John Cassavetes once said, "Anyone who can make a film, I already love." The decision to make any movie is a leap of faith, and more so when you're a trained physicist who emigrated from the former Soviet Union and gives up a steady paycheck on Wall Street to follow your artistic, cinematic dreams. Such is the case with unlikely filmmaker Gleb Osatinski, whose new short is gaining him a lot of attention for its otherworldly appeal. We talk to him about life and film in the former USSR, the beauty of the open-ending, and risking everything for a dream.
A dilapidated house. A little boy alone in the woods. A cosmonaut wandering the stars. A visual mystery that doesn't provide any easy answers. These are just a few of the elements in filmmaker Gleb Osatinski's short, The House At The Edge Of The Galaxy, which is already garnering significant attention on the festival circuit, and is available to watch on Fandor.
Osatinski is an exemplary No Film School style filmmaker. A trained physicist, born and raised in the former Soviet Union, he came to the U.S. in 1994, where he studied at NYU Stern School of Business and worked for many years on Wall Street before deciding to chase his dream. He made his first short film, Pisces of an Unconscious Mind, a few years ago:
With the positive buzz that generated, Osatinski decided to make a much more ambitious short, The House At The Edge Of The Galaxy. Playing at the Sarasota Film Festival this week, we talk to Osatinski about his project, life in the former Soviet Union, the risk of giving it all up to follow a dream, and the beauty of ambiguity in cinema.
No Film School: Growing up in the former Soviet Union, what sort of films did you watch? Were many American films permitted?
Gleb Osatinski: I watched lots of different films growing up. I was a big fan of [Andrei] Tarkovsky, and there were always the more 'accessible' films from directors like Eldar Ryazanov, who was one of the biggest directors in Russia. As far as American films, yes, we did, but, of course, they had to go along with the ideology of the government. American films that satirized or showed the detrimental effects of capitalism and shallowness of life in the west were permitted -- I remember films like Midnight Cowboy, Rain Man, and Kramer vs. Kramer were allowed. Also, the first two of The Godfather movies were very popular. There were classic films by Billy Wilder, old Sherlock Holmes movies, and on TV I remember we used to have Columbo [ed. note: whoever dubbed Peter Falk's voice in Russian is no doubt the greatest actor in history] and even Twin Peaks, which was my favorite TV show at the beginning of the 90s.
NFS: Did you always want to be a filmmaker?
GO: I was always very interested in cinema, but for many years never considered it a real possibility. In 1994, I came to the U.S. from Russia. I have studied physics and business, and worked on Wall Street for several years before taking the leap and making my first short, Pisces of an Unconscious Mind, a few years ago. Then I made The House at the Edge of the Galaxy, and now I am looking towards my third film, which will be a bit longer and more complex.
NFS: Your film has a unique tone -- it feels like an art film, but there is a narrative, and as it progressed, I kept waiting for a twist, almost like a Twilight Zone episode, but the film leaves itself open to many interpretations. Was that your intention, and do you have one you’d care to share?
GO: Yes, that was my intention. It is very much an ‘art piece,’ that is, I was trying to get at something ineffable about the universe and life, and something personal to me. As far as interpretations, I think that is one of the most beautiful things about art, that we are able to bring our own meaning. No one person’s is more valid than the other. I think that is the beauty of an open-ending. If the universe is ambiguous, shouldn’t art be, as well? For me, personally, the film is about the soul, memory, our need to run from ourselves. It is symbolic, allegorical. But that is only my meaning.
NFS: That’s quite unusual, especially for a short that has production values this high. Many shorts are far more narrative, i.e., they tell a very definite story, especially since so many are made with an eye towards making a feature.
GO: Indeed, and there are thousands of talented filmmakers, each with their own vision. Me, myself, I felt I could not be untrue to my vision. As an artist, I have always wanted to put my vision on the screen, and by collaborating with others, to make it greater than it would ordinarily be. I want to give more, to get more, to fully be invested in the project. I think that is a way to be open to the ‘magic’ -- you cannot plan for it, but you can be ready for it when it knocks on the door, because it can come at any moment. If you could plan magic, it wouldn’t be magical. I am also a firm believer in rhythm, whether it refers to the editing of a film, or more generally, the rhythm of life itself, of the universe. I think, in cinema, too, that when it comes down to it, rhythm is more important than structure, at least for me.
NFS: Could you tell me a little about the location?
GO: Well, when I went scouting in Pennsylvania, I was struck by the otherworldly beauty of the location. It was slightly evocative, for me, of The Mirror, Tarkovsky’s film. The main set is a house, abandoned since 1959, that we happened upon. I had to shoot there, but there were worries about safety! But walking into that house, I knew we could not shoot anywhere else. So we had a carpenter come in to make sure everything was sound, and a few scenes we had to shoot up the hill at the house of a member of the family who owned our location. I’m not sure why they abandoned the house and never tore it down, but it’s good for me that they didn't! We had to spend an incredible amount of time prepping and getting all the equipment there, since it was not the most convenient location.
NFS: What about the production itself (the crew, cameras, etc.)?
GO: We had a crew of 24 people in all, shooting for 6 days. I was, of course, wearing many hats. My wife was also an invaluable member of the team! My DP, Jaren Blaschke, was amazing, as was my editor, Laura Israel, my A.D. Eric Edward LaFranchi, Production Designer Robert Eggers, everyone, really. Too many to name! The film was shot on a D-21 -- there are no handheld shots, by the way, it is all either sticks or dolly, and laying tracks in the woods is not easy! We used prime lenses, between 35-50 mm. The movie was cut with Final Cut Pro. Color correction was at DuArt, by the talented Jane Tolmachyov. The soundtrack was composed by Romain Collin, with sound design by Greg Smith and Margaret Crimmins at Dog Bark Sound, and mix by Jeremy Lucas. For the music, I wanted something that reminded me of an old ballad. We made a recording of a grand piano, then output it to analog tape, then re-digitized it to the slightly worn, decayed, effect I was after -- I was influenced by John Cage [the 20th-century American avant-garde composer], from whom Romain got the idea to put screws, nails, etc. in between the strings of the piano, to give us a unique sound. And I think we succeeded!
NFS: How did you find your cast?
GO: I cast the boy, Grayson Sides, and Richard Manichello and I worked together for the second time. This was the first role for Grayson, and I think he did a fantastic job. It was not an easy set for him, but he was stoic and extremely professional. He was just seven! I really hope that after this film he will continue to be an actor and this film will be a great start for him. The kid has talent. Richard and I worked in Pisces together. I love Richard's work. He just knows the character. I love how he mixes elements of something surreal and yet dramatic at the same time. I have been always very inspired by his transformations on the set.
NFS: What’s next for you?
GO: Right now, I’m working on a script for a new film, it is slightly different than my previous work but, of course, you cannot help but be yourself. I am co-writing the script with Danielle Ellen, who is an excellent writer and a great help. The most open important thing is to be open, as I’ve said. The magic might come at any moment, and you want to be ready for it!
The House at the Edge of the Galaxy is showing this week at the Sarasota Film Festival. Osatinski is currently looking for additional funding for his next film, and can be contacted here. What do you think? Would you give it all up to chase a dream? Do you think it's brave or foolhardy to use so many resources to make what are essentially art films? If you have given up a "normal" career to make films, what was your drive? Let us know, in the comments!