For those unfamiliar with writer/director Goran Stolevski, he arrived on the feature-length directorial scene at Sundance last year with the Macedonian art-house horror stunner You Won’t Be Alone. It’s profound, deeply unsettling, and contains some superbly impressive makeup effects that, quite frankly, should have been in contention for Oscar consideration.
A year later, he returned (although not at Sundance this time) with his sophomore effort, a hard emotional pivot from that debut. Of an Age follows Kol (outstanding newcomer Elias Anton), a Serbian high school senior attending an Australian high school, facing xenophobia and a gay sexual awakening. The film is broken into two parts, with chapter 1 set in 1999, centered on Kol and his longtime friend Ebony (Hattie Hook) in a rush to make and perform in the finals of a national dance competition. Along the way, Kol develops feelings for her slightly older brother Adam (Thom Green). What ensues is a powerful story of first love that pauses and picks itself back up ten years later, landing on a beautifully moving ending.
Goran has a personal connection and passion for these characters and the filmmaking process, evident by the lengthy and detailed responses. It was a pleasure to speak to Goran, and everyone should place him on their list of rising directors worth paying attention to. Seek out Of an Age in theaters or on its inevitable streaming release, and please enjoy the interview below:
First off, Of an Age is a great movie. I’m happy to say I enjoyed it. And last year at Sundance, I watched You Won’t Be Alone. I thought that was a tremendous horror film and a great directorial debut. But here you made s hard turn into coming-of-age drama. And I know you’ve also made several short films. So what made you feel comfortable jumping into a different genre for your second feature?
I actually jumped into a very different genre with You Won’t Be Alone. In my life, I’ve never done a horror movie or something supernatural before, other than dabbling in silly little things on a Handycam in 2003 with many people from school. Intimate relationship dramas are sort of what I was raised on myself and then what I was making. I made 25 shorts before I made a feature film, and I wrote a lot of other films as well, so I didn’t have to challenge myself in another way.
I’m driven by the feeling the story gives me in my chest. It needs to feel worth it and kind of overwhelming to where you feel it in your whole body, making me want to do it. And I don’t really think about it in the context of my eventual or current filmography. I hope there’s more to it. I mean, can I call it a filmography after two features? [laughs] I’m finishing a third one, so let’s see what happens after.
I like that you used the word overwhelming because that’s how you feel throughout, especially during the movie’s ending.
Well, that’s encouraging to hear. I feel overwhelmed by it, and I want that feeling I carry with me in the film to be what I’m trying to transplant into it. It only lives if the viewer experiences it in the same way with ideally the same intensity. So I hope people are overwhelmed by it because that means it lives on.
Elias Anton is fantastic in the role. What was important to you about finding the right Kol, and did you look for an actor who can dance or a dancer who can act?
I set aside the dancing thing entirely. You can’t really cut around bad acting in the way you can cut around bad dancing. In my films, so much happens in extreme close-ups. The priority has to be what’s in the eyes. But it wasn’t even the specific quality I was looking for because the quality I sensed in Elias’ eyes was something new. And it made me feel like this was richer than I had ever imagined.
It’s very rare for someone that young to have the sense of a lived life, especially in the arts, because most people in the arts come from wealth or privilege. It’s really hard to find people who haven’t been quite sheltered before age 19 and who approach acting. With Elias, it’s feelings that kind of flow out almost unguarded, unconsciously. There’s no sense in presenting the selfie face or an idealized version of himself. So that’s what drew me to him, and I was ready even just to reshape the story if necessary to fit that, which in the end didn’t become necessary.
Adam (Thom Green) mentions that he had an ex-boyfriend named Goran, which is, obviously, your name. So are you comfortable sharing the significance behind that, or in what ways is this film personal to you?
Look, it’s autobiographical in the sense that none of these things happen to me. I’m not really either of the characters. I’m probably all three. I’m very much Ebony (Hattie Hook) as well in some stages. I try to bring in as many details from my emotional life, especially from my adolescence and teenage years, and other little details. But I wrote it very frantically and in a hurry because I was trying to kind of hold onto this raw feeling, and I was scared it would disappear, and I didn’t want to kind of put in a reheated love story. So I was writing in a hurry, and I knew the ex had to have a connected name, and I said to myself Goran is easy to spell and pronounce for English accents. And it’s funny for people who know me. It was initially meant to be a placeholder, and it was meant to evolve, but then it sort of stayed in there, and not a lot of people pick up on it because it’s very quiet in the sound mix. But later on, there’s someone in a relationship with someone named Matt, which is my husband’s name. There’s a lot of my life.
What’s the biggest challenge of separating the film into two parts and organically picking up the story ten years later?
I initially thought it was impossible for a single human to portray 17 and 28 convincingly. Not just physically but emotionally. I wasn’t sure if that was going to be possible. So I was planning to cast two different actors and worried about maintaining an emotional connection when you reset three-quarters into a story. Then, eventually, I didn’t think that was going to work anyway. We couldn’t find actors that matched, and I said let’s go with Elias. I always wanted to have him play the 17-year-old, and there’s no one else you can pick up from him later on, so let’s see how he does it.
It was putting a lot of faith into him. We did a few tests, which were okay, but a test doesn’t really tell you much about how a scene will play out on the day. I kept wondering, it’s easy enough to play someone younger than your years, but how do you play experience well beyond your years? He was 23 when we were filming, and he’s meant to play 28. So that was going to be the challenge. We spent much time talking about it, not rehearsing it in a traditional sense. There was no acting it out or saying the words or anything else. We just talked about it. I tried to explain to him how my mindset shifted over the years just as a human being myself, so he could absorb it and the meaning of why all of the words are there.
Although, he had permission to delete, embellish, or ad-lib at any point. Not just me, but my entire team, we were gobsmacked on set when we actually started filming the 2010 scenes, and suddenly our boy wasn’t a man, and it was just uncanny. I would get teary at the most random moments, not because it was not just the sad scenes, obviously, but ordinary conversations, the exchanges they have on the bus that are just about like weather or stupid things happening in Iceland. Just his demeanor; I felt I’m not watching the boy anymore. I’m watching the man. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life.
Earlier, you mentioned how the performances are in the eyes, and it made me think of how much of the 1999 part is watching characters talk in cars, yet it feels so cinematic and engaging. So how did you approach shooting those scenes and writing them?
Yeah, that was going to be the other challenge; spending so much time inside a car and figuring out how to keep it alive and hold interest in the writing, I was just going to trust that whatever I find interesting will be interesting to someone else. I don’t really write an autobiography in the standard sense. I’ve never even written anything set in the places I’ve lived in, in the time I’ve lived in, or that is very close to who I am in a very basic sense. And I never thought my feelings were cinematic, to be honest, in their raw, day-to-day state. But I said, let’s shape these conversations based on how I talk, see if it translates, and see if other people find them interesting. It’s in the same way I was picking up on some other autobiographical work, well, not autobiographical, but someone like Phoebe Bridges or Lena Dunham, who, when they’re writing, it’s something that’s very based on their personalities.
I’m not anywhere near those women in any demographic, but I’m absorbed, as is the world. The words they’re saying are very idiosyncratic. It is so specific to them and unrelated to my interests, yet I’m somehow enthralled. So, I was aiming for that effect, but unsure if I could achieve it or will. It is the writing. And then when people were reading it and were laughing and crying, and it was people who were very different from me, I said, okay, maybe this will work. The shooting of it was driven by how the character Kol felt at that moment.
I want the viewer to be under his skin. If you’re watching something deeply connected to this person, even the most random mundane detail is invested with all these feelings in life. The way he hangs on Adam’s every word informs why we might be, even though, like a lot of what Adam says, especially at the beginning, it isn’t that innately compelling. It comes from a feeling of subjectivity and being in this boy’s skin at that particular moment. I had written in some cutaways to street life that I thought we would move back and forth from, but when we were shooting the scene, I had two cameras running to ensure the guys had all the freedom to like improvise and interact naturally.
It was hypnotic. You couldn’t take your eyes off them. To honor this boy’s feelings, I could only really stay in close-up for most of it because that’s where his attention was. That’s where his blood was pumping, in this direction and no other. That kind of shaped it. We were very careful about choosing which streets and words we would drive on, how it would affect the lighting, and how the camera would be positioned.
Regarding movement, some of the shakiness feels like adolescence to me; how you are easily overwhelmed at that age. I wanted to preserve that. And the light fleeting and life going on around you, you don’t really see the scenery on screen, but how it hits the light and shapes a sense of how there’s life all around and they’re in this crowded spot, but they’re inside a cocoon.
I appreciate your detailed responses. Thank you so much for your time. The movie is great. I hope we can talk again in person sometime.
I’d love that! For the next one, let’s do it.
I look forward to whatever you do next.
Amazing. Thanks so much, Robert. Those were great questions.
Many thanks to Goran Stolevski for taking the time for this interview. Read our review of Of An Age here.
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com