Interview: Julia Loktev (The Loneliest Planet)

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By Simon Miraudo
April 8, 2013

Writer-director Julia Loktev warns that her film The Loneliest Planet is a “dangerous” date movie. In it, an engaged couple played by Hani Furstenberg and Gael Garcia Bernal roam Georgia’s picturesque Caucasus Mountains. Though madly in love one another, they are confronted with a life-threatening situation that completely changes the dynamic of their relationship. Giving away that specific sequence would spoil the experience of seeing it unfold for yourself. Nonetheless, interpretations of it are likely to inspire arguments (and potentially end relationships). If anything, The Loneliest Planet acts as Rorschach test for audiences; particularly those who are unsure about the current state of their romantic partnerships.

Check out Simon Miraudo’s review of The Loneliest Planet.

We asked Julia Loktev about the personal experiences that inspired the picture, which character she sympathises with more, and if she’s had a hard time dancing around the massive spoiler in the middle of the movie while trying to convince people to see it. Click the ‘Play’ button below to hear the interview.

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SM: The Loneliest Planet is based on Tom Bissell’s short story Expensive Trips Nowhere, but I understand you actually did some travelling on your own and had your own experiences that were similar to the couple in the movie. Could tell me what the first germ of an idea was for your film?

JL: I was travelling in Georgia. I had been invited to a film festival there, and I was travelling with my boyfriend at the time. I remember this story that I had read by Tom Bissell. The core of this story was this incident that really challenged me emotionally. I had just read it on my own, and it was really just being in the space of travelling with someone that made me remember the short story, and made me think, “Wow, maybe I should make a movie around it.” The central incident comes from the short story, but I incorporated a lot of what I knew from my own travels into it, in little details.

SM: Does your partner from that time know he was partly an inspiration for the film?

JL: He does, he does. [Laughs]

SM: And he’s okay with that?

JL: Oh, he’s very pleased with that.

SM: I’m glad to hear it.

JL: Thankfully, the turning point comes from the short story. Nothing very exciting happened to us. Being on a bus there and thinking of this short story that I’d read.

SM: I guess that turning point is something we’re going to dance around, but I imagine that’s one of the reasons you would want to make the film. The movie does build up to this big moment in the middle, though the characters don’t know that something big is coming. What is the appeal to you – because it is an unconventional way of telling a story – to have a plot that does hinge on a big moment right in the center?

JL: Absolutely. That’s what attracted me. This is not something these people expected. Not just to happen, but they didn’t expect it from themselves. I think that’s one of the most difficult things to deal with emotionally. When you, yourself, do something you never thought you could do, and it doesn’t necessarily agree with what you think a person should do. The fact that this happens while they’re travelling – while they’re away from home, out of their element – and how they process this as a couple – how they attempt to deal with it while in the middle of the mountains, travelling in a foreign country – really is interesting to me.

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SM: With any movie about relationships, audience members can sometimes pick a side; certainly in break-up films (not that The Loneliest Planet is that, necessarily). But that pivotal moment certainly makes us consider gender roles, and that echoes throughout the movie. What kind of response have you got from audiences after seeing the film?

JL: One of the things that has been so interesting in showing the film is it so taps into what people feel personally. And it’s not that men see it one way, and women see it another. It’s not like that at all. It’s really much more intimate, based on people’s experiences. Some people will say, “That’s it. That’s it for this couple. There is no way they can be together.” And then you get the opposite response, where people say, “What’s the problem here? I don’t see why they’re upset even.” That says more about the person watching the movie than anything else, really.  Gosh, this might be a dangerous date film, you know?

SM: Certainly not a good first date film.

JL: Maybe a film to go to with a friend, because you have a chance to talk about these very big issues about love and masculinity; what you expect from a partner. It might be a bit dangerous for a date. I don’t know. You might get in trouble.

SM: Maybe third or fourth date; once you’ve got to know the person a little bit at least.

JL: Exactly. [Laughs] One of the interesting things for me is I’ve had older couples who’ve been to see it and said their stories of travelling from thirty, forty years ago, and some things that happened to them, and how it reminds them of this. That’s always touching.

SM: Do you associate, or sympathise, with one of the characters more than the other? Or, in the years since making the film, have you felt your allegiances shift?

JL: I really try to think of both the boyfriend and the girlfriend in the relationship, and try to imagine how they both might feel. I’m definitely sympathetic to both of them. I think it’s very difficult for both. It might be harder for the man than it is for the woman.

SM: Tell me about finding Hani Furstenberg and Gael Garcia Bernal as Nica and Alex. What was it in them that you knew you’d found your couple?

JL: For me, it was how they clicked together. I brought them together to meet while Gael was living in Madrid, and I brought Hani to Madrid for one day just to see how they interacted. I sent them on a treasure hunt. Have you ever been on one of those, at an adult birthday party? You go out into the city to find something big and fluffy. Find a green drink. Find something cold. So they had to do this in Madrid, running around together. I just followed them around and took pictures of them. In that first day of meeting, they just seemed like a real couple. You believed the intimacy between them; the playfulness, the warmth. That was just it.

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SM: One of the things that interesting about the film is that they seem so deeply embedded in the wilderness. Some of these movies that are set in these areas, you can kind of tell the trailer’s not too far off. I’m curious, how long was the shoot, and what was the experience of that like?

JL: We shot for six weeks, and we were based in the village, north of Georgia; right by the Russian border. We would drive to a difference mountain every day and hike up to our locations. We spent about a third of the film camping. The rest of the time we were living in this tiny village. We were really living the film, and I think that really infiltrated what you see on screen. A real sense of place. One of the reasons I chose this place, is that it’s very important the kind of landscape; soft and beautiful. We’re so used to emotional dramas and landscapes that have to take place in a desert, and this doesn’t. It’s not a harsh landscape. It’s possibly the most beautiful place they’ve ever been.

SM: It certainly looks that way.

JL: It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.

SM: Beautiful places can look beautiful, but they may not be the most hospitable. Was there a particularly bad day on set?

JL: I think the biggest challenge of the whole film was just the sun, to be honest. I had this very specific idea of how I wanted the film to look. Of course, when you have a huge mountain, and you have the sun, there’s very little you can do about the conditions of the light except adapt to it. Shoot only at specific times, and specific directions, to get the look you want. Most of the day was spent with the crew napping and playing Frisbee and waiting for the perfect light. That’s actually tremendously exhausting because crews don’t want to play Frisbee. They want to work.

SM: I want to go back to that pivotal moment in the middle of the film, and ask you: do you consider that moment a spoiler? Have you found it tough to talk about the movie without delving into that significant event?

JL: It’s hard, you know? I have a very strange relationship to spoilers, because I’m never all that interested. You can tell me the end of a movie; I don’t care. I’m not interested in what happens, I’m interested in how something happens. Other people have told me, “You can’t talk about this. They don’t appreciate being told the spoiler.” People are very sensitive about this thing. So yes, I’ve learnt not to give spoilers and not to talk too much.

The Loneliest Planet plays the Perth International Arts Festival from April 9 – 14. It is now showing in Melbourne and Sydney.

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