When 3 is the Loneliest Number: Q+A with ‘The Loneliest Planet” writer-director Julia Loktev
Since she grew up in Russia, writer-director Julia Loktev (Moment of Impact, Night Day Night) can recall how her family and friends regarded the neighboring region of Georgia as a hot vacation spot. So where better to set The Loneliest Planet, her film about a couple (Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg) on a backpacking trip gone bad? Based on a Tim Bissell short story, her movie, which is currently playing at select theaters and is available on On-Demand, meticulously chronicles the couple’s slow-moving hike through the region with a surly guide (Bidzina Gujabidze), won’t be mistaken for your stereotypical horror film. The thing that drives the couple apart is such a simple gesture, you’ll miss it if you blink. Still, the movie has a quiet intensity to it, something Loktev discussed in this recent interview from her Brooklyn, New York home in a phone interview.
How did your personal experiences shape the film?
I spent a lot of time traveling after college. I traveled through Central Asia, and I went from Turkmenistan to Kazakhstan alone. I traveled a lot since. The world of backpackers in out of the way spots is very familiar to me. I was traveling in Georgia, and I remembered the short story that I read about a couple traveling with a guy and at the center of it was this incredibly devastating event. I didn’t know how to feel about it or what it would it mean. I like things that leave me confused and make me think I don’t know exactly how to respond. I like those things get to me in the gut and I thought I should make a movie about it.
You’ve said that traveling is about “constantly making a fool of yourself.” Talk about what you mean by that and how it relates to your film.
It kind of is. If you travel in a way that leaves yourself open and you’re not completely safe and isolating yourself from everything around you, it does mean making a fool of yourself. You’re in this foreign place and you’re getting around with these few words of thank you, please and hello. There’s a vulnerability to it. There’s a beauty to that vulnerability. You do something stupid or say something stupid, but it’s also lovely. You don’t know. You’re finding out and you’re looking. It’s funny because people have asked me why [the characters in the film] don’t talk much. They’re not there to talk. They’re there to listen. They listen to the guide. If you’re traveling in a considerate way, you are there to see what’s around and to listen to what people are telling you.
The film has quite an opening scene. Talk about the decision to open with that shot.
I wanted to have a sense of travel. You get the sense of them in the village and what happens in travel time. It opens with a girl trying to wash but there’s no running water so there’s a need for a hot teapot to wash. If I may give it away, you see it with a naked girl who’s vulnerable in that position. It opens with a stark naked girl and there’s lots of sex in the movie, but you always have your clothes during sex when you’re camping–have to leave the scarves and sweaters on.
To me, it seems like we know something will go wrong on this trip from the beginning. But did you intend to give the film a sense of foreboding?
I think we’re trained to think that when people are happy and in love and traveling that bad things will happen to them. But what happens is not what people expect will happen. It’s completely, completely different from the clichéd horror movie. To me, it’s much more devastating and even more nuanced.
Talk about the film’s second half after what we’ll call “the incident.” Did you amplify the sounds of them walking through the woods to suggest the degree to which the couple’s relationship has changed?
One of the things I find fascinating about sound is that it’s so emotional. How we experience sound rather than image depends on the emotional state we’re in. If you’re scared, you hear the music around differently. I was watching [Hurricane Sandy] from my window near the East River and at one point, I said, “It doesn’t look that different but what makes it different is that the world sounds different.” It’s the sound of the wind and the absent of the sound of the subway. That’s what I’m experiencing. And that’s what’s getting to me emotionally.
And that’s at work in the film.
Yes, I tend to go inside the characters’ heads and see how they look and how they hear and feel through them and use image and sound to heighten that.
I was going to say that the landscape itself is a character in this film, but I saw in the press notes that you yourself have said that. Discuss that a bit.
We were shooting in the mountains with a crew of about a dozen people. We were shooting every day in the elements and dealing with nature . . . We had to hike along with the actors and get up in the darkness and hike to our location, sometimes camping. We were living the film, but that was also part of the beautiful thing about shooting it. We were so immersed in nature and so immersed in what it means to be in the mountains. It permeates every frame.
Was it really that remote?
Georgia is a small country, so nothing there is that remote. But we had to hike to a lot of our locations with everyone carrying things on our back. That’s one of the beautiful things about making the film — living in the mountains and having a sense of that. That’s so important to the story. Being in the middle of nature, the couple doesn’t have what they would cling to for safety. You watch this couple go through what might be the most challenging moment in their relationship in the middle of the mountains, in a foreign country, more than a day’s walk from the village and with this other guy It’s crucial that they’re not alone. It’s a more extreme version of when you had a fight with your lover and had to go out to dinner with someone else.
Talk about the casting of a guide to play the guide.
He is not an actor and never wanted to be an actor. He’s Georgia’s most accomplished mountaineer. He climbed Everest twice. He had to cancel an expedition to do the movie. He turned out to be this incredibly nuanced, humble, meek, soulful actor. He was a gift and brought an incredible authenticity to it because he knows those mountains like his own hand. He knows how to move in those mountains and walk in those mountains. Those are his mountains.