[This evening, I’ll be viewing the world premiere of Sophie Barthes‘ Cold Souls – so I figured I’d dust off an In the Pipeline interview we conducted with her early last year. Look for more coverage late tonite, or early tomorrow.]
“You know how there’s good years for wine? This has been a good year for me.” – Sophie Barthes
It would be nice to wake up next to Sophie Barthes. She’s beautiful, intelligent, talented and just so happens to be a morning person. To rise and shine with the Sundance lab alum is to bear witness to her early morning writing ritual. Ms. Barthes, who is currently in pre-production with her first feature film Cold Souls, wakes up and records her dreams. Sometimes these subconscious episodes are intriguing enough to become screenplays that go on to win Nantucket IFF’s Tony Cox Award and the interest of Paul Giamatti and producer wife Elizabeth. At least that was the case with Cold Souls.
Barthes talks about the dream that sparked it all in the summer 2007 issue of Filmmaker Magazine in which she was named one of the 25 New Faces of Independent Film. “I was in a strange, futuristic office in a line of people,” she says, “We are all holding a box and are told that our souls have been extracted. Woody Allen opens his box and inside there’s a chickpea.”
Born in France, raised in the Middle East and South America and educated at Columbia University, Barthes has quite the diverse background and it shows in her work. With two years of journalism experience in Colombia, Emirates, Mongolia, Lebanon and the Philippines and a Unicef documentary on women in Yemen under her belt, Barthes came into filmmaking with a documentarian’s eye and has taken that humanistic approach into the narrative realm. Her award winning, playful and powerful short about a woman who purchases a box of happiness aptly titled Happiness, challenges the viewer to stop looking for answers and instead ask more questions. While she would ideally like to tackle both docs and fiction, right now Sophie Barthes is in a make-believe world of soul extraction. After I sat down and talked with her about the film I can safely say we should all be thankful for dreams of chickpeas.
With Andrij Parekh in the DP seat and Giamatti’s Touchy Feely Films and Journeyman Pictures producing, Cold Souls begins shooting in New York in Spring 08′.
What is Cold Souls about?
It’s a surreal comedy. Paul Gianelli is an actor in New York acting in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, which is a draining role. His soul is heavy and he can’t continue carrying the burden of all his emotions. His agent mentions the existence of a soul storage where you can literally go, extract your soul, look at its shape and freeze it so you don’t have to deal with the burden and you can feel lighter. So he does it and then it complicates his life even more because now he has to continue acting in Chekhov, soulless. It’s about reconnecting with yourself, with your soul.
What has your role been in the pre-production process so far?
Right now I’m focusing only on the casting side. There are two main roles aside from the Paul Giamatti role that we have to cast. We’re trying to get names so it’s a stressful process. The environment right now with the strike coming is a little bit difficult because there’s a lot of pressure on actors to get them bigger projects. So for independent films it’s a little tough.
How did you land Paul Giamatti for the lead role?
Well the screenplay won an award. I never never do screenplay competitions, but a friend told me, “You should submit.” He loved the script so I submitted it to the Nantucket Film Festival, they have this Showtime Tony Cox Award, and I sent it and I forgot about it and six months later they call me and told me I won. They flew me to this island and by a twist of fate Paul Giamatti and his wife Elizabeth were at the same party, giving an award. So he was there and I had written it with him in mind. I know that sounds crazy, there’s no way I was going to get Paul Giamatti, but I wrote it for him. I had seen him first at Sundance and I was too shy to go to him and I was trying to figure out how to get to his agent. I told them the dream that I had, the Woody Allen dream, they liked it and told me to send a script and I thought, okay so I’ve had a cocktail… this isn’t going to go anywhere. But on Monday they called me and said they were very interested to read it. I was in the middle of re-writing thinking, “I have to make it perfect.” But they were very nice and they said, send it whatever stage it is in now; we’re intrigued by the idea.
How would you describe your experience at the Sundance lab?
I think filmmaking is like most jobs, it’s only by doing it that you can learn. You can’t learn it from a book. The problem with young filmmakers is that we don’t get the chance to train our skills. With writing you can write and show your pages and learn, but with filmmaking it’s very very hard to get actors and a camera and shoot. The lab gives you these amazing resources to just be doing it for a month. It’s invaluable what they give you. For a first time filmmaker it’s a dream situation. It’s giving you all these tools to play with and to fail. They encourage you to fail, which is great because I think you only learn from your failures.
Was there one moment in particular that sticks out in your memory from Sundance?
Yes there was one scene where we were shooting “Chekhov acted without a soul.” I turned and the crew was laughing so much they had tears in their eyes. It was a moment of euphoria.
How has working on a feature been different from working on shorts?
The amount of pressure is much stronger and you have to deal with much more people. I shot films where I had very minimal crew. When we shot Happiness (see on set below) there were four people on set and it was super 16 so it was very manageable group of people. On a feature usually you have thirty or forty people on the crew and you’re managing different things – there’s production design, costume design. I never had costume design or art department before I was just doing everything. I think it’s more collaborative, which is great. Before I didn’t have the budget or the human resources to have an art department, I would just make sure I found the locations that were corresponding to what I wanted, but then you’re limited by the locations you find. So collaborating with the production design or art department is going to be very interesting. This movie is almost written for production design because it looks like 60’s science fiction, there’s a lot of room to be very playful.
You’ll be working with Andrij Parekh again, how has that relationship developed? As a director, how closely do you work with the camera?
He is my closest collaborator and creative partner. Andrij has a very specific way of working he doesn’t light the space for the actors he lights the space for the action. His approach is a very naturalistic. If you’ve seen Half Nelson it’s almost all natural light, but I think it’s going to be different for this movie because it’s not an urban, gritty style it’s much more surreal.
While you shot Happiness in Brighton Beach, New York and Boston it feels like it could be set anywhere. Is that something that you will try to achieve with Cold Souls as well or when we’re in New York we will know it is New York?
There are some locations that are very recognizable like Central Park or when the main character goes to the soul storage and takes the aerial tramway. Part of the beauty of the script is I think that it’s written to see New York, the poetry of New York. There is still the Brighton Beach element because I really like it out there; I think it’s fascinating. You feel like you’re in Russia. There are also soul mules who traffic the souls from Russia to the U.S. and their station is this strange motel in Brighton Beach. So there is, as in Happiness, this feeling of the beach in the winter. That atmosphere is going to be in the movie. In St. Petersburg it’s also very much written for the architecture. The city is going to be very present. There are also landscapes under the snow…
With your background in International Affairs and documentary filmmaking, can we expect to find any social commentary in Cold Souls?
Yes. It’s very satirical about the American society. It’s about people taking the easy, functional way to liberate themselves from their problems. It’s also a little bit about Russia – what is the Russian soul today? How Russia and the U.S. are mirroring each other in a sense after all the years of cold war. When you go to Russia they have this love and hate relationship with the U.S. It’s interesting to explore. Those are social commentaries that interest me. But it’s not about the war. Although at the end there is a little comment about the war.
What were some of your literary inspirations while writing the film?
Carl Jung has been a huge influence on me. When I had the dream I was reading a lot of Carl Jung, I was reading Man in Search of His Soul. According to Jung the problem of modern man is that he doesn’t always really engage and connect with his soul. We tend to let it shrink, like a muscle that you don’t really use. It’s a beautiful metaphor and I think I had it in my mind and I was watching a lot of Woody Allen and something happened in my brain.
What was the initial writing process like? How did you go from a dream to a full-length screenplay?
I use my dreams a lot for writing. So I woke up after I had this dream and I thought it was narrative, visual and funny. I thought, I can make a movie out of that immediately. So I started writing the first scene, which was the dream, and then expanding and imagining all the things that could go around that. It’s been changing a lot. In the beginning it was more fragmented. The more you rewrite the more it becomes whole and it gets tighter. But it’s a mystery how you come up with ideas, it’s the beauty of the writing process – you don’t know what is inside of you.
Do you think your upbringing has affected your style and your approach to filmmaking?
I think you’re a product of your childhood and history. I had a very nomadic childhood. We lived in six different countries so I’ve always had this feeling that I don’t really belong to any country. I’m French from the culture, my parents are very French and I had a very French education, but I don’t feel that French. I haven’t been living there that long. So I guess you bring all this when you write. That’s why I love to set stories in places that aren’t really anywhere almost in a dreamlike situation. I think it’s more an internal journey.
What is the worst part about filmmaking?
The worst is trying to get it made. I’ve been very lucky that I didn’t have to go through the roller coaster of pitching. It’s very very hard to convey your vision and especially a script. There are words on a page and it’s very difficult to explain what you have stylistically in your head. I think you have to touch upon something emotionally in people.
What is the best part?
The best part is what just happened in these last few days. You wrote this and you’re ready to shoot and then when you explain the project to people they’re so enthusiastic about it. They understand it and they’re surprised. You see it in their eyes when people respond. It’s very gratifying to see that a little dream became a story and people respond to it.
Do you have any advice to offer other first time filmmakers? Any traps you’ve fallen into or avoided?
The trap that I see a lot of young filmmakers fall in, though it’s difficult not to, is that you have one project that you’re in love with that you’re pushing for many years and you get obsessed and keep on working on that one project and then it falls through and you don’t have anything. I guess I would be in the same position if this didn’t happen, but now that I look back I think it’s important if you’re blocked on a script to start something else. Make sure you have two or three projects so if one fails, which happens everyday and it’s not because the project is not good, it’s just that it’s a miracle that any movie is ever made. It’s so tough to make a movie. It can fall through for any reason –you don’t know what’s going to happen; it’s life, it’s unpredictable. And then never give up. If you’re sure that’s what you want to do and it’s the only thing that makes you feel alive, just start writing. If people say, “No, you’re crazy,” just give yourself four years or five years. When you get out of school suddenly you’re on your own in the world and you have to decide, are you taking that chance or being more reasonable. And it’s completely unreasonable to go and say, “I’m going to write and survive from that.” But then it’s something inside of you that says, “I wouldn’t do anything else.” When it’s that strong you have to do it.