We chat with Nenad Cicin-Sain, writer-director of The Time Being…
Q: You’ve worked in various artistic media, but The Time Being marks your debut as the writer/director of a feature film. What was the inspiration behind the script?
A: I was right in the middle of pre-production on another film in Paris and the financing fell apart for the third time. I had packed up my family from Los Angeles to Paris. The night that the project was shut down, I started to write this script. I needed to deal with my creative frustrations in a productive manner. My intention with The Time Being was to create something that I could make for almost zero money. I wanted to deal with themes that I was facing, what it means to be a father, what it means to be a husband, and what kind of repercussions of career decisions have on those closest to us, both positive and negative. The kinds of films that inspired me were Bertolucci’s The Conformist, Antonioni’s The Passenger, Ivan’s Childhood by Tarkovsky, and Polanski’s Knife in the Water. These are very subtle, nuanced, psychological dramas that are also well-crafted films.
Q: How did you decide to cast Wes Bentley and Frank Langella?
A: We always knew we wanted to have two bulls in the room. What I mean by that is in casting Daniel and Warner, we wanted to have two people that would not overpower each other but deliver very subtle and nuanced performances.
Q: While he is a well-known producer, your co-writer, Richard Gladstein, is also a first time screenwriter. How did this come about?
A: Richard produced The Cider House Rules and worked closely from the very beginning with John Irving, who had never written a screenplay before. Richard is not only a producer, but he’s also a filmmaker in the sense that he’s very creative and uses a hands-on approach in helping guide the material. I think his artistic sensibility and creative sensibility as a writer are really fine-tuned. When he gave me notes on The Time Being, I asked him to incorporate them into the script himself. After that, we worked to finish the script together. We were both on the same page with the themes and tone of the film from start to finish. He really gave me the opportunity to make my first feature and it happened very quickly from the time we started writing together.
Q: The story follows an Artist struggling with his identity. As you were developing the script, did you find unexpected parallels between Daniel’s story as an artist and your own work as a filmmaker?
A: Oh, absolutely. I think those themes are very relatable to all artists. I have a son the same age as Daniel’s boy in the film, Marco. I also know full well the struggle between trying to survive as an artist and trying to balance the responsibilities of family. At times, I’ve felt like Daniel in both a creative and existential way. The protagonists of the film are not just artists, but people dealing with very relatable struggles of life. The challenges they face and conflicts are universal to anyone trying to find balance and purpose in their lives, which I think is all of us. When you spend too much time with your work or your passion, you can feel that your neglecting your family; and visa-versa. In the film, we were exploring such questions: how do your choices affect you and the people around you?
Q: Can you talk about the thought process behind the film’s visual style?
A: We wanted the tone of the film to evoke a visceral and emotional reaction so that the audience can feel Daniel’s dilemma as opposed to being told it. In the beginning of the film, Daniel must sell his work to make money in order support his family. His world simply put is very black and white, so we used his paintings to reflect his psychological state. As the story evolves Daniel’s perception of the world starts to change, and we see and feel this through the cinematography and score. For example: in the beginning of the film, the score is industrial with no acoustic instruments, then changes to classical symphony and then to almost something surreal and purely distinct to Daniel. The same with the colors, there is no red in the film in the first half and no blue until ¾ of the way in. Emotional events trigger colors, music and tone. In most films a protagonist goes through some kind of change. I feel a film should do the same. If you look at the first and last scenes of the movie it looks and feels like two completely different movies. The challenge was to achieve this without the audience ever realizing it.
Q: The film has a striking the soundtrack. How did you work with your composer, Jan Kaczmarek?
A: I first worked on a blue print with my Cinematographer and Production designer that clearly showed the metamorphosis of the film. If you walked in my garage it was all laid out like paint by numbers. I did the same thing with the music when working with Jan. I gave him a demo score that consisted of different pieces of music that illustrated the type of musical evolution I saw. Jan instantly got what I was going for and then used that template to write the score.
Q: A major aspect of The Time Being is Daniel’s artwork. What was the inspiration for the paintings featured in the film? How were those paintings created?
A: We used two painters. One was Eric Zener, a friend and collaborator of mine who I had previously worked with on a few video art instillations. We had a very long term, pre-existing creative partnership. His paintings often evoke the metamorphosis, or renewal, experienced by the voyager wanting to find himself. He often paints subjects that are underwater trying to return to the surface because they’ve gone through a kind of awakening. I knew that his work would be representative of the latter half of the film. The other painter, Stephen Wright, came from the same gallery as Eric. He is very much a Lucien Freud style protégée. He paints the figure in a very realistic manner but also employs a kind of impressionism that is evident when he makes the hands a little bit bigger or exaggerates some other aspect of his subject. I found that those artists offered a perfect balance that reflects the evolution of the artist. Eric did the black and white decomposing fruit paintings from photographs that we provided of fruit decomposing over time. As for Steven Wright’s portraits of the characters in the film, we took photographs of our actors, Sarah Paulson and Frank Langella, and he created those figure painting from the pictures. We used a similar process with the paintings as we did with score and the cinematography. I conceptualized what I wanted them to be and where I wanted it to go and was lucky enough to have these relationships with these talented artists. I used their style and their strengths as opposed to trying to mount something new.
Q: The sequence when you showed both Frank and Wes Bentley making the paintings – can you talk about that filmic process that made it seem so seamless?
A: That’s a testament to the talents of Wes, Frank and the artists. It’s quite something to have an actor pull off a skill foreign to them and make it look authentic. I had them both work with the painters initially so they would know how to hold the brush and grow comfortable with the techniques. That way we didn’t have to use stand-ins because so many of those shots are wide. The Daniel underwater painting was massive and was created by Eric. We had to do the work in sequence on the set in Warner’s house. We started with a blank canvas and filmed Wes painting a number of strokes. We’d cut, and Eric will step in and finish. We’d just repeat that process for hours for all the paintings in the film. It was incredible to shoot the evolutionary process of the painting as it was actually happening.
Q: What equipment did you use to shoot The Time Being?
A: I wanted to have an old filmic look to the movie because painting is a classical medium so the film needed to be the same. We wanted the movie to look like a painting from its framing to its texture. We did a lot of tests. Mihai Malaimare, my DP, had done a number Francis Ford Coppola’s films. He had the prosaic classical feel of cinematography I was looking for with this film. Through these tests, we found that digital today looks more like what film used to be like, and film looks more like digital because of how sharp they have made the grain structure of film. You can’t replicate the look of a film from the past like Apocalypse Now for example because those film stocks don’t exist anymore. When we projected our digital and film tests side by side we discovered that there is actually more noise in film than there is in digital today, so we went with digital. I wanted a softer image then most modern movies, a kind of bleed with colors and more glow, they way films from the 70’s looked.
We ended up shooting on the Alexa with Zeiss super speeds Mark 1. They were manufactured in Eastern Germany in the 1950’s. Mihai pulled the lens package together from all over the world and then had them Panovized. I think the last film that was shot on this lens set was Manhattan. We also went with a 2.1 aspect ratio because we wanted it to look and feel like a painting.
Q: Can you talk a little about the film’s post-production, particular the editing process?
A: Our editing period was very short and very fast. We finished shooting the film in March, and we had to be finished with the edit by mid-summer to be ready for Toronto Film Festival. One of the things we wanted to do in the edit was to identify the transitional elements in the story, like the paints and the liquids and those things that are tied to the character.
We rewrote a lot of the script in the edit because there were a lot of scenes that we shot with limited time. So we worked a lot material and retold the story through the edit to solve the problems we encountered during the production that arose from not having enough time to shoot the scenes.
Q: You also assembled a fantastic supporting cast. How did they each came onto the project?
A: I think it just comes from having an extraordinary casting director and producer. The casting directors were Kerry Barton and Rich Delia. I told them the kinds of actors I wanted to work with and the kind of integrity I was looking for in the performances and we had casting sessions. I was astounded by the caliber of these actors, especially knowing the size of the budget.
Q: How many locations did you use?
A: We shot in LA, in the mountains, in Bishop, in Lake Tahoe, and at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. We were very lucky that the museum felt the project was worthwhile. It’s almost never happened before that paintings go into a museum when they are not actually part of a collection. I don’t think it’s probably ever happened before, because any time you see museums in movies, it’s always with a permanent or visiting exhibit.
Other than that, we really shot the film guerilla style. All the driving and traveling shots in Daniel’s car were shot in my wife’s cousin’s car. We just climbed in with Wes and the cinematographer and spent several days driving up the coast and shooting all the driving stuff then shot in SF for two days and drove back.
Q: How would you describe Daniel’s evolution as an artist over the course of the film?
A: Daniel’s work represents his emotional and psychological state. As he goes on this journey of discovering what’s important to him, the body of his work changes, as does the subject matter. The work is representative of what’s happening internally in Daniel and the paintings are just the output of that.
The Time Being is released in the UK tomorrow, Friday, June 20th. Read our review here.