Christina Kallas: Pushing the Cinematic Language and Narrative

Still image from The Rainbow Experiment

Christina Kallas, filmmaker and founder of the Writers Improv Studio, conversed about her innovative filmmaking style recently with #DirectedbyWomen Catalyst Barbara Ann O’Leary.

DBW: You have two feature films moving out into the world at this time. 42 Seconds of Happiness is already out and The Rainbow Experiment is not far behind. Do I have that right?

CK: Yes. 42 Seconds of Happiness was just released in 15 countries on Amazon Prime, and more countries and platforms will follow. The Rainbow Experiment is my second feature film as a writer-director, and I have just completed it. It was selected by US in Progress Paris as 1 of 5 features (works in progress) this past summer. The program aims at fostering the promotion and distribution of American independent cinema and at ‘discovering new talents with a unique point of view’. The films selected were presented from June 20th to 23rd, 2017 in Paris in closed industry screenings to top European distributors, sales agents and some festival programmers. Prior US in Progress participants were—in the last couple of years—filmmakers Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck & Robert Machoian, Matt Sobel, Nathan Silver, Michael Tully, Onur Tukel, Joshua Z Weinstein and Lawrence Michael Levine; that’s pretty good company. Paris was really great for us. The feedback was amazing.

DBW: Any feedback you’d like to share?

CK: Absolutely. The sales agents and festival programmers who attended it talked about the unusual combination of a European sensibility with an American intensity, and compared it to films like Trainspotting or The Hunt. Some called it a shock to the system, and completely riveting.

DBW: That’s fantastic feedback.

CK: They commended its kinetic energy and authenticity and described it as an ambitious, combustible contemporary drama that juggles multiple narrative balls. They also said that it is very rare to come across a film that proposes a new approach to directing. That is a comment I particularly cherish, because I am a great believer in pushing the cinematic language and narrative.

Still image from 42 Seconds of Happiness
Still image from 42 Seconds of Happiness

DBW: I’d love to hear about your process. You’ve been exploring an interesting mix of filmmaking techniques: fast edits combined with long takes, split screen, improvisational engagement with the actors in preparation for shooting. etc.

CK: I like to think of my work as profoundly actor-centered, very much inspired by the way John Cassavetes was working but experimenting further in terms of the editing possibilities today, including what I call vertical editing through the use of split screens. I work for about 1 or 1.5 years with the actors, walking them in weekly rehearsals through the characters’ past lives, which is what allows me to shoot with a very intense schedule and in a very organic way, while at the same time working on the emotional authenticity that people mention in relation to my work—my intention being that character and actor merge. As for my mix of filmmaking techniques: I want my films to be an experience, to be immersive. I want people to feel that they are in the story, rather than watching a story. And what is most important, I want them to be able to develop compassion for each and every character. I want them to observe themselves taking sides, to observe the mechanisms of human relationships while being actively involved.

DBW: Compassion… yes. Let’s talk more about that too. I’m really interested in what you’ve become aware of in your work that helps an audience’s compassion awaken.

CK: I am incredibly intrigued by the audience’s reactions. 42 Seconds of Happiness is now out in 15 countries on Amazon Prime, and the audience response is amazing. This is no surprise to me as we had an engaged and enthusiastic audience response at every festival stop we made, but it is moving that it is now also happening online. The film has 4.6 out of 5 stars in the US and people are writing to say what a powerful and immersive experience it is—’as seductive as it is honest; forcing us to confront, cower from, and celebrate the fragility of life’. Or that ‘unlike the blurred over-dramatized emotions of Hollywood blockbusters, it offers up a window on to the complexities of human interaction’, and that ‘from the fluid and natural conversation to the truthful and honest reactions you are forced to invest in every single character right from the opening scene’. Someone just wrote: ‘From laughing out loud, to tears and a general feeling of invading a private conversation, this film left me feeling slightly shell-shocked as well as completely satisfied.’ This is all extremely gratifying.

Still image from The Rainbow Experiment
Still image from The Rainbow Experiment

DBW: I’ve heard you share about this process of character and actor merging and I’d love to know more. What are some of the ways you work with the actors to make that happen?

CK: I workshop my screenplay the way one would workshop a play. During this process I walk the actors through the characters’ past lives. Sometimes we go into the future or in ‘what if’ situations. This way they experience the characters’ background rather than having to be told what it is. Also, it allows me to study their reactions to certain situations. I have great respect for the actors’ reactions, as I have great respect to the characters’ reactions inside my head. Does that make sense?

DBW: Yes. I come from a theatre background. It’s something many film productions don’t incorporate… that process of working with the actors so they can deeply ground their acting choices in character.

CK: I could talk for hours about this. It is quite a fascinating and informing process, for all of us. During the sessions I employ a technique I have developed which I call emotional doubling.

DBW: Do share about emotional doubling.

CK: It basically allows for the whole group to experience a certain situation or scene from the point of view of one of the characters of the scene, and it is a way for all of us in the room to notice things we may have missed otherwise. The talk backs that follow are extremely informative and very often explosive–in a good way.

DBW: It’s a form of sacred drama in a way.

CK: Yes, absolutely.

DBW: I’m curious about your process in terms of the split screen use. Is this something you map out in detail in advance or does it arise from your exploration of the footage in post production? Or a mix perhaps?

CK: The split screens are written into the screenplay. It is important that I do that so we can shoot the footage I need for the split screens to work.

DBW: That’s what I was thinking. The requirements of split screen can be intense.

CK: Sometimes I may indeed add a split screen inspired by a certain accident that happened during shooting or inspired by the footage. I am very open to accidents. Editing in split screens is an incredibly complex and demanding form of editing. It is not just having different actions taking place in different screens. You have to make sure that the whole composition works, both visually and in terms of the sound. It has to be an interesting and intriguing composition that creates new levels of meaning. Ultimately, I want it to add something to the experience of the moment, otherwise it is an empty exercise.

Still image from The Rainbow Experiment
Still image from The Rainbow Experiment

DBW: We dove right in to talking about technical aspects of your filmmaking process, but I want to make sure we also delve into discussion about the stories you are bringing to the screen.

CK: Yes, please. Although the two are very connected.

DBW: Yes… they are. And the films themselves have surprising interwoven aspects… even sharing characters and actors and some actions. We’re definitely in the same world although the two films are distinct narratives. And I think you have another film in mind to make this into a trilogy?

CK: Yes. I did not start out to make a trilogy. But while working on writing my third feature, I am noticing that all three films are aiming at revealing the mechanism of the inception of violence… Does that make sense?

DBW: Absolutely.

CK: In a way, they all show how unavoidable and at the same avoidable the violence that evolves is.

DBW: Yes.

CK: 42 Seconds of Happiness shows that mechanism in the small circle of friends and family, our immediate environment. The Rainbow Experiment widens the circle. This time it is about our mediate environment, the place we go to school or the place we work. The film I am writing now, Paris is in Harlem, widens the circle once again. This time it is an environment of strangers, people who are coincidentally at a certain place in a certain time.

DBW: Your films involve moments where people who are experiencing heightened moments of stress unexpectedly acquire access to guns.

CK: Unexpectedly and almost accidentally. The guns come into the equation, because we are in America. They are an element of the American myth and of the American reality. They are a part of the culture here—and perhaps the most existential question one comes across as a European.

DBW: Something else that is very present in your films is the way that family upheavals impact the characters’ actions and the lives of the people around them.

CK: Well, we are complex characters. Whatever we do, we do because something else is happening in our lives. We are all under pressure. Our systems are failing us. I am holding up a mirror, I guess, to how they are failing us and to what the pressure of that failure does to us. And how simple it might be to stop and wise up. (quoting Aimee Mann here)

DBW: You were born in Greece, I believe, Christina. I’m not sure where you live and work.

CK: Yes. I was born and raised in Greece. Then I lived and worked in Berlin. Now I live and work in New York. I am a cosmopolitan, I guess, and I finally found my city.

DBW: Ah… I’m a New Yorker by birth. It always feels like home to me. I just noticed the time. Before we wrap up I want to make sure we have time to talk about your 42 Short Films on 42 Seconds of Happiness. What an intriguing way to expand and open up the process. Can you talk about what inspired this idea and how people can see this?

CK: I think that as a culture we are too result-oriented. So I am always trying to find ways to open up to process. That is how the idea of 42 Short Films on 42 Seconds of Happiness was born. I basically filmed part of the workshopping process and then edited it into 42 short films. We published some of them while preparing to shoot the feature film, but they will be released in their entirety once the film is available on all the platforms. I wish I could have done that with The Rainbow Experiment too, but it is an incredible amount of work.

Still image from 42 Seconds of Happiness
Still image from 42 Seconds of Happiness

DBW: I’m really looking forward to that. I love process and feel thrilled when filmmakers give glimpses into what they do to bring their work into being.

CK: It will be intriguing to watch the process after having watched the film. You know, to think about why a certain character made a certain choice, what implications that had etc.

DBW: The #DirectedbyWomen initiative is dedicated to helping the world fall madly in love with the work of women directors. It’s so great to have a chance to help people learn more about your innovative approach to filmmaking. Are there other women directors whose work you wish more people were turning their attention to? I’d love to hear about a few of the directors whose work is catching your attention.

CK: There’s so many. And I hope that our world is changing toward allowing for more work from women filmmakers to be shared at a higher level, to become more visible. What I think is important is for women filmmakers to experiment with the narrative as well as tell their stories. We are kind of stuck with one form of narrative for a very long time. And it is perhaps not our way of telling stories.

DBW: I think about this a lot in terms of what work makes it through the film gauntlet. Films that are constructed in ways that don’t resonate with the gatekeepers don’t rise up. Time for us to look at films in a new way. It’s one of the reasons I ask people to share about whose work they’re resonating with. Often that work isn’t making its way to film lovers’ attention.

CK: Of course. There is one more thing though we want to be conscious about: our own inner censor as filmmakers. It is not always the gatekeepers who stop us from experimenting. It is also our wish to please the gatekeepers, to succeed, to get validation from the gatekeepers.

DBW: The dynamics at play are complex and deeply in flux. I’m excited to see what emerges in the coming years. And will definitely be intrigued to see where your experimentation with filmmaking leads you. You’ve been so generous with your time. Is there anything else you’d like to share?

CK: I would just like to thank you for making an effort to seduce people into falling madly in love with the work of women directors.

DBW: From my perspective film lovers are deprived in the current film culture. I feel they are deprived of the films that aren’t being made by women, but even more egregious in some ways is the fact that most film lovers don’t seem to be aware of the amazing work women directors are making. I see things changing rapidly. The process is already underway. It’s an exciting time.

CK: A time will come where we will look back and wonder why the hell we only told stories from the viewpoint of such a small percentage of the human population.

DBW: Thanks so much for this conversation, Christina.

CK: Thank you, Barbara.

Christina Kallas
Christina Kallas

Follow Christina Kallas on Twitter to keep up on her unfolding work.

42 Seconds of Happiness is streaming on Amazon Prime now.42 Seconds of Happiness