INTERVIEW: KUNAL MEHRA
THE WIND BLOWS
WHERE IT WILL
Cubie King: First I want to say thank you for taking the time to talk to me, Kunal. This is a wonderful opportunity.
KM: Pleasure’s mine. Glad that it all worked out.
CK: I wanted to start by saying I think you made a really excellent film here. A film I hope others will be able to see soon.
KM: Thanks! It’s always nice to meet people who took a liking to the film.
CK: First I want to start broadly with how you found your lead actor Josh Boyle.
KM: Craigslist is the word.
KM: I had put up audition calls for pretty much everything – cast/crew/catering/producer – on CL and believe it or not, found pretty much 95% of the cast/crew on there.
CK: That’s interesting.
KM: It took me a while to find the character for Philippe, though. I had it narrowed down to 3 actors and I spent quite a lot of time just informally chatting with them, trying to get a sense of how their persona in real life is like. Josh seemed to fit the bill perfectly.
CK: I agree. And your cinematographer Aron Noll?
KM: Craigslist. I had put up an ad on CL a few years ago for a film that I never really made. Aron responded to that ad and even though I never made that film, we kept in touch, so when I wanted a DP for TWBWIW, I got in touch with Aron right away. Thankfully enough all the scheduling worked out and he was on board.
CK: And what camera did you shoot with?
KM: Panasonic DVX100. Probably more detail than you asked for, but we started shooting with dvx100a (which is what Aron owned). The next day, one of the crew members offered to lend us his brand new dvx100b (which had 16:9 anamorphic mode) for the shoot. We shot with that for a week before a freak accident happened in which a bicyclist tripped over the camera and totaled it. I paid the crew member for that camera and rented another 100b from a local store for the rest of the shoot.
CK: Now that’s a story. Ouch.
KM: Yeah… it was painful. Ironically, I had insurance for everything other than equipment. C’est La Vie.
CK: Smart man. So What is your background? Where did you grow up? Go to school?
KM: I grew up in India in a small town (Aurangabad) that’s about 200 miles east of Bombay. My undergrad was in electronics and after a brief internship in Singapore, I moved to Cincinnati, Ohio for my Masters in computers in August 2000. A couple of years and some celestial alignments later, I found myself in the rainy Pacific Northwest in Portland, Oregon, working for Intel, which is where I’m working as of now.
CK: And your influential filmmakers and/or films?
KM: It’s hard to pin influences down on any one artist since, in my opinion, the creative process is continuously being nurtured as one observes and learns, with influences and inspiration abounding all around us and seeping into our consciousness without our being necessarily conscious of it. That being said, if I had to take names: the intoxicating pessimism of Bergman, the keen insight and sheer prolificness of Fassbinder, the Zen’ism of Ozu, the surrealism of Tarkovsky, the stark and ascetic minimalism of Bresson, the fluidity and humanness of Renoir and more recently, the keen eye of Hou Hsiao-Hsien.
When it comes to films: I would definitely put Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman and Bela Tarr’s Satantango as a couple of direct influences on the writing/editing ofTWBWIW. Other indelible works: Fassbinder’s Why does Herr R. Run Amok, Herzog’s Aguirre, Bresson’s Gentle Woman, Karoly Makk’s Another Way, Sokhurov’s Mother & Son and Confessions, Ozu’s Tokyo Story, Imamura’s Ballad of Narayama, Jean Vigo’sL’ Atalante.
CK: You mentioned to me earlier that you originally began this story not as a screenplay but as personal writings. When did it start becoming a screenplay?
KM: Yeah… it started off as just a bunch of random notes and observations about no one in particular. I had no intention whatsoever of turning it into a screenplay, least of all of actually making the film myself (I would have to be truly mad to make a film, after all). These notes gradually built up over the course of 8-10 months. I don’t recall there being any one particular moment of epiphany where I decided that I’ll convert it to a screenplay. I guess at some point I came to the realization that I had seen way too many movies and was getting itchy to make one myself. As it turned out, I seemed to have about 50-60 pages worth of random notes that could perhaps be put into a screenplay…
CK: So prior to these notes you weren’t considering a filmmaking path? At least not as an alternative to your computer work?
KM: I wasn’t. I had taken a few elementary courses in filmmaking at the local film center but nothing serious. I was/am however very lucky to have a great movie rental store in town (as a plug in for them, here’s the name: Movie Madness) and I was constantly inundating myself with titles from their collection. I owe them a lot for having such a fantastic collection. It definitely helped broaden my view of cinema (I come from India where 3 hour long song-and-dance Bollywood movies are the norm and any shot longer than 10 seconds has to have sex or violence in it).
CK: Nothing wrong with a little Sholay!
KM: Ha! to be honest, I haven’t seen it. I’ve never confessed it to any Indian friends before though, or I would be ostracized.
CK: How long did it take to shoot TWBWIW?
KM: Since I love dates and specifics…I kind-of started working on the script in June 2005 and was writing sporadically (and not necessarily with the idea of converting my writings into a film script) for the next year or so. I didn’t really have a ‘firm’ script until July 2006. We started pre-production in July of ’06. Shooting started in October and lasted 18 days. Post-production took about 6 months (the video edit was done here in Portland and the sound design/engineering in New York) and the DVDs finally came out in July 2007. So I guess to succinctly answer your question, it took about 2 years.
CK: The film has a wonderful surrealistic feeling, wonderful colors, and a firmly established mood. Can you speak about this quality? How much of this was thought out?
KM: Thanks for the kind words. I kind-of had an idea at the back of my head that this was to be a movie that had to have strong elements of geography in it. It was essential that there be a link, preferably as strong as possible, between the rhythm of the city and the life of Philippe. And we were blessed with incredibly good weather (considering the time of the year), so there were definitely those fortuitous shots that weren’t scripted but simply made their way into the film because they were too good to be passed up on. Luckily the 2 key production/post-production folks – DP and the editor – were both on the same page with me when it came to the style of shooting and editing – that helped immensely.
CK: There are some memorable shots: Philippe lying down under the trees, Philippe walking out of his home, the glow of the restaurant where he runs into his ex-girlfriend, the wide shots of the city…I thought this was all fully realized.
KM: For the most part, yes, these were in the script. What wasn’t in the script is things like yellow autumn leaves falling from a tree as he stands under it or the light of the magic hour when he’s walking by the pond (towards the end of the film). It was/is my hope that these seemingly mundane shots would help reinforce a sense of locality and also unity (unity of Philippe’s life with that of his environment, a sort of meshing together of the physical with the emotional until we reach a point where the two are inextricably linked).
CK: I think you achieved that. I’d like to get into that more a little later.
One more question about the photography. What are one or two of your favorite shots?
Personally I love the shot of Philippe and Jeanne walking away from the train station skipping, it’s burned in my mind. (Funny, to think of it now, that may be the lightest moment of the film, hahaha!)
KM: Yeah, it was a hard call to decide whether or not to keep that shot in the final edit. We decided to stick with it. Like you say, it’s probably the only outwardly-cheerful shot in the film. My favorite shot (if I can be presumptuous enough to have one) would be that of Philippe eating his soup/bread dinner on that little table of his. I wanted it to resemble a painting, specifically, Vermeer’s Milkmaid.
The simplicity and asceticism of that painting is what I had in mind for that shot. It’s leagues away from that painting, but that was the inspiration behind the shot. It took us quite a while to get the composition right (and poor Philippe quite a lot of bagels and soup)
CK: Kunal, you made a 3-hour film. A film, and being honest here, isn’t the fasted paced film ever made. This is extremely ambitious. (Or maybe not) Did you know it was going to be this length?
KM: Ha! I knew this was coming. I knew the film was going to be long, but I didn’t anticipate it to be 3 hours long.
CK: Very funny!
KM: As the edit of the film progressed, both me and my editor (David Bryant) were seemingly entranced by the rhythm and pace that the film seemed to be taking on, independently of us. After a while, I think it distanced itself from us and started its own protozoic existence and I felt it would be a shame to intrude upon it. Obviously, making a 3 hr long debut film with not a lot of car chases/dialogue/sex/blood can be (and probably is) akin to harakiri and I guess I was ambitious (or naive?) enough to take that chance.
CK: I agree, in the end, I think you realize the extended length is necessary to get you, legitimately, into the mindset of where Philippe is going.
KM: True..and that’s a huge gamble.
CK: Very quickly, is there anything of note you’d like to add about your working relationship with Bryant [editor]? Was he on the set with you at all?
KM: David was on set once to meet with the script sup and to say hello to everyone. I’ve had a great relationship with him. We have quite a lot of cinematic tastes in common and that definitely helped sculpt this film in the direction I had envisioned.
CK: Could you name a few of these “cinematic tastes”?
KM: For starters, in my CL ‘seeking for an editor’ ad, I had (casually) mentioned Bresson and Bergman. When he replied to that ad, he said that the mention of Bresson was what drove him to contact me. When we met the first time for coffee, I had emailed him a synopsis of the script the night before. His first comment was that this reminds me of Jeanne Dielman. That was the definitive click.
CK: Now I want to go specifically to the film. The scene that struck me, that showed I was dealing with a real talent is early in the film (one I look at specifically in my review) when Philippe returns home from work, lies in bed, drinks from his thermos, gets up, slowly and carefully folds his blanket, removes the sheets, and take them to the ironing board. He then proceeds to iron, iron, iron, methodically. When done he puts the sheets back on the bed, lies back in bed. He straightens the bed, lies down for a moment, the goes to the restroom, puts on his coat, and leaves. All in all, about 11mins of mundane domesticity.
It’s a scene that established, for me:
1) who Philippe is
2) what type of film this was going to be and
3) what type of director you are.
It’s a beautifully conceived. Break it down for us. I’m curious to know how this scene came about, you’re thoughts on it. I’ve saw only one other film in 2007 that made my ears perk up like this and that was Jose Luis Guerin’s In The City of Slyvia, which also reinterprets the extended sequence. Am I wrong to think this is one of the defining scenes of the film?
KM: I haven’t seen the film you mention. I’ll have to check it out next time at the rental store. Regarding the ironing scene – the primary motivation for that was to introduce the viewer into Philippe’s life. Not just show them, but take their hand and lead them into his life. There’s ample room in that scene to ruthlessly cut pretty much every shot to about 1/4th of its existing duration but would that get me to that hypnotic voyeuristic state that I had envisioned? Quite likely not. I remember when I was searching for a sound engineer, I took a rough cut of the DVD to one engineer who worked on a bunch of Gus Van Sant’s films. He’s a video editor as well and he said that while he really liked the composition and theme, I was lingering way too long on each shot. About 5 seconds into each shot, he’d click his fingers and say cut. I have a lot of respect (and admiration) for him but that was when I knew I didn’t want to work with him as a sound engineer. One of the best compliments I’ve received on that scene is (perhaps unexpectedly) from a friend’s 5 year old. We were watching the movie together and about 20 secs into the ironing scene he says “Is there someone in the room watching Philippe?” That told me I hadn’t screwed up with that scene. It’s an admittedly uncomfortable scene to watch – there’s not a lot of ‘stuff’ happening but really, in my honest opinion, there is a lot of ‘stuff’ happening.
CK: I’m glad you didn’t work with that sound engineer. It really is a make-or-break scene for the viewer. If someone ‘understands’ what you’re after then I think they’ll be open to go on this amazing, if not somber, sojourn with Philippe.
KM: Yeah…and I think that is probably where most festival screeners toss my film into the reject bin. If they ever get that far, that is.
CK: Their loss. More specifically about the character Philippe. Paul Scrhader in "Transcendental Style in Film" writes, “Bresson’s characters, “even in their more extreme confidences, never reveal anything but their mystery—like God himself.” I think this is true of Philippe. He’s sort of a blank canvas yet you reveal him to us through his actions. Slowly repeated actions. Talk about this.
KM: Before the filming, Josh and I had a long talk over tea about the acting style. I lent him my copy of Bresson’s "Notes on the Cinematographer" and watched Four Nights of a Dreamer with him. I would definitely agree with Scrhader. Pretty much all of Bresson’s characters are (seemingly) inactive, frozen or unresponsive. I think that can come across two ways – either it can distance the viewer and make them uninterested in the actor’s actions or it can make the viewer question the actor’s unusual stoicism. Why isn’t he crying? Why doesn’t he ever look happy? Can’t he just smile once? After a certain point, the viewer realizes that these answers are really not going to come from the commonly associated clues (facial reactions, actions) but that she’ll have to search for them elsewhere…somewhere hidden and elusive. She’ll have to work for her gratification. I think that it is in this searching that one of film’s true unique redeeming qualities is to be found. It makes the life of the director challenging and exciting: you can’t just show him breaking down. You’ve got to circumnavigate around the tears and find another way to show the angst; and it makes the life of the viewer hard, and eventually, hopefully rewarding: she has to think gasp while watching the movie and search for her own clues.
In fact, in the phone scene towards the end (where he’s talking with the late night caller), he eventually breaks down. That wasn’t scripted. He didn’t tell me he was going to do that and just did it. We were all watching from outside the room and were completely overwhelmed by the intensity of his emotions. We did a retake of that scene w/o him crying and eventually decided that the first take was better. That was one point where I deviated from Bresson’s style. But I felt that it was sort-of justified given that the film was nearing climax and his breakdown was perhaps a culmination of all that pent-up stoicism. Maybe.
CK: Such a powerful scene. I think one of the keys to The Wind Blows Where It Will, which you find relevant in Bresson, and something the Dardennes explicitly stress as a road to spirituality, if you will, is the use, or exploration of, repetition. Do you think this is a valid assessment? And if so, why do you think this serves as a gateway to this secret language of cinema?
KM: I read somewhere (can’t remember where and the exact term used to describe it) but this filmmaker was talking about zero-limit filmmaking. Essentially, what he/she was saying was that if you proceed with a repetitive shot/scene for longer than normal, after a while you get hypnotized by it and sort-of reach a state of absolute-zero temperature – where atoms are frozen and light is halted and, wonderfully examined. Of course, you’ve got to choose your shots wisely but I think there’s some validity in that school of thought. The one scene that stands out in my mind is from Tarr’s Satantango, the old obese man struggling to get out of his chair to pick up his medicines (I think). He takes about one or two excruciating minutes just to get out of his chair. Those 2 minutes do nothing to further the plot of the film, per se, but in terms of the state of your mind, they do wonders. As for extending it to the realm of spirituality: I think that once you reach a point of stability and equilibrium, the mind is essentially unhindered and can extend itself in any direction you want to channel it to. Tarkovsky does that with extended surreal shots. The shot of the train-trolley in Stalker (as the 3 men are moving towards the zone) comes to mind.
CK: Yes. I think you’re onto something here. We’re conditioned in a way to think of cinematic shots in short bursts, so when something extends past its time-constraint it transforms into something quite different. And we either reject or embrace it.
KM: Most often, it is (unfortunately) rejected…courtesy MTV.
CK: I agree but I don’t think MTV is our main adversary anymore. It’s everywhere and its conditioned. From the web, to shortened newscasts/stories, to the rapidity of technological growth; we live in a society engendering the idea fast is good. No, fast = life.
KM: True. I don’t own a TV but I know what you mean. Fast rapid action cuts are the symptom of more than just dwindling attention spans. I think it’s a sign of the state of life we often (inadvertently) find ourselves in – a state where an attitude of retrospection/reflection is nowhere as cool as one of instant gratification and thought-terminating cliches, as Robert Lifton put it. I mean I like Ministry as much as Mahler but I think there’s a sacred place that needs to be reserved for these retrospective attitudes.
CK: Along this line of reasoning the filmmaking-approach you’ve taken, which, for argument sake, we’ll call contemplative, has a variety of manifestations around the globe, as I know you’re aware of. Yet here in America it really hasn’t caught on. It almost works in direct opposite of what we’re thought to think is Cinema. It’s encouraging to see a young American director take this route but do you think in the end it hurts you because there isn’t a large audience to see your work? I think this film would be viewed very differently outside the country.
KM: You’re spot-on. It definitely is a gamble (in terms of the running time and the style/theme) and I realized this pretty much immediately after the DVDs came out and I started sending it out to fests.
Not so surprisingly, it was turned down at all American fests. I was at an informal talk with the local film fest’s programming director and he basically said that unless it’s Lawrence of Arabia, they’re pretty much guaranteed not to be programming a 3 hr long feature. Perhaps less surprisingly enough, it was turned down at European fests as well. I emailed one of them asking if they could give me a reason for the rejection. They cited the length as the primary cause for rejection.
CK: That must be frustrating. I’m sure we could go to any of these fests and find thousands of “feel-good,” “chic,” “in” films that really speak nothing about society, humanity, or even artistry. They offer up a quick laugh or cute amusement but rarely a lasting quality. And sadly the wider audience isn’t aware that there are other choices. Have you considered reducing the length? (Something I would be saddened to see)
KM: It is frustrating. I’ve toyed with the idea of making it more ‘palatable’, which essentially means cutting the poor thing down to something like 100 mins. It’s not out of the realm of possibility right now but I’m trying my best to stick with this version for now and see how it’s received outside of the fest circuit.
CK: This conversation has turned to the darker side of producing a film like yours. To stay in the rigmarole a bit I’d like to ask you about the philosophical underpinnings of the film.
KM: …one has to be in tune with the dark side
Camus wrote “dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation, and the uselessness of suffering.”
I’ve rarely seen such a portrayal of individual isolation and pain. How do you view Philippe’s descent? And is it a lesson to us to have faith in something, if not just simply, our own selves? Ironically I find this an optimistic statement that works against the final outcome.
KM: That’s a great Camus quote. For me, Philippe’s descent is an inward spiral and yes, like you said, a loss of faith in himself as well. Clearly, he has choices in his life that could easily have altered the trajectory of his existence. Why he doesn’t choose to act upon those choices is his individual decision and one that is strongly influenced by his lack of self-faith. But faith, if it is flagging, can be rejuvenated and nurtured and this is something that he still chooses to avoid doing. Maybe because he believes in a greater peace in the ‘afterlife’, or maybe because he has perhaps stubbornly decided that it’s not going to come to anything. Or maybe, like you say in the Camus quote, he recognized the uselessness of suffering, especially suffering steeped in an existence that isn’t composed of what is traditionally viewed as a “happy” life – friends, partner, stability etc.
That’s one reason why I wanted to emphasize the seemingly repetitive/monotonous nature of his existence. It’s a lot harder to have faith in yourself if you don’t really have the support of friends/family and are isolated amongst your own rituals and solitary existence.
CK: One thing Philippe seemingly has is a faith in music. Can you speak a bit about the importance of music (in this case classical music) to Philippe and to the film itself? I know this is a fairly broad question. As much as the final phone call scene is an awkward situation the music elevates it, makes it work, taking Philippe to that emotional place.
KM: I wanted music to be used very sparsely, if at all. It definitely plays a huge part in his life. I view it as a sort of an anchor holding him stable and helping him weather the rough parts.
CK: That’s how I saw it. Along with his sculpting.
KM: I also wanted to stay away from any non-diegetic music. It’s very tempting to use it but I felt that it would adulterate the sanctity and honesty of his existence. Yes..the sculpting as well. Particularly the repetitive stubbornness which drives him to obsessively continue on the same piece of sculpture.
CK: So what’s next for you, Kunal? Another film?
KM: As soon as I have funding, I’ll be on the set.
CK: You have something written?
KM: In the works…this time however, I’m writing with the conscious intention of making a film. It’s hard to write a script witout having a budget in mind but at least the skeleton can be built.
CK: Do you envision working in the same style?
KM: Not necessarily..I would like to think that I want to be able to experiment with different themes and styles while retaining my core beliefs.
CK: Lastly how can someone curious to see your film see it?
KM: Email me at WindBlowsWhereItWill@gmail.com. That’s probably the best option at this point. Of course, if the film gets distribution/exhibition, I’ll keep my website updated.
CK: Well, thank you for your time, Kunal, and for making a brave film that I hope will be more widely seen as time goes by.
KM: My pleasure.