65th Berlinale Interview: Rania Attieh & Daniel Garcia (Writers/Directors – H.)

h_poster_1_14_15H. is a mysterious, modern interpretation of a classic tragedy in which two women, each named Helen, live mirrored lives in the town of Troy, NY. The first Helen is in her 60s, lives with her husband, and takes care of an eerily lifelike baby doll called a “Reborn Doll,” which she cares for as though it were alive. The second Helen is in her 30s, has a successful art career and is four months pregnant. One night, something unexplainable falls out of the sky and explodes over the town. In the aftermath of this event, bizarre and unexplainable things begin to happen. As people in the town go missing en masse and unnatural cloud formations begin appearing in the sky, the two women find themselves and their lives spinning out of control.

H. is a tale that is maybe both ancient and modern.

Anticipating the 65th Berlinale premiere of H. we spoke with the film’s multi-talented Writers/Directors/Editors/Cinematographers Rania Attieh & Daniel Garcia on the film’s Hellenic origins, its practical makeup, playing Sundance, and more.  H. screens in Berlin, Germany as part of Berlinale on Tuesday, February 10, Wednesday, February 11, Friday, February 13 and Saturday, February 14, 2015 as part of the festival’s Forum section.

Find more information about ‘H.’ at 65th BerlinaleHERE

What was the first aspect of, what would eventually become, ‘H.’ that came to you?  Was it a particular character, theme, location…?
Rania Attieh
: The baby! I saw one of the babies and I thought it was real.  Someone told us what it was, I held one and I asked him [Daniel] if he even knew these things exist?  We then fell into this subculture of middle aged women who collected them, nursing them as their own.  The Helen of that particular section is entirely based on our research into this culture.

Daniel Garcia: The ordering was: the baby and the notion of something falling out of the sky starting a series of events…

RA: …and a woman going into a forest and never coming out.

DG: A friend of ours had land in the Berkshires so we knew we could use it.  Even though we didn’t, we thought about using a similar location, possibly in the wintertime.  The thought of a snow covered forest sounded very interesting.

RA: Then you start writing and things develop…

DG:…exactly, we figured out we wanted to have two women as protagonists.  It was not until much later when we found out about Troy.

Troy, the town in New York State?
RA: Yes.  We knew the Greek tale of Troy already.  Also, the film was developing into something [Greek] tragic, with characters like the horseman, for example.  Then we found the town of Troy, NY.

H Stills_1What is it about Greek tragedy that appealed to you in wanting its thematic elements so pronounced on screen?
RA: It is a different type of narrative.  There is an interest in telling a tale.  Not every movie has to be about the neighbor next door and her problems.  There is a storytelling history that is becoming, for us, completely lost in cinema.  Well, Hollywood does it…badly, but they still use imagination.

With that approach, how did you find the balance in including the additional genre elements of the film (psychological thriller, science fiction, horror) with tragedy? Did you find it worked together or did you have to reach in order to find that connection?
RA: We were writing and it just came.  We do not think about what theme or genre(s) we want to infuse in our films. In all honesty, if Daniel came to me and said he wanted to make a sci-fi film, I would have said no.  I am not a sci-fi fan, or know anything about it.  I would not be able to contribute anything.

The genres of our films have been “determined” after we finish.  People look at the film and tell us the genres they see.  Our films are very personal, even though unbelievable, they represent everything we like or have seen, etc.  It is not so calculated.  It is more about the mood of the moment.  If you are our friend and you watch our films, you will probably recognize stories we have told from our own experiences show up on screen.

So, what is the story of the giant head floating down the river?
DG: While we were writing we saw that news clip.  It happened on the Hudson River near Poughkeepsie, NY.  Some rowing team found this head in the water.  No one knew where it came from or anything. Stories started developing…

RA:  We thought it was amazing.  When we were trying to structure the film we wanted something to “connect” it and we thought this was just amazing!  Also, we are fascinated by everything surreal. There is something extraordinary about reality.  Sometimes we forget that.

When you are on location, how did you sense it?
RA: We went as we were writing.  For us, location is always a character.  We always use real locations so we scout specific interiors/exteriors.  We try and be very true to the places we choose.  The scenes came out of the places we shot, like “Famous Lunch,” for example.

H Stills_10As dual Directors (amongst other roles) how do you balance roles on set?
DG: There is a lot of dueling” [laughs].  It is a discussion/argument all the time.

RA: Daniel does the camera, but I have a say in every frame. If we want to cover things differently and do not agree we do it both ways and decide later since we edit the film too.  We fight in private! Sometimes we talk with the actors at the same time; sometimes between each other.

Is this approach to your filmmaking a specific choice as to how you will work in the future?
DG:  In certain aspects it is.  I don’t think we want to continue doing as much as we have been doing. Our first film was literally just the two of us.  Our second feature we had a crew of five and here we had twelve.  Obviously, we would like to have [way] more people, but I think we would still be doing things in our “core” way.  Editing will definitely be one of those, but I am not sure if camera will be.  Up until this point, it has been a matter of necessity…

RA: …also money.

DG: I do like shooting, which is strange because I do not necessarily enjoy working as a DP.  I might do it now, but it wasn’t something I have done professionally in the past.

How did you approach the cinematography?
DG: We knew we wanted something classic and clean.  We knew we wanted slow dolly moves, slow pans, slow pushins and so on.  In the past, there may have been more handheld use than otherwise so we knew we wanted the reverse of that.  When we did use handheld it was for a specific purpose.  We had an aesthetic going that we stuck with.

As you are based in New York City, can you speak to how the city aided in getting ‘H.’ made?
DG:  We have been there for a while.  I went to grad school at NYU and Rania went to City College so we have a solid group of contacts and people able to facilitate the process.

RA:  One of our producers has a post house in Brooklyn [Nice Dissolve].

DG:  Also, one of my professors was from Troy so he was the first one to facilitate introductions with the people there.  That really helped get this film finished.  Now, that we have been there so long , it is just part of our being.  I don’t think we consciously try and use New York facilities or services exclusively, but it is inevitable.

H Stills_7You screened at Sundance in January, how can you compare Berlinale and Sundance?
RA: We have not had a screening here yet, but we premiered in Venice, which we can compare.  They are completely different audiences.  In Venice they were very silent and tense. At Sundance, the audience found humor in very awkward moments.  They got a completely differnet reaction, which was surprising to us after seeing it with the Eurpoean audience first.  People liked it, but there was no real “reaction” in Venice.

In general, Sundance was a good experience?
DG: Yeah, for sure.  It was our first time at Sundance so it was a little overwhelming.  It was sensory overload at some points, which was a little tiring, but it was a great experience!

– Interview conducted, edited & transcribed (on location) by Steve Rickinson

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Twitter: @HtheFilm

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