Surreal Realities: Directors Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia on the Strange and Lovely H.

Prolific and utterly unconventional, the filmmaking duo of Lebanese Rania Attieh and Texan Daniel Garcia, screened their latest film, H., as part of the NEXT section at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and at the 65 Berlinale last week.

Just last year the pair was promoting their previous effort, Recommended by Enrique, on the festival circuit, furthering their reputation as boundary-pushing artists unconcerned with traditional narrative parameters. Visually and thematically, their films showcase a peculiar vision that seems very much at home within the independent realm. Their stories give us a glimpse into the lives of uncommon characters and locations, whether a crew of teenagers making a fake horror film in Enrique, or a delusional woman who loves lifelike dolls in H.

MovieMaker had the chance to talk to the filmmakers in Park City about the Greek mythology-infused science fiction project that is H., which follows two women in a supernatural crisis.

Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia. Photographs by Don Rittman

Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia. Photographs by Don Rittman

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): H. is in many ways a departure from Recommended by Enrique. However, your unique style comes across, even though this story has a different tone. Where did this particular story come from?

Rania Attieh (RA): We had this idea to make a film about a woman that takes care of a “newborn“ doll, because I had seen one of those dolls in an antique store in Argentina two years ago. We started researching the dolls, the makers, the women that collect them, and why. This fascinated us; even when we were working on Recommended by Enrique, the idea was in the back of our minds.

We had this idea and we applied to the Viennale college program that is sponsored by the Venice Film Festival. The program chooses 12 treatment ideas from all around the world. There are hundreds and hundreds of submissions. The filmmakers behind the projects they choose get to go for 10 days to Venice and work on it. With this project we were using VFX for the first time, and there were a lot of new elements that we were trying out. It was also a new genre. Recommended by Enrique is very different from Ok, Enough, Goodbye, our first film, and now H. is very different from those two, but I think that if you know our work you can tell is the same people behind all of them.

Daniel Garcia (DG): It’s a very conscious decision on our part to make our feature films different from one another. We are not setting out to make as different a film as possible, but we definitely enjoy changing gears. In the future we want to have a body of work that is wide-ranging. You can see the threads that run through all the films, but you may or may not know that the same people made them.

MM: Tell me how you developed this screenplay, which includes science-fiction elements, mythology, and a set of strange events that take over a small town.

RA: First came the science-fiction element. When we had come up with the two female characters, we still didn’t know where we wanted to set the film, and there was no mythology yet. We wanted to create something that had a progression similar to a folk tale or a mythical tale, but Greek mythology wasn’t in the picture.

We had the simple idea of a woman who loses her husband and then looks for him for the rest of her life and another woman who goes into the forest and is never found. It had to be something like what you hear about in an old folk tale. Daniel wanted the catalyst for these events to be something that falls out of the sky. That was the image he had. Then, this image developed into a meteor exploding over the town as he researched the Russian meteor [Chelyabinsk] of 2013. He was really into the small strange things that are not catastrophic, but that change people’s lives just enough to create discomfort, not complete panic.

We wanted to watch these two women be pushed to the edge and wonder if they weren’t heading to that edge anyway, based on their lifestyle and their relationships. Troy, New York, the town, came a bit later. While we were thinking where to set the film, somebody mentioned Troy at a dinner party. This person asks us if we would like to apply for an artist residency there. We then started researching Troy and went to visit. As you can tell from our previous films, we are fascinated by the small towns that you never hear about or that don’t have a lot of exposure.

We thought Troy was a great name for a place that is in upstate New York. Troy in mythology was a place with so much glory and a great past, and this is a complete different and modern version of its glorious self. There was something about this place that worked with what we were writing. We thought the place was great, then we decided to name both women Helen, and then we wove in our idea of mythology.

I read a lot of Greek mythology when I was young. Where I’m from [Tripoli, Lebanon], you had to take it as a class in school. Neither Daniel nor I read [mythology] these days, so this was based on our memories of mythology. After that everything started to fall into place and we wrote the whole thing fairly quickly.

Robin Bartlett in H.

Robin Bartlett as one of the two Helens in H.

MM: How difficult was to finance a film like this? How do you create a science-fiction tale on a small budget and still make it effective?

RA: We really like to push the idea of what a small budget can create. With this project, we thought, “Let’s see how big of a movie we can make with what they gave us.” It was about trying to make the biggest possible movie for what we had. But honestly, the money was never really an issue. The issue was the time. That’s what exhausted us. We had to go really fast into production and that was the biggest hurdle for us, more than the actual budget.

We knew how to cut corners because we had made two movies before. Daniel shot H. and he also did the sound design. I also think we pushed ourselves harder this time. We worked with professional actors for the first time; we worked with many composers on the music for the film, and we had never used VFX before.

We did the VFX in Argentina because it was cheaper and the quality was great, so we could get more for our money. We worked with an Argentine co-producer and we went to Buenos Aires to do post-production sound, and the VFX, of course. We worked with a small crew that really believed in the project and who worked super hard. It was an intense production with a lot of elements, and the location was really cold. We were only 12 people behind the camera, so all of us were extending ourselves. In the end we are all really proud of what we were able to do with what we had.

MM: Tell me about the visual aesthetic of the film and the equipment you used to create it.

DG: We shot on a RED Epic and we had some vintage Cooke lenses, which I think were S2s. We had a set of those, and then for some of the shots, like the one on the tower and the one with the horseman figure that comes out of the forest, we rented a vintage nature photography zoom lens. It was a 200-700mm with the motorized zoom on it, which is really fun.

Generally speaking, we knew that for the visuals we wanted a very clean, classic look. This meant using dolly moves, slow pans, slow push-ins. There are a few handheld scenes but they were chosen very specifically for their emotional effect. For the most part we really wanted this elegant, classic look. We wanted to pay homage to the European films of the ’60s and ’70s, which were done in Panavision scope.

Even though, budget-wise, we couldn’t really do as many of these shots as we wanted to, we knew we could use them sparingly to get that effect and give the film a certain mood and tension with our limited budget.

MM: In comparison with your previous projects, where you work with non-actors, how was your experience this time working with professional actors?

DG: It was interesting. I think there’s always a trade off. It was an amazing experience for us on this and we were really surprised with the professionalism, the talent, and the preparedness that the actors came to the set with.

Ultimately, because of the time limit, it really wouldn’t have been possible to work with non-professionals in the lead roles. It would have been a completely different movie, and we would have had to sacrifice some of our scenes because of the limitations inherent to non-actors.

It was really refreshing to show up on set and realize that the actors had made some choices for themselves and had asked themselves some of the more important questions that we were used to answering for our non-actors. While we still like working with non-actors—and most likely will do it again in the future—this was a fresh, nice experience for us to be able to focus really intently on how the scene was written. Before, it was more about finding the scene and hoping to come to something that either got close to or surpassed what we were going for.

MM: The rationale behind the events that happen in this town is never explained. Is the story meant to be open ended?

RA: For us, the ending is not quite open-ended. The whole film was structured and written to be a very classic tragedy. It’s meant to be very literary. Both women have to have very specific endings, but also very definite.

DG: The film is told from the point of view of the townspeople who are going through these strange events. In any event that happens in the world, answers come slowly. At that point and time in the story, in the world of the film, they haven’t gotten any answers yet, and there is no reason for the viewer to have any answers. We chose to leave those things unexplained.

RA: The film is based on the idea of mass beliefs or mass hysteria. Nobody really knows what they are experiencing because there is no evidence of anything. They are experiencing its effects, but nothing is explainable. At the end we don’t want you to know if this is really happening, or if it’s the town experiencing mass hysteria.

MM: Working together as co-directors, do each of you take care of a particular part of the process, or is there an even distribution of responsibilities?

RA: Even though Daniel is on the camera, we don’t divide tasks so strictly. I have a lot of say in everything. We discuss the camera moves, we discuss the framing, and we talk to the actors at the same time. Nothing is decided unilaterally. We share everything in the process. Even though he composes the music, I give him notes on what I’d like and what I wouldn’t like. We discuss making changes accordingly. We’ve been working together for 15 years. It’s now a natural symbiosis from the writing through production. Daniel and I are on the same page.

H

MM: One particular image that stuck with me was the giant floating head. Whose idea was this, and did you feel it complemented the other imagery in the film?

RA: It’s based on a real story that happened while we were writing. A big statue’s head floated down the Hudson and some guys in rowboats saw it and pulled it out of the water. We thought it was a great image, so we built the head and recreated that whole occurrence. Most of the things in the film that are really unbelievable are based on real events. The head, the meteor, and even the nail floating upwards is scientifically possible. The newborn doll element is based on a real subculture. We tried to make a movie about these surreal realities that surround us. When they are put together in a film they make an explosion of craziness, but that’s just how life is. If you look close enough, there’s enough weird stuff surrounding us.

MM: Now that the major part of the journey with H. is done, what’s next for you?

RA: We have a big project based in New York City. Depending on what happens with H. we might start trying to finance it. MM

H. premiered at the 2014 Venice Film Festival, and screened at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and the 65 Berlinale. Stills courtesy of Helen Horseman, LLC.

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