Bianca Lucas © Salvatore GullifaLove Dog: Conversation with Bianca Lucas Maria Giovanna Vagenas October 2022 Interviews Issue 103 Intimate, sensitive and poetic, Love Dog, Bianca Lucas’ surprising first feature film, shot in Natchez, Mississippi, portrays John, a young man mourning the sudden loss of his partner; a personal grief meaningfully echoed by an entire community struggling against adversity and its pigeon-holed American identity. We are in the woods and swamps of Mississippi, on long provincial roads lined with plain houses, a supermarket, a junkyard. Fog, damp streets, leafless trees and an often overcast or night sky creates the muffled shell in which John’s pain is unleashed. A realistic, almost documentary-like touch alternates with dreamlike sequences in which poignant memories, painful obsessions and deep anxieties surface, shaping the protagonist’s thoughts and states of mind. The story is skilfully built around small epiphanies and brief scenes, leaving much space for the unspoken, within an elliptical structure that perfectly reflects John’s total bewilderment. In the opening sequence we see him driving, having left Texas and the house where he lived with Charlotte, his recently deceased partner, to return to Natchez, his hometown. Someone with a large mansion has offered him a job as a caretaker during the winter, giving him the option of living there in the meantime. Staring straight ahead, beard and tousled hair, the young man talks to someone on the phone begging him to go get all his girlfriend’s belongings and return them to her mother. The radio broadcasts a program in which the traumatic events of the listeners are turned into songs; all painful stories, often linked to a personal misfortune or death. These broadcasts multiply throughout the film, a game of mirrors, the infinite facets of grief. John seems reluctant and impervious to the help that is offered. There is no recipe for overcoming the void created by the loss of a loved one and everyone must find their own way out. The protagonist’s inner struggle and his awkward attempts to cling, as best he can, to every thought, every action that can relieve his pain, are keenly observed. John spends hours on a so-called internet chat roulette, listlessly repairs broken things in the kitchen, goes hunting, returns home, wandering restlessly from room to room like a wild animal in a cage. In this lucid film, nothing is taken for granted. Like a free electron, John is ultimately unpredictable. The camera frames him carefully, creating a constant sense of tension. One day a friend entrusts him with a dog that had belonged to Charlotte. Despite his resistance, the animal becomes his only real companion. Behind John’s grumpy, sometimes aggressive demeanour, we can sense an alert, intelligent and benevolent man; the impressive performance of John Dick, a non-professional actor and also the film’s co-writer, makes every mood credible and tangible. The supporting characters are equally astonishing, appearing like comets to illuminate John’s odyssey with sensitivity. Love Dog © Józefina Gocman-Dicks The light touch and subtle sense of humour give the film a flow, a placid rhythm as if time had suddenly widened just when the lockdown and pandemic began, while the finely wrought soundscape magnifies a present that seems to be marking time. Together with its tortured protagonist, Bianca Lucas takes us on an uncertain journey, made up of many falls but also of small steps forward, where the unconditional affection of the dog that John had rejected at first, ultimately brings about a small miracle. Heartfelt and profound in its sobriety, the final conversation between John and Beck, a middle-aged lady he chanced to meet earlier, is a true gem that touches our hearts, revealing all the talent of a young director who is poised for an excellent future. Love Dog premiered at Locarno International Film Festival 2022 in the Cineasti del Presente Section. Love Dog won Best First Feature – Special Mention. The following conversation with Bianca Lucas took place in Locarno during the festival. – MGV Love Dog is a striking first feature film. Could you tell me more about your vocational background and about what drew you to filmmaking? I was always a visual person – my internal way of taking in and cataloguing the world was through images. As a child I was withdrawn, but I observed a lot, and I always tried to figure out the patterns and textures that make up a whole. I loved to draw, and paint. Eventually that evolved into photography. There was a moment I thought I’d be a photographer. And then that evolved into an interest in cinema. The starting point was the will to capture or document a feeling through visual means. I first studied Media & Communications at Goldsmiths College in London, which allowed me to keep dabbling in photography but also consider a career in academia. But eventually, after a number of work experiences and encounters, I braved filmmaking. A life-changing moment for me was when I saw Taste of Cherry by Abbas Kiarostami at Goldsmiths. I felt at home. And I wanted to follow that feeling. A few years later, in 2013, I was accepted to film. factory, a 3-year filmmaking course created by Béla Tarr in Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina. How did this project come about? It’s a long story. Everything started back in 2018, when I did a road trip through the US with my mother. For some reason – I guess literature and music – it has always been my dream to visit Louisiana. We were driving through the States, from Chicago to New Orleans, and accidentally stopped just for one night in Natchez, Mississippi, the town with the most preserved pre-Civil War architecture in the US. My mother is quite a ‘party girl’ and she insisted on going out. Natchez is a small place though and everything closes pretty early. However, there was a karaoke night at the local ‘Saloon’, the only late-night bar in town. So we walked in; everyone was over 60, except this one guy sitting at the bar alone, drinking whiskey, John Dicks, who became the film’s protagonist. That’s how we met. We started talking and eventually became friends. I felt an immediate connection with him, although we were from such different worlds. I’m Polish and, as a matter of fact, I arrived in that part of the world with a lot of preconceived notions and stereotypes about it. Which I’m really ashamed of now. John and me, we soon found out that we had a lot of vital issues and philosophical questions in common, a lot of literature we were equally enthusiastic about. That trip taught me that connection can be found anywhere regardless of national identity, or tribal allegiance. Was it that affinity that inspired this film? Definitely. After this first trip, I wanted to go back to Natchez because I found the town, its history and the history of the whole region very interesting. Strangely, I didn’t connect to any other places in the States as much as I did to Mississippi and Louisiana. They are truly beautiful and their nature is so impressive, but then there’s something over there that feels familiar to me: the impression that these places are somehow haunted and that you’re co-existing with ghosts. I think it might be because I’m from Poland, a country with a complicated and painful history. Besides I was born in ‘89 and I grew up in this immediate post-communist period that felt overwhelmingly burdened by ghosts. John Dicks in Love Dog © Józefina Gocman-Dicks What was the next step in Love Dog’s development? Once I was back home, I spoke to Jozefina Gocman, the cinematographer on Love Dog, and we both started thinking about exploring this place and the feelings it awakened in me. To cut a long story short: we visited once in 2019, and went back to Natchez in March 2020 with the vague intention of shooting a documentary of sorts. John was to be our guide through the community. But, a week after Jozefina and I landed in the US, the borders shut down and the world went into lockdown, because of Covid. Due to the pandemic restrictions, John and the two of us found ourselves confined in a house by the Mississippi River. But then, actually, being forced to stay there for a longer period of time was a blessing and catalyst for the creation of Love Dog. How did your original idea to make a documentary finally turn into a fiction film? In that particular moment of my life, I was going through a huge heartbreak and feeling pretty miserable. My trip to Mississippi and wanting to set a film there were my hope for psychological survival. And then the pandemic broke out. We were all very scared. Suddenly, we couldn’t see a future. Everything beyond an arm’s length was blurred. And it’s in this context, as I mentioned before, that the three of us went into lockdown together, in this house by the Mississippi river. But we had a camera. I just took those feelings I had, those raw elements – the fear, the frustration, the grief, the atmosphere – and I told myself that, despite the odds, I should try and make something out of it. It didn’t matter how simple or bad the film could potentially turn out to be. We shot the bulk of the film – the middle part – in the spring of 2020. Then did the whole post-production in Mexico, where I ended up living for almost two years. During the editing though, at some point I realised, the film didn’t have a suitable ending. The second part of the shoot took place in Mississippi in the winter of 2022. In the meantime, Jozefina and John, who had fallen in love, got married. And Sam, the dog (whom they adopted) had lost a leg in an accident. The natural evolution in all of our lives seeped into what felt like an organic conclusion to the film. Someone who has recently lost a loved one feels isolated from the rest of the world. They want to be left alone but, at the same time, need help to overcome their grief. This complex situation is very truthfully depicted in Love Dog. That’s exactly how I was feeling when making this film, not just because of the pandemic, but because I was in a psychological state akin to grief and I wanted to be left alone. I didn’t know how to deal with those feelings, and let others in. But at the same time, I was looking for a fix, a way to reconnect with the life around me. When we arrived in Natchez – where we were originally going to shoot something else – and the lockdown started, I just sat in my bedroom. My cinematographer was constantly angry at me. It was very stressful. After two weeks, I came out and said: ‘The only thing I can think of is to make a film about someone who’s really suffering a big loss’. One of my favourite musicians, Father John Misty, once said, I quote him on my recollection: “The difference between art and entertainment is that entertainment wants you to forget about life, while art wants you to remember it”. The kind of cinema that I would like to do is one that remembers life and is truthful to life and will not create a version of reality where you can forget about the reality of life. How did you work on the screenplay? The film was not written, there was no script before we started shooting it. We had a skeleton, a very simple one: someone that is important to the protagonist dies. The protagonist has to confront his loss while a different source of love comes towards him, in the shape of an animal. A dog. But he’s rejecting it, at first. The parallel, quasi-documentary thread, was that the whole world shut down simultaneously. The initial idea was: let’s see this character trying to interact with the world around him, to find meaning again. But how can we do that if no one’s around? That’s what led to the chat-roulette scenes, for example. Chat-roulette is an application that randomly connects you to strangers. I thought: let’s put the protagonist in front of this application where you connect with random people and let that be the medium through which we experience the collectivity as well. Everything came about organically, but we were at the mercy of circumstances and lived reality around us, rather than trying to bend that reality to a romanticised, clean, fictional narrative. The three-legged Love Dog is just as wounded as the protagonist himself, who roams the ‘cage’ of the house in which he resides like a beast. Do you agree? Yes. But ironically, the caged reality that the protagonist resides in ‘like a beast’, is prophetic to what happened in life. In many ways John’s character hangs on to a phantom limb, a part of himself, of his love life which has been severed and will never return. The refusal to accept his loss becomes “his cage”. As I mentioned before, I shot the ending of the film a year later. In the meantime, Sam, the dog, lost his leg in an accident. It wasn’t planned, but it was adapted to, and it was oddly auspicious and symbolic. In the film, the dog losing his leg happens simultaneously to the process of John’s gradual acceptance of loss. Love Dog © Józefina Gocman-Dicks The film explores the protagonist’s mental space; fleeting fragments and memories of Charlotte, his loved one, suddenly surface bringing back, for a few seconds, a feeling of warmth and familiarity. I wanted to capture what it feels like to remember the closeness of a loved one. In my experience, often it’s the ordinary: how someone looked at us when she/he woke up next to us in the morning, how she/he casually talked about menial things. And then the moments we feel we could or should have perceived something was off. Did she/he communicate to me the beginning of the end in this or that simple gesture, but I was too oblivious to perceive it? A fragmented memory is solidified into a glossary of questions that feed grief. That’s how I tried to approach it. While driving, John is listening to a radio broadcast where the dramatic letters of the listeners are read and then turned into a new song. Through this device, the whole community flows into the film connecting the individual to the collective. The radio has two functions: on one side it addresses the micro and macro scale of trauma and grief, on the other side, it fulfills the longing for connection in the midst of total loneliness. The radio works as a portal to the collective consciousness and mirrors John’s state on a macro scale. It cries out with a lament that John is unable to utter for himself, almost like the chorus in the Greek tragedies. Besides it expresses John’s desire to connect, to listen to and re-enter the world around him, without being able to do it yet, especially as a man from the Deep South, taught to always pull himself up by the bootstraps. John’s character is eventually helped out by TJ, an old friend, and Beck, a middle-aged woman he meets by chance on his way to Natchez. How did you develop these two unique, compassionate characters? I’m afraid I’m not that inventive. TJ was a good friend of John’s in real life, and a man hardened by his own harrowing experiences: addiction, war and the death of a child. So whatever support and wisdom he offers in the film comes directly from him. I can only take some credit for listening to him, and recognising he wanted to help others using all his means. Same goes for Becca, who plays Beck. She is a cajun healer, a woman who’s overcome more than the average human could bear: cancer, her father’s suicide, the loss of her own child. I met her in 2019 in New Orleans through the Delta Workers artist residency. She is wise, cheeky and completely alive, plugged in. She is one of the rare people I know that always see the big picture, and can make you see it too, with humour. I simply created a space, a situation and intimacy to place and highlight her natural gifts within a context that made sense. There is so much pain and grief, yet your film is never melodramatic, nothing is excessive or overplayed. How did you achieve such a balanced, composed feel? I was honest. When you are honest and sober about the reality of human suffering, there is no need for melodrama. Although, melodrama can be used as an incredible device to spell out an emphatic portrayal of the pains and absurdities of the human experience – Fassbinder achieved this, among others. I don’t know how he managed to be as melodramatic as he was, sober and painfully honest, but he did. He was special. A master of the absurd and the sincere, all at once. Between the three of us and the small circle of people who helped me complete the film, we all were very familiar with loss and intimately in touch with our feelings. I was lucky. Maybe the film gave us the courage to draw that common line between us. Or maybe the film was the amor fati that brought us together to share that experience. Either way, I can’t claim much credit for that, other than saying that when one is filled to the brim with pain, there is little space left for lies. And melodrama can easily rush in to fill the spaces left vacant by lies. Love Dog © Józefina Gocman-Dicks John Dicks playing John mesmerises us with his outstanding performance. He is often filmed in powerful close ups and again, he impressively unleashes his whole body’s energy in wider shots. John being a non-professional actor, how did you work with him to reach such an intensity? John has indeed been many things: a welder, truck driver, bartender and carpenter. He has worked with horses and mules, and is currently a tour guide in the city of New Orleans. Given his young age, he has lived many realities already. During lockdown, John was working – pouring cement full time. It was one of the few industries that was still open for business, so we could only shoot in the afternoon and on Sundays. I wanted him to probe the limits of ‘himself’ in any staged situation. We got to know each other quite well because I met him two years before we actually shot, and we had many heartfelt conversations and exchanges of experience over that time: about philosophy, history, our inner lives and feelings. By the time we started shooting, we knew each other quite well. So yeah – in the film, John was ‘himself’ in a way, albeit always reacting to a fictional situation. My main job was to create the atmosphere of a specific setting in which we could all steep ourselves and then allow John to react, to explore an alternative version of himself while confronted with the crux of the film’s narration. Acting was an absolutely new experience for him. Of course, at times it was difficult. But then, looking back, I can say that we trusted each other enough to openly fight and discuss. Did you develop a specific way of directing your actors? I am, hopefully, at the beginning of my career, so I would be wary of such overarching statements like that I have developed ‘a way’ or ‘a method’ for anything. But, so far, what occurs to me is that I have to be in love with the natural energy and essence of a person. It doesn’t matter if it’s an ‘actor’ or a ‘non-actor’. In a way, it’s auspicious if it is indeed a trained actor, as he is ready to face the vulnerability of being in front of a camera, of feeling exposed like that. But, ultimately, it’s all about connection. And that’s 90% of the work. The rest is bending to capture that special energy, not bending your ‘actor’ to fit an abstract preconceived idea of how they ‘should’ be in your film. It comes down to truth again, I guess. Were the dialogues written or mostly improvised? Improvised! Only some key words and sentences were ‘fed’ to the actors, just to keep some basic narrative cohesion. The storyline has a fluid but rather elliptical structure and a quiet pace. How did you work on the editing? I was lucky to work with three editors: Txema Novelo, Greg Karpinski, and Omar Guzman. Txema helped me log the tree and provide the block of wood for the further stages. Greg gave it an overall shape, and the figure started emerging. And Omar chiselled it to perfection, giving birth to something that took on a life of its own. I learnt the most I ever did about filmmaking during this long editing process. The main work in the last stages of editing was to kill our darlings and get rid of anything decorative that was distracting from the emotional logic of the film. I just wanted to feel the truth. Omar found so many wonderful solutions that spoke to the ineffable, synesthetic associations in the film. I’d chew his ear off and cry and gesture and explain and keep saying things like: “flashes, not flashbacks” then leave him on his own for a bit and come back and be surprised by this beautiful, elegant, but still completely soulful solution he’d found. That exchange was important. I’ll take this chance to thank all of them. I felt so nurtured by their generosity during those many difficult weeks. I also have to thank my friend Lance Hammer, who was my sparring partner (if not mentor) during the whole editing process and helped me figure things out I wouldn’t have otherwise. The film’s rich soundscape of nature, radio broadcasts and songs lends the narrative a substantial depth and complexity. Yes. Well again – on the one hand, it was all there to begin with. Mississippi has an incredible, haunting soundscape. The river, the low but uncanny hum of tugboats, the wind, the swamps, all the creatures lurking nearby. But Thomas Becka, the sound designer, knew how to highlight and enhance that without bludgeoning its natural beauty with sonic intervention, so to speak. And Ernie Schaeffer, my post-producer, who plays the ‘Lone Host’ on the radio, has just the most incredible voice. It’s made for radio, for narration. In all the work, it was all about trusting the inherent beauty and mystery of what was already there. Love Dog is mostly set in a wintry, rainy atmosphere with a dim light. The photography favours a palette of grey and bluish tones. In some crucial scenes, the edges of the image are slightly blurred, wilfully directing our gaze towards the centre of the frame. Other times, it is the other way around. We were thinking about how best to render John’s psychological state through the cinematography. Often, in cinema, we show dream situations, memories and the past with a ‘blurry’ effect, on the contrary I believe that when we are suffering and lost it is precisely the present that feels blurry and we just try to navigate without tripping. Memories that are engraved in our minds instead feel crystal clear. They feel sober and can be harsh. On the other hand, situations that should make us comfortable and grounded feel unfamiliar, like blind spots; this is why we sometimes used lenses that deformed or threw the traditional focal points off-balance. Also, Jozefina and I agreed that we would not be afraid of darkness. We would rather underexpose but feel closer to the truthful texture of the moment, than be ‘commercially appropriate’ with the lighting. Of course, we had substantial limitations, because of our tiny crew. We only worked with natural lighting mainly shooting during the magic hour, when the light was softest. Could you tell me about the production and financing of Love Dog? I am the majority producer in the sense that I sourced the financing and organised the bulk of the shoot and logistics. Joaquin del Paso jumped in at the post-production phase and saved the film from falling into oblivion. But we owe it all to Gabriel Kermiche, the executive producer. He’s a friend from high school that I bumped into some 15 years later on a street in Warsaw. I asked him if he could help us. He did. And once in the US, producer Anthony Pedone lent us all his equipment for free. No strings attached. The whole film cost around 35K USD to make, including post-production. I’m not saying that’s good; people need to get paid what they deserve, which was not the case in this film. It was a snowball passion project. But I was very lucky to have people trust me enough to help, and make it come true. Looking back from today’s perspective, what was the biggest challenge you had to face during this whole endeavour? Having my boundaries crossed and crossing them myself, over and over again, even when I was at my weakest. I shudder when I think of some of the moments of desperation, fragility. When you are in a fragile place like that, many people can take advantage of your weakness to make themselves feel more in control. Be it professionally or personally. Also, the constant asking for favours was difficult. I didn’t have much to offer other than the experience of creating with me, which was great at times, but not always fun and rewarding. So, in that sense, having a decent enough budget to safeguard the comfort and dignity of everyone involved in the process of creation is key. Your future projects? I’m slowly starting to write. It’s about an addictive, entangled relationship spanning years, welded by trauma-bonding. It’s a classical ‘tragic’ love story of sorts. But it morphs over the years, and oscillates between healing and annihilation. The focus will mostly be on the female protagonist, who struggles with severe mental illness. Which makes her vulnerable to the specific connection she feels she has with the male protagonist, who is a survivor of war. That’s what I’m thinking of at the moment. But who knows. I hope I make another film, but I only want to do it if my need and passion to make it is auspiciously met by the right kind of support and timing. I work hard, but I also want to trust that life and fate know better what to do with me.