Five years after she announced herself to international audiences with her stark and moving portrait of post-9/11 radicalism, Day Night Day Night, Russian-American director Julia Loktev has delivered her second dramatic feature, The Loneliest Planet. Set against Georgia's rugged Caucasus Mountains, it's the story of an engaged couple (Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg) and a shocking, split-second event that drives a wedge between them. It's further evidence that Loktev – who often employs long silences and immense vistas within a single frame to convey both intimacy and solitude – is a unique if divisive talent.
Who hasn’t, at some point in their lives, screwed up and done something out-of-character?
Loktev spoke with SBS Film from her Brooklyn home ahead of the Australian release of The Loneliest Planet.
It looks to be a beautiful but remote location. Describe the practicalities of capturing this story against this backdrop.
We were shooting for six weeks in one village in the very north of Georgia. We were based in this village and spent most of our time there but we would also hike to locations and do a lot of camping. Not super long hikes but we did have to carry everything we were using on our backs, hauling it up hills. We'd wait out the middle of the day, when the sun was too hot. We were really living the film in that way. For a couple of scenes when the actors got wet, we provided a tent for them to change in but that was about it. [Laughs]
You have ties to the Caucasus region, don't you? Did that history infuse your storytelling?
It was a place that my parents had travelled to before I was born and I had been there for a very brief trip with an ex-partner. Really, I discovered it more during the shoot than ever before, from the early preparation through to the filming. It was a kind of special place for me, in particular, because I am from the former Soviet Union, not from Georgia but from Russia, from St. Petersburg. We shared the commonality of language; certainly those over 30 could all speak Russian, despite a lot of political strife between Russia and Georgia. There is still that shared past that made me feel very much at home there.
The three principals – Gael Garcia Bernal, Hani Furstenberg and local non-pro actor Bidzina Gujabidze – had a very believable dynamic. Was there extensive rehearsal time?
We had very little rehearsal time, barely any. I was just incredibly fortunate that these three actors just clicked, in that inexplicable way actors sometimes do. Each of them bought very unique qualities to the film but they also very quickly formed this unit where they could comfortably play off each other. And because Bidzina was a professional mountaineer, he immediately took on a role very similar to the one he plays onscreen. He was a local authority and he was always rescuing Hani from situations on the mountain. [Laughs]
The trust between you and the cast is evident in the very first shot of the film, that long single shot of Hani fully naked. I assume that was filmed later in the schedule, when a strong, trusting bond had been formed.
No, that was the very first scene we shot in the film! We all thought, 'Let's just dive into it,' because after a scene like that there can be no inhibitions left.
I want to address the incident at the centre of the film (one member of the group puts another's life in grave and immediate danger with a cowardly act). What drives someone to commit such a moment of madness?
I have absolutely no idea. [Laughs] It is not a planned, premeditated decision. Every person can answer that question for themselves. I will say that sometimes things just happen in ways that shock us. We do things we never thought we would do, ever imagine ourselves doing. I think that is at the core of the story. I think if you asked [the character] a day before or a month before, or even an hour before, 'Would you be capable of doing this?', they would say 'Never in a million years!' It is an act that poses the question 'What now?', which is the more interesting question in the film. Who hasn't, at some point in their lives, screwed up and done something out-of-character? I think that can be hard to come to terms with, when you act like someone different than who you thought you were.
Do you think this relationship survives?
Well, there's a little gesture in the last few moments of the film that suggests the possibility of optimism. I don't know the real answer but I certainly don't think they are necessarily doomed.
The Loneliest Planet exists in an almost wordless void. Non-verbal language, even outright silence, dominates the film. Does it reflect your views on the language of film?
There are so many moments when people touch each other or when they move towards or look at each other that convey so much more than words could ever say. It is the language between the words. Film should be about so much more than people just talking. Frames are filled with image and sound and an actor's face and body and the emotion of that. The intimacy captured in the film [through the silence] has led to it being something that people have viewed in a very personal way. Two people can go to this movie and have very different emotional responses and experiences. It may not be the perfect date movie. [Laughs] Or maybe it is the perfect date movie! I've had people say to me that they talked about the movie for hours afterwards, or it stayed with them for weeks, which has got to be better than coming out and feeling and thinking the same thing.
The Loneliest Planet is in cinemas March 21.