My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
Braden King’s film HERE, opening in LA on April 27 and in San Francisco on May 11, deals with themes of exploration in life, cinema, and map-making. Alex Zafiris spoke to the filmmaker on his return from Sundance 2011.
Known primarily for his film Dutch Harbor: Where the Sea Breaks its Back (co-directed with photographer Laura Moya) and his music videos for Sonic Youth, Will Oldham, Sparklehorse and the Dirty Three, director Braden King takes a sensory and experiential approach to the moving image and the practice of filmmaking in his first feature HERE. It unfolds in a traditional sense, but veers into ‘explorer stories,’ non-narrative sequences shot by other filmmakers that reference the dreams of the characters and the work itself. The work is also partnered with a separate event, entitled HERE [ THE STORY SLEEPS ], a multi-screen ‘live installation’ showcasing visuals from the film, location shots, Gadarine’s Polaroids, and digital imagery, accompanied by live music from composer Michael Krassner and the Boxhead Ensemble (who also wrote the score). To date, the event has had performances at the MoMA, Mass MoCA, and Sundance. Despite the scope of collaborators and mediums, the project emerges as a deeply personal work that examines the richness and fragility of a moment, and the fragmented elements that bring you there.
HERE follows the story of Will (Ben Foster), an American map-maker on a job in Armenia, and Gadarine (Lubna Azabal), a native art photographer who has returned to her country after working and studying abroad. After meeting at a rural hotel, their curiosity and intuition compel them to travel together. Will charts the land passively and methodically, while Gadarine takes Polaroids that muster tenderness, nostalgia, and sadness for a place to which she no longer feels connected. As their relationship grows, so does their understanding of themselves. Alex Zafiris spoke to King on his return from Sundance 2011, where the film had its world premiere and competed in the U.S. Dramatic category before going on to its European premiere in Berlin.
Alex Zafiris I’ve seen two versions of this story. The first was at the MoMA, a year ago. And the second was the film, which I saw last week. When I look back on both those experiences, I remember them as a feeling, and a memory. Even though there’s a very clear narrative arc to the film, you remember it in a sort of dream-like fashion.
Braden King I’ve always had the sense that I was approaching cinema from a slightly different angle. I feel like I don’t really relate to story in the same way that the people that I was in film school with, or even other directors I talk to or read interviews with do. HERE began with a desire to convey certain feelings and experiences that I’ve had while traveling. In my twenties, I spent a lot of time driving cross country in the United States—sometimes alone, sometimes with friends or girlfriends—and those trips still rank among the most magical and intense experiences in my life. I don’t think things get any more present tense than road trips like that. So the roots of this project really go back to those days between spaces on the interstates, with some piece of music that I loved on the radio, the window halfway down, and that perfect blissful feeling of being right here, right now. The key to the whole effort with this film has to do with my deep interest in cinema’s potential as an experiential medium.
AZ I read that you ended up shooting the film in Armenia because an Armenian filmmaker listened to your ideas and suggested that the landscape might be interesting to you. That’s a really fascinating, insightful thing for one artist to say to another.
BK Her name is Gariné Torossian. She’s an incredible avant-garde filmmaker of Armenian descent, who used to be based in Toronto but now lives in Paris. I think I was introduced to her through either Will Oldham, who I collaborated with on some music videos, or through Scott Minor from the band Sparklehorse. At the time, I had this very vague idea for a road trip movie about a map-maker, which at that time had no plot; it was still just an impression. As I was discussing it with Gariné, she sort of sat back and said, “This is a complete gut-level association and you’re going to think I’m telling you this just because I’m Armenian, but I really think you should consider it as a location for this story.” She also introduced me to the work of Artavazd Peleshian, an Armenian filmmaker who makes absolutely breathtaking non-narrative films. I think I already knew about Sergei Parajanov, the Armenian filmmaker who made The Color of Pomegranates. Anyway, I didn’t really think much about it when she said it, but it kind of sat there in my mind. And then I would see a picture of Armenia in the back of a newspaper, or suddenly notice an Armenian rug shop and wander inside. It became another thread that I was following. I eventually traveled over there to see if the reality matched Gariné’s instinct and my own growing obsession. And it did.
AZ Was it an immediate click?
BK At the time, all the European airlines used their planes overnight to fly there, so you could only get flights that left, say, Vienna at two in the morning. I got a taxi into Yerevan from the airport in the middle of the night, passing all these garishly-lit little casino houses with neon outside, and it felt like I’d landed on Mars. I went to sleep for a few hours, woke up and decided to go for a walk around the hotel. The very first corner I turned, there was an entire city block of maps hung on the wall by a street vendor.
AZ In a way, the film existed already. In fact, the film itself is kind of separate. It has its own consciousness.
BK When I made Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands, I remember very clearly being out there and thinking, if the cameras fall in the water off the sides of these boats, and we never end up with a movie at all, the experience of having been up here will have been worth it. We invest so much time and so much of our lives in these films and I’d kind of made a commitment to try to follow projects that had a certain amount of personal exploration and life experience associated with them. Then, throughout the development and production of HERE, I became interested in the idea of the filmmaking process as a kind of surveying or map-making process, and I found myself wanting to incorporate the experiential aspects of the endeavor into the film itself. I started thinking that the production process should be able to leave its own marks on the piece. Through that, the movie eventually kind of developed its own consciousness. It became another actor, another character, complete with its own desires and dreams.
AZ For this reason I feel that the film touches on some very deep universal things. One of my favorite shots is the lamp post at night. It’s a static shot, but it’s suggestive. To me, it says, ‘Go.’ Here’s a sign. It’s like an open door. There are several of those kinds of images, and it’s the way that you leave them there. It makes people think about directions they’ve taken in their life, and connections they’ve made with others. Universal yet private signs.
BK My co-writer, Dani Valent, and I talked a lot about truthfully reflecting the actuality of what these kinds of travel experiences feel like rather than stringing together a series of “movie versions” of these kinds of experiences. I’ve always been conscious of the ways in which one’s experience of a space works. If I’m sitting in a hotel lobby, I’ll tend to notice what I’m looking at, and ask myself what is creating the experience of this space that I’m having right now. Is it the hum of the air conditioner? Is it the way the light is falling on that couch across the room? Is it the woman sitting at the desk who I’m not even having any interaction with? I thought it was critical to include those kinds of moments in the film so that you’re kind of mapping a certain space and area cinematically, but you’re also building a world that has things going on outside of the immediate reality of the characters or the story that they’re serving. I wanted to create a film that possessed a canvas that was larger than its story and characters––a world that exists whether the characters are in it or not. I’ve also always been very conscious on road trips or when traveling that I’m in motion, and a certain number of the people that I’m encountering or the places I’m visiting are not. They’re going to kind of keep going, and I’m just passing through. So the idea that the audience might be able to wander through the world a film creates on their own, apart from the story, is incredibly exciting to me. Perhaps that’s what shots like the one you’re describing allow for.
AZ It’s more like poetry or novel-writing. These moments are also really primal. With shots like that I think everyone reverts to childhood. When you’re a kid, looking out the window and you know, your parents are downstairs, whatever. But you look out the window and you think of all that mystery and possibility. It’s right there.
BK You made me start thinking about the archetypal aspects of certain images. After the show at the MoMA I had a conversation with a friend who’s spent a long time studying illuminated manuscripts. And apparently there are these kind of essential, archetypal images within these illuminated manuscripts, like winding roads and what-have-you, that have a certain significance, or were used as symbols. And this person was fascinated by the number of images in the film that matched up to some of the manuscripts she’d been studying—in terms of framing, what the images themselves were, and the fact that they were set off on their own. There are sounds that universally will make someone jump: fingernails on the chalk board. There must be some equivalent in the image, I think. I like the idea of a lexicon of images that we may have some kind of primal relationships with.
AZ How did it feel to watch the film with an audience?
BK While I was watching the film during its premiere at Sundance, it occurred to me that the characters are passing through different kinds of cinematic territory in addition to the landscapes they’re moving through and measuring in the story. Certain scenes were traditional narrative scenes and others were more like documentary scenes that happened to have our actors entering into them. So the characters are almost surveying the outer walls of the movie as they’re moving through the film. It was a new way of looking at what we’d tried to put together. I’ve always associated Will’s character, the map-maker, as the more narrative character: he’s looking at a logic-based organization of the world. Gadarine’s character is more intuitive, tonal and emotional. She’s more experiential and less narrative. I was making all kinds of new connections between the ways they were working and the different modes that the film moves through, and I started thinking about these characters as not only a functional component of a narrative story, but also as existing within—and mapping—the different cinematic territories of the film itself.
AZ Also with the way that they move in a purely physical sense: Will has a strong calm presence, and she’s nervous and sensual. Regarding collaboration: I wanted to ask about Michael Krassner, your long-time musical partner. He was working on HERE right from the beginning, and his music was something you built on.
BK Yes, absolutely. Michael and I initially met in Los Angeles, while I was in school at USC, and he’s been a part of almost everything I’ve done ever since. An interesting thing happened with Dutch Harbor: the soundtrack for that film took on a life of its own and, to make a long story short, we found ourselves touring around the world, showing the film with live soundtrack accompaniment. The tour was incredibly rewarding in that it connected film to experiences I’d had in music and other performing arts for the first time. The film became something that was living and breathing and changing every night, and that led to a world of new ideas about cinematic experience that I wanted to explore. When I started developing HERE, Michael and I decided that we wanted to do a lot of that same stuff, but in a much more intentional way. I really wanted the music to be woven as deeply as possible into the DNA of the film. Michael was sending me music and notes and ideas before there was even a screenplay. He made CDs that I would listen to as I was writing and that continued on throughout the development of the project. Then, when it came time to record the soundtrack, we decided to do it in Armenia immediately after wrapping production. We spent three or four days recording, some partially improvised, in different locations: apartments that we had shot in, an old disused ex-Soviet recording studio, the Sergei Parajanov museum. All this reflects this desire we had to weave all the elements of the film together as tightly as we could. Every piece is influencing the others, all along the way.
AZ Were the dreams, the interludes, shot in Armenia? Who shot them?
BK Each of those interlude pieces were done by different avant-garde filmmakers: Barbara Meter, Daichi Saito, Gariné Torossian, Paul Clipson, Julie Murray, Ben Rivers, and others.
AZ It’s very generous of you, to have all these other filmmakers’ work in your film.
BK Well, that kind of gets into the ways in which the film is personal for me. A lot of my evolution as a filmmaker and visual artist has had to do with continually having my feet in a lot of different worlds. I direct commercials to pay the rent, I’ve made installation pieces for galleries and museums, I’ve directed music videos, I’ve done non-narrative pieces, I’ve made impressionistic documentaries, and now I’ve made a feature film. There are many ways in which HERE represents an attempt to unify all of these experiences into some sort of whole. On one level, the interludes helped me feel more comfortable moving into a zone where I was going to be telling a story, which has always been kind of fraught territory for me, because my interest in filmmaking really started with images and sound as opposed to drama. On another level, they represent the dreams of the film itself. But they were also an opportunity to collaborate with a number of filmmakers who had inspired and influenced me. The stories—the voiceover that accompanies them—came out of an early conversation that I had with Dani Valent. This was shortly after we’d met. We were sitting in a bar talking about different things we were working on. She started telling me about a series of stories she’d been writing about mythical explorers that mapped the lands in fantastic ways. And it was one of those moments where you feel like you’re sitting across from someone that has the other half of the locket.
AZ In the same way, would you say that Will and Gadarine’s relationship could only exist in this flux? I saw them as quite different people––apart from the nationality thing––but they had to meet each other to realize something about themselves.
BK Definitely. What you’re talking about exists on a lot of levels, in terms of them personally, but also in terms of the archetypes that they’re representing. The film is asking questions about how prose and poetry and waking life and the dream inform and complete each other. And also how different cinematic practices inform and complete each other. But the core theme of the film really has to do with how we find, orient and complete ourselves through our relationships. Dani and I have always thought that if these two people met down the road in some other corner of the world––well, who knows what would happen. But where they leave off at the end of this story is the place they’ve brought each other to: the point of being ready to go off and do the individual work that’s necessary to get them to the next levels of themselves and their consciousness.
For more information on Braden King and his film HERE, visit his website.
Alex Zafiris is a writer based in New York. For more information, visit www.alexzafiris.com.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.