Interview: Dea Kulumbegashvili on the Creative Spark of “Beginning”

There’s an explosion at the start of “Beginning,” but as Dea Kulumbegashvili’s smoldering debut wears on, it starts to look like merely the striking of a match to start a fire. In a small Georgian village, the filmmaker finds Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), the dutiful wife of a leader of a Jehovah’s Witnesses sect (Rati Oneli) who is made to feel shame for ever harboring dreams of becoming an actress at one time. Sacrificing her ambitions for the security suggested by a quiet religious wife where her life primarily revolves around tending to her young son as well as the children of the rest of her flock as a teacher, the truce she made to herself years ago is upset by the inexplicable bombing of her church during a service, a traumatizing event to be certain, but one with ramifications she could’ve never predicted when her husband leaves to report to back to the congregation’s leadership in the city and she’s approached by a police investigator (Kakha Kintsurashvili), or at least that’s how he initially presents himself.

Yana is unable to trust anybody, not even her own judgment, as she tries to keep the activities of the church running in her husband’s absence and is subjected to the type of misogyny and historical strife she thought she had escaped long ago, and Kulumbegashvili vividly allows the viewer to see the world from her perspective, quite literally in distinctive static shots that relay a feeling of constant disadvantage no matter what room she’s in and long takes where being lulled into a sense of comfort usually has a way of backfiring on you. It’s an extraordinary drama, so expertly executed and crackling with energy that it doesn’t seem premature to think the first-time director is a master-in-the-making. With the film arriving on American shores this week on MUBI after opening eyes all over the world this past fall at the Venice, Toronto and New York Film Festivals, Kulumbegashvili spoke about the process of blending real-life inspiration with fiction for the Best Foreign Language Oscar contender as she created a story around a place where she had family ties and allowing the actors to be heavily involved in the creation of their characters, as well as what it was like to put the finishing touches on her feature debut during lockdown when it involved plenty of travel.

I’ve heard that this took a while to click into place after you had the initial idea. Was there a moment when you figured out the right way to tell this story?

No, it was not a challenge. It was more like I started to work on a script, but then I started to feel that it took so much time to prepare for the film. We were facing so many obstacles. It seemed almost impossible actually to make this film. Then after a few years of being in the development, I just re-wrote the script because I understood that my mind was more focused on this character than the story that I had written before, so I wrote it specifically for her because that’s what I was feeling in the moment. And it was an absolutely right decision because we were trying to make this film for five years, and I’m glad for that because the film that exists now is what I needed to make.

Is it true there were two versions of the script, one for yourself that was more detailed and then one for the actors that sort of had more openness to it?

There was one version of the script which was more easy to read because it had more text and it was written in more straightforward way, and there was also my version which was more technical, but from the beginning I was writing it mostly for myself with camera angles and how I wanted to actually do it. Then because I like to rehearse with actors a lot and workshop, my script is very helpful because I really do not like to look at the dialogue written by me. I would prefer to listen to them and then work on my script, re-writing the dialogue and adjusting everything for the actors.

Once you saw the actors interacting with the material some way that they personalized it, did anything happen you hadn’t expected?

One of the biggest surprises was working with the actor who plays the detective because initially Rati, the co-writer of the script told me that he has seen this actor in the theater, and he said, “You really need to go and see this guy.” We went and I was absolutely fascinated by this actor and his energy, what I could see on stage, Then I met him and what I could feel from him was absolutely different from what I wrote. So it was not an easy decision, but I gave him a few pages and then he came back and he was talking to me and I understood that it was more interesting for me to really give this character fully to an actor because his energy is so opposite from what I had written. There were things like this that were happening in the making of the film and I’m endlessly grateful to all of my actors because they did incredible work. They worked with me for maybe six months of rehearsals and I couldn’t thank them enough for this.

You’re able to convey so much about the larger society through such a limited set of characters. Did you ever start at a larger scale and distill things down?

Not really. What really changed is that usually when I’m writing the script, I always think because it’s the script for my own film, what’s the essence of the scene or of this moment? What do I really want to grasp? I have this tendency to go to what’s essential, and I remove everything that’s distracting for me. Sometimes for directors, [especially] for the director who’s making their first feature, it’s very seductive to think about how to create many characters and how to have scenes with many actors and many camera movements, but I’m the opposite. I really, really like to distill everything to the essential. Sometimes it looks too simple or not really ambitious to the people that were working with me, but that’s not what’s important. What’s important is that I need to get to just the really essential in the scene.

What sold you on Ia to play Jana? It’s such a remarkable performance.

She’s a great actress and it was a very strange coincidence that she heard I was preparing the film and asked the casting director if she could come talk to me because I did not consider her because I knew that she was pregnant. She was about to give birth, so I thought that it would not be really possible, but when she came in, it was two months after she gave birth. She said that she wanted to try, and maybe we would start to talk about the character, and I was surprised because I thought that the material would have been a bit heavy and I didn’t know if she would be comfortable with it because she had such a little baby at home. But she’s such a great actress that the first day that she came to talk to us, my cinematographer was already so fascinated. He told me, “I don’t know what you were thinking, but this is the character, this is her.” She came in all dressed as Jana and everything the casting director told her about the character. She came in fully prepared for what she wanted to do with the character.

Is it true you were asking her what the interior of the house would look like? I understand the house has a story as well.

We found the house and I was convinced that this is the house because I really liked it, and it’s three minutes away from where I am now actually — I’m in my grandmother’s house and I grew up here and this is where we shot the film in this town. And I knew that I liked the house because the forest and the river is right behind it, and we did not cheat any locations. Everything’s really around that house. But for the interior, I knew that I wanted the actress to come in and tell me how this character would design it or how would she live in this house. And she came in with the set designer and I was asking her, “Where would you put forks and knives and plates?” So she was very involved, but all the other actors — the husband and the child — everyone really brought their own costumes for the costume designer. I would let them go to do the shopping and it was very interesting for me to even observe how the characters would form through those details and what good actors really bring to the film. There’s so much each actor can bring to the film. Once you give them freedom, you can always direct them, but it should be very subtle how you direct them.

Did you have in mind how the camera would take on the perspective of the characters from the start? I just loved how much exists outside the frame and is left to your own imagination.

Yes, the moment I started to work on this version of the script, I knew how I would want to shoot it. But before that, we did really huge research with a cinematographer about all the lenses that I was considering. I love to research all the technical possibilities and all the lenses — I have entire catalogs of all the lens possibilities — but then I thought that no, it’s one lens, one camera, and every time camera has the fixed position, each room, each location, camera is always in one place because I wanted to grasp domestic life somehow, like how do people live in their house? It’s a familiar point of view, to always look at one room from one point of view, because I was thinking all of my childhood memories are memories about the spaces and they’re always from one specific point of view.

Then I tried to distill everything to that point. I do believe that where you place the camera is the most important decision on making a film, and once I knew how the actors move and inhabit the characters and the space and how they made the space their own, I [thought], “Okay, this is where I place the camera if I wanted to grasp something, which is intangible, something which is happening without me really intervening.” We had such few camera positions that actually [the assistant camerapeople] were making fun of me, saying that, “Okay, we could perhaps shoot this film in two weeks.”

One of my favorite shots in the film connects to what you’re talking about, although it takes place outside the house — there’s a scene in the car during an argument and you shoot the parents with the camera fixed on the rearview mirror in a way I hadn’t seen before. What it was like to find those shots that you could normally relate to, but see it in these extraordinary circumstances?

I don’t know how other people relate to certain experiences, which probably most of us have lived through because as a child, but I would always be in the backseat, either falling asleep when we were coming from somewhere late at night. And the parents were always in the front seats and sometimes have an argument or discuss something that they do not want me to hear. Also, because I don’t drive, everything that we can see while we’re in the car is always from the backseat in a way and then what you really see is a mirror. When we were choosing the car and any vehicles actually used in the film, I would always think, what is the car that this character drives [to show] what kind of person they are and then I would choose the car, even if it was not very good technically for shooting. This car was awful for shooting purposes, but in a way the imperfections would somehow bring something to the film and I did not want to cheat how the car looks from the outside or inside. I always wanted to have the imperfections that made the experience more authentic.

There’s a heartstopping scene midway through the film of Jana taking a breath in the forest — I can imagine in its length, that might’ve been difficult to justify to others before filming it, so was that something you had to protect throughout the process?

It was always there [in the script] and I know that all of my collaborators, because now we do talk about it a lot and laughing when we discuss how this process was [because] literally everyone was calling me when they would watch the cut being, “Just please cut this shot.” Everyone, like even my cinematographer at some point called me and said, “I really love what you’re doing, but please, it cannot be this way.” But the only person actually I should just say was Nico [Jaar], the composer of the film. When he watched the cut, he was like, “Oh, this is how it should be.” And I never even mentioned [to him] that I was receiving calls about this shot because I was sure from the very beginning, once I placed this shot in the assembly, which was really long in the beginning, [it would work]. This shot has never changed, neither the lamps nor the position. It was always there and it was always this long.

What was your collaboration with Nico like generally?

From the very beginning, when we started to talk, we knew that we would not work only in music, but we would work on the approach to the sound [as a whole]. And he was such supportive. He came to Mexico and we would discussing how to create the vibration of each space, [asking] how does each space feel in the film? And then he created the sound for each individual space in the film. In some places, it’s impossible to even notice maybe, but it’s very meticulous how we were working on it. And it was a very long process because I was convinced that within a film, I really did not want to have music as anything melodic, but I wanted to create a soundscape. Nico is very much interested in this process as well, so we were talking about, how do you experience the language? And if there is a dialogue scene, then how much do we really hear the sound of a space or what kind of sound it should be? Even in the fire scene, for example, it’s not actually authentically just the sound of a fire. Nico created a big part of it, and nothing’s really burning in the sound that he created.

You’ve mentioned Mexico and I know you had been in New York for a time. Did all this travel give you a new perspective on going back to Georgia?

It was strange because I was in Mexico editing the film. And then in March, just before the pandemic really spread everywhere, I came to Georgia for a week because I needed to re-record some dialogue with actors, and I was so unaware that something big was happening in the world because I was so involved in making a film. I missed everything that I would see at the airport — somehow I did not pay attention, and then I went back to Mexico and we were isolated in the studio and in June, I came out of the studio and I think I was shocked because there was just a totally different world. And it’s not just maybe reflecting on Georgia, but somehow everything was different.

And then I needed to come back to Georgia to record more sound and then I did all the sound in Paris. I only edited the dialogue in Mexico, so it was such a strange experience to travel during really peak of the pandemic and to come back and things that would have been really simple before — just to re-record the dialogue — suddenly was incredibly complicated. So I am so thankful to really everyone who stayed all through the process with me and who where there when we were finishing the film in Paris. It was a heroic act for me because I could not believe that people would still show up at the studio and would still work every day despite everything.

Obviously they knew they were working on something special. I always know a first feature is intimidating, even with all the experience you already have, so what’s it like to have under your belt now?

I’m very happy that the film will be seen by viewers in different places on the planet. That’s the biggest pleasure when you know that film exists and it’s not yours anymore. I don’t really have that much relationship with it anymore because of course now I want to make a new film and I do get questions about “do I feel pressure?” I don’t put that much importance into my own persona. It’s the film that matters and I want to do my best for the next film as well. The process is very important for me because that’s the most important part of making a film. In a way you do forget about whatever you made before because you’re so much in the moment that nothing [else] really matters.

“Beginning” will be available to stream on MUBI, starting January 29th.