Interview: Julia Loktev Visits The Loneliest Planet

Julia Loktev’s 2006 movie Day Night Day Night followed a young woman on her journey to become a suicide bomber, a riveting film released at just the right time to really shake up anyone who saw it.

Her follow-up The Loneliest Planet may seem mundane by comparison, starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg as a young engaged couple who are traveling through the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia with a local guide, played by one of the country’s premiere mountaineers, Bidzina Gujabidze. Things are going well and they’re enjoying the idyllic holiday until a sudden incident drives a wedge between the couple and they have to finish the journey while what happened hangs over their head.

It’s a simple and fairly subdued, often dialogue-less story, that uses the grand landscape of the Caucasus to its fullest while showing how travel can affect a relationship, but it’s filmed and paced unlike any other movie, showing that Loktev’s earlier dramatic feature was no fluke.

ComingSoon.net talked to Loktev last week mere hours after The Loneliest Planet was nominated as Best Feature at this year’s IFP Gotham Awards. One thing we learned fairly quickly is not to ask the filmmaker what she’s been doing since Day Night Day Night as that’s somewhat of a sore subject.

ComingSoon.net: First of all, congratulations on the Gotham Award. That was a really nice surprise.
Julia Loktev:
That was a really nice surprise this morning, I know. I got the Email from the producers and I was like, “Oh. Nice.”

CS: The movie’s been sort of low-key since last year’s New York Film Festival. I knew it was coming out finally…
Loktev:
I know, it’s taken a little longer to come out then I would have liked, it felt like.

CS: It’s hard to believe it’s been five or six years since “Day Night Day Night” so were you working on this that whole time or doing other things?
Loktev:
What I’ve been doing? It takes a long time, I’m slow. I start things. I kind of decide they’re not right and keep in mind, this was finished last year. I hate those questions by the way. It’s like the way how to make a person feel horrible about themselves. “What are you working on? What are you doing next and why did it take you so long to do this?” I wish I worked quicker. I wish it was quicker to get money together for a project like this. We were supposed to shoot a year earlier and had to pull the plug on the shoot two weeks before. It’s still difficult to get movies made, for sure. Or maybe just the kind of movies I make. You’re happy that you get to make it.

CS: Well, fortunately it came out great and the Gotham Award nomination is a nice little bonus.
Loktev:
It is a nice bonus.

CS: What got you going on this one?
Loktev:
It’s based on a short story by Tom Bissell and I’d read the short story, literally picked it up because it was in a collection called “God Lives in St. Petersburg” which I picked up because I was born in St. Petersburg and the title was irresistible to me. But I didn’t think of making a film at the time. I was traveling in Georgia with my boyfriend of the time and while I was in Georgia, I remember the short story and thought, “Wow, this would make a great movie.” I’ve seen photos of my parents who traveled in Georgia. I was born in Russia so Georgia was a myth that I kind of grew up with because it was the vacation paradise of the Soviet Union, Georgian men were like the Latin lovers of the Soviet Union, so there’s a lot of mythology around Georgia, around the hospitality and beauty of Georgia that existed there. My parents went there. My Mom hiked through the Caucasus Mountains for 17 days or something like that when she was in university, but I came to Georgia for the first time a few years ago when I went for this film festival so that’s when the story started.

CS: So did you end up doing a lot of your location scouting on that first trip?
Loktev:
Oh, yeah. I vacation scouted a lot before and then we’d constantly be revising the script as I was location scouting. For example, we had somebody with us who was guiding us while I was location scouting and I was following him around, writing down his jokes and his politically incorrect comments and including them in the script. We picked a very specific area of Georgia. Not all of Georgia looks like this but this one area had this incredible open green mountains so it seemed very right for the film.

CS: I remember talking to Gael for “The Motorcycle Diaries” and I asked one of these stupid journalist questions about whether he likes doing these traveling journey stories and he gave me a look like “What the f*ck are you talking about?” It’s funny seeing him doing this which is another one of those types of movies. When you talked to him about this was part of the appeal to do something out there in the Caucasus?
Loktev:
I think that was definitely part of the appeal. Maybe he gave you a funny look, but I do have a sense that Gael does like to travel very much. He’s curious about seeing new parts of the world, and I think what helped us was the Lermontov novel “A Hero of our Time,” which they read an excerpt from in the tent, but it’s a classic of Russian literature that Gael had read in middle school and apparently had been dreaming about going to the Caucasus since middle school so thank you to Lermontov he was into doing the film.

CS: I’ve seen some of Hani’s Israeli movies and it’s interesting to have the couple who are somewhat international since Gael is from Mexico.
Loktev:
She’s born and raised in Queens and she doesn’t play an Israeli girl, she plays an American girl. For me it made sense, because I didn’t want the film to be a parody of American travelers. I didn’t want this to be because they’re American, this horrible thing happens. I didn’t want to make a cliché American couple where they would be from Wisconsin, because it’s not about that really. Most people I know, like myself, are from somewhere else. Those are the kind of people that I know and I’m surrounded by. Everyone’s kind of from somewhere else or they could be American. I liked the idea of mixing it up so I imagine she could be a girl from Wisconsin, but we never say where he’s from. Gael obviously speaks Spanish and has a Mexican accent, but the point isn’t really made of that. So many people I know, either they have an accent or they’re like me–I was born in Russia but I don’t have an accent–but I’m an immigrant, too.

CS: Did he and Hani spend a lot of time together before going out there? You shot a lot of early stuff not in the mountains, but did they spend time together before then to establish the relationship?
Loktev:
No, they met for one day in Madrid and they clicked right away, had this amazing chemistry within minutes of meeting, and then we had a few days where we spent together before the shoot and we went backpacking, all of us–me, Hani, Gael and Bidzina–together, so that was our rehearsal, going up the mountain together. Then they just worked together so naturally and I think because we shot in sequence, it allowed things to develop.

CS: I read that Bidzina’s not an actor, but is in fact a mountaineer?
Loktev:
He’s a mountaineer, but a very different kind of mountaineer than the kind of person he plays in the film. He’s a hardcore badass professional mountaineer who has climbed Everest a couple times and climbed El Capitan in Yosemite and climbed all over the world. There’s something kind of perverse about taking Georgia’s most famous mountaineer and having him play this average village guide who is taking a couple tourists on a trek that for him is really just a walk in the park, even though it looks like hardcore trekking to us, for him this is “walking on the green stuff” as he says.

CS: When he went across the river on the rope, he went so fast, it looked like he didn’t even need the guide rope.
Loktev:
Oh, yeah. While we were scouting actually–because I had torn my ACL prior to the shoot–we just went on a hike together and he showed me some places that he liked and we were just talking about the film. He ended up having to carry me on his back across the river, so (laughs) I wish I had a picture of that, of me just riding piggyback on him.

CS: That’s a good way to bond with your actors.
Loktev:
It is, yes, force him to carry you. I try to do this with all my actors. “Carry me across the river, please.”

CS: You obviously can’t speak for him, but what was his appeal to make a movie and be one of really only three actors in a movie.
Loktev:
I think the appeal to him was literally pressure from his children. He had kids, a daughter that’s 25 and a son that’s 15, and once they heard about the movie and once they met me, they basically tortured him until he agreed to do it. But in the end he had to admit that he liked it. It was really lovely because his whole family was with us, his wife who is a linguist, was with us in the mountains. His kids came up and they were part of the crew, so they all had fun and in fact, his wife was so lovely. She thanked me because this was the first summer they spent as a family because he’s always on expeditions in the mountains and now they were able to spend together in this village.

CS: If you turned the camera around, would you see hundreds of people?
Loktev:
No, no, no, you’d see like a dozen people. Heavens no. We worked with a really small core crew and usually on site was half professional people and half people from the town. We kind of doubled up so that the drivers were also crew members, they became our samurai, because they were these local Georgian mountain guides that would do anything, rig anything. We were really immersed in this. They were amazing, I have to say, working with the Georgian guys, they’re the best.

CS: The movie is so quiet, I would just assume it’s you, maybe the sound guy, the cameraman and the actors and no one else around.
Loktev:
No, again, there’d be a dozen people, not a lot of people. Yeah it was a very small core crew and we had to keep them quiet, but I don’t like to have people around very much when I shoot so even when there are people, unless somebody is necessary for that shot, I tend to ask them to hang back. So the crew spent a great deal of time playing Frisbee or reading. I ask everyone to bring a book to read, because there will be a lot of waiting and a lot of time where you’re quiet and hanging back.

CS: When you were writing it, did you realize this was going to be a movie of a bigger scope just due to the locations even though it’s only three characters?
Loktev:
It is and it isn’t. I always talk about it almost like a chamber piece in this vast open space, because for me, the challenge of the film was how to tell this incredibly intimate, very delicate, very personal story in the context of this vast open mountain landscape.

CS: I was curious how fleshed out the script was when you started shooting and how much of it evolved as you got to specific locations and had the three actors in them.
Loktev:
It’s pretty detailed the script, but I keep revising it. I never understand when people ask questions like “What draft of the script you’re on?” That’s the weirdest question to me, because a script is constantly evolving. You see something and you respond to it and you write it in. I tend to write very precise things like a sound or a movement into the script but on the other hand, I might leave the specific words somebody might use to be a little bit loose. But again, the dialogue is not as the motions and the physical actions.

CS: Right. I would figure that when you were with the actors in certain locations, other things might develop that you’d want to capture that.
Loktev:
We never had what most people would think of as an improvisation, where you’re like “Oh, let’s turn on the camera and see how it goes.” We sometimes worked things out on the spot, but the blocking is so precise. So much of it was choreography and that would be worked out when we arrived on the spot and then I would be adapting it, see what works, see what doesn’t work, but I think that’s normal. I assume a lot of people do it.

CS: When you make a movie like this that’s so location heavy, are you able to shoot it in some kind of logical order?
Loktev:
Yeah, we shot mostly in order, not strictly, but I’d say like 90% in order, so they could really go through this relationship together and yeah, I like shooting in order.

CS: That’s gotta be hard when you have this scenic background and you have specific shots you want to include during specific scenes.
Loktev:
I think things shifted a little bit one way or another but not in a giant way. I had a very elaborate storyboard of landscapes because we were going radially from this one village to different mountains so we had a whole palette of landscapes around us and then I storyboarded them kind of through the film, deciding which scenes would take place in which location because the landscape was kind of like music so it was like finding the right tone for the scene, the most beautiful ones for the most miserable moments.

CS: Is it all generally in the same area?
Loktev:
Within a couple hours drive of this one village. We had to drive from one area to another, four-wheel drive, very careless roads, then hike up the mountain then sometimes hike down the mountain, go drive somewhere else, hike up another mountain in the afternoon. It was all very precise, just like a mountain expedition; it had to be very tightly planned, especially with the light, with the sun. We had very precise parameters of when we could shoot, what direction we could shoot in. It was quite a challenge I have to say for a low budget film with a small crew to work in this way and to try and make the film look good. It was worth it but boy, it was painful.

CS: Much of the film involves watching this relationship fall apart, and I imagine stuff like this happens with couples when they travel together.
Loktev:
I wouldn’t say “falls apart” – I would say it’s challenged. “Falls apart” sounds very final. Yeah, travel is definitely a challenge for a relationship when you’re out of your element, you see different sides of a person, sometimes it goes well, sometimes it doesn’t.

CS: Certainly there are aspects of the movie that can be interpreted in different ways, similar to “Day Night Day Night.”
Loktev:
Completely. This one even moreso in a sense. “Day Night Day Night” had a lot of openness for people to think about things. This one almost strangely says so much about the viewers. I’ve gotten very different, unpredictable responses. I can’t say that women might see it one way or men might see it another way. It goes across and sometimes people really surprise me. It doesn’t really go by gender or cultural predilections. It’s really something that people respond to based on their own personal experiences I think. It’s kind of shocking to me sometimes. I’ve heard everything from “This incident damns their relationship forever, there’s no way to go back, to people saying, “What’s the big deal? Why was she so pissed?” The latter surprises me a little bit more.

CS: The event, which we won’t say what it is, but it’s something fairly small, though it’s not because it changes everything between them.
Loktev:
It’s a very big thing. It’s a short thing but if it happened to you, you’d consider it a pretty big thing.

CS: Absolutely.
Loktev:
A very brief thing that can traumatize you for life.

CS: I also want to ask about the music, because there’s a lot of natural sounds that I assume you captured on the days you were shooting.
Loktev:
We recorded a lot of sound during the days. I tend to do separate sound takes, a lot after and just hound my sound recordist to get everything, made him stay a couple extra days just to record sounds. I’m like a sound maniac.

CS: How did you decide when to introduce music and what sort of music to use? Is that traditional or regional?
Loktev:
No, it’s an English composer, Richard Skelton. The music existed before, it wasn’t a score. It was an existing piece by Richard Skelton, who is an amazing English musician who works a lot with landscape. He does crazy things with stringed instruments that he leaves outside to age and weather and then plays them and he works a lot with the landscape, but the landscape he’s responding to is Northern England and Ireland, but strangely enough, one that’s very much about landscapes so when he saw the film, somehow we both felt that the music fit even though it was written for an entirely different landscape. It had this sense of space. I wanted to have these moments in the film when you really have a sense of the space they’re in. We call them “larva shots.” Every once in a while we’d go, “We gotta shoot a larva” because the characters were so far away, they were the size of larva. Sometimes you actually have to look for them in the frames, it takes you a while to figure there are tiny little specks so I wanted to have these moments that were kind of musical and more abstract, they’re very flat in depth that just happened. They’re really not like chapter headings, they’re not so precise. But there were moments in the film where it just felt right for me to have this musical larva. (laughs)

CS: It really felt like you were shooting them from mile away.
Loktev:
Yeah, we were really far away. Because what we didn’t want is the more conventional long shots. We tried not to make landscape shots that were like postcards. I tried to avoid all the tropes of landscape paintings, so for instance, you don’t see a lot of sky. We had all these rules, like we couldn’t have the sky go all the way across the top of the frame, which is what most people do on a landscape film. Or you’re in the mountains and you show a summit and we avoided all of that.

CS: When you did those shots, did you have to run back and forth to communicate with the actors? This seems like it could be a very physical movie, as much for you and the crew as the actors.
Loktev:
It was very physical for me. The camera operators would have to walk with the actors for three or four-minute shots where they would be very precisely choreographed so that we’d go from a close-up of her to now we see all three of them and then a close-up of Gael. This was challenging for the actors, it was challenging for the camera operators and for everyone else, so yeah we would be hiking alongside them with a tiny group of people including a sound person. There was this little procession of people on a parade moving through the mountains, a very small parade. We’d have to hike with them to get it and then hike back up again.

CS: This is also really a movie you need to see on the big screen to appreciate that environment.
Loktev:
It is a big screen movie, definitely. It’s so much about the space. It’s hard to see it on a tiny tablet.

CS: You said that you hate this question, but what are you doing next?
Loktev:
I don’t know yet. I have started thinking about it, but not enough to talk about. I don’t want to jinx it.

CS: I always hope that someone else will see a movie I like as much as I do and say, “I’m going to give you lots of money for your next one.”
Loktev:
Oh, I hope you’re right. That would be really, really nice if it doesn’t take so long this time. Because yeah, this took a while, but this was a crazy story. I mean, this was just crazy, because there was a time like a year before where we were supposed to shoot it. Part of the challenge was that it’s a summer movie, it’s a hiking movie. You really can’t shoot in the mountains between October and May so you have this small window to shoot in and it’s part of what took so long. I think we scouted the places two years before we shot there. There was a period where we were trying to raise money as the summer was coming close and we still needed 25% of the money and this Chinese investor came along and said, “Well, if you move it to China, we can give you the rest of the budget.”

CS: I’m not sure it would work in China because having a Chinese guide accompanying them would change a lot.
Loktev:
It wouldn’t be, exactly. It can shift but where I wanted to film was Xinjiang, and I went to scout there, and it’s on the border of Afghanistan, Tajikistan and it’s culturally, it’s the Uyghurs, some of whom were at Guantanamo and were relocated to tropical islands.

CS: Didn’t they shoot “The Kite Runner” there?
Loktev:
They shot “The Kite Runner” right there, exactly. We were in a similar area as where they shot “The Kite Runner,” using it for Afghanistan. I think they shot exactly in Tashkurgan. We were scouting some of that same area. I traveled for five months across Central Asia–like to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan–and the Uyghur culture is part of that Central Asian culture so I was really interested in doing it there. Of course, two weeks after I go there, the province erupts in riots. The Chinese government closes it for business, basically cuts off internet and phone access, and from there, it was very difficult to recover. I was looking for Georgia in China and I did rewrite the script for China, but ultimately it came back to where it was meant to be.

The Loneliest Planet opens in New York at the IFC Center on Friday, October 26.

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