Do you think your background as an immigrant has informed your work?
Definitely. In the case of this film. It influenced it because I have a personal connection to Georgia. I’m not from Georgia, I’m from Russia, but there’s a common Soviet past that we have. For me, it was a very natural place to shoot because I could communicate with everyone over 20 by speaking Russian. The younger generation don’t speak Russian, but the older generation do.
The narrative of The Loneliest Planet pivots around men trying to protect women and often failing. Do you consider it a feminist film?
It’s a hard question to answer. I do consider myself a feminist, but not in a reductive sense. I think being a feminist means thinking about the complexity of gender roles. In a way, the film is about a desire for simple gender roles. To me, the contradictions there are interesting. It’s about how confusing it is to be a man. I don’t know if it’s about the failure of gender roles. To me, that’s oversimplifying it. I think it’s more about the confusion of American and Western European men. Georgia is a place where it’s very clear what a man should be. Sometimes that makes things easier, I have to say. I was afraid I would be accused of making an antifeminist film. The kind of feminism that’s important to me allows for these contradictions. A friend of mine was doing a TV interview in Russia and got asked “Is it true that American women get angry if you open the door for them and can sue you if you offer them flowers?” His response was putting his head in his hands.
Is your video art connected to your narrative films?
I try to think of pieces project by project. The connections emerge later. I haven’t been making much work in an art context lately. The most recent one was an overnight performance in Toronto during “Nuit Blanche.” I filmed people coming in to audition and crying. It’s called I Cried for You. Over the course of the night, from dusk to dawn, 50 different people attempted to cry for me. Crying is almost treated like an athletic accomplishment among aspiring actors. Some of them list on their resume: “horseback riding, drives a stick-shift,
Was it hard to direct a nonprofessional actor within a cast of only three people?
It was an absolute pleasure directing Bidzina Gujabidze. We had so much fun. He’s a professional mountaineer. He knew how to move in this space. He’s playing a character, not himself, but he brought a lot of his knowledge to the part.
Was it complicated to block the actors in such rugged terrain?
It was incredibly challenging. We were shooting three- or four-minute takes. Three actors and the camera were choreographed together, with no cutting. Getting everyone to move together in one perfect take was hard.
Were the Spanish lessons part of the original script?
Absolutely! I’ve learned Spanish in the past few years, so it was on my mind a lot.
Were there any films you had in mind while making it?
There’s a film by the Russian-Georgian director Mikhail Kalatazov, The Letter Never Sent, about people moving through the Siberian landscape. Coming from a different angle, there’s Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy. It’s not a landscape film in a conventional way, but it’s about a couple on a journey negotiating the space between them. It’s a film I love.
How closely did you adapt the script from Tom Bissell’s story “Expensive Trips Nowhere”?
The central turning point is taken from his story, but the characters are very different. His characters are married already, and they’re wealthy travelers. I tried to imagine what would happen if the same things happened to young backpackers who were at the happiest place in their relationship. The core of his story was so evocative that it really captured my imagination and left me intrigued and wanting to work through it.
I haven’t read the story, but isn’t it a take-off on a Hemingway story?
The Bissell story has a relationship to the Hemingway story, but it changes it drastically. By the time you get to The Loneliest Planet, there’s very little left from the Hemingway story. There’s a couple, and there’s a guide, but the emotional implications are completely different. It’s not a useful connection at this point. It’s set on a lion safari in Africa. How you feel about the characters is very different. I try to be as kind as I could be to my characters and sense how they feel from the inside. I try not to judge them.