Thursday, October 03, 2013

INUK (2010)—The Evening Class Interview With Mike Magidson

Mike Magidson is originally from the Bay Area, born at the height of the 1967 "summer of love" in Oakland, California. After getting a college degree, he immediately set off to Los Angeles where he was cast in a series of small theater productions. Unable to pay his rent with his modest actor fees, Mike took a job as an apprentice editor with one of Hollywood's top ranked trailer producers, Intralink Film Graphic Design, where he began to dream of a career as a filmmaker. Following his heart and a strong curiosity for French culture, in 1992 Mike packed up a suitcase, and moved to Paris, France. After several years editing for such reputable directors as Pan Nalin, Antoine de Maximy, and Jean-Michel Carré, in 1998 Mike borrowed a friend's camera and made his first award winning documentary, Kanada. Eleven years later, Mike has written and directed over twenty documentaries and shorts. Inuk is his first feature-length narrative film.

In San Francisco to celebrate the film's U.S. theatrical premiere at the Roxie Theater in conjunction with the relaunch of the Roxie's distributing arm Roxie Releasing—and having informally met the film's actor Ole Jørgen Hammeken and composer Justin Michael La Vallee in the press lounge of the Palm Springs International Film Festival—I welcomed the chance to finally meet the film's director in person and invited him out for a beer; a blonde ale for him and an amber for me. This transcript is cobbled together from our one-on-one conversation and comments made during the film's Q&A session.

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Michael Guillén: I have to start off with the obvious question. How did someone raised in Oakland, California—now an expatriate in Paris (by way of Los Angeles)—end up making a film in Greenland that became that country's submission to the foreign language category of the Academy Awards®?

Mike Magidson: I read a lot of Jack London when I was a kid! I guess there's no such thing as chance. I started making documentaries in Paris after having done a lot of theater in Los Angeles. I had wanted to do fiction but ended up making a lot of documentaries. I met a French anthropologist Jean-Michel Huctin who had lived in Greenland for about eight years. He came to Paris in 1999 looking for a director because he had become aware of this wonderful story of a children's home where Inuit hunters were helping children. He was looking for a director, and a producer recommended me, so we met in a smoky bar in Paris. We ended up hitting it off right away. He said, "I think you're the guy. Do you want to come up to Greenland?" I thought, "Well, okay, sure, why not?" But I was pretty intimidated. A month later I was on an airplane, then a second airplane, a third airplane, a helicopter, a second helicopter and I landed in a Jack London book. I got out of the helicopter and I heard barking dogs and saw toothless hunters and I thought, "Wow. This is what I read about when I was a kid."

Guillén: So as a child, you already had a sense of adventure?

Magidson: Yeah. I had that sense of man's relationship to nature. When I got off that helicopter I went full circle back to my childhood. I felt something special.

Guillén: Shamans might call that the longbody. So you found yourself working in Greenland, dealing with language issues, weather issues. Can you speak to some of the obstacles you faced?

Magidson: As I said, I had done a lot of theater and I wanted to make a fiction film. I thought making a film in Greenland might be an interesting way to tell a story. I was working with hard weather, a language I didn't understand, and children who had never acted in their lives; but, I rationalized those difficulties would serve as good excuses if the film turned out bad. [Laughs.] They were challenges I wanted to confront to make a film under those conditions. How did I deal with it? The whole thing was a massive moment of survival.

Guillén: Inuk is a fiction-documentary hybrid. Can you distinguish which parts were documentary and which parts fiction?

Magidson: The story itself is based upon a lot of different stories that I witnessed up North while making documentaries. There were parts of the writing that were left open. We didn't want to invent the story, let's say, of the old guy talking about hunting the seals. When that old guy tells the story of his seal hunting, that's his real story. We just turned the camera on him and said, "Tell it." There are certain scenes like that where we felt the proper way to tell the story was to let people tell it themselves, because they had really lived it.

Ole Jørgen Hammeken, who played the hunter Ikuma, was not a real hunter, so his character was fictionalized. Gaba Petersen, who plays Inuk, has had his own experiences in life but they're not the ones you see in the film. Also, the way we shot the dog sleds for example, we didn't have the typical Hollywood cranes and stuff. We had to film that documentary style. We had a camera crew on sleds with dogs and the actors on other sleds with dogs.

Guillén: Any issues with camera equipment in such a harsh, freezing environment?

Magidson: I had already made two documentaries in that kind of weather so I knew some of the basic rules, like leaving the camera outside all the time. You don't want to bring it inside because it's the changes in temperature that are really the shock to equipment. We also chose cameras that got hot to compensate for the cold. If we had filmed in Africa, we would probably have had more problems.

Guillén: How did you get around not knowing the language?

Magidson: Jean-Michel Huctin speaks Greenlandic Inuit. He was my interpreter the whole time.

Guillén: In terms of structuring the story and coming up with a narrative for your film, how did you work that out? There were three of you working on the script, right? You, Jean-Michel, and Ole Jørgen Hammeken?

Magidson: Ole gave us a lot of input, yeah, along with Ann Andreasen who ran the children's home. Jean-Michel and I had told them that we wanted to make this story as authentic as possible. We urged them to tell us if we were bending the rules too much. Our goal was not to make a Hollywood drama but to make their authentic story. I loved the previous documentaries I had made in Greenland, but I wanted to tell the whole story of modern Greenland through this story, which I saw as a story about the problems Greenland is going through and how the Greenlanders themselves are solving those problems. Whereas white people focus on the problems with alcoholism and violence that indigenous Greenlanders are experiencing, the indigenous people are coming up with their own solutions.

Guillén: It ended up being a solid shamanic narrative. I come from a background of cross-cultural anthropology with a focus on shamanism, more from Central and South America, but that shamanic substratum remains the foundation for cultures all over the world. For example, I was struck by the comment in the press notes that you intended the narrative journey to track south to north. Can you unpack that intention for me?

Magidson: Actually, I can't answer that. It would be Jean-Michel, the anthropologist, who could answer that for you. How do you understand it?

Guillén: If you travel south, you are traveling towards the future and who you might become. If you travel north, you are traveling towards the past, towards ancestors. I don't know for sure but I presume that's possibly predicated upon the shamanic memory of ancient migrations over the Bering Strait moving down into the Americas.

Magidson: As far as the journey into the past, that was definitely a strong element of the story. Inuk proposes that you have to know your past in order to confront your future.

Guillén: I appreciated the line in the film about identity being based upon knowing yourself and also about being in relation to your environment; but, then the challenge to identity when the environment changes. Clearly, there's global warming going on. Clearly, the issue of bad ice came up in your narrative. You say that Greenlanders are resolving their own problems, so I'm wondering if within Greenland there is any kind of mobilization or activism to clarify this disputed position of climate change to the global community from a firsthand perspective?

Magidson: Climate change is a major issue in Greenland, obviously. We talk about it here but they're actually seeing it. Where we were filming, for example, hunters used to be able to go out and have six months of solid ice and now they have six weeks. They see the changes. But it's also a very complicated issue because at the same time it's opening up new avenues in the economy of Greenland; oil, for example. People are now starting to look for oil because it's more accessible. Minerals as well. Greenlanders are starting to be seduced by the Chinese, Americans, and other foreigners. The issue of climate change—though its effects can be seen and talked about—also has Greenlanders thinking, "Well, this can help us because we can earn a lot of money in the short term." The same issues we have in our society. It's not as black-and-white an issue as we would think.

Guillén: When and where did you shoot in Greenland?

Magidson: The film was shot mostly in the month of April into May in West Greenland about 500 kilometers above the Arctic Circle in the small town of Uummannaq, which is about an hour helicopter flight from Ilulissat. Ilulissat is the place where all the icebergs come out into the sea. The iceberg that hit the Titanic came from Ilulissat.

Guillén: When I met Ole in Palm Springs, he told me he wasn't your original choice for the hunter.

Magidson: No.

Guillén: But he was perfect for the role.

Magidson: He was great.

Guillén: How did he end up with it?

Magidson: It was a crazy moment. Two days before we were to start shooting principal photography, the guy who was going to play Ikuma, a hunter—pretty much a legendary hunter from the area—knocked on the crew's door and said, "Mike, I need to speak with you." Jean-Michel was there to interpret. This guy and I had already worked together on my previous documentaries. He said, "I'm sorry, but hunting season is looking good and I'm a hunter. I love you as a person, but I can't do this. I've got to go hunt."

I felt like I had an ulcer in my stomach and thought, "How am I going to get out of this now? I've got everybody ready to go and I just lost one of my lead actors." I walked over to Anne and Ole's house. Ole had his hair up. He usually wears it up in a pony tail. I asked him, "Ole, can you let your hair down?" He let his hair down and I said, "You're Ikuma." He said, "No, I'm not." I said, "Yes, you are." He kept saying, "I don't think I can do this" but he gave in after a couple of days of speaking to him and reassuring him he could.

Guillén: Was his original role as a consultant?

Magidson: That's right, but he became more and more involved.

Guillén: And ended up as one of the main leads! His actual work is expedition work, right?

Magidson: Yeah.

Guillén: What kind of expedition work?

Magidson: I guess you would basically call him a polar explorer. He conducts expedition adventures that follow the traces of historical explorers. His most recent adventure was trying to replicate Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld's crossing of the Northeast Passage, but in a ski boat or something crazy like that. You'd have to ask him what the purpose of that was. I'm not one of those people who's into the expedition just for the sake of the expedition. I think there needs to be a scientific reason or a spiritual reason.

Guillén: What was involved in casting the other roles, especially the children?

Magidson: As far as casting is concerned, as I said I had already made documentaries in Greenland. In fact, Sara Lyberth—who plays Inuk's love interest Naja—I had worked with her sister on one of those earlier documentaries. So casting was simple. Sara was a native so I said, "Let's do it." As for Gaba Petersen, though he's now taller than me, I've known him since he was shorter than me. I saw a photo of Gaba where he was wearing a white tanktop and I thought he looked like Marlon Brando.

Guillén: The film was made in 2010?

Magidson: Yes.

Guillén: And it's only now starting its theatrical exhibition in late 2013?

Magidson: It's been a long road.

Guillén: I caught Inuk at Palm Springs and then was expecting it to show up at our San Francisco International, but it didn't, and then I didn't hear anything more about it until the Roxie announced they were distributing it. What's been involved in that long road?

Magidson: Palm Springs was actually the last festival Inuk screened at. It had already been on the festival circuit for about a year and a half. It played the Austin Film Festival, the Woodstock Film Festival, a couple in Australia....

Guillén: I knew the film had been traveling—Ole mentioned particularly enjoying going to South Korea—but, I didn't realize it had been on the circuit that long.

Magidson: It was a pretty intense year and a half.

Guillén: All in all, reception was good?

Magidson: All in all, yes, though there were some places where we played that were amazing, like in Woodstock, New York, where an elderly lady came up to me crying after a Q&A, saying "Inuk is the most moving film I've ever seen and I'm an old lady!" And then there have been some audiences that didn't quite get it. They appreciated the landscapes and all but weren't getting the deeper part of the story.

Guillén: It was welcome news for me that Inuk is the film that's relaunching Roxie Releasing. Any comments on that?

Magidson: I'm just absolutely honored to be the start of that. Sitting here looking over my shoulder at the Roxie, I can remember driving by it as a child and taking note of it. I'm glad I can be a positive part of its rebirth.

Guillén: It's my understanding that the Roxie's initial distribution strategy is to roll Inuk out in northern climes first, specifically Anchorage and Fairbanks in mid-October. That surprised me a little bit, but I guess that makes sense.

Magidson: It surprised me a little bit too at first, but it does make sense. I did tell them—and I think they uncovered this in their own research—that the film played well in Arizona and New Mexico and it did great in Savannah, Georgia!

Guillén: That's right, you won three awards there for Best Film, Director and Editing.

Magidson: So you never know. Oliver Stone was at the festival in Savannah and after one of the screenings he came up to me in the bar and he poked me real hard in the chest and said, "I've got to see your film. Everybody's talking about your film." This was in Savannah, Georgia!!

Guillén: Since it's been a few years since the film first played at festivals, are you now working on another project?

Magidson: I am! I mean, filmmakers are always working on other projects. You have to work that way because you never know which project is actually going to get done. Right now I'm writing a new feature film, which takes place in Paris. It will be done in a totally different style than Inuk. It's basically about three expatriates—my three personalities rendered as three characters—living in Paris. I've lived in Paris about 18 years. I've seen all the films that have been made by Americans about Paris. They never show the Paris that I—as an American-Parisien—know. I want to show that Paris. I want to show the misunderstandings between Americans and the French in the way that I know them.

I have another documentary project that I'm working on, also set up in the North. As I mentioned earlier, working on Inuk brought back this childhood fantasy of survival. I don't want to do a documentary version of Into the Wild (2007), but I kind of actually do. I want to learn how to be an Inuit hunter. I want to see if it's possible for me to understand the psychological and spiritual things that are going through a hunter's mind. I don't know how I'm going to achieve it—if I'm going to achieve it—but it's a challenge for me.

When I was eight years old, I was at school and—during recreation period—left the school and walked away. I went home, got my Swiss Army knife, and went up on this little hill behind our house over in the East Bay, and I said to myself, "I'm going to live here now. I'm going to survive off the land." That lasted about two hours, after which I was so bored that I came down the hill. My mother was in a panic, "Where were you?! Everyone's been worried about you!" That fantasy has always been inside me. I figure I have to get it out and I'm a filmmaker so I might as well make a film about it.

Guillén: That conflict of identity, of becoming oneself, shows up in Inuk. You show how kids are languishing because they don't have a connection to the fantasy they have of themselves. Once you get them back in touch with that imaginative projection of themselves, they start to come into their own. I get that.

Speaking of identity, can you speak to how you identify yourself as a filmmaker? You're an independent filmmaker, but not necessarily an American independent filmmaker. You're more a European independent filmmaker?

Magidson: I'm a European independent filmmaker who makes films on an American model. If I were to work in the real European independent system—which I do for documentaries but not features—I would draft a script, get State funding or TV funding, and get my film made. I'm not saying it would be easy, but it's a system that's solid, especially in France, and in Denmark as well. It's not the whole credit card approach to filmmaking that you see so often in the States. It's much easier to make an "artistic" film in Europe.

Guillén: Do you think you'll remain in Europe to be a filmmaker? Or could you be lured back to make an American independent?

Magidson: It would depend on the story. Some stories might demand more of the American system. This other film that I want to shoot in Paris will obviously be a European film made within the European system, but maybe this idea of three American expatriates in Paris might be more of an American independent? In which case I'd be working more within the American system.

Guillén: Can you talk a bit about how you worked with Justin Michael La Vallee to develop the score for Inuk, which is definitely one of its strongest elements?

Magidson: I worked very closely with Justin on this score. I was very hands on with it. As you know, the music is an integrated part of the film. It contributes a lot to the story. When we met Justin, we proposed a couple of sounds and elements but we told him, "You're going to have to go to Greenland." A couple of days later, he was on an airplane to Greenland where he spent two months recording sound, recording the Girls Choir, recording drum dancing, all sorts of stuff, and he came back to Europe, to Paris, with a rough cut of the score. We reworked some of that but I still wasn't quite happy with it. There still seemed to be some missing elements.

We had met a group in Anchorage, Alaska, an Inuit world music band called Pamyua, and I said, "Justin, you have to listen to this stuff. Listen to these voices." He listened to them and he said, "Mike, you're right. We have to record these people." So we brought in some of the members of Pamyua and had them record some of the voices in the background, not only the shaman voice but these other voices that we wanted to add. We even used some of their pieces that Justin composed around. Once we reworked the score with Pamyua, I told Justin, "We're on."

Guillén: This quest of yours to replicate a hunter's experience and to film your journey is fascinating. Have you looked to any other films about shamans or hunters for inspiration? Do you think cinema can replicate such an initiatory journey?

Magidson: I do actually, yeah. As for films that influenced me...?

Guillén: Did you ever see Akira Kurosawa's Dersu Uzala (1975)?

Magidson: Yes! I was just about to say that.

Guillén: I thought about Dersu Uzala when I first watched Inuk. I consider Dersu Uzala one of the best shamanic narratives committed to film, particularly Siberian shamanism.

Magidson: I did watch that several times before writing the script for Inuk. Zacharias Kunuk's Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001) is another one I could mention.

Guillén: Yes, both of those capture northern shamanism well. For southern shamanism, I would recommend Rolando Klein's Chac (1975).

Magidson: It's funny but certain scenes in movies, even if they're not directly about shamanism, give me a feel for it, like Gus Van Sant's Gerry (2002). Those long scenes of the two guys walking and walking and walking.

Guillén: My final question would be—since you're our eyes and ears there in Europe—are there any overseas filmmakers you wish Americans knew more about?

Magidson: I worked as an editor for a guy named Pan Nalin. He's an Indian who lives in Paris. He made a film Samsara (2001) that premiered at Toronto and was very successful. He made another documentary recently, Faith Connections (2013), that's just premiered at Toronto. He's a director I really appreciate because he gets into spirituality without hammering it over the head. He's a great visual storyteller.

Guillén: Thank you so much, Mike, for taking the time to talk with me.

Magidson: Thanks for the beer!


Dan Jenkin Roman said...

Great interview! I appreciate your film knowledge and anthropological depth, as well. Your ability to connect so well with the director was apparent, Mike Magidson seems like such an interesting director and I can't wait to see more from him.

Michael Guillen said...

Thanks for stopping by to comment with such kind words, Dan; much appreciated! Mike's a great guy. I really liked his sense of adventure.