By Aaron Hillis
[Photo: “Day Night Day Night,” IFC First Take, 2007]
Russian-born filmmaker Julia Loktev (“Moment of Impact”) immigrated to the U.S. with her family at the age of nine, so it would be a misnomer to refer to her as a foreigner. Or could the case be made? This kind of ambiguity hangs over every frame of her Cannes award-winning “Day Night Day Night,” a suspense drama concerning that post-9/11 monster, the suicide bomber. Unlike recent films on this volatile subject, however, audiences will never find out what race, ethnicity or worldview its bomb-strapped protagonist belongs to. As the meek, frail-looking, unnamed girl in preparation for the event, newcomer Luisa Williams (who was working as a nanny when she answered a casting flier on a Coney Island lamppost) must carry the entire film without the safety nets of a backstory or recognizable belief system. Unburdened by any heavy-handed didacticism, the film allows us to reflect upon only the minutiae leading up to its finale: expressions, gestures, reactions, sights and sounds. When I visited Loktev in Brooklyn for coffee and a chat, she demonstrated a close-to-the-vest weariness that suggests her festival year has been paved with tough, pointed and perhaps even irrelevant questions about themes that make people’s personal sensitivities run hot.
What do you have to be most attentive to when making a film about a suicide bomber?
Well, everything. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. There is no way to deal with the subject without inflaming some sentiments. I was aware of that, and chose to do it in a way that made sense to me. Had I clearly spelled out she’s a Muslim, she’s an Arab, she’s an immigrant I would have gotten a whole other set of criticisms that I didn’t want to play into. In reverse, I get criticized for the absence of context; that we didn’t make her a Muslim, an Arab and an immigrant.
Do you still have ethical obligations to answer to when all of your characters and their motives are non-descript?
I think you do have a certain responsibility to treat the subject matter responsibly, not to sensationalize it, not to play into people’s expectations. I’m a very politically aware, newspaper-reading person. [laughs.] The thing I’ve been most struck by is when I come across the criticism that not putting in the context came out of some naiveté on my part: “She doesn’t realize that terrorists have political or religious motives.” I kind of resent that. I expect the audience to already know this, and I don’t think they’re going to learn anything from me telling them that. Part of my ethical responsibility is to not dumb down the film, and to expect my audiences are educated, free-thinking, and reading all the time.
What do you hope this well-informed crowd will take away from the film?
The film is about this girl’s story. It focuses very microscopically on her the day and night before, and the day and night of her intended mission. I didn’t want to explain the character; I wanted to crawl under her skin and take the audience through that process. I’m interested in the fundamental principle of faith that lies at the core of what she’s doing. The first minute I think of faith, I think of doubt, which I’m probably more interested in.
The film is unveiled in tiny details and nuances. Were many of them unscripted?
Well, her story is almost perversely linear. I knew from the start how it would go, what would happen and how. But within that incredibly linear structure, I wanted to make something that’s alive in the shooting. We don’t have the whole film completely on the page, and yet the resulting film does resemble what was there. We left open spaces for improvisation and discoveries, especially out on the streets.
Will any of those moments wind up in the DVD bonus features?
I would never actually show deleted scenes on a DVD. I never quite understand that because I think you deleted for a reason, so you don’t want to show them to an audience. Part of what I do as a filmmaker is to try things, even if I think they’re probably stupid and bound to fail. For me, it is very important to be alert in the moment, to allow something will happen that you didn’t plan for.
We screened cuts for friends, usually not people in the industry. I drew upon my sociologist friends by inviting them, because I thought, “Well, I need guinea pigs at this point.” When I started to focus on the things they were talking about, I decided they were too distracting: “Okay, everything they’re attracted to, all these shiny objects, let’s throw these out.” And then it was a matter of purifying the film and taking out everything extra. That was really exciting.
What did Luisa Williams offer that hundreds of auditioning actresses couldn’t?
I had a page of requirements of what I wanted this girl to be, and they were all somewhat abstract. Some were very basic: I wanted her to look about 19, somewhat innocent. When I’ve seen pictures of girls who have done these things, they don’t look like girls you’d expect to do this. I wanted her to be ethnically ambiguous, somebody that everybody takes for their own. But those are all kind of surface things. What I really wanted was a girl I could watch for an hour-and-a-half almost silent, whose main dialogue consisted of “please” and “thank you” and yet, who I was absolutely magnetized by.
I had these ideas that she’s somebody who events pass through and her face registers their passing, so her face was constantly responding to the world around her. Somebody not at home in the physical world, sort of awkward around objects and people, yet uncomfortable with the effect of her body on them. A girl who probably looked like she had never been to the gym. Later, it was absolutely startling to me that I wrote this page without knowing [Luisa] because she fit all of them.
For our first screen-test auditions, we looked at 650 girls, and none of them were right at all. We asked them to say a few things about themselves without smiling as I filmed them. I was interested in how their face responded to the camera because, ultimately, it’s a film about a girl and a camera. Most people, when you look at them, have a certain mask. It wasn’t about what these girls said; it was about how they looked while they listen. I knew by the time I finished giving them instructions whether I was interested.
Why did you find it necessary that “Irreversible” cinematographer Benoît Debie had never been to Times Square?
That was actually a joke. We did want that, but we thought, “Like hell we’re going to find somebody who has not been to Times Square.” In the film, the girl arrives there for the first time. Luisa is New York born and bred, so that was part of her challenge: how do you now see Times Square through the eyes of somebody who has never been to New York? There’s something unique about that experience; a kind of newness, of being overwhelmed. I thought it might be fun to have a cinematographer who was seeing it through fresh eyes, so it was a nice added bonus when Benoit looked at photos and said, “What is this?” I said, you’ve got to be kidding! Literally, the first time he came to Times Square was when he came over to shoot the film and we went down to do tests.
The amazing thing is, Benoît is such a thrill-seeker. He walked out of Port Authority, turned on the camera, and started walking backwards down 42nd Street without asking me to spot him. He just assumed I would be behind him immediately to keep him from falling over. That’s how we worked. It’s nice when you can say in the middle of a shot, “Turn left. Look right. Come around profile. Run!” He just does it, and the resulting footage is great.
In all the Times Square sequences, I was surprised you left in so many bystanders looking straight into the camera. That didn’t bother you?
They graze the camera sometimes. They catch its eyes like they would a person, and then they move on. I like that you’re made aware of the fact that this is in a real crowd. It’s no secret that films are made with cameras, and I suppose my Brechtian side likes those little moments of confrontation. We didn’t have that many “Hi, Mom!”s in the footage, strangely enough. People didn’t interfere with the shooting much.
In Times Square, there are so many cameras that people are used to it; they don’t think about it. It’s a mix of New Yorkers and people coming to this place expecting a spectacle to happen. In the middle of filming, I think J. Lo was on “TRL,” so there were crowds of teenagers gathering. There’s constantly something happening: an MTV camera, jib-arm news cameras, tourist cameras, cameras everywhere. The fascinating thing I found was when I went back to record all the sound effects. And I did that alone no crew, but a fairly large mike. When I was out in the street, I got a lot more [interference]. Cameras we’re used to; a microphone is something else. It was a pain in the ass to get those sound effects. You can cut them off, but you’d be getting the perfect footstep from some guy who’d be like, “Hey, Mom!”
Great use of amplified natural sound, non-professional actors, and a focus on physical austerities… Do you feel a kinship to Robert Bresson’s work?
Yes. I’m definitely a Bresson fan, but I think I’m also attracted to things that are more impure, much more baroque, and mess things up a little bit. I’m more a Godard fan; I’m not quite the purist that Bresson was. I’m interested in non-professionals and austerity, but I probably violate that all the time. I go the opposite: I like Park Chan-wook and De Palma. [laughs.]
“Day Night Day Night” opens in New York on May 9th (official site).