Julia Loktev’s debut feature Day Night Day Night has made waves everywhere that it’s played, from the Cannes Film Festival to Telluride to Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films. That’s because the movie deals with a subject matter that’s so topical and timely, especially in New York City, that being the thought of terrorism and the people who perpetrate it. With the potential to forever change stereotypes about what makes a suicide bomber, Loktev’s film stars newcomer Luisa Williams as a young woman of indeterminate age and ethnicity who willingly becomes part of a plot to set off a bomb in the middle of New York’s Times Square. The movie follows the preparations for the suicide bombing, spending half of it in a secluded motel in New Jersey and the second half in the middle of Times Square, an astounding achievement in capturing an intimate performance amidst the mad tourist traffic of Manhattan’s busiest regions.
It’s the kind of movie that sticks with you for a long time after seeing it, not just because of what happens or doesn’t happen the way you might expect, but also due to the simplicity of the filmmaking combined with Williams’ unforgettable performance.
Williams is deathly serious for most of the movie, rarely smiling, but that’s certainly not how she is in real life, as ComingSoon.net found out when we sat down with her and director Julia Loktev to talk about the film.
ComingSoon.net: There’s obviously been other movies about suicide bombers like “Paradise Now” but why did you want to explore the subject matter?
Julia Loktev: That came out around the time that we were editing, though I’d seen the script after I wrote mine. I was not particularly interested in making a film about suicide bombers as a subject. What happened is that I read a story in a Russian newspaper that really caught my imagination. What struck me most about the story was the one thing we can’t talk about because it would give away the ending of the film and that was the most important part of the story to me. It was a girl who had come to Moscow for the first time, and she was walking down one of Moscow’s main streets with a bomb in her bag. A lot of the story is murky. We know there was a girl, we know there was an actual bomb in that case, and this happened about a week after I was walking down the exact same route she took as a tourist in Russia with my backpack. I was struck by the fact that until you have an explosion, on the surface and from the outside, if somebody looks at us, what she was doing was not entirely different from what I was doing. Both of us were strangers, trying to find our way in this huge city we didn’t know. The parallels there seemed bizarre and disconcerting to me, so I transposed the story to New York. But again, what struck me about it wasn’t “let’s make a film about suicide bombers,” it was the specifics about how this story didn’t fit how you’d expect it to go. It didn’t fit all the cliches around it. It was a girl, which I think changes things significantly, and there have been female suicide bombers.
CS: The main character has such a specific demeanor that it was important to get the right actress, so did you two already know each other before making the movie?
Luisa Williams: No, although I kind of feel like I’ve known you for a lot longer. My first impulse was like, “Yeah, we knew each other a long time oh, wait, that’s not true.” (giggles)
Loktev: I had written the film, and the only thing I knew was that it would be a girl you’d never seen before. It was very important that it was not a known actress playing it, so I wanted to have an open call to find this face youcan project onto. We looked at over 650 girls, none of whom were even remotely right, and we wouldn’t have a film without the girl, because the entire film rests on her face. She’s on-screen virtually every shot of the movie and really has to carry the film. Through utter kismet, Luisa happened upon this flyer, and maybe you can talk about that.
Williams: Yeah, I was actually working as a nanny, and it was summertime, and I actually took the little boy I was taking care of to Coney Island to go to the aquarium. I was pushing his trailer down the boardwalk and I saw Julia’s flyer. At that point, I didn’t have aspirations of being an actress, which I told Julia when I Emailed her.
Loktev: We tried to scare girls off, because we said something like, “Must look 19-20, must be ethnically ambiguous. It’s a film about a girl going through a crisis of faith. You must be able to work with silence and the slightest gesture.” When you put out a casting call, you inevitably get these “American Idol” very cheery type girls who come in all bouncy, and you ask them to tell you three things without smiling and they can’t do that. This was exactly the opposite of the character we wanted, so we tried to scare girls off, but apparently, it did succeed in luring the right one.
Williams: Yeah, there was something in the flyer that I recognized within myself, and then another part that was a challenge. When we started working together, we found we are both thrill-seekers in a way; we love a good challenge and a really good hard day of work.
CS: Had you ever done any acting before deciding to do this?
Williams: I went to the high school for performing arts where I was a drama major for four years, but nothing else.
CS: Did you have any apprehensions when you found out what the movie was about?
Williams: No, actually it was funny because based on what I was getting from our Email correspondence and the flyer, I bought a T-shirt at Gap Kids that was like a boy’s T-shirt and I wore that and jeans and two sports bras to bind things up a little.
Loktev: And she knew very little about the character at that point, so I think when Luisa came in, she was already somehow very contained physically in the way the character needed to be, and for a long time, I thought she herself was like this. Luisa was much closer to the character, because she somehow inherently and instinctively latched onto certain things without knowing very much about this girl. Later, I realized that Luisa is not really like this character at all. That was an interesting discovery to notice that. The second audition, which is probably the one that got Luisa the partthe first one she just said a few things about herself without smiling, that she did very well. We met one-on-one, because she missed the auditions. When she wrote me, they were over, so we met without the casting director, just the two of us. The second time I had her come in, I remember we sat across from each other at a table, and I told her about the film and the role, but the whole time I had a camera behind me and I filmed her listening. That’s really what got you the part, ’cause then I’d watch this tape over and over. I’d watch her listen and then I’d show her to friends on my video camera. I was interested in what she looked like while processing information, what she looked like while listening.
CS: There’s a lot of silence in the movie, so did you actually have a full script for the movie?
Loktev: There was a script. I mean, it had some openness to be played off of. Europeans considered it a script when they look at it, but Americans think, “That’s not a script because the please and thank yous aren’t indented in the proper format.” It was a script. What the film needed to be was on the page, but if the thing was entirely on the page, there’d be no need to make the film.
CS: How did you prepare for that opening soliloquy?
Williams: The beginning? I memorized that.
Loktev: That wasn’t a problem. She memorized the entire script by heart. She was the only one of the actors who I never saw take out a script during the entire time we were shooting. That was the startling thing about Luisa was that having not had any technical film acting training, have never been on a film shoot, she was the consummate professional. You needed to light her, she would sit absolutely still and perfectly and be there. She had memorized the entire script by heart. She could repeat things. I could look at a tape and say, “I liked what you did here. Can you keep this? Can we add something else here?” and she could take what I liked and repeat it and modify it, and she took direction incredibly. So in some ways, she was this non-professional who worked in the most professional way possible.
CS: Did you do any research into the Patty Hearst situation where she got involved with a similar terrorist faction?
Loktev: I’d seen the Patty Heart movie years ago, but we did not focus on it specifically. What we did do research on was Joan of Arc, not only in terms of the filmswe watched different Joan of Arc filmsthen you read the diaries of Joan of Arc.
Williams: Yeah, and the Mark Twain book.
CS: Did you work out any sort of backstory for the character? We get a few snippets along the way but it’s kept pretty minimal.
Williams: We did! The funny thing about the story is that we did work out a backstory. We talked about it and then after the initial conversation, Julia Emailed to me a very lengthy, juicy backstory, and I kept that in mind. It was really helpful to me for the duration of the shoot. So cut to the following May and we’re on the plane going to Cannes and we were going over some talking points because this was my first experience with anything like it. And I said, “Oh, so, what are we going to say about the back story?” and Julia completely forgot that there ever was a backstory.
Loktev: I had no idea what she was talking about.
Williams: This was something that had been really helpful to me. I really absorbed it, and in a way, I’m the only person who knows about it.
Loktev: I have absolutely no idea what it is. It’s her secret backstory.
Williams: I think it comes up at every Q ‘n’ A we do. People ask about the backstory, and I tell them that I know it and no one else does, and then they say, “So what is it?”
Loktev: I think each audience member can then work out their own back story. You can have your own secret backstory and someone else will have their own secret back story to fill in.
Williams: Those are the kinds of movies I really love where afterwards, you’re telling part of the story to yourself and filling in blanks. I love movies like that. I don’t like being told exactly what to think and feel and every detail. I like to be able to talk about it afterwards.
Loktev: The best thing I can hope for is that every once in a while, people will say, “You know, I’m still thinking about it two weeks later.” To me, that’s the best thing I can hope for, that it gives audiences something to think and talk about. I hate when I walk out of a movie and I feel like my experience is over, that it’s contained within the movie, that I know what I’m supposed to think, what I’m supposed to feel. I’d rather it sort of continue playing over in my mind in different ways.
CS: What was the shooting like on the movie, especially while shooting in Times Square?
Loktev: We shot for about a month. We shot in two different halves, and we shot those in sequence. First we shot the first part of the film that was all interiors which takes place in a hotel in New Jersey. We really isolated ourselves in this motel with a very small crew of around ten people, but that’s including the people whose job it is to go to Whole Foods and get lunch. Most of them were not on set. Often, we kicked people out of the room. I try to shoot with as few people as possible. Very often it was just myself, the cinematographer Benoit Debie and Luisa in the room. Then we shot the second part in Times Square and there, we had so few peoplewe had five people who were part of the crew, but most of them spent the entire shoot sitting at Café Europa, waiting for us to shoot something. Very often, we would move through the crowds with Benoit the DP, Luisa and myself. We tried having our assistant director come with us to part the crowd and keep the DP from falling, but that was too many people, so in the end, that was me doing that. In the end, it was Luisa walking, Benoit walking and shooting her and me literally steering him with my hand on the small of his back like a dancer and dragging him by his jacket through the crowd as I was saying, “excuse me, excuse me.” I felt my primary objective of the Times Square shoot was to keep the DP from falling and breaking something.
CS: How was it for you, having never acted in a movie and suddenly being thrust into this situation of having to perform in an environment with thousands of people who have no idea what’s going on?
Williams: There was one thing that people would do is that they’d take photographs while we were shooting, and I was loath for anything to interrupt it, sometimes without moving my face I’d be like pointing and going “Please, make that guy stop taking my picture!” I don’t know. It was so strangely comfortable for me. When we started, I asked Julia, “Where do you not look into the camera? What’s the wrong place to look?” I wanted to have a focus without making a mistake and looking into the camera in a way that wasn’t appropriate. She showed me where you don’t look and then after that, I felt pretty comfortable and pretty able to shut everything else out.
Loktev: And we were shoving that camera really close up your nose, too. The film was very much about the relationship between a girl and the camera, and I tend to use the camera, even when someone else is shooting, almost like a microscope or a dissection tool.
Williams: I was worried about the camera, but then I became comfortable with it, it was like my friend.
Loktev: But it was sort of different shooting in the street, because when you’re shooting in a motel room, you can control everything. The way we shot and the esthetic of the film is so extremely controlledthere’s no extra information in the first part–and then we got to Times Square and half the time, I was worried about keeping Benoit from falling on his face. Suddenly, Luisa, like the character was on her own a little bit. We did manage to communicate, but sometimes I couldn’t watch your performance because I was just leading us through the crowd. By that point, we’d developed a level of trust and you knew the character enough and knew what I wanted. I felt a lot of the time we communicated without having to say very much. The film was so much a collaboration between the two of us. It was probably for the rest of the crew like watching creepy twins. (Both laugh.)
CS: Were the rest of the people in those scenes just people passing by on the street?
Loktev: It depends. Most of the people who pass through the frame are just literally passing by on the street. Often we cast people on the street, so if we needed a pretzel vendor, we would ask an actual pretzel vendor if we could film him selling her a pretzel. There was one scene where we just approached random people on the street with a camera — when she had to beg for money.
Williams: We arranged for a few different people and it just wasn’t working, so Julia said to just try begging. What we ended up doing was they signed a release after, so they would give me money and then one of the producers would go up to them and say I don’t know what they said.
Loktev: I mean, we did approach them with a camera and a boom mic
Williams: Which a lot of them strangely didn’t seem aware of.
Loktev: Or they did but they would say, “Oh, is this a reality show?” Part of it is Times Square, which is kind of a theatre stage. It has that special feeling where it’s a place of leisure and entertainment, so people come there and they expect funny and strange things to happen to them. They would walk through and I’d pick somebody and go, “Okay, ask this guy coming up.” She’d ask him for money, but it was not like the camera was hidden in my bra or anything. Most of them, of course, the vast majority gave money when we approached them directly and she said what she wanted. When I said you are going to beg for money, I didn’t tell her how to do it, so the first thing Luisa did was stood there and go “excuse me, excuse me, excuse me.”
Williams: It’s really interesting. You can see that whole process of first I say “excuse me” and people don’t even [stop]
Loktev: and you can see the terror in your face, because at that point, you were really uncomfortable with begging for money and you apparently hated me at that moment.
Williams: I didn’t hate you, but I was extraordinarily uncomfortable. I think it worked for the camera.
Loktev: It did, and then I told you, “Why don’t you tell them exactly what you want?”
Williams: “Can I have a quarter for the phone?”
Loktev: And most people in New York if you ask them that, they will give you money. I’ve had situations where I ask people for change for a dollar for the phone and they give you quarters.
CS: What’s the reaction been like from the audience after the screenings?
Williams: You know what I like? I like when after the credits start to roll, everyone goes “phew” and lets out a breath. Did you ever notice that?
Loktev: Mm-hm. I like the silence of the audience. In terms of the questions and the reaction, what is interesting to me is the positive reviews and reactions that we’ve heard about the film, people latch onto completely different things. They notice different aspects of it, and it’s almost like they’re talking about different movies, and that’s very thrilling for me, especially when they notice something I wasn’t even thinking of. There’s a flip side in that the negative reviews all say almost exactly the same thing. I almost want a negative review that will tell me something completely original, because the negative reviews do say almost the same thing, “You don’t tell us what makes people become terrorists.” My answer is always the same, that there are other sources of information for this, and if you’re really interested, I can recommend some really good books. This is not what this film was about. I hope I’ve made a film that causes people to want to know more, rather than make them feel affirmed in their convictions. I hope they go out and do more thinking and more research.
CS: Has anyone mentioned to you that the movie is a very different experience each time you watch it?
Loktev: Actually, I was curious what it was like for you watching it the second time when you know exactly what is going to happen.
Williams: People have said that to me. They feel the first time, they’re so tense and worried about what’s going to happen that they can’t really take in every detail, then the second time they get more details.
Loktev: I actually think it’s a more interesting film the second time when you know exactly what is going to happen. I think the first time the first time you’re so focused on the tension and suspense aspects, then the second time, there’s a lot more things going on in layers. You understand things differently. That’s a weird thing, because when I started writing the movie, I would tell people exactly what would happen at the end. I’m never interested in what happens, but how things happen. After the film was finished I was sort of told by publicists that you don’t want to spoil the ending.
CS: Do you find that people get more paranoid and suspicious of others after seeing the movie?
Loktev: I hope not. Certainly, it was not my intention to prey on people’s insecurities. One of the reasons I chose Times Square as the target in the film is that it’s something everybody’s thought of. The NYPD has thought of this one, the FBI has thought of this one, probably every New Yorker and every tourist who’s passed through Times Square has thought of this one. I didn’t want to give anybody any new ideas. It wasn’t about trying to give somebody a new thing to be afraid of or something to target. I wanted to pick the most obvious, banal target, because that’s not the point of the film. The premise [of terrorism] sadly these days is not all that radical; I hope what’s radical is not the premise but the treatment of the premise.
Day Night Day Night opens at the IFC Center in New York on Wednesday, May 9.