Alma Har’el on her Work-in-Progress LoveTrue at the Tribeca Film Festival
Alma Har’el’s 2011 Bombay Beach is one of the most striking feature debuts of any sort, fiction or doc, in recent years. In writing about the film and Har’el for our 25 New Faces of 2011, I called it “not only a loving, deeply empathetic portrait of the diverse characters who make up the town” (a small burg in the Salton Sea) “but also a beautifully poetic cinematic essay on the power — and necessity — of play and self-invention.”
Bombay Beach, shot largely by Har’el herself on a handheld, $600 Canon consumer video camera, had style to burn, and its astonishing visual flair and inventive blend of sound and image created a path to larger commercials and music videos over the following years. But for her follow-up feature, LoveTrue, scenes of which screened last night in work-in-progress form at the Tribeca Film Festival, Har’el has eschewed what might have been an easy route (a simply conceived or rendered subject or issue) by instead tackling the largest, most unwieldy of topics — love — in, again, a searching, cinematically ambitious fashion. Once more, there is play and an emphasis on self-invention — or, perhaps, simply deep introspection and a willingness by her subjects to go on a journey with Har’el. In these scenes — which, again, have a lovely poetry to them — we see a young pre-teen girl being bullied on a school bus; a pair of Alaskan strippers who share the same name and are thinking about love and commitment from different generational vantage points; and a man who is figuring out how to balance the love he has for his young son with the recent knowledge that he’s not the boy’s father.
Mixing “real people” and actors, and containing scenes drawn from the past and inspired by the future’s possibilities, Alma Har’el’s LoveTrue is, even in incomplete form, a lovely and inspiring work that unpeels for the viewer the myriad complexities of its titular subject.
I spoke to Har’el about the film, her process, and working with executive producer Shia LaBeouf, who she engaged in a Q&A with last night at the festival.
Filmmaker: First, why love as the subject of your new film? What attracted you to the subject, and what do you hope to learn or discover though the making of the film?
Har’el: The film is actually demystifying the fantasy of “True Love” and flipping it backwards in search of some true stories that show how our view of love changes as we grow older. There’s love in this world as a state of being and a state of grace, and then there’s romantic love, which can take you on a ride and show you all the inner workings of your hopes and dreams as well as your weaknesses and darkest moments. I wanted to make a film about that passage that calls for you to define love again and find love again once you got hurt by its complexity.
I grew up in a very loving home that was equally chaotic and dysfunctional. If you ask any member of my family to describe our life as a family, each one of us has a different story. So much so that some of us don’t talk to each other because they can’t agree on the reality of what happened. I started to look into love as a surviving mechanism in Bombay Beach, and in this film I tried to take another step into people’s heads who are going through a relationship that can’t fit easily into the fantasy of a “happy ending” scenario.
My parents who loved each other very much and were crazy romantic had a very turbulent relationship and separated and got back together all the time through my whole life. In the times that they were separated and my dad would come to visit, we had to meet outside the house so we would go to see movies with my little brother. One of them was Princess Bride which became a milestone in our house vocabulary. “As you wish” was “I love you.” I think the contrast between how I saw that film as a kid and dealing with my parents relationship and my own divorce in the past few years made me want to make this film.
Filmmaker: Your last film, Bombay Beach, was rooted in a kind of specificity — a group of people from a very specific space and defined, to varying degrees, by their relationship to it. For your new film, though, you’ve chosen the most expansive of topics, one that could lead you in many different directions. What has been the experience of working without the kind of geographic and community restrictions you had in Bombay Beach in terms of your development of this story?
Har’el: That’s very true. Bombay Beach as a place is both a nightmare and a dream. That’s what drew me to it so much. I loved the intimacy and the specificity of that existence and felt deeply taken by the people I met there. It’s a place between worlds. In this film I wanted to do something completely different and get lost but still keep the structure of three stories.
I was born in Tel Aviv and only came to the U.S.eight years ago. Ever since I’ve been here when N.Y., Hawaii or Alaska are mentioned in a conversation, I hear people say… “Well, but that’s not really America.” So since they all form a triangle on the map I figured as a foreigner they will be interesting for me to have as the backdrop. “They’re not America” and I’m not really American even though I’m a citizen of the U.S.
I’m also very into how landscape informs your life, and I wanted to have as much contrast as possible between the stories. It effected us physically and emotionally to shoot in each one of these places, and I think there’s a different tone to each story because of that. I broke my back while I was in Alaska prior to shooting the second time we were there and that took me down for seven months. At first I tried to keep shooting on a wheelchair for a week but then I was told I have to be in a back brace and let it heal. I took a long break and stayed in NY while looking for the story there.
The hardest thing about not shooting in one place was, of course, the production because we had to go back and forth to follow on stories and each time was hitting us hard. I’m lucky to be producing this with Christopher Leggett, who made our budget last in the most creative and resourceful ways. Couldn’t have done this with out him. He’s a cheap bastard from Boston that gets you everything you need no matter what. Such a strong producer. He also turns a wheel chair into a dolly like a boss.
Filmmaker: In Bombay Beach you guided your subjects through performances to represent and enact their dreams and fantasies. Here, you use reenactments that express the stories of your subjects as well as their fantasies. How are the subjects involved in the creation of these reenactments, and what are you hoping to capture through them? For example, the school bullying incident must have been a painful one for your subject to recount. What role, if any, does she have in the making of that reenactment?
Har’el: Reality is not the whole picture. I’m trying to capture what we don’t see about these people’s lives and what shaped them.
It’s something that will happen very naturally in a fiction film but I actually love films that don’t bother to explain the character’s past, and I find it to be often boring when they do.
In this context of real people and documentary it becomes interesting to me. It’s fuck the “fly on the wall,” let’s talk about the “elephant in the room.” We’re making a film together and you are performing yourselves so let’s be creative as possible about telling your story together.
Everything in those memories and fantasies comes from my work with them. I start out by doing extensive interviews. Some times six or seven hours straight of having them talk about every memory they want to share and telling me the story of their lives. I ask them a lot of questions about love and also about their fears or hopes for the future. We do it again and again and again until they pretty much hate me. Some memories or fears and fantasies immediately stick out and repeat in the conversations. I can tell they’re part of the person’s mythology. It’s the story they always tell themselves about themselves.
We all have those.
That bullying incident on the bus was extremely uncomfortable to create for everybody and as someone who was constantly bullied at school I know that feeling and how the years go by and that memory is there decaying in your head with you in it.
It’s one of my favorite scenes in the film, and we go back to it sometimes through imagery, even for a second or two, because it’s a texture of a feeling that will always come back when that person feels unwanted.
I think it was very difficult for her to do it and she wasn’t sure what was the point at first but then she got real satisfaction from setting the story straight and speaking up. We had a psychodrama therapist on the set named Jeffrey Yates who did a masterful job. He made sure to explain to her and everyone that was in the film that it’s not therapy but that we were using techniques that have therapeutic value. I believe that people who watch these scenes will feel very intensely about them because they are not reenactments.
I don’t like calling them reenactments because they are living occurrences that encourage people to take ownership of their stories and their representation on film.
A work of a group of people who agree to take on a reality that will allow for the truth to come out. There was a moment when we filmed when the young girls who we hired to play the bullies sit with her in the bus, and she says to the therapist, “I know who did it and I will hate them till the day I die… and I realize that’s not healthy but I’m okay with that”. The girl who was playing the bully and is probably 12 years old looked to the ground with shame. It’s a quick shot. I never told her to do it or anything like that but she took it on herself and felt it in that moment. Those are moments when you can transcend performance and understand “the other.” I don’t show the therapist in the film at all and I like the feeling of not knowing when you watch it what is real. There’s real alchemy in these sessions. You don’t know what you get out of them right away but it sinks in and starts a process.
These scenes also led to a certain intimacy that can only be seen in the end of the film in an interview I do with her. I haven’t finished editing the film yet, but I cry everytime I see it because of her honesty. You feel like you’re in her head. I just want to stay on it for five or ten minutes straight. We’ll see if that happens.
Filmmaker: How do you imagine the futures of your characters in this film?
Har’el: Very different people so it’s hard to just give one answer. I imagine that like all of us they will have a lot of back and forth. Some happiness and triumphs, some sorrow and disappointments but what I know is that they will continue to be the interesting people that they are. They all share a few qualities, one of them being that they have many contrasts and complex personalities. We often look for love and for that fantasy of finding “The One” who could make all our fragmented existence become whole. I’m happy I got to share the moment in time with them when they had to find a way to recognize that complexity. I know they will all have love in their lives.
Filmmaker: What was your process of finding subjects for this film? Word of mouth? Advertising? A casting director? People you knew? And did the subjects expand your concept of what the film’s definition of love could be, or did you start with specific angles on love that you’d then find subjects for?
Har’el: In Alaska we had a casting director who got businesses all around Fairbanks to post a piece of paper inviting people to text me or email me, and Blake was one of the first people that reached out. The other places were harder. In N.Y. we had interns and people we worked with look for people in the streets and go to all sorts of places I assumed will have interesting characters. We tried word of mouth… we looked everywhere and even started shooting one couple that didn’t work out. Then I walked one day with my dog to Central Park and heard John sing with his eight children and that was it. I spoke to him and knew I had to make it about them.
Hawaii was challenging too. We spent a month trying to cast and meet people, and then I just saw Will at the beach one day with his friends. He was jumping around, and I tried talking to him, and he pretty much told me to fuck off but later on Googled me and we ended up meeting at a bar. It was the same week he discovered his son wasn’t his biological son, and we started to shoot right away.
Filmmaker: How did Shia LaBoeuf get involved, and what role does he play in the production?
Har’el: Shia and I worked together on a Sigur Ros music video (“Fjogur Piano”) which was one of the best experiences of my life as a creative person. It changed what I think is possible for me as a director and showed me that with the right actor I can do the films I want to make.
It’s funny because to many people Shia has a certain chaotic image because of the things he has to work out in his personal life, but to me he has been a source of both stability and freedom. I learn a lot from him all the time, and when I think about the last 3 years and how much he’s made a difference in my work I trip out.
It all happened because he saw Bombay Beach randomly after picking it up at Amoeba Records not knowing what that film is and then emailed me that he wanted to meet. We went to dinner and it was as simple as talking to your self… just the same sensibilities. After Sigur Ros when I started to work on this film I made a small trailer with the initial money we raised from “Sofa” (A commercial company in Prague) and grants from Cinereach and Tribeca. I sent Shia the trailer, and he wanted to come on board as an Executive Producer. It was New Years Eve, and I went downstairs from my apartment and saw a letter from him in the mail. It had a check for the whole budget with a letter I kept with me everywhere we went shooting. I don’t think this film would be possible with out him. He’s a “live or die for what you do” kind of guy, and I hope we keep working together. The more the better
Filmmaker: Screening footage before a film is completed to a public audience is a dynamic process. What are you hoping to gain from this screening, and why did you accept (or propose) it?
Har’el: I felt like it would be the most terrifying thing to do because I hardly ever show anything unfinished to anyone and hate being judged… so I figured I should do it big. The film has a lot of ideas in it in terms of filmmaking and when you watch something with people in the room you immediately know whats working and what doesnt. It’s a bit of a bold test drive to do it in front of a full house but I needed to do it because I’ve been working in a vacuum for almost 3 years with total freedom. Also Tribeca had a huge impact on me when I won the festival with Bombay Beach so it was important to me to include them in the process of this film.
Filmmaker: In the years since Bombay Beach you’ve made a number of extraordinary short works — music videos, commercials, etc. How do you feel your work has evolved during this period, and what new elements, approaches or visual styles are you exploring in the new film?
Har’el: I think I edit faster and had the chance to work with very talented people who I learned a lot from. I tried to bring more scope to this film while not compromising the intimacy, the people that opened up and told their stories and the feeling you’re watching something that was done by a human and not by a “director.”
Filmmaker: Going forward, what’s the biggest challenge you have with regards to the completion of the film?
Har’el: Staying off Red Bull in the edit room.