Interview: Shrines (Nona Catusanu-Popp, 2015)
The film festival is dedicated to and designed to begin to showcase the work of cinematically small nations. The film that you have submitted to the festival highlights some of the limitations of thinking in terms of nation, that is it is articulated in English, filmed in Latvia and produced by the Czech Republic. What are some of the challenges as a short filmmaker in terms of sourcing and applying for film funding?
Having worked in many countries around the world, I can say with certainty that there’s no shortage of ideas or creativity among the film communities of any nation. However, there always seems to be a shortage of funds. Whether that’s in America, the Czech Republic, Romania or Latvia, funding an independent film is a grueling, painstaking process that sometimes appears to be an insurmountable task. Many of the short films and independent projects (including “Shrines”) that I have had a role in were made possible because of donated time, resources, energy and good will by the cast and crew alike. With “Shrines” we started with a small budget from FAMU film school in Prague, Czech Republic where both the cinematographer Jurgis Kmins and I were students at the time. We, however, moved the production to his home country of Latvia because of financial difficulties. In Latvia, we were able to source the camera equipment from BB Rental, Riga, secure all the locations for free, and put together a crew of amazing professionals who agreed to work on the film pro bono. Our small budget, padded by personal funds, was just enough to cover travel, gas and food for our team, everything else was made possible through favors, donations and our team’s genuine dedication to see our film completed.
How important is collaboration and the collective to the production of a short film? The personnel of the film and the modes of its production place it as a ‘European’ film – with influences being derived from the Czech Republic and the UK in particular.
The collaboration and collective is paramount to the production of a short film. “Shrines” began as a collaboration between myself and the cinematographer, Jurgis Kmins. We both come from a visual background and we wanted to create a piece that was driven by image and atmosphere, rather than a narrative story. We wanted our audience to be guided by a feeling, by shifts in color and light, and the story and voiceover came after as the skin to the visual skeleton. We were inspired by the beauty of Prague, the magic of painters such as Picasso, and I looked to surrealist poets such as James Tate as sources of written inspiration. But after realizing that we did not have the funds to rent equipment in Prague, we set our sights to Riga, where Jurgis had many more connections to the film industry than either one of us had in the Czech Republic.
Because of the limitations put forth by the budget, our film’s fate was entirely dictated by the drive of our crew. Had it not been for our crew members donating their skills and time, our producer Dace Siatkovska and Locomotive Productions finding locations like restaurant Aqua Luna and dance club First Daca to let us use their space for free, and the multitude of professionals who made this film come together in post, “Shrines” would never have seen the light of day.
The unorthodox development of the project meant the script was constantly rewritten with each new change in location and practical situation. I had decided it would be a reflection on the tragedy of lost love (because what better subject to create an atmosphere that’s universally felt) but the characters, their backstories and their environments were fluid and totally dictated by what was at our disposal. Details such as the man’s character being a dance club owner came only after we scouted all of Riga and secured the dance club. We realized it’d be a shame to not use each nook and cranny of the location, so we added extra scenes such as him wandering through the crowded dance floor.
Each new interaction with a department head or actor was in itself an additional collaboration. Meeting the actors gave me inspiration to add new layers to their characters, the art directors and costume designers gave us options I had not thought of, and stretched the world of the film in directions I hadn’t imagined, every department added to the breadth of the piece and truly gave it life.
This short film, like any other, regardless of the scale and budget, was a collaborative process. A cinematic piece might start as a seed of a thought of one person, but it takes an entire army to see it through, and I’m very thankful and lucky to have had the team I did for “Shrines.”
The camerawork for your film is particularly striking in terms of the fluidity of the camera. The film seems to be characterized by slow and steady movements of the camera towards the central protagonists’ bodies – a notion that is perhaps inviting the spectator into the personal story. How would you begin to define your filmmaking style and camerawork techniques? Is there are relationship between form and content in this regard?
“Shrines” is an atmospheric piece that aims to study how two separate individuals can interpret the same event, in this case, a mutual break-up. While they are now separate, they were once connected by their love, and now that it’s dissipated, they are left wallowing in their isolation and floundering in their inability to connect to the world without each other as a reference point. Although they are two different people, emotionally they are two sides of the same coin.
The camera was meant to be less of a window into their worlds but rather a mirror to the state of their mind and spirit. Much like their minds are wandering, so does the camera as it glides through rooms and fragments as their memories flicker breaking their past and present. The film is also split between two color palettes to further dichotomize the two characters. The woman swims in pools of neutral ochres, browns, and blues, while the man lives in a cacophony of harsh lights, neon tones and super saturated environments.
The form and content are intertwined, each dictating the other in equal parts. In fact, one of the challenges I set forth in creating the film was for the voiceover, visuals and sound to play equal roles in establishing the atmosphere. Each part was to enhance the other two and never draw attention to itself. Like a visual poem, I wanted the finished piece to exist in perfect balance.
How significant is the choice of camera (in this case the ARRI Alexa XT) to the tone and style of the film?
“Shrines” relies heavily on the tone set forth by the image. The texture and feel of the visuals themselves are just as crucial as the story told by the voiceover. The ARRI Alexa XT is a camera that in the hands of a skilled cinematographer will deliver impeccable image quality in terms of its dynamic range and color reproduction. The reliability and intuitiveness of the camera on set also means that workflow is smooth and makes for an easier shoot especially when we’re expected to shoot in over ten locations in under three days with a minimal crew. Superb visuals combined with an ergonomic build make for the superior choice in camera package.
The short film appears to highlight the importance of the relationship between image and sound. The soundscape seems to evoke a past that feeds into the images of the present. How was the short film’s soundscape composed?
The film’s soundscape was one of the more difficult parts of making “Shrines.” After shooting in Riga with non-English speaking actors, I returned to Prague to cast voice actors for the voiceover. As the edit began in Riga, I was searching for voice talent in Prague. It was more challenging than I had anticipated finding voices whose timbre and flavor matched the faces they would be accompanying. As the edit changed so did the pacing for the voiceover and again the project fell under a spell and began to shift and take a life of its own.
Once we were picture locked and happy with the pace of the voiceover, I started my search for a composer to create the third part of this atmospheric piece.
We recorded no audio while on-location in Riga, which meant I had no reference to show my potential collaborator. It took finding someone who was moved by the flow of the edit and images alone to create something entirely original for the film. English musician and composer, Stephen Abrehart, happened to be living in Prague and working in the artist’s collective, Petrohradska 1,2,3, where I screened a first cut of the project. A man skilled in electronic music with a penchant for the abstract and strange, Sabrehart immediately understood the mood I wanted to create and agreed to compose the soundtrack to help. We discussed the flow and ebb of the images, the peaks of emotion of the piece and he created something that would enhance these moments and drive the visuals further.
The goal of the soundscape was to create a limbo between the present and memory, the feeling of being unable to escape your thoughts, yet incapable of truly recreating moments from the past, a dreamy purgatory.
Are there any themes or issues that you often deal with in your films?
As a visual thinker, I’m inspired by images and glimpses of moments and atmospheres but the themes and issues vary from project to project. My goal with any story is to do it justice by staying true to the gut feeling and finding the universal emotions in the specifics of a given script.