Imaginary Interview: Cold Souls creators Sophie Barthes & Andrij Parekh

Sophie Barthes & Andrij Parekh, Cold SoulsBeing a rabid Paul Giamatti fangirl, I saw Cold Souls earlier this year at SIFF and have been pretty much dying for it to be released so I could harass everyone I know into going to see it.

Writer and Director Sophie Barthes worked with her partner, Cinematographer Andrij Parekh, to create a film that I loved, loved, LOVED – and I got to ask them all about the process.

I read that you had a dream, and that was the basis of the story – and that you two talked about it and decided to develop it together – is that right?

Sophie: Yes. We live together, we’re life partners – and we shot short films and documentaries together, and he works as a Cinematographer, so he has a career that is much more established than mine. Because we’re together we always share ideas, and so he wanted to shoot this.

And how long did it take you to write the script from the time that you had the dream – the initial concept?

Sophie: I write pretty fast, so I had the first draft after a month of two. But what took longer was when I decided to write it for Paul Giamatti. Originally I didn’t write it for him – but after months I thought I’d change it and really write it for him. And then from the moment he read the script to the moment we produced the film a year had passed, because he was booked in all these movies. He had like, one after the other.

Andrij: Wasn’t it like a year and a half?

Sophie: Yeah. So we waited, and it was good because I rewrote the script. I went to the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab – and the Director’s Lab – and the Producer also had some notes, so it gave me a year to like really work on the script more. So in total I think it took maybe a year and a half.

Yeah, I think you can really tell that it was written for him. It definitely embodies sort of the spirit of Paul Giamatti – not that I know him, of course, but it just really fit.

Sophie: What we imagine of him, right?

Exactly. So had you always intended for this to be your first feature film?

Sophie: Well, I graduated from Columbia University in 2003, and you know it’s so hard, once you finish school and you’re by yourself, and you hope someone will read it one day. So I wrote like two screenplays before this one. One that was adapted from a Columbia writer that we couldn’t get the rights for. And then I wrote another one that fell through, so this was the third one and I really wanted to make it. It was like I just decided that this was going to be my movie. It was just perseverance. You have to just not give up and write and write and write. But I gave myself like 4-5 years – I thought, “In 5 years if no one reads my stuff and no one cares, maybe I’ll think of doing something else”.

That’s what I tell young screenwriters – I think the best advice is to really give yourself time and be perseverant. You know? Be patient for 5 years and see what happens. Because if you give up after a year or two – a lot of times people give up, but you never know what’s going to develop from all the effort you put it. It’s like training for a marathon. Something will develop from you and a good idea will come. It’s just discipline.

Andrij: But there’s also a lot of timing involved. A friend of ours runs a Nantucket writer’s colony, and suggested that we submit our idea and the screenplay was accepted, and then it won this award at the Film Festival, and that’s when we met Paul.

Sophie: Yeah, there were some great coincidences that happened.

Andrij: Very important coincidences.

Sophie: We were there to get that award, and then Paul was there to give an award at the same time. So we were at the same awards ceremony and I had to tell him that I wrote this for him. This was a great coincidence – I mean what’s the probability of being able to meet him in person and be able to tell him about the script? Otherwise you have to go through all the agents and managers and it can take months and months and months. So we kind of shortcut the entire system and just got him directly involved and he was very responsive. He read the script immediately. We met him on Saturday, and on Monday he read the script and on Tuesday he said he wanted to do it.

So was he flattered by the script? Or did he question your view of him?

Sophie: I think both – he was very intrigued, and he loved the idea of the dream and the chickpea-sized soul. And I think because he was playing himself, he had things that he didn’t want to be too autobiographical, so there were elements I had to take out. Because the whole funny aspect of it – it’s like, it’s him as we imagine him, from what we’ve seen him in, but in life he’s a different guy. It’s playing with that kind of notion, like what is fiction and what is reality. And that’s what I love about actors. Like you feel you own their lives, because they’re in the tabloids and they’re so exposed – but we don’t know them. We just think their personas belong to us, and I love that idea, I love to play with that.

Right, you played on that idea of “owning” an actor by being able to rent someone else’s soul.

Sophie: Right, right exactly. It’s like something you can extract and rent and have. And like this untalented Russian actress, she thinks she’s not going to make the effort to become talented, she’s just gonna buy it. And if it was possible, I guess a lot of people would want to do that so they can shortcut an entire effort. Like when you see the character of Paul, he’s worked so hard for over 20 years, he’s a man of craft and discipline, and to reach that level that he has in acting – I think he’s one of the best actors of his generation – he worked a lot, you know? And sometimes people think that movie starts don’t really do any work. But no – I think it’s a craft, it’s an art.

So I think all these themes were interesting for an actor to explore, and it was pretty challenging also on paper for him to see that he would have to act with a soul, without a soul, with a Russian soul – you know it’s pretty challenging from an acting point of view.

And so when Andrij read the script, did you both immediately start having ideas about how you were going to shoot it together, or did you wait until you looked at locations? 

Andrij: Yeah, we put together a visual treatment, picking from photography and paintings that we liked, and  strangely enough after we finished shooting I went back and looked at the visual treatment, and it looked very similar to what the movie looks like.

So we put together this visual treatment in order to get financing and as our visual guide, but then sort of forgot about it almost when we went into Production. And then going back to it was really surprising. It was really a very pleasant surprise that it was so close to what we hoped to achieve.

Sophie: We lived with those images for a year – just adding more pictures, so we had this book of pictures just for the colors and the mood. We had a lot of things that visually we love. And it helps because then you start to create that universe that you immerse yourself in.

Andrij: It’s definitely like the most Pre-Production that I’ve ever had on a movie.

Sophie: But we also love location scouting together. It’s one of our favorite things. We went to Russia a year before in the Summer and went to every single hotel in town to find that weird Soviet hotel style.

I love locations, because they’re a great marriage between architecture and cinema. And I think in the 60s they were paying a lot of attention to locations, and now you feel in movies sometimes that the locations are generic and they just build it. And for us, because we had a small budget we couldn’t afford to build anything and have too much Production costs, we had to have existing locations that were special, so actually the location manager was pretty incredible. He got the script and showed us those locations in New York that were really interesting. But that’s a beautiful part for me of movie making, because you really start to see it come alive.

Well one of the things that I thought was great about the movie was that even though it was this total fantasy it felt real. It felt like you could absolutely go to a Soul Storage place and extract yours, and rent others.

Sophie: Great! That was completely on purpose, because we wanted to portray this idea that it’s like Prozac – like the next step after Prozac. Because if it was available, how many people would go and rent a soul, or freeze theirs so they won’t feel anything? So we thought, it has to be Science Fiction, but also
be completely believable. This could be in New York today and a guy like Giamatti could just go and do it.

It definitely worked. Obviously you guys working together means you’re making amazing films and I hope you do it again soon.

Sophie: I hope so! He’s a busy guy, I have to like – seduce him to have him shoot the next film, you know? [laughing] But yes, it’s been a great collaboration. It’s nice to work with the person you live with. Two percent of the time, you want to throw the other person through the window, but ninety-eight percent of the time, it’s a beautiful thing. Because cinema is like – there’s no separation between your life and your work – it’s like 24 hours, so you might as well do it with the person you love.

That’s awesome. I was wondering for my final question, if you guys would share what kind of music you’re into now or what you were listening to during filming?

Sophie: I love Tindersticks – which is a group that one of the composers from the film is in. It’s like an alternative UK band. It’s one of my favorites.

Andrij: For me – Bon Iver, Gruper and Grizzly Bear.

Sophie: I love Feist too. We have kind of eclectic musical tastes.

{Cold Souls opened Friday, August 21 in Seattle. It’s currently playing at The Metro and the Uptown. Photo Credit: Adam Bell/SAMUEL GOLDWYN FILMS}

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