NATASHA KERMANI is a filmmaker with a very unique voice; a unique voice that creates a unique story with IMITATION GIRL. Debuting at Dances With Films 2017 in Los Angeles, IMITATION GIRL is the story of a mysterious young woman who materializes in the middle of the southwestern desert. Unfamiliar with this human form or life force, each step she takes teaches her about her new world and her new body. But as she assumes her new life, she discovers she has a twin with whom she shares more than just an outward appearance and sets out to find her other half of self.
With minimal dialogue, IMITATION GIRL relies heavily not only on an outstanding dual performance by Lauren Ashley Carter as “Imitation Girl” and her doppelganger Julianna Fox, but also on beautiful visuals courtesy of cinematographer Travis Tips, precision editing by Gabriel de Urioste, and a stunning soundscape that is an experience all by itself.
I spoke with writer/director NATASHA KERMANI at length in this exclusive interview talking about the making of IMITATION GIRL and her approach to storytelling through visual design, sound and performance.
First of all, I’ve got to congratulate you on IMITATION GIRL. I was riveted and fascinated watching this unfold and then to see what Lauren did with performance. Amazing!
Oh, thank you. That’s so great to hear. I love hearing that.
Now I know that you wrote this with Lauren Ashley Carter in mind.
I did. Yeah. I’ve been lucky enough to actually work with Lauren for a few years actually, on a few projects, before we even started the film. I always knew she was going to be the two leads, if you will, in the film.
Different as night and day. At the same time through your visuals, you create this wonderful, almost mirrored palette, as to what each one of them is experiencing on different sides of the world.
That was definitely really important to us. We were really trying to show two sides of the same coin. Almost like a Janus-head figure. When we creating the two worlds, we were definitely trying to separate them and make them feel as distant from each other as possible. Not only with the color palette, but also even the way she’s dressed, the way she looked. Does she have make-up on, does she not have make-up on, what is her hair like? Is it natural, is it … ? All of these elements came into play, even all the way through post-production to the way we’re editing one storyline or the way we’re color crafting one storyline, is going to be different than the other one. Absolutely from start to finish, we were trying to show two very different stories, but told through two sides of the same character. That was the challenge.
Of course, something you do very beautifully, along with your cinematographer Travis Tips. Obviously when he was a rigger working on “House of the Devil” with Ti West the man was paying attention.
Travis actually has a really incredible background in lighting. He and I had a lot of conversations about that. He’s also a really talented camera operator and cinematographer, so we’re able to bring both sides of his background together for this. He knocked it out of the park, totally.
The two distinct looks that you create, one for New York City, or for the city, the other out in the desert. The desert scenes, there’s a lot of sun. There’s a lot of awakening. A lot of metaphor that comes through in the visuals, which is gorgeous. The same thing in the city, but it’s darker metaphor. You really play with the palettes in each of these worlds. When you get into your super-impositions, absolutely gorgeous.
I’m so happy to hear that. We landed on New Mexico. We went for a location scout and I was actually just completely blown away by the natural beauty of the landscape. I actually felt like there was a lot of sky. I’m from the East Coast, so I was used to being in New York City or place with lots of trees. In New Mexico, I felt like the sky went on and on and on forever. That just felt really right for this sort of a newborn character who comes and essentially everything is a possibility. Everything is learning. The sky is the limit, literally.
In New York, we were actually looking for cold, snowy New York. That kind of dirty snow. We got really lucky. We actually got a huge snowstorm right in the middle of our shoot. We actually had to cancel one of our days. Myself, Travis, our producer and our assistant camera basically went out into New York in the blizzard and we took a bunch of footage. We couldn’t have been luckier with the weather as far as that goes. That’s why luck is such an important part of building that palette. That was our goal, News Mexico, sky, desert, openness. Then New York, dirty, snowy, crisp, cold textures. That’s what we were going for.
It speaks to each of the characters. IMITATION GIRL is all the awakening and receptive to everything. Whereas with Julianna, she’s closed off and just like the city, boxed in, almost claustrophobic at times. I love that dichotomy that you create. It’s executed not just in story, not just in visual, but in the performance that Lauren delivers.
Lauren and I had talked about this a lot. She had six months between the two performances. We actually had about five, six months between shooting New Mexico. We actually shot the arid land first, which I think was great. We could kind of come to it. This is the more fantastical, magical realism. Then in New York, we really hit the ground with this other character. When you’re talking about the dichotomy, we did talk a little bit about that. All of Julianna’s dissent is almost why she needs this alien to come. I actually see the end of the film as being very helpful. It has a foreboding tone. I do see it as helpful. I see it as this girl that just can’t get out of this spiral, that cycle that she’s stuck in. This magical character comes and brings here somewhere else. Ultimately, we were looking to tell a hopeful story about finding the other half of yourself and that being the key to unlocking whatever the next stage of your journey is going to be.
Lauren and I definitely talked about that a lot. I think that’s big picture stuff. Lauren is such a fantastic, grounded practical actor. She really just dove into this role. She actually had a horrible cold. She had the flu while we were shooting. She and I were laughing about. She was saying, “I think it helps me stop thinking about it too much,” because she’s just trying to get through the day. She’s just trying to get through each day and feeling pulled down in that way. I just think that’s great. I thought that was really funny because she’s such a talented actor, then on top of it she battling the flu. It’s just very funny to me that she could do that.
She had a lot of challenges, especially the piano and learning another language. I can’t say enough about her technical abilities and also she’s very intellectual, so she can take these big picture ideas. Kind of what I’m talking about with the two sides of the same coin and she keeps it completely grounded. You believe that these are two different people.
Kudos to Lauren, battling through the flu. I’m sure that what helped clear her mind, was she just kept thinking, “I need to breathe.” “I can’t breathe.”
Yes. We made sure she was getting her emergency Vitamin C and all those things. Yeah, I think she told me she was pretty nervous about the piano playing scene and all these kind of things. I think all of things for an actor become so helpful. She’s such a professional. She knows how to turn these things into something that reflects the character. This character is kind of sick. She always feel off. She feels like there’s something that’s not quite right or quite in the right place. I think that sense of unease comes through so beautifully in her performance. Especially when back to back, to the just child-like information-seeking creature in the other storyline. She’s phenomenal.
Having time off in-between, it’s very helpful for Lauren as an actor in order to reframe her mindset for the character. But how does that benefit or hurt you as the director? Did you lose momentum? Or did you need to get into a different directorial head space to shoot the flip side of the coin, so to speak?
That’s a really interesting question. It was purely logistical. We actually used the first half of the film to fund-raise for the second half of the film. We were pretty focused on that logistical path, gargantuan task of raising more cash for the second half of the film. I will say that we were able to put together that 40 minutes, the New Mexico film, before we went into the New York section. Obviously that’s not a luxury that we’re really going to have that often. I found it actually really great to be able to do that.
As well as resetting my brain, I was actually working with the composer on the music for New York and also New Mexico. I was really able to sink my teeth into this new section of the film. I thought that was great, I will say that’s so unusual. It’s not something I would encourage. You do have to reset your team, a lot of things have to reset. That is a logistical challenge. I did really enjoy going into the edit and going into the music and also being able to go back with Lauren and the New York actors. We did have the luxury of time, which is something you never have. A little bit of both I would say. Definitely a little bit of both.
I’m glad you brought up the music because I think the music is outstanding and serves as its own layer of storytelling. It doesn’t surprise me of your involvement because you have a very strong background in sound editing.
I do. Sound design and music composition as well. I’m also a musician as well. Music, to me, is half the battle. I think that was always essential for me, that the music just be very unique and special and specific to each of those two characters. There’s a sound for the Imitation being and there’s a sound for the real girl. Those two sounds, while they compliment each other, like the visual palette, are distinct and are different. That was extremely important to us.
You take it from the music also into your entire sonic soundscape. For IMITATION GIRL there is very, very little dialogue. You really let the performance and the visuals carry that with the music actually serving as dialogue, so to speak. It is such a beautifully rendered work that you’ve put together there. I don’t think just anyone could have done that without having a great sense of sound design.
That’s for sure. I think the music absolutely is expressing a lot of the emotions. There’s a lot of quiet moments with these characters, where Imitation’s looking around and understanding or questioning things around her. We assigned instruments very loosely to the different characters. The brother and the sister have this Spanish guitar, nylon guitar sound. It’s a little bit mournful. It’s a little bit foreign. Sounds like it’s from a distant place. The imitation character has this strong solo violin, which is actually my instrument. I felt like, “This is her. This is pure.” This very pure, specific sound that just comes through everything. It can also be very sexy and it can also be very soft. I felt like that was the right thing for them. Of course how we intermingle these sounds. Also, the sound is lying on top of everything else. That the sounds of the desert are very different from the hustle and bustle of New York City.
All of those things, like I said, are half the battle. What our ears are experiencing does so much for the image. I think a lot of time directors come from more of a writing background. They’re not necessarily as involved with the post-process, with sound design and editing and these technical things. I just think it’s very important to be incredibly specific with all of those tools because that’s really how you’re going to make these gorgeous images that you’ve already captured really come to life. Because otherwise, it’s really just a silent movie. It’s just a beautiful picture, but you have to fill it. You have to infuse with all of this emotion and that comes from the music and it comes from the aural texture that you’re creating. I know that just from my years of experience working as a sound designer and a musician.
You mentioned that your instrument is the violin and you assigned that to the sound for IMITATION GIRL. Let me ask you, who are you? Are you more IMITATION GIRL? It’s very telling that your instrument you would assign to a specific to a specific character which tells me you’ve got a great affinity with that character.
I do. I definitely think that the birth of this project was the character of the alien imitation. She’s the first baby in this process. She’s my first child. Definitely I think I’m more Imitation most days than Julianna, but I’ve got to tell you, some days you’re just, you’re just Julianna and then you’re like, “God, get me out of here.” Since the inception of the project is this alien creature comes and we experience the world in the blend of sadness and beauty that we see through her eyes. A little bit of both.
Given the music that you have and the music IDs for each of the characters, how important then was working with Gabriel de Urioste on the editing? This is Gabriel’s first feature, but because this is so dependent on lyricism, an unspoken lyricism, what kind of challenges did that present for the two of you in the editing room?
Gabriel is amazing. Gabriel is incredibly talented. He’s a filmmaker as well in his own right. I think that is also incredibly important to me to have somebody who has also created their own work. He’s made some really beautiful short films. I just love his work. Right off the bat, we’ve been working together since school. We have such a comfortable repartee that I feel great respect for him and I know he has great respect for me and my storytelling techniques. He has been also with the sketch from day one. It’s this relationship that’s been built for years. Much like my relationship with Lauren. There’s this trust and this respect. When he has an idea, we talk about it and we go from there. I really think that’s very important. Gabe is also a music lover. He has a great taste in music and a great sense of musicality. I think that also was very, very helpful.
We had a really interesting time where he was actually on set with us for the New Mexico portion. Unfortunately, he couldn’t be on the New York part. We would be on set and working. He and I would sit together at lunch and we would talk through some of the stuff that happened. He’s really thinking about it from the beginning as we’re starting to piece it together. The other thing I have to say is that Gabe was really really good about letting me come in and get my hands dirty with the edit. He was very comfortable with me coming in and really getting a few things here and a few things there. I really think the fact that he’s a filmmaker is incredibly important. The other thing I have to say is, this is an indie feature. We shot this movie in 18 days which is just crazy. It’s just bonkers. You have no money. You have no time. You have a very small crew. Talented crew. When you’re in the edit, you’re only really looking at two or three takes for every shot. We are really talking, basically from the beginning, it’s not as much about sitting down with a trillion hours of footage. It’s pre-production. It’s development. It’s sitting beforehand and saying, “Here’s how this is going to fall. Here’s how this is going to flow.” When it came to the edit process, it was actually very smooth and very fast. It’s all about prep.
Now that you have successfully made it through IMITATION GIRL, you got financing for it, you got it made, you got into film festivals, what have you learned about yourself as a director in the process of making this film?
Wow. That’s a big question. I have learned that this is what I love, for sure. This is my first feature, so I think you don’t really know until you have really gone the full process through with a film, from conception to where we are now. For all of it, stress and all these things, I just think there’s nothing really like bringing a feature film to fruition. I can’t wait to do it again. I’m definitely hooked, as far as that goes. I just felt that a lot of what I believed, for however long ago I started going down this path, that I am collaborative and that I get so much joy from working with talented people. Everything we’ve talked about on this call has been about opening this story and opening my heart really to this project, to these talented people who I respect and who, hopefully, respect me, in creating something that’s just really content in what I can do by myself. I think that is the essence of what being a filmmaker’s really about and just love that process. I can’t wait to do it again hopefully with these same folks. Because this is what we did with 18 days and no money. I’m looking forward to what we can pull off with a few more dollars in our hands. It’s just amazing what people do when they believe in something and they believe it will be good and that it will be beautiful. People will really, they’ll go the extra mile. I just think that’s amazing. I think that’s incredible.
Is IMITATION GIRL playing anywhere else on the fest circuit right now or was Dances With Films the only one you locked in so far?
We have some more lined up. We haven’t announced them yet, so, unfortunately, I can’t say which ones. We are playing internationally and we are playing in U.S. as well back on the East Coast and hopefully back on the West Coast as well. Probably straight through October, we’ll be playing all around the country and internationally. We’re just thrilled that people are seeing it. You don’t really know when you finish a film, you’re like, “Well hopefully people get to see this movie.” We’re just happy. It’s so enjoyable to listen to and let it flow over you. That’s half of my goal is to create just something that’s a sensory experience. Maybe some images or moments stick with you. You can meditate and lose yourself a little bit and just be wrapped up in the spectacle of the thing. Plot is great, but really, I just wanted to do something that people can feel something while they’re sitting there. That really means a lot.
by debbie elias, interview 6/11/2017