Immersing the Audience in the Psychology of the Protagonist: Interview with Tonia Mishiali
Fresh from the premiere of her feature debut, Pause, indie filmmaker Tonia Mishiali gave us some insight into the process of developing it, the inspiration behind it, and what she hopes to accomplish as a filmmaker.
How did you start your career as a filmmaker?
I used to love films when I was a teenager but never thought that I could study filmmaking and pursue it as a career. I come from a very small country and in the ’90s, when I finished school, studying filmmaking was not common, or even an option. So I chose to study hotel and catering management, which I wanted to give up the minute I stepped my foot in the first class of University. But I didn’t. I stayed and finished the course, only I was taking filmmaking and photography classes during that whole time. That was my escape. It was then that I realized that the arts are more what express me as an individual. So I decided to study filmmaking. I was always very creative and a dreamer, so filmmaking helped me channel my creativity and my love for photography.
What were the challenges and breakthroughs you’ve encountered along the way?
The film setting participates actively in the narrative as a mirror to the protagonist’s psychology. It was a very conscious decision to use a handheld camera so that the camera would move as an extension of the main character. The camera wouldn’t move unless the protagonist moved and “dragged” the camera behind her, or move with her. The audience would only see what she sees. There was no shot without Elpida around. This way I wanted to make the audience immerse into her inner world and really get into her shoes as much as possible. The challenge I encountered trying to film this way was that I had to do long takes and had to carefully and precisely choreograph every scene with the camera and the actors. And because this film was low budget I couldn’t do this on set so we spent many hours rehearsing these scenes with my cinematographer and my actors during pre-production.
What was your biggest takeaway from your first directorial experience?
The fact that I realized that this is definitely what makes me happy doing and I will pursue it as long as I live.
How long did it take you to write and develop the story?
It took myself and my co-writer 6 months to write the first 2 drafts. Then I continued on my own which took me another year to write the next 23 drafts. I shot draft 25.
What inspired you to write it?
I have always been sensitive to women’s issues and equality, while I have been particularly interested in exploring the decadent relationships in marriage. I was inspired by images that were imprinted in my mind and events that I experienced growing up in Cyprus in a patriarchal society, watching the women around me living on the sidelines, with the main purpose of their lives serving their spouse and children. I therefore wanted to make a film that is viewed through the prism of the complex and fascinating female nature, about the loss of one’s voice, the longing for love and unquenchable desires.
At a time when women in cinema are mis-represented, I also wanted this film to depict a female character that is very much real. My protagonist is an original cinematic persona. She is passive and submissive, but still carries within her hope and freedom. She was created from my need to show the position of many women in our society and how they deal with patriarchy. Women’s passivity is something that has been bothering me so much that I wanted to show the reality of the everyday lives of these women, and enter their true inner worlds. Elpida was inspired by women in my family, in my neighborhood, around me. She is my grandmother, my aunt, my mother, my cousin, my neighbor, my friend…
How do you think this story will impact today’s society?
Elpida’s story is a cautionary tale. I just wish that she, as with all similar women in real life, just open the door and leave, without having to go through all this. They need to find their voice, the strength and confidence to do what makes them feel happy, be true to themselves and their own feelings.
Was this your intended artistic vision for the film from the beginning?
The cinematography and visual aesthetics of the film were intended this way from the beginning. In addition to the style of camera movement that I talked about above, my collaboration with my cinematographer (Yorgos Rahmatoulin) was wonderful. We talked about the style and aesthetic a lot and then followed through. The colors were also specifically chosen from pre-production in collaboration with the production designer, as I wanted the blue highlights to express the dullness and routine of my main character and at the same time show that she was stuck, and looking like she is part of the house, even the furniture.
What was the dynamic like between you, your actors, and film crew?
It was a great collaboration all around. All the team, cast and crew were great, and on set they felt very much at home. This was very important for me. There was respect for one another and everyone was very professional. In terms of casting, I knew from the script who I was going to offer the main roles to, so I didn’t do any auditions, only for some small parts. This was because when I was writing the script I had particular actors in mind. And thankfully they all accepted.
Were there circumstances in which you had to make difficult artistic choices?
The last shot of the film was a very complicated crane shot and we had planned to shoot it on the last day of filming. Unfortunately the shot didn’t work technically and I had to make a quick decision of how to end the film. I told my crew to take a short break and I took some time to think it through. I took a walk alone and 15 minutes later I decided that I was going to shoot another two shots so that I have 2 alternate endings. We had the time because I had cancelled the crane shot. And I shot them. Only, in editing I ended up not using any of the two. I decided to end on the shot just before last, as it made more impact!
What films and filmmakers have been the most influential to you?
Hmmm… Oh my… I have a lots. In my work in general I have been inspired by Lynne Ramsay, Claire Denis, Agnès Varda, Pedro Almodovar, Darren Aronofski, Chantal Akerman, Andrea Arnold, Sofia Coppola, Catherine Breillat and not necessarily in this order. Films? Again, so many, Lost in translation, Fat girl, Chocolat, Fish Tank, All About My Mother, Virgin Suicides, The Wrestler, and so many more….
How did film festivals, filmmaking competitions, fellowships, etc., play a role in your career?
Festivals and awards are definitely a vehicle for establishing yourself and your work in the film industry. They are also very important for meeting the right people and putting yourself out there. I believe that networking is crucial, having talent, creativity and courage for sure, and definitely staying true to yourself and being authentic, are the best ways to break in the entertainment industry.
What’s your advice to other aspiring filmmakers?
Trust your instinct till the end though you can render no reason!
What kind of legacy do you want to leave as a filmmaker?
I want to show that I have my own voice and style, I want my films to speak to people and touch them deep in their hearts.