Infused with balanced notes of melancholy and farce, A Jar of Nuts from Cypriot director Savvas Stavrou introduces us to Giorgos – a lonely forty year old with an intricate plan to take his own life…just as soon as everything’s perfect for that final act. A short film about the repercussions of social isolation and our inherent need for human affection, A Jar of Nuts augments the dark comedy of its wry situation with an omniscient mocking narration and flashes of animation. Making its online premiere on our pages today, Stavrou joins DN for a chat about the greats who inspired the film’s style and tone, altering the ending of his source material to stay true to the larger themes he wanted to convey and the importance of timing on the festival circuit.
The film is based on a story by Antonis Samarakis, at what point did you know you wanted to turn it into a script?
Well, I was 14 and I remember it was a story we studied at school and that fine balance of comedy, drama and darkness really drew me in. At that point I was watching lots of films by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, PT Anderson and I was just discovering Wes Anderson. I had just seen Magnolia which is one of my all-time favourite films so I was surrounded by all of this inspiration. I’ve always wanted to make films, I’ve always wanted to direct and everything was feeding that desire. Suicide isn’t a comical issue, but by dealing with it in a light humoured comic way which resonated with these films I was immersed in, somehow I could just see it jump out from the page at me. I was imagining scenes where I could do a fast pan and then a whip pan and it just came to life with that kind of style in mind. So when I eventually wrote it, it made sense that it became a bit of an homage to those filmmakers and what inspired me.
Is the story narrated as it is in the film?
It is, it’s a book of short stories and it’s all about people trying to fight against society or the government and there’s always a clash of sorts. This one in particular had a narrator taking it through so it always made sense to me to bring on that omniscient voice. There was a point where I worried the narration cheapened it, or worried it obstructed from the drama but I’ve never thought of the film as not having a narrator. He tells you and feeds you the information then you observe the reactions to that information. The narration mocks and it’s a large source of the humour.
There isn’t a huge cast but the characters are beautifully crafted, how did you go about their development?
I had spoken to my Greek producer who was in touch with someone else who spoke to Makis Papadimitriou, who plays Yorgos and explained that there’s this young filmmaker who wants to make a short film and was interested in having a chat with him. He had already read the script by the time we spoke and decided he wanted to do it but let me convince him and observed my bizarre way of trying to entice him. We didn’t have that many rehearsals with him, he just got it. I gave him some references and asked him to re-watch Amelie, Moulin Rouge and Magnolia among others as style is such a big part of the film and he just got it. We would do a few takes and immediately he knew what was in my head.
The narration mocks and it’s a large source of the humour.
The role of Kaitoulla was actually a little bit more difficult to cast. We saw a few actresses in Greece and maybe a couple in Cyprus. Eventually, we found Katerina Latta who did the most incredible audition tape because she was doing a play somewhere in Greece and I just knew she was the one. We chatted over Skype and did a few rehearsals and it all fell into place. In real life she doesn’t reflect the role at all, she is super independent, very vocal – she commands the attention in a room. The transformation was really fun. To find the right glasses, the right outfits, to do the hair in the right way was an incredibly enjoyable process.
How did you find the right apartment to shoot in?
Ideally, we wanted to shoot in Greece but we received funding from Cyprus Film Fund and the whole production had to happen there. So out we went trying to find the right building which needed to be a 70s building. We saw so many. All the exteriors are quite important because of that homage to Magnolia and Paul Thomas Anderson showing you where the flat is, so to find the building from the exterior that made sense with it was a process. In the end, my sister actually sent me an Airbnb link and everything was on point, from the flooring to the wooden panelling. It was a kind of symbiosis up to the point that on the third day of filming we stumbled across a copy of the story which made us all feel part of something we were meant to be doing and on the right path.
What about the animated parts of the film, why did you want to include those small additions?
It might be reminiscent of being 14 but I’ve always felt animation was a visual way of adding another layer of comedy. I like visualising stuff and I think it’s so important when you’re adapting something that’s been written, whether that’s a play, a novel or a short story, that you visualise it for the screen. I find that a lot of films just focus on what the story is and they can end up feeling a bit flat. When you’re reading something your imagination goes wild and so it’s about assessing who was this written for and who is your audience, then taking on the language of the writer and transforming that into visuals which I’m truly excited by.
In the text there is no suggestion of animation but the way that it’s written it just makes sense to add something extra. I can visualise his thoughts or as a juxtaposition to what’s happening on screen. It also became a fun way of placing and involving an audience. If you take the film apart, during the first four minutes you are thrown into this universe. You’ve got whip pans and animation, narration, you rewind time, you’re introduced to all his methods of killing himself and his loneliness. I feel rather than it being alienating, the animation aids in involving and capturing you.
Who did you work with on the animation?
I spoke to a friend of mine who’s a producer with really good connections with The Mill who are amazing. I mentioned I needed some CGI and some animation which is an exciting thing to play with. While I am very set on what I want visually I’m also very open. I’m extremely collaborative so I never dictated anything and let them come to me. They read the script and loved it. There was no money to pay for the work but it was a request and they were so kind with their time. I was excited to see what they would produce within the parameters given and the certain stages we needed for the film. I have often been asked about the budget as we were able to do so much but I truly believe it can be about having a story that resonates and being nice and kind. At the end of the day, if people are interested to help you out they will. I’ve learned it’s easier to say no than yes.
The film’s about the importance of human affection and the results of social isolation so what am I saying if it all ends well? My intention was always to kill him off.
I’ve got to be honest with you the ending really made it for me.
Do you want to hear something funny? The original story ends with her saving him but something just never felt quite right to me about that because it’s a little bit like a cautionary tale. This man has completely isolated himself, he’s done this to himself so the only natural conclusion is that he ends it himself. It’s a strange one because you cheat the audience by showing them that there’s hope, that he could be saved but actually the biggest cheat would be if he was saved. Everything that you see before suggests that that’s his natural trajectory. He’s done it to himself and to the viewers it’s imploring them to wake up, don’t isolate yourself. The film’s about the importance of human affection and the results of social isolation so what am I saying if it all ends well? My intention was always to kill him off.
How did you develop the melancholic tone apart from the dry narration and obvious seriousness of the subject?
The kind of general colour palette that we went for was seventies style and even though it is colourful they are rather melancholy. A lot of the production design centred around how we bring the space to life, how we make it feel like this is his entire universe. Those conversations started with my production designer who lives in the UK. We would have 4 hour meetings where we discussed the patterns, designs and furniture which was such a beautiful process because we really discovered who he was with what was in the flat. The lighting comes into question because there’s a lot to play with light and dark. There are a lot of moments where we wanted to really highlight his isolation and his sense of split identity.
In terms of pushing the narrative forward and sustaining that sense of involvement from an audience perspective the camera never really sits still which was always my intention. It’s very rare that we have a locked-off shot. When the camera’s not flying through something, there’s animation or it is sped up. I wanted it to feel like there was a propelling force pushing forward, like a ticking bomb. The character felt this sense of anxiety and it’s all crumbling and I didn’t want to feel at any point that the film stood still.
Tell us about A Jar of Nuts’ festival journey?
We made the film in 2017 but I wrote the script in 2012. That was at the peak of this sort of style of filmmaking and where there were a lot of comedy-dramas all around the festivals, it was quite popular as a genre. I think that the film could have done a lot better if it had been released then. When we did release it the world had changed. I had changed since 2012. My sensibilities as a person and as a director changed. It was disappointing at the time to discover that, even though it resonated with people and even though people enjoyed it, it didn’t seem to catch on to many film festivals.
I feel like cinema is moving towards a more political and a more personal direction.
We’ve had a nice long healthy festival career but yet not as much as we had expected. I think there was a disappointment on our behalf. I feel like cinema is moving towards a more political and a more personal direction. If I was to discuss the trajectory of this film with a filmmaker that’s just about to make his short I think I would say don’t expect anything, just make the film that you’re most proud of. I think you should make it for you and then because of that, people will enjoy it and it will speak to them regardless because if it’s personal it’s universal.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m currently in prep for a new short film funded by the BFI. It’s a musical set in an army camp with songs by Radiohead and Kate Bush who support the project. Hopefully travel restrictions will be lifted in a few weeks and we’ll be able to travel to Cyprus to film it. I’m also working on my first feature at the moment which I developed at the Sundance Lab three years ago. I’m still developing so I don’t expect to see that one coming off the ground for the next you know, two to three years, but I’ve got the short coming up!