By Zoe Kurland.
There are all these little surprises because it’s all happening as it’s happening in real life among a group of people. That was the intention behind my style of shooting.”
In an early scene in Svetlana Cvetko’s Show Me What You Got, Marcelo (Mattia Minasi), the son of a famous Italian soap star, meets with a studio about a potential reality show project. As we hear the syrupy voices of the executives attempt to seduce Marcelo into a deal, the camera stays trained on his face alone, which flashes from surprise to confusion to excitement to boredom. He darts his eyes between the execs as they try to sell him on potential stardom: “We want to do a reality show about a family to aspire to,” says one. “Your father would be the draw, but he’s not the story. You are,” says another. This seems a hollow promise, and Marcelo’s reaction shows us he probably knows this too. We know from an omniscient narrator that Marcelo is running from his life back in Italy, attempting to avoid a bad relationship and outrun the shadow of his father, so our eye has already been attuned to these unseen parts of his character, his emotions and motivations. The irony seems to be that we as viewers already know more about Marcelo from even this one shot than a “reality” show ever could.
Reality TV is itself a kind of warped form of cinéma vérité, the promise of truth without actually being truthful, so it’s a clever move on Cvetko’s part to include this groundwork in setting up the subsequent vérité film we’re about to see. From this world of vacant Los Angeles intimacy – shallow sexual encounters and promises of fame via reality TV – we inherently understand that there’s something kinetic and, well, real, missing from Marcelo’s life. Though he may not be able to put it into words just yet, he senses a certain lack, and ditches the rest of his studio meetings to head to the beach where he encounters Nassim (Neyssan Falahi), an actor who wiles away his days shadowboxing under the pier and avoiding calls from his own father back in Iran. Their ease with one another seems cosmic, and when Marcelo asks Nassim to train him, we see the deeper question lingering around the edges of his question – Marcelo wants someone to show him how to inhabit his body, someone to show him how to feel something authentic. When a misdirected punch causes a bloody nose, the duo stumbles into a café and meets Christine (Cristina Rambaldi), a passionate animal rights activist and fellow drifter. Through this series of coincidences, the three of them fall into a romantic relationship that takes them from LA to the desert, and all the way to Italy, forcing each of them to examine their attachments and beliefs, all while experiencing an extremely embodied love at odds with the shallow, unforgiving world around them.
Show Me What You Got (co-written by Cvetko and David Scott Smith, and shot by Cvetko), aided by a thrumming, percussive soundtrack from Eric Avery, is an ode to the French New Wave (particularly, as the ménage à trois suggests, Jules et Jim), and, as such, maintains an air of improvisation and surprise, repeatedly reinforcing this idea that anything can change in an instant. Veteran cinematographer Cvetko (Inside Job, O.J.: Made in America) employs her skills as a documentarian to capture the idiosyncrasies and nuances of those instants, capturing the tiny micro expressions that skitter across her characters faces and inform their choices. She moves with Marcelo, Nassim and Christine as if they were documentary subjects, crafting a film that’s a far cry from the world of Hollywood we see at the outset. I talk to Cvetko about her background as a documentarian, the allure of the French New Wave, embracing silence, and her intimate style of filmmaking.
As a cinematographer and a documentarian, how did you approach writing and directing a narrative film?
When I was thinking about making a film, I knew I wanted to implement the skills and knowledge I have from my documentary work. I love cinema verité and I also love French New Wave – I love when cinema blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction, so I began to think about what kind of story suits that kind of storytelling. Not all stories can be done in such a way, so that was always something that I had in the back of my mind. And then the secondary thing was that I wanted to tell a story about an empowered young woman, someone different than who I usually see on screen. That’s what led to this unconventional love story and the young female protagonist at the center of it. It was important to get that across: here’s a young woman following her heart’s desire who feels comfortable in her body and comfortable with the way she chooses to pursue love. The French New Wave and the films made during those times about young rebellious filmmakers who wanted to break the cinema rules and change how society thinks of this kind of story inspired this film.
I’m interested in what you’re saying about rebellious young people and rebellious filmmaking, especially because the film is set in Los Angeles. All of your characters are sort of entertainment adjacent but seem to be rebelling against the Hollywood machine in their own ways. I’m curious to know why you decided to set the film in LA and give us this very unconventional outside in look at the industry?
I often jokingly say that this film portrays Los Angeles as I know it (laughs). It’s the Los Angeles I’ve experienced – who my friends are and what my life in the film industry is like as an immigrant in Los Angeles. That’s how we ended up filming on Melrose and LaBrea and those kinds of neighborhoods, because those are also really my neighborhoods. I wanted to bring that part of myself in – the streets and the things that I’m familiar with, that I hang out around. I also wanted to bring in downtown Los Angeles, which is such a special place in terms of arts and community. Los Angeles has this vibrancy that we’ve seen in films about Hollywood and the city as a movie capital, but this was different. This is the Los Angeles that I know as a person.
I know that you aimed to highlight the immigrant experience in the film, and I also I noticed these themes of omnipresent fathers – fathers calling from different countries, fathers exerting power over their sons, and an important grandfather in our young female protagonist’s life. I’m curious to know if those themes of looking for fathers and father figures tie into the immigrant experience and if those were elements you intended to work off of one another?
Oh, you just picked up on something very special. Earlier this morning somebody asked me, has there been a question you haven’t been asked yet that you wish someone would ask, and you just did. When I stayed in the US and my family was in Croatia there was this rift between my family and me, particularly between my father and me, about distance and how we shape our lives. In some way, I related to that side of Marcelo’s life. And then on Nassim’s side, I also related to a very traditional family, the kind of father that expects their children to just kind of respect everything they say – when they say to come home, you’re supposed to come home. But most importantly, prior to shooting the film, I lost my father. His passing affected me so deeply and I lost my footing, which I wasn’t quite prepared for. It was almost to the point where we were wondering if we had to delay shooting because we were scheduled to start three weeks from the time of the funeral. So yes, the father theme has been very carefully woven into the story. I think during editing, there was even more sensitivity and understanding towards the dialogue and relationships that each character had with their fathers, in Christine’s case with her grandfather, and how those relationships were different from one another. Also, during editing, my producer lost his father, so we had a lot of conversations and about understanding life, parents, the future, and us becoming parents ourselves.
That theme is definitely very palpable throughout the film. And I think the choice to add this voiceover, which we later learn is the daughter of one of our protagonists, feels like such a poignant touch, sort of taking what these father figures give our characters and bringing it into the next generation, starting the story all over again. How did you decide to weave the film together with that voiceover?
It was a creative idea from the get-go. We had parts of this script recorded already that we were planning to show to our investors. And when I went to the investors, I had a couple of scenes put together and I told them the film would be black and white with these three actors, this story, and this voiceover done by this character. This is the film. It won’t be kind of like this, but maybe it’s going to be like that, this is it. We ended up being funded based on that because it was so clearly defined. The woman who did that voice (Anne-Laure Jardry) is a personal friend. She has this perfect cinema voice. There were some pressures to possibly have an actress do the voiceover, but I could never walk away from her voice. She is that daughter. She is that person.
She has a wonderful voice. It’s very meditative and inherently wise, and it presents a really interesting contrast, texturally, to these more abrasive patriarchal presences. The film is so texturally rich in every aspect. The cinematography especially. I know you had said that you wanted to be both an observer and an intimate part of these characters lives, and I’m curious to know more about that tension between observation and involvement and how as a cinematographer and director, you chose when to go in closer and when you chose to pull out of the action.
As a documentarian, when you’re a following a live event or something that’s happening in real time, there’s so much unknown. I think over the years we develop this other sense. I don’t know if it’s a sixth sense or whatever it is, but we have these instincts. You just know or anticipate that this particular subject is going to exit right now or get on the move or maybe they just won’t move. It is a lot of instinctual filming. Of course, in a narrative film, we had the luxury of takes, doing it over and over, whereas in documentary, 99% of the time when you’re following a live event you never get another chance. With this film, the first few takes of a scene were very intuitive and instinctive. And then from that, when it felt right, we would do it again and again. Knowing what I got in the first take, in the second take I would shoot in the opposite direction because I wanted to get a reaction. I knew I got something special in one part of a dialogue, but also wanted to cover the other part. A big help for me was the editor/producer who was always behind the big monitor keeping track of these shots and knowing that we had everything we needed. We were not going wide, medium, close up, tight over and over, so it was imperative that somebody was on top of it. We wanted to get actual intimacy and closeness. Being close to my actors and not behind the monitor, having my eye on the eyepiece and the camera on my shoulder created this very special intimacy between us. The camera was almost like another character or another person in the mix just observing.
How did being so close to your actors influence your directorial style?
I think that gave us the opportunity to look each other straight in the eye. They could see and hear and understand what I’m seeing and could express back. We also never fell out of the scene. We didn’t stand apart and have a conversation where I went back to my monitor and then came back to the camera. Once we were in a scene, we never walked away, we just kept working through it. At the end of the night, sometimes I felt like the bottom of my feet burned – having a camera on my shoulders forced the pressure all the way down to my feet, but the payoff is that we wouldn’t break that magic of what we were working through, and that magic is really the center of the film.
Because your film revolves around this intimacy you’re talking about and a ménage à troiscan really only work with chemistry, it seems even more important to find the right people for these roles. How did you cast your actors?
I worked with Christina on another project prior to this one, a short documentary called Yours Sincerely, Lois Weber, about Lois Weber, a prolific director of the 1920s. I was doing some recreations, so I was looking for an actress that had something timeless about her. In that, I got to know Christine and I felt like she was absolutely the right person to tell this story. There’s something about the comfort she has with herself and her body. She was a dancer before, so she understands her body and her movement. That comfort was imperative and also contagious, it even spread around to the guys. There was respect and there were conversations…a lot of conversations (laughs). It turned out that she and Neyssan, the actor who plays Nassim, went to acting school together, so they knew each other, but we didn’t have a third. When we met Mattia, the actor who plays Marcelo, socially, everything just came together. I told the producer that we needed to bring these people together in our living room and just talk and see if this chemistry would work. When we had them do the scenes together, it was unmistakable.
Did you have an intimacy coordinator or someone who was working to help choreograph the love scenes?
We discussed it and all three actors said that wasn’t something that they felt they needed. At one point we did we did have another person in the room making sure that everybody felt comfortable even expressing and saying what they were okay with, and what they were not. It was just about finding everybody’s comfort level. We cared so tremendously, and we cared so much that it came down to the crew. [The actors] picked their own crew, who could be on set, who could watch the monitor, and the three of them selected who was going to be our A-team on the set. Everybody else had to be away, they couldn’t even watch the monitors. The most important thing was that they knew we would never shoot something they weren’t comfortable with, that they could always change their mind and that they were fully in control of the scene. Contractually we gave them the right of knowing what was going to be used for their promotions and how they’re being portrayed in terms of nudity. I think the most important thing was that the actors contributed to their characters. We worked with them building those characters, so those limits of how far each character is willing to go was really dictated by them because they were working so hard to know what that person would be comfortable with or not, so that was our guiding light.
So was there room for some improvisation or growth in the script when you initially wrote it?
Yes, absolutely. We had the script, we would do the lines, we would do everything, and then there would be times when we would just say, let’s throw away the script and feel it out. We would ask “why does this scene exist?” and we would talk about that. When we knew what the point was and where we had to land, they would try something different. There were a couple of adorable moments where their characters would naturally just say something so authentic and we were like that’s it, I could have never written that, this is what we’re going to stick with. Sometimes we would do completely silent takes. Not like pantomiming or pretending they’re saying words and moving, but rather a take all about feelings and space and watching each other. We have several of those takes in the film that we ended up mixing in with our dialogue.
I’m so glad you brought that up because I wanted to ask about those moments of thoughtful silence throughout the film where, in the middle of a conversation, you’ll have this pause that lets you sit with the characters and watch them watch each other.
Yeah. In the cinéma vérité or French New Wave style, you don’t have to do traditional set ups. You can do jump cuts and break away from the character, the line, and end up on another character. Those are all the things that I find so exciting because you never quite know as a viewer where it’s going to go, that’s what happens in real life. There are all these little surprises because it’s all happening as it’s happening in real life among a group of people. That was the intention behind my style of shooting.
One of my last questions will have to be about the end, which I think will be a surprise to any viewer. I would love to know how you decided to submerge the viewer in darkness for that last deadly moment and what you were trying to say with that story choice?
Prior to making the film, I was in Paris right after the bombing and I was in bastille watching people being affected, thinking about the fragility of life and the horror of how quickly and unexpectedly our lives can be changed. That’s stayed with me even to this day, so I wanted to bring that into the film very carefully. We did not want to say this happened on this particular event, or this is specifically when that bombing happened, more that, in general, this is what can happen anywhere. We didn’t want it to be in any way exploitative. The only we felt we could do that was by going to black and just hearing the sounds and understanding what that is.
Zoe Kurland is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles and Editorial Assistant of Film International. She holds a BA in English from Columbia University. Her writing appears in Bright Lights Film Journal, COUNTERCLOCK Journal, The Nonconformist, and more.