Ignas Jonynas • Director
“Our cinema is enjoying a true renaissance”
- After much success on the festival circuit, Ignas Jonynas’ The Gambler has just received a domestic release and been announced as a hopeful for the Oscars.
One of the most successful Lithuanian films of the past few years, the stylish thriller The Gambler [+see also:
interview: Ignas Jonynas
film profile] has screened at numerous festivals around the world (including San Sebastián) and has recently been announced as the Lithuanian hopeful for Best Foreign-language Film at the upcoming Academy Awards. Cineuropa talks to its director.
Cineuropa: Tell us a little about the origins of The Gambler.
Ignas Jonynas: My generation was still able to live for a while in Soviet times and then adapt to the conditions of untamed capitalism. A great many values were re-evaluated; we were surrounded by hypocrisy, and a lot of illusions and disillusionments. There was also the desire to live better and the faith that everything was changing into a brighter, more righteous path, that everything would be different from this day on. In other words, the inner and outer confusion was difficult to control. We moved from a closed-off, cold world to a very open world – but, at the same time, an aggressive, brutal and materialistic one. I wanted to talk about the kind of impact that such dramatic changes can have on a person. My co-author for the screenplay of The Gambler, philosopher Kristupas Sabolius, and I began looking into various dramatic situations that reveal the dual nature of a human being, the elemental, human desire to survive and adapt to different conditions. Right from the start, we wanted to make a provocative film about moral choices, and we searched for a radical setting for that. That’s how we came up with an ambulance, the emergency services, where the issue of life and death is always hanging by a thread. Kristupas and I met many wonderful medical professionals while we were writing the screenplay. They helped us to develop the most realistic picture possible and consulted with us so that our fictional story would seem as real as it possibly could.
How did you get the funding together for the movie? Was it difficult at all?
It was definitely not easy. Every year, the Culture Ministry of Lithuania would announce a competition for financing a film (several years ago, the newly established Lithuanian Film Centre took over these functions). Hundreds want that support, but only a few projects get financed. The screenplay, the possibility of a co-production with other countries and the competencies of the filmmakers all play a role in the final decision. Meanwhile, I was working a great deal with Janis Eglitis, a Latvian cinematographer, making adverts. I shared my idea for a movie with him, and we came up with the idea to try to join the forces of two countries, Lithuania and Latvia. So, little by little, our first feature film began to develop as a project between two neighbouring countries – The Gambler. Strangely enough, there had not been any huge efforts to work together before then. As far as I know, after The Gambler, there was an upsurge of co-production projects among the Baltic countries. So, even though it took an awful lot of effort, it is a pleasure to have been the first to open the floodgates for cooperative work.
How did you go about casting the movie? In particular, what drew you to the leads Vytautas Kaniusonis and Oona Mekas?
I searched for actors for quite a long time. Initially, Vytautas was not the favourite for the lead role. As I was setting out the priorities for finding actors, I realised I needed to look for people who were not very well known to audiences. We wanted the story to seem as authentic as possible, so there couldn’t be a trail of images from television or the entertainment world dragging behind our actors. There were many possible performers for the lead role. I met with a few who seemed interesting to me and arranged acting tryouts. It was important to me to find actors who would be prepared to transform themselves, even physically, because this had a direct relation to the road taken by the main hero of the story. Vytautas made every effort to fulfil our requirements. He lost 20 kg of weight, started working out and learned to swim. He also grew a beard, which was very unusual for him. Over the entire process, we talked a lot about the screenplay and the essential dramaturgical points until we finally found the principles for our work together.
As for Oona, my discovery of her came about purely by chance. I tried out many actresses, and a lot of them were truly wonderful. However, I wanted a certain type, one that would “jump out at you”, rather than an everyday, ordinary-looking actress. I came across Oona’s photograph accidentally in a newspaper. At once I wanted to declare, just like one of the personages in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, "This is the girl!" I read the column under the photo and learned that Oona is an actress and a director. Not only that, but she is the daughter of one of our most famous Lithuanian cinematographers, Jonas Mekas. So I wrote to her and asked her to send in a tryout. Oona read the screenplay and acted out the trial scenes very accurately. There were no further questions.
How long did the film take to shoot?
Kristupas Sabolius and I spent four years writing the screenplay. It took another two years to find the financing, prepare for filming, and then actually make the movie. Thus, all in all, it took six years, although the actual filming was done in a month and a half.
The film has been one of the most successful Lithuanian movies of the past few years, particularly in terms of international reception. How surprised have you been by the reaction?
As soon as Kristupas and I started writing the screenplay, we decided at once that this movie would be primarily intended for Lithuania and its audiences. Naturally, we also wanted international recognition, but it could be said that I’m a newcomer to the world of movies. Therefore, it would have been difficult to surmise what we could have expected from the international sphere. Nevertheless, the results really made us happy. It was not merely getting the awards and participating in prestigious film festivals; we were first surprised by the reactions of the public abroad. It ranged from open enthusiasm to serious consideration. In Spain, for example, people caught on to the irony in the film and reacted in a very lively way. Meanwhile, in Poland, seriousness and concentration predominated. It was interesting to see how people from different countries react to the same things. After The Gambler was shown in San Sebastián, Morocco and China, viewers would walk over to us and tell us that this topic is very close and important to them. Then you’d feel as though you were breathing the same air of the film, that you caught some sort of invisible sound waves that viewers of different nationalities could hear. This was the experience I treasured.
How do you think the film fits in with current Lithuanian cinema trends? It’s a fast-paced thriller, which many would not immediately associate with films coming out of the Baltics.
The tradition of poetic visions and sounds have predominated in Lithuanian cinema up until now. Lithuanian documentaries and singular, arthouse feature films were well known and appreciated in international waters, along with certain names in filmmaking, like Jonas Mekas and Šarūnas Bartas. However, this did not encourage the masses of local viewers to attend these movies. Everything changed a few years ago, when several Lithuanian films broke attendance records. Our cinema is enjoying a true renaissance right now. The sheer variety of genres and styles is radically changing the face of Lithuanian cinema. And that’s not some kind of plastic surgery; it is an essential, profound change. Viewers have returned to the theatres to watch Lithuanian films. The increase in the amount of local production and the variety of genres will soon, I believe, grow into the kind of quality that will interest international audiences.
This seems to be one of those films that Hollywood would snap up for a remake. Has there been any interest expressed by anyone?
There is interest, but it is still too early to talk about the results.
What do you plan to work on next?
Kristupas Sabolius and I have just finished writing a screenplay about a blind dancer. It will be a thriller on the topic of manipulation. I expect filming to begin next summer.
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