Multi-times nominated for his previous film, Rebelle -the film was also nominated for an Oscar for a foreign language film- Canadian director Kim Nguyen travelled from Africa to the Arctic for his next film, a dark romantic tale of “two lovers and a bear”. In Greece he came for the Week of Canadian Cinema and when we meet him in the lobby of his hotel in central Athens, he tells us that what he did was try and find the wig and the teeth of Tony Erdmann (the character from the movie by Maren Ade) and take a photo of himself with it.
“When I go to a foreign country, I always want to do something that seems un-logical. This idea appeals to me in life in general” he says.
The same rule seems to apply in his exceptional films. Kim Nguyen combines the strange with the real and the dark in order to make something meaningful.
The shooting seemed very difficult. What was the most challenging moment for you?
In a way it’s strange but it was the preparation that was the most challenging. You go to the Artic and the conditions are so hard that you have to organize the shooting like an expedition. When you are doing a film you have the privilege to say that you go to an adventure, but at the same time it’s very protective: you have access to the best resources, you go to an adventure for three hours and then you go back to the hotel. The most important thing was access. To be able to go out from the small town in the Arctic, next to the frozen ocean where we shot a lot of things. It gave me one of the most beautiful memories of filmmaking: we were 30 snowmobiles and we saw the sun rise. The snowmobiles looked like they came out of a Mad Max movie: two or three had heavy equipment, others were modern snowmobils with modern technology with old sledges. I remember going out into the Arctic, with 30 snowmobiles like a Mad Max cavalry, looking at the sun rise. I remember looking at my DP who is a good friend and collaborator and we couldn’t believe that we were here.
Space is also a protagonist in your films. Would you ever think of doing a film in one room only?
Yes, absolutely. When we were in Kinsasa shooting Rebelle, my prop artist was telling me: Next time we choose a story that takes place in a restaurant in south of France. We write the story, we shoot it in the restaurant, where we eat dinner and that’s it. We stay there for two months. It would be really good to do that one day. It’s all about finding a script to do that. I guess that maybe I wouldn’t write it. But if I found the right script, I would like to direct it.
I read that the bear in the movie was real.
Oh yes! (laughter)
How does one proceed with the “casting” of a bear?
We had to see them in bikinis because she is naked in the movie (laughter). There is a nudity issue with the bear. In reality it wasn’t hard to find her. There was just one polar bear in North America that could do what we wanted to do. Her name is Aggie, she is 10 years old, she is a young adult. We brought her in a trailer from Vancouver, which is on the other side of the ocean, through the highway. We had to stop every three hours so she could pee. Imagine what the people that saw her thought. She was with us for three or four days. It was the strangest situation: she had her own trailer and she was the only actor with her own trailer. A real Hollywood star! Her trainer has a strange relationship with her: he is kind of her lover (in a symbolic way I hope!) He would advise us to stay together, because he said that polar bears attack those who are alone. So we had to stay in a pack. The bear attack mostly females, because she would get jealous if she saw another female alone. She ate a lot of pizza, that was her treat. One thing we didn’t expect was that because she lived in Vancouver, which is near the Ocean, she was very cold in the Arctic and sometimes she didn’t want to go out of her trailer because of the cold.
Dane De Haan and Tatiana Maslany are both amazing actors and well known. How did you come to work with them?
I discovered Dane in The Place Beyond the Pines. When I saw the movie, I was sure that this guy hadn’t played before and was just playing himself in the film. So, I did some research and found that he was a trained actor. That really impressed me. We met at TIFF in Toronto and we discussed through e-mails various project. We both wanted to do this film. I had seen Tatiana in Orphan Black and I knew that she had range, but I would never had thought about her for that part. She did a screen test for us and it was the best screen test I had ever seen. We just had to hope that they had good chemistry. Fortunately they trusted each other.
Both your last films (Rebelle and Two Lovers and a Bear) seem like dark, love stories, your own version of Romeo and Juliet. Your next film Eye on Juliet seems to fit into that category as well. What attracts you to the dark side of love?
It’s true, it’s a trilogy! (laughter) More and more I ask questions about that. I guess I find fascinating that although the world goes into chaos, although we go to dark places, love is still the thing that drives us. People can still do crazy, mad things about love and sex. We might have all these challenges but the desire to meet another person is there. I guess it’s in our DNA. And then, I just love love stories.
“Two Lovers and a Bear” takes place in the Arctic. How is life there?
The place the film was shot is unique in the world. It’s called Iqaluit and it is the capital of the Nunavut region. It feels like a lunar base, you feel like you are on another planet. It’s one of the most modern places I’ve seen: people have to constantly adapt so they are very open to modern technology. They try to find ways to better communicate, so as soon as cell phones are available or the Internet, the people who live there want it. And they have it. But at the same time, one of the most efficient ways of surviving cold is seal fur. So, you have this combination of someone in seal fur pants on a snowmobile with a 100-year old sledge with GPS. And you see those houses that are all in metal, are built on stilts and have a huge antenna. It’s really unique. I remember going to a store and buying an orange which came from Africa. I think it was the least ecological thing I could have done in my life! In the Arctic you have all these paradoxes. And there is this smog in Iqaluit because the people who live there get heat by using crude oil. So there is this yellow cloud above Iqaluit. It carries all the idiosyncrasies of the world, but in a small place. It’s not what you expect to see in the Arctic.
What can you tell us about your next film, “Eye on Juliet”?
It’s a utopian tale about a guy called Gordon, who surveys pipelines via cameras and robots. He uses small robots that look like spiders in order to survey the pipelines in North Africa. He gets dumped by his girlfriend. He sees in the desert a forbidden couple and instead on spying on the pipelines he uses his robots to spy on them. And he starts asking questions about his own life. It’s a film about modern relationships and a utopian representation of how people all over the world should reconcile now with the borders closing.
Canada has one of the biggest film festivals in the world and there are a lot of director coming from Canada. But I feel that people don’t have very good knowledge of canadian cinema.
On the one side there are filmmakers that make good films, but on the other side I think that we could make better films. There is something wonderful about Canada: I believe that right now we are one of the greatest democracies in the world. I think that this happens because we compromise. Now, in the artistic world that is not necessarily a good film (laughs), because I think that in order to go to the depths of your inner instincts you have to accept the dictatorship of the vision. More people are accepting the irrationality of our inner psyche, but I think there is more work to be done. For example, I have a lot of respect for Lanthimos and I think he followed his vision with the least compromise possible. You have to leave your comfort zone and maybe experience discomfort in order to create something.