Filmmaker Julia Loktev and I became friends, first and foremost, through our mutual love for dancing. A couple of years ago, when she was in Mexico City writing The Loneliest Planet, those were our dates: we would go out dancing at different salones, and would then get melt-in-your-mouth tacos at 3 AM or later after dancing our feet off. Our interests overlap beyond the bi-colored shoes and gelled-down hair of salones to film, literature, work, politics, travel and food—all the makings of a good long friendship. While I was in New York staying at Julia’s place, instead of doing this interview like two good girls would have, we spent our time walking around the city, enjoying good food and music, even pregnant dancing on roller skates. We slacked off to such an extent that we had to continue our conversation on Skype from our respective couches, hers in Brooklyn and mine in Condesa.
Julia was born in St. Petersburg (then-Leningrad) and immigrated to the United States when she was 9. Maybe in part due to this childhood migration, the idea of rupture is ever-present in her films, which include Moment of Impact (1998), the critically acclaimed Day Night Day Night (2006) and The Loneliest Planet (2012), her most recent film. She has also occasionally done video installations, which have been shown at Tate Modern, P.S. 1 MoMA, and the Brooklyn Museum. And she’s a fantastic dancer, even in flats, which she actually prefers.
Julia Loktev Can I ask you a question? It’s something I’m really curious about: How do you start projects?
Gabriela Jauregui I think projects start me, somehow. I guess I get wrapped up in a thought process about something that calls my attention and sometimes it sits there for a while. I read about something or I am curious about something and research it or think about it and that’s the root for the project, for something that eventually develops into a project. What about you?
JL I’ve never quite figured out a methodology for it, it’s always so random. I think the thing that I am worst at is having ideas. I am good at carrying through ideas, but I wish I were better at having millions and millions of ideas. I think once I have a beginning I’m good at carrying it through the end.
GJ Years ago I had this notebook filled with ideas, and then I thought I should just write a poem with all these ideas that I will never make anything out of other than a poem. Of course, I later realized a bunch of people had already done that.
JL The unfinished projects, exactly.
GJ Yes, but now I stopped doing that as much because I had these notebooks with lists and lists of ideas but none of them were executed, now I try to focus more on execution. Before everything sounded good. Now I just go back and look at them whenever I get stuck on something. That’s why it’s good to record them somewhere: I am bad at methodology.
JL I think I’m the opposite: I am pretty decent at methodology and less good at seeds. Once I find the right seed, it can almost be a single sentence, you know? The slightest thing, then it feels very free after. I actually feel more free in the carrying through of something than at the beginning.
GJ We should just collaborate! (laughter) And then we’ll both enjoy the results.
JL Exactly! I almost want homework sometimes. I want somebody to tell me “just do this!” I think I secretly have fantasies of old school Hollywood and work for hire where people would just be doing a job. You go to work, you go to the office, you get assigned a script and you just do it. It’s so different from the way I work, and now especially. It takes me five years to make a film, and part of that is that you spend an incredibly long time just waiting, waiting to get money and wondering if this film is actually going to happen, and then everything’s ready and then you’re just trying to get the last bit of money. I was in that state for almost two years with The Loneliest Planet, missing 25% of the budget. That mentally influences you when you start a project, because you think, Good god! What do I want to dedicate the next five years of my life to?
Do you think the way you approach writing fiction—I know that you’re writing fiction now—is different than the way you approach poetry?
GJ Definitely. The amount of time spent total might be the same but the intervals of time are different. Fiction takes long intervals, poetry, for me, shorter intervals. I can write poetry in the in-between times. It’s not less work but it’s less stretches of time.
JL It’s instant gratification, you can see the whole and alter it and work within in it much quicker.
GJ I like to think of the differences between novels and poetry as the ones between films and video-installation. Would you agree?
JL I probably ended up doing some of the video-installations because they were something that was immediately gratifying, you could just get it done as opposed to spending five years dealing with producers, co-producers etc. But I don’t know, recently I haven’t been as interested in the video-installations, I have to admit.
GJ When was the last time you made a video-installation?
JL A couple of years ago I presented a live piece in in Toronto for Nuit Blanche, shooting people crying all night in the set of a hotel room, and that was projected live on the side of this office building.
GJ Wow! That sounds almost Warholesque!
JL I could just travel around the world and watch people try to make themselves cry. (laughter) It’s a piece where people come in and they have 10 minutes to make themselves cry. Generally the people who did it were people who think of themselves as actors, or aspiring actors, which is interesting to me, because of course you don’t really need qualifications to call yourself an actor. It’s not like med school for a doctor. You could just declare yourself to be an actor. And one of the things you’re supposed to be able to do is cry. I’ve seen people put this on their resumé—
GJ “Good crier.” (laughter)
JL Exactly. It was important to me that they’re not paid for this, that these are people who volunteered to do this just because they wanted to show that they could cry on cue. It was projected on two side-by-side screens. One side is a close-up that I’m filming of this person, following them around this hotel room set as they slowly try to elicit tears. I’m less interested in the result than the process of getting there. In extreme close-up it’s a bit like watching paint dry, but then slowly, slowly you see emotion come up on that person’s face as they’re working themselves up to crying. Sometimes they fail, which is also interesting, but often there’s this beautiful moment as they very slowly start to cry. It’s touching, and it’s also a moment where there’s a sense of satisfaction. They did it! Next to the close-up is another projection—a wide-shot where you see the whole set, you see this person is being followed around by a girl who’s climbing all over trying to get a close-up of them. So one side is drama and the other side is comedy.
But I like movies and I like duration, I like people watching things from beginning to end and that’s harder to do in an art piece. I even find myself not giving video pieces the attention they deserve.
GJ It’s funny how we interact within different contexts. I mean I never leave a movie, even if it’s not that good. I can’t interrupt. Even if I feel like I’m going to pee in my pants. But when it’s a video installation, I feel like I can leave whenever I want.
JL Yeah I hate that. I admit I have left movies. I get very upset watching movies that I don’t like. It’s kind of childish, but I get resentful. Usually I’m pretty selective though so I rarely walk out.
GJ Do you ever leave books unfinished?
JL Yes. It’s an embarrassing admission but yes. Of course leaving a book is different than leaving a movie. Because when you leave a movie, the movie keeps going on, but a book, you’re putting it down every day, so it’s not that you leave it, it’s more like you don’t come back. Like a guy that you don’t call back.
GJ It’s like going to get the proverbial pack of cigarettes. You don’t leave, you just don’t come back. I wanted to ask you about collaboration. Do you enjoy collaborating? I mean, writing is such a solitary thing and I know you write too, and then there’s this very team-oriented thing that is filmmaking.
JL I actually dream of finding someone I could collaborate on the writing with. I think that would make it fun. It hasn’t happened yet. Maybe except one time when I co-wrote a video piece with Vito Acconci. That’s what I don’t like about the initial writing process, is that it’s kind of solitary. Directing is, in a way, incredibly lonely and solitary because you do spend a great amount of time thinking, Oh my god, everybody hates me. Someone told me that they always try to be the director’s best friend on set because the director is always surrounded by people and incredibly alone.
GJ Kind of like the act of going to the movies itself. We’re all together, but alone.
JL But I do love collaborating and that’s what I enjoy about filmmaking—working with different people, they bring things out in you, you hopefully bring things out in them and you don’t quite know what’s going to happen.
GJ What about the writing, the lonely part? How do you build your characters? Do you become super involved in their creation, do you engage with them as if they were real? How do you bring them to life?
JL I think that’s one of the differences between writing for the screen and writing fiction. In novels characters only exist on the page, they have to be brought to life entirely on the page. For me when I write it’s more a map, an only as detailed as I need to be able get somewhere. The great thing is that, after the writing, you get to make them come to life in flesh and bone, actual living human beings breathing in front of the camera. They only half-exist on the page, and really only become characters when they are really embodied.
GJ Do you ever adapt from novels or short stories?
JL Well, The Loneliest Planet was adapted from a short story, which in a sense is more suited to film than a novel. What’s the saying? “Good films can only be made from bad novels.” Although every once in a while something contradicts that. Have you seen the film Chouga by the Kazakh filmmaker, Darezhan Omirbaev? It’s an adaptation of Anna Karenina set in contemporary Kazakhstan, but reduced to the most minimal brushstrokes. The entire scene when Vronsky sees Anna for the first time is just one glance at a theater instead of an entire ball. I find that kind of adaptation really interesting.
GJ It just takes the novel as a pretext.
JL Yeah, like Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer too, an adaptation of “White Nights” by Dostoyevsky: I like these radical adaptations.
GJ So what’s the story you adapted The Loneliest Planet from?
JL It’s a short story by Tom Bissell. I picked it up because it was in a collection called God Lives in St. Petersburg, which I found irresistible having been born in St. Petersburg. It had nothing to do with St. Petersburg actually. It’s a collection of beautiful incisive stories mostly set in Central Asia, which I had traveled through alone for five months after college. Tom and I have that in common, since he spent time in Uzbekistan. One story called “Expensive Trips Nowhere” was about a couple traveling in Kazakhstan. The central turning point, the core of the story, was so devastating and revealing that it kept haunting me. It was so provocative and so evocative to me when I read it, that everything could go from there.
That title was perfect for the short story but was wrong for the film. The original story is about a wealthy couple who are already married—and not very happily anymore—and who book a helicopter to go hiking in Kazakhstan. They’re very different from the characters in The Loneliest Planet who are backpackers and just hire a guide in the village plaza, more like the kind of travelers that I meet a lot, who do the kind of travel that appeals to me, certainly the kind of travel that I can afford. I tried to imagine what it would be like if the story happened to a different kind if couple, a couple who are madly in love, engaged to be married, perhaps at the happiest point in their relationship.
I don’t know why it is, but in movies married people can never be romantic. What changes?
GJ That makes me think of couples dancing, which we always talk about. I’m taking a hard left out of the boredom of marriage, and into the fun of couples dancing! There are so many couples that only exist on the dance floor, who are married for life as a couple that dances, and who are not in a relationship beyond that.
JL I remember seeing the movie Danzón years ago: It’s about this woman who goes to dance every week at this salón with the same man, and one week he doesn’t show up. She realizes that even though they’ve been dancing together for years, she doesn’t know a thing about him, she doesn’t even have his number. I’m very interested in these kinds of relationships—they exist in dancing, or, for example, I was reading Times Square Red, Times Square Blue which is about the gay sex that happened at the old Times Square straight porn theaters and the relationships that would last for years of people from different races and classes who would just meet up and have sex there. They would mostly never see each other outside of that, only at this one place.
GJ I feel like they’re these spaces that are sort of utopian. They’re not really inside the regular exchange of communication and regular relationships. You meet people there, only there, and it becomes almost this ritual space or non-place.
JL And the physical rules are quite different. I love how space between people changes, how touching a stranger becomes appropriate in one context and inappropriate in another, for example how it’s appropriate to hit someone inside a karate dojo but not on the street. Or how people behave on a nude beach. Though sometimes what’s funny is when in those situations people behave the way they would in other contexts, as if they weren’t naked.
GJ Right, like making a sandwich or whatever.
JL I do have a fantasy about doing a scene at a nudist colony, where people will just be going about everyday life, but naked. Making sandwiches, having conversations. But totally naked.
GJ Trying to fix their umbrella, but naked, with their balls hanging out.
JL Exactly. I thought of staging an entire film in a nudist colony, but I think maybe one scene will be enough. Maybe I’ll have one in every film I make. From now on, every film will have a nudist camp scene.
GJ Here comes the nudist scene, Julia Loktev’s signature! That sounds good.
So, are you writing something now?
JL In little bits and pieces like that. I’m trying to find my way toward it, which is why I asked you about process, because in a way I want someone to teach me how to have good beginnings. One of the things I tend to do is I amass details, and I’m not really sure where they fit in yet. For example, I know I want a scene in a nudist colony, but I don’t know what it has to do with anything yet. And then I have other kind of feelings and possibly characters and situations but they haven’t quite come together, but then I always need something like a skeleton to hang this on, to flesh out, and I’m still looking for the skeleton.
GJ So The Loneliest Planet had this pretext, this sketch of a skeleton through this short story, or rather the incident in the short story. What about Day Night Day Night?
JL With Day Night Day Night, I had read a short newspaper article in a Russian newspaper. I had gone to Russia thinking that I wanted to do something about the new first post-Soviet generation, and I was spending a month there watching all these kids audition for the Theater Academy. I was working toward something but couldn’t get anywhere on it. After a month, I realized this was just going nowhere. While I was sitting in Russia with this failing project, I opened a newspaper and I read this article about a girl who had been arrested in Moscow on Tverskaya Street—the kind of Broadway of Moscow—with a bomb in her bag. The way it was reported at first was that there was this girl with a backpack acting strange, and then she was in a café and she kept yelling, “I have a bomb!” but nothing was going on. Apparently, she was attempting to press the button and nothing was happening.
That idea was so provocative to me. It’s a little bit similar to The Loneliest Planet because it’s so hard to imagine, and yet you can completely enjoy imagining it. I assume most people who set out to be suicide bombers really believe in what they are doing. However wrong and horrifying that is, we have to accept that in this person’s mind, they somehow truly believe that this is morally right, that it’s righteous. What does it mean to set out to do this, and to sit there in a café and um… nothing’s happening.
GJ The anti-climax.
JL Exactly. And then from there I started making up the rest of the story. I tend to describe Day Night Day Night as a story about a failed suicide bomber, but then of course the distributors say that it’s a spoiler. But, I don’t actually care about knowing exactly what happens; I’m always interested in how it happens.
GJ Who cares that it fails. It’s how it fails that matters.
JL And the emotional implications of that. But I do get the occasional Netflix review that’s like, “What, you couldn’t afford an explosion?” (laughter)
GJ Oh man, really?
JL Yeah! That’s the downside when something is presented with these expectations. Because ultimately for me it’s not about a bombing, it’s kind of about inaction.
GJ To me it’s all the intimate details and all the stuff she’s doing, like when she’s in the bathroom and clipping her nails, getting prepared. To me it’s all about that. It’s not about exploding—or not exploding—a bomb.
JL She’s preparing for this incredible act of what she considers to be sacrifice, offering and faith, and then nothing happens. The emotional implications of that interest me so much more than having an actual explosion.
GJ It’s a bigger explosion in a different way.
JL Exactly, it’s all in her head now. Her entire world explodes in that moment, because if she believes that this is meant to be, so why isn’t it happening?
But you know things in life often don’t happen as they’re supposed to. There’s not always a grand plan. Or the grand plan often fails.
GJ Again, that brings us back to The Loneliest Planet.
JL I think I like when things get screwed up, despite people’s best intentions.
GJ But they’re not screwed up in a grandiose Hollywood explosion way. Hopefully I won’t end up spoiling the plot, but obviously the boyfriend or the girlfriend doesn’t fall off a ravine, it doesn’t become about going into survivor mode and rescue. It’s actually tiny little things that make everything implode.
JL The real danger, the real fall is inside.
GJ It’s also so troubling or puzzling that they’re in this enormous space. There is no one there aside from the guide of course. In theory you would think there was this moment to be alone together, but in fact, they’re even more estranged. Even though there’s this enormous space, there’s still a weird feeling that, after this turning point, it becomes almost claustrophobic.
JL It does. We filmed it in a way that makes it huge, but I didn’t want it to be open. One of things that contributes to that is that we never allowed the sky to go across the top of the frame. We had all these rules that the sky could only be a little corner at the top of the frame, so that you couldn’t escape into the sky, you couldn’t get out.
This creates a kind of interior space within this huge mountain landscape. You don’t really know where they’re going. You don’t see a summit of a mountain, and so the mountains do kind of close in on you.
Also, it does matter that they’re with this other guy, the guide, who to me may be the most interesting character. No matter what, he’s always there. Everyone’s had that experience I think, on a very banal level, where you’ve had a fight with your lover and you now have to go out to dinner with somebody else, for example.
JL One of the nicest things I’ve heard about The Loneliest Planet came from the aunt of Hani Furstenberg, the actress who plays the girl. Her aunt wrote me an email after seeing it, and she described the film better than I ever could have: She said it was a film about how easily love can get thrown out of balance, how easily things can be destroyed in one second, and at the same time, how natural it is to try to work toward equilibrium again, the desire to rebalance.
That is actually what is most interesting to me, the attempt to find equilibrium, which is so awkward and so messy and never goes the way you’d like it to. One person offers an olive branch, the olive branch is then somehow subtly rejected, then you retreat, so when the other person comes back with an olive branch, you reject that in turn. These little movements toward and away from each other are what interest me.
GJ All of a sudden they are not speaking the same language or playing the same game. One person’s olive branch is another person’s stick.
JL Oh, I like that! I will have to remember that. Intentions are misread. Sometimes I think that even kindness or an attempt at forgiveness offered at the wrong moment, when you’re not ready to receive it, can be seen as a stick, as an act of aggression.
GJ It’s so frustrating to watch in a way, because we’ve all done that. That’s what happens in the entire film, and to me it’s all encapsulated in that one scene toward the beginning where this ball is flying back and forth from this wall. It’s this gesture of giving and receiving, back and forth, and all of a sudden it stops. Just shatters. Communication is impossible, peace is impossible, love, reconciliation—it all sort of falls apart in this tiny little thing.
JL It is a tiny thing or a huge thing, but it only takes a second. Then there’s that process of what do you do with the ball after?
GJ You’re left standing there.
JL I hadn’t thought of the ball scene in this sense, but I really like the way you’ve pointed this out. Throwing something and not being sure is it going to come back to you, is it going to be caught, is it going to be rejected…
GJ Well, isn’t that love in a way?
JL Exactly. That’s what it’s made up of. That’s what vulnerability is.
The Loneliest Planet is at the IFC Center in New York City now and expands to a wide release on Friday, November 9. For more information, go here.