January 9, 2008

Shooting at Will

Reeler Interview: Veteran DP Ellen Kuras on directing, Gondry and her Sundance two-fer

By S.T. VanAirsdale

A still from Ellen Kuras's directorial debut Nerakhoon (The Betrayal), premiering this month at the Sundance Film Festival (Photos: SFF)

Ellen Kuras has a bit of history with the Sundance Film Festival. The veteran New York cinematographer has won the fest's dramatic cinematography prize an unprecedented three times, first for Tom Kalin's black-and-white thrill-kill romance Swoon (1992) and eventually for the Rebecca Miller films Angela (1995) and Personal Velocity (2002). She anticipates a reunion of sorts this year in Park City, with Kalin and close colleagues like production designer Thérèse DePrez and director Mark Pellington on hand with new projects and Michel Gondry -- for whom Kuras shot Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind -- presenting the world premiere of their latest collaboration, Be Kind Rewind.

But Kuras's standout effort at Sundance '08 may be her own directorial debut, the competition documentary Nerakhoon (The Betrayal). The film traces more than two decades in the life of Thavisouk Prasavath, a Laotian immigrant in New York (credited here as Kuras' co-director) whose family was ravaged by the extension of the United States's Vietnam War efforts into Laos in the 1970s. "We basically financed and armed a secret army of Laotians -- because we couldn't be on the ground -- to fight our war for us," Kuras said. "So we see how our foreign policy plays out in the lives of people who fight our wars for us. That's what happens in this film: You see there are many levels of the family that are affected by how the father was involved in the war and what that ultimately meant for them."

The Reeler recently caught up with Kuras during a brief break from Nerakhoon's grueling post-production schedule to discuss both her directorial bow and re-teaming with Gondry in New York.

THE REELER: You've got 20-plus years' worth of work is coming down to the last week before it premieres at Sundance. How are you holding up?

ELLEN KURAS: Oh, it's crazed. I've been pulling a few round-the-clockers; I got home last night from doing transfers of the stills at 4 o'clock in the morning after mixing all day. So I'm holding up. It's interesting, actually -- after 23 years of working on this project, it feels incredibly satisfying and good to actually finish one thing after the other and actually know that it's done. There's always a tendency to want to go back and say, "Oh, I could make that better." That's one of the trials and tribulations of being something of a perfectionist. [Laughs.]

R: What took so long? What were you trying to get at?

EK: In general, the story is about the loss of innocence and the loss of values in our society. Specifically it deals with a family and how war has torn apart a family and its aftermath over 20 years in the life of that family. It has to do with how people and governments betray each other in wars, and that trickles down to how people betray each other in this particular family. It's much less a fusion of documentary and narrative thought, and much more of a poetic memoir, if you will, of what's happened over the last 23 years of Thavi's life and how his family has been affected by this war -- how they continue to be affected by this war.

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R: How and when did you meet Thavisouk Prasavath and decide to collaborate with him on Nerakhoon?

EK: I met Thavi back around 1984 or 1985. I was already in the process of trying to put a film together about a group of Laotians who lived in Rochester, N.Y. I was living in New York City at the time, and I wanted to speak Lao. Knowing that there was a very small Lao community in Brooklyn, I put the word out and got a call back from this young Laotian -- about 19 years old -- whose name was Thavisouk Prasavath. He got on the phone and said to me, "Who are you? And why do you want to learn how to speak Lao?" There was nobody in his world in Brooklyn who even knew where Laos was, much less wanted to learn to speak Lao.

So he came to my house twice a week for a couple of weeks to teach me to speak Lao, and during the course of that time we spent many hours together talking. I would ask him about the Lao world view, and I realized that he was this amazing person with an amazing memory and a very poetic way of seeing the world. I was writing a lot of poetry at the time, and I would record our conversations and then write from them. A lot of the stories in the film come out of that.

R: You've mentioned that some of the techniques you use in the film are not conventional doc styles: There's an experimental edge and some impressionistic cultural references as well. How did you approach the film as a cinematographer?

EK: I didn't set out to make cinema verité documentary; I set out to make a poem -- a series of visual metaphors. I wanted to be able to use imagery to speak as loudly as words. I stuck to that through all these years of making the film, and it was a real challenge to ask editors to try and handle the material because they weren’t familiar with using visual metaphor in a documentary. Traditionally, documentaries speak and are expository. I didn't want to be expository. I wanted the audience to vicariously experience what was happening; I wanted the film to feel as if we were entering into Thavi's memory. It's a very fine edge and it's interesting for me as a cinematographer to walk the line between what would be docudrama and what would be a more poetic way of entering into a different space of mind.

The film itself is composed of many different media. I shot in 16-millimeter. I shot in Super 8 and blew it up to 16. I shot with VHS sometimes. There's one scene I shot in 3/4 [video] many years ago. It has a certain textural quality to it that moves from being very arresting to very impressionistic. I didn't want to make the film look like a documentary per se; I don't believe that documentaries have to look bad to be effective.

R: You also re-teamed with Michel Gondry on Be Kind Rewind, which is screening at Sundance as well. That film is already building a reputation for the way it blends formats.

Ellen Kuras

EK: With Be Kind Rewind, we wanted to depart from the look and feel of Eternal Sunshine. Michel wanted to introduce the idea of the craft of filmmaking into the film -- how films don't need to look slick in order to carry the story. That's exemplified by the VHS we see in the film. We ended up shooting Be Kind Rewind with 35-millimeter anamorphic on dollies or a crane or [a tripod] -- as opposed to the VHS, which is basically the format the two characters use in the process of "swedeing" their films in the video.

I think it's interesting that Be Kind Rewind opens on Sunday the 20th while Nerakhoon opens on the 21st; they're two pieces of my work which relate to each other in very similar ways and are very different in other ways. I think it'll be very interesting for audiences to see both to see the different points of view and to see how so much of making films depends on what's appropriate for the story.

R: I'm interested in the ways you approached VHS in particular on each of these projects; it's probably the least cinematic of video formats.

EK: Interestingly, the reason I used video in Nerakhoon was because Thavi and I got a call -- he was living in the editing room at the time -- from his downstairs neighbor in New York City saying the Vietnamese gangs had just broken into the apartment, tied them up and demanded $4,000 and would be back in 24 hours -- otherwise they would kill the family. We knew they were serious because a week before they had come through and shot a neighbor in the head and killed him. So when we got this call, Thavi and I were like, "OK, we have to go and get these people out of there." The only thing in the editing room at the time was an old VHS camera -- fully automatic. I didn't even have a fresh tape. I just took an old tape, grabbed the camera and ran.

I ended up shooting this whole scene on VHS because it's what I had at the time. I actually love the quality of the VHS because it kind of smears and has this otherworldly quality to it. We ended up driving away with the family, and the camera's on my lap as I'm driving and trying to focus and direct and frame it up with my leg as I'm driving so I could keep my eyes on the road. We ended up sending that family out the next day to another state. They never looked back. Choosing VHS at that moment was the only option I had.

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