Director Bianca Lucas speaks to Close-Up Culture about her debut film, Love Dog, ahead of the Locarno Film Festival.
After finishing a job on a Texas oil rig, John returns to his home town in Mississippi – where he will finally confront his grief after his girlfriend’s death. Clumsily trying to distract himself from his own pain in an equally traumatized society, he will come to find that grace and healing come at their own pace, and through unlikely meetings of souls.
Hello Bianca, welcome to Close-Up Culture. First off, how does it feel to have your first feature film selected for the Locarno Film Festival?
It feels kind of surreal, to be honest. I’ve admired Locarno from a distance for some time now- I feel like they are one of the few prominent festivals left that still make truly brave choices. It’s a festival of fresh visions. I have a vivid flash of memory- we were shooting a scene in the kitchen and I had this thought: “how incredible would it be if the film ended up being screened at Locarno”. So, I feel honoured and grateful.
Can you tell us about your background and what led you to filmmaking?
My inner world, my way of interpreting the world, has always been visual. As a child, growing up in Poland, I was very shy. There was this feeling of never wanting to be an active part of ‘a scene’, but always observing it from the safety of the sidelines, noting every detail about an exchange, recording it in my mind. I was naturally drawn to drawing, portraiture, then photography.
Eventually, that’s how I was drawn to cinema- particularly auteur cinema. I needed the right film school… one that would support my desire to make films based on an experience, a feeling, films that communicate through their gaze, rather than being ‘filmed stories’. I found that in film factory, the school that Bela Tarr founded in Sarajevo, and to which I was accepted in 2012, when I was 23.
Your debut feature, Love Dog, is about the personal and collective process of grief. Can you tell us about the central character, John, and the journey he goes on in this film?
The character of John is an amalgamation of John the actor, myself, and some ‘fantasy’. I think John’s- the character’s- distinguishing features are his sensitivity, his relentless search for meaning, and his feeling of being somewhat at odds with the world surrounding him. That’s something I think John (the actor) and myself identify with deeply. But the created, fictional protagonist of John in the film is on a very particular journey- that of grief. And before we can observe any softening and acceptance in him, we observe him resisting the vulnerability of his situation with nuclear, silent aggression- anger. There is an element of guilt and denial too.
I understand the film delves into the mythicised American identity, and generational cycles of violence and emotional pain. Can you talk more about what the film explores?
The character of John is multilayered. At a microcosmic level, we’re looking at the psychology of someone- a man, which is not insignificant in the story- struggling with loss. But on a macrocosmic level, ‘John’ is also a vessel through which we can observe a general, surrounding atmosphere of tension and denial.
We shot the film in Mississippi. Of course, Mississippi’s history is a complicated one. It certainly has many skeletons in its closet. But I don’t want to talk about the political consequences of that- I don’t feel qualified to do that, and my approach to the film is not political. It is observational, experiential. What I could see and feel, as an outsider looking in, a fly on the wall- is that you can feel the grief emanating from the very ground of Mississippi.
You can’t help but feel like it is haunted. Whether you know about the history or not. And then we shot the film in two parts: during the first wave of the pandemic in 2020- literally the first lockdown- and then a year later, in the winter. And there was so much going on simultaneously both times, literally as we were shooting. The pandemic, the BLM movement… and then Biden’s inauguration, the storming of the capitol, and the freak snow blizzard in the Southern states that hit Mississippi hard (this is why we have snow in one of the last shots of the film!). People were scared, confused, angry, disillusioned- and arguing with each other, relentlessly.
The myth of America as the controlled, democratic, civilisational stronghold was crumbling. The skeletons came out of the closet. Again, I didn’t feel qualified nor did I want to push any particular political agenda through the film. I did want to capture that haunted feeling though. Like crossing the river Sanzu- traversing the swamp of snakes & spirits that need to be addressed before the end of the grief cycle can be achieved. And until you can look them in the eye, you will end up in those muddy waters again and again- and each time the journey just gets longer and more arduous.
What was your collaboration like with John Dicks on this film?
We were friends. I met him in a Karaoke bar when I was traveling through the States with my mother, in 2018. We clicked immediately. We are both stubborn, complicated people, coming from completely different worlds, and we had our differences. But we were united by a common sense of curiosity and search. He is a deeply intuitive, smart person. And very brave. He is not- or at least was not- a professional actor. To agree to trust me, to invest his time and efforts, to make this film as spontaneously as we did, without knowing where it might lead him… To have our camera scrutinize him as much as it did- was incredibly brave.
We had gotten to the point where we were as comfortable disagreeing with each other as agreeing. And that’s real collaboration. A real conversation, and a real exchange. Now we can look back and say: that was hard, we had good moments, and bad moments, with several frictions. But in the end we continued talking and persevering and creating this thing together, which we both commonly hope serves a higher purpose. In a way, that’s what I would wish for the world at this moment in time.
Can you tell us more about your journey to make your first feature film? What were some of the hurdles you faced?
Well we hadn’t set out to make this film- what turned out to be this feature film- the way that it eventually shaped up. We (my cinematographer Jozefina Gocman and I) arrived in March, 2020, in the US, with a camera in tow, just hoping to do some research, get to know John and the town of Natchez better, maybe document some things. But a week after we arrived, the borders closed, and the world shut down.
We rented a house by the Mississippi river, and went into lockdown together, the 3 of us- Jozefina, John and I. We also took in Sam, the dog. There were a good 2-3 weeks where I had no idea what to do… Jozefina and I were wondering if we should just go back to Poland. I took walks, cuddled with Sam, we cooked food, we pondered what to do if the situation turns out to be truly cataclysmic… we listened to the sound of the river at night, out on the porch. In a way, notwithstanding the stress, it was a magical time. Everything just went quiet.
I was very heartbroken at the time for personal reasons, and without all of the noise of social distractions and all the ‘gap-filling’, all of that grief hit me like a ton of bricks. I was facing a loss, and we were all facing immense losses collectively as a society. And I just couldn’t stand that brokenness, did not want to surrender myself to it. I had an overwhelming need to transform all the pieces into something that made sense, and something that promised light at the end of the tunnel.
So I just thought- “we have a camera, we’re stuck here, we have all these feelings we don’t know what to do with- we’re in this f****d up place at a f****d up time. Capture it.” It was an alchemical process- we took something that looked like sh*t on the surface and created a very simple, but very sincere narrative, that would allow us to document and process the feelings, and the zeitgeist. Pardon my french 😉
It was the hardest thing, by far, I’ve ever put myself through. We had originally planned to come to Mississippi for a few weeks. I ended up staying 2 months. We only had enough money to subsist- buy food, pay for the accommodation, gas. And we started rolling the camera- every other day, creating this character that really was born before our eyes and was evolving and sometimes surprising us as we went along. It was a shot in the dark.
Then I moved to Mexico (which wasn’t part of the original plan either). The post-production process, which was carried out entirely in Mexico, was quite hard as well. The sound was not recorded professionally (because I recorded it myself!), so it was a lot of work to fix it and mold it to an acceptable and creatively satisfactory soundtrack. The editing process was fascinating and arguably taught me the most in the whole process.
To be honest, I never want to make a film this way again. I want to take my time to write a script, people need to be paid… I need more support. But at the time, it was appropriate and of course, I don’t regret it. I am proud of what we were able to do despite the circumstances.
And what will be your biggest takeaway from making this first feature?
That things take time, and take on a life of their own. And resisting that is the opposite of maturity- and creativity. That I’m stronger than I thought I was before I made this. That it is important to listen to the voices that not only believe in you, but also want you to believe in yourself. Creating something is a rupture- you’re taking yourself apart and trying to repuzzle it into one of the conclusions of the many chapters you go through in life. And in that rupture, you have to be careful whether you invite encouragement and healing, or parasites that prey on that temporary, huge vulnerability.
That love comes in many different forms, and that if you’re brave enough to cross the sanzu, with all its bends and snakes and difficult confrontations, you might encounter a warm welcome on the other side.
What are your hopes and ambitions for the future?
To continue making films, and to find the right support and partners in doing so. That’s all I hope and wish for.