INTERVIEW: Jimmy Bontatibus Talks About His Indie Film “A Muse”

Getting the ball rolling Jimmy, how have you been during these scary and unprecedented times? 

I’m doing all right! Like anyone else, there have been ups and downs, but the release of the film has been a boon in adding structure to my day-to-day life.

Vents would like to extend our sincere congratulations on the upcoming June 12 release of your beautiful film, A Muse. With the impending arrival of this passion project, does it feel a bit like a “good news/bad news” situation? After all, on one hand you are releasing A Muse into the world which is a cause for celebration, yet it is coming at such an odd point in all of our lives. How do you reconcile these two dynamics? I

t’s not an easy question and one that I’ve been asking myself recently. Our hope was to screen at film festivals and from there hopefully have the film distributed in theaters and/or digitally, but with most festivals having been outright canceled this year and many larger titles pushed back to 2021, it became clear that there will be a logjam of titles next year and there was a real risk of getting lost in the shuffle. With so much uncertainty about the future, it seemed that just putting the film out there made the most sense, but it’s strange to be asking people to take 100 minutes out of their day given what’s happening around us. The way I’ve been able to justify it is by remembering that the world is always in need of artists, and by making the film available for free, we’re giving anyone with even just a passing interest access to the movie. We’re also in the process of trying to link up with fundraisers for art house cinemas that are closed indefinitely due to COVID-19, because if we are going to do this and release this film in the middle of a pandemic, we have a responsibility to do something with the attention and coverage that we’re asking for and try and put that towards something larger than our own film.

For the curious and discerning Vents reader who may not yet be familiar with this gem of a story, how would you summarize and describe A Muse for them?

A Muse is the story of Mia, a Bosnian woman living in Germany in 2018, and Bianca, a Romanian documentary filmmaker in 2015, and how their respective stories are tied together through a pretty volatile young man named Adrian, who is obsessed with the artist Yves Klein. The film uses documentary footage to build context for Adrian’s worldview, and we follow how Adrian’s philosophy on the intersection of art and life upends the lives of Mia and Bianca, as well as those around them. I promise it all comes together!

You pull of a trifecta of storytelling with your expert and deft handling of not one, not two, but three timelines within the story of A Muse. In an age when most studios would balk at anything even remotely outside the traditional filmatic ballpark, did you have any trouble selling investors and Art House America and Go Boating Films on these integral time jumps?

N the end, the film was completely self-produced, and the investments made in the film were small enough to where the only people we had to sell were our own collaborators. It’s tough to tell people on set “hey, I know this feels scene incomplete, but it’s going to intercut with something that will be shot in another country”—it requires a lot of trust, and one of the benefits to the longer pre-production phase was that we had time to build that trust within our relationships.

You worked in a unique style when putting A Muse together: Over a four year period you trekked between Germany and Romania to tell the story, working with not only crews but also actors from different cultures and even different languages. Can you take us through what that rather unusual process was like for you? Was it at all daunting for you as a director?

Absolutely! But never to the point where making the film felt completely insurmountable. Initially the film was conceptualized as a much larger-scale project, so I spent about a year trying to raise money through European investors and grants. But we didn’t really have any clout, save for my first film The Life of Flowers playing a few festivals in Eastern Europe, and as a non-citizen of these countries it became clear very quickly that we wouldn’t be granted access to any of the resources that the European film industry is built on. So we pivoted into completely self-producing the movie, and it became kind of a piecemeal process; a lot of traveling and finding collaborators and stray elements that could all be tied together into a film. In retrospect, it seems absolutely insane, and I have no idea why anyone agreed to be a part of it, but there was something very creatively stimulating about just kind of flying by the seat of your pants in a foreign place where you have very little control over anything. You learn to take a step back and let things play out.

Watching A Muse, it becomes quite apparent that this is a cinematic love note to film and literature. What have these two towering pillars of creativity meant to you in not only your personal life but also your professional one? 

I mean, film has been the driving force in my life for as long as I’ve been cognizant—since I was a kid, making movies has been all that I’ve wanted to do, and as a result it’s dictated most of the life choices I’ve made both personally and professionally—where to live, the day jobs I have, and up until recently, what I read: I usually was only reading things that I felt had some specific relevance to whatever I was working on at the time. When I started traveling more, I started reading for pleasure more often, and becoming more invested in literature opened myself up to a much more fluid sense of storytelling—you have so much more freedom and control over time in a novel because you’re not beholden to the reality of a filmed image, and thinking about the novel and its relationship with time was a big part of how A Muse was structured.

You worked with some incredible acting talent in A Muse: Merisha Husagic, Miriam Rizea and Rares Andrici. Could you say a few words about these incredible actors and what it was like working with them? 

Well, the film started with Mersiha Husagic. I found Mersiha when researching actors for The Life of Flowers when I was living in Bosnia in 2015, and after reaching out to her on Facebook we decided to do that film together. It was definitely a much bigger risk for her at the time, because I was 19 and just happy to be working with a professional actor for the first time in my life. But we clicked as collaborators, and we made a deal that if I wrote a film for her that took place in Hamburg, where she grew up and still lived at the time, she’d be able to help corral her people for the movie, which is exactly what happened and how multiple of our collaborators came onboard. So there’s no A Muse without Mersiha Husagic. Mersiha also followed the script’s evolution through many drafts so she was “with” Mia the whole time and was able to witness how that character came to be. I cold contacted Miriam online after researching Romanian actors and renting John Boorman’s film Queen and Country, which she appears in, and I’d seen Rares in Cristian Mungiu’s film Graduation. Miriam knew Rares and I was able to reach out with her recommendation. All three are very different performers in not only how they present themselves on-screen but how they inhabit characters, which I feel ignited something in how they all interact, even though they never all appear on-screen at the same time. All three have different mileage when it comes to working in English as well, so there wasn’t a “one-size-fits-all”; I had different means of communicating and finding their characters with each of them.

A Muse has a haunting score courtesy of Christopher Day; it truly sets the mood and fully puts the viewer in to this world. Can you talk a little about how you saw (or heard) the role of the score in this film?

Music has played a huge role in the film dating back to the very early drafts of the script, when it was almost an entirely different film. Because we’d be tying so many narrative threads together, we knew that we wanted the music to help propel the film forward, as well as give the movie a sense of scope—the characters in the film have a relationship with the history of art, and we wanted the film to treat their own lives with the same gravitas one feels when a film is dealing with historical events. Music was going to be integral to communicating all of that. A few months before the shoot we landed on a couple of pre-composed pieces to function as the film’s score, but after the film was edited, the publishers asked us for far too much money and we had to let it go. Christopher Day edited The Life of Flowers, and he’s also a musician under the moniker Febrifuge. It was a big ask for him to step in and compose a cohesive score for a film that is already edited, so he was operating within a lot of pretty rigid constraints—this shot needs to cut here for this specific reason, etc. But we’ve also known each other for a decade and he knew the movie well, and, as these stories tend to go, we’re much happier with the original score.

You are one of a rare breed of directors: You not only direct but you also have written everything that  has come to the silver screen which makes you a double threat. As a writer-director, is there a little more pressure on the final film for you?

I’ve only ever directed features that I’ve written as well as produced, so it’s hard to say, but I can’t imagine the pressure ever goes away. At the end of the day, you’re still the one calling the shots, and you’re responsible for whatever the film turns into. Maybe it’s even worse when you’re responsible for executing someone else’s vision.

Could you ever conceive of directing a film that you have not written yourself? 

Sure! I don’t think I’d ever leave writing my own films behind, but it sounds refreshing to work with someone else’s script and find a meeting ground between their vision and yours. I’d love to try it sometime. Similarly, if I found the right project, I’d love to write something for someone else to direct.

Who has inspired you in not only directing but also in writing? 

I could rattle off a hundred names here! There have been so many, and with this film specifically the focal points for reference we always evolving because we spent so much time in prep—there was one phase where we were looking at Claire Denis films, another where we were spending time with Mike Leigh’s film Naked; at one point we were looking very specifically at older East German and Romanian films. Now that we have a finished film you can actually pinpoint the influences, and watching the final film, I don’t think any of those films or filmmakers are the one that feel most evident in the final product, which is the fun part about influences—they sneak up on you. There was a movie that was a fringe influence from the get-go; always on the outskirts of my thinking and often listed towards the bottom of my notes but still acknowledged, which was Patrice Chereau’s Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train. I haven’t revisited it since before we shot the movie, but the tight, kinetic ‘scope photography mixed with constant tonal shifts and a loud ensemble, aided by an interview as a framing device…I looked at some clips not too long ago and it’s *all* there. Writers are a bit trickier in regard to A Muse, since the novel as a medium was inspirational but we didn’t look at any specifically for the film. John Berger is someone who is a huge influence on me and probably the film itself as well, as I was cleaning through his writing while preparing the film in Germany. He’s an underrated screenwriter, too. I also think about someone like E.L.Doctorow, whose novels have resonated with me on a very deep level, and I feel like his interest in placing his characters and stories in historical contexts makes him a kindred spirit of sorts.

Not only are you the rare breed of a writer-director, but you’ve also worn a lot of other hats: Actor,   producer,   camera and electric department, editor, sound department and production assistant. Is there anything that you can’t do?

Yes! Haha. Historically wearing all of those hats usually wasn’t a choice—you fill those roles because you’re the only person available. As the films begin to (hopefully) grow in scale, I’m glad that I have experience in my back pocket so I can speak with someone like the DoP more concretely, but narrative film is a collaborative medium—I can only speak for myself, of course, but in my experience there are only gains to be made from welcoming more experiences and specialized minds onto a film set.

The film world was sent reeling with the sudden passing of legendary director Lynn Shelton. You both are from the same stomping grounds. How have you been handling this devastating loss?

It’s been hard, to say the least. I grew up in Seattle and started hanging out in Seattle’s film scene around 2009, which is the year Humpday played at Sundance and Cannes. I was in middle school and stuck out like a sore thumb, being a child and all, and whenever I’d approach Lynn at a screening or event she’d always make time for me, even when she was the focus of the night. Her and her family gave me a lot of support and guidance as I was making my way into filmmaking and trying to figure out which way was up, and they remain friends. I would imagine anyone else from or even tangentially connected to the film/arts world in Seattle would have a similar response at a minimum. It’s been really devastating.

Although A Muse has not yet had its official public debut, do you have anything gestating as far as your next project goes?

I actually had another film that was scheduled to shoot in the spring that has since been pushed back. It’s a movie that deals with music culture, so we’re not only trying to figure out when we can start, but also how to reconfigure many of the scenes in the movie that deal with extras and larger set-pieces that are no longer feasible. There are a lot of hoops to jump through but the obstacles always lead to more interesting outcomes than whatever was there before, so I’m staying optimistic that we’ll come out the other side with something that has grown out of the changed circumstances.

Final (Silly) question: You’re stranded on a deserted island. What is the one film and the one album that you have with you to pass away the time while awaiting rescue? 

Oh man! These are always the toughest. The film that we’re trying to mount this year is inspired by the late musician David Berman, so I’d say his Silver Jews record American Water for music. As far as a film goes…during the lockdown I’ve been catching up with some of the films of Satyajit Ray that I haven’t seen, so maybe I’d circle back to his film Charulata, which is one of my all-time favorites. This actually sounds like a great way to self-quarantine.

About Ryan Vandergriff

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