VIFILL Prunner’s thriller I Am Here is set to be one of the standout films at this year’s Raindance Film Festival.
The story of an unfamiliar couple who escape to a southeast Asian island after committing a murder, I Am Here is a quietly suspenseful experience set to an idyllic backdrop and driven by two intense lead performances.
Icelandic director Vifill Prunner joins us on Close-up Culture to give in-depth insight into I Am Here ahead of the film’s world premiere at Raindance (2 and 3 October).
Q: Judging by the trailer, ‘I Am Here’ looks to be a quiet and thrilling experience. What should audiences be prepared for?
A: ‘I Am Here’ is a little neo-noir in the tradition of Bonnie and Clyde, about two strangers on the run in southeast Asia. I think it is an unusual take on the genre, in so far that its emphasis is on the inner life of the characters, rather than the plot. Adrift in a kind of Garden of Eden, these characters must try to come to terms with what they have become and make peace with themselves and each other.
Q: What can you tell us about the relationship that is the focus of this film?
A: IT is an unconventional love story about two people, that in an attempt to break with their past, take a shortcut, by stealing money. In a sense it is a desperate attempt to exist on their own terms, to carve a notch into the tree of life so as to leave a trace of themselves before fading into nothingness.
Q: What inspired you to make this film?
A: AT the time I wrote the film I was living in Thailand where in I had moved with my wife to in a sense start over after being financially wiped out by my first film The Animals. We were extremely broke and she was pregnant, so it was a difficult period, but at the same time we were living in this kind of paradise and there is definitely something of that that made it into this story.
But as far as inspiration, I am not really sure that this is how I work. I just kind of make films, but I don’t really know exactly why and it is only now that I am asked the question that I am trying to come up with an answer. Maybe a way to imagine it is, how a painter paints the view from his or her window. It is not necessary that they are particularly haunted by that view, but it is the view they have, so they work within those parameters.
But besides that I suppose there is a recurring theme I have explored through my work, and that would be something like the human condition, or more specifically the contradiction that in the pursuit of self realisation, we do terrible things, both as individuals and collectively as a civilization. There is something dramatic about that, something human, all too human that fascinates me and I keep coming back to.
Q: I heard the first word of the film is spoken twelve minutes in. Why did you want to take this approach?
A: WHEN I write a scene, regardless whether it is going to be a silent or mostly-silent scene, I write it with dialogue. But I always consider it as no more than a placeholder text, to get a sense of the arc, the character motivations and pacing. When I shoot it I know that much of it might be stripped out during editing, so I am not precious about the text.
For me the film is the film, what’s written is just a sketch. On the flip side, my first film had a lot of dialogue, so every project is different. But to have sparse dialogue felt right for this film… I am not sure I can explain it beyond that.
Q: With such minimalist dialogue, what does the script look like for a project like this? Is everything still thoroughly planned or do you leave space for improvisation?
A: ALTHOUGH the script is more or less a standard, 90 something pages, I do leave a lot of room for improvisation and may decide to change many things during shooting. I think having a script that has a certain rhythm helps set the tone and is a working document and anchor to orient yourself when you are in the midst of it.
That being said, I never have the script with me when on set. In the morning I might read the scenes I hope to shoot that day, but once I start to work I work in the moment. I don’t do shot lists or story boards etc… but that is probably easier since I do my own camera work. Of course there are many ways to skin a cat, but for me it is a process of discovery by shooting a scene that I find out how it should be shot. This means I sometimes shoot variations of a scene that may be quite different.
It also means that sometimes the process might seem disjointed and chaotic to someone on the outside, but even if I work in this way there is a method to the madness.
Q: What qualities were you looking for when casting the two lead roles?
A: I think the fundamental quality I look for in an actor – or in anyone I work with for that matter – is their willingness to go on an adventure. Making a film is a very long process and you want to work with people that are ready to go on this journey with you and have faith in the process and you as a filmmaker.
I also tend to work with people I know, so in sense they have been battle-tested and that also goes back to drawing from your surroundings. I met Hocine Choutri in a bar in Paris, I walked up to him and said, “Hey, you should be an actor”, he of course had already figured this out years before and made several films. Two years later I called him up and said ‘you want to come make this movie in Thailand’. On the other hand, I had known Tua Charlotte Fock for years and we had often discussed doing something together, so when this project happened I thought about her.
Q: Can you tell us more about working with Hocine and Tua?
A: IN general I trust actors to do their thing and I don’t want to interfere with it to much. I feel my job is simply to try to set the stage, create the environment that is conductive to a scene and then to keep my eyes open.
The most effective way if there is a problem, I find is to change the scene in a fundamental way rather than to adapt the performance and that is something I frequently do. Of course it depends on the kind of film one is making how much flexibility there is to do so. But I believe the process needs to be messy and there has to be a sense that it is a matter of life and death to get to where you are going. To work like that you need a producer that has the confidence both in himself as well as in the process and I was lucky to have that in Samuel Bourdin, who stuck with the film through thick and thin.
Working with Hocine who has a lot of experience, I might explore different readings of the scene or try alternative intentions to have some variations. Where with Tua, for whom this was her first feature film and is very intuitive person, I might take a different approach, conveying character maybe through wardrobe or mood. But it was particularly her ability to convey emotions across the lens of the camera without words, which made me think she was perfect for the part.
Great performances can come from actors and non actors alike, and some of the locals we cast were incredible as well. I have a great respect for letting people bring their point of view to the project and working with both Hocine and Tua was a very collaborative effort.
Q: You have a stunning backdrop for the film. How was the shoot?
A: THAILAND is an amazing country, it is beautiful and the people are very nice. But behind the facade there is also this kind of melancholy. It is a place where you could imagine that almost anything could happen, with beauty and chaos and magnificent wonder everywhere you look. A kind of paradise lost – and certainly the film drew on that energy.
So even if it was trying at times with the tropical climate and constantly changing weather, shooting in Thailand is great and people are very helpful and accommodating.
Q: Apart from being a idyllic setting, what does the location add to the story?
A: WE shot during off-season, on this island in the Gulf of Thailand close to the border of Cambodia. It is a wild place, with lush tropical jungle and we were there on the backend of the rainy season when you have these rich rain showers and low-hanging clouds.
It is a magical place with its own special energy. But specifically for the story, it was the kind of island you might imagine that these people might have chosen to escape to. A bit off the beaten path and a bit rustic.
Q: There are lot of striking images in the trailer, but the one I have to know more about is the elephant walking across the beach.
A: WHEN I came to Thailand for the first time some years ago, I always remember being in a taxi on a six lane highway and in-between the fast moving traffic there is a guy riding an elephant while cars zip by at breakneck speeds. I guess it must have been a kind of “road” elephant as it had reflectors attached to the back. It was very surreal yet at the same time somehow it did not feel out of place. So even if I did stage the scene with the elephant for my film, it is something you could imagine seeing there, it is a kind of magical realism which is everywhere in Thailand.
Q: I believe you shot your first film ‘The Animals’ alone for a few hundred dollars. How different was the experience of making I Am Here?
A: WHEN I shot The Animals, I shot it over a period of three years with my friends and it drew on the lives we were living in LA. I shot it one scene at a time, edited it and then wrote the next one and so on. So it was really made the way maybe a writer writes a book, starting on page one and working your way to the end.
It was a very interesting way to work and I had hoped to carry over this process to I Am Here. But it became clear very quickly that when shooting consecutive days (and we shot for about 30 days) decisions had to be made on a daily basis, sets built, extras cast, weather changes forcing your schedule etc. So soon the size of the crew ballooned and at some point you have someone whose only job is to make coffee and drive sandwiches around and now you are much closer to a traditional film set then you had hoped it to be.
But as far as the actually shooting set goes it was still very intimate, with core crew of about eight people, an AD, 1AC, 2nd AC, sound, DIT, location manager and a couple of production assistants. But all together we fluctuated between 25 and 50 people, so it was a significant step up in terms of complexity.
Q: In what ways do you feel your self-taught background has shaped you as a filmmaker?
A: OF course I cannot compare it to anything other than my personal experience, but I think these are not the kind of things you choose, it just happens to you.
When I was a kid, I changed schools 14 times and my parents would move us from neighbourhood to neighbourhood and country to country. I had to constantly adapt to a completely new reality which is not always easy for a child and by extension translated into me not doing very well in school. So I started working when I was 14 doing odd jobs and mostly skipped the last 2 years of high school.
I moved to Paris when I was 18 with a couple of bucks in my pocket to pursue a career as a photographer, which is also where I met my friend Samuel – who is the producer of this film – and somehow all that lead up to me being here today. So being a self-taught filmmaker is not as much about being a filmmaker as it is about being self thought, I suppose. Because having to have to learn in your own way (and that may sound strange, but I think you don’t really learn that in school), means you have a different relationship to problem solving and you might be more inclined to experiment.
So you could say I learned filmmaking from the ground up by trial and error and along the way found some things that work for me. I think probably one important factor is that because of my photography background I can do my own camera work if need be, which gives me a lot of flexibility to change things on the fly. It means often I only do one take for a given angle, or shoot multiple angles in one take in a sense “editing in camera”. That can save a lot of time, but this would not be right for every project.
Q: You will be in attendance at Raindance Film Festival in London. What does it mean to you to have ‘I Am Here’ screen at the festival?
A: WHEN I made my first short film pretty much exactly 12 years ago I sent it to Cannes, the second thing I did was to buy a suit and sunglasses. Little did I know that it would take another 12 years of work without any sort of recognition for me to be premiering any film in any festival.
Now that our film will be screening at Raindance, of which I am incredibly proud, I am way too fat for my suit. So I guess the moral of the story is don’t buy a suit too early. But beyond that being invited to be part of such a distinguished festival is an incredible honour and films like ours would have little chance to reach a broad audience without them, so their work is very important to independent cinema. I am very excited to see how it all pans out and how the film will be received.