Jacqueline Lentzou on Looking to the Universe for Answers in “Moon, 66 Questions”

There were no rehearsals before Jacqueline Lentzou got to set for “Moon, 66 Questions,” typically a casualty of a spartan budget but in the case of this writer/director a necessity. She likely could’ve easily arranged some time between Sofia Kokkali, who had become a close collaborator after appearing in two of her shorts, and Lazaros Georgakopoulos, the man who would be playing the father of Kokkali’s character Artemis, but when Lentzou had no time to prepare herself for returning home to care of her own dad as he struggled with a debilitating ailment, it was imperative that no such meeting would happen before production started.

There’s a healthy distance in many respects between what Lentzou went through herself and what she ultimately put on screen in her deeply moving debut feature, but she has clearly kept the restlessness she felt close to her in the drama which is as difficult to pin down as what Artemis is feeling at any given moment, largely eliding details of the life that Artemis had to leave behind to come home to catch her struggling to move forward with no certainty of what will happen next. However, in addition to Kokkali’s arresting performance, Lentzou exhibits an emotional precision formally that offers something to hold onto as Artemis drifts through a summer where she finds it hard to engage with friends who gather around the pool or other family members that arrive to seek professional help for her father who is all but catatonic. Sudden shifts in tone and the incongruent pacing of scenes shrewdly reflect the instability that Artemis experiences psychologically and her father endures physically, not relying on conventional narrative rhythms to give shape to the duo’s gradual convergence from virtual strangers, after presumably some estrangement, into family once more, but the sparks of a shared sensation when their lives start to mirror one another that ignite a full-on conflagration.

Artemis may feel small in the world, but in placing her in a grander context where she refers to tarot cards and the stars for guidance since there are few other signs for her on earth, Lentzou is onto something major as she completely reinvents a coming-of-age story that is at once modern in its construction but timeless in the emotions it conjures. Entering a fragmented world when it premiered at Berlinale virtually during the height of the pandemic, the jagged edges of “Moon, 66 Questions” now appear as if they’re a perfect fit and with the film available for streaming in the U.S., the director spoke about creating a process that would generate the best work from her cast, acting on her instincts while on set and turning the limitations of an unforgiving schedule into a boon to her actors in terms of their relationship arc.

How did everything come together for this? From what I understand, you had the idea in 2012.

I knew that a story around a father-daughter relationship would be my first feature in 2012, but I was mostly trying to develop my film language, so I was more into shorts, and after [making] some, I started putting it down around 2016-17, and actually in 2016, Sofia [Kokkali] had watched “Fox,” a short film of mine and she really liked it. Back then, I was very shy and never believed in anything positive that anything people were telling me or about my work, so this is not where we became friends, but I had the chance to see her in a play and she was really brilliant in her very, very discreet role. Then I decided, “Let’s try to do something together and we very swiftly moved on to shoot “Hector Malot: The Last Day of the Year.” This is our first collaboration and it went pretty well. We won Cannes and we couldn’t believe it, but we took it as a sign that our collaboration works. Then she knew that she would be the protagonist of my feature film, however, I wouldn’t like to overinform her.

Is it true that she didn’t actually meet Lazaros, who would be playing her father, until you got to set?

Exactly. This is how I work in general. I like to, if you want, not hide, but to give what I think is appropriate and necessary at the time given, so for this film, I mostly wanted to draw her to the psychology and more spiritual stuff that Artemis may have in her head, and this would come mostly through written work. [Sofia] knew it would be something about a daughter and her father, but it’s complicated and he’s unwell and there were not a lot of dictates. The preparation was mostly me unconsciously giving her pieces of the Artemis character when it was ready for shooting time, and I would either exchange the the character’s diaries with Artemis…with Sofia. [laughs] Sorry, it’s so confusing. And maybe songs that the character would listen to and films she would like. I was actually sharing information that is not in the film necessarily, but those types of materials are necessary to create a character of depth.

I was especially touched by the use of Daniel Johnston’s music – how did that make it from Austin to Greece?

I love Daniel Johnston’s work. His songs have been really good friends of mine when I was growing up and he died that August of 2019 when I was shooting. I was very, very sad when I heard that and I felt that I had to try to add some of his music to my film to honor him when the pain and the description of suffering in Daniel Johnston’s songs fit what the film depicts because Daniel Johnston somehow has some playfulness and this is what makes his songs even sadder. He talks about how alone and not connected he feels and how he doesn’t belong, but at the same time, he adds a pop tune to it. He tries to make it cute, and this is very close to the film somehow and to the protagonist.

That playfulness extends to the idea that Artemis is part of this larger universe through the tarot cards and her looking to the sky for answers at times. How much of that did you have mapped out from the beginning?

I shot the tarot cards while having a lunch break, so it was not something I knew where to locate in the film necessarily, but I really loved the visuals and the energy that they bring — [this idea] there is something more – we don’t know what it is, but a more mystical atmosphere. The tarot cards found their positions during the edit and became like chapter dividers, but regarding the universe, it’s something that I’m working in all of my shorts – the connection to something bigger, especially in times of great angst and suffering where the need to connect is greater.

You’re actually able to mirror the instability emotionally that Artemis is feeling and physically by her father with the rhythm of the scenes. Was that something you felt out in the edit or pretty firmly in mind from the start?

Both. It’s something that was already there, given the disease of the father but somehow the disease itself lends its rhythm to the film. That’s why for some people it’s hard to watch the film because it’s almost real time. When I was writing the script, I had this idea, but many things changed in the editing as many scenes were subtracted and it was giving new space [to others]. The diary entries were longer in the script…

I’m guessing it was never presented in full, but I’ve heard the scene of Artemis trying to maneuver the car in her garage once went 20 minutes…

Yes, the car scene took 20 minutes because Sofia never felt confident enough to just shift the car into the wall. [laughs] I wanted to create this scene where it was like a hamster in a cage where you would feel the suffocation as a viewer to see her in the car and the car was in a garage, so [there was] that movement of going back and forth, back and forth but actually nowhere. When we were editing, I actually wanted to put the whole fucking scene in and my editor was like, “No, Jackie, 20 minutes will be lethal for the film.” [laughs] “People will revolt.” I was like, “No! We have to be bold about it!” So it was like, “Okay, let’s start with 15 minutes and gradually, it was extracting some minutes and I think we ended up with ideal timing.

This may be overanalytical, but hearing your reference to a hamster in a cage, I remember you’ve called the visiting family a pack of lions in how they pick apart the people that come visit the house. Is nature a reference for you?

It’s not very consciously. I don’t believe in major symbolism that much. But I am personally very connected to nature in many ways, and I think that when animals are added in a film, in a way they have such a particular energy that affects the whole film. I think it fits my work and it adds up to the whole extra layer that I want to employ in my films.

When you have this process where your actors are really engaging for the first time on set, is there anything that surprises you once you see their dynamic?

I had a very clear feeling about it, so [their dynamic] wasn’t something that surprised me, but what surprised me was how close these two actors ended up being in the end. Gradually every day they would get closer and closer and when they did the final scene, which to me is one of the successful scenes of the film, was shot towards the end of [the production] and there was a message of real love in this scene. This was surprising and very moving for me.

The way you capture the scene where Artemis is helping her father to walk and takes on his weight is really incredibly. Was it difficult to convey the physicality of that moment?

No, the hard aspect of this scene was more regarding the actors. They were very emotional in this scene because again it was towards the end and they knew the gravity of this scene, how important and harsh it was to shoot and to have in a film, so I knew where to put the camera because I knew where I wanted to strike a balance between able to show to my audience the actuality of the hardship and at the same time maintain the organic aspect of my filmmaking, so this is why we have a handheld close shot at the same time we have a distant more symmetrical, clean-cut one, so it’s a combination of shots to create this balance.

From what I understand, you actually set up the shoot in such a way where all the filming at the house — in other words, the scenes between Artemis and her father alone together – were done last. Did you actually plan that to help the actors?

Yeah, but it was a very hard shoot to be honest because we didn’t have a lot of money, so apart from cutting down scenes, we had to cut down on days as well. Scheduling had to adapt and be adjusted constantly and what helped was the premise of the film – you had two people in a house, so this gives a lot of freedom how you earn time is by cutting on the transportation and moving around to different locations. It was good to be in one place.

What’s it like now to travel a bit with the film as it gets out into the world?

Screening my first feature on a laptop [when the film premiered at a virtual Berlinale] and me being Athens was a very bad experience. There was no other option, so I had to accept what was going on worldwide, but then I started traveling and my first journey to Sarajevo last August was a very nice experience because I could see the audience reactions and this is what it’s really all about. It’s not about necessarily the very nice review I may have received or the very bad one and it was very nice to pick up some awards, of course, but the most important was the audience. It’s about how people react, so when I see people crying and when I walk around and see that they ran to Sofia to hug her, I felt that we did something right.

“Moon 66 Questions” will be available to stream on Laemmle’s Virtual Cinema, Apple TV and Vudu.