Interview: Christina Kallas on Writing and Directing Multi-Protagonist Screenplays
We spoke with the writer/director about multi-protagonist screenplays, split screen editing, and her commitment to losing creative control.
Writer/director Christina Kallas’s film titles might suggest happiness and rainbows, but she is most interested in exploring the violent storm before you get there. Here’s what she had to say about her work and a varied career.
PremiumBeat: Christina, there is always a vibrant, emotional core to your work. This is not surprising since you’ve written a book on screenwriting, Creative Screenwriting, with the subtitle “understanding emotional structure.” Can you tell us what you mean by “emotional structure?”
Christina Kallas: I like starting the process of creating a film with an unresolved question. Something I have no answer to. But it nags me. I want to know. So each script I write, each film I make is for me a discovery. And that discovery is an emotional journey. In a strange way it mirrors the potential emotional journey of the audience member. That is what emotional structure is.
What it is not is the emotional journey of a character — as in classic dramaturgy. This is the beauty of multi-protagonist — it disables continuous identification with one character, and so opens us up to something deeper, which has to do with each one of us as an audience member and with the human condition. We are not observing someone emote. We are emoting ourselves.
In The Rainbow Experiment, my question was whether one can apprehend simultaneously the often opposing perspectives of everyone partaking in a traumatic incident — which to me is the long way of describing real compassion. So my question was Is real compassion possible? In 42 Seconds of Happiness, I wanted to know whether romantic love is real love, or whether it can ever be. With my next film, Paris is in Harlem, I guess I am wondering whether we can get over the division, the separation that we are experiencing right now as people.
Maybe someone watching my films can answer these questions for themselves — I cannot give answers; I am just asking the questions. I am opening a box and inviting you to look inside. The eyes are yours and they are connected to your brain.
PB: In both of your produced features, 42 Seconds of Happiness and The Rainbow Experiment, you work with ensemble casts. Often the scenes feel improvised. Is it scripted or do you allow the actors the freedom to contribute to the dialogue and action?
CK: There’s a moment in Matty’s monologue in The Rainbow Experiment, where he says, “Is there a fucking script or does everything happen by accident? And if it does happen by accident, why this accident and not another? Why me? Why the hell me?” When he talks about the “fucking script,” he means fate, of course. He agonizes about what happened to him and whether he could have avoided it. He is the victim but also the perpetrator.
But to answer your question more directly: I consider screenwriting an art form, which I have studied all my life, and I love experimenting with it. Multi-protagonist is the most challenging form of screenwriting. A multi-protagonist film without a precise screenplay is virtually impossible. How would you stay hooked, be able to follow so many storylines and characters, and have the emotional journey we were talking about? Not to add the whodunnit and the gradual discovery of what really happened. I knew that The Rainbow Experiment with its 36 characters and its complex nonlinear plot would end up being a longer film. The script — which was recently acquired by the Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for their permanent Core Collection — was just over 160 pages long. The film ended up being 129 minutes, which is a pretty normal length for a multi-protagonist film.
As a director, I work extensively with the actors prior to shooting, and when we shoot I try to give them as much freedom as possible, as long as they cover the script — which enables more real-life performances. And I try not to block a scene as much as I can, so as to allow for more organic movement. Obviously I adjust between takes, and there are scenes that offer themselves for this kind of approach more than others. Cassavetes used to do this a lot — Altman too. With The Rainbow Experiment, I gave myself an extra challenge with the aforementioned Matty — the character who breaks the fourth wall. He had to speak his lines in a feverish way and not ever miss a single beat or word — that is a wholly different type of performance and a very different process. I kind of liked the idea that the person who is between life and death is much more limited in his freedom than the characters who are still alive. But I did not know if the combination would work, so I shot each scene with and without Matty, to have both options available to me when I edit.
PB: The editing in The Rainbow Experiment plays out almost like another character in the film. It manages to be both visible and seamless in a way that enhances the disturbing narrative. What did you discuss with your editor, Natalie Reneau, when you first showed her the footage? Was this approach always in your mind, or did it evolve in the editing bay?
CK: The other character in the film is you, the audience member. The cinematography and the editing are meant to give one the sense that one is in the film rather than watching a film. Like being a (very nervous, emotionally involved) fly on the wall. My editors (Brian Miele in 42 Seconds of Happiness, Natalie Reneau in The Rainbow Experiment) are extremely important to me. Editing is a very long and complex process on my films, also because of the split screen experimentation — so we need to be able to have fun with each other. So I guess my first discussions with Natalie were more aimed at finding out whether we had a common sense of humor. But yes, the split screens were written in the screenplay, or we wouldn’t have had the appropriate footage to create them.
You know, it is a funny coincidence, but this last semester I taught a course at the Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema in Brooklyn, which was called “Script Analysis for Cinematographers and Editors.” And while teaching that course, I understood how inherent cinematography and editing are to the narrative structure. The films I most like are not just filmed — they have an inspired, conceptual approach to cinematography and editing, which is defined by the story or the experience that the filmmaker is aiming to create.
In 42 Seconds of Happiness, I saw it much like when we join a party as a guest and need time to orient ourselves to how everything and everyone are connected, and then suddenly, after witnessing a key moment, we understand more and retrospectively what we have experienced and why we have experienced it that way. The cinematography and the editing were following that idea more than anything else.
My next film, which I am currently preparing to shoot, Paris is in Harlem, will be structured like a piece of jazz — in a way it is my humble tribute to the most freewheeling of American art forms — and in my eyes America’s greatest contribution to world culture. The film’s multi-character approach, the framing, the fractured timeline, the rhythm: they all evoke jazz.
PB: Both your films were clearly passion projects. As a writer/director, creative control must be important to you. How does that translate to distribution? What is the strategy to get the films seen and sold?
CK: You know, that idea of creative control is interesting. Actually, I do all I can to lose control. My whole process is an orchestrated effort to lose as much control as possible, so that accidents can happen. It is imperfection that bears beauty or that state of fearlessness and surrendering which allows for the deepest ideas. So yes, creative control is important to me. Let me put it another way: I do not want my films to be controlled by anything other than truthfulness.
I do not have a strategy to get my films seen and sold. My only strategy is to become who I really am. You know, as an artist, you have to find a way to do whatever you want. And to go beyond what kind of films the market tells you to make. Figure out who you are, what you are good at, what you want to do, and do that. It’s less simple than it sounds.
Also, the films that the market tells you to make have been made already. So what’s the point of remaking them?
PB: You’ve had a varied career, from filmmaker to producer to professor — and even held the mantle of President of the Federation of Screenwriters in Europe. How is your part as storyteller different in each role?
CK: Yeah, I’ve done it all, haven’t I? My CV is nuts. I’m curious, so I had to have firsthand experience of as many things as possible and as extensively as possible. Also, I moved country and even continent a few times, so I am not really to be categorized in any possible way. Sometimes I think I have lived a few lives, all in one. The one I am living now is the most fitting of all. I love directing. Maybe I am finally becoming who I really am.
PB: You’ve recently been invited to be a juror for the 46th annual daytime Emmy awards. What is your process when evaluating material? How does one choose “the winner” in a category?
CK: You know, this whole thing of competitions and awards and best-of lists is a game we are all playing consciously, although we know it means very little in terms of goodness. I do not have a process. I do not know if anyone has a process. We are watching or reading based on who we are and what we have watched and read before — which can be a lot or very little. Our education and our background plays a huge role — ideally jurors or gatekeepers should be as educated as possible and have a background which is as diverse as possible. Otherwise we would end up with a monoculture, which would be very boring, don’t you think?
An award or a nomination is just a stamp of approval from a limited group of people — nothing more and nothing less. The mechanism is simple: the more we have heard of something, the more we have heard of others liking it and giving it their stamp of approval the more we are prone to like it — or, if we are more of a character who likes to differ, to dislike it. But it’s fine. Until we find something else, we need this game to be able to reach an audience that is as large as possible. Because the larger the audience, the bigger the chance you will be able to change some people’s lives as an artist. And, ultimately, this is the goal, right? To change the world. To make it a better place. Isn’t that the real reason why we are all doing what we are doing?
Cover image via The Rainbow Experiment.
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