IONCINEMA.com’s IONCINEPHILE of the Month feature focuses on an emerging creator from the world of cinema. This month, we feature Ognjen Glavonić who saw his feature fiction debut land a coveted spot in the Directors’ Fortnight line-up in 2018, with subsequent showings at prestige fests such as TIFF, Marrakech (where we spoke to the filmmaker) and the 2019 editions of Rotterdam and ND/NF. The Load received its U.S. theatrical release via the Grasshopper Film on August 30th. Here is our profile on Ognjen and make sure to check out Part 2 of our profile – Ognjen Glavonić’s Top Ten Films of All Time list.
Eric Lavallée: You were more of a music fan in your youth, but during your childhood, were there specific films that were important to you?
Ognjen Glavonić: When I was growing up, I watched films mostly on VHS. By the time I hit eighteen, I had actually went to the cinema only on a dozen or so occasions. One of the main reasons for this is that the war broke out when I was 6 years-old, and the breakup of a country and the sanctions of all kinds made life much different. Factories and companies were closing, and, because of the economic inflation, even the wages people were earning – became useless. You would get your monthly paycheck in the morning and by the end of the day — our money was devalued. This was the period when people were in survival mode and you had shift your priorities. Arts and culture suffered, and so did the cinemas.
In my hometown of Pancevo, I think only one or two cinemas survived out of the five that were there. Going to cinema became a luxury in a way. The films I remember the most from this time (early childhood) were “Killer Klowns from Outer Space“, “Starman” and “The Brave Little Toaster“. Later on, during my pre-adolescence years, I recall a moment where I watched the largest amount of movies due to being sick with some allergy — so I was housebound. There was a VHS club called “Hägar”, that, as every other video club at the time, had a lot of pirated copies of new films, so most of the films I watched had been copies that were Cam rips, made by recording the film in cinemas. You could see people walking out, and hear the sounds of popcorn being eaten, screaming and the laughter. I rented a few films each day for several months, and at that time I remember liking the films of Jim Carey, Chris Farley, I loved “The Usual Suspects“, “Seven“, “L.A. Confidential“. I recall watching “Contact” many times over and I also remember when I rented Cronenberg’s “Crash” because the VHS’s store guy told me …”it’s a good thriller”, and to awkwardly discover the film sitting next to my parents when I was about 12 years-old. My favorite film at that time was “Once Upon a Time in America” which, by chance I first caught on TV and while I was watching it for the first time there was a blackout. Without electricity, I spent some time afterwards trying to finish it in my head, imagining the rest of it, before I caught it again and finished it a week later. When you mention music, I got into that when I was in my early teens, and there was a film that kind of inspired that. The first time I heard AC/DC was in “Private Parts” when Howard Stern tries to organize their concert. When I heard the song in the film, it really kick started the interest and passion for rock/metal/punk — and that occupied me for the next decade. I didn’t have much interest in films or cinema during that time.
Lavallée: It’s music that sort of put you on the path towards filmmaking….at what point did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?
Glavonić: Well, when I finished high school, my band broke apart and I started studying law, which I come to dislike. One of my father’s friends sold pirated CD’s and DVD’s with films from all around, and so this friend had a huge collection of everything. This new passion for watching films started slowly, first with watching horror and trash movies with friends, “Evil Dead“, “Troll 2“, “Toxic Avenger“, and it was something I enjoyed without having any interest or desire to learn more about filmmaking. But it made me aware of my lack of knowledge about the whole world of cinema and films that I didn’t know existed. I wanted to learn more, maybe because I didn’t really want to study law, and because at that time I didn’t have a band. I remember that at one moment another friend gave me a burned DVD with several films, and that really changed everything for me. On that DVD there was “A Clockwork Orange“, “Dr. Strangelove“, and some other films. Kubrick was the one that really changed the game for me and made me want to discover everything about cinema. The problem was I really did not know anyone who was a filmmaker and I didn’t have any knowledge about the process, the industry, about what should be my job, how and where to start with anything. I never had a video camera nor operated one. I found some books and got one CD called Microsoft Cinemania ’97. At the time I didn’t have internet, but through these things I tried to educate myself and find the films and filmmakers to watch next. Eventually I learned that there is a Film School in Belgrade, and that in order to apply you got the have a short film. One of my good friends, and a drummer of my ex-band, had a DV camera and an interest in photography, so we made a short film together. This is what we used to try and enroll to the Faculty of Dramatic Arts — I attempted to get into Film Directing, and he applied for Camera. But we did not pass the exam. So I decided to leave the law school, and spent the entire year just watching films. We made another short, tried again and enrolled in 2006.
Lavallée: Beyond the formal training you received in Belgrade, what lessons did your debut short, Zivan Pujic Jimmy provide you with for the long run?
Glavonić: That film was made as an exam on my second year where we had to shoot a documentary portrait. We had a lot of exams and, therefore, short films to make during studying, but this was my first short that went to some festivals and got some awards. It was the introduction to that side of things, and therefore, very useful and important. In the long run, as it was my first documentary – and I never thought of or had an interest in documentaries at that point – it showed me the differences and parallels between this and fiction filmmaking, and offered some fresh ideas and insights that I always kind of missed while making these short fictions at the school as they all came with some sort of obstructions. So, even though this film was kind of a part of that formal training in school, through it I found some ways to escape and upgrade on the stuff that was expected of me and the form of an exam. Also, through the process of making this film, I became friends with Zivan, a guy whom I only knew superficially up to that point. Few years later, when I finished the Film School, we made another film together called Zivan Makes a Punk Festival.
Lavallée: You invested a large amount of time and research for your fiction debut. Was there a more uncensored, more overt text components in previous draft of the screenplay?
Glavonić: I’ve invested so much time into it as it took a lot of years to finance the film. The crime that’s part of the main plot of the film was itself so complicated and huge that I never actually wanted to make a film that tries to explain or recreate it. I don’t think that is possible and I’m not interested in that. I never wanted to make a film that gives a history, or moral, lesson, where I use my position to preach or judge something or someone. But yes, as it took seven years to finance the film, especially at the start, there were more informative versions of the script, more informative about the event, the crime, but also informative in the way that you got a lot more information about the characters through the stuff that was visible, present or spoken. So, not exactly uncensored things being said or shown, not exactly trying to portray it or explain it in that vain, but there were more stuff that were making things, characters and the plot more thick, strong and clear. It was something that I always had a problem with, because for me things and stories get their power and strength not through the information and plot and themes they touch upon, but through language you use in trying to tell them, show them, communicate them.
Through the years, I tried to strip the film to it’s essence, and communicate the stuff not only through what is there, said and/or shown, but through suggestion and correspondence that all of the layers of the film had with each other: the story, the themes, the ideas, the form, the rhythm, the ethics and aesthetic. What does one do in correspondence with the other, does it just add some information, fill it in, or does it complicate things, complicate it in order to make it more interesting and true, as these conflicts always are. And I always try to do this in order to open a place for the more active participation from the audience, to respect the person on the receiving end of it, the person that spends some time with the film, I try to respect his ability to understand, to imagine and feel things, allow them to make their own conclusions. One of the ideas was to offer something without showing it, something that can be created only in this communication and relationship that you have with the film, and whatever you create is correct, as it’s yours, and it’ll hopefully stay longer and linger stronger then any image or story I can create and offer. So, with all this changes and the evolution of the script, all of this stuff were maybe not visible and clear in the final few drafts, but I hope that, in the finished film, these intentions, and the attitude is clear.
One more thing that had a big impact on changing the script was that I also made the documentary called Depth Two, which grew out of all this research I’ve done about the case, that couldn’t find it’s place in the script for The Load. This doc was about the structure of the crime, the scale and the scope of it, in a different concept and shape than the fiction film. When I returned to the script for The Load after making this documentary, I realized that now I already said and touched upon a lot of stuff I wanted to say, so I took that out of the script, worked on it and put some other problems and questions I had at the time.
Lavallée: How early did you determine the look of Leon Lucev’s character – in terms of clothing, but his facial look and the character’s general demeanor?
Glavonić: Leon accepted to be in the film very early on, without reading the script, even with me telling him that I don’t know when we will shoot. It took five years from that moment, and you have to understand that he is famous in Croatia and Ex-Yugoslavia, he is very well known and respected actor. And I was a beginner, trying to make my first feature.
At that time, I think it was 2013, I told him that the character can be kind of based on my father, but it also could be anyone really, the idea was that maybe someone close to you had this kind of shady past, as we live in these societies where many people were affected and involved with many dark aspects which they wanted or had to hide, or couldn’t and didn’t know how to speak about it. Leon also has his story from that time, from the war, and I think he connected to it even though it scared him at the time. Over the years we became friends and didn’t really speak about the character or the film. I think he perfectly understood my ideas and, which was fortunate, he shared them. So we mostly spoke about the current situation in our countries, the world, we shared books, texts, music, films, etc.
When it was time to get into production, he sent me an image of himself with 15kg more, long beard and long hair, even though we never talked about how this character was supposed to look like. I liked his ideas and we worked on that, changing the shape of the hair and the beard. We worked on the way he walked, and, for the close ups, the movements of the head, eyes, lips. Almost all of the actors from our countries work in the theater more than they do in film, and Leon is a rarity as he is someone who is almost dedicated entirely to film.
We worked on the voice and diction as Leon is from Croatia. Although it’s the same language, the accents and pronunciations of some words are very different. He asked me to record my father reading all of his lines, and then he listened to that on his headphones for two weeks before the shooting and also during the shoot. As for the clothes, Maja Mirkovic, who was in charge of that sector, decided to use the real clothes and shoes from that period, it was something that we talked about and frankly our budget was not that great. We went to flea markets and bought a lot of stuff very cheaply, so everything you see in the film, all characters and extras, wear this kind of second hand thrift shops. It was mostly older clothes that we bought, and clothes from the persons from the similar social milieu as our characters. The way Leon and myself worked was based on trust, and, as we already spent the years talking about everything, it was really was a joy to witness all of this. I would mostly use few words while working with him on the set, and those words were “more” and “less”. Many items in the script and dramaturgy were supposed to relay and come just from the person playing the main character, so Leon’s presence and his face were especially important. I think that many ideas or moments in the film function only because of him, especially the feeling of the war, which we don’t actually see a lot, and the idea was that we mostly see and feel it through his face and in his eyes.
Lavallée: You’ve toured with this film for more than a year now, I imagine that for Serbian audiences you might have found some unease. What has the post film dialogue been like — has there been an openness to discuss the past / were you surprised by the reaction?
Glavonić: You could say that towards the end of eighties, Serbia’s political and intellectual elites represent the avant-garde of today’s kind of populist and post-truth world politics. So, we could deduce that my generation grew up and lives in this kind of culture for what feels like a long period. It’s been normalized. It’s been accepted, and I guess I was searching for ways to talk about it, question it, fight against it, and rebel. This devaluation of logic and truth produces and constantly increases the number of those who want to live in a lie, increases the number of those who do not mind the relativization of proven facts and truths, and the banalization of life. The weapon you use to create and protect this kind of system is nationalism, and it is the only sacred thing today. So, my film appeared in a country with that kind of system, and as nationalism does not want to communicate – it functions through destruction, rejection of communication – the film was sentenced or dismissed up front, without anyone seeing it. There was a hate campaign against the film, and our team, calling us traitors, anti-Serbs, spies and similar things. Its purpose was to warn people not to see the film, warn them that, if they watch it, they will also be a part of the projected treason.
Unsurprisingly, these attacks appeared as soon as the news about the Cannes selection was made. I went through something similar with “Depth Two“, before this, but it was on a smaller scale. What I did not expect was the depth of hatred and poison that would be spilled and published in the media and public sphere — the scope of it and the amount of people that will have something to say about the film before they had the chance to view it. It lasted for about half a year, until we finally screened the film in Serbia last year, at the end of November, at one festival. After that, unfortunately, because this campaign was successful, cinemas and their owners were afraid and did not want to take the film in the distribution. Only few cities and cinemas showed the film in the end. It just showed and proved that many people live in fear. And that even greater number of them chooses to believe what they hear from someone else, from positions of power and influence (media, politicians, elites), and not make their own assessment with their own eyes, logic, facts, and science.
On the other hand, this hate campaign against the film perhaps made for the best marketing of it — as a lot of people heard about the film only through these vicious attacks that were mainly in the form of conspiracy theories, questioning whether the crimes happened, and criticizing the idea of making a film about it. A vast amount of people heard about the crime for the first time through The Load. So there were a lot of texts, and talks, and debates about the real event, which in a way did break the silence and what we could say was blindness for a short period.
Lavallée: Can you discuss the collaborative process you had with your cinematographer?
Glavonić: Tatjana Krstevski is also from Pancevo, but we met only when I started studying film. We worked on two of my student short films, the she was the cinematographer on Depth Two, and we also, during these years, started a film festival in our hometown, Pancevo Film Festival. So we knew each other quite well, we were friends, but went into the preparation and the production of The Load with a lot of extra passion and ambition as it was the first fiction feature for both of us. Depth Two was a great preparation, both in terms of the visuals, locations, the subject matter, and we shot at the same season of the year. On The Load we had to deal with much bigger crew and less time to shoot, with the truck being the main location, the fact that it’s a road movie, a period piece, and had elements of war.
In terms of funding, we didn’t have a large budget so we had to prepare everything in advance. Collaboration with the art department was crucial, the locations played big part of the film, so all of this was done in co-operation of Zorana Petrov, the set designer, Maja, the costume designer, and Tatjana. We had a lot of shared folders on Google Drive, and everything was available to everyone at every moment, each location, details on it, props, clothes, colors, photo and video references, even the soundtrack of the film. We had a small budget and that meant working with very small amount of lights and with a small crew. Tatjana’s experience and ideas really helped overcome any obstacles. We bought two exactly looking trucks and adapted them into a place we could shoot in with almost no additional lights, with enough space for the camera and sound guys, and with the ability to communicate at every moment. Very quickly we realized that because of the short amount of daylight (we shot in February and March) we couldn’t shoot nine or ten shots per day (the original plan), but only three or four. And that influenced and changed both the style and the film. I always wanted to create the film on set, and just shoot the script, and, because of this alteration in shooting style, we had more time to find, prepare and rehearse the shots.
Lavallée: Can you discuss the collaborative process you had with your editor?
Glavonić: Jelena Maksimović and I studied together, became friends during Film School, hanged out for years before we started working together when she edited Depth Two. It was a strange film, as it only took ten days to shoot, but one year to edit. During that time she read the script for The Load, and also all of the research I did for the films. When it was time for the shooting we made a deal that she won’t watch the materials, but, when the film shoot was complete, she would edit the first draft on her own. She actually had a small role in the film – the bride at the wedding. She edited the first draft based on the script, and then we took it from there and created another film in the process. She jokes that production is the graveyard of the film, and the editing the resurrection. We edited for a little less than half a year, and during that time Jelena was assuring me that we had something there, while on my end I was depressed and fatigued by a film I spent so much time trying to make but was now faced with the material that felt strange. When we started showing it to group of friends and collaborators, I realized she was the one who had a clearer sense of the film than I had made.
Lavallée: Can you discuss the collaborative process you had with your sound designer?
Glavonić: Jakov Munižaba did the sound for all of my films since my second year of studies. Some of them he also recorded, and for some he did the mix for. For Depth Two and The Load, we worked with the sound mixer from Paris, Gilles Benardou, and both him and Jakov jointly did the design for The Load. The biggest obstacle, besides deadlines, was how to create a sound for the truck during the film, that could work and sound interesting for the large among of time we hear it. It also had to work with other sounds from the outside that functioned not only as part of the atmosphere but, in many ways, as a part of dramaturgy. Both Jakov and Gilles were incredibly dedicated and had lots of ideas and patience how to create this.
The Load opened August 30th in New York (Film at Lincoln Center) and was followed by a national release via Grasshopper Film.