New-York based director, writer, photographer and artist Milcho Manchevski burst into filmmaking in 1994 with his acclaimed debut Before the Rain, which was nominated for a foreign language and Oscar and won a Golden Lion at Venice. Prior to that, his iconic 1991 music video for hip-hop unit Arrested Development’s Tennessee had pointed to a talent prepared to go against the prevailing winds, a theme that has continued to mark his career.
His films since have attracted acclaim and awards at festivals around the world, as well as academic analysis. Manchevski has also taught at universities and film schools in the US, Europe, Russia, Asia and Cuba, published essays and held exhibitions of his photography. In 2002, he directed the ninth episode of the first season of HBO’s The Wire. He has been attached to major Hollywood productions, but Machevski’s uncompromising determination to follow his own path was never going to be an easy fit with the studio picture structure.
Manchevski’s seventh feature Kaymak, set in his native Macedonia, is a dark comedy examining class, sex, motherhood, family, loyalty and hypocrisy. Named for a buttery cream found in the Balkans, the Levant and surrounding countries, the film is in competition at Tokyo International Film Festival.
The director sat down with The Hollywood Reporter during the festival to talk about his relationship with his films, working across different cultures and mediums, why The Wire is the only television he’s made and whether he’d do a big studio movie.
Your film Kaymak is in competition here in Tokyo and you’ve spoken before about not being too concerned about awards and accolades. But do you appreciate the recognition?
Of course, I’m human (laughs). And it helps the film and the future films. But the essence of it is not the recognition. I learned that with age. The success of a film is not always related on how good or bad it is. To be too be dependent on the reaction, it hurts your heart basically, that’s what it is. You start to chase the reaction rather than focusing on the work. It’s been with me before I even started making films, that whatever I write or do as my art is really the most important thing. I want to be proud when I look back at something I did 30 years ago. It also gives me real satisfaction, so it’s not hard to give up on the side effects. You also need to decide what your criteria is, who you’re making it for. It’s not difficult but you need to sacrifice a lot of shit. It’s easy to calculate what distributors or festivals want, but that doesn’t always make the best film.
I think the trick is not to be greedy, not to want for everyone to want to see your film. That’s something I tell my students as well: you’ll never make a film for everybody. Know who your audience is. It could sound righteous, but your dialogue is with the work not with anyone else. Of course, you need to be really responsible with that. It’s not an excuse for being frivolous or egotistical. It’s just that if you constantly chase after the fad of the day, I wouldn’t be able to make good films. Others might be.
The theme of motherhood is one you’ve dealt with before, and it comes up again here. It’s a central theme of humanity, to state the obvious, without it we have nothing. But it is something you keep returning to.
I do. Even in Before the Rain, the character Anne discovers she’s pregnant. Then in the second film Dust, one of the main characters gives birth at the end of the film. But it was never part of my plan, it just sort of crept up on me. I’m not trying to diminish how central it is in my work — I had a film called Mothers — but it’s not a conscious agenda and I’m glad it happened that way.
But, as you said, there’s nothing without mothers, so we should look into it, talk about it, celebrate it. How society deals with it, how individuals deal with it, how society wants individuals to deal with it, all kinds of pressure, the abortion issue in America is coming back. And when I say society, I mean religion, but not only religion.
I love exploring two things. One is people, everything beautiful and ugly about who we are. And that gives us the stories, the good stories, the fun stories, the twists. And the other is concepts, but not necessarily ideological concepts, more artistic concepts. Something that is not necessarily on the surface of your work but it informs it. Like the fractured narratives or circular narratives, mixing documentary and fiction.
When you write a screenplay, do you start with characters or plot, and how far have you worked out the plot when you sit down to write?
I start with the plot. The plot needs to offer something wondrous. Then it’s the taste. With Before the Rain, it’s expectation, waiting for something to happen. With this one, it’s the taste of the romp, the black comedy. Then I develop the story, the plot, and then have wild fun with it and let it take me places without trying to guide it too much. Let it surprise me and see where it takes me. While doing that the characters begin to take shape and then they really take over. For me, the plot is relatively simple because I’ve always felt comfortable writing. Everything after the writing is an effort, the financing, the technical part, the visualizing, communicating with the crew. We keep refining the characters through auditioning and rehearsal. We always do a good three weeks of rehearsal: table reads and sometimes go and rehearse on location. While doing that, if you’ve picked the right actors, they’ll run away with them characters and know more about them than I did while writing them.
I felt Kamka [Tocinovski] made Eva [driven career woman] somewhat sympathetic. Everyone in the film is a both a victim and a perpetrator. They’re just different grades of being devils and angels. You can argue she’s trying to keep her husband happy, is that manipulative or a sacrifice?
I have to ask about the kaymak itself, the kind of butter cream, why did you choose it to be central to the film and of course its title?
It’s a kind of cream and we all try and collect the cream of life, to get the best out of the circumstances we’re given. But I also liked the idea of introducing the word to the world, so people outside the Balkans will learn what that word means.
You’ve made films and worked in both English and Macedonian, are there any differences for you between working in the two languages?
When I want to be precise, I need to work in English. When I want to feel sort of more dreamy, I work in Macedonian. So, if I want to write an essay or communicate with my DP or editor, it’s easier to do so in English. It’s probably because I’ve spent most of my adult life working in English. With my films, I come back to shoot them in Macedonia, but most of the preparation is done in the US. Even with Kaymak, the majority of the funding came from abroad.
You work across various medium, you’re a photographer, a writer, an artist. Do they influence and interact with each other?
Both, they influence each other and also make the other medium go sort of purer, or cleaner, if you know what I mean. Doing so much photography, I learn more about what I want to do in my films. But also I learn that they are about different things, so photography is about the moment, it’s about the visual poetry and I don’t need to tell a story there. It helps me to stay pure and not try and create a narrative with photography. Then in filmmaking I learn that I should be more about storytelling rather than just about beautiful images. They help focus each other in divergent ways. Same with my writing. What I really regret is that I haven’t done any performance or conceptual art work in ages, which is sort of my favorite really (laughs). Because film needs to be more conventional, I find it less satisfying.
Am I right in thinking that the only television you’ve ever done is The Wire?
If we don’t count music videos, then yes, The Wire is the only television I’ve directed. Been there, done that, I can’t top that (laughs).
Would you do consider doing more if something interesting came along?
Well, yes, if it was as fantastic as The Wire. I’m not actively seeking it, but I wasn’t actively seeking that one either. It was offered to me by Robert Colesberry [co-creator of the series and actor in a recurring cameo as detective Ray Cole] who I knew because we were trying to put together a couple of studio pictures before that. And then one day, he comes to me and says he’s putting together a television show and would I read it. What made it so great was the writing; the rest of us just tried not to screw it up. It’s like the American War and Peace. It was so self-assured and it just grew with each season.
And it was an exercise in commando filmmaking, you‘re dropped in the middle of a shoot for nine days and then you’re out of there. There’s another director before and after your episode. Some of the things I’m proud of that I did on The Wire are the blocking [positioning of actors]; a lot of things were done with a simple camera set-up without cutting too much. I also got some rehearsal time, which is unusual in television. For the basketball scene, I studied where the NBA put their cameras.
You mentioned music videos. You did a number of them in the 1990s, which were nearly all hip-hop, was there a particular reason for that?
The reason was that the music video I did that became very successful was hip-hop and then you’re put in that draw. I mean, I like hip-hop, and I especially liked Arrested Development. Doing that one, it was a pretty low budget for that first video, Tennessee for Arrested Development, it was pretty low-budget, so not many directors wanted to do it. But I thought the song was fantastic and then we got a great concept; it was the time of gangster rap and we went against the grain, with family, very soft and beautiful. And I really pushed to do it in black and white to have a connecting point with depression-era photographs. It was actually a really heartfelt piece, for both the band and myself.
You’ve been attached to a few big Hollywood movies, but they haven’t worked out. Would you try and do one again if the offer came, even just to finance your other work?
For me, what it was is that I don’t want to sign someone else’s picture. And my experience was that the studios would get so involved in the creative process that I didn’t feel that it was my film anymore. I’m sure there are directors who manage to find a way to do the film that they want to do within the system, I couldn’t. For examples, I was looking to the wrong films from the wrong era. I was looking at films from the 70s, thinking that you can make a film that you want to make but with studio money. But I forgot that it was not the 70s anymore. So, it was about finding the right script but having enough creative autonomy to do what I do, otherwise, what do you need me for. My experience was that studios got involved in very important aspects very early on. It’s not just a matter of art versus commerce. I’m convinced that some of the decisions that get made in the name of making the film more commercial are not necessarily making the films more commercial. So, the answer is, not my cup of tea (laughs). I didn’t particularly enjoy the process, and I wasn’t going to enjoy the result. So the only thing you’re going to get out of it is money, which is nice but not it’s not more important than the work.
This story originally appeared on HollywoodReporter