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2nd March 2017
A vital film maker
Title of film: Nao, In the Morning
Director: Allie Avital
Production Company: Partizan
Allie Avital, just signed to Partizan, talks to us about the influences of her Russian family and working with music artists on both sides of the Atlantic

Please briefly tell us about your childhood.

I grew up in Queens, New York to a family of Russian immigrants.  My father is a set designer for opera and theater, and my mom is an acupuncturist, formerly a fashion designer.  I did a lot of writing as a kid – I wrote short stories about my family.

Did you feel a cultural duality while growing up and if so how does this impact on your filmmaking?

Since Russian was my first language (and I didn’t learn English till I got to school), as a young child I thought all Russian stuff was nerdy and that all American stuff was “cool.”  I even used to stand in front of the mirror as a four-year-old and pretend to speak fake English just to feel like I was the coolest.  It’s funny because now as an adult, all I want is to emulate Russian filmmakers and capture Russian sensibilities in storytelling – I’m a huge Tarkovsky fan, and lately have gotten into other Russian directors such as Larisa Shepitko and Andrey Zvyagentsev.  I think there’s a certain truthfulness to my Russian side that I can’t fully access in English.

What triggered your desire to make films? Does creativity run in your family?

I grew up putting on plays with my grandma and being forced to memorize long Russian poems and songs from an early age.  I was also sitting through six hour operas that my dad designed in Europe as a kid, so I was infused with this sense of spectacle and music since I was a toddler.  When I was 12, my dad designed the MTV Video Music Awards. I got to go, and it totally blew my mind.  I started directing live performances and bizarre art videos in college, but they were always very musical and sound-based, which eventually led to music videos.

Where do you call home, and where do you live and work now?

I’m based in New York, but spend a lot of time in LA these days.

Your music videos vary in tone and concepts in really interesting ways – and your latest piece for Nao certainly intrigues. Please tell us how you evolved this narrative and what triggered the central idea?

I was thinking about this idea of letting people go, and how the end of a love is always a small death. I also remembered this short story I read in college, in which a woman’s lover de-evolves from a human to an ape to a small animal, to a tadpole, and then disappears.  Nao had told me that the song was about letting someone go, not holding on to them just for our own ego, and how painful that can be.  I thought him shrinking and then disappearing could be a really truthful and sad way to illustrate that.

We see the heart-broken lover diminishing in stature which must have been tricky to shoot.  Did that take a lot of pre-prod planning in getting the perspectives right etc – what were the main challenges of the production?

Yes! The VFX were definitely a challenge.  Balancing the technical aspects of a shoot like that with the creative direction is always tough – dealing with green screen can be a buzz kill, so it was tricky to keep in mind all the angles and perspectives while not losing track of the story.

How did you cast the role of the lover and what was the criteria you were looking for?  
We went through a lot of actors in London, and I was particularly drawn to this man’s eyes – he immediately stood out.  The audition was hilarious – having men coming into a room for two minutes each and told to drop on their knees and “plead into camera” (with a female director and producer watching) was fun – it brought out a lot of their personalities immediately.  

Do you always get deeply involved in the edit or do you prefer the editor to do a first cut?

I’m VERY involved in the edit, almost to a fault.  I’m surprised my editors don’t kill me! 🙂

From your reel we love the dark, mysterious and beautifully lit Moses track – please tell us what was behind your decision to shoot the film in this way?

The DP Martim Vian and I talked about keeping the look very warm and painterly to maximize the natural color of the skin against the dark background.  Since the moving muscles and flesh were so central to the concept, it made sense to keep the look theatrical and not overly stylized.  I like when there’s an alien or surreal aspect to a story, but the look is still natural and clean.

And of course Autre Ne Vent’s video for their track World War Pt. 2 is a stand out film. What was it you wanted to convey with its intriguing visceral choreography? Was Autre Ne Vent a straightforward shoot – did a lot of the narrative evolve in the edit?

I really wanted to explore the horror in relationships – co-dependency, neediness, how lovers can be leeches, how we can be the leech ourselves, etc.  It’s funny to me that so many people perceive that one as repulsive, because to me it’s a very relatable human story.  That one was straightforward in the sense that everything was planned in advance to the structure of the song, but the amazing house that we shot in was a happy accident, as our original location fell apart in the middle of the shoot day and we had a total of four hours to shoot the whole film when we got in the new location!  Sometimes the best work comes out of the most intense panic.  

Are your interpretations usually born out of collaborating closely with the artists or is it more a case of winning pitches with treatments?

Most definitely the former. I’m a big fan of collaborating, and almost all of my work was born out of long, in-depth conversations with the artist.  Recently I’ve been swimming laps a lot, and listen to the song I’m working on underwater when I brainstorm ideas, before I share them with the artist.

Were the interactions in Mutual Benefit a happy accident or did you have to keep shooting to get those performances?  What on earth was the kid eating?

The happy accident was finding the amazing German family with the four kids – they’re extraordinary!  But the idea itself was pretty thoroughly planned out – I rarely leave decisions for the edit.  The kid is eating crushed up Oreos! But he must have had a sugar rush or something because he started hysterically laughing as he was stuffing the crumbs in his mouth, and he looked kind of high, it made the entire crew start laughing, and there was this moment of collective hysteria with everyone just cracking up – his performance definitely came out of that magical moment.

What’s on your agenda coming up?

A few music videos brewing for the next couple months, but also focusing on writing an episodic series, a feature film, and a short.  

List five inspirations that have connected with you recently – these can be films, music videos, books, architecture, people, anything you like…

I’m obsessed with Asghar Farhadi’s films at the moment.
Also Isabelle Huppert – particularly in “Elle” but also just in general – she deserved the Oscar. 
Kurosawa’s autobiography really struck a chord – his sense of humor is phenomenal. 
I love Arca’s new music video by Jesse Kanda.
Most of all, I’ve been blown away by these directing workshops I’ve been taking in LA with a woman named Joan Scheckel.  She’s a visionary and a master and has revolutionized by entire view of filmmaking – I highly recommend them to any director.

NAO, In The Morning Production Company: Partizan Director: Allie Avital Exec Producer: Claire Stubbs Producer: Stephanie Paeplow DOP: Rina Yang Commissioner: Elizabeth Doonan, Sony VFX: Editor: Jonathan King Colourist: Kaitlyn Battistelli Moses Sumney, Worth It Directed by Allie Avital Choreography and Dancing: Martha Nichols Director of Photography: Martim Vian Executive Producer: Asher Brown / Laura Jones Producer: Tasia Judd Assistant Camera: Sonja Tsypin Second Assistant Camera: Chantal Le Hunte Gaffer: Joseph Ramsay Makeup: Lexx Staats VFX: Milton Ladd Additional VFX: Special FX makeup: Sierra Russell Editor: Jojo King Color Correction: Jaime OBradovich / Company 3 Special Thanks to Nicole O’Connell Autre Ne Veut, World War Pt 2 Director: Allie Avital Producer: Andrew Krasniak Cinematographer: Kate Arizmendi Production Designer: Emma Rose Mead Set Dresser: Ashley Brett Chipman Assistant Director: Yori Tondrowski Special FX Makeup: Jeremy Selenfriend Animation / VFX: Milton Ladd Editor: Allie Avital Colorist: Jaime O'Bradovich / Company 3 Mutual Benefits, Advanced Falconry Director: Allie Avital Cinematographer: Owen Donovan Gaze, short film Produced by Ray Ban/Yours Truly. Directed by Allie Avital Written by Dobi Manolova and Allie Avital Starring Kate Lyn Sheil Original Music by Esperanza Spalding Sound design and additional scoring by Gisela Fulla-Silvestre Produced by: Lizzie Goodman Creative Agency: Yours Truly Creative Creative Directors: Babak Khoshnoud & Will Abramson Production Company: Partizan Director of Photography Ashley Connor Production Designer Emma Rose Mead 1ST AC Will Castellucci 2nd AC Sonja Tsypin Camera PA Emmanuella Zachariou Steadicam Matthew L Perez Gaffer Daniel April Key Grip Jesse Ruuttila Audio (on set) Edmund Lawrence Kasubinski III Coorindator Paul Bugarin PA Elston PA Kwesi PA Jason Gaines Art Assistant Yuko Sobrin Art PA Hanne Bjelland HMU Nicole Elle Stylist Haley Meeker VFX by B.ART.VFX Studio Colorist: Jaime OBradovich / Company 3