Director Julia Loktev Talks ‘The Loneliest Planet’ and Its Unpredictable Response

Julia Loktev’s sophomore feature, The Loneliest Planet, is sparse with words but teeming with emotion. Based on the Tom Bissell short story "Expensive Trips Nowhere," the film lives between the words of its characters, existing in their body language and the sprawling landscape that surrounds them. The allusively minimalistic yet hauntingly penerating feature takes you on a journey that explores the dynamic of one couple but speaks to the nature of men and woman on a broader scale. 

Set in the hills of Georgia, the film tells the story of Nica and Alex, a young couple engaged to be married. While on a backpacking trip (with only a guide as their accompaniment), their lives are dramatically altered when unknown truths between them are exposed and cause a schism in their foundation. The Loneliest Planet is played with an unapologetic rawness that’s evocative and bold—even from the opening scene of Nica bouncing naked and freezing in a wash bin waiting for Alex to douse her water. Played by Hani Furstenberg and Gael Garcia Bernal, the film is, according to Loktev, "so much about what does it mean to be a man, what does it mean to be a woman—what do we expect from them?" But although the story may seem far removed from your avergae couple, it asks the audience to engage their own emotions and experiences in understanding the universal rupture of its characters.

Fresh off her Gotham Award nomnation for Best Feature, we chatted with Loktev about what she hoped to uncover with this film, finding the chemistry between the characters, and the audience’s individualistic experience.

So how did you become inspired to tell this story?
I went to a film festival in Georgia, and when I was over there I ended up traveling a bit in Georgia with my boyfriend at the time. While we were traveling there together I actually remembered the short story that we both had read, this Tom Bissell short story, and being in the space of traveling together I thought, this would be a really great movie. At the moment, I thought this could be an interesting movie. Maybe this could be a movie.

Did the short story have the same feeling?
The short story was about a couple traveling is Kazakhstan with a guide. I wasn’t traveling with a guide, I wasn’t traveling in the mountains but there’s something so familiar to me about the story. I’ve traveled a lot myself, I traveled across Central Asia alone after college and I traveled around a lot so I feel like I’ve met this couple many times and knew them.

Did you know that you wanted to explore the dynamics of a relationship?
I knew I wanted to make a love story. I was remembering this short story and I remember the central turning point is so strong, it’s so provocative and it left me feeling so confused about how I would feel in that situation—how the man would feel in that situation, especially. I found it fascinating to try and explore both sides. It’s about these two people struggling after this thing rips them apart and rips apart whatever idea they had of themselves. 

And what was it about Georgia that drew you?
I was born in Russia, technically I was born in the Soviet Union, at the time that Georgia was still a part of the Soviet Union, so in a sense I was born in the same country and now they’re two separate countries. So for me, there is a sense of being somewhat at home in Georgia; I don’t speak Georgian but I look Georgian and I can often get around in Russian. So there’s a familiarity I have with the culture. But also there’s something so mysterious about Georgia for most people. You say Georgia for most people in American have no idea what it looks like, they’ve heard of it but they picture it. And that was incredibly appealing, that it didn’t come with a lot of cultural baggage and preconceptions. Also, it’s a place where the tourist industry is still quite young. You can still meet people and people might buy you a drink or invite you to their house; there’s a fluidity that I think that gets lost when tourism becomes the main industry. And also there was something so specific about this location, about this particular part of Georgia. Other parts of Georgia look completely different but this particular part of Georgia has these incredibly huge open mountains that seemed so perfect for the film.

For you, what was the role of language in the film?
It’s funny, I’ve had people say to me that it’s a film where people don’t talk a lot but it’s kind of about language. Language is constantly entering into it; they’re traveling in this place so they’re basically getting around with four words. And they manage to get around okay until a crucial moment. But then there’s these gams of exchanging language—the typical things one does when you’re traveling, like you exchange curse words for example. But language keeps entering into it. There’s also the inability to speak and the failure of language at the most crucial moment, because after the rupture they should be talking, but what on earth could they possibly say, what is there to say? And that’s what interested me, that they have to go on with their trip and each of them is just trying to figure out what to do. And they’re not really alone ever. I think everyone can probably relate to that. To put it in a very banal way, it’s like when you’ve had a fight your lover and you have to go out to dinner with someone else or a party or some kind of public event with this person, you know, and you’re not really in a space where you can discuss it and you have to maintain so air of normalcy.

That’s what makes their story relatable and universal because it’s a situation could happen anywhere, they just happen to be ina remote location.
I think some of the things that happen are very familiar, I think there are moments when you do find one gesture, one motion, and everything feels absolutely destroyed. Now, it is destroyed forever or just for a few hours? Hard to say. 

The film has a naturalistic style that allows the story to really build. How did you want to tell the story in terms of pace?
I wanted to have a sense of what it means to be in the mountains, to walk through the mountain. I think one of the things that’s been nice is that people who have travelled a lot or hike a lot often come to me and say that this really captured that feeling and to me, that’s really lovely. There’s a rhythm, because it is about walking and walking and walking. I’ve had people ask me if it’s in real time and I say, “Have you ever hiked? Do you know what real time hiking takes?” A lot longer than this!

How did you go about casting for the film? So much of the movie is reliant on these few characters.
I was looking for someone who would really fit this character and Gael just seemed to have the qualities. It’s about thinking that this man does not have the potential for what eventually happens, and for me, Gael seemed really right for this. And also, he’s a very physical actor and that was very appealing, that he likes to work with his body and gestures and expressions. Then I found Hani while looking through a couple of Israeli films and I thought she was just astonishing. Then I discovered she’s from Queens, an American! So that was a wonderful surprise. And then I put them together, and that was the most important thing, to see how they would work together and they had this tremendous chemistry just from the first moment they met.

How did you prepare them for the film?
It was so much on the spot and came from just being there. We were all living in this small Georgian village, eating together all the time, camping a lot. So it just grew from being there. We didn’t really rehearse in a formal way at all. What Gael, Hani, and I did do is go backpacking together and we really put ourselves in Bidzina Gujabidze’s (who plays Dato) hands because he’s a mountaineer. And he said to take a two person tent for all of us, so it was me, Hani, and Gael sleeping in this two person tent. Bidzina said he’sd sleep under a plastic tarp but then it started raining really hard, so we were all in this two person tent. And that’s how we rehearsed. It was the best thing we could have done.

How long were you shooting for?
Six weeks. Most intense six weeks of my life. Intense and hellish and wonderful and beautiful.

On a visual level, the film was really stunning. Can you tell me a little bit about the cinematography?
In our case, it was a very choreographed camera that moves between the actors. We were really walking with the actors and had very elaborate choreography of you know, what point who would be in close up, who would move away from the camera, how the camera would dance around them. So it was really like a dance between the three actors and the camera and a lot of the shots were like 3, 4 minutes so it was quite a physical feat for the camera operators who literally had to hike with the actors up and over like a packed avalanche, across a stream, etc. We all lost a lot of weight.

Have you been pleased with the reception of the film?
One of the things I find interesting in showing the film is that you just get vastly different reactions to it. I don’t mean in terms of if it’s good or bad, but just in terms of how it taps into people’s personal feelings. I really can’t predict it because it’s so much about what does it mean to be a man, what does it mean to be a woman, what do we expect from them? These very personal things that. People kind of shock me with their reactions. I have to say, there are people who watch the movie and they will say, you know, this is very clear, this relationship is over, it’s done, absolutely there is no way to recover from it. And then there’s other people that look at it and say, what’s he problem? Why are they so upset? I don’t see the problem! And that’s a really drastic difference and says a lot about the person viewing it. And I can’t say that I can predict it; I can’t say that women will see it one way or men will see it another. It’s completely unpredictable and gets really mixed up. Whatever it is that they feel about it, they feel very strongly and they kind of can’t imagine that anybody would feel something different. But the person next to them might have felt something entirely different. Could be a good date movie or possibly a very bad date movie.

Could be a good test to see the conversation you would have afterwards.
Exactly. So yeah, for me it’s not very clear, I can’t say I feel one way or the other about it. I can understand the range of emotional reactions and I think ultimately, that’s what attracted me to the short story, that I didn’t really know how I felt. I could imagine these characters not knowing how they felt and I found that more interesting than clarity. I like things that make me uncomfortable. So often you go to the movies and it does work like a kind of lozenge.

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