Friday, June 6, 2014

Connection Session: A discussion with the director and participants of LOVE AND ENGINEERING

One of the highlights of this year's Tribeca Film Festival was LOVE AND ENGINEERING, a documentary from Finland about a group of engineers who explore a scientific approach to the nature of attraction and forging successful relationships. Both humorous in its following of subjects that are oftentimes charmingly out of tune with others around them, and insightful in its earnest pursuit of the factors that make certain people click, it was clear that the conditions around this production were not ordinary.

During the festival I had an opportunity to speak with the film's director Tonislav Hristov and two of its subjects, Atanas Boev and Todor Vlaev, about the collaborative nature of making the film, what is involved in undertaking a carefully constructed documentary production in Finland, and some of their reactions to what transpired while it all unfolded. 

Mondocurry: How did you come to meet around this project?

Tonislav Hristov: I Was doing my first feature length documentary, The Rules of Single Life, . And on my trip back to Bulgaria, I met Anatas on the airplane, and he was an old friend of mine. He said that he saw the film but it was ‘ok,’ but didn’t like it so much. It was about some single guys who are trying to find love. (Anatas) said to me ‘this is not working, listen to me, I’m an engineer and I know a better way. ‘
Atanas Boev, director Tonislav Hristov, and Todor Vlaev (left to right)

Atanas Boev: (Tonislav) was doing an artistic approach and my ideas was that a systematic or sequential approach would be much better.

 MC: At the beginning of the film, we see you talking about ‘hacks‘ for attracting people. When did you start thinking about these?

AB: Actually I had been in a long term long distance relationship. I was trying to let it go and get myself together and address the problem. I went online to find some research and I found out there’s already plenty. But it was addressed in a nonscientific way. It’s like the stuff you find in an online shopping guide. I took up the challenge to do it in a proper scientific way.

MC: The subjects of the film are all engineers. Could you give your definition of what being an engineer is?

Todor Vlaev: We are all IT engineers. One guy is good at programming, one guy is working with software, another guy working with networks… It just happens that IT is such a big field in Finland. Most of the guys are somehow connected to software or IT. An engineer can be a very broad term. It implies that you studied something technically and you basically use rules and science to create things.

TH: Before I got my film school degree, I got an engineering degree too.  So this was a bit of a personal agenda for me. I was a machine engineer. I wasn’t in IT.

MC: Affected working together when knowing subject vs not so familiar with?

TH: I always make documentaries about people who I know or subjects that I am really aware of. Finding funding for those films takes a very long time. There are hundreds of commission editors that will ask you so many questions about the subject of your film. I know in America it works a little different. Documentaries here are done more in a guerilla style, I think it’s called, where you just take the camera and follow things and wait for something to happen. But for a bigger budget you have to find your subjects, then the story, then you sell the idea a bit. Maybe show a trailer, and then you start making the proper film. So you have to be really well prepared for what the film will look like. You don’t need to know what’s going to happen at the end but you should at least know what’s going to happen in the first third of the film. The way I do films is with really big equipment like very heavy cameras with equipment and lighting so it’s kind of a different way. It’s not a cheap way to do it. And then when the guys get used to the equipment and the lighting and everything, then they can relax and be themselves. It’s the opposite of doing it with a small camera and running around.

MC: How do you try to keep from influencing the subjects being filmed?

TH: The only way is that they need to get used to the lighting and the camera. And also we are very close friends. The cinematographer is also a very good friend. So we make this core group to work and feel comfortable in.  Once they feel comfortable in that, they are themselves. It’s the only way. And if they don’t feel comfortable, it’s very clear there is some problem and we try to deal with it.

For example in the original story,  there was another engineer also, but then he kind of dropped out of the film because he didn't really fit with how things were going.

AB: I also took this responsibility. If we're going to do science, I will tell how the experiments are going to be and what experiments we will do…(Tonislav) didn’t have any way to influence us. He didn’t mess with the experiments and I didn’t mess with where the camera shoots, etc.

TH: And of course beforehand we know very well what the shooting day is going to be like because we have the permissions and the laboratory and the people involved. We cannot just go anywhere with a camera in Finland. We needed at least 2 or 3 weeks in advance to prepare for one shooting day. It’s this kind of process.

MC: Are there any experiments that you had to leave out of the film and regret not being in the final cut?

TH: I believe the best we had were in the film and if we didn’t take any out it would be really long. In the original idea, somewhere there were more proper professors involved. We even shot some talking heads like interviews between Atanas and conversations with the professors. We had 2 or 3 or even more professors. We decided to not concentrate on the science and the professors’ point of view of what’s happening to the engineers.  We’d just let the experiments happen and the engineers themselves realize what is happening and basically concentrate on what is character driven, not someone narrating it.
MC: Because of friendships, was there collaboration or separation of filmmaker and subject?

AB: We collaborated with the other subjects.  They took their tasks very seriously. They were checking things online as we were checking things like how to design a proper experiment.

TH: It has never been like that for me. They are not just my subjects, they are my friends.

TV: Yeah all the time we discussed where are we going, what are our new ideas, what can we do, and as Tony mentioned when you need permission to go somewhere, they're not gonna just let four random guys get into the university. We had the support of the producers.

MC: Were there experiment results that surprised you?     

TH: It was really interesting when we did this test about smell and the body. There were some pretty nice reactions from the women…For example we had an experiment where we had the t-shirts of very handsome actors who were running and we put the t-shirts together with their t-shirts and we asked the women which smelled best. Because there’s this idea that if you are in better shape and eat very healthy, that’s what most actors do, then your smell is much more pleasant. Some of the results with these women were exactly the opposite. One woman really liked the guy who was the shabbiest. Of course most of them loved the actor’s t-shirt’s smell. But there were 1 or 2 who were strongly into the other guy, which was really interesting. This was a result that we couldn’t predict. There were many such kind of results.  

Td: One thing was about the experiment with these jokes that we were writing. Markus made this kind of matrix so you could see what kind of girls like what jokes. And mostly they didn’t like them at all. But there was this one girl, number 6, and she rated everything pretty good. So she liked most of the jokes even though they were pretty bad. The girl was a lawyer and very intelligent. And she had a very weird sense of humor. The weirdest and the craziest jokes, she liked the most.

AB: Even for the engineers with a weird sense of humor, there is a proper girl who liked that.

MC: Is there one person who you all felt changed most significantly over the course of the film?

TH: That was Todor. That’s why he ended up the biggest character in the film. Of course the other guys were also changing throughout but Todor was trying the most. And that’s why it was so visible. It didn’t matter if the other guys were around, he tried to go out of his comfort zone. He tried to use what we were talking about, he was trying to change and this is why it was so good.

A: I also had the same opinion. He’s the one that put in the most effort.

Td: There were some guys that put in more effort as far as actually researching and reading papers. But I think you see that emotionally I changed the most.

MC: You really seemed to show a lot of self awareness. Do you feel it’s a result of being in the documentary, or just participating in the experiment?

Td: Well yeah, it’s everything. I’m pretty interested in why I feel a certain way so it’s a very self-centered thing. But for a long time I’ve been obsessed with self-improvement. On many kinds of levels from sports to emotional resilience, so I’m constantly analyzing this sort of thing. If you ask me about anything, I’ll try to figure it out. But I’m told sometimes (I) shouldn’t think so much about these things. But this is how I am. And it’s kind of hard when you realize sometimes things are hard to change, even if you understand them.

MC: The music in the film really gels with the images and sets a mood. Can you talk about coming up with it? Any influences?

TH:  (Peter Dundakov) is a very good friend of mine. We worked on a few movies together. He did the music beforehand. I have to be honest it was pretty rough because I was fighting with him and sometimes it got really aggressive. I had some vision about the music and he was giving me some other things, which is great. The composer has to give you some other things. But he was trying to convince me and I hate when someone is trying to convince me of something I don’t like.  There were fights and there was shouting. But it happens with everyone. He’s a brilliant guy and did a great job. It’s a friendly kind of thing but it’s not an easy process. And even at the end, of course the music was good because it took us one and a half years. We were working constantly on the music. At the end it was really exhausting but of course I’m gonna work with him again, there’s no question.

I wanted something like Moby’s music, which has a feeling that is more like human. It has the voice. It has the humming. And then there is this melodic beat. Then I had this other music by this brilliant DJ, Caribou. I really liked it and in some working trailer with which we pitched the film we used Caribou for the soundtrack especially these two songs Jamela an (  ). they were the last two songs on the album, Odessa.

MC: There was a very impressionable image in the film of rows upon rows of blinking lights in a very large room…

TH: is the website. Basically every winter and summer an event is held in Helsinki. In the summer it comes up to 10,000 people. They’re all in the same ice hockey hall. They sit together and connect their computers.

AB: Everywhere they are sitting. It is the Woodstock for IT guys. In 2004 they actually had over 10,000 people.

TH: They go together, they play, they do animations.  They do music. It’s a huge LAN party for 4 or 5 days and everyone sleeps and is doing stuff in the same spot. It’s a really huge thing in Scandanavia.

MC: There is also a lot of imagery showing homes with various of screens set up. Does this affect the ability to form relationships?

TH: I’m not so sure. Of course everything affects the way we are.  But I think this has more of an effect on the comfort zone

AB: They form their own kind of nest there.

TH: I think when you are surrounded by gadgets they make you feel more comfortable and secure and this is what makes it hard to go out of the comfort zone.  Everyone should know that when you are in this comfort zone there will never come a girl to knock on your door and say let’s watch a romantic film. It doesn’t work like this. So you have to go out of this nest. And that’s why we are surrounded by gadgets; because they make us feel good.

A: This is why the Google Glasses is the IT guys’ attempt to bring the nest with them.  My advice to all the IT guys is to leave the Google Glasses at home if you are going for a date. Because otherwise you are never going out of that comfort zone.

MC: Did completing Love and Engineering point you in direction of what you would like to do next?

T: Yeah we are already writing a third part of this romantic series, called the mathematics of divorce. It’s about an algorithm of predicting when a couple will divorce. Because Finland has the highest rate of divorces in Europe. So we think there must be some reason for it. It’s going to be a very humorous kind of thing but still a very serious subject.

Tonislav Hristov has been an active documentary filmmaker. Prior to LOVE AND ENGINEERING, he  made 'The Rules of Single Life' in 2011. He also made 'Soul Food Stories,' a documentary about the interaction of individuals from different religious backgrounds living in Bulgaria, which was nominated for the Golden Gate Award at the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival. 

Ace photography and positive background atmospheric vibes provided by Chocko. Check out his photoactivity on his instagram.

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