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Sotiris Dounoukos interviewed by Bill Mousoulis

Sotiris Dounoukos

BM:  Congratulations on your film Mona Lisa. Whilst it shares some similarities with other student productions I've seen over the years, it strikes me as quite a distinctive and interesting film, ultimately transcending its status as "student work".  I'm especially impressed by how you've by-passed any schematic rendering of your characters as "Greek" or "gay" or "dysfunctional", in favour of throwing your audience head-first into the deep and messy mind-states and feelings of those characters (a mother and son), and their torn and frayed interaction. How did you approach these things at the writing stage?


SD:  I think that if you want to provide an insight into a character’s point of view or experience of a situation, any attempt to describe a character as gay, male, dysfunctional etc can undermine the ability of the drama to draw in and affect an audience.  In Mona Lisa, George and his Mother don’t make sense of their world and their relationship in that way.  That type of cultural and social detail certainly informs the way in which the characters interact – such as their language and values - but not their emotions, which I see as more universal.  I see it more as incidental.  What is relevant within Mona Lisa and its characters, however, is their identification as Mother and Son; it describes a deep connection that sets the scene for the drama that unfolds.  During the writing of the script, I kept the through line pretty simple (George wants to go out for the night and his Mother wants him to stay) in order to focus on the emotions that this conflict evokes within these particular characters.  It’s a simple situation, complicated for the characters by their shared history and co-dependence.  It didn’t need a thesis from me regarding George’s gender, ethnicity or sexuality.  Instead, the sources of emotion that emerge from this conflict are the basis for the form of the film.  I think this approach gives the film a cohesive and “stripped down style” that’s grounded in character and story.


BM: The performances of the two leads are excellent: on top of simply playing the characters in a solid, intelligent way, they imbue their roles with a tender and tremulous quality, giving the characters an extra human potency. How did you work with the actors to achieve this?

The story needed a level of interaction between the actors that combined intimacy and antagonism.  The casting process was the starting point to achieve this.  I saw many fine actors, but it was the combination of Steve Mouzakis and Irene Pappas that most resonated for me and Susan Strano, the casting coordinator for the film.  Once cast, we entered into an extensive rehearsal period.  Steve and Irene work quite differently as actors, so I adjusted my own process to basically focus on three main aims.  Firstly, I tried to help them tune into each other and begin to really listen to what the other was saying and doing.  The next was to use improvisation exercises to explore the action and subtext of the key scenes, and allow Steve and Irini to locate the characters within very real and current parts of their personality.  Finally, we focused on the detail of the characters, using voice exercises, the development of what they would wear, and even the look of the location, to help embellish their performances.  During the shoot, my focus was to help the actors to keep listening to each other and to follow through on their actions in a truthful way, always allowing for new ideas and approaches on the day.  I was fortunate to work with an amazing crew too. This helped the actors to remain focused and relaxed.

BM: Being a film of "human drama" hasn't stopped you from creating a work that is interesting at the formal design level. Student films can tend to be anti-classical in their design, favouring, for example, whacky camera angles, and your film also has an anti-classical feel to it - but you are subtle about it, and far more justified. Your composition sense often has your characters to the edge of frame, obviously indicating the shifting nature of their place in the world and their relation to each other. Can you talk a little about this technique?

SD:  My approach was to take George’s story - specifically, his emotional narrative – and use it as the basis for the development of the formal design of the film.  I saw George’s struggle as being characterised by essentially two key undercurrents.  Firstly, there is the presence of an absence and its effects within his world.  This primarily involves the absence of the Father and the impact it has on George’s Mother’s life, and thereby George’s, because of her dependence upon him.  I tried to weave this idea through as much of the first half of the film as possible, within the sound and visuals.  For example, the framing of the opening scenes uses empty space as if it is as much a subject within the frame as George and his Mother.  It hopefully adds to the sense of tension we feel at the beginning of the film.  Later, we see George begin to fill these spaces, we learn about the Father and hopefully feel the relationship between the two.  At the same time, a second idea pervades each frame, as well as George’s struggle: that is the idea of separation.  George’s immediate struggle is to leave his house for the night, but he also wants to break free from his Mother and the constricting environment of the house in a more permanent sense.  Over the course of the film, the reality of this struggle overwhelms George.  I used this to motivate a gradual aesthetic shift in colour, framing, the use of silences and how each scene is cut.  So in the initial scenes, we often see George on the edge of frame, as if fighting the idea of sharing the screen with his Mother.  The distance between George and his Mother that is accentuated in the opening scenes then begins to close in on George.  The house begins to feel smaller, the details of the space loom larger, piercing his attention, and he can no longer escape a simple truth: that the gap in their life is to be filled by him.  Once he chooses to re-enter the house, there is a sense of submission upon his return to the house.  The focus moves from a conflict in line, colour and texture to uniformity.  The coverage becomes more intimate, the use of colour more expressionistic and the film ends with a sense of the subjective truth he must come to terms with.  I think what gives the approach the “human drama” you describe is the fact that it’s the action and George’s experience that motivates the film’s style.

BM: The appearance of the mother's "little lamb" at the end of the film is a stroke of genius. Apart from its startling effect cinematically, it elevates the entire text to a mystical level. How did you conceive this effect (when writing), and how have audiences responded to it?

SD:  The ending of the script (and film) needed to go beyond the question of whether George would leave the house or not.  Ultimately, George makes it out of the house to his car, yet he goes back to his Mother.  That is a turning point for George and for the film.  He can’t deny his connection to his mother or his powerlessness to separate from her.  He also can’t contain the pain this causes for him.  I needed an ending that would project these very internal events from inside George onto the screen in a way that was as shocking and real for an audience as the realisation itself is for George.  A magic realist ending allowed for this from the earliest stages of writing.  The final images of the film have their roots in the imagery of the shared life of the characters, and are made even more potent by their significance to a broader audience.  I saw the image of the lamb as a simple and truthful way to reveal George’s state of mind at the end of the film.   I think it works because it subverts what is otherwise a gentle image.  The story touches on the many meanings a lamb evokes for us, such as innocence and sacrifice, yet it is also carries its own meaning that is a product of the story, such fate, history and even horror.  This ties in with how George’s love of his Mother is ultimately a cause of suffering for him.  The language of love and hate is often most effectively articulated with deeply personal images and sounds.  That was my aim with the closing images.   There is also a level of ambiguity to it that allows people to find their own meaning.  I like that it films.


BM: What's next for you? I sense a fertile imagination in your head, so no doubt you are planning a few productions?

SD:  Some rest and time to see a few films!  The VCA is an intense experience for all students, so time to catch up with friends and family, and then just go to the movies is my priority.  As far as other projects go, I’m completing a new short film and have two feature projects in development with local writers.  I’d like to continue to make films about family, what family can evoke in us, and how these emotions can be used to develop cinematic forms that are grounded in the inner lives of the characters.  We all go through it, so I think there is also an audience waiting to participate in this type of cinema, both here and abroad. 

© Bill Mousoulis 2004.