Frank Sanna Interview on The Edifice

by Donato Totaro Volume 15, Issue 7 / July 2011 15 minutes (3608 words)

The Edifice (Canada, 2011, 30 min.)

Cast:
Julien: Julien Boisaud
Claudia: Natalia Valencia
Uncle: Carlos Ferrand Zavala

Crew:
Writer/Director: Frank Sanna
Producer: Frank Sanna, GammaFilm
Associate Producer: Françoise Togni
DOP: Jan Belina, Frank Sanna, Catherine Pallascio
Assistant Camera: Jean-Francois Morin, Patrick David, Andreas Mendritzki, Adam Budd, Thomas Wangsmo, Ray Lavers
Assistant Art Director: Mayssan Charafeddine
1st Assistant Director: Sara Boudreau, Mayssan Charafeddine
Music: Paul Scriver

The Edifice (Frank Sanna, Canada, 2011, 30 min.) is a short film that is long on ideas: a young man and a young woman (their relationship never quite explained) set off on a voyage of self-discovery after the young man discovers he has inherited a plot of land. The search takes them between spaces that are physical (city/outskirts, industrial/natural), emotional and spiritual. The land is not found but the trip resolves itself in some profound revelations. More important than the land, the two characters, one French speaking the other Spanish speaking, speaking to each other in English, learn to communicate based on the primal laws of nature (the surrounding wind, trees, water). Taking refuge in strange, unfinished or decrepit spaces, the two characters undergo a spiritual rebirth. I saw The Edifice first on DVD and then again when it screened at Les Rendevez-vous du cinema québécois, February 19, 2011, where I was struck by its sensual (both photographic and auditory) beauty. I met the writer/director Frank Sanna. We discussed the film after the screening and then conducted this interview through email in early August, 2011.

Background

Offscreen: I think I’ll start with a general question on your background first, and then the genesis of the film. What brought you to filmmaking and Concordia University? Are you from Montreal?

Frank Sanna: I’m originally from Thorold in Southern Ontario, spent 4 years in Toronto after college and have been living in Montreal ever since (over the past 20 years).

I explored many creative avenues when I was a kid – drawing, building things – but taking pictures with our family’s Kodak X-19 snapshot camera and experimenting with our Dejour super 8 camera were of particular interest. Later in college while studying Graphic Design at Sheridan College, I re-discovered photography and filmmaking and “art” for that matter. Through photography I began to see how composition could express something beyond the “facts” of an image.

I made a 16mm film at Sheridan in a class taught by Richard Kerr and Phill Hoffman. After that, I continued with my artistic photography and filmmaking while working in the film industry. But the industry doesn’t really help you in terms of creating your own work. The MFA at Concordia was a way for me – for the first time – to take a full 3 years to focus solely on my films.

Offscreen: How did the film develop…strictly as a school project? Was it completed at Concordia? I ask because the title card claims it was shot on 35mm. If so, I didn’t think you could shoot 35mm at Concordia (at least we don’t have the cameras).

Frank Sanna: Yes there are 35mm cameras at Concordia. One, an industry type sync camera and two much older non-sync battleaxes (I used the battleaxes). For me the MFA at Concordia was like doing a residency. The Edifice project was developed and made there (finished and released shortly after) but was of course an outcome of my filmmaking “baggage”, created over years of practise and brought into the program.

Offscreen: Who are Gamma Films?

Frank Sanna: GammaFilm is my production company, the art/business vehicle or identity I started a few years before entering the MFA through which I offer freelance film and video production services. For example, I’ve done short promo documentaries; one for the American cartoonist Dan Piraro who does “Bizarro” and I’ll also be directing/producing my next feature projects through the company.

Technical

Offscreen: A few technical issues before the film proper. If indeed it was shot on 35mm, what was the process after shooting? Transferred to digital and then completed digitally? When it was/is projected theatrically, is it on a digi-beta? DVD? BD? Do you think it will ever be transferred to 35mm?

Frank Sanna: The film was shot on 35mm then transferred at Technicolor to Apple ProResHQ digital files and edited in Final Cut Pro. I’m free now to transfer it to any tape format (as required) but all the screenings so far have been projected from a Blu-ray version. This is the most compact and practical format (I master the disc myself) and the quality is excellent. If ever there is an interest (and money!) I will transfer it back to film but I think Blu-ray and HDCam will suffice for now.

Offscreen: I know it may have something to do with the transfer, but the DVD I viewed has a very grainy look to it in parts, a few shots in particular (see 2 images below). Did this have to do with the special effects? (I actually like the grain).

Frank Sanna: Nothing to do with the transfer, the grain in those shots is due to the lack of light at the time of shooting (as underexposed shots, when graded to have a desirable contrast, the inherent grain is also boosted.)

Offscreen: On a technical level, we spoke a bit about this after the screening, but I was surprised that I did not notice the visual effect work behind that slow ‘dolly’ forward in the derelict basement of the building. You explained how all the graffiti was digitally removed and the actual movement was also not a camera move but a digital move (hence a mobile shot vs. real movement). The first part of the ‘effect’ looks like a dolly shot, but the last part of it looks like a zoom shot. Can you just describe the technical details behind this shot? Is even the rising smoke added? If so, how do you feel about such ‘manipulation’ (in the general sense, since all filmmakers do it now)? Is it all fair game now, in terms of cinematic realism? (Or maybe I am just upset at not noticing!)

Frank Sanna: That you didn’t notice the technique is the most important thing. It means you are actually engaged in the film story or telling which, above all, is the goal isn’t it? ‘Manipulation’ for some is a dirty word that shouldn’t be. To me, manipulation is the name of the filmmaking game. It’s crafting and shaping at every single step. There is hardly a more manipulated art form than filmmaking. Although I do appreciate the idea of simplicity in crafting, (like a photographer who decides to use the whole frame and not to crop when making prints,) I see this type of ‘honesty’ as a choice that can benefit a working method and thus an aesthetic – but it’s not an absolute. Ultimately, any technique is fair game as long as it achieves its purpose, which for me is a particular emotional response. When I’m watching a film, all that I care about is the experience I’m having. I’m not a filmmaker then – I’m a human being within an environment, perceiving it.

The shot in question (the Beige Room with pillars and smoke) is a total manipulation. It’s one of several ‘filmless’ shots that were created in-computer using a photograph as a starting point. For this shot a panoramic photo of the Beige Room was made-up of several images taken on location with a digital Hasselblad and was then assembled in Photoshop where I also removed all the graffiti. Then, in After Effects, I added the rising plumes of smoke and finally the camera movement. Because it’s such a long ‘dolly forward’ I had to use two different images and blend them together so that there would be enough image resolution by the time we are fully zoomed into the close-up of the circular plaster motif on the opposite wall.

Offscreen: The time lapse shot with the black dog, where the light changes from cloudy to sunny, was that done digitally too?

Frank Sanna: No, that was totally ‘natural’ – no digital – just daylight changing over time.

Themes and Ideas

Offscreen: The film seems to me to be about many things, search for roots, identity, how humans negotiate natural and modern spaces, etc., but also about communication, or the lack of it. Both characters, Julien and Claudia, speak in a language that is not their first tongue (Spanish and French) and have problems communicating, either because of the accents or opaqueness of language. The male does not want to speak to the uncle on the phone, etc. What does this lack of communication represent for you?

Frank Sanna: As a first generation Canadian – my parents are from Sardinia in Italy – I grew up listening to broken English. Accents and languages have always been fascinating for me. Like most people I find it interesting to hear accents; to listen and see how ‘broken’ grammar deviates from the correct form. Going deeper, the lack of communication – the mis-communication, mis-conception of language in the film – is an expression of how I see the limitations of language (and of all structures). Although it can be precise, language – its system of agreed upon forms – can never precisely represent my ideas or subjective perceptions. The paradox of language is that by breaking its structure (like with poetry for example) its capacity for representation is actually extended. It forces us to access its sense through a break and re-forming of the rational. All life is structure and is enriched by ever-greater forms of it, but requires also a capacity to see (perceive, feel) the “logic” of broken structure, its dissolution, as integral counterpart and force in life.

Offscreen: As an extension of this question, I find this lack of communication is reflected in the form as well, especially in the non-commensurable (to use a Deleuzian term) editing, where you can’t tell with any precision what has occurred temporally and spatially in-between shots. Like for example, the scene where she asks if the car is his, and he replies, “Yes, I rented it.” In this shot he is wearing a black shirt. It cuts straight to him in the car but with a white shirt, and we hear a VO of the car rental woman, “Sir your car is ready.” This image can be construed as either a flashback or a flash-forward. It then cuts back to her asking him, “Is it real?” and we are not sure what she is referring to (Her own reflection in the windshield?).

Frank Sanna: Long takes, non-linearity, spatial confusion, all of these elements are ‘poetic’ forms that I employ for their capacity to call into question what indeed is “real”; to question what is it, within reality (within existence), that is real – The thing or it’s reflection? The physical or the spiritual? The structured or the ruined? The real or the unreal?

Intentionally there is much ambiguity in the film. Most of the dialogue was inspired with this in mind, as well as the nature of Julien and Claudia’s relationship. These also are expressive devices used to challenge our habitual modes of orienting ourselves.

Offscreen: I love that long lateral track right near the end along the graffiti littered windows. Coming as it does just before this ‘baptismal’ moment (see image below), is this supposed to represent his next journey (at least that is how I read it)?

Frank Sanna: However you read it is the good way. The graffiti littered windows are for me like a profane stained glass within the ruined factory temple. Throughout the film there is much sacralising of the mundane and to some degree blaspheming the sacred. Regardless of the structures that have helped Julien come to a better understanding of himself – they must also be washed away or dissolved.

It is a cleansing that naturally opens the door for the next stage but for me it is also an expression of the fundamentally paradoxical nature of being which both Julien and Claudia, naked to the world, contemplate in the last moments of the film.

The Sacred and the Profane

Influences

Offscreen: With the question of language, certain moments in your film made me think of one of my favorite experimental films, Peter Rose’s The Man Who Could Not See Far Enough, which has tangentially similar themes as your film (perception, language)? The shot in question is the moving shot over road at night, with red streaks of wet light, over which we hear the VO, in Spanish, “So much time.” This felt a lot like Rose’s film. Is this just a coincidence or are you familiar with this film?

Frank Sanna: I’m not at all familiar with his work – (yet :-). That is an image I’ve carried with me for many years and decided to finally make it part of this film. A perfect example of how an ‘ideal’ in the mind can be painstakingly grueling to achieve – especially when you don’t have a budget. Try scheduling a crew and vehicles in advance for rain!

Offscreen: In certain moments your film felt like it had the hand of Tarkovsky guiding it. (check 4 images below) The opening overhead shot of monochrome murky water and moist land, a shot that would not look out of place in Stalker; offscreen sound of electric buzz saw which recalls Nostalghia; the tracking shot in slow motion of high wind-blown reeds feels like something from Mirror; the shot of vegetation under water, the black dog; the changing light within real time, etc. Of course being influenced by one film or another never makes a film better or worse, but I am just curious because he is my favorite filmmaker. How much of an influence was Tarkovsky on this film? If so, what attracts you to him?

Tarkovskian Imagery

Frank Sanna: Tarkovsky is also one of my favorite filmmakers but was not a deliberate influence. Well, if anything, the black dog sitting on the skid could not escape my consciousness of a similarity to Tarkovsky, but “a dog eating” in general, was also an ideal image that I’ve carried with me for a long time and tried my luck with rendering on this film. I think I am guided by much of the same sensibilities to the experience of life as he was – a perspective grounded in paradox or what I believe he called the united nature of dialectically contradictory phenomena. I think the similarities in my work will continue perhaps to be inevitable but I don’t think about this when I’m writing, or filming. Intuition is the main rudder in my work and so when writing The Edifice, I just let myself go, knowing I wanted to film in some ‘ruined’ spaces and had the ideas of dysfunctional patriarchy and the breakdown of structure in mind.

A very intentional influence though did come from Eric Rohmer who is also a favorite filmmaker. Rhomer’s dialogue, at least in his earlier films, made a lasting impression on me I and I wanted to incorporate that into this film. His characters, that always seemed to say the opposite of what they actually did struck me as particularly ‘real’ and so that is why, for example, when Julien says “I know where I’m going”, in the larger sense he is surely lost.

There is no sense in auditing yourself when creating work – it just has to be integral to your experience and I think its final form will reflect that. Of course, I have tried to audit myself but that only happens in moments of panic – when I am lost – and out of touch with what I really have to say. As far as similarities to Russian masters go, I am always consoled with the idea that my intentions are ‘pure’ by a comment Bruce MacDonald once made in the offices of LIFT in Toronto after a screening of my first 16mm film, Lock, saying how I or the film was a “little Tarkovsky” and yet the film was made a few years before I had any inkling of who or what Tarkovsky was all about.

Motifs

Offscreen: Another interesting motif if you will is the way the film plays on liminal spaces, spaces that are, perhaps like the two characters, on the edge of the modern or industrial or city, and nature/natural spaces (see image below). How do you see this idea factoring into the film’s subtext?

Frank Sanna: Creating liminal space is a basic part of what I’m doing as an artist. It is the ‘poetic’ space I mentioned earlier that exists outside of the logical, physical, and rational but also owes its existence to them. Whatever can be read between the lines is what is most telling (most real) about life. In my film, buy omitting much of the conventional form of a linear plot, the subtext – the environment, the passing of time in experience – must necessarily step in to become “plot” or story. The real text is (always) the subtext.

Offscreen: The scene featuring both male and female nudity surprised me when I saw it the first time. On the subsequent viewings, however, the scene took on a more innocent, primal meaning, almost as if they were representing Adam and Eve. Am I off base with this feeling?

Frank Sanna: Not at all. The scene is in fact inspired by the childhood “show me yours, I’ll show you mine” right of passage. At other times I thought of Julien and Claudia like an Adam and Eve, that is, first or last people on earth exploring something essential about the (dialectic) nature of themselves and of being.

Offscreen: This scene, along with others, also reflects (excuse the pun) the myth of narcissus. When we first see their private parts it is a reflection in the water. They even mirror each other (or at least, you do) in their actions and the cutting. There are many reflected images in the film which would seem to underscore this theme. Even sounds ‘reflect’ each other (two voice-overs that echo each other, “Your car is ready sir,” and later on “Your room is ready sir.” Why the use of the myth of narcissus?

Frank Sanna: I think the short answer is that we live within a very narcissistic culture. As individuals we cannot pull away from our self-absorption to the detriment of a healthy society. We have lost respect or faith in the traditional organizations (like religion) for helping us to deal with this problem and yet, I believe, we still need and crave this guidance (or structuring) and suffer from its absence. However I also love to use reflections because they are alternative or ethereal perspectives of the real. To me they emphasize the idea that everything we see is a “reflection” (of our subjective perspective) which begets the question, Is it real?

Offscreen: On a related level, the overhead close-up of the land deed struck me as also having this subtle dual meaning based on how the mind’s eye looks and interprets things. The image (see image below) can be given a sexual reading, with the primitive looking penis/vagina right out of a sex education textbook.

Frank Sanna: Yes I chose this particular map for its ambiguous potential for a ‘sexual’ reading, or as an image that could be seen also as a penetration or simply as positive and negative space. And with regards to your comment below, I tried, throughout the fabric of the film, to ride a very fine line between specific interpretation and blank canvas.

Offscreen: Just after the camera pans from a reflection of Claudia in the car’s windshield to Claudia, we hear her ask him, “Is it real?” What is she referring to, the image? Any image? Perception? I like the way the film opens all of these ideas up but essentially leaves it open for the viewer. More a comment than question.

Frank Sanna: I’m glad to see it worked that way for you. As I thought and wrote the script, I might have at one moment or another wanted her to be referring to one thing or another, but more than anything I wanted her to raise the question itself: What is she referring to? in the viewers mind.

Offscreen: Who are the young couple in the black and white or sepia photo? In terms of the narrative?

Frank Sanna: I don’t know who they are, that photo was rented from a prop house, but in the narrative they are “family”. I did create a backstory for all of the characters in order that the feeling of their relationship as relatives might come through, but again without being explicit and leaving room for some mystery and interpretation. We feel they are related and so we, hopefully, try to think about how they are related. … How is everything related in a un-real/real world? … We need structure to survive yet structure can be oppressive … What to do?

For those who have taken the time to read this far, I can offer a compensation, perhaps, with the certainty (in my mind at least) that the man and the woman in the black and white photo are the aunt and uncle (in their youth), the uncle which Claudia is speaking with on her cell phone at the water’s edge.

Offscreen: Thanks Frank. Hope you have some fun answering these eclectic group of questions.

Frank Sanna Interview on The Edifice

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 15, Issue 7 / July 2011 Interviews canadian cinemaexperimentalquebec cinema