13 (Tzameti) is Gela Babluani’s first feature film, but his direction already shows assurance and flair. Tzameti (the Georgian word for 13) tells the tale of a young man named Sebastien (played by Georges Babluani, the director’s younger brother) who stumbles across a clue in the house of an older junkie that he believes will lead to quick money. Sebastien’s trip down the rabbit hole as he follows increasingly mysterious directions swiftly becomes a nightmare, as he finds himself entangled in an increasingly deadly game.
While Tzameti is Gela’s first movie, he is no stranger to the film business. Gela’s father, Temur Babluani, is a well-known and respected filmmaker. Gela was born in Tbilisi, Georgia, and migrated to Paris at an early age. Though Tzameti is shot in France, it is steeped in an Eastern European worldview, and the protagonist and his family are immigrants. Tzameti is also an exercise in black-and-white style, borrowing liberally from the Film Noir and French New Wave traditions. Graphic violence is restrained, but Tzameti’s tense realism and oppressive atmosphere caused at least one critic to rapidly exit the New York press screening.
Cinema Strikes Back’s David Austin sat down recently to talk with Gela (in New York and taking a crash course in English), who proved quite jovial and laid-back despite the dark subject matter of the film. Following are excerpts from Gela’s comments about Tzameti, the planned remake, and the film L’Heritage which he has been working on with his father in Georgia (edited somewhat for space and grammar).
13 (Tzameti) opens in New York at the Film Forum on Friday, July 28.
ON THE REMAKE AND LEARNING ENGLISH
I need [to learn English] for my job because I’m going to make the remake of my movie next year. After Sundance, I had more than 40 propositions about the remake rights. Sometimes you have a story where, even when you’ve seen the screenplay, you don’t want to shoot it, you say “OK, I made a mistake, forget it.” But sometimes you have a movie where you can do something else, and you can tell the same story in a different way. I’m going to try to do something different, even though I want to conserve the part of the “game.”
Even in France, people ask me if [Tzameti] was really shot in France, because you can put this movie in any country and it works. Right now, I want to really try to set the story in some reality, a reality that the audience can recognize more. It’s really a challenge to try to find a balance with something much more realistic. It will be shot in the United States. Not in Hollywood, not L.A. I don’t know how people can stand L.A., it’s a big religion.
ON CASTING FOR TZAMETI AND ACTOR PHILIPPE PASSON (WHO PLAYS GODON, THE JUNKIE)
Philippe Passon was just great, because what I was looking for in this character was someone who can appear really drugged. Maybe normal people don’t know, but I know a lot of junkie guys, and sometimes, even if they are really just horrible and unbearable, sometimes they are fucking funny because they say things that are crazy. You can never imagine what kind of stupid things they can talk about. For example, when I was young one time, I met these two guys, these junkie guys, in Georgia. They were speaking in the public baths and I heard what they were talking about. There was a tree, and there were a lot of birds in this tree. And what they were talking about was elephants. And at first I thought they were kidding, and then one of them kind of got uptight and said, “well look, I’m sure they have a nest up there.” And after that I realized that they were not joking at all, and they were really in this totally unexplainable place. And, in fact, I was looking for somebody who would make me believe in that sort of thing.
In casting we saw everyone. I met like 3,200 people. We would say, “do you want to be in the movies, send your photo, even if you are not a actor, we don’t care.” A lot of strange people called me, from everywhere. One day, one guy called me and said, “I just got out of jail two days ago, and I don’t have any place to sleep, so if I can just sleep in your location where you’re shooting, it would be really great.” I said, “did you call me for a vacation or for casting?” The guy came, he was an extra in the movie, and he was really great. He’s one of the guys, the players [in the game within the film]. He had to leave though, he found an apartment. Hundreds and hundreds of different stories.
I was really looking for somebody strange. Philippe was as dark as I am, in fact even darker than I am. In the beginning, I thought no, but if I dyed his hair, he’d be magnificent. He taught French to prisoners in jail, and when he came, his test was really great. He’s fantastic. He didn’t exactly understand the dialogue I wrote for him, for example, when he was talking about being 22 years old and how great it is [a monologue in the film]. But he was really great.
It was really special, casting, because I really wanted to make this world surrealistic, but it also had to be realistic. Imagine if the film were like something that you can’t really even believe, it would horrible. I think that’s even worse than a bad comedy, because the themes are really odd. If it’s not realistic, if it’s unrealistic, I think that that’s the worst thing it could be. So I was looking for a guy who can give me the impression that this world can exist, and to compose the world with people who can make me believe it is reality.
What I needed was a mixture of people from all different kinds of worlds coming together. And sometimes, even if they are not professional actors, you can get something very spontaneous. If you are natural with the actors, if you know how to shoot them without makeup, if you really have fun with them during the shooting, they can be really great. You can’t ask them to do exactly the same thing ten times or thirty-five times like a professional actor, but they have something really different.
ON WORKING WITH HIS BROTHER
Georges is a really good actor, and he has something really atypical. He’s got a cute face, but sometimes he can really be so violent. I think it makes a really good contrast with his physique, which is angelic. He really plays his physical appearance against what’s inside. I think he really has a good acting ability, and that he can play characters that would be very different. He prefers to work in a bar. He makes nothing, just reads all day, sees all the movies. Of course, when he needs money, he calls his brother. He says he prefers to wait for something really good instead of a bullshit film. He could be in TV movies, with 25 million people watching in France.
ON SPECIFIC ASPECTS OF TZAMETI (this brief section may be of more interest to those who have already seen the film)
[Tzameti’s game features a maniacal master of ceremonies who sits above the proceedings in a high chair like a tennis referee]
Originally I had four referees, but when I met this guy [Pascal Bongard] who sits in the chair, alone, after we started to work together, he could do everything. I didn’t need any more, I was thinking I lost my time for nothing, and had to try to cut the others in editing.
[During the game, bettors negotiate for the right to bet on players]
It’s a little bit like being at the race track, each horse has its owner, in effect when you play a horse you’re indirectly passing through their owner. They have to get permission and they have to come to an agreement about the money. It’s something that’s very individual, some may say yes and some may so no.
[Gela dismissed the notion that the extremely bleak Tzameti lacked its humorous side]
I think there is humor inside. For me it was really funny when they gave a chair to the big, fat man [one of the contestants]. Everyone is getting him a chair because he’s suffering, and people are worried about his condition. I found that to be pretty funny.
It’s about some French people, a woman who goes to Georgia to collect an inheritance. The building that she inherits is up in the mountains, and it is completely destroyed, She is wants to see her inheritance, wants to see what she got, but she’s never going to come back. She takes advantage of her inheritance to go to Georgia. [Gela laughed at my suggestion that the film might be autobiographical]. She goes there with some friends. They pay someone to stay with them and work with them for a week - through him they can take some detours since he can show them where to go. They decide to go into the mountains where the inheritance is. They go by bus, a shitty Russian bus. When they leave town, the bus stops by some people - a lot of people helping someone. There’s a grandfather with his grandson who are transporting a casket, and the casket is empty.
Little by little, what they learn as the trip continues is that this casket is really for the grandfather, because what he’s doing is he’s going to this town where he has a meeting with an enemy family, and he’s going there so he can be killed. His family killed 4 members of the other family, but the other family killed just three of his, so the grandfather is going to be killed so that there will be balance and the feud will end. So everybody’s happy in the story, the chief of police knows everything. However, it will be harder than they expected. There is some comedy, but in the end it’s not a comedy.
ON HIS NEXT PROJECT AFTER THE REMAKE
It will be a dramatic thriller. More than half the movie will be set in the night life. It’s about the night life and the people who live their life in it. The story could exist anywhere, but sometime the location makes a big difference. In New York, you have normal life, but I think also at night you have more life sometimes than during the day.
Thanks to Gela Babluani for graciously participating in this interview, and to Eric Hynes and Palm Pictures for their assistance.
Filed under: Contributors: David and Movie News: Interviews and Movie News and Movie News: France and People: Gela Babluani