It is both refreshing and painful to watch a tortured portrayal of a relationship on screen. Him & Her, based on Chekov’s 19th century dark and biting short story He & She, is such a film. Coupling frank voiceover from the perspectives of the titular characters with flashbacks of their many fiery interactions, filmmaker Daria Geller deftly explores how toxic dynamics can form an intrinsic part of love, regardless of how inexplicable that may be to those looking on. A film Geller describes as an “anti-fairy tale”, DN invited her to discuss the importance of Him & Her’s Soviet setting, getting lucky when following her casting gut, and the subtle colour touches which track this caustic romance of love and hate in equal measure.
Have you always wanted to use the stories by Chekhov and what specific advantages or disadvantages did you find adapting such heady literature?
I haven’t always wanted to use Chekhov’s stories, but the moment I read this specific story I just knew I had to adapt it into a film. Chekhov is my favourite writer; he is sharp and straight to the point, so of course the disadvantage is that it’s already perfect in its original form. So how do I not ruin this story, while still managing to bring a part of myself into it? How do I bring the story to life without losing its heart?
Another main challenge is the short story is basically letters between two lovers. When I came across the text during my student days, I asked myself whether this was something that I could turn into a film as there was no real narrative. In the end, I kept everything that was said in the short story as monologues of the characters, whereas the context is something of mine that I brought into it. The film was mostly financed independently, with support from executive producer Iftach Aloni through The Short Story Project enabling it to all come together.
The connection between these fractious lovers is palpable, how did you find your leads?
I came across Miriam Sekhon in a film by another student in my university days. Since then I’ve had her in my mind as the lead actress, but I knew I couldn’t bring her on without the right male counterpart to play across from her. A year before the shoot I met Evgeny Kharitonov and I just knew it was him. We only tested the two together three weeks before the shoot. We all met and it just worked. I guess the lesson here is to trust my gut when it comes to casting (or I was also just very lucky).
As they get closer to feeling love for one another, the light and locations become gradually redder.
The cinematography is very raw, how did you set the tone and then carry that through the filming and into the final edit?
I started putting together a mood board long before the pre-production started. The main image was Picasso’s The Absinthe Drinker and his blue period. I wanted to work with natural light to keep a moody and poetic feel throughout. Then the first thing we did on every set was build a mise-en-scene with actors to get a feeling of where to film them from in order to make the shots as long as possible and avoid cutting their acting. The redness came during the last days of pre-production. I don’t know if it’s even noticeable, but as they get closer to feeling love for one another, the light and locations become gradually redder. Everything then returns to grey once the moment is gone.
What did you shoot on and how was production structured?
It’s shot on Alexa mini + Atlas anamorphic lenses. The whole production, from start to finish, took three weeks. From the moment I confirmed the lead actors I booked my flight to Moscow and decided it was going to happen, so it was a bit of a whirlwind adventure. We met every evening in our rented flat: the producer Yuval Orr, the line producer Yana Kurbatova, 1st AD Yana Vasilik and my friend and AC Michael Dementiev. Together we tried to put together a puzzle of how to make this work in only three days.
Him & Her is an ode to Russia’s sombre and melancholic aesthetic, how did you go about finding those key locations during scouting?
The locations were supposed to feel timeless, that’s why there are also almost no screens and no iPhones. I wanted it to be out of time. I love Soviet aesthetics and also I miss Russia so much that I wanted it to look authentic. I definitely wasn’t aiming for an international or European look as is kind of the standard these days. And of course we were on the lookout for specific colors and moods. The scouting was a joint effort. For example the Art Director Alexandra Smirnova found the hotel. I just explained to her what I was looking for and she immediately got it. It’s the sort of place that has looked this way and will probably never change. As for the rest, we had to make some compromises with the numbers of days we were shooting, as theatres are quite expensive. From four days of shooting we cut down to three.
Why did you feel it was significant that the audience didn’t hear her sing?
The whole script is built around her incredible talent. I think there was no way to meet the expectation of the viewer and I could not let that happen. I didn’t want to break the spell. I wanted to play with the idea that the way he hears her voice is irreplaceable, as he’s tainted by the way he feels about her. But I did want to include a woman’s voice at the end to bring closure.
How do I not ruin this story, while still managing to bring a part of myself into it?
The soundtrack is both stark and luscious reflecting the film itself. Who did you work with on the music?
The soundtrack is written by my friend and amazing musician Roi Keidar. He made me sit together and jam – this is how the main melody was born. Everything else around it he wrote on his own based on very few references. It’s incredible how amazingly it suits the film without interrupting it and how he could feel the Russian mood without really knowing it.
The ending song was the hardest to find. It is a lot of responsibility – it has to be long, as there are only titles on the screen so you are not interrupted by the story and can actually hear the lyrics. I asked Anna Pinskaya, a Russian composer, for her advice. She understood it straight away and very quickly remembered this song that was waiting to be released! Anna re-recorded some instruments and the singing. I think it’s the best ending song I could ask for: composer Anna Pinskaya with Leonhard Kuhn and Marina Rojkova. Lyrics by Marina Tsvetaeva.
What is next in the pipeline for you?
I have a lot of social music videos in mind but it’s not easy at the moment. So in the meanwhile I am working on the next short. It focuses on domestic violence and a woman who is ready to forgive everything.
Him & Her is one of the many great projects shared with the Directors Notes Programmers through our submissions process. If you’d like to join them submit your film.