Translated in English by Maria Stenos
He calls me for the interview and leaves me a message in English. In the middle of it, he throws out the phrase, “I think you know Greek,” and continues the message in Greek. We decide to meet at the Grove (the farmer’s market of Los Angeles). We sit in a cafe and we try to do the interview. Stathoulopoulos doesn’t yet understand what it is that he’s accomplished. Seriously. Instead of answering the questions, he asks if things are alright with me and if he could help me with anything. He was well-dressed and down to earth for his age. By 29 he has made his first full length film, and gone to Cannes. Now that the studios throw him one movie idea after the next, he still speaks of the snacks he used to eat in Greece, and of women, of course. It is obvious that the fame hasn’t gotten to his head – yet.
How would you categorize your ethnic identity?
“My mother is from Columbia and my father is Greek. They married in Thessaloniki and I lived there until I was 8 years old. In 1985 we moved to Columbia, but every summer I would go to Greece. I love Greece and I’m not changing my mind for anyone. When the time came for me to leave, I wept and wailed because I wanted to stay there. That’s where my friends were.
What did you miss most about Greece?
My friends and these chips called Draculinia. In that time they were the in thing. Every time that I would leave for Columbia I would take 10 bags with me. I would pass the time that way. I would eat one each month and then I would come back to Greece with the last bag, and the same happened each time I would leave.
Do you still eat them? (laughs abruptly)
This year I went to Greece and me and my uncle went to the super market and he asked me what I wanted him to treat me to. I, despite the fact that I am already 29, answered that I wanted the chips. Man, are you still a baby? He asks me. I am an eccentric director, and I want Draculinia, I said. He finally bought me a big bag.
What do you like most about Greece?
My best memories are of the summer theaters in Thessaloniki. For me it was amazing that the people could smoke and eat sunflower seeds freely while watching the movie. That’s where I started to see Hollywood movies. I liked the war movies most. Then I started to dream of lots of images. I would imagine myself as a soldier in the sunset, with a specific song in the background.
When is the first time you picked up a camera?
One time when I was a kid my friend came over to play and he brought a camera. I think it was 1989 and I was 11 years old. We started to record and, of course, we had no idea. I went nuts once I saw the camera. Suddenly, I understood that all the images that my imagination had come up with could take shape and form. From then on every weekend he would come to my house, and we would make short films. From then on I continued – that was my game – and then it became my job.
So I assume these were your first films?
At first I did movies with dolls, then I would use my mother and my other relatives as actors, and then I made them with professional actors. At 19 I tried to make my first film PVC-1 but I didn’t succeed. My actors were all my friends in Columbia; they would just mess around and didn’t take the tapings seriously. That’s how it played out. I ended filming – which was way more than I would need for the movie- but I didn’t like the finished product. I filmed for two years straight but I never finished the film.
How did your move from Greece to Columbia effect you?
To tell you the truth I don’t remember many things, but I got acclimated quickly because I was little. But my best friends were and are from Greece.
How did you decide to make movies?
My dad is an optometrist and he would take me to his office and I would amuse myself with his medical machinery. I would look into the lenses and it would give me a different point of view. Also, he would draw, and I started to draw too, I just generally started to take in the world as a set of pictures.
What feelings do you have for Columbia?
Very serious ones. I have very good memories and friends. I liked a large part of my life there, and my first serious relationship was with a Columbian girl.
Did you get caught up in the drug war?
Yes. The circumstances I lived under scared me a lot, it was before they caught Pablo Escobar. He put a bomb in the center of the city, in a place that I frequented. I missed it because I just happened to not be there but there were a lot of victims. When they killed him, it changed things. The heavy gangs ended but then started the guerrilla warfare, which arises many times in a war on drugs; killings, abductions, and other abusive actions. I have friends and acquaintances who fell prey to the rebels. A guy I know was kidnapped and they asked for money from his family. His family didn’t have the money to pay, and then after two months they sent his bones to their house.
Did you serve in the Greek army?
Yes, and it was great. I didn’t ever thing to try and avoid it because I think that it is a good thing to serve for your country. I liked the idea that I served in an army which is the in the line of the Greek army that escaped the Persians thousands of years ago.
Are you serious?
Of course, it isn’t the same today and it resembles a recent Greek comedy film (Loufa & Paralagi) but that’s how I like to think, that’s it’s a continuation. I would do it again though, it was a good experience.
Then what did you do?
Then I returned to Columbia and I enrolled in a film school. I ended up not liking it though and so I enrolled in a different one. I finished there but I wanted to study more and then I decided to come to California and to study film here. I lived in Hollywood and I studied at the film school at Cal State Northridge. When I came here I said that I was a student, but I decided that the time had come to make my first serious feature film. I felt like I was at the Olympic games, where you ready yourself for years and that is the time to give your all. That’s how I felt when I first got here.
How did you support yourself in the beginning?
Here in LA at the beginning you always do, as they say, odd jobs, that is to say, you do jobs that have nothing to do with that which you’re studying.
How did you fund the movies before PVC1?
First off, they were short films and I would always try to find ways to make them cheaply. In order to same money for filming I have done many crazy things.
Why don’t you tell us the best one…
I did a short film called Necropolis. It has to do with the war in Iraq.
I would imagine that you didn’t go to Iraq to shoot?
Of course not because that’s the idea behind it, how to save money. So instead of doing something that could happen for five, I should pay ten. Anyway, in Necropolis, in the middle of the kid’s battle, there was a family. The father, the mother, and a baby. In the end everyone dies in the crossfire. When you see the movie the bullets look like they’re coming out of the barrel of the gun and you see the smoke surround then. Everyone thought that that scene cost me a lot of money but in reality it had been done with…flour. Seriously, I had taken a fake gun and I cut its barrel and I put flour in it. Every time that it shot, there would be plumes of flour. I put sound in later and it looks like a scene from special effects. That is one example from my philosophy. I think that it isn’t always necessary to waste all that money for some special effects. You need a Spartan ideal in the theater, and that is my philosophy. That is also the idea of the film industry, to tell a story in a specific time frame, you don’t add anything more or less, you need so many specific effects so that people can understand the story. That’s how it happened even with the special effects, neither less nor more.
You must be the most beloved director of the studios if you but their production costs like that.
I hope so.
So, what type of offers have you received because of Cannes?
Many, many offers but the problem is to know when to say no. At Cannes I signed with the best agency to represent me, Endevour. Every week they send me 2-3 scripts to read. They aren’t all good, or they are good and I decide that I either can’t or don’t want to do them. They wanted me to make many horror movies. I don’t like those types of movies, that’s why I said no. I don’t care if other people consider it an opportunity, I don’t do things I don’t like.
How did PVC1 come about?
I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to do my first movie in Columbia or in Greece. After I saw the story in the paper and I understood that it didn’t matter what language the movie was in, only that it had an important story. If you ask me what specifically is ascribed to Columbia or Greece or America, I don’t really care. It is an international movie which touches the common thread in man without ethnic identity. The plot I wrote with Dwight Istabulian in 48 days and it’s based on a true story. I always like to work with people and that is the reason that I worked with Dwight. I believe that two minds work better than one. The story I read in the paper in 2002 and it struck me very seriously. It involves a mother who, because her family did not have money to pay off some gangsters, they proceed to come into her home and they put a bomb in her throat. From there on it’s her lot. The interest with the story is that generally in Hollywood a page of a script coincides with a minute on the screen. Once we finished the script, it took three months to finish the movie. We needed fifty actors. I bought the equipment, I went to Columbia and found the actors and we started filming, which lasted only 4 days.
How did you manage to finish filming all in one shot?
That was harder. I walked 6 kilometers with the steady-cam on my back, in dirt and many times running. The movie didn’t cut at all, it was all one shot and I just a random observer who was recording the events.
How did go to Cannes?
That’s what everyone keeps asking me. It’s really simple. I sent my movie and they picked it. They why they chose it is, I think, because the method was new enough and the concept was interesting.
Did you think that they would choose you?
That was the plan. I started to do the film thinking that I would send it to Cannes. I believed that if they didn’t pick me, at least they could respect my film.
How did you enjoy the festivities?
It was an intense moment for me and at that time I seriously couldn’t take it all in.
Watch the trailer of PVC-1