The Wild Pear Tree – Interview with Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan – words Paul Risker
Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s The Wild Pear Tree revolves around aspiring writer Sinan, who returns to his native village and pours his heart and soul into scraping together the money he needs to get his book published.
But in the backdrop his father’s debts catch up with him, putting a stop to his personal aspirations.
Ceylan’s previous film, Winter Sleep was awarded the Palme D’Or at the 2014 in Cannes. Revolving around Aydin, a former actor turned newspaper columnist, who aspires to write a book on the history of Turkish theatre, alongside The Wild Pear Tree it suggests that the writer has become a brief focus of the filmmakers. But in Ceylan’s words, his focus is on the “truth about the human condition.” His feature debut Uzak tackled the existential theme of the lack of meaning, while Climates witnessed the indecisiveness of a married couple, Three Monkeys revolved the consequences of deceit, and Once Upon A Time In Anatolia further explored deceit, yet differed from its predecessor through the unveiling of the truth behind a mystery, with a moral decision that remains one of the most striking moments in contemporary cinema.
In conversation with Flux, Ceylan discussed the filmmaking process, while questioning his own thoughts and the futility of his cinema.
Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
I actually still find literature more powerful, and for me, I don’t think cinema can create a Dostoevsky yet because with literature you can also put the imagination of the readers into the accounts. Cinema is too real, it kills the imagination a little bit. So that’s why maybe the cinema should not be as well defined, it should be more ambiguous, or the filmmakers style should be ambiguous to get into the deeper regions. If are not creative as an audience, if you are not joining in the process, then it doesn’t go deep enough.
Well, I was a photographer before and so that’s why I felt it was easier to go into the film medium, but there are things that surprise me in human nature that I would like to investigate. I’m not saying that I want to say something about it because my films are not declarations. I am searching through films, asking questions and maybe sometimes I am confessing.
How true is it that filmmaking is a constant learning curve, and does each film have the capacity to teach you something individual and specific to that experience? And are you constantly fine-tuning and becoming more in touch with the specific approach you are pursuing?
I don’t know the consequences of my films, of what happens to me. Of course I change with age, but is it because of the films I make, or is it just because I’m ageing? I don’t know; I never know. There are some changes of course, and I observe changes in myself, but it’s probably everything together. Unfortunately life doesn’t get more meaningful with time, maybe it is even less meaningful. But that’s the process in my soul, and it doesn’t have to be the same for everyone.
Everybody has their own adventure in this life, but our minds obviously have the last word. I think it depends on your nature and everybody has a different one. But if you ask me if I want to turn back to the first days when I made my first movies, yes, I would like to. I prefer that atmosphere and maybe it is the presence of the younger self, the soul, but whatever you do becomes kind of routine filmmaking. There are the same processes, interviews, critics and festivals, but in the first days these are fresh, and whatever it is, it becomes routine after a certain time and that’s not good for art [laughs].
With time you of course become experienced and you maybe go to more risky places and areas, more details. Maybe your art is becoming sophisticated, and I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing, I just say these kinds of things. There are many thoughts that come into my mind, but I am never sure of anything I say.
The conversation scene in the book shop in which the characters dissect the craft of writing, the identity of the writer and his relationship to the work, is utterly compelling. I found myself listening intently to every word, and it leads one to consider the value of conversation, and the conversational interaction of characters that can be the engine of a story. While the film features dramatic scenes, there are lengthy periods of characters simply talking in what is an exchange of ideas.
I don’t like the feel of plot in the cinema, and if I see the plot then I don’t like that film because everybody behaves for the sake of it. So of I see that, then the film is finished for me. Of course there is a tie between everything in a film, and that tie, if you are realistic enough becomes visible in a way. In the film there’s dialogue like that, an invisible tie between everything. This film is not so strong plot wise, and I think it’s working more dramatically than many of my films, and this episodic construction is more exciting for me.
Could the film be described as being like a series of chapters and is there is a comparison to the literary form in that sense?
I don’t know, some people wrote that there is a novel structure here, but the chapters don’t mean that is why they find the film novelistic. I don’t think it is because of the chapter structure, it should be something as vague as the dialogues in a literary way, and the general feeling it leaves you with after the film. Maybe it’s novelistic, but a novel can be chapters or sometimes without chapters. This type of approach is not common in cinema, and so I can’t find any other reference for this type of structure.
Is this evidence of the fact that cinema is still a very young art form, is still growing, yet draws on many of the other creative mediums?
Definitely. So in every film I try something for myself, something risky, something that I have not tried in each film because I don’t want to wait. This kind of challenge motivates me to make a film, and that’s why I keep many things just as I feel it – is it cinema or not? I never think about that.
Interviewing director Michael Peterson for Knuckleball, he explained: “There’s always something that you come up against that you either haven’t thought about, or thought through, and you haven’t had to deal with before. So you have to come up with solutions to problem solve them in a way that you can maintain whatever your intent is. It’s constant, and I can’t imagine if it ended that you would do it. What would be the point if you just walked in and said: “I’ve got this.” I can’t see that happening, and if it did, I can’t see the reason for doing it.” Would you agree that the filmmaker needs to embrace the risk of failure?
Yeah, that kind of risk which creates fear motivates me a lot, and because of that fear I work more [laughs] – you know the old comet, and grasp it or control it somehow. I am also never sure of anything in the writing or in the shooting, so this uncertainty is like a hell because in the editing you have no chance to go back. I shoot a lot because what if it doesn’t work? And if you like a scene a lot in the shooting, then generally it doesn’t work; that’s something I realised. And if the crew also likes a shot or a scene, you have to again be suspicious.
A scene by itself, isolated from the whole film, if it’s to be understood and built to be liked, there should be something wrong there because that’s a particle or part that should gain its meaning within the whole film. And generally if the crew likes an actor, he is definitely overacting. The crew should sleep [laughs] – what is this film? What the fuck is this? If this feeling is safer then I feel safe, but if the crew likes something, what’s wrong here?
So the shooting period is always fear, inconsistencies and doubts, and the editing is the only place that you can be, I don’t want to say sure, but surer because you are alone and you have time. In the shooting you don’t have time, you have to be quick, you have people waiting. The best thing for a filmmaker is not to have a good crowd of crew, but less crew and more time is always better. In my first movies there were only two people in the crew, but we had more time, and so I sometimes miss all of this sometimes.
An element of storytelling is having to accept the imperfections. Would you agree that time allows for a film to mature, and for you to better understand it so that there are fewer compromises?
Since there is not much time in the shooting, I am suspicious of everything, and because of that I shoot a lot to give more freedom to the editing stage. So I shoot it in a certain way, with a certain psychology, but if there is even one percent of doubt in me, I shoot it with different levels of psychologies and emotions. Or sometimes I just shoot it in the opposite psychology and sometimes it works better, but you don’t know. For instance you think or feel the character should be nervous here, or should cry, but in the editing he’s laughing. So if I am suspicious of everything, then I shoot more, I shoot differently, and I shoot the opposite. In the editing I then search for the human nature in the psychology, of what is correct. That’s the most important thing for me, in that the psychology of it should be correct, not the story, which I don’t care that much for.
In every stage, does it say a truth about the human condition, which is important for me. The detail tells us something about the human condition, the truths, and in life also when you see a person for just one minute, you learn many things about life just from this veil of looking – the way he talks and many other things. So details and correctness, and sometimes surprising hidden truths, these are what I search for. An interesting story I don’t care for because if the story is strong then everybody begins to serve that story, all the actors, all the expressions, everything. I didn’t want to be the servant of the story with this film.
The process of storytelling is one of making choices, and within your approach you delay making these choices until the editing stage. At this point you afford yourself time to consider your choices, and it seems that you are removing that need for instinct to make choices during the shoot.
I never make a lot of decisions on the set, I think of alternatives. A lot of decisions have to be made, but in the editing. If it was possible not to decide in that stage, I would have [laughs]. I don’t like certainties and I want to leave everything as an ambiguous situation, in film and also in life, because according to the situation you can interpret it in a different way. Nothing in life is the one same thing. No one person is either bad or good. In certain situations he is a very good person, but for some things he’s crazy. All of us are like that and so we shouldn’t decide about what’s happening, or about a person because in another situation you would definitely do things differently. So I don’t like to decide that much; I don’t like to classify things and persons. Life is complex and my aim is to show the complexity and multi-dimensional situations of life in cinema. But it’s not easy because of course the industry and audiences don’t like it. They like certainty all of the time, but what can I do? That’s what I like.
The Wild Pear Tree is released theatrically in the UK on Friday 30 November by New Wave Films.