To consider oneself a filmmaker is an all-encompassing state of being that seeps into every facet of an artist’s existence. The multiple roles a creator plays are, as Athina Rachel Tsangari puts it, inextricable from the process.
Tsangari is a moviemaker when she writes, produces or directs a film, but each role is equally as important in her creative universe. She also considers herself a nomad and enjoys the liberty of reinventing her vision without being bound by genres, audience expectations or her previous work. Her debut feature, The Slow Business of Going, is by far her most experimental work and differs in tone and approach from Attenberg, her most successful work to date. Tsangari revels in the mystery of intuition, used to select a palette of ideas to paint her next masterpiece. Centered on a pack of men at sea who compete to determine who is “the best,” Chevalier, her latest feature, is a humorous ensemble piece about how individuals portray their identities in front of their peers. Tsangari’s mature storytelling skills are paired with a talented cast that understands the tonal nuances of their characters’ dynamics.
One hot Saturday afternoon, before a master class Tsangari led as part of the Los Angeles Greek Film Festival, MovieMaker had the pleasure to discuss with the director her relationship to her own films and the paths she took along the way.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): How does Athina Tsangari end up with a group of men making Chevalier? I understand that your previous project, The Capsule, was the beginning, in a way.
Athina Tsangari (AT): The Capsule was a very interesting process. It was commissioned by the Deste Foundation and Dakis Joannou, an art collector, as a piece merging fashion with art. It’s part of series called the Deste Fashion Collection. You were supposed to choose five pieces of clothing that you consider pieces of wearable art, and then incorporate them in an art piece. Joannou invited painters, photographers, poets, graphic designers, etc.
MM: Were you the first artist to make a film?
AT: Yes, mine was the first film. It was actually a very interesting challenge. I asked Aleksandra Waliszewska, a formidable Polish painter who co-wrote the script with me, if she wanted to collaborate. A lot of the images are inspired by her paintings. I wanted to make a Greek gothic, so that’s what it ended up being, in a very organic way. The Louis Vuitton collar we found went with the black dress I designed in collaboration with my regular costume designer. I was influenced by Michael Cacoyannis, an important Greek filmmaker who made one of my favorite Greek films, The Girl in Black, which was shot on the island of Hydra. It’s full of cyclical references, creating this universe that ultimately all existed in this boarding house.
The whole Capsule cast knew very little about the script, so they arrived placing their full trust in me, believing that we were doing something fun. The whole process of them competing with each other to earn the favor of the headmistress was, in itself, a game; it was the prototype of the “chevalier game.” It happened live and unrehearsed. They each came up with a series of their own confessions to the headmistress, and Isolda Dychauk, the one who had the best one, won her favor. It was all quasi-fiction and a quasi-making of the fiction. I thought it’d be interesting to see how something like this would work with a crowd of men. I guess I also have this fetish with multitudes of the same image, sort of like a fascination with codified images that you associate mainly with fascism, war and boarding schools, or like a pack of animals.
MM: Where does your interest in this physicality, which is very present in your films, come from?
AT: Who knows? I think it’s difficult for every director to talk about these choices because that’s what directing is; that’s what mise-en-scéne is. It’s intuiting your own order of the world. It’s world building. It’s being a perpetual child; you build your world with your building cubes and no one really knows why it’s this particular world. It’s really about intuition. I don’t actually want to interrogate it further than that, because that mysterious process is part of what attracts me to filmmaking: not really knowing or understanding where it comes from. It’s almost like entering a trance and not really understanding what I’m making until it’s completely done, which usually happens to me after I start showing it to people. Once it’s been edited, gone to festivals, and people have started asking questions and making remarks, then I start recognizing it.
MM: Do you feel like you discover your film that way?
AT: Yes, but as a different kind of film, because it also acquires a life of its own. Films escape. They become fugitives at a certain point of the process. Efthymis Filippou and I worked on the Chevalier script, and then when I started rehearsing based on all the contributions of the actors themselves, Efthymis was on set taking notes, very much like a dramaturge in theater. He was incorporating all this stuff we were doing and then we’d decide what to keep, what to throw away and what to modify, which was a very generous process. Usually directors don’t really want screenwriters meddling with their business, but in Efthymis’ case it’s a given. Without any claim of authorship, he is able to effortlessly and organically mutate the stuff that’s happening with the actors without betraying the spirit of the initial script.
MM: Does the way you work change at all when you are producing someone else’s work?
AT: It’s impossible to divorce directing with producing because, especially as Greek filmmakers, we constantly have to adjust our ideas to the funding that we are able to raise, which is never enough. It’s completely inextricable. For Chevalier, once the production was set up, it was nice to completely shut down the producing part of my brain. My producers, Maria Hatzakou and Christos Konstantakopoulos, really helped me shut it down, which is kind of difficult for me.
MM: Why is the setting important? Could Chevalier take place somewhere else?
AT: Yeah, definitely. The initial version of the script took place in a summer or country house, but then we thought that it would be interesting and challenging and much more claustrophobic if it happened on a boat. I’m passionate about architecture; space and framing as space is something that, to me, is inextricable from making films. I’m extremely involved in the scouting. If I’m not inspired by the space, even if it’s just a chair on a piece of floor, then I don’t care to shoot.
MM: How do you choose your actors? When you look at a potential actor, do you already know what character you’d want them to be or do you mold them as the process goes along?
AT: It takes a long time. It’s actually the opposite when I cast for Chevalier, because I hadn’t quite determined who was going to be whom. It was a work in progress. Each actor brought lots of their own personality traits.
MM: Does this change for you when it’s an ensemble cast, like in this case, rather than a smaller group of actors?
AT: There is an intimacy in a small cast that has a completely different energy. With Chevalier, it was a demanding process for everyone since there were many personalities, all acting.
MM: The fact that you don’t have a single protagonist and that they all have equal weight is one of the most interesting aspects of the film. Why was this important to you?
AT: It is about this game, balance, and the idea of proving ourselves. It was more about the process than the result and final winner. It was not about having big things happen or rooting for any particular one. It was more about observing these little gestures, dissecting these behaviors, and understanding who each one was without actually having very much information.
MM: A lot of reviews and pieces written about the film focus on male competitiveness. Was gender something that you had particularly in mind?
AT: I’m not sure if I agree. It started just about a bunch of humans. I didn’t want to include a female character because that would completely change the dynamic. I liked the idea that all of them were trapped into their roles and negotiating masculinity and femininity at the same time, because I believe that all of us have both: masculine and feminine. I thought it would be clearer, or more pure in terms of seeing that performance of self if they were all of the same gender.
MM: Does it get easier for you to make films as you go along? Does the recognition you’ve achieved make it easier at all?
AT: It always feels like starting from scratch, because I never want to make the same film. From The Slow Business of Going, the first feature film I made, to Chevalier, each film is a new way to explore similar concerns, obsessions and fetishes, but always in a different genre and within a different context.
MM: What’s one part about directing that you don’t like?
AT: I’m never just a director. I’m always involved in the script, whether I write by myself or I co-write. There is a certain agony in the process of writing and coming up with a blueprint of this world that you are going to materialize as a film. I never think of particular audiences or whether this film is going to be liked or disliked; I just need to make sure it works and that there is a reason for me to make this film. That’s the most strenuous process.
MM: Do you enjoy rehearsals?
AT: I do. I really enjoy shooting and being on set, directing and interacting with my actors and crew. Editing, on the other hand, can be quite torturous for me, until everything finds its place and loses its fat.
MM: Do you tend to micromanage every single detail on set, or do you let go of certain things to focus on the acting?
AT: I’m quite hands-on with every department, but that usually happens in pre-production because I like to be prepared. During the shoot, I mostly communicate with the cast and maintain a close relationship with the DP and AC. For Chevalier, we had these sliding cameras, so we would shoot an entire scene for a couple of takes without doing coverage; everything was live.
MM: Why did you decide to shoot it that way? Did it improve performances?
AT: Because the cameras were on all the time, whether they were on or off screen, all of the actors were present in the scene. I had a dedicated cast who loved what they were doing and were also there for their colleagues. Because we had some problems with weather, turbulence and seasickness, some days we would be shooting for only four hours. In those four hours everyone was like a warrior, on their toes, and we would get two or three scenes out with everyone working nonstop. It was great. It was all about rivalry and competition on screen, but behind the scenes, we all loved each other. We had an incredible sense of camaraderie and tons of fun. We were laughing and joking all day long, so much so that sometimes I would have to intervene and ask everyone not to be so lovey-dovey. MM
Chevalier opened in theaters June 3, 2016, courtesy of Strand Releasing All images courtesy of Haos Film.