We sat down and spoke with director and editor Yannis Sakaridis, the man responsible for the critically-acclaimed movie “Amerika Square”. After making a splash at film festivals around the world, including the LAGFF (Los Angeles Greek Film Festival), “Amerika Square” has been picked to represent Greece in the race for Best Foreign Language Film nominee.
Sakaridis, who also co-wrote the script, told us about the inspiration for his story, “Amerika Square”‘s reflection of modern Greek society, the state of Greek cinema, and what it’s like to be in Los Angeles trying to get nominated for an Academy Award.
Tell us a little about what inspired you to create this script.
When I came back from London, after 18 years, I went to Amerika Square and I felt this area was closer to whatever I was doing in London. This was a neighborhood that was closer to the center of town, had a multicultural feel to it, and it was a neighborhood that had a lot of background, a lot of artists.
I got interested in that place and I started writing something on how a local person reacts to all this inflow of refugees – at the time it was a lot of African migrants. So when all the Syrians started coming we did more research and I co-wrote the script with a young writer who had just finished a novel called “Victoria Doesn’t Exist”, and we based the racist character on that novel.
So we put all our research and work together, and I wanted to do something which was political with a touch of reality, a recognizable sort of social background, but at the same time fast, a lot of storytelling, and then also funny. So we put all this mix together and then we developed it, and we based the Syrian guy on a true story.
Watching the film, it felt like a lot of the main Greek characters reflected the prevailing Greek viewpoints on immigration – do you think the film could change anyone’s mind in Greece?
The film follows a story in a way that we don’t blame people, or we don’t say “this racist guy is really bad”; there is empathy with all viewpoints. We understand where he’s coming from and we understand that you’re not born racist, you just become one, and also that we as a society have a need to educate these people and show them the other way.
So we don’t really want to dictate something, we just want to show the situation and peoples’ positions and raise questions about issues, and people can take whatever they want from it. Of course we hope they might change. After all, movies are a spiritual thing; you sit in a darkened theater and watch something with friends and loved ones and sometimes that can change your mind – that’s what we hope.
What was the casting process like for this film?
While we were developing the story, we knew some of the cast as we wrote the script. So I knew Yannis Stankoglou would play the tattoo artist, and Vassilis Koukalanis was in my mind for the Syrian guy. So we definitely work towards the actors and the actors bring a lot of themselves into the character and vice versa.
As far as preparation, I don’t do a lot of rehearsals, I do a lot of talking with the actors and I fully trust them. So then when we get on set we fully improvise the script, and we don’t do a lot of takes so it looks very much like real life. That’s the way I like to work, I think probably informed by my British background, and people like Mike Lee and Ken Lodes, who keep the script to themselves and let the actors react to it.
I’m more experienced as an editor than a director. I loved going to London and work on really good projects from a very young age, did a lot of feature films, documentaries for British television, lots of trailers. I can edit, so I can bring something together, so I have confidence on the set that I can bring all this together.
What was it like to switch into the director’s chair from editing?
Editing, like writing, is very lonely work, so when you get into the director’s chair it’s a little scary – you think what are these people doing here? It’s a little intimidating, but after you realize the power structure and the dynamics on set, it’s great – you get to work with really amazing actors, and I care about the actors a lot and let the rest of the films sort of evolve. The actors I worked with, I knew they did incredible work in the theater, and they bring a lot of experience and a lot of concentration into their work.
What do you think of the state of Greek cinema?
However, there is still a lot of interest in Greek art, and because cinema is a mirror and reflection of a society, people want to see Greek film to suss out what’s going on there. Thte last few years, there have been a lot of Greek films in festivals, that have won international awards, and I’m in a position where I can say now that there are different styles of Greek films, and “Amerika Square” is very close to poetic realism with a bit of humor. That’s always popular, and we won four or five different audience awards, so the reception of the film has been great, and we sold the film to six different countries.
So in general, our generation has brought Greek cinema to the international stage, and at the same time we have started proving that there is not only the Lanthimos style, there are different styles as well. There is a variety of different genres coming out of Greece now. I still see however that though this movie did very well in other continents, European Film Festivals still have very specific ideas about what they want from Greek cinema, and it definitely is still in that known Lanthimos style. In the few European festivals we went to, we did win awards so we still did relatively well, but we did better in Asia and Africa.
Since you’ve been to a lot of international film festivals with this movie, what do you see the reaction being to Greek films abroad?
Well Greece is generally loved as a country and a culture, so it’s easy – China, India, everywhere you go. We’ve been in trouble for some years of course, and we’ve been in headlines – a lot of people, taxi drivers and such abroad, kept asking me “are you having problems there, what are you going to do, etc.”. Even refugees were asking “how are you surviving?”
How do you feel representing Greece at this level, with your film in the running to be a Best Foreign Language Film nominee?
I never in my wildest dreams thought this would happen. I had planned to be starting another production in the UK right now, and I got this news and I got a bit overwhelmed. We realized, we barely have money to even go to LA, nevermind advertise our film and everything else that is needed. But here we are, we’ve made it work, and we’re going to try to show our film to as many people as possible, make as much noise as possible, and see what happens.
Of course, we are still in the running as one of 92 countries for five final selections, who are all campaigning in LA from early September to mid-December, so I know there is still a lot of work to be done. But hopefully, the Academy Board members will connect with the story and vote for our film.