When William Shakespeare first took out his quill and scratched “never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo” across of scrap of parchment, the Immortal Bard likely couldn’t have dreamed his tale would be transposed and reimagined hundreds of times across every medium from Hollywood musicals (West Side Story) to animated kiddy fantasies (Gnomeo & Juliet) to young adult novels featuring zombies (Warm Bodies).
Indeed, time and creativity has proven there are lots of stories just as full of “woe” as Shakespeare’s Juliet and her Romeo.
Montreal filmmaker Kim Nguyen is the latest to twist the timeless tale into a modern-remake with Eye On Juliet – a transnational tale about a Detroit-based security drone operator who bonds with his forbidden Juliet: an oppressed, beautiful young woman in North Africa whom he spies on through a spider-like hexapod drone.
On the surface, the disparate drama might ordinarily seem like a cinematic challenge for a Canadian film of modest size, but Nguyen has an ability to find emotion and humanity in such global fare. After all, he has done it successfully before with African child soldiers in the Oscar-nominated drama War Witch and between a traumatized couple in the remote Arctic regions of Nunuvut in the acclaimed Two Lovers and a Bear.
I sat down with Nguyen recently to discuss his latest drama (which opens at the Plaza on May 11th), making indie movies on a global scale and the importance of getting a good agent.
Q: Obviously Juliet is in the title but I’m curious – did this idea start with playing off the notion of modernizing Romeo and Juliet?
A: Truth be told, the Juliet theme came a little later in the film. We just liked the idea that he would name her Juliet in the film as he was trying to give her an identifying cursor or whatever. But initially I wanted to write a story about desire and lust and love and the quest for love in three different countries – one was set in America, the other was set in Northern Africa and the other was set in India – and it was much less surreal than the current story or, shall I say, it’s more a magic-realist film. Anyways, as I was writing the script one of the three storylines kept going against the other two – rather than finding the harmony; it was really hard. So I took out one of the storylines and then I decided to tie the two together much more than parallel realities, and that’s when the story came about.
Q: It’s interesting because in that sense you do keep it very intimate – considering the global nature and breadth of the setting.
A: I tried to, yeah.
Q: Let’s talk about shooting a film that takes place globally.
A: We shot it in Morocco and in Montreal, and it required a lot of preparation, a lot of storyboarding. It’s one of the movies that I had to prepare the most in cinematic terms because without designing each shot – which I try to do less and less now; I try to be more in the moment now when I’m on set – there was that idea that the basic principles had to be clear. For example, it’s boring details but we only discovered as we were prepping that the drone operator had to look up at a screen as opposed to look at it as in normal life because his eyeline and the hexapod’s eyeline had to match as if they were one person, whereas (Juliet’s) always looking down. So we had to play with those things (so) it was a little tedious, that element of continuity of space.
Q: Was this a challenging movie to write?
A: Yeah, it’s strange because I got lost at some point when I was writing those three stories. I think I was trying to tell too much, so out of desperation I just dropped it and said, “Let’s make intimate” — I was yearning for that. In a way it’s a small story, I kind of wrote it like a Louis Armstrong song — like it’s ironic and its utopian and I’m OK with that. I like to do a little story that addresses issues that are bigger than the characters, but it’s mostly about the characters.
Q: It’s certainly an interesting diversion to follow-up after Two Lovers and War Witch.
A: It’s true, it’s true. I guess they’re all very different right? It’s funny because after I did War Witch, I joined CAA (Creative Artists Agency) and a lot of people were like, “I’ve got this great movie for you about child soldiers.”
Q: I was going to say, is that something you’ve been trying to avoid – being pigeonholed?
A: I guess I just do stories that I feel like telling and I’m grateful that the people who support me and the institutions that support me allow me to do that. One thing’s for sure is that I don’t want to do another movie about child soldiers. I went through it and it was a difficult process to work with younger actors who have to do violent, horrific acts, so I don’t need to do it again, but I thought it was important to do at the time.
Q: When you did have that early success with War Witch, did you get a piece of advice from anybody in particular that has resonated since in your career?
A: I had a lot of different advice. Among the most important ones was choosing the agency that reps the actors that you like. That was one that was very pragmatic! Which is true – I think it was Robert Lantos who told me that and he was right.
Q: Is that how you got Dane DeHaan and Tatiana Maslany for Two Lovers?
A: Yeah, they’re from the same agency actually! And then there was another (piece of advice) about fearlessness — just going there, going all the way. However I would nuance fearlessness because I think in a way you have to cover your ass in filmmaking in the sense that you take risks but you’ve got to have a plan B sometimes (and) there’s a sportsmanship to doing films I think that I didn’t do in the past and I try to do more now — take calculated risks.
Eye On Juliet opens Friday, May 11 at The Plaza. For showtimes please click here.
Steve Gow has spent a good amount of his time conducting interviews for a variety of publications as well as on television. Most notably, he was a film reporter for The Movie Network/HBO Canada and his written stories that were regularly featured in Calgary’s former “go-to guide” FFWD weekly, as well as Metro, Toronto Star and more.