Bulgarian filmmaker Ilian Metev arrived to Rotterdam to bring his latest critically-acclaimed family drama 3/4 to Rotterdam. Unveiled last year in Locarno, where Bulgarian dramedy Glory also started its course, 3/4 follows a three-member family as each of them face trappings of their own in composed and controlled drama of almost chamber character. ScreenAnarchy had a chance to sit down with Metev, whose first feature-length project was critically lauded and awarded Sofia´s Last Ambulance.
ScreenAnarchy: Your first feature-length and award-winning project Sofia´s Last Ambulance was a documentary whereas in 3/4 you are gravitating more to the fiction filmmaking. Why did that happen?
Iian Metev: For some time, I’ve dreamt of making a family portrait. A portrait of a family, which on the first glance looks harmonious, yet observed closer we notice the many fine threads that are pulling the characters together and apart at the same time, preventing them from being really together. Even though I see myself as a documentarian at heart, for I am obsessed with observing people the way they are and I dislike changing them, I felt that the documentary genre was too exploitative for this project. I didn’t want to “take” people’s most private feelings for the purpose of a film, I didn’t feel entitled to do this, so we found an indirect, fictionalised approach which allowed me to also add autobiographical elements.
What is your filmmaking background by the way?
Originally, I wanted to become a violinist, then painter, yet I’ve enjoyed independent cinema since my early teens. Whilst studying Fine Arts in London I began experimenting with film, at the time inspired by the works of Parajanov, Brakhage and Bresson producing mostly abstract work. Gradually, I acquired a more observational taste in cinema discovering for myself the documentary work of Philibert and Dvortsevoy and went on to study Documentary Direction at the National Film and Television School in the UK. Most of my work up until 3/4 was in the style of observational documentary. I’ve enjoyed disappearing into the background, observing life quietly. At the same time, possibly because of my musical background I’ve always been intrigued about the formal aspects of cinema. To me form is as important as content to a film’s emotional power, yet the secret is for it to remain invisible.
3/4 is not that different from a documentary film. What is behind the idea keeping the film lo-fi compared to usual fiction feature projects?
Apart from the privilege to have met wonderful people through my documentary work, one of the main lessons I’ve learned is that real life viewed from the outside is undramatic. In my experience, even the hardest moments of our lives emanate a certain quietness, inevitability and very particular atmosphere under which we experience our feelings. The things I love observing are small details and contradictions. One of my favourite moments of 3/4 is a scene where the boy Niki is helping his father with a salad, struggling to open a pepper for some time. It came about naturally, it wasn’t scripted. He’s entirely in the moment and there is humour and seriousness coexisting side-by-side as he was just hurt by his sister in the scene before. It is such moments that I find most inspiring in cinema.
Did you have an actual screenplay for 3/4? How did it look like?
We did have a screenplay, which the actors and most of the crew didn’t see until we finished filming. On one hand we needed this document for funding purposes, on another it helped us tremendously to imagine what every scene could become. Prior to filming every scene, I broke down its contents to a system of instructions for every single actor. In fact, we started working with the actors about a year prior to shooting and developed during that period a very specific approach to improvisation. We would give each one separately one-two goals to achieve for a given scene. As actors wouldn’t know of their respective goals often interesting tensions would arise. Furthermore they had a number of additional signals, which we gave during the shooting of the scenes, with which we controlled their movements and behaviour in more detail. Takes would last up to 40 minutes. Interestingly the final result of the film is surprisingly close to the initial screenplay.
Allegedly 3/4 is of a biographic nature, more specifically autobiographic. Is it true and why did you decide to adapt events from your life?
The project’s impulse was autobiographic. I personally need to work with material well known to me, which I have experienced first hand, and which I care about. Only then can I shape something, which can hopefully have some meaning for others. Of course, in the process things change and evolve. Conceptually, we deliberately left enough space for the actors to contribute towards the shape of the scenes, to make them also theirs, using their own dialogue, interpretations and ideas for actions. Eventually, the film grew into an organic whole, by means of our artistic collaboration.
You keep shooting mostly in natural light, calmly observing from distance but in an intimate proximity. It seems you are drawing heavily from your documentary practice. Is that so and why?
I was interested to use a very unified film language. On one hand it helps to cohere the material, on another it helped for the subtle variations in similar shots to stand out. Hence, in terms of camera, almost the entire film was shot using similar framing, angles and lenses. I wanted the camera to be close enough to the actors, so we isolate them from each other and far enough to allow the frame to breathe, to have a certain lightness. I never wanted two characters in one shot, for I wanted the viewer to relate the characters to each other in their mind. The cameras, most scenes were shot with at least two cameras, were always in front of the protagonists moving backwards, which had to be technically rehearsed and proved quite challenging, as the actors had the freedom to improvise. We solved this by devising rules, according to which we all moved. All of this was done to have a continuous look at faces of the protagonists.
The nature of 3/4 story makes enough space for a melodrama yet you kept the narrative tightly under control never breaking through its coccoon of introversion. What is behind the mix of calmness and confusion?
Deliberately, I wanted to exclude certain moments from the narrative. I preferred to suggest their presence, to create impulses, which will make us imagine them more richly. I believe that the most truthful images are not those you see on screen, but the ones you imagine. For our imagination to be stimulated I believe there needs to be a degree of ambiguity in the material. You ought to wonder what happened, did it go this way or that way? If you know with certainty what occurred, there is no need to use your mental faculties. And of course there is the need for pauses, for empty spaces, during which a film’s impulses can resonate.
For a family drama of sort, there is a lot of melancholia albeit the story lacks the usual open confrontation. How come?
Often, things in family lives remain unsaid. They are only suggested indirectly and exist between the lines. Rarely do we confront each other explicitly. That’s how it is also in the film. The inner tensions builds up and there is only a few points in the film where they surface in direct confrontation.
It seems there is this drama that is unspoken of given the film´s title most likely referring to the absent mother. Is that so?
A film is a different film for every viewer. Same with the title. It is open to interpretation. We didn’t want it to reduce the film’s meaning. Personally, I like the musical metre of 3/4. The slow movement of Beethoven’s second piano concerto, which Mila plays towards the beginning of the film is also in this metre. But there are also other interpretations…
3/4 reminds a character drama at some points, zooming in on different characters, their behaviour and possible background influencing it. Is this the direction you wanted to go and why?
I wanted to give each family member similar weight. All three have an individual narrative line, which to an extent works against the family’s harmony. For example Mila is dreaming of a soloist career, which distances her from her brother, whilst their father gives everything for his scientific work, which distances him from his children. To me, the difficulty of balancing our professional and private lives seems to be of contemporary relevance.
Mila is quite different from the usual female protagonists of coming-of-age, a way more reflective and introverted as if traumatized or under pressure all the time. Why did you want to paint the female character this way?
Mila is an extremely thoughtful and serious classical musician. Especially having lofty goals one often struggles with stage fright and self-doubt. Those are conditions I believe, which torment many aspiring soloists, but also experienced musicians. Look at Sviatoslav Richter, one of the most accomplished pianists of the last century, who at an advanced age, said he hated his own playing. Michelangeli, the epitome of perfectionism is said to have hidden before concerts at the height of his powers. I wouldn’t say that the question of self-doubt is only about gender or age, in fact it is often part of being an artist.
Why did you keep the actors´ names as character names?
We intuitively started the acting workshops with their real names. At one point we wanted to change them, yet it felt much more natural for everyone to keep the original names. They were used to them. In addition, all characters were cast to play roles quite similar to their real backgrounds. So Todor is an astrophysicist in real life and we filmed in his very office with a real colleague of his, Mila was preparing for auditions abroad and is currently in Germany in a way following the script, Niki was filmed with his real best friends. It is difficult to disentangle in the film what is fact and fiction.
Todor is a peculiar character and it looks like he is in the negative light although it becomes apparent that it is not his fault he is kind of neglecting the children. It is just his distraught nature. He seems more like an accidental dad than actual dad. What is behind the construct for this character?
Someone told me that they thought it is fantastic that in this film there is no single negative character. I like to think of it in this way as well. It is because of our conflicting personal interests that tensions arise, but it is important to note that no one really intents any harm at any point. I think that is true of many family conflicts.
How big of a crew you had on the set since the film uncoils frequently almost as an intimate chamber drama?
The crew was approximately twenty people, yet for many of the domestic scenes only one-two persons were in the rooms where we filmed. At times we were filming with four fixed cameras with remote focus. And all the dialogue was recorded using radio mics and a system of plant mics. Yet, the essential ingredient for achieving an intimacy is not only the crew size, but the mutual trust between everyone involved. During the lengthy workshops proceeding the shoot we could build a trusting relationship between crew and actors.
Did you face any dilemmas in the editing room. How big of a challenge was to cut the material in comparison to shooting?
Compared to editing a documentary, it felt more straightforward. The order of the scenes was kept by large from the screenplay and it didn’t take too long to identify the takes we needed. What took the longest was to get the rhythm right and precision in the silences.
Did you rehearse a lot since occasionally, the performances seem to be improvised for the sake of naturalistic effect?
As mentioned earlier, we conducted workshops once a week for a year prior to shooting. At the beginning we did simple physical activities together, shopping, making pancakes, sports, whilst continuously suggesting conversation topics. Gradually we started doing scenes, which in a way formed the background to what happened in the film. Only when we started shooting, did we actually approach the real scenes from the screenplay. I believe that we found an approach, where our actors felt very comfortable at improvising for longer stretches, requiring only the minimum of instructions. Of course it was at times also very demanding for them, but altogether every day of shooting felt like a new creative adventure. I didn’t expect it to be so fulfilling.
How did the casting go?
I approached it like my documentary work. Many phone-calls, meetings, test shoots, people suggesting people. We tried also conventional casting sessions, but no actors were chosen that way. Most of the people for the father we interviewed were from Sofia University or the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. For Mila it was the Musical School, the conservatory, other schools offering music lessons and piano teachers. Although we auditioned most people for Niki, he in the end was suggested through friends.
Recently, Ralitza Petrova had a big success with her bleak drama Godless, while the duo Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov scored with dramedy Glory. The both films bear a political and social statement however you keep within a family almost avoiding any political or social messages. Why?
In this film, I mostly cared about our relationships to the people closest to us. In the original script, there were a few details, which were suggesting some sort of financial hardship or corruption. Of course those things exist in Bulgaria, but they also exist in most European countries. Working with Mila, Todor and Niki, I completely lost interest in those elements. In fact they would have felt even false and it felt liberating getting rid of them.
Did the situation in the Bulgarian film industry change after the successes of Sofia´s Ambulance, Godless, The Lesson, Glory and others?
The situation is colourful. I think it is fantastic news that more and more Bulgarian films are making an impact on the international scene, on the other hand it has happened repeatedly that wonderful new projects of filmmakers with promising backgrounds, who also get highly competitive foreign support, struggle to find financing in Bulgaria for a long time. I personally believe that the evaluation system of projects of the cinema fund has to be modernised. We have a new director of the film fund but often that is not enough as there are many interests involved and things appear below the surface to be highly political. Still, I am hopeful things will change for the better. In the last years, it is positive that many of us filmmakers know each other, support each other and try to inspire change together.
Is the situation better for upcoming and emerging filmmakers, the young generation you seem to be part of since Petar Valchanov mentioned a sort of initiative trying improve the situation with grants, funding and being able to make a film in general?
There was a period one-two years ago, where more grants for younger filmmakers and riskier projects were handed out, numerous interesting projects resulted from those. There were some tensions with more established filmmakers, who disliked this tendency. Since there is not much money for cinema, it is very sensitive how to distribute the money. Ultimately, I believe it is crucial that there is a healthy variety of projects being supported.
Will you return to documentary filmmaking?
I hope so.