EO, Holy Spider Directors Interview

The Hollywood Reporter’s first panel of international directors at this year’s Palm Springs Film Festival features movies with atypical lead actors. Jerzy Skolimowski’s EO, starring several camera-ready Sardinian donkeys, stands out as perhaps the most unlikely casting choice. Projects such as Pan Nalin’s The Last Film Show and Colm Bairéad’s The Quiet Girl both feature young child actors in lead roles, which necessitated extensive nationwide talent scouting and rigid scheduling to accommodate child labor laws.

The breadth of different tones and kinds of stories included in these Oscar-shortlisted international films is evidenced by the varying genres represented on the panel: Tarik Saleh’s Cairo Conspiracy is a thriller centering around the eponymous Egyptian city’s religious and political elites. Joyland, Saim Sadiq’s feature debut, is a family drama that tackles issues of gender, sexuality and lineage. And Ali Abbasi’s Holy Spider is based on a real-life serial killer who targeted sex workers in the Iranian city of Mashhad.

While the films’ subject matter varies greatly, they are united by their respective auteur’s passion for storytelling and ability to overcome the most gargantuan of obstacles — from having their movie banned to smuggling dildos through customs. THR’s Mia Galuppo facilitates this enlightening conversation about how each of these international films was made.

What is one thing — whether it be a shot, a set piece, casting, a sequence — that proved most difficult to capture in your movies, and how did you accomplish it? 

PAN NALIN Cast[ing], because the protagonist is only supposed to be nine years old, and he had to literally carry the film. When we started initial auditions, the so-called professional child actors [were] influenced by popular Indian cinema. So their idea of acting is something far from what I was looking for. With my casting director, we said: “We have to go for a non-actor. Let’s go to the places in remote parts [of India] where kids very rarely go to see cinema,” because my film is about film, and maybe they will have this same magic when they watch movies and they’ll fall in love with it. And that’s where we hit the jackpot. But during the entire process, going to the deeper countryside, our casting directors twice escaped mob lynching. Because people thought: “They’ve come to kidnap our kids.”

JERZY SKOLIMOWSKI The main part in my movie is played by six different donkeys. But the very first one I met was in Sicily. And I got so excited by the situation in which I met that particular animal that I called my friends in Poland and I said, “Grab [a] camera, borrow it, come over here.” That was a very popular breed in Italy called Sardinian donkeys, characterized [by] very light gray fur, and this thick black hair going from the top of the head up to the tail and then crossing the front legs. I believe that’s probably the most beautiful breed of donkey. So once we shot it, and I knew that we were going to shoot a Polish-Italian co-production, I immediately called my animal handlers in Poland and I said “get you all the Sardinian breed of donkeys available in Poland!” The answer was immediate: “Yes, we have three.” So the choice was rather limited, but I was lucky. Two of them — one male, one female — were the main donkeys. We shot perhaps 70 percent of the screen time with them.

COLM BAIRÉAD Under child labor laws in Ireland, you can only work for seven-and-a-half hours with a young actor. So we had to be extraordinarily prepared and militant. Anytime you see the [main] character’s hand or her foot or anything like that, that’s not Catherine Clinch, who plays the lead role. That’s another double that we had. But what I was more concerned about was I knew that we were going to have to shoot scenes with our other actors that are adults, whereby Catherine would have to leave at a certain point, and then we’d still have all of their reverses to do. We did have a double that we offered them that could stand in for those scenes. We’d shoot Catherine’s angles first. And then she’d get her round of applause and she’d be gone. Then we’d turn around and get all of their angles. And the remarkable thing was, even though we had the struggle, the adult actors invariably would ask not to use the double, because they were so entranced by what Catherine had done, and what they’d just witnessed, that their memory of her performance was enough for them to play off. Oftentimes, they’re acting to a C stand with a bit of gaffer tape on it for eyeline. 

TARIK SALEH In the middle of the film, there is this scene [that] has thousands of students in a cramped courtyard. It was during COVID, and we were shooting in Istanbul. One big reason was because [Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan had opened the country to shoot with really high numbers of COVID. So I talked to the production company in Turkey, and I said, “Listen, every extra needs to be tested. We need to keep everyone safe.” And they were looking at me and saying, “Tarik, we’re going to be honest with you. We’re not going to test them. Because they will go home to their homes, we can’t afford to keep them in a bubble.” So when we were shooting that scene, it was literally like being in a horror film.

ALI ABBASI We shot the movie in Jordan. I was talking to my Jordanian producer, and she was like, “There’s this big scene I’m worried about. You know, that scene with…” I was like, “Oh, the blowjob scene.” “We haven’t done anything like this in this country.” They were like, “Okay, so we have to do one exterior part. Then we do one part in the van.” This scene is about one of the sex workers giving one trucker a blowjob. [She said:] “And then we go and build a tent and do the rest.” I’m like, “Why don’t we just do it in one place?” And [they’re] like, “Well, if you do that, the cops would come and deport you.” Then my next question was: Where’s the prosthetic penis? And they’re like, “It’s Jordan, there is no prosthetic penis here.” So our German producer had to fly with the prosthetic penis to Jordan. And him being German, he goes to the customs and says, “Hey, we want to make a film. I have a prosthetic penis.” And they’re like, “You come with us.” So they confiscated the prosthetic penis, and we had a crisis meeting about this with me and with the actor, Alice [Rahimi], she’s French-Afghani, a fantastic actor. She was like, “You know, if everything goes bad, I’ll do it.” I was like, “No, you’re not doing anything real. We’re not going to go there. I have enough troubles.” So finally, we got a person flying from France, who was her friend, with the dildo and hiding it in their pants and going through customs. So they come and the producer comes in, very proud. I’m like, “Okay, this is great. Let’s go and shoot it.” And they’re like, “Yeah, but there’s another problem. We don’t have anyone who wants to do it, who wants to be the trucker.” So guess who did it.

PAN NALIN Can I make a movie about that, please?

Pan, what made you decide to make this movie when you did?

NALIN I had totally fallen in love with light [as a child], not really storytelling nor the image, but the light. Because in the old cinema hall, at least in India, the people used to smoke cigarettes and so the shafts of light were far more dramatic than the film. All these projectors are being turned into spoons and film reels are becoming bangles for women. This is a sad era we have reached. My mind started drifting and going back to my own childhood memories, how beautiful it was to fall in love with cinema. I missed that beauty of just falling in love with cinema fearlessly. 

Saim, you said being a filmmaker in Pakistan, you’re compelled to be an artist and an activist. When did you have that realization, and how does it affect your filmmaking?

SAIM SADIQ If you’ve grown up in Pakistan, and I did, I obviously knew everything that was offensive [to Pakistan] about the film: a man having an affair with a trans woman, just that idea of love between two people who are not cis male [and cis female] just being so offensive to so many. And many other things, like female desire, etc, etc. So I knew there were a lot of things that were going to be offensive to certain people. And I, foolishly or naively, thought that it’s okay, because my film is actually about a very conservative family. So I’m putting the right wing that may not like the film at the heart and center of the film, and I’m actually very empathetic towards them as a filmmaker. I thought that maybe people are going to watch it and be like, “Okay, this is a film about gender and sexuality, things that we don’t really want to talk about, but at least it is talking about it with an empathy towards the people who don’t have the most liberal views by putting them into the seat of the protagonist.” We saw the notice on Twitter — we didn’t even receive the notice in person — the film has been banned. It was a very basic choice: Are you going to join a very long list of films that have been banned in Pakistan before, and just sit quietly and be sad about it? Or [are] you gonna do something? I’m glad that we were naive and foolish and cocky, all things that come with young age, that we were like, “No, we’re gonna fight back,” and there was a lot that came out of it which was bad. The good thing was that we managed to become the first film that got unbanned.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

Palm Springs Film Festival

The directors at the Palm Springs Film Festival

Courtesy of Andrew Cabral Photography/Palm Springs International Film Society

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