by Jacob Mendel
In most of my projects, the initial inception often begins with style/visuals more than story, and accordingly, location scouting is often one of the first things I do in any film production, and Prague could not have provided a more inspirational place for this. After walking through enough spaces, envisioning certain angles and visual treatments of the locations, there is always a certain moment where I am struck by some sort of total epiphany in which I am provided with a vivid glimpse into the entire stylistic skeleton of the film and am able to visualize it with utter lucidity, but on a register that remains completely ineffable and risks being diminished if prematurely articulated as a "film pitch". And it is in such moments that I feel a certain impatience to act fast before the glimpses of epiphanies recede into an irretrievable ephemera.
All this sounds fine and good, except that the moment of epiphany does not always dangle, just beyond reach, like an apple ready to be plucked. In fact, my belief in the imperative of the "epiphany" has a downside: sometimes the epiphany remains stubbornly hidden. And, at no time, of any of the films I have made, was this more the case than in Prague. There I was, living in Europe for the first time in my life, doggedly wandering the streets, unable to appreciate the newness of the world around me, thinking only: what movie will I make? The more fiercely I wanted to be struck by the lightning of some cinematic logic, the more it eluded me; the more despondent I became at not having an idea, the further it receded. There were a few false suitors for my attention -- ideas I pretended to be excited about, or more aptly, even convinced myself that I was excited about: an adaptation of a Borges short story, a film that would highlight a hall of mirrors located in Prague (in all its metaphoric meaning), I vaguely recall a treatment that began as a play within a play with actors in togas..... none proved the real thing. Certainly, none followed the screenwriting dogmas that reigned supreme at FAMU -- three act structure, inciting incident, “no conflict = no film”, etc. Indeed, I was told straight out, when I presented one idea, that it was, in the words of one FAMU faculty member: suicide. Without an idea for my film, the world around me withered. I wasn't only not enjoying the Czech republic; I started to dislike everything Czech. Czech beer. Czech food. Czech language.
So....how did this change? Interestingly, it wasn't in the end the visual epiphany I sought that was finally revealed. It was the very doctrines that I had assimilated, but seen as a hindrance, that in fact proved helpful. Inciting incident, inciting incident, I was repeating once and suddenly had an image of a goldfish is kidnapped -- just absurd and surrealist enough to catch my fancy. Correspondingly, the FAMU emphasis on needing an antagonist prompted an immediate conception of cat people as a natural threat to goldfish. And then, as I mulled about this further with my good friend and creative collaborator David Walker, another stray idea-- what about reincarnation? -- tied together lots of loose threads and something cohered. In a way, the making of the film enacted its very theme: new life at the end of a series of lives. There were many false starts in Prague, each of which at the time, I hoped might truly become my film. Yet, ultimately, after all of these false starts, something new and fresh was born; fearing that I would, like the protagonist of my film, have no "life" -- no film -- at the end of my time in Prague, something miraculous happened instead: new life came into being, the favorite so far of my films.