Jason Wood: Could you begin by commenting on the fact that on Uzak, you multi-task: shooting, editing and directing. Where did you learn so many different skills?
Nuri Bilge Ceylan: I was a photographer before. I started photography when I was fifteen years old. And I have the kind of personality that likes the technical things actually. And also I am an electrical engineer so…
But it’s not because I don’t trust anybody – I have ideas about all these things and I know things that I don’t need. I don’t like many people around during the shooting so that’s why I do as much as I do. I keep the crew very small. If I find a cinematographer he will want an assistant and many lights which I also don’t like. I work with very few lights, available light mostly.
Did you study at Film School?
After finishing university I wanted to study in London and I came here but it was very expensive and so I went back to Turkey to study cinematography for two years. It was actually a four year course but after two I left because I think the actual process of filmmaking is more important in terms of gaining an education.
The central character in Uzak is a photographer. Had you always wanted to make a film that dealt with this subject?
Well, it was for practical reasons, because I shoot shutter film in my house and there was a studio there, so I could use it if I made the character a photographer. It could have been something else, it wasn’t that important.
So you actually shot in your house?
Yes. And also I used my car. I thought, why not? And it was cheaper that way.
You must be a producer’s dream because you keep costs to a minimum. You do everything yourself and even use your own location and props! How did the idea for Uzak come to you and how did you begin to map out the two central characters in the film, Mahmut and Yusuf?
Actually at first I wanted to make a film about two photographers, because these kind of problems happened to me ten years ago. But to be able to shoot the character of Mahmut better I decided to put an opposite, younger character in. This is Yusuf.
Your first two films – Kasaba and Mayis Sikintisi – are set in rural locations. Uzak begins in the country before moving into the city. How did you find the differences in filming in the rural areas and the more urban landscape? Did you like the different themes that this introduced?
For me it’s not a big difference. The only difference is that in the city there are more people walking around so you have to tackle this problem. It was also cheaper to film in the city because I think everybody was staying in their own houses.
Also there is the difference between someone from a small town and someone from a bigger city because the character of Mehmet was originally from this town, and he’s kind of changed, his ideals have kind of altered. Was that something you wanted to explore by having Yusuf come and show him how to change?
Actually most of the people living in Istanbul are originally from the country. There is a huge migration to Istanbul because everything is there; all the money, all the business, everything. So everybody’s dream, every young person’s dream, is to come to Istanbul to find work or to find a better life. So the subject matter is quite typical for Turkey. It happens to everybody.
There is a line where Yusuf says, ‘This place has changed you.’ Are you saying that living in a city and in an urban metropolis can have a kind of corrupting influence on people’s characters?
I think so, because in life you have to help each other because of the conditions. They make the school together sometimes in the villages, and also the Mosque. But in the city, if you have the opportunities and if you earn enough money you begin to be reserved. Firstly, you don’t like to want something from others and in return you begin not to give anything to others. So you start to live in your own apartment like a prison.
The film highlights the harsh economic realities of their situation. The factory in their town has closed down and entire families have lost their work, hence the move to the city. Was it important to you that you did address the economic realities of life in Turkey?
Well that was not my first interest actually, but I needed a reason for the young boy to come to the city. In those days there was a future crisis in Turkey and it influenced everybody’s life, not only the poor people but the rich people also. I am interested in the inner life of the people but this fact came as a result of the background of Yusuf.
The moment where Mahmut rediscovers the silver watch he believed Yusuf to have stolen is pivotal.
He wanted to take advantage of this situation in the relationship because he wanted Yusuf to feel guilty. By means of that Mahmut can be more powerful.
Mahmut seems to be paralysed by apathy and there’s a great sequence where he is on a shoot and sees this perfect photo opportunity with the sun and mountains, and he asks Yusuf to set up the camera but then says, ‘No, fuck it’.
I think this scene illustrates the type of character that he is. I know this situation very well because I was a photographer. When you are in your car in the countryside you always see something to shoot but the motivation or the urge, that’s the degree of your love of your art and it determines whether you stop and shoot it or not. I wanted to show that the distance between his ideals and his real life is growing. So this scene would help me to do that whilst also typifying photographers.
This moment also hints at the film’s humour, as do the moments where Mahmut becomes stuck in his own mousetrap and when he switches from pornography to an arty Tarkovsky film to avoid detection.
It’s not an intention to be humorous, it was more a reflection of how I see life. Even in the most tragic situations I see humour. Humour can underline tragedy better if they are together; they are like a sister and brother. I also stepped in this kind of mousetrap but I never laughed at it. When you look from outside it is funny and I think with our life, if you are living alone in a house for a long time, habits and our obsessions begin to be funny because of the type of society we live in. In the house we relax and we live without masks.
We’ve touched on the reference to Tarkovsky in Uzak. Is he a major influence?
I am the sum of everything that has influenced me in my life. My observations, my own life, other films, everything. Tarkovsky is one of the filmmakers that has influenced but even more than Tarkovsky I would cite Ozu. Not only with his films but also with his decisions. As a filmmaker he became more and more sophisticated and in his final films reduced things such as camera movement to the bare minimum. The subject matter also narrowed and this kind of attitude especially influenced me. Also, I think Ozu has a great amount of compassion for his characters and for people in general.
Is the editing process one that you particularly enjoy? Most directors I talk to find it to be so.
It is the same for me, because it is here that I can really be alone. You have to deal with many kinds of people during shooting. In the script you are also alone but I am not very successful with that, it is the most difficult part for me. In editing it is real joy. I can also work at night; I like it the most.
Did the film drastically change during the editing process?
Yes, it changed a lot. Actually there were many more scenes that I found unnecessary in the editing stage.
What sort of scenes did you cut?
There were more about the relationships of the characters. For instance, there was a small nephew and a birthday scene. There was also a murder in the apartment upstairs. It felt like something from an action movie and didn’t suit Uzak at all. What this sequence did do however was provide the motivation for Mahmut and Yusuf going together on the photography trip. Now they go without any specific reason.
The film is beautifully composed. I’ve never seen Istanbul in snow. I was reminded of Kiarostammi in the way you position your figures within their landscapes.
I don’t plan these things that far in advance. For me, you get in a car and then begin to search with the actors and the crew the best way to shoot a scene. I improvise where to put the camera depending upon the locations and am not specific in this regard in the shooting script. I try to find a focal point for the camera and then begin to rehearse.
There are not a huge amount of close-ups: you allow the camera to simply observe and allow things to unfold. Is this something you like to do?
In my first film there were many close-ups, but with time I instinctively began to like them less. I think you should have a good reason for close-ups. If I can do it without a cut I prefer to do it without a cut, but I am not obsessive about not cutting and so the scene should be a master shot. Again, I decide these instinctively and on location, not beforehand in the script.
I did like the cut to a close-up of the keys Yusuf returns. It was such a melancholic moment. You get the sense that something has passed between these two people that will never be regained.
Actually, I wrote it and shot it more after he leaves the house but in the editing I think the keys were enough and if it’s enough you don’t need other things. I prefer to tell the story in the most minimalist way.
For me I think the overriding feeling of the film is one of sadness. Do you see it this way?
I put a little hope in the last scene. Mahmut smokes the cigarette that he refuses to smoke when offered it to him. His smoking again can mean maybe again he is ready to change and perhaps has the potential to do so. Perhaps this is a sign of hope.
I also found Mahmut’s relationship with his ex-wife to be quite poignant. He follows her to the airport prior to her departure for a new life and then can’t bring himself to actually say ‘goodbye’. There’s a wonderful shot where she spots him hiding behind a pillar and he jumps back behind it. Did you think he was aspiring to any kind of reconciliation?
Actually, he left his wife because he thought much more interesting things were going to happen in his life and she began to appear as an obstacle to him; I think many men in Turkey and in the world are like this. It’s a kind of hope for him, but if they come together again it will not work out, I’m sure. He will be the same man.
Are there autobiographical elements to the film?
Of course, yes. It’s perhaps the most autobiographical film of mine. About 40% of it is autobiographical. The script came out of my own experience and also my observations of my friends.
Your wife also is in the film. How did you find working with her?
My wife is from film school and is also a short filmmaker. Actually, someone else was going to act that part but there were some technical problems and we had to change it.
Were the two phenomenal lead actors – Muzaffer Özdemir and Mehmet Emin Toprak – ones you had considered or was there a long audition process?
These were actors who I also worked with on my previous films. I know them very well, but on this film I wanted to work with different actors. I wanted the character of Yusuf (Toprak) to be younger at first and I put an ad in the newspaper and I tried many more people for that role. And for the photographer (Özdemir), I wanted to use someone else and made many test shots.
Do you enjoy working with a combination of professional and amateur actors in this film?
Yes. In this film there are professionals as well, which is something I wanted to try, as I’ve infrequently worked with trained professionals. The ex-wife for instance, the janitor and also the lover of the photographer are all professional actors. But I think I prefer amateurs. Their responses are very good and they give themselves to the subject very seriously and with a lot of energy.
And do you allow them to contribute moments of improvisation to the script?
I don’t show them the script as I want to see what they can do first. I show them the situation and what kind of things they should talk about, and in the rehearsal I like to see what kind of things they can do, where they can imagine something I couldn’t, and if I don’t like it I begin to change things. We try to find another balance in the scene and we come to a conclusion together. But I think amateurs can create a very nice style that you never imagine.
How did the tragic death of Mehmet Emin Toprak affect you personally and did you see the major award he received for acting as recognition of his acting talents?
He was not only my actor but also my cousin and that increased my suffering in those days. After he received the prize in Cannes it was even more poignant.
And of course, Uzak also won a major prize in Cannes in its own right. As a filmmaker who is beginning to attain a reputation on an international level, how important are these festivals in bringing your work to a wider audience?
Actually I don’t like to talk about my films too much, but of course the festivals help a lot with regards to selling the film. This is especially true of Cannes. For this kind of film, festivals are the best place for recognition and no one would even hear about the without a festival as a platform. Cannes is a very strong festival, even if you don’t win, because everyone is there. Also, more producers take interest in your work and you can find funding much easier.
Do these festivals and awards bring compromise? You strike me as someone who likes their independence.
I’ve always produced my own films and I always put the money up myself without asking anyone else. But fortunately because I make low budget films I always make a profit so I’ve never had a problem. There are more offers now to co-produce and things like that but I’m not sure. I am thinking about that. I finish the script and then decide what I can do.
Would you consider working outside Turkey?
I am sure I want to make films in Turkey only.
One sequence in Uzak that I particularly wanted to talk about before we conclude is the dream sequence where you play with the film speed. It stands out from the rest of the film.
Yes, there is one dream sequence for Yusuf where he sees a light in the room – also I manipulated the sound. It’s not exactly a dream. There is a time between dreaming and waking where you don’t understand what is happening, but of course I shot this scene with half the frames per second. Something strange is going to happen. I wanted to add some kind of mystery to the scene because I wanted to separate it from the film. And I wanted to use only the objects in the room to express a sense of mystery.
This may seem strange but the two central characters stayed with me after the film and I’m trying to work out why that happened. Are you able to speculate as to what will become of these characters?
I don’t know, but I don’t believe Yusuf will come back to this village, and I believe he will find a solution but this will be a good place for him. For Mahmut, I believe nothing will change, as I personally don’t think much changes in life. If this was a Hollywood film I am sure they would contact each other, but I don’t want to alter the reality of things.
Uzak is on selected nationwide release now.