Putting the Parts Together: A Conversation with Abbas Kiarostami

The Iranian director discusses making his new movie in Japan, being loyal to reality, and digital filmmaking being a state of mind.
Daniel Kasman
Photo by Marion Stalens.
I still don't know what to make of Abbas Kiarostami's Japanese production, Like Someone in Love. After being very powerfully flummoxed by it in Cannes—part opacity, part deflection—I revisited it at the New York Film Festival and found no questions answered: perhaps as pleasant an experience as the initial bafflement. I still find it fascinatingly opaque—a word I return to again and again in regards to the film—and, I believe, fundamentally unresolvable. Also, it is quite permeable, which for me is a welcome shift when compared to the hermetic-feeling gamesmanship of Certified Copy (something many, like Michael Sicinski, found an incredibly positive aspect).
I had the chance to sit and talk briefly, all too briefly, with Kiarostami in New York, in a delightful conversation beautifully translated by Massoumeh Lahidji.

NOTEBOOK: I was wondering if we could start with a detail in the film I wanted to discuss. There's a moment after the old man switches off the light in the apartment where you cut to the him and the young woman the next day driving in a car. The soundtrack we hear is no longer just diegetic sound—there's a very quiet piece of what sounded liked an electronic drone or ambient music.
ABBAS KIAROSTAMI: It's interesting because yesterday evening at the screening I was telling my translator how much I liked this moment of sound, because it is not diegetic but at the same time it says something about the inner state of the characters. This is the sound of a happy morning. Of when you can feel satisfaction or happiness or something, some kind of joy on the man's face, also the way the clouds reflect on the windshield. But there is also something of the sound that carries some individual joy.
NOTEBOOK: It strikes me as unusual if not exceptional for you to...I'm not sure how to phrase it...editorialize like that? Step into the movie and almost make a comment on the characters? Usually, my impression with your films is that kind of assessment is left up to the audience.
KIAROSTAMI: Well, I wouldn't say so. I think a good soundtrack or even good music is nothing but a way of empathy for the audience. You're not pushing; it's not advice, it's not guidance. It's just empathy. It suggests in a very smooth way that the film can say it's always “about.” I think I always do that, I always show empathy. Just giving a hint of this morning in which the surrounding sounds are there—it's not that they're not there—but you are in a kind of “numb” feeling, as if your ears were plugged because you are in your inside world rather than with your environment.
NOTEBOOK: Moving from sound to image: in The Taste of Cherry, that movie's turn, at its end, from film to video was a kind of exclamation point or a radical shift within the film. Now with Certified Copy and this new feature, you're regularly shooting fictional features digitally. Does shooting these features on video mean something different to you now?
KIAROSTAMI: It's a good question because it makes me have to make this clear distinction between what's really essentially digital and what's not in my body of work. I think digital filmmaking is a state of mind. Even before the tools existed, it was my conception of filmmaking, I was ready for it. And then it came and it made some films possible that I wouldn't be able to make if I were still working on film, like Five [Five Dedicated to Ozu] or Ten—I wouldn't be able to make them otherwise. But at the same time I wonder, because with The Taste of Cherry, for instance it could be one or the other. Or the last two films that I made, in the way that the mise en scène and the lighting and everything's been prepared and conceived by me, they could have been perfectly made with film. So, I would make this distinction saying that there are some films that are really essentially and by definition digital, like Five or Ten or some video art that I've made that you haven't seen yet. And some others, like the last two, could have been made with film or digital cameras. Digital filmmaking is a specific way of filmmaking, in which you are free, you are totally free of every kind of constraint. Whereas when you work on a Japanese film, even if you have a digital camera—even if you have a phone, a cell phone as a camera—digital doesn't make any sense. It's the same as if working in 70mm, because the Japanese have so many principles. The frame in which you work is so rigid that the camera doesn't make the difference, it's the spirit in which you work.
NOTEBOOK: So the milieu and traditions of the Japanese crew dramatically effected the way Like Someone in Love was made?
KIAROSTAMI: It didn't effect my film, because I have a Japanese side myself, but I wonder if it would have been possible for someone else. It wouldn’t have been easy for someone with a different state of mind. But I like discipline and I like their way of being, so I could get along with it. It's quite interesting to give you an example. For instance, when I have a Japanese photographer team coming for just one single portrait, and I'm supposed to meet them at 4 at the hotel, I come back at 2:30 and see some people, some lights and everything in the lobby and think maybe it's for me. But now, it's an hour and a half early, so it can't be them, so I go up and rest and when I come down at 4 it is them and they've been ready for hours. So they work under such pressure, with such discipline, with so many stiff rules that while they've invented the digital tool they are not at peace enough with it to acknowledge it and take advantage of it. I think it takes many generations. Maybe after a hundred years there will be a generation that will actually take for granted the fact that it gives them some freedom. At the moment, this is not the case yet. I've never seen such hard working people ever, anywhere in the world. This freedom and lightheartedness the digital tool gives you is something they've not considered yet.
NOTEBOOK: Would you say that's an atmosphere that effected the direction of the story?
KIAROSTAMI: No, it didn't really effect anything. They didn't change or have any direct suggestion on anything. I was the one who had to admit that things were as they were, that there was such accuracy that I had to respect it, and I did. But I was okay with it, again, because it's a part of my way of working, too.
NOTEBOOK: Correct me if I'm wrong, from what I remember from your previous instances of filmmaking, when you're directing actors, say in a shot, reverse-shot sequence in a car, the actors are not talking to one another but rather are talking to you: a woman talking in a shot to an off-camera character is in fact talking to you on set.
NOTEBOOK: What is it like, now, making movies overseas where you are no longer talking to actors in your own language?
KIAROSTAMI: That was the best way for me to see them, and with this film it was a great lesson to see if what you think is your method, your way of doing things, can be changed. It's not the best way and at least not the only way. I thought I had to work like this and once it was made impossible, I let things happen differently. And they did work. I must say, the way I worked with these two actors, sitting them in front of each other, was the easiest experience I've had in actor directing in my whole career. Because I would really go and sit beforehand and give them the minimal instruction I think they needed and then...just let them do. I was like a soccer manager. There was nothing I could do while the game was going on, I was just sitting there on the bench watching them do it and maybe see them before or after but not in the middle. This minimal intervention of me as a director was really a benefit.
NOTEBOOK: On this particular film, you directed actors differently, shooting the conversations proceeded differently?
KIAROSTAMI: Yeah, they didn't need all these tricks that I had to use in my old films, my Iranian films.
NOTEBOOK: Nevertheless, for the majority of the conversations between characters, you are still separating the actors in their own frame, rather than letting them talk to each other in a two shot.
KIAROSTAMI: That comes from the fact that I'm loyal to reality. In reality, when you're having a one-on-one conversation you only see one person. Now, I can see the two of you [me and the translator] because I'm the third one, so of course if I have a third person I have a two shot. But if I have two people talking to each other, what you see is the person in front of you, you don't see yourself.
NOTEBOOK: What is it like interacting with the actors when you are constructing characters who are so opaque? We are constantly having to guess who these people are, what they're thinking, what they're doing. I would think it would be difficult to evoke this from actors, that they might share a vagueness, confusion, a guessing that the audience also feels.
KIAROSTAMI: Well, you know, regardless of how the characters are, I never give any instruction, I never give them the whole script, because I know otherwise the actors will begin to anticipate, to give clues on what is coming next. So I only give them the pages they're going to act the next day. I never give them any explanations, it doesn't matters what their specificities are, they are not given any clue in general. I think there is nothing more harmful than an actor than extra information, unnecessary information.
NOTEBOOK: Speaking of necessary and unnecessary information, I'd love you to talk about the opening sequence, which struck me so strongly in Cannes and struck me again when I saw it here. It really is one of the most beguiling, mysterious opening series of shots I've seen. Because of the angle you've chosen, because of the sound design, because of the blocking, I'm not clear what I should be looking at or what I should be listening to, but I'm constantly looking and listening. There's this feeling of disorientation and curiosity that I think sustains itself through the whole film, but is most strong and poignant in this opening.
KIAROSTAMI: With both the opening and the ending sequences, through even after the writing process and all the way through shooting the film I was really wondering if they were appropriate. “Appropriate” means not that they're not only good—because I was sure they were a good way, in my taste, of opening the film—but “appropriate” means if it's acceptable for the audience. Something not too unusual for people to get it or to follow. Openings are difficult, you can tell from novels: if you go and check people's libraries you can see plenty of books whose first ten pages have been read and the rest are brand new and untouched. So openings are difficult, very often people leave after the beginning because they are disconcerted and they can't get into it. I finally decided to stick to it, although I knew it could be difficult and some people like you could appreciate it and consider it a good way to start the film, some others might feel uncomfortable for the whole film because of the way it started. But again, I knew it was faithful to reality—the story had already started. When you overhear a conversation in a cafe, things have started before you hear them, and you aren't sure where you're going and you still have to catch up with reality, and that's how I wanted the spectator to feel. Even for the mise en scène of that sequence, I knew that the more it goes, the more I don't like cuts, I don't like edited sequences in which the camera goes and finds the person, the person who the character is supposed to talk to. They must come to the camera, the camera is not supposed to go and find them. So I decided to have this [empty] chair and have the pimp's jacket on the chair so we'd know this is the chair where people would come. And the people would come one after another to have a conversation with the main character. All these aspects I was conscious of, I knew it was maybe a bit disconcerting; again, it's unusual. But I find it right for a conversation and a story that had started before us. When you are overhearing, when you are being indiscreet, you cannot ask people to come and explain to you. You are putting the parts together to see what's happening.


NYFF 2012Abbas KiarostamiFestival CoverageNYFFInterviews
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