Currently enjoying its Japanese premiere at Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia, where it represents Turkey in the international competition along with 35 other films, is Hasan Can Dagli’s Black Ring, an ominous genre short about a photo shoot that takes place at an abandoned mansion.
Born and raised in Istanbul, Hasan Can Dagli studied political science and obtained his MA degree before further pursuing his true passion in film. He was accepted into New York’s School of Visual Arts, got himself another master’s degree, then went back to Turkey to commit himself to, you guessed it, even more studying, this time seeing the fruits of his labor translated into an MA on Cinema Studies at the Marmara University.
“I’ve always seen short films as a practical area for me," he says. "Because you can study film, you can go to film school, you can create your base, learn the directors, the history, but you need practical experience to truly learn filmmaking, so I’ve always treated short films as a training area. With Black Ring I feel that I learned the craft more and have started to find a cinematic language in terms of telling a story.”
The world seems to agree. So far Black Ring has been selected into more than 40 international film festivals, picked up awards left and right and is making a name for itself wherever it pops up. Following a screening at the Brussels Short Film Festival, I sat down with the director for a cup of coffee and a lengthy chat.
Read on for our interview and be sure to check the moody teaser of Black Ring at the bottom of the page.
ScreenAnarchy: How did BLACK RING come about and was it difficult to get your short made?
Hasan Can Dagli: The idea came to me some three years ago. Me and my friend were talking about the beauty of the human body. Just talking about it as a subject and since I studied political science I’m into human history and social science, generally. Whenever I’m discussing a subject I tend to automatically take a political viewpoint.
For example, when talking about human nature and the beauty of the human body, I immediately ask myself: how can this body be used by other people and how can it be turned into something different?
Based on that question we made a short sci-fi film called Organic Sleep, but I wasn’t able to accomplish what I really wanted to. I had little experience as a filmmaker and didn’t feel like it turned out ok. I think Black Ring stems from the same idea: humans turning into something non-living; that was the starting point. I wanted to remake that idea without VFX and wanted to finish everything on set. Suddenly one night that idea came to me in just ten seconds.
We worked on the script, decided to not include any dialogue. There were only a few areas where dialogue could have been inserted but it never felt necessary and wouldn’t help the story. So we decided to cut it out entirely.
As for the actual making of Black Ring, this was difficult because there were so many people on set. I’m working in commercial business in Istanbul and knew good DOPs and production designers and people from theater who can act, and who all kindly offered their support for little money.
This allowed us to pull off complicated shots with cranes and Steadicam and dolly shots. But the camera crew wasn’t small; we had six people for that. The lighting crew had four people. There was a makeup team. All things considered, there were 90 people on set, which is a huge crew for a short film.
The hardest part was not the actual shoot, but simply bringing all these people together on set, covering the transportation, making sure meals were provided. We planned the technical stuff in advance and already shot the film ‘on paper’. We had really thought about how we could achieve the camera movement, but bringing all those people together and making it a reality, now that was the difficult part [Laughs].
The team was put to good use because BLACK RING is very elegantly composed from a visual standpoint. There’s a nice tension between the stylized look or technical control and the insidious nature of the work that borders on aestheticized violence. Is BLACK RING a critique on how decadence can thrive among those who have everything? How we become consumers of a pornography of violence?
My main intention was to offer a critique but as something understated, beneath the camerawork and overall sense of style […] The art world is used as a symbol to comment on life and human behavior. I’m critical of those attending the photo shoot because they do so of their own free will but also of the rich people that make up the audience because they are deriving enjoyment from this.
Those being photographed know full well what will happen to them and are fine with this. Becoming part of the art work and getting attention is more important than their own lives, which they see as meaningless. […] I think that people are getting more artificial, losing the joy of life. Everyone is trying to prove him- or herself to someone else and others derive the benefits from that. […] There’s a shot where the photographer presses the shutter and the lens is looking directly at the camera; in that one moment I want viewers of Black Ring to identify with both the subjects of the photo shoot and the audience watching them.
This of course makes the viewers of BLACK RING complicit in the consumption of violence.
[Laughs] That's right, you’re doing it as well. And the question is: do you feel guilty or …?
How much planning went into the making of BLACK RING? Not just in terms of writing the screenplay but also the entire shot selection.
Together with two other guys I spent about a month writing out the idea of Black Ring. […] It’s only five pages of script because we have no dialogue and were only writing down the actions, but we tried to decide what everything would look like. […] My storyboard artist, Cem Özüduru, is also a comic book writer and worked with Can Evrenol on Baskin, also designing storyboards and writing. I had worked with him on Organic Sleep and we became friends on set. We worked on storyboards together, wrote the script and he gave me some good ideas.
First, I found the location. I was lucky I had already shot a music video there, so I remembered it right after coming up with the idea for Black Ring. We went there with Cem and tried to work on the camera movements. We tried to understand the overall mood and spent a lot of time planning the angles. […] We really planned the smallest detail.
In terms of cinematography the most striking sequence is probably the long take that, if I’m not mistaken, starts with a crane shot and then turns into a Steadicam shot through the house?
A long take can be used to drive up tension, as it does in the action-packed climax of TRUE DETECTIVE’s “Who Goes There”, but also to capture something very intimate, like how Paul Thomas Anderson recently used it to shoot a studio recording of Haim’s “Right Now”. You seem to be using a single take to further establish mood. Was that the objective of the shot?
That’s right. I think a long take always has that effect on you, but you have to be careful how you use it … For example, in Birdman, I feel like Iñaritu is pushing it too much. You can overuse it to the point where it distracts from everything else; it will be too obvious. I feel like you have to be sort of a ghost when doing it. One of my favorite uses of a long take is in Cuarón's Childreb of Men. If you can achieve that, it will give a boost to your film, but sometimes cutting is better.
Our long take in Black Ring was very hard to achieve because it was snowing. It was quite dangerous, with our Steadicam guy jumping on a crane, onto a platform … I wasn’t entirely sure if the crew could pull it off and since we were making a short film, there really wasn’t any time to mess things up […] We did like six takes and didn’t get the shot quite right; I wanted it to be even more fluent but at the end of the day I think it’s an efficient shot.
One of my favorite shots, other than the long take, involves a close-up of a woman giving a sideways glance following the photo shoot. It’s an incredibly telling look that perfectly conveys how much she loves the perversity of what just transpired. Was that planned?
[Laughs] That was luck, but I agree it’s a telling visual detail. I wanted actors and actresses to give the impression that they enjoyed what happened, but at the same time I don’t want them to ‘act’. It had to come from themselves, as something natural. […] The camera was flowing around the audience and I want them to give their expressions on the scene, but hers was really great. I think catching stuff like that is really important.
What is your favorite shot in BLACK RING, or what do you feel is the most important one?
My favorite is the part where the girl gets ready. She’s trying on her dress for the shoot and everyone else is in the same room, waiting for her. I really like the way we used the camera in that shot because I tried to link the characters’ destinies: the young boy, the guy sitting there, the girl and the organizer; all of them are in the full shot at once.
I tried to make it like in Citizen Kane, with a full focus and the characters in the same line. I tried to connect their lives in the shot. For example, in Citizen Kane when the boy is outside playing in the snow and in the front of the shot we see characters talking but the visual connection is maintained throughout the scene. I wanted to have the same visual effect on the organizer of the shoot and the people who will be affected by the shoot.
BLACK RING has a very keen sense of rhythm and buildup. How important was it to have total control in the editing room and could you imagine leaving the editing to someone else?
I really can’t. See, I’m also working in commercial business in Turkey and frequently, when working with good editors, I realize I can sense the rhythm in my head, for myself. I may need an editor as an operator to help me but I have to be in the editing room myself.
Right now, with everything going digital, filmmakers can edit on their laptop. I think you need to push yourself as a filmmaker and learn editing since the tools are available. And really, it starts with being an attentive audience member. You can pick up a lot from watching good films and seeing what works and what doesn’t. […]
I edited it in two days and then didn’t watch the film for, like, a week. I just wanted to get it out of my head before looking at it again. I think that’s a good way of editing because sometimes you’re too into it. When I returned to it I also got feedback from Cem because I always try to edit my films with someone whose vision I trust on cinema.
What are you currently working on and will you continue to pursue fantastic films?
I think a director should find his genre and continue it; I think following one genre is a good path to follow for a director, like Hitchcock did for instance. I think if you truly connect with one genre and commit to it, that’s the way to improving yourself as a filmmaker.
Making a feature length would be a dream come true, of course, but for now I will continue making shorts. I plan to make another this August, if we can get a bit more funding. I would like to make a revenge story taking place in Eastern villages of Turkey. Something more gory, with action scenes, and some dialogue.
I want to try my hand at these things so that I can also achieve them in my feature length. So, in part, it will be a practical film and a learning experience, like Black Ring, but we will try to make it the best we possibly can and submit it to more festivals in the world.