'Bodkin Ras' Director on How to Make Reality Your Movie's Stage
What happens when you introduce a fictional character into a real town?
Dutch director Kaweh Modiri's Bodkin Ras is one of the most original films to premiere at SXSW this year. The doc-fiction hybrid takes place in the small, insular Scottish town of Forres. It stars local characters, playing themselves, whose real-life stories are woven into the narrative and disrupted by the titular character, who is the only fictional person in the movie. The result is an arresting film that catches a viewer completely off-guard, left wondering which parts are real and which aren’t, and ultimately questioning the nature of reality itself.
During the post-screening Q & A, Modiri recalled that, in one of his early visits to Forres, a cab driver advised, “You'll be fine. It’s a safe town. Just don't go to Eagle Bar." It was the first place he went. After all, Modiri was looking for stories and, as he explained, “It's usually people who are on the outskirts of society who are most open to you if you are open to them.” In the dark corners of The Eagle, Modiri found not only inspiration for the film, but also some of the people who would eventually star in it.
We sat down with Modiri the next day, in the midst of SXSW chaos, to learn more about his unique filmmaking process.
"The idea for the film was to trigger things that are in that town by making a fictional character work as a matchstick, lighting things up."
NFS: In the post-screening Q & A, you described some scenes as “documentary scenes” and some as “scripted.” What does that mean in the context of your film?
Modiri: All of the characters I worked with except the main character, who's a fictional character, are real people from that town, playing themselves. During the research period, I researched their back-stories, and I integrated those stories in the fictional script. The film is a wholly conceived fictional story that incorporates these documentary parts.
When we were working, we had days that were slated as documentary days. For example, I knew what Eddie's [local man who takes Bodkin under his wing] routine was. I knew that every morning he wakes up at 4 o'clock in the morning. He starts tidying his house and by 9 or 10 o'clock in the morning, then goes to the Eagle. At 5 o'clock he comes home drunk and basically eats something or not and then goes to bed. The same thing the day after. Once I knew this routine, I planned the shoot around this so we would be with him when he wakes up in the early hours, until he goes to the Eagle Bar and pick him up at the end of the day when he's drunk and coming home. This became a scene in the film.
NFS: What was the whole process of creating this docu-fiction hybrid?
Modiri: It started when I first traveled to that town, just by accident. I got inspired by this town, so well hidden between the highlands and the ocean. In a certain way it seemed like nothing was ever changing. Everything seemed safe but you could feel that not everything was good. That's when [I got] the idea to put in a fictional character, an intruder, a stranger, into this closed society. When I came back, I wrote a short story called Bodkin Ras. In 2011, I decided to turn that into a film concept — not to make a film based fully on that story, but to work with this idea of a fictional character into a documentary context. With that idea, I went back to that town and did the research for the film and the casting, and once we got funding, we shot in 2013. We shot for 30 days and we would build our schedule in such a way that it wasn't fully scheduled but would have time for documentary parts to happen organically.
"I never showed the people the script. In the end about a quarter of the movie is scripted and the rest is improvised on the spot."
NFS: How did you prepare the documentary characters for what they were about to participate in? What did you tell them about who Bodkin [the one fictional character] was supposed to be in the story?
Modiri: During the process of casting and researching, I didn't want to give away too much, so I didn't tell them too much. When we came back for the actual shoot in 2013, I would just work with them as we were going. I would ask Eddie, "Eddie, can we organize a barbecue at your home?" for example, and he would be "Yeah, fine. That's okay." During that scene at his home, "Eddie, can we do this scene in front of the pictures of your children?" So they knew they story outline. I never showed the people the script. In the end about a quarter of the movie is scripted and the rest is improvised on the spot.
We had different approaches for different characters. As we proceeded and as some of the characters started showing great acting skills without having ever acted before, I realized I could tell them more and they can handle it. With Eddie, I could improvise whole dialogues bit by bit and he would remember them and improvise further on them. Other characters, I could never script things for. That wouldn't work. I would just give them a context and they would talk about it or they would talk about their own story and I would apply it to the fictional story in the edits.
NFS: How did you know it was going to work?
Well, my previous film My Burglar and I had a similar approach to it. After the burglar of my laptop got caught, when I got the computer back I opened it and I saw that my laptop had a new identity and a new name. Everything that I had was gone and there was 4 hours of home footage of my burglar filming himself in his bedroom, giving kisses to the camera, introducing himself. Suddenly, I was in his private space, in his bedroom, observing him when he was vulnerable. There was a very strange shift going on and I was totally intrigued and I just thought, "I'm going to do something with this." I didn't know what or how.
I knew that I was going to approach the next film in the way that I did. I had good faith that it was going to work, but lots of things I didn't know. It was a very difficult film to explain to people. We're going to introduce a fictional character, a real town, who are these characters, how is it going to develop? So many unknowns. That's actually what I liked about this challenge. There were certain elements that I had full control over and there were certain elements that I had hardly any control over. That relationship between authorship and coincidence and irreversibility, that was something that I really liked.
"There were certain elements that I had full control over and there were certain elements that I had hardly any control over. That relationship between authorship and coincidence and irreversibility was something that I really liked."
During the edits, which took 20 weeks, there were, as in every edit process, moments where I was like, "Is this going to work?" I had about 70 hours of material that needed to come down to 90 minutes, and to find a way to go from introducing a fictional story and suddenly to a documentary language, back and forth, it took a lot of fine tuning. I had to establish it in such a way that you can follow that as a viewer and you don't feel you're watching two films. As soon as I had found the pace, and we could go back and forth between these two languages and it was turning into one language, I was convinced this is going to work.
NFS: Can you share advice for filmmakers who might want to explore making a doc-fiction hybrid film?
Modiri: You need to know why you're taking this approach for this specific project, and then you can feel for how to mix and balance the doc and fictional parts. In this film, I knew that the idea for it was to trigger things that are in that town by making a fictional character work as a matchstick, lighting things up. I knew that I wanted the stories of all of these characters, but not in a weepy documentary form. I wanted to transcend them to fiction. Therefore, I balanced the film in the way that I have. I think if I had had a different reason for doing it, it would have turned out to be a different film.
No Film School's coverage of the 2016 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by SongFreedom.