The story is deceptively simple – and yawningly familiar. A man (Aaron Eckhart) and a woman (Helena Bonham Carter) reunite at a New York wedding reception over drinks and cigarettes. Lovers in youth, the two older, wiser acquaintances stir up their past attraction, leading to an impulsive, heated hotel-room tryst.
So far, so unremarkable. But first-time director Hans Canosa transforms this over-used premise into something moving and memorable, courtesy a unique, two-camera filming method called “dual-frame.” For “Conversations With Other Women,” Canosa splits the screen in half. On the left, we study Carter’s emotional dialogue and body language as she responds to this one-time boyfriend’s persistent come-ons. The screen’s opposite side reveals Eckhart’s suave seducer through facial close-ups, flashbacks, and other subtle images.
All the while, the actors are separated by the screen’s central line. While both characters might temporarily bask in feelings of romantic nostalgia, the passing years have forever divided them. When Eckhart reflects on memories from twelve years ago, Carter exclaims, “I’m not interested in other women.” Clearly, there’s no turning back the hands of time.
Thankfully, the following interview remains undivided. From a press room at the 2006 Seattle International Film Festival, Canosa and Executive producer Kwesi Collisson explain how the dual-frame device enhanced “Conversations With Other Women,” elaborate on the concept of “double siders,” and describe what it’s like to be stalked through the streets of Tokyo.
Is your film enhanced by repeated viewings? Do you hear from people who have seen the film several times, and focus on a different character’s perspective the second time around?
HC: Definitely. We’ve been at some different festivals, including Telluride. It started there. We had multiple viewers, who would say, “We’re going again.” For any good film, you want to be able to say, “You really have to see it again to get everything.” This film, by its very definition, needs to be seen twice. There were multiple viewers in Telluride, and also in Tokyo. I was never sure how this would play to foreign audiences, because there is a lot of English dialogue. But people were crazy for it in Japan, which I didn’t necessarily expect. We had a group of young men and young women who were kind of stalking the two of us around Tokyo.
KC: A man came up to us in the middle of the night, in Tokyo, and handed over photographs of us, from our Q & A the previous day!
HC: The guy went to all four screenings of the film. “He said, ‘Every time I see the film, it’s a different movie.’” We were fortunate to get a special jury prize, and Helena won Best Actress, so we really had a good reception there. The idea that multiple viewings are beneficial for this one is definitely true – whether you’re one of the crazy fans, or someone just casually seeing it. It’s really designed to let you participate in the film, as a viewer.
KJ: I would think that like a favorite rock record, you could experience it time and time again, or time, and still pick up on subtle nuances that you had not noticed previously…
HC: This may sound particularly “young filmmaker naïve,” but because it’s a simple story and also a complex perceptual experience, I honestly find myself getting wrapped up in the story. Despite having seen it hundreds of times, I still find different ways to see it. And this is coming from the guy who made it (laughs)!
KJ: Is there a recent example of your seeing it in “a different way?”
HC: There’s a moment right after the dance, where the two characters walk up to the bar together. It’s empty, except for the cleaning people. They are trying to figure out what comes next. They both know that they really want to go up to the room. Aaron and Helena walk up to the bar, ask for a drink, and the bartender runs away. They both look over the bar, like this (leans forward), and Aaron says, “Oh – a little mouse!” It’s hard to hear – he just tosses it off. I asked him about this recently. There was a little mouse on the set that he saw running past the bar, and he just remarked on it. That was the best take, so I left it in! I thought, initially, that maybe he was referring to the bartender – like, “He was a little mouse.” But no, it was a mouse (laughter).
KJ: Gabrielle Zevin was the screenwriter for the film. I understand that both of you went to Harvard. How did the two of you meet?
HC: I met her when she was seventeen, acting in a television project I was doing. I found out that she was a playwright and read one of her plays. I instantly knew that this was someone I was going to collaborate with. And I have, for ten years. I’m more of a director than a writer. I work with her on the scripts, and on conceiving the stories, but she is the writer – a fantastic writer. I stay out of her way. Before we worked on this one, we had six different screenplays optioned. Almost anything we wrote, we optioned – with me attached to direct. But nobody wanted to let me direct. We kept writing smaller budgeted films, until finally we had two people in a hotel room, in New York City. We live in New York, so we figured ‘Someone will let us make this.’ Of course, someone eventually did, but we had to go to L.A. to shoot it (laughs). Gabrielle and I are in pre-production on “After Dark,” a very unusual vampire movie. It’s not violent, and it’s not horror. It’s not about forbidden sexuality. It’s a very romantic love story. A young vampire girl falls in love with a human. It gets into some of the same themes as “Conversations With Other Women,” which are love and loss. You take a chance on love, and you can lose it. It’s a very funny, real look at that dilemma – for humans, and for vampires (laughter).
KJ: Will “After Dark” be shot in dual screen?
HC: No dual screen (laughter). I love it, and I discovered a lot of storytelling tools that you can’t get any other way. But I’m looking forward to only being responsible for having one screen to fill! But I’ll definitely do it again. I even joked with Aaron and Helena on the last day of shooting, about doing a “Before Sunrise”/”Before Sunset” thing. It was during a rooftop scene, where they talk about going to Guam or Bora Bora. They said, “As long as it’s Guam or Bora Bora, we’re back for the sequel.”
KJ: Was “Conversations With Other Women” always intended to be shot in dual frame?
HC: It was always intended to be dual frame. I came up with the idea for doing it during the first film I had ever seen in a theater. My parents are fundamentalist Christians, and I was not allowed to watch movies growing up. They were considered “evil.” So, of course, that’s what I ended up devoting my life to (laughter). I was seventeen years old, and that first film was an overwhelming, holy experience. That night, I had a nightmare that I was back in the theater, and whenever the characters were cut away from onscreen, they died. It was like they could only live while they were onscreen. In the nightmare, I invented another screen that was behind the audience. So there were two screens that the actors could play on. No one needed to die. They could always be on one of the screens. For years, I knew I would eventually make a movie on two screens, concerning a man’s perspective, and a woman’s perspective.
An advantage to doing it this way is that you can send the script out to agents, and say, “Your actor will be in every second of the film.” Agents tend to like that. So that’s one of the ways that we got these fantastically talented actors to get involved.
KJ: You actors are very exposed. There’s no escaping the screen. This must have been a very exhausting process for them.
HC: On the first day of shooting, Helena came to me and said, “I didn’t know what I was getting into, because I will never have a moment of rest. I’m always onscreen.” That’s exciting, but also scary, because there is no room for sitting back. So it was exhausting to the actors, but also exciting for them.
KJ: For a first-time director helming an unconventional project, how did you persuade two relatively high-profile actors to come on board?
HC: Kerry Barden, our casting director, was really responsible (for getting the actors). Agents don’t want to commit their actors to a no-budget film with any amount of lead-time, because something that pays them money could come up. I had gotten two weeks in December with Helena and another actor. The other actor had to bow out because of scheduling conflicts. Helena stuck by me. I told her, “We lost our actor. But I’m gonna get you a great guy.” Aaron became available. We had two weeks of pre-production, and two weeks of shooting. Then, it was all done – that quick. It’s remarkable that in two weeks, the actors could both go where they went, emotionally, with this piece. Just spit out seven or eight pages of dialogue a day, as well as do an intimate love scene, and all these other things. It’s a testament to their level of craft. They were great.
KJ: You lived on a mission in Singapore, with parents who were quite conservative. During that formative time, which movies influenced your future direction as a filmmaker?
HC: I actually lived on a mission compound. By compound, I don’t mean armed guards. But there were gates. It was not easy for a ten year old to sneak off. The way that I first experienced movies was by reading about them. I found a book on the making of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” When you’re ten, you get past notions of being a firefighter and start really thinking about what you want to do. I thought that filmmaking would be the best job in the world. I read about how Kubrick prepared, and said, “That’s what I want to do.” But I couldn’t tell anybody, because that was also the road to Hell. The first time I saw a movie was actually on video. It was the mid-eighties, and home video had become possible. I watched it secretly on somebody else’s VCR. Having read about movies, I knew there were two I really wanted to see: “2001,” and “Citizen Kane.” That was my first double feature. Between those two films, you get a pretty good idea of what’s possible in cinema.
KJ: Do you have any contact with your parents at this time?
HC: I don’t have a lot, actually. We are at cross-purposes. They are converting the world, and I’m telling it with movies.
KJ: Is there a moment where one actor’s face was shown in both frames, showing two different emotions coming out in the same shot?
HC: Yes. The actors actually coined a term for this – “double siders.” I had told them that this is a possibility. Helena would come up to me and say, “I’m gonna be so good in this, you’re gonna give me a double-sider.” So they started competing for the number of double-siders. If you pay attention to the film, each actor has exactly the same number of double-siders. In one example, Aaron asks Helena how she feels, after they have had sex and she has talked with her husband on the phone. She says, “I’m happy. Of course, I’m happy.” It double-sides there. On one side, she says, “I’m happy,” just casually. On the other side, she’s crying. The way that I work with actors, I don’t give them line readings. I let them create. I didn’t expect her to go there. But as soon as I saw it, I went to her afterward, and said, “You’ve got a double-sider,” because she gave me those two very different readings. For me, it’s not a gimmick, to show off what we can do with two frames. It really is a way of expressing something that’s real. We often have two emotions when we’re in a moment. I can be trying to seduce a woman, and be both nervous and excited. If I were to portray both of those things, you would see me nervous about trying to “get her,” and excited about the possibilities. They are two very different things. Here, I can actually show both.
This storytelling technique allows you to grab something that’s explosive and different, then put it in – and it’s meaningful.
KJ: Here’s a philosophical question. The two leads in your film have changed over time. They knew each other in the past, but they are different people now. Things cannot really be the same. There will always be a certain separation. Time changes everyone. Do you think that people can sustain an intimate relationship indefinitely? Marriage, for example?
That’s a great question. It’s one that comes up every place in the world that we have screened this film. It’s much more exciting to me than speaking about split-screens, and everything else. The intent of the movie is to tell a very personal story that makes you ask these questions. There is one overwhelming comment that I get about the film from audiences that get over the split screen: it is an experimental film, and I know there are a certain percentage of people who will never come. There are others who will come and not like split-screen. That’s what happens when you do something different. But for those who like it, the big comment is that they forget about the split-screen after the first five minutes. But forgetting about it is not the same as not being affected by it.
If you just look at numbers, the fact that more marriages break up than stay together, and the fact that an overwhelming number of people in monogamous relationships cheat, seems to indicate that we are not necessarily intended to be with one person for a lifetime. On the other hand, I think humans are capable of anything. I think that’s what the film explores. That these people can be many people. You can be a different person tomorrow than you are today. And I think it is possible to be together forever. I don’t know that the myth of “The One” is as much of a certainty as our society suggests. But I don’t want to discourage anyone from pursuing that myth, if that’s what he or she wants.