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BLACK NIGHTS 2020 Competition

Laila Pakalniņa • Director of In the Mirror

“We weren't looking for an easy way to do things”


- We had the chance to chat to Laila Pakalniņa, director of the experimental drama In the Mirror, one of this year's main competition titles presented at Tallinn Black Nights

Laila Pakalniņa • Director of In the Mirror

Veteran Latvian filmmaker Laila Pakalniņa has returned to the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival with her new feature, the experimental, grotesque drama In the Mirror [+see also:
film review
interview: Laila Pakalniņa
film profile
. We had the opportunity to discuss the making of her film, its peculiar “selfie aesthetics” and her new documentary project.

Cineuropa: How did you start developing In the Mirror?
Laila Pakalniņa:
At first, I had the idea of exploring selfies as a form. Somehow, my daughter started communicating with me through selfies – she wasn't sending me still portraits, but short video messages. Then I understood there was something to dig into there. But working with mobiles wouldn't have been interesting enough for me. For sure, I knew I needed professional cameras, horizontal framing and, most probably, anamorphic lenses because I like to work on the mise-en-scène, not just on someone's close-up. I realised it was a very interesting form that could be used to communicate and show people the world through a self-portrait. The next idea that came to me was a fairy tale, Snow White. I somehow realised that what this stepmother was talking to was a mirror, so it was already a selfie! I wanted to offer that tool to all of my characters.

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It's a complex project and a very experimental one. Did you have any difficulties in clearly explaining your idea at the very beginning, when pitching the project and looking for potential backers?
I'd say that I was happy to have some development funding from the National Film Centre of Latvia. We tried to film something ourselves. They weren't scenes from this particular movie, but we tried to make selfie shots with the same type of mise-en-scène and the same camera – the ARRI Alexa Mini – that we would have used, in order to have something specific to show. And this was really a project that required you to show something!

How did you cast the three lead roles – Snow White, the stepmother and the father?
For all of them, what was needed – besides their acting skills – was obviously strong physical skills. We didn't do too many auditions, frankly. The stepmother [Elza Leimane] is a very famous ballet dancer. I was lucky to be able to work with her, and she's really talented. Besides, her choreography skills were of great help! At the time of filming, Snow White [Madlēna Valdberga] was still a school girl, but also a professional dancer and an acrobat – that was a perfect match! The father [Lauris Dzelzītis] is an actor, but when I invited him for the auditions, I realised he was familiar with fitness, too.

What about the choice of filming it in black and white?
Usually, when you film in black and white, it's easier to organise framing, as it's not that chaotic. We weren't looking for an easy way to do things, though. But this is a fairy tale, and black and white leaves the viewers some room for fantasy. I believe that when you watch something shot in black and white, perhaps you see it as it is for the first few minutes, but then you can unleash your imagination and see the colours.

What about the special “selfie aesthetics”? How did you achieve them?
Not all of the shots were done in the same manner. In only two cases were the actors not “hooked” to the DoP – namely, when they were wearing the body-mounted camera or when they were running. Those shots were filmed with a Steadicam, either mounted on the cinematographer himself or even handheld. The main tool we used to render said aesthetics was a handle, which had to be long enough, as the actors needed to stay a reasonable distance from the lens in order to set the focus properly. It was very hard to keep the actors at the right distance.

What's your next project about?
I'm working on a documentary feature called Homes. Once more, it's easier to talk about it by explaining what's in the shots. It's about homes and the act of filming. We asked people to go out of their homes, and we filmed them through their own windows. We showed them how we do framing, we gave them outside walkie-talkies, and the DoP told them where they had to stand. These dynamics created some interesting interactions among them – they're folks of all kinds: big families, single people and so on... We filmed it in Latvia this summer. We're in post now. Editing is locked, and we're finalising the sound.

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