Saturday, June 28, 2014

Talking about Seahorses with Jason Kartalian, plus a mini-doc on the premiere and the making of the film

This is an interview with Jason Kartalian concerning his film Seahorses, which I reviewed earlier today.

To be honest I wasn’t planning on doing an interview, but in the course of going back and forth via email about the film, he threw out a stray remark that caught my eye. I was curious what was behind it, and since I was where I couldn’t really respond, I made a note to ask him about it when I got home. Well, that opened the door, and during the rest of the afternoon I wrote down a few more questions. Before I left work for the day I sent off a quick note asking if he’d be interested in doing an interview. He said yes — and the rest is history.

What follows was done via email. I sent him a list of questions and he sent them back. It was all done rather quickly — less than 36 hours passed from the point I was asked to take a look at the film to the point where Jason returned the questions to me. The longest part of all of this has been my sitting on the questions and prepping them for publication since my schedule has gotten crazy (which was the reason I asked that this be done via email because I could put this together faster).

For me, the joy of reading this interview is that it isn’t like every other Hollywood interview. I freely admit I threw Jason some standard questions but his answers are not standard. I’ve never ever heard anyone, let alone a director, mention being haunted by The English Patient. And I don’t think George Romero has gotten a serious nod from anyone who wasn’t a pure genre director. I also love that the interview adds to the enjoyment of the film; he reveals little things that made me go "oh wow" about the film in retrospect.

I know most of you haven’t seen Seahorses yet (but you will soon). That shouldn’t stop you from reading the interview. It’s a good piece, thanks entirely to Jason’s responses. If we can work it out down the line I'm hoping that he and I can sit down for a long talk about his films and movies in general.

I'd like to thank Jason for setting all of this in motion. It's been a blast this last week seeing the movie, talking with him and setting up the interview. I also want to thank him for sending along the video that is at the bottom of the piece.

Director Jason Kartalian
UNSEEN FILMS (U) We had been emailing back and forth concerning the film, and you said in one, that Seahorses came from a place of truth and a therapy for somethings in your life. Would you care to explain where the film came from?

JASON KARTALIAN (J) I was in both professional and personal crises that lead me to write Seahorses. Professionally, I was tangled up with this sci-fi television series project that started out as a thing of beauty and became frustrating and ridiculous once the money people got involved. Personally, my mother’s health was failing and it was time for the family to make some very difficult life and death decisions that I’m sure we were not equip to make at the time. I started to lose control of everything I valued. I started thinking about life. I started thinking about loss. Was I wasting my time chasing the Hollywood dragon? As for filmmaking, maybe I just needed to create something real. I needed to confront my problems instead of running away. I started to make art for myself. I started writing Seahorses. Then something amazing happened, people started getting involved. They helped enhance and elevate my vision. One person’s story became a mission shared by many talented people. That’s how movies are really made.

(U) I know you've done two other films, How do you go about putting one of your films together? Do you have a family of craftsmen and women that you work with?

(J) With Seahorses, I was very lucky to begin the process with Producer Roxy Shih. She is young, smart, a great people person and possesses an incredible energy. At the time she had been working on all sorts of shorts, rock videos and low budget features that helped us hand select from that talent pool and assemble a “dream team” crew for Seahorses. The team that worked on Seahorses has inspired me as filmmaker and the possibilities one can reach even with a limited budget. I have really tapped into a young vibrant group of filmmakers who are positive, talented and are in it for the right reasons. I look forward to working with the same team in the near future.

(U) A large portion of the success of the film that I'd like to talk about talk about casting. Where did you find Ian Hutton and Justine Wachsberger? Had you known them before?

(J) I spent over 6 months casting Seahorses, I read hundreds of actors (drove my producer Roxy crazy) and then I finally found Ian and Justine. Justine was brought to me as a recommendation from an actor friend. Ian actually originally came in to read for the bad guy role, Travis. I knew he had something special and asked him to try out for the lead. I told Justine she would have the part if she dyed her hair blue. I told Ian I would give him the part if he lost 40 pounds (he was a little chunky at the time) Justine dyed her hair blue and Ian went on a fluid diet! Both Ian and Justine are amazing actors and have great chemistry together. The script was adjusted for them after they were cast. During the rehearsal process, Ian, Justine and myself, worked together creating the beats and the nuances to enhance every moment.

(U) How much did you change once the actors had been cast?

(J) We added a couple of scenes that were work-shopped during rehearsal. We also worked on enhancing moments within the scenes. Ian Hutton is from Oklahoma so we adjusted some lines to fit someone who was a transplant to LA. I learned that Justine multicultural being raised in both Los Angeles and Paris, and I wanted something different for the scenes she had with her brother, so we translated those scenes to French. I feel the French language scenes give her character Lauren even more texture and mystery.

(U) How much of the characters are really you?

(J) I write from the core, the main characters Lauren and Marty have many traits that I possess. I feel these characters are relatable as well. I might an expert writing dysfunctional characters. Marty is hiding from pain by shutting himself in; Lauren is running away from pain by acting out with drugs and sex. Perhaps writing and making movies like this allow me to act out in fiction without acting out in real life.

(U) Where did the seahorses come from? Were they and the metaphor always part of the story?

(J) At first, the seahorses were not in the script. I live near an aquarium shop. When I was writing the script I was always strolling through the shop. One day, I saw some seahorses swimming around, they had trouble moving and the water pumps were pushing them around. They reminded me of my characters in the script I was writing: fragile and adrift. I started doing some research on Seahorses and they fit so well into the piece, the seahorses became the piece!

(U) At what point did the idea to use the haunting blue and the color schemes that permeates much of the film come from?

(J) Aquariums have blues and dark reds and black lights and funky glowing colors, so we took that color palate saturate the film with that style. I brought my production team into aquariums and we took tons of pictures. We also used strange looking practical lights that look like sea creatures and underwater plants. We spend a great deal of our budget getting cool aquatic looking things, like that crazy bubble wall that shows up in the film a bunch of times. The film was really lit with very non-traditional lighting sources and I feel that makes it unique.

(U) How close to what you first envisioned when you started did the film end up?

(J) At first we were going to make it more realistic style hand held, movie with the camera whipping around with stark production design. Then I was introduced to some really resourceful creative people like Director of Photography, Basil Mironer and Production Designer Reed Johns, and they opened up a new world to me of some really cool possibilities. “Can we create and underwater world for our characters?,” I asked. They delivered.

(U) One of the thing that struck me about the film was that with a few changes the script could be a stage play. Did you ever considered going that route?

(J) It was always intended as a feature, I feel that we worked to make it as cinematic as possible, with lighting, mood and visual motifs. I love the theatre and grew up in that environment, but I also love gear, lights, lenses, cameras; all the methods we use to tell cinematic stories.

(U)The music in the film plays an important role. How did you end up choosing to work with Jason Solowsky and did you have input into how the music was done?

(J) Jason Solowsky and I had worked together before so he knew what he was getting into dealing with me! I was really hands-on with the score and he was a Saint for letting me work with him at that level. We did many different versions of each cue, I was insistent on not letting the music telegraph the moment. Instead of a traditional score that guides the audience, I wanted us to reach for mood and textures. Solowsky was very patient with me; sometimes he would provide me with as many as eight to ten different versions of a scene. Solowsky likes to really create dense scores, so I really was into peeling away layers to match the economy of the moment.

(U) I know your dad is Buck Kartalian. Did you ever consider following in his footsteps?

(J) My father was a master character actor, a one-of-a-kind personality, a hard act to follow. The one thing I noticed growing up watching him, was that the actor needs a part, a script and a project. I feel more comfortable in a place where I create the part, the script and the project.

(U) Your last film was Driller, a horror science fiction film. Before that was Pedestrian, a film with fantasy elements to it. With Seahorses, you're firmly rooted in real life. Is it harder or easier working on a story where you have to remain entirely real?

(J) To me, cinema is elevated reality. We find beautiful, and interesting looking people to tell our stories, we light them glamorously, we put them in interesting settings. We condense their stories to make them impactfull and interesting. Given the stylistic flourishes and the underwater themes I feel that Seahorses really is a fable. The characters are rooted in real life situations and react in humanly “real” ways. To me, even the most fantastical situation is real, because the human element and the reactions to that situation are rooted in the “real world.”

(U) Since Seahorses is a romance, what, in your opinion are the best films in that genre?

(J) The English Patient is a film that haunts me to this day. I love the film Choose Me by Alan Rudolph. Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away. Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. I love the natural beauty of many Eric Rohmer romances. More currently, the dysfunctional romance of Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color.

(U) Who are your favorite directors?

(J) So many here is a short list: I like directors with distinct voices that explore new worlds or places I’ve never been: Woody Allen, Pedro Almodovar, Wong Kar Wai, David Cronenberg and David Fincher.

(U) What are your favorite films? What films do you watch just to watch? What do you watch to inspire you?

(J) I have such a broad reaching taste from art-house to genre. Love films that have a message that resonates: The painting of American consumerism in George Romero’s, Dawn of the Dead. The dying of French cinema in Oliver Assayas’ Irma Vep. I think that the new frontier is television for cinematic excellence. For total craftsmanship you just can’t beat Game of Thrones.

(U) Are there any films — outside of Seahorses — that you think have been unfairly overlooked?

(J) One of my favorite films of my childhood (and to this day) is the Richard Rush film The Stuntman. Even though that film got a couple of Oscar nominations at the time not sure if many people know of it outside hardcore cinephiles.

As I was putting the finishing touches on the interview Jason sent me a link to the following documentary. Its a short film that mixes footage from the premiere at Dancing With Film with some footage of the making of the film. Its pretty cool and will give you a taste of what the film is like.

Discovering SEAHORSES - PREMIERE & MAKING OF MINI DOCUMENTARY from Jason Kartalian on Vimeo.

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