"Day Night Day Night": A Conversation With Julia Loktev By Katherine Tulich

in 42nd Chicago International Film Festival

by Katherine Tulich

Julia Loktev was born in Russia and emigrated with her family to the U.S. at age 9. A former radio DJ, she made audio art pieces before enrolling in New York University’s film school. Her graduate thesis, Moment of Impact, won a slew of prizes including ones at Sundance and Karlovy Vary. Her feature debut, Day Night Day Night, a riveting and insightful portrayal of a suicide bomber, won the Prix Regards Jeune at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival Director’s Fortnight before receiving the FIPRESCI prize at the 2006 Chicago International Film Festival.

What was your inspiration for this film?
I was working on a film in St Petersburg and I visited Moscow as a tourist. I was walking around with my backpack and then a week later a girl who was a potential suicide bomber had walked around the same route. I was really struck by the idea that we were both walking around the same places and the same streets, and from the outside we would have looked no different to the people around us. On the surface it looks like nothing is happening. So I was fascinated with what is going on beneath the surface. Here was someone doing ordinary things but with extraordinary motives. And then I began to research other suicide bombers and the minutiae of their actions fascinated me. There was another Chechen bomber who blew up a train but on her way she stopped to buy bananas, and then a girl in Israel who stopped to have lunch in a café before she blew it up.

Is that why the character in the film seems obsessed with eating?
Well, people who do this are not your stereotypical killers. They are not Tom Cruise in Collateral — they are ordinary people. They are going off to their death, yet there is this sense of having their last meal.

We are not aware of her motives or her background, why did you do it that way?
The film deals with a hot subject matter, and people have wondered how you could make a film about a suicide bomber and not depict her as some kind of monster, but I think an explanation like she is avenging the death of her parents would be over-simplified. The motives of a suicide bomber are much more complicated than that and the profile has shifted. It’s not just young single men; that profile no longer holds. Of course, this film does not exist in a vacuum: there are numerous articles of suicide bombings but in this film you don’t know the purpose. I didn’t want a simplistic story of right and wrong. It’s like making the film about the first paragraph of a newspaper but the more interesting story is the rest, which is buried further down in the article.

We really don’t know the origin of anyone in the film. Why did you do that?
I tried to have people speak with no accent. You don’t know their ethnicity or religion. I didn’t want to cast blue eyes because then they would be associated with white supremacists. The film isn’t about that. Is she Muslim or not? We don’t know. We are just focusing on a girl who in her mind has made a decision and feels it’s a moral certainty. Also you never see the bomb; you only see the detonator, which is just a volume control on a headphone and the backpack.

Tell me about casting your lead character, played by Luisa Williams.
We didn’t want to use a face that would be familiar, so I didn’t want to use a known actor. We saw about 650 girls before we found her. Luisa answered a flyer on a lamppost at Coney Island. She was a nanny at the time but said she felt impelled to answer it. In the ad, we asked for someone who could pass for 19 and looked ethnically ambiguous. We did our best to discourage the usual casting call but we still got the American idol kind of crowd coming in: “I’m Tiffany and I’m an Aquarius.”

What was so special about Luisa?
You could see the thoughts going through her mind. She is completely transparent and she could embody the characters discomfort in the material world.

Had she ever acted before?
She had never acted before so we rehearsed and constructed the performance together. I told her to speak at half of her regular volume. She brought a lot of concentration and dedication to the role. She is currently working in a video store but she said making the film was a transformative experience for her.

Tell me about filming in the middle of Times Square.
It was really exhilarating shooting in the street and working with non-actors. We didn’t block off any streets, so when things happen like she runs into the street, we filmed it as she did it. I think so many films have this fantasy idea of N.Y. because most films will close the street and bring in a bunch of extras. I really think this gives you a real sense of New York.

The film has a sense of claustrophobia with lots of extremely close shots. Tell me about that?
I like to get in close like a probing microscope. That is my style. I even operated a couple of the shots. It was a very intimate way of working. Quite often the camera was virtually up Luisa’s nose. We just worked so closely together, I would talk her through a scene and I would give her minute instructions like “bend your pinkie”.

How long did it take to shoot and what was the budget?
We shot for a month. It was very concentrated and we shot in sequence. The budget was around $US 300,000.

Why the title “Day Night Day Night”?
For a long time it was just the “Untitled Project”. I didn’t want a name that would overshadow it. My editor suggested the final title, which I thought had a good innocuous tone to it and is just the time length of the story.

What are your ambitions in terms of filmmaking?
I can’t see myself going to Hollywood trying to make big action films. For me it is about the challenge of making the film, but a slightly bigger budget and slightly bigger scale would be great.