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Appreciating What’s Around You


Jeremy Podeswa speaks softly and wears dark clothes. He looks like an artist, like he lives in the city and spends his time in galleries or movie theaters, feeling super-aware of his environment and the people in it, as sounds, colors, and lines, mysteries and motivations. The writer-director-producer of The Five Senses has a background that’s part artistic and part academic, all of which likely led him to his current interests. The son of a painter, he attended private school and university in his native Toronto, then went on to do graduate work at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, where he made some lasting friends, directed three half-hour films, and became committed to his art, which combines many of his interests, including architecture, design, music, writing, and law.



Cynthia Fuchs:

The Five Senses and Eclipse [Podeswa’s previous feature] are both complex films, not made with big box office in mind. What draws you to a project?



Jeremy Podeswa:

I want to use filmmaking as a form of personal expression, in the way that my father is a painter, revelatory in a way that much Hollywood films are not, but many European films are. I appreciate Hollywood movies, but I didn’t get into it to be the next Steven Spielberg or to strike it rich. The stories that interest me are layered and idiosyncratic, emotional. I feel strongly that film can be a great unifier, that the empathy you can feel for characters on screen can be transformative. If you can that with any art form, that’s important.



CF:

But at the same time, film is by definition collaborative more than painting.



JP:

That’s true, but it’s possible to make films that are as direct an expression of a single personality as a poem is. It’s difficult, within the system that exists in Hollywood, but it’s still possible in the world of filmmaking. And you see it all the time, from Hal Hartley to Claude Chabrol to Woody Allen. That’s the sort of filmmaking that I gravitate towards. You have to be creative in how you get them made, and they don’t draw the same audience as a Bruce Willis movie might, but there’s an international audience that’s large enough to make these films viable.



CF:

And much of this happens through the film festival circuit?



JP:

That network does work, there are cinephiles who follow festivals, read reviews, and keep up with the culture of cinema, it’s all part of a universe.



CF:

But do most filmmakers see festivals as a means to move on from festivals, to get picked up?



JP:

That’s always the hope. I hope that my films will be popular, on their own terms; I want to communicate something. And I’m happy that this film has done well, and has been bought by good distributors, and I hope it will reach a larger audience. It is an accessible film, open and enjoyable.



CF:

There are many communications and miscommunications in the film.



JP:

I think a lot about what brings people together and what keeps them apart. Often what keeps them apart are internal, fears and baggage, they’re afraid to be honest and open up. It’s easy to misunderstand them. When I present these themes, it’s almost cautionary: don’t let this happen to you. Certainly we’ve all been hurt in relationships, in love, but also in business or families. The dynamics are often really loaded, so you have to really strip away all kinds of stuff to interact on straight, human, no-bullshit level. But I think it’s the only way to be happy, to lead a fulfilled life.



CF:

Why did give the audience information about the missing girl that the characters do not have?



JP:

It was a big question for me, even up until the time when we were editing the film, because we shot it a few different ways. I didn’t want to exploit the missing child in a conventional way. She’s a metaphor, symbolic of what’s missing for all the characters. So it was important to have some tension, but not terror, which is too distracting and discomforting. The movie is so mixed tonally, with comedy and drama, that to put those kinds of things against something so serious as a missing child, those things become trivial. I wanted people to be relaxed enough that they could pull away from the child storyline and focus on the others. So we came to a happy balance, where we kind of know what happens to her, that she’s not murdered or kidnapped, but there’s still potentially some danger for her.



CF:

All the characters’ stories are fragmented.



JP:

I’m really big on subtlety on the whole. I don’t think you need to whack people over the head. We know that people are complicated and subject to a range of influences. So in a movie it’s enough to suggest things, and you can fill in the spaces, you don’t need the whole biography for each character. The actors too, fill in gaps, with their presence and their charisma. I’m not a real fan of exposition either. But I think it’s just enough, what you find out about the characters.



CF:

One of the themes is talk radio and by extension, media confessional culture. How were you thinking about that?



JP:

Well, there are two sides to it of course. I don’t think you can absolve yourself of all responsibility and all your problems by confessing on television. To me it’s bizarre and unhealthy. When you see these talk shows and people are revealing their secrets on camera: god knows what happens ten minutes later. And if these things had been handled in private, as they should be, it’s much less exploitive and less loaded. So it’s not indiscriminately the act of confession that makes people better, it has to be married to intention and how you do it. Honesty and communication is important, more than confession. And being too confessional can be bad, if it’s hurtful to another person. I’m presenting an ideal, too: if I was king of the universe, this is the way it would be.



CF:

Was it different working with the younger actors, Nadia Litz [this is her first film] and Brendan Fletcher, than with the more experienced adults?



JP:

They’re amazingly intelligent kids, those two. I don’t have to go through the back door with them. For me, it’s about how young people have to create their own identities. They’re not yet formed and they know they’re not yet formed, so they’re able to be adventurous in ways that adults can’t. And kids who are marginal, or don’t feel tied to a group, are the most adventurous and the most interesting to me. Kids who conform to a certain popular cultural ideal don’t have to think about who they are. But kids who are not part of that have to create an identity that’s different.



CF:

Why did you decide to use “five senses” as a structure?



JP:

What inspired me at the beginning was a nonfiction book by Diane Ackerman called The Natural History of the Senses. It’s full of cultural, anthropological and physiological details, but the most impressive thing is that she has this great enthusiasm for the senses, and shows that we ignore them to our detriment. She makes you want to smell a flower or taste something fabulous. There’s a correlative in the way we treat people as well, we take them for granted, don’t appreciate them. So for me, that’s what the film ended up being about, appreciating what’s around you.



CF:

To make the three senses that aren’t seeing and hearing work on film can be difficult.



JP:

True. Unless you’re going to make the film in “odorama,” you’ll have problems with the smell thing. If you deal with taste, feel, or smell in an interesting literary or metaphorical way, then it has real resonance for the viewer. So, I came up with a character [Robert] who wants to smell love. It doesn’t have to be literal, it has to work on the idea level.



CF:

His bisexuality can also be hard to represent.



JP:

I approach everything in an unsensational way. To me it’s no big deal, part of the fabric of human life. The complexity of desire is endlessly fascinating. I don’t see it as something that has to be penetrated, just as something that is. This character happens to be bisexual, but it’s not his entire identity. He has all kinds of other issues and human problems. There’s no need for me to make a film that problematizes something that isn’t problematized for me in real life. There are people who don’t get it, but that’s their problem.



CF:

So does that mean that there are people for whom the film may be troubling?



JP:

Everyone can watch it. I think of myself as my own best audience, that I’m making movies for people like me. But “people like me” means a lot of things, they’re of a certain age, have been exposed to certain things, are fairly culturally aware. But I never feel that my movies are limited to a particular group. The only thing I assume about the audience is that they can relate to something in the movie, which presents a wide range of situations and emotions.



CF:

How did you approach making a movie without a central character?



JP:

Ensemble films can work precisely because they do offer a range. In the ones that really work — like Boogie Nights or The Sweet Hereafter or Nashville — it’s a kaleidoscopic view of things, another way of telling a story. In this film you see a large prismatic theme through many different points of entry. Then you can see that your experience is not so different from that person’s experience. It’s very pleasurable to be active in what you’re watching. So many movies demand a passive response, and that can be wearing after a while.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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