come to his story “Expensive Trips Nowhere” and decide it would be of interest to adapt as a film?
Loktev: Well, I picked it up randomly because it was in a collection entitled God Lives in St. Petersburg. I was born in St. Petersburg, so I found the title utterly irresistible, though it has nothing to do with that city. But it does have to do with Central Asia. One thing Tom and I have in common is that he spent some time in Uzbekistan mad in the Peace Corps and I also traveled in Central Asia for five months after college, alone. So the experience of traveling in that world is something we both feel. I wasn’t thinking of making a movie of the story. I was traveling in Georgia with my boyfriend at the time and something about being in the space of travel together made me remember it and think it would make an interesting movie.
Filmmaker: The Bissell story is reminiscent of Hemingway’s “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” which made me wonder about your interest in the themes that inspired both.
Loktev: Yes, he mentions that in the collection. But I think by the time you get to the film there’s so little link to the Hemingway story.
Filmmaker: Yet we are invited to reassess the masculinity of García Bernal’s character, Alex, after that decisive moment.
Loktev: Definitely. The question of masculinity is important to the story. But again, I think how it comes up in Hemingway is very different from how we might think about it today. Plenty of people have seen this film and said, “Why is the girlfriend so mad?” And I have to say, that’s a reaction I don’t understand. [Laughs] Others see the film and say “This damns them for life” and I don’t feel that either. Hopefully it’s a film about forgiveness, about finding equilibrium again in each other, and that’s how I tried to see it. It’s about people who want to recover. They often fail at it, perhaps, but they at least make the effort in a very messy and asynchronous kind of way. To me, reconciliation is more interesting.
Filmmaker: The interplay between language and silence is essential to the framework of the film. The word games and conjugation of Spanish verbs that Alex and Nica engage in, for instance. What role did this linguistic dimension play in your concept for the film?
Loktev: I thought about it in a natural way. Language is a part of traveling—when you go somewhere and don’t understand it, that becomes a huge part of your experience being there. Or when you make friends exchanging curse words, which is one of the first things you do. I was doing the Spanish conjugation in Georgia with my boyfriend, who was a Scottish guy who’d lived in Mexico. I was learning Spanish, and I found myself walking around conjugating Spanish verbs, so that worked its way into the story. It all just made sense to me as part of this travel story, of mixing language. It worked out nicely.
Filmmaker: Actually, the longest moment of exposition comes at the end of the film when the guide Dato tells his story.
Loktev: Yes. I didn’t want to make a point of their silence – I didn’t want to be artificial about it. But I also didn’t want to have artificial dialogue that would be designed for the benefit of the audience, to tell you who these characters are. So I had Alex and Nica talk about what people talk about when traveling. They’re engaged, so presumably they know most of each other’s life stories, and in their relationship with Dato, the guide, they are in the position of being the audience. They need to be good listeners, to respond to his jokes, to hear his stories, to watch whatever he shows them.
Filmmaker: How does all of that connect to the location we find these characters in? It’s visually stunning and also alienating, isolating, even constricting. The term “exotic sublime” popped into my head.
Loktev: Of course the central rupture in the film and how the aftermath plays out is completely affected by the fact that they are more than a day’s walk from the nearest village. They’re in the middle of the mountains in a country where they don’t have their bearings and they’re not at home. And then there’s the question of what kind of mountains are they in? It’s like music, almost. It would feel very different if the film was set in a rocky landscape set among trees. In this case it’s these velvety green mountains that are grassy and soft and lush and welcoming but enormous and that kind of close in on them. It sets a tone for the entire film. If they were miserable and I put them in a miserable-looking, rocky, difficult location, it would be too obvious. Instead, I put them in the prettiest place they’d ever been.
Filmmaker: Part of the rhythm you establish has to do with these long-shot tableaux that punctuate the film in between scenes, as well as the action of walking and the choreography of your camera around that action. At certain moments, I thought of Gerry and even Twentynine Palms.
Loktev: I’ve seen those too but actually tried not to think of them. Again it’s about the color of the landscape, the color of the music, and this has such a different feel because it isn’t an arid desert. I thought of films like Voyage in Italy, which had nothing to do with walking! [Laughs] Somehow that meant more to me since it’s about a couple’s relationship. I hate to say it, but I couldn’t help thinking of Stalker, because they’re walking through this green world and they have a bald guide. [Laughs] And there is this sense of journey into a kind of science-fiction-like landscape. But those are very superficial parallels.
Filmmaker: Not many filmmakers come to cinema through sound art and design, as you did. What brought you to the image?
Loktev: I actually don’t remember. I probably had the idea while traveling, since I get all my best ideas that way. After college, I thought I was going to go to graduate school for architecture, and then I took off traveling in Central Asia. Somewhere on a train in Kazakhstan, I thought, “I’d be a terrible architect, I should be a filmmaker instead!” [Laughs]
Filmmaker: Sound remains a crucial element in how you structure narrative work.
Loktev: Yes, I don’t know why people tend to think about the picture more than the sound. It’s there, it’s part of the experience.
Filmmaker: Perhaps it’s simply that some artists are more attentive to the aural dimension of visual storytelling and want to emphasize it.
Loktev: I can’t imagine not being interested in it. Sound is so emotional. How you hear a space is really dependent on your emotional state, much more so than image, I think. For example, if you’ve ever been scared, how you hear what’s around you is completely transformed. How you pay attention to every sound — it becomes a completely different sonic environment. Sound adjusts with your emotions.
Filmmaker: At one moment in the film, you cut to a shot of Alex and Nica and Dato at rest next to a giant piece of equipment that’s gushing water. That roaring sound dominates our experience of this scene and tells us everything we need to know about what’s happening at that instant in their journey.
Loktev: Exactly. It’s a strange, bizarre mineral water pump in the middle of a valley – and it was just there. I imagine them happening upon it in this moment and I thought, “How would they experience that?”
Filmmaker: How do you think your background affects the choices you make as a filmmaker?
Loktev: It definitely affected this film, because Georgia is a place my parents had traveled, and my mom had hiked in the Caucasus. When I’m there, most people think I’m Georgian. Then they realize I don’t speak the language. With most people over the age of 20, we communicate very well in Russian, so I was directing the crew half in English, half in Russian, so it gave me a feeling of being at home there. There is still so much of a shared Soviet past that we have in common. Obviously it’s changing a lot with the younger generation, but for now it feels slightly like coming home.
Filmmaker: You once described Day Night Day Night as a film about “a girl’s face and a camera.” What shifted in your approach now that you’ve got multiple characters instead of a single intense focus?
Loktev: That basic fact was very exciting for me – suddenly there were three characters and it was all about the relationships between them, how they respond to each other. That was new for me. Day Night Day Night was about a girl’s relationship to her own faith, and to nobody else, really. And also, of course, after Times Square, I was excited to be out in the mountains!
Filmmaker: How did you adapt to the new situation of having to handle a group of actors?
Loktev: You’re really adjusting to each actor as a person, and what they might need from you and how you might work together. But that would happen on any film. You really are forming a relationship, discovering each other and how to make something together. You make mistakes and then figure out how to do it better – it’s a dialogue.
Filmmaker: Maybe you’ll go from three to nine next time.
Loktev: Exactly. I do want to do something else. I was joking that after the mountains all I want to do is make a film inside a studio! [Laughs] I do want to challenge myself. So maybe the next one won’t have backpacks, it won’t hinge on a pivotal moment, and my characters are going to talk all the time.