Transcript of the Guardian interview with Nuri Bilge Ceylan at BFI Southbank
Friday 6 February 2009
Transcript of the Guardian interview with Nuri Bilge Ceylan at BFI Southbank
Onstage at BFI Southbank, the Turkish director tells Geoff Andrew about what made him switch from photography to film-making, why his latest film is a departure from the autobiographical works of the past and why he never wants to shoot on film again
It's all about vertical lines ... Nuri Bilge Ceylan talks to Geoff Andrew at BFI Southbank. Photograph: Linda Nylind
[after clip from The Small Town]
Geoff Andrew: If you haven't seen the film, you may not know that the elderly gentleman in the film is Nuri's father and the elderly woman there is Nuri's mother. And one of the other characters in the film is a cousin. Any more relatives in that scene?
Nuri Bilge Ceylan: No. [audience laughs]
GA: I think that highlights a certain intimacy of approach towards film-making in Nuri's cinema. This film is about growing up in a small town in Turkey. How close is it to your own experience?
NBC: Quite close, actually. But watching this clip was a surprise for me. I haven't seen it for maybe 10 years now; I never watch my films. The ADR, the dubbing, was terrible. And we didn't have a good camera in that film; I financed it myself. We had professionals doing the ADR and it didn't fit, especially for the children's and women's parts. So it was a bad experience for me, and after that I decided to shoot with location sound always. Yes, this is a very autobiographical film. I remember many things and they come together here. But you forget which bits are real and which are fiction. I think scriptwriting and film-making is a kind of collage, and it's very chaotic – it's like writing music: you try to make everything in harmony and for that harmony to happen, sometimes you add some sugar, some salt here and there. So many different things come together. And most of the things in the film are from my sister's memories, especially the dialogues. But the first part is set in a classroom, and that I wrote myself.
GA: And there are elements of Chekhov in there, as well?
NBC: Yes, actually in all my films I believe there is an element of Chekhov, because Chekhov wrote so many stories. He had stories about almost every situation, and I love them very much. So maybe he's influenced the way I look at life. Life follows Chekhov for me, in a way. After reading Chekhov, you begin to see the same kind of situations in life. And in the scriptwriting stage, I remember the stories somehow, so yes, Chekhov is here.
GA: You mention that you wrote some of this, and some with your sister. You take photographs and make films, and your sister [Emine Ceylan] is also an able and prolific photographer. Did you come from an artistic family? And how did you get into film-making?
NBC: Actually, when I was a child, there was no art at all around me. I was living in a small town and the only art form around was maybe folk music, and maybe film. But there were no art exhibitions or anything like that. I sometimes wonder myself how I inclined to art. I think maybe it started when I was in high school, when I was living in Istanbul. I really don't know, but me, my sister and my cousin all somehow inclined towards art. I remember someone gave me a present of a book about photography. Maybe that started it. So you should be very careful when you buy presents for a small child. [audience laughs] I think that book changed my life – it made photography seem a very enjoyable game. I made a darkroom and printed photographs, and with time I began to realise that it's an art. And it grew somehow. My sister started photography after me.
GA: And how did you move into film-making from photography?
NBC: I don't remember very well, but in those days, there were no video cameras, so the idea of film-making was very difficult. It was in the hands of only certain people. Even during military service, long after university, I still didn't think about making movies. Like everybody I liked to watch movies but I think it was reading books about film-making that changed my life. It was reading Roman Polanski's autobiograpy during military service that influenced me – his life in that book seemed very adventurous, starting from absolute zero in a Nazi camp up to Hollywood. And in that book, film-making seemed easy to me. So I began to read many books about cinema, including some technical books. One day I acted in a short film which was shot in 35mm and I saw all the stages of film-making; after it was done, I bought that camera. It was an Arriflex 2C, and it worked like a machine gun, very noisy. The most difficult thing is to start, and even after I bought the camera, I couldn't make a film for 10 years. But after that I made a short film with this camera. First I started myself, as if shooting photographs. But then I couldn't do focus pulling by myself, it was impossible, so I added an assistant in the middle of the film. And with two people, I made a short film. My family acted in it, and I think that was my most difficult film. After that, again with only two people, I made my first feature film, this one. Of course the actors also helped us by carrying everything, and so I began to think it was possible to make a movie. After that, it was much easier.
GA: This leads us very nicely to the next clip, which is from Clouds of May.
[runs clip from Clouds of May]
GA: Obviously, Clouds of May grew partly out of its predecessor, and in that clip, we've almost seen the shooting of that earlier scene. Do you feel that your films do grow out of each other in some way? You're not making sequels, but there is some thread from one to the other.
NBC: I think so, yes. Somehow, when I finished one of these films, I felt that there is something more to be said about these subjects, until the end of Uzak. Maybe because I know what happened after, and it's quite close to my life. But these decisions are quite instinctive and never calculated before. The decisions are made long after the earlier film is finished.
GA: The film-maker in that clip is obviously using his parents to make his film. He's come back to the small town from the city, and he switches the camera on when people are not looking and he's always trying to, in a way, exploit his family. Was there an element of self-criticism in this film?
NBC: I think so. Video cameras were born before the making of this film, so I bought one to experiment and investigate. So I was in the region and shooting many things, interviewing my father and mother, asking questions to my grandmother. And I also tried to write a script. When I watched what I shot with the video camera when I was back in Istanbul, I saw that I was very selfish. My grandmother would be telling me something and I wasn't listening; I would be thinking about something to do with the film, things like that. That created something like a guilty conscience in me, I didn't like myself. And I think that in most film-makers and artists, and especially city people, this kind of narcissism exists. These people in the countryside, they just give everything they have, and you just take. But when they come to the city, we don't reciprocate. So Uzak was a continuation of that scenario.
GA: What's interesting about this stage in your career, into Uzak, is that you were writing, directing, photographing, editing, producing and even selling the film – you were doing everything, which is very unusual. Was that too much for you or was it something that you enjoyed doing?
NBC: I never worked on other films, as assistant director or anything, so I never learned how other directors worked. I learned everything from books myself, and I learned every aspect of film-making, including sales and marketing. Even in Cannes, I was selling the film myself, and they said that there was only one other director who sold his films himself – [Abderrehmane] Sissako from Africa. It's unusual, and distributors were a bit surprised. I learned how to do it but I don't do that any more. Now I have a producer and a cinematographer, everything. It is unnecessary, but at that time, I wanted to know it. I think a director should know many things, especially the technical aspects; otherwise you are a slave of the technical people. If you know the technical aspects, you can communicate with them and direct them much better.
GA: In this film, in the scene we've just watched, you're prompting your father, telling him what to say. Was that how it worked in reality?
NBC: Yes. It reflects the shooting of my first film quite realistically, I think. It was a mess because we were just two people and we were trying to control everybody. It was such a mess.
GA: One of the things you've mentioned, and it's come up in both clips, is what is happening to Turkish life in terms of people moving away from the country to the city. With Uzak, you made your first film in the city and it concerns a photographer living in Istanbul who is visited by a cousin from the small town. Let's have a look now at Uzak.
[runs clip from Uzak]
GA: One reason I chose that clip is because we have a new member of Nuri's family appearing on the screen – the woman in the street is Nuri's wife, Ebru. But the other thing is that this is a wonderful scene, of a young guy eyeing up the girl and trying to look cool in his sunglasses, and then the car alarm goes off at the most inopportune time. It's a very funny scene, and there is a lot of dry humour in your films. It reminds me of Buster Keaton, very underplayed. How important is it to you to have some humour or comedy in your films?
NBC: I think I see life like this. I don't plan to inject humour into the stories. I just want to be as realistic as possible and I think that real life is full of humour. When I'm alone at home, I find myself in many funny situations. If I catch myself in the mirror sometimes, my expression is so uncontrolled. So I don't really plan them. But with this film, I was a bit surprised that people laugh at this situation.
GA: Later in this film, the cousins start not getting on with each other, and the photographer finds this invader a bit of a nuisance. So, one evening, he starts watching pornography, but when the cousin comes in, he quickly switches to a Tarkovsky film, the film that he'd been watching with the cousin earlier as a ploy to get the cousin to go to bed. And this is rather ironic, especially since you're rather a fan of Tarkovsky, aren't you?
NBC: Yes, he's one of the directors I like. But I chose Tarkovsky for that scene, not because I like him but because he's more appropriate – he has long shots and I needed to contrast this with the kind of films the village guy would be used to. And I needed an ideal for the photographer, and Tarkovsky was the most suitable. In general, the critics thought that he watched Tarkovsky in order to get rid of the cousin. But that was not my intention.
GA: Critics are always wrong. [laughs]
NBC: Maybe I made something wrong. [laughs] But in an earlier scene, the photographer has a discussion with friends, and one friend criticises him for losing his ideals and they blame him. So when he gets home, he tries to create a bond, to find his ideals again. That's why he watches Tarkovsky. And he thinks that maybe he can regain his fire and enthusiasm. He doesn't mind the other guy at all, but as a side-effect the cousin is bored of course. So when the other guy leaves to go to bed, the situation changes and something triggers in him and he loses his enthusiasm again and he shifts to porn because it's easier. And he wants to get rid of the violence inside himself. That's why he switches to porn.
GA: One of the things that strikes me about this film is that a lot of it is shot with very, very little dialogue, and that seems to be a common thing in your films. Do you think that people express themselves better without words?
NBC: I don't know, actually. I don't try to make my characters silent. In the script, that scene had a lot of dialogue. But in the shoot, it's the only place to understand whether what you wrote works or not. Always during a shoot, I try to find more balance in the situation, so I end up taking dialogue out here and there and finally there's no dialogue. I feel the balance is reached at that point and I don't know what to do about it. It just convinces me more like that, somehow. And of course, dialogue should be treated very carefully. I've investigated this a lot. I've recorded many conversations in order to understand the nature of it. It doesn't follow a logical progression. Somebody says something, the other person says something entirely different; if you analyse it, you see it is that way. So dialogue, even if you use it, it shouldn't be so logical and it shouldn't carry much information about the film's secrets or the meaning of the film. Dialogue, for me, only works if they talk nonsense, anything unrelated to the film. I like to do this as much as possible. I try to tell the meaning of the film without dialogue – with the situation, the gestures, and so on. This is my intention, but maybe I'm not successful.
GA: Well, you seem to be succeeding – Uzak won a big prize in Cannes and you've been winning them ever since. We saw your wife in that clip, so now let's have a look at Climates.
GA: You may have recognised the actor in that scene. You wrote the film with Ebru and you play the two main characters yourself, and it's a film about the breakup of a relationship. It's one of the most honest films about that, and one of the most depressingly honest films about masculinity. It's just extraordinary and it goes into many areas that most other films wouldn't even touch. Was it quite painful to make?
NBC: No, not at all. Actually, we are not the kind of couple who are afraid to talk about the dark side of life. We like to talk about it. So if you deal with the dark side of life, you're safer – it's like therapy – and the dark stuff doesn't collect and grow. You cut the head of the snake when it's small. So it was a technical matter, not hard at all for us.
GA: Why did you decide to play the two roles yourselves?
NBC: What I wanted to tell with this film was something which is hard to explain and express to other people. I didn't want to struggle with how to explain to actors how they should act. I wanted them to behave based more on their inclination. Also, when we wrote and talked about the film on holiday, my wife and I, we made a test shot, acting ourselves and we liked the result. So that's another reason why we did it. They didn't like my acting in Turkey, in general, [audience laughs] but in the west, they liked it better, I think. But, fortunately, everybody liked my wife's acting.
GA: This was your first film shot using technical technology. I remember that shot of the two of you on the beach, with the boat going past in the background, and everything's perfectly in focus. I remember seeing that in Cannes and being astonished by it. And the whole film is using digital camerawork in a way that a lot of people haven't pushed it forward. Do you think digital technology is opening up new avenues of expressiveness?
NBC: Definitely. I think it has still more unknown potential to be able to express something deeper or hidden. So film seems like nonsense – why shoot on film any more? This film was shot using old digital technology and now it's already even much better. Film is expensive and there are many disadvantages. For me, this is it. I'll never go back to film for movie-making or photography. I think we should be open and use the advantages of this new technology to express our deeper emotions.
GA: Moving on now to Three Monkeys – that seems to be a rather expressionist film, in the sense that you have manipulated the colours to make something that's almost monochrome, apart from these occasional flashes of red. It's almost green and yellow, the image is sickly. It almost looks like an expressionist painting.
NBC: I don't know. Actually, I don't like expressionism – I prefer impressionism, because the feelings and emotions are too underlined in expressionism. But many critics have said that this film is expressionist – maybe they are right. I like to be more subtle and more hidden, making the audience more active. As for the colours, it's natural that when one looks at something, everybody sees something different. When I look at the world, this is kind of what I see. My photography may have an influence on this – I see colours in this way. When I engaged in the colour grading, I didn't realise that I had distanced myself from these colours that much. And of course, in this film, I also wanted to isolate the characters a bit. This isolation I made in other ways: for example, I didn't show any faces other than these characters. And also these colours helped this isolation a bit. Actually, I didn't do much: I just increased the contrast and desaturated the colours and then selected one colour, generally red, and pushed it a bit after desaturation.
GA: The other thing is that you're using sound in a very eloquent way to reinforce certain things. You've done that almost from the beginning.
NBC: I don't like to be realistic in sound. For instance, we heard a sound in the film that I didn't hear before. Our ears are very selective and we just hear what we want to hear. So, for the audience, I select some sounds and just show them. With the sound, I can guide the audience a little bit in the way I want, and it gives the scene the atmosphere that I want. Also, if you can tell something with the sound, you don't have to show it.
GA: This film does seem different from the others – partly because it can be described as a crime film. It's not really autobiographical, as far as I can tell, and it has more narrative, albeit elliptical. In a sense, it's much more dramatic. Did you feel that you were making a change here and will you continue down that route?
NBC: I think so, because you can't make autobiograpical films all your life, you know. [audience laughs] After Climates, I felt deep inside that I needed a change. But it doesn't mean that I will go in this direction, I don't know. At the time, I felt I needed a change and I did it. The result may make me change again in another direction, but right now I'm not sure.
GA: OK, let's open it up to the audience now.
Q1: All your films use a different sort of colour palette – whether it's impressionistic or expressionistic, colour design is a big part of your films. Can you say something about your use of colour and what you try to do with it?
NBC: These were the colours for this film. It's hard for me to answer this kind of question because these decisions are all instinctive. For this film, I decided the colours before starting to shoot. I shot some photographs in the locations and I worked on them on the computer and tried to fix the mood for the film. At the end, I got quite close to my intention. But generally, I really don't know – it's all instinctive. I could say something, but it would be a lie. [audience laughs]
Q2: How old were you when you made your first short film [Koza, in 1995]? It got an award in Cannes – did you sense that it was a good film?
NBC: I was quite old, actually, 36 years old. It's much better if you can start much earlier. I spent at least 10 years without doing anything after university, thinking about what to do for a living. When you're young, you're braver and it's better to make mistakes when you're younger. When I made that film, I always thought that it would not make a film. I was shooting something but I never expected Cannes would take it, or that I would show it to other people. I thought I was taking something meaningless. In the editing room, I tried to create a concept or a story out of it. There was something in my mind, but I always thought it would not work. And even after I finished the film, I thought it was shit and that nobody would like it. I asked my friends, "Does it look like a film?" I asked the same question when I made my first feature [The Small Town, 1997]. I remember watching it with my sister at the Berlin film festival where it was premiered, and we looked at each other and we were thinking, "It doesn't look like a film." Watching your old films is really difficult, you don't understand anything. After you finish a film, you are completely blind. You never have the chance to see your film objectively. But I'm the kind of person who always sees things negatively – I always only see the mistakes – so it's painful and I never watch my films.
GA: One thing I'd like to ask – up to and including Uzak, you made your films with very small crews. If you watch the making-of feature for Uzak, you'll see about three people under an umbrella shooting a scene. Now you work with a much larger crew, you're internationally feted, your career is very different in many ways. Does that make it easier or more difficult?
NBC: Actually, both easier and more difficult. It depends on how you look at it. I cannot work like the old days – I am older now and I have less energy. Human beings are creatures that very easily get used to luxuries. Until Uzak, I would shoot my films myself. But now, I can't imagine doing that and it seems to me very difficult. I'm lazy and it seems to me much easier to use a monitor to control the actors, the composition, mise en scène. And I think it should be like this. That's why I work like this now. But on the other hand, it's more difficult. In this film, there were about 20- 25 people behind the camera and everything takes time. To move people from one place to another, we need lorries and things. In Uzak, if you remember, there is a snow scene. It lasted a very short time in Istanbul, the snow stayed for only two days. But we managed to shoot everything we needed in two days because we were so small. With only one Jeep, we could move all the crew, the material, all the actors and we could move quickly. We were much faster. So it was easier in that sense. But then, I used to compromise a lot. If I couldn't solve something, I would change the script and I would adapt myself to many things. Now I compromise less, because I have a producer and he solves many problems, we have more money and we have more people to solve problems. So when you get new possibilities, you don't want to get rid of them. So, both more difficult and easier, I think.
GA: Don't believe what he says about being lazy – I was reading his notes and while editing Three Monkeys, he was sleeping about two hours a night.
Q3: One of the characters in Three Monkeys is a politician. And you include footage of the AK party winning the election. I wonder if you could talk about the political subtext of the film? Also, has the film been received in Turkey as a comment on the politics of Turkey?
NBC: There was more attention to the political aspect of the film in Turkey, but I edited it so that they wouldn't have much room for criticism in that area. I didn't want the film to just be restricted to politics, so despite filming many demonstrations and political rallies, I decided not to include these bits because I wanted to leave this as just a side element of the film. The audience and film critics seem to enjoy bringing up this aspect of the film, but I try to hold it back.
Q4: This has been said before many times: that your compositional style is very similar to [Yasujiro] Ozu, especially in your positioning of the camera at very low level, perhaps knee-height, especially in the scenes inside the house. Did you purposely mimic Ozu or was it something that you did unintentionally? Also, can you say whether this compositional style is particularly important to avoid tracking shots and movement of camera work, as opposed to single shots.
NBC: Yes, he [GA] said the same thing during dinner. Ozu is my favourite director, actually. And yes, I don't move the camera much – but I don't know if that's because of Ozu or because I'm a photographer. I jut don't like to move the camera much, really, because it makes everyone more conscious about the camera. And the height of the camera is mostly decided for me, and I think for Ozu, by the vertical lines in the space. In the books, they say that Ozu put his camera 90cm above the ground but I don't believe it. It depends on the vertical lines – and there are many of those in Japanese houses. But more than that, the psychology of the character is important – if you shoot a person from above, it's different from shooting them from below. I generally like to shoot at mouth level for a portrait. Especially in closeups, even 1cm is very important. That's why you should never leave it to the cinematographer, because the cinematographer never knows how to connect it to the next shot; only the director knows the relationship between the next shot and the previous shot. So the director should carefully place the camera to ensure continuity of the psychology.
Q5: Why did you decide not to use a conventional musical soundtrack?
NBC: I don't like music in cinema, it seems to me like a crutch; if you cannot express something in cinematic ways, then you call the help of the music to underline it. I'm not against it, but if possible I try not to use it. In the editing, I try many pieces of music, but eventually I decide not to use any. And also, the sound of the atmosphere is the nicest sound for me in the cinema, so I prefer to use atmospheric sound instead of music. Because music kills things.
Q6: Why did you call this film Three Monkeys?
NBC: It comes from Confucius originally, where it has a positive meaning, but later it became a negative meaning. It represents our attitude to hiding from reality.
GA: It's see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.
NBC: That's the original.
GA: And of course, this film is all about people pretending that something is not happening; it's all about lies.
Q7: I'm interested in the dead boy who appears twice – why did you choose to put him in those two scenes?
NBC: I wanted the boy to appear in scenes where a character needed to be comforted, especially the characters who feel an element of guilt regarding his death.
Q8: We were just wondering about the locations in Three Monkeys, especially the house and where the woman meets the politician. Is it quite close to Koca Mustafa Pasha?
NBC: That's right. It's near Yedikule train station, just opposite it. And we also shot near the Black sea, on the Anatolian side.
GA: And wasn't there something about the house, that it was going to be demolished, so it changed the way you shot it.
NBC: They said so, but they didn't. [audience laughs]
Q9: In one scene, when the boy is looking through the keyhole, we can see the sweat on his face and the way it drops. Was it just a coincidence?
NBC: Some parts of the film are coincidences, some parts aren't. Sometimes you shoot a scene 20-30 times and then you pick out the ones that you think present the detail the best. For example, the shaking of the knife in the kitchen, that's not a coincidence. Sometimes I forget which bits are coincidence and which are not.
GA: Sadly, we have to bring this evening to a close. Please put your hands together to thank Nuri Bilge Ceylan.