"Keep an open mind for films that try to push the medium further"
There's no doubt that Nick Sarafis' work pushes the limits of cinematic storytelling. His style is unique, fresh, stepping away from formulas and traditional expectations. Our jury was highly impressed by Guarded Angels, one of his recent films, which won Best Original Screenplay and Best Editing at LAFA.
We chatted with Writer and Director Nick Sarafis about the making of such non-controversial brilliant film.
You were attracted to writing and drawing from a very young age. Do you remember when you wrote your first story? What was it about?
I do not remember when I wrote my first story, only because I wrote so many. One that I remember was a trilogy about a boy struggling in high school with drugs, bullies and relationships. It was very dark and serious for my age that my parents were worried that I have issues in general...
Tell us about your background. You grew up in Athens, Greece. Were you brought up in a creative household? Do you feel your work is influenced by Greek culture and tradition at all?
My family does not have an artsy background. My mother loves to read philosophy and novels, such as Franz Kafka, Dostoievski and Ancient Greek plays. There is definitely a lot of influences from books and philosophy in my work.
You are now based in Astoria, New York. When and why did you decide to move?
I came to the Unites States seven years ago to study Film Production. Before than, I was studying Photography at the University of Athens and even though it was an excellent program and the professors there were all amazing, it just wasn't for me. Film Directing was always and will be my passion. Even though, I love photography I would take still photos and I would visualize the story that took place before and after the photo was taken.
Your thesis film, Seagull, has a very interesting log-line: "Old lighthouse keeper waits for his son to return on a desolate island during Post Greek Civil war era". The drama was well received in Festivals, including the short film corner of Cannes Film Festival. It's very impressive that a young director receives such recognition! What, in your opinion, was the key to the success of the film?
Many things went right in that film. Even though the cast and crew were put in extreme conditions, both mentally and physically, we managed to come out of it unscathed. We filmed in one of the most isolated islands in the world with a population of fifteen people in mid winter. The setting only has its power; an old lighthouse on the edge of a bare volcanic rock; we just put the actors in that unforgiving and yet peaceful environment and everything else happened naturally. We were all really glad for how it came out.
You mentioned the world of filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, Shohei Imamura and Martin Scorsese inspires you. What do you like about their films?
I like their variety of subjects. I like that they are not afraid to experiment with many styles even if the results were not what some critics expected. At the end of the day, in their infinite wisdom they knew that their work will be remembered, not the reviews.
Guarded Angels, the recent thriller you wrote and directed, won Best Screenplay at LAFA. What inspired you to write it? Why did you want to tell the story of Jane?
I wrote Guarded Angels couple of years ago and it was more of a free-style experimental project about the unbreakable love of two sisters looking for each other in the underworld of New York. I think the real New York people inspired me to make this film. Not necessarily the people you meet during the day; but when the night falls, New York can become a very dark place with many interesting individuals. You just got to listen to their stories and be inspired.
The subject of the film is very original. Not many filmmakers choose to bring it to screen... Why did you decide to explore the idea that a girl would voluntarily chose to enter a world of abuse and prostitution?
After completing the treatment and analyzing certain things I realized that the story wasn't about the two sister's love or affection, but about Jane, the younger sister and her wild attempt to become like her sister, even though she can never be. The idea that Jane will go to the depths of hell to become someone she is not is something I absolutely wanted to bring to the screen. I wanted to make a film where I put no judgment on what she does and her choices. If we agree or not is irrelevant really, just like in the real world and that is the beauty of this story. Can you watch it without passing judgment to Jane or not?
Baily Newman did a wonderful job portraying the challenging role of Jane. She made Jane likable, which wasn't easy. How did you work with her to achieve that? Did you have many rehearsals?
Bailey is one of the best and most professional actresses I've ever worked with. Jane is a tough character to pull off because you never really know what she thinks but at the same we needed to make the audience relate to how she feels. We rehearsed a lot, and we broke down word to word Jane's motivations and actions. We left no questions unanswered about her, and even though the audience never finds out as much as we knew about Jane, it gave confidence to Bailey to be her character effortlessly and she was able to focus on technical details while filming without ever stepping out of Jane's shoes. The only scene we didn't rehearse was the last scene that we also filmed last, since we wanted to see Jane's realization on screen as raw as we can possibly get. The scene between the two sisters is really the accumulation of Bailey's hard work on the character. I am really happy with the rest of the cast (Tia Link, Franscesca Shipsey, Denis Kravtsov) who pushed each other to the limits even though they all have very different styles and methods of working.
How did you approach the nudity and the heavy sexual scenes? Was this the first time you direct a film so heavy handed on sexuality and full frontal nudity?
I did a couple of projects where sex scenes or partial nudity was involved but nothing like in Guarded Angels. Sometimes full frontal nudity takes away from the scene and becomes distracting but I think in our scene it works in our favor because the audience is put in the eyes of the trafficker; an uncomfortable place to be. But you can't look away because what you see is really not just a nude body, but a young girl desperately trying to prove that she is now a woman. As far as how I approached them; with utmost professionalism and care for the actors. It's their body and soul they put on screen and I can't be more thankful I worked with these actors. We talked into details about what we are going to do, even the framing and the distance of the camera so there were no surprises on set.
*Spoiler Alert* In several scenes, the heroine watches some hardcore porn. How did you go about that? Did you clear the rights for that, or did you shoot it yourself?
I acquired the rights to use footage from Sirina TV, a Greek porn company. They were really cool and helpful. As far as filming it on my own... I think I will stick with regular films for now.
We think Ron Wrase did a great job capturing everything on camera, from some very interesting angles... This isn't your first collaboration together. He was producer on your first film, Seagull. At what point did he become involved in this project? And how did you prepare to shoot Guarded Angels? What were some of the visual concepts you discussed before approaching this project?
Ron Wrase was my first choice when I was writing Guarded Angels. We have been friends since college and I hope I can work with him on my future projects. We saw a couple of films, such as Lilya 4-Ever and Bad Guy but it was mostly storyboarding and discussing how we can achieve certain things within our budget. Sometimes I had to compromise, sometimes he had. Ron has a unique style, very gentle and he usually uses awkward angles to light the subject. On a large room he might use only one light and on a small room he might use five lights. Very unconventional point of view that I appreciate. Guarded Angels reminds me of a 70s American film, very gritty and dark and we talked about that look beforehand. I am glad we pulled it off.
We highly enjoyed the unique technique of editing. From the very first phone-call scene, editor Ethan Donnelly brings a cool, indie quality to the film, for which he won Best Editing at LAFA. Can you share your experience working on the editing, and the whole post production process? What were some of the enjoyable moments? What are some of the important lessons you learned?
I never worked with Ethan before and I didn't know what to expect. I sent him a rough cut that I did and he immediately jumped on board. It is a very tough film to edit; lots of nudity, locations, hardcore porn, violence; it has all the elements that would make another editor to drop out on the first week. However, through hard work, constructive criticism and lots of coffee, he made a film that grips you from start to finish. Even now when I watch it, I will find a few details that I haven't noticed or completely forgot. It is very rich and full of seamless editing techniques. It was a beautiful experience and even though all this heavy content takes a toll on you I think he pulled it off. I learned that I have to have an open mind for opportunities that exist in the footage and I never thought about while filming. That is when you need a good editor to point them out to you and bring them to life.
Clearly, you've given a lot of thought to the sound-world of Guarded Angles, which takes places in New York City's Chinatown. Normally, indie films can't afford a music-supervisor attached, but you were lucky to have Scott Schneideron board. Tell us about the music process, what was it like? You've collaborated with Yasuhiko Fukuoka before - was this collaboration a bit different from last time? And what were Chris Fukuoka's responsibilities as a music coordinator?
Yasuhiko is a musical genius. His resume speaks for itself and I am glad I worked with him twice now and I hope for many more to come. In Seagull the music was very different, lonely and reminded of the waves of the sea. In Guarded Angels we needed to bring out the contrasty emotions Jane goes through. We start with a lot wild sounds, lots of electronic music but towards the end, where Jane is mostly alone and finds comfort with herself, it is mostly piano and strings.
What, in your opinion, is the most important message of Guarded Angles, that you'd like the viewers to ultimately understand?
I think that going for makes you happy may not be the best choice, it may not even be a good choice but it is still a choice. We have to respect that.
You are currently working on a new film: The Man Vanishes. What is it about?
The Man Vanishes is about a regular white collar worker who becomes the number one witness and suspect of his CEO's mysterious disappearance after brutally murdering his mistress. Even though our protagonist had nothing to do with the disappearance or the murder, he still feels guilty; without being able to explain why and that has an effect on his personal life. Towards the end he finds out that he may not be as innocent as he thought he was.
What other projects are you planning for the near future?
I will film "Ten Years Gone", a short film about a couple who meet at an airport ten years after their break up. I will not reveal anymore about the film just yet, but, it is not as simple as it sounds.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention to our readers?
Since this interview is mostly directed towards filmmakers, I would like to remind them to keep an open mind for films such as Guarded Angels, who try to push the medium further, while stepping away from all the cliches, formulas and expectations that most film festivals have created. Having said that I would like to thank Los Angeles Film Awards for doing just that.