In today's Big Apple Film Festival Director's Spotlight we are proud to present our interview with writer-director Christina Kallas. Her directorial debut, "42 Seconds of Happiness" (2016) screened at various festivals worldwide, including Thessaloniki Film Festival and St. Louis Film Festival, in which she was nominated for the Emerging Director Award. Her latest film, "The Rainbow Experiment", will premiere at the 2018 Slamdance Film Festival.
Christina is teaching at Columbia University School of the Art's and Barnard College's Film Programs since 2011, and is the author of Creative Screenwriting: Understanding Emotional Structure and Inside the Writers' Room (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2010 & 2015). She was the President of the Federation of Screenwriters in Europe from 2006 to 2013, and is the founder of the Writers Improv Studio in New York. Prior credits of the U.S. independent filmmaker and former Berlin-based screenwriter and producer include the John Hurt-starring political thriller, The Commissioner; BBC Films and Polygram's hooligan drama, I.D.; Toronto and Berlin selection hybrid narrative/doc Mothers, and European TV series hit, Danni Lowinski.
1. What inspired you to start the Writers Improv Studio? What type of training does the studio provide?
The studio started as a space and as a group focusing in particular on the art of merging character and actor, using my signature method of emotional improvisation, which I call writers improv. Over the years it evolved more and more into an ensemble of actors, the Writers Improv Studio Ensemble or WISE, which expands depending on the needs of each project. While workshopping 42 Seconds of Happiness there were up to 15 regular members, in the case of The Rainbow Experiment there were up to 40 actors in the room. The Writers Improv Studio doesn't provide any training in the usual sense of the word, although we are of course all training in authenticity. And that is also the reason why I started it. I was looking for a way to go deeper, achieve a greater degree of authenticity than what our traditional ways of casting and filmmaking allow for--which in my eyes are not actor-focused enough.
2. In one of the articles in your Cinema and Reality column a few years back, you discuss the influence of Aristotle. Have ancient Greek philosophers, such as Aristotle, influenced your writing? If yes, how so?
Every writer will tell you that 'it all goes back to Aristotle'. Most screenwriting theories, and indeed also dramatic theories go back to some interpretation of what Aristotle said in his Poetics. I am using a rather unorthodox interpretation of Aristotle, focusing on his 9th chapter and on the idea of emotional meaning in the deep structure of the text. This inspired my emotional structure theory, which is a way to analyze and create more open script and film structures, for instance nonlinear and multi-protagonist films--which in my opinion are evidence of a shift in storytelling, away from the monolithic single protagonist storytelling which has been with us for such a long time now. My area of specialization—in both of my features and my book, 'Creative Screenwriting: Understanding Emotional Structure'—is an experimental approach to fiction filmmaking that valorizes the collective protagonist. As Professor Annette Insdorf wrote, "this narrative strategy seems terribly important for our times: we need to think about the strengths to be gained from the intertwining ensemble piece (versus the focus on the individual)."
I subscribe to the idea that Ancient Greek dramas were so very important, because they were serving as emotional education--what some scholars call the poets' solution to the riddle of civilization. Multi-protagonist and nonlinear films which allow for a more visceral than rational perception could be the new poets' solution. One that is much needed in a time of systemic failures. It would be worth it to add that Aristotle did not see drama as superficial entertainment in the sense of escapism, distraction or diversion. He speaks of the double goal of entertainment and awareness. Drama should not only increase enjoyment, he says, but also enrich experience and knowledge. This presupposes stories that challenge and interest the audience, that shake up our everyday life; that broaden the spectrum of our experience since they intrinsically represent an experience themselves.
3. How has your work as a writer/author led you to filmmaking?
I have always been both a filmmaker and a film scholar. These two things are inseparable to me, and the one informs the other. But yes, it took me a while to get to directing; I started with writing and producing, and I made six feature films and two TV series before I began directing my own work. I guess everyone has their own path. As a director I am interested in very complex, multi-protagonist stories which require a great degree of storytelling maturity and craft, and ten years ago I was not at that point yet. And definitely, my long experience as a screenwriter and as a screenwriting scholar is instrumental in being able to structure the kind of stories I want to tell as a director. Ultimately, story is structure.
4. What inspired to write and direct 42 Seconds of Happiness and The Rainbow Experiment? What do these films have in common, and how do they differ?
Both are stories which were triggered by something that happened to me personally, not in its every detail but in terms of the emotional experience. What I try to do is create an emotional experience—an experience that is ultimately as multi-perspectival as possible. When working with students on their stories, I will often ask them what their moment of inspiration was--I believe deeply that it contains the whole story. My moment of inspiration for The Rainbow Experiment was when I received an e-mail from my son's school, informing me that two kids were injured in class and that they had been transferred to the ER. The e-mail did not mention any names, and for a moment there I panicked. My first thought was: 'what if it is my kid'. The second: 'he is fine, but it's someone else's kid'. The third: 'imagine being that teacher'. The fourth: 'or the principal, for that matter'. And so on and so forth. It was a matter of a few seconds, and I had the whole cast of characters and their emotional states of mind in my head. And I could feel all of them, all at the same time—their vulnerability, their guilt, their anger, their sadness. At that moment I had such a deep compassion and apprehension of what it means to be a human being, that I wanted to recreate that as an experience. And it was so intense, that every time I got stuck later on, or when I forgot why I am making this film, it was enough to recall that moment of inspiration. It seemed to contain all the answers to everything I was struggling with.
There is a similar moment for 42 Seconds of Happiness. I will not go into details but I wanted to simulate the emotional experience of being in the moment and of not being in the moment, but all over the place as we usually are, assuming things, fearing things, projecting. I wanted to create an experience which makes one understand the difference between the two. I am not sure one can understand what I'm saying, without watching the film. Other than that, in both films I am experimenting with split screens, the editing rhythm is frenetic and I use a very actor-focused way of shooting in long takes, in chronological order where possible etc. The Rainbow Experiment is a far more ambitious film.
5. Which films directed by women do you feel are most important and influential in our society today?
I am inspired by filmmakers who are in some way pushing the boundaries, whether they are men or women. If I had to focus on women, I would probably talk about films by Agnès Varda, Euzhan Palcy, Chantal Akerman, Sally Potter, Lina Wertmueller, Claire Denis, Elaine May, Mira Nair, Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Campion, the women filmmakers of Dogme 95, Susanne Bier, Lone Scherfig, then Lynne Ramsay, Ava DuVernay, Lucrecia Martel, Nadine Labaki, Maren Ade...There's so many.
6. What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers? And, what advice would you give to yourself 10 years ago?
I would have told myself to get to New York earlier. For my specific way of doing things, New York is the place to be. The city is a Babel of languages, races, sexual orientations, religions—I love that variety, I love that everyone is different, it makes what connects us so much more visible. I would be lying if I said that I don't jot down a scene for the screenplay I am currently working on, every single time that I walk down the street, or go to the deli or take the subway. It's a great city for artistic input and inspiration, even if also a pretty tough city to live in, intense, loud, unhinged. As for aspiring filmmakers: I'd tell them to not think of the industry or of how things are done in the industry. To just do their thing. And to watch as much cinema from all over the world as they can. This is of immense importance, I think. You have to be in love with cinema to make cinema. Cinema is a state of mind.