UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE: Joys and Pitfalls of Guerrilla Filmmaking in Gay Paree – a Q & A with filmmaker KIRSTEN RUSSELL
On his first night in Paris, Dan has a black-out drunken one-night stand with Sophie and wakes up to discover he doesn’t speak her language. Nor she his. And this should be the end, right? But what would you say if you could say anything?
“Universal Language” is a 35 minute short film shot in Paris in May of 2013 with a microbidget, two actors, one camera, zero equipment during record breaking cold and rain in a land where most of us didn’t speak the language. We had one film permit…the rest we would be stealing.
FC: Kirsten, we understand you had one film permit to shoot in Paris and the rest was full on guerrilla filmmaking?
KR: Well actually we had two but only used one. Frederique Nahmani, my lead actress and one of the producers, had legit permits to shoot a block or two away from Notre Dame on Rue de la something-or-another and the other was for in front of Notre Dame itself. We only had these two permits because frankly, I had only been to Paris once before with my good friend and roommate, Megan Rubens (who, ironically enough would come onto this project years later as the other producer) and spent my three days there being fairly intoxicated. So my memories were quite fuzzy when it came down to picking locations. I remembered Notre Dame (dimly) and wanted to pick a few spots that were iconic. So the flying buttresses and the Eiffel Tower became our only beacons we knew where definite in our shooting schedule. We didn’t have a permit to shoot at the Eiffel Tower because, if I remember correctly, they wouldn’t allow any film to shoot as close as I wanted to be and there was a big charge for it. So, yet again, I had to say…cross your fingers everyone. Let’s just steal it.
The reason why we only used one of the two is because the day before we shot our scheduled Notre Dame shoot gay marriage was passed in France and some dude decided to express his disagreement by walking into Notre Dame and putting a gun in his mouth. I found this out at about 2am when we were scheduled to meet at Notre Dame at 7am to avoid the barrage of tourists that wait outside. And exactly as I assumed, when we showed up there was police tape all across the front of the church and some sort of loud jackhammering that had nothing to do with a police investigation. So for both visual and auditory reasons we had to rethink this. So we moved to the gardens behind Notre Dame which are a big no-no to shoot in.
I have to segue here to fill you in on the lame plan we had in case we were ever stopped by police. Simply, we would play dumb Americans. I would say, “Je ne sais pas!” (I don’t know). We would act confused and then drift away. Or run…if need be. And truthfully, either I have the world’s greatest luck or Parisians as a whole are a pretty cool bunch, but this was the ONLY time we were stopped. Marcel Simoneau, my lead ‘American’ actor (who happens to speak French) saved the day by informing the officer that he had something unsightly hanging from his nostril. In Parisian embarrassment, he covered his nose, gave us 30 minutes to finish, then disappeared into the beige cement city. We took another 2 hours.
FC: You also say every filmmaker should try guerrilla filmmaking at least once. Why?
KR: Even when I wrote the script almost all the scene headings looked something like this: EXT – STREET – DAY or EXT – ANOTHER STREET – LATER.
And some action sequences read something like this:
“Dan sits down (somewhere, don’t know yet) and freaks. He’s not sure what to do. Director note: Neither do I. I’ll figure this out later…”
I just about drove Frederique crazy, who was scouting in Paris, when she would call me and say, “So what kind of street are we talking about?” And I would say, “Like narrow. Maybe with cobblestones. And maybe with like some steps…or something.” After a while I made a decision, that scared the crap out of me, to simply…not know. To simply challenge the sometimes evil Gods of Filmmaking by saying, “I don’t know the city, the streets, the laws, or the language but whether it be good, bad or ugly…I’m getting this thing in the can in 5 days.”
Granted, my wonderful director of photograph, Charlie Goodger (who we shipped in from London on the Eurostar along with Megan, the producer) and I location scouted for two days and had some ideas of where we would shoot and when. And every morning Megan, Charlie and I would slam together a tentative shooting schedule for the day. Though there was still so much left up to chance. And just as I knew it would happen, everything changed at the drop of a dime, because of weather or simply showing up at a possible location to find everything about it was all wrong. Whether it be that yet another protest was going on or something about it didn’t “feel” right. Even down to the wire we had no location for the “waterfall scene”. Yes, I wanted to put my actors in a public waterfall…something that could seriously get us in trouble. Then on the final day, Megan and I made one last ditch attempt and went walking in search of something wet to crawl into. And a few blocks away from the Bastille we found this groovy waterfall that shot STRAIGHT UP from the ground. And the rest is footage.
And here’s the reason why every filmmaker should try guerrilla filmmaking once…because it tests your boundaries of needing to be safe. To be in control. To make a “good” film…because potentially this could suck. It makes you sit in whatever your fears are, whether they are not being creative enough or talented enough or having everyone think you’re an idiot because you are just good old fashioned lost. And I mean that literally and figuratively. Lost, because you don’t know how you’re going to battle the forces of nature. And lost cause you don’t know where the hell you are. And really lost because you wonder what you’re doing with your life that you ended up here…and maybe this was a really bad idea. Funny enough, this is a movie that follows a guy who is lost…literally and figuratively. And I guess I needed to be just that to shoot it.
In the end, all one can do is simply “show up” with all the carnival funny-house-of-mirrors reflecting your contorted images, whether they be true or not, and just shoot the stupid thing.
And I did. And you will. Because the alternative means the distortions where correct. And f*ck that.
Flying back to New York with Marcel on XL Airways, I had a new thought, “If I can do this…what can’t I do? The limits of my abilities had just formed a much wider diameter. And how much wider could they go?’
And that’s a powerful thought I’d hope for anyone.
FC: Where did the story for UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE come from?
KR: Universal Language is a film of opportunity.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away I was an actress. And at the beginning of 2013 I was invited by my long-time acting teacher, Robert Castle to partake in a virtuosi Shakespeare workshop that would take place in Weitra castle in Austria. And Frederique, who had recently moved back to Paris, had suggested that I swing by France for a little visit on my way back. Of course, I said no as I had no interest in repeating another lost weekend in Gay Paree. So Frederique came back with another suggestion…why didn’t I finish the workshop, puddle jump over to Paris and shoot a little movie?
I don’t know why exactly I said yes. Maybe because it was so completely out of my comfort zone. Or maybe it was one of those “you only live once” things. But I think the answer lies with the script itself that got me to book that extra ticket.
Many years ago I had read a book called, “The Soul of Sex: Cultivating Life as an Act of Love” by Thomas Moore. It was an interesting read with a lot of cool insights but there was one paragraph that struck me as profound truth.
“It may be tempting at times to imagine sex as purely physical. Then we might not have to deal with feelings, personalities, and repercussions. We may try to avoid the complexities that always appear in relationships and look for liberated sex in “free love”. How pleasant it would be, we may think, to have sex without strings attached, without all he painful emotions and parting and reunions. But the soul has its own life and its own will. It won’t submit to our manipulations. The attempt to have sex without implications may backfire, and though a meaningless sexual fling we may find ourselves in the biggest emotional mess of our lives.”
This passage had been nudging me for years to give it a story. But how to weave a esoteric concept into something concrete and, let’s be honest, entertaining, was something I hadn’t figured out yet. So it stayed in a shoe box in the back of my brain…waiting. Then with the opportunity to write a script that would take place in “the city of love” it seemed time to give Mr. Moore’s theory a whirl.
So I started off with meaningless sex…the most hollow, faceless one night stand any two people could have. And what would really make it as far from spiritually connected as possible? What if I had two people who, for whatever reasons, would do anything to avoid being emotionally entangled? And what if one of them was so drunk he didn’t even remember it? AND what if they didn’t speak the same language?
It was the perfect cavalier recipe for disaster. Thus Dan and Sophie were born.
Though the script really winds around the fact that being unable to verbally communicate with your lover leads to some unusual conversations, the underbelly of the piece has always been about another form of communication, mysterious and willful, that binds these two no matter how much they avoid being attached.
FC: Both characters have unique ‘Achilles Heels.’ Where did they originate from?
KR: I needed to find something that connected them together…like a key into a lock…or a man into a woman. I found Dan’s achilles heel in the script itself. I was around draft 3 when I decided it was just getting too cute and wordy and started parring back any extra “charming” dialogue or junky behavior. I literally went through the script and just cut, cut, cut. I took a look at what was left of Dan’s words and actions and it just leaped out…Dan has a very big problem. Just like in real life when you walk into a bar and see someone holding a glass of beer with a clenched fist and you think, “Man, that dude’s in trouble.” I will say that I have written many a script and have never had a moment that showed me so obviously what the sub-conscience writer is up to. I had written the quintessential alcoholic, complete with denial and distraction and didn’t know it.
Now I just needed to find in Sophie the key to his lock.
I dabbled around with a bunch of ideas that all seemed immediately trite. And then one evening I was flipping through channels when I caught the tail end of a show about the effects of chemical weapons on the unborn. And there was a child who had been born with its heart on the outside. I had heard of this birth defect before but it sparked something I had heard along time ago. In some Hindu philosophy it is the belief that the soul sits just left of the heart. And I thought,
“What if the soul doesn’t know there has been an operation, and still floats half in and half out of the rib cage, caught like a ghost between worlds…”
I idea of making Sophie some kind of victim via birth-right was uninteresting to me. I was more fascinated that she might be fascinated by her own condition. To be comfortable with it, but still aware of the short-comings that might accompany such an innate vulnerability. Thus the desire to keep people at an arm’s length because protecting oneself, when you are fully accepting of the pitfalls to your own personal deformities (for lack of a better word) is not a weakness, I feel. So Dan’s imperfections were carefully hidden, most importantly from himself. And Sophie’s imperfections were perfectly exposed.
FC: Tell us about your interest in a dysfunctional muse.
KR: I’d been a writer for the majority of my life but completed my first (very lame) screenplay called ‘Bobby D And The ATM Connection’ in April of 1992. It’s weird that I remember dates like that. Anyway, that was when I began realizing that writing, to some extent, is beyond your control. I think it was Stephen King in “Danse Macabre” that explained it as having a colander inside your brain that information passes though constantly. And some stuff just sticks. For reasons mysterious even to Mr. King, it is the world of horror. For me, and I didn’t see this until I began to take note as to what got me back in front of my computer screen and what didn’t…is dark comedy that only comes from the defectiveness of a person. Simply put, Superman is by no means funny. Lex Luther is hilarious. And it is impossible for me to find the heart and soul of a character unless I go through the funny door first. And I discover them by using a kind of comedic depth charger. The funnier they are, the deeper the charge. But it all starts with a real live human person…or as we sometimes refer to as…an actor.
I write for my actors. I find characters virtually impossible to create unless I have the right casting in my head already. For instance, when I was writing the feature “Rabbit Stories” I had originally cast Marcel Simoneau, for the role of Ted, a young, handsome suburban husband with the idea was that he and Kate (the wife) were ‘beautiful people’. Like the cheerleader and high school football star years later. And for the life of me, I couldn’t get that screenplay off the ground. Then one day I decided to change the cerebral casting to Daniel Vespa who was older, grittier and much more life-beaten. And the script wrote itself in a week. This was one of my first lessons that showed me that we are powerless to the agenda of the sub-conscience writer. If it’s not turned on, it simply blows you off and watches TV.
With Universal Language I knew I had Frederique as Sophie. Her gracefully awkward essence, like a newborn deer, sleek and bumbling at the same time, was an easy start. And she had originally suggested a friend of hers, who I had never met, named Dan. I grabbed the name just because it was readily available but didn’t have much more than the first scene down until I thought of Marcel again. But this time his charming good looks and veneer of “having it all” triggered something in me, as I cranked out the first draft in a few weeks. In retrospect, it’s easy to see why. The handsome, seemingly perfect exterior masked a dark and murky underbelly filled with fear and anxiety that covered what Dan, deep underneath, knew he was.
Again, it was Stephen King who said that stories are never written, they are unearthed. And writing all my characters is a process of digging. But first I have to find the right muse who provides the shovel. Because deep down, I think we are all a little crazy, a little ugly, a little cruel. And how we battle with that on topsoil is where it gets interesting.
FC: Why spend all the money you have on a 35 minute film? What’s your motivation?
KR: I had recently finished another film, a feature called “Rabbit Stories” that took me 7 years to complete. Yes, 7 years. I could have had a daughter in 2nd grade, but no…I had a movie. I guess the upswing on that is that I don’t have to pay for “Rabbit Stories” to go to college. But what I was left with (besides a boatload of DVDs) was a feeling of depletion I have trouble describing. And I made a decision to NEVER make another film. It had been too costly, too time-consuming, too painful. I would be free of this expensive and unsuccessful art form!!!
A week later I was bored.
And then a thought occurred to me…why not do a short?
Simply put: a short is LESS than a feature. And I had the psychological capacity right now for LESS. Then Frederique’s offer came.
The script was interesting, at least to myself. My actors were awesome and on board. Then I mentioned it to Megan on Skype one day and she immediately attached herself to it, which I took as a major acknowledgment that we might be on to something, if not good, then NEEDED, because for whatever reason, this random idea just kept manifesting itself.
Additionally, my finances perfectly matched my emotional capacity. I had enough cash and strength for a short…not a feature. And I needed to make something, to stick my toe back in the water, so I could see (after all the overwhelming years of “Rabbit Stories”) if being a filmmaker was what I was made of.
I’ve noticed that it rarely bodes well when you bully what you want from life. And when you give in to what life wants from you without deciding what the awesome outcome will be, you’re usually on a good track. So I don’t have any motivating motive here because I think that the only thing we can do in life is to do the work and let destiny take care of itself…regardless of what that destiny is.
FC: Can you tell us the best story from filming in France?
KR: It was the first night of shooting and we had found a beautiful flat overlooking the Bastille as Sophie’s home to shoot in. It also was the day that gay marriage had passed in France and literally below us a HUGE concert with several bands celebrated the event. Thankfully, we were shooting the love scene that night which required no sound.
I’m going to segue again for a second to let you in on the fact that that scene was never in the original script. I didn’t write it because I thought, if Dan didn’t remember having sex with Sophie why should the audience? But my first night in Weitra, Austria I dreamt we shot the love scene. I saw how to shoot it, light it, and Charlie (my DP), most importantly, managed to capture exactly how it FELT in that dream. Weird…
Anyway, we wrapped that location and were on to the next when we stepped out of the building and were smack dab in the middle of thousands of Parisians. Megan and I had the same thought immediately. Throw everyone into the mix.
I remember watching Dan and Sophie dance through the crowds and the music was blasting and everyone was so happy. Etienne Nee Dupuy, my Parisian sound recordist (aka Sound Buddha) floated through the mayhem waving his boom. And my DP was so alive as he swung his camera right into the unflinching faces of the police in their black riot gear.
I still had no idea how this film would turn out or even if I would ever make another. And all the hours of panic, skyping with Megan about how I never seem to do anything the easy way and what the hell is wrong with me and I’m flushing every penny I have AGAIN just seemed to melt away and I thought, “”Don’t be afraid to take a chance. Risk makes your victories like nectar and your failures a good story. And if it’s money that you fear losing from taking a chance…well then, put a price on this moment.”
At the time we shot it I thought, “this looks amazing…too bad we will never use it.”
This footage is all over the film.
FC: Once complete, what is your plan with the film?
Not wanting to completely put the cart before the horse…we still need to finish “Universal Language“. Jamie Wright, my editor, locked picture in December and my sound editor, Joao Jabace, and Composer Joel Douek, are literally working as we speak to finish their end. And I currently have a tiny Kickstarter campaign going to fund this final leg.
Being that shorts are not a hot ticket for any distribution company, though my producer, Megan Rubens, who recently was nominated for a BAFTA for her film, “Keeping Up With The Joneses” (WhooHooo) has some ideas up her sleeve that will remain unspecified for now. And I do plan on really hitting the festival circuit. For one thing you meet, for the most, amazing people there that act as an rudder for your real and filmmaking life. Plus travel is always a nice perk. And for some reason I am more interested in the European Film Festivals…Gee, I wonder why. Though if any Parisian politician reads this I’ll probably be outlawed. I guess if I ever want to do something like this again I’ll just fly into Germany and sneak over the border in the trunk of a car.
FC: So what’s next? Do you have any new plans?
Well, later in the year, my two new Parisian friends Celine Perra and Roger Contebardo, both terrific actors who I met in Weitra castle, flew for their first time to New York. And obviously Celine pays attention to my stories because before coming she sent me a little email saying, “While we are there why don’t we make a little movie?”
And again, I gathered up Marcel and wrote another short script called “Like Totally Hot Couple Seeking Same”. This one is all comedy-all day. It’s hilarious. And I co-directed and co-starred with Marcel on this one. That was an interesting feat. The film is being edited as we speak. And yes, it’s partially in French…a theme for 2013.
And the good news on “Rabbit Stories”, the film I abandoned for dead, is that it has been tiptoeing it’s way through the festival circuit. It first screened at Hell’s Half Mile Film Festival in Bay City, Michigan and couldn’t have had a better place to premier. Not only is it a wonderful film festival but Camila Gibran (my fellow producer and co-owner of Basically Films) and I met some awesome filmmakers who I am now sketching out the beginnings of another film with.
David Spaltro, writer/director of the awarding-winning “Things I Don’t Understand” and Mark Covino, director of the award-winning documentary “A Band Called Death” and I are at the early stages of creating an anthology film, similar to Tarantino’s “Four Rooms.” David has dubbed the title “Strange Love”…about kind of that…strange love…though we are walking the tightrope of perverse. My part of the script is already finished. I’m just waiting for the boys to catch up.
In the meantime I’m writing another feature called “Something Wicked”…which largely takes place in Vienna. I never learn.
Kirsten Russell began as an actress doing her first play at age 10. She attended an all-art high school in Miami, Florida and then went on to study acting at California Institute of the Arts. She continued her acting career in NYC where she performed in over 50 plays, originating several by playwright, Edward Allan baker. She appeared in several TV shows as well as starring in Joe Maggio’s award-winning Indie flicks “Virgil Bliss” and “Milk and Honey”. In 2000 she began directing stage. Soon after she wrote and produced her first short, “Gomers.” The joined forces with fellow actress and friend, Camila Gibran, where they created Basically Films. Together they completed Kirsten’s second short, “Valentines” and the epic 7 year feature, “Rabbit Stories.” In 2013 Kirsten wrote, directed and produced the short films “Universal Language” shot in Paris, and “Like Totally Hot Couple Seeking Same’ shot in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where Kirsten lives with her jungle of plants and never-ending parade of roommates.