INTERVIEW with "Prisoner X" Director Gaurav Seth
As a part of their year round Premiere Series, Other Worlds Austin screened the science-fiction film Prisoner X, which is based on the novella Truth by Robert Reed. Being its Austin premiere, the film's director Gaurav Seth was present at the screening for a Q & A. An hour before the screening, at the Flix Brewhouse where they were hosting the screening, we sat down to chat with Gaurav about his new film.
Cinemaker Blog: How has the screening tour been with the film?
Gaurav Seth: It’s almost winding down in the international film circuit. We’ve been in several film festivals around the world, and this screening here in Austin is probably going to be one of the last screenings. Since January of this year we’ve been in about 10 film festivals. The very first one was a festival in Portugal called Fantasporto, and then Sci-Fi London, the Madrid Film Festival, Brazil...Several genre film festivals. The US premiere was at the Palm Beach Film Festival.
CB: Do y’all have distribution for the film yet?
G: Well, actually, the film released theatrically in Canada already, but for the US (distribution) we are still working on that.
CB: For those who are sort of unfamiliar with your work, including me, when did you start making films?
G: Since forever. *laughs* I went to film school in Russia. But that was a long time. I think I graduated in…what year was it…93? Yeah. 1993. And since then, I’ve just been making movies.
CB: Something I’m super curious about: the film school in Russia that you went to (The Russian Federation State Institute of Cinematography) it was actually founded by Sergei Eisenstein?
CB: As far as approaching the discipline of cinema, thinking about it and making it, it’s much different (in Eastern Europe). And I want to know: what are things you learned, particular disciplines and ways of thinking about filmmaking, that you apply to your own work? And how does that discipline differ from films made in America?
G: That is a very good question, because it is a very different take on cinema. I would say that the big difference is cinema is treated more as an art than just as a craft. There is a difference between craft and art. Here in North America, especially in the film schools, the priority and emphasis seems to be to get students to learn the technicality of filmmaking quickly, efficiently, and the best possible way from a technical point of view. The emphasis when you go to film school here is more on the technology. Which there is nothing wrong with that! In Russia, for the first two years, we didn’t even touch a camera. It was all about developing the right aesthetic, and establishing what is good cinema.
CB: So sort of the language and learning to identify the language of cinema?
G: Exactly. Learn to speak the language before you make anything. The program I was in was a Master’s Degree, and it was five years long. The first couple of years, we didn’t even look at a camera, or go on set. It was all theory. We watched a lot of movies to understand cinema, appreciate cinema, and develop the right aesthetic taste. That takes longer than learning the craft. You can learn how to make a movie fairly quickly, especially with digital filmmaking now. It has become so much more accessible. When I was in school, it was just film, 35mm, and-
CB: Were you actually shooting on 35mm?
G: Yes. Always on 35mm. Not even 16mm, only 35mm.
CB: That’s so wild to me!
G: Not only was it was a five year course in which we made so many movies, and it was hands on experience, the instructors, our professors, were the greats of Russian cinema. Imagine Martin Scorsese as one of your instructors, and not just coming in and giving a lecture: he’s sitting beside you while you’re editing!
CB: Being directly involved-
G: Exactly! The system was five filmmakers would take on a group of 25 students, five students each, and they would mentor them for five years.
CB: Very individual based. Helping carve their authorial voice.
G: Yes. Imagine Martin Scorsese sitting beside you while you’re editing your first short. That was something invaluable. At that time, I didn’t really understand how great that was. I mean, I loved it and I thought it was great, but now I really understand how great that was.
CB: Just looking at your previous work, this film we’re about to see is so different than anything you’ve worked on. Not even genre wise, but tone wise. Production wise. It just seems like a totally different vibe. What drew you to making this film right now at this point in your career?
G: You know, I have always been interested in this material: a sci-fi thriller, but with a little more of an artsy take to it. I love science fiction, but very often, I think North American sci-fi has a very standard look and feel to it. You know? It tends to be a little more glossy. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all! I’m not criticizing that at all. It just seems to be one type. Again, given my background, and this Eastern European take on cinema, my take on sci-fi is different. It probes less into the premise and more into the people.
CB: A question I had along the lines with when we were talking about story: when you watch this film, take your mind out of being the director, when you see it just as an audience member, what is it about for you? Personally, what does the story mean for you?
G: The interesting thing about this movie is that even though it is Science Fiction, it is so contemporary. It is set in our real world, in which all these events like the Iraq War, the refugee (crisis), even the shooting Orlando right now: the film is about paranoia. It’s so current and universal. It’s technically not real, but it is real. You know? It’s that realness that makes it interesting, and what makes it different from other sci-fi movies. As you know: filmmaking takes years. When I first read the novella, it was years before we went into production. And there were a lot of things that are in the screenplay that happened at the same time as the real life event, and the screenplay kept evolving up to point when we were shooting. We were tweaking the dialogue to reflect what was happening with ISIS, what was happening with the refugees...It’s about all of that. That was especially exiting to me as a filmmaker, and I think it’s exciting as an audience member as well to watch a sci-fi movie which is talking about today’s issues.
CB: One last quick question, because I want you to enjoy your meal: what would you say to someone who is just starting out (as a filmmaker)? What is something you wish someone told to you when you were first starting out?
G: That is interesting to think about….One thing to remember is you can— and this is something one of my professors, a great Russian filmmaker, told me which stuck with me: however talented you are, whatever resources you have at your disposal to make a movie, never underestimate the imagination of your audience. Because your audience can always imagine way more than what you can show them. So instead of thinking that “I want to wow the audience by telling this story in this perfect way”, what is probably more productive is “How can I simply provoke that imagination in each and every person through cinema?” And then the joy you get as a filmmaker when you see that response in the audience, how they picked up with your idea and just ran with it with their imagination, is— and sometimes after screenings they come up to you to talk too you, they say “I really loved the way you did that. It meant this and that., and etc.” They think of something totally new that didn’t even occur to me! Whatever motivated me to shoot that scene in that way is not even that important. What is more important is provoking your audience. It is so satisfying and fulfilling when you audience comes back, takes your idea, and runs with it in their own imagination. That is an indescribable, satisfying feeling, and that makes it worth everything.
A big thank you to Other Worlds Austin for hooking us up with Gaurav for the interview. Be sure to check out their website for information on future screenings and more! And a big thank to Gaurav Seth for taking the time to talk with us!