Exclusive Interview: Comets Director Tamar Shavgulidze & Producer Tekla Machavariani

Tamar Shavgulidze’s Comets received its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. The emotive Georgian drama focuses on two middle-aged women Irina (Nino Kasradze) and Nana (Ketevan Gegeshidze) who are reunited three decades after their separation and remain mesmerised by memories of their earlier days together. Irina returns to the small community she left to visit Nana remained there and had a family. The women must reconcile with the past and their complex feelings for one another.

Following the film’s world premiere The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with director Tamar Shavgulidze and producer Tekla Machavariani (who translated for Tamar).

(l-r) Comets Producer Tekla Machavariani, The Queer Review’s Editor James Kleinmann & Comets Director Tamar Shavgulidze at the Toronto International Film Festival 2019

James Kleinmann: Congratulations on the film, I saw it last night and I was utterly engrossed by it. I just wondered if you could talk a little bit about the inspiration behind Comets?

Tamar Shavgulidze: “The inspiration was the people around me and the their lives and the stories I’ve heard. But the specific story in the film is something I created. It’s a fictional story.”

I’d love to talk a bit about your cinematography by Giorgi Shvelidze. The long opening shot at the table, it’s such a long sequence with just one shot that I really began to feel like I was sitting at the table with Nana’s daughter who’s then joined by her mother. It’s one extended shot, can you talk about your decision to open the film in that way.

“So when I was writing the script, and especially that scene, was I imagining that I was siting with them at the table and listening to them, so I saw it aesthetically without any cuts and I just decided to present it this way.”

Then when the older Irina arrives in the garden, the camera work becomes mainly handheld and there’s a lot more movement around the garden. Could you talk about that contrast? 

“Because we know that these are two people who were in love and have not seen each other for thirty years and then suddenly this happens in this very specific moment. So I just wanted to change the whole structure of how I was telling the story, but not to let the audience know directly what is happening. I just wanted to make them feel that something new was coming, change was coming. But as soon as the women sit down and the first emotional impressions are gone, we are also slowing down in terms of the camera and we are also becoming more relaxed and static because we want to hear now them. So the form is becoming more static, but inside the characters are becoming more active, a little stressed and tight, but this is just my thoughts and I think the audience might receive it differently.”

Comets. Courtesy of TIFF.

What about the pace of the present days scenes. It feels unhurried, but on the other had we know that Irina’s taxi driver is waiting, which made me feel watching it like time is ticking, there’s a tension  isn’t there? 

“Yes, exactly. So in the morning the mother and daughter are sitting talking, then the daughter leaves and before the daughter comes back there’s the arrival of this ‘comet’ Irina, coming in and destroying the harmony which Nana has created around her. The taxi is there because the audience can choose what Irina will do, the audience knows there is a taxi waiting, so Irina has two choices. That’s why I left the taxi there, to have this open ending and the audience can choose afterwards how it will end.”

And can we talk about the casting. Let’s start with the two pairs of actors playing the central characters Nana and Irina.

“When I was writing I knew exactly who was going to play the main characters, these two actresses are totally different from the characters. They don’t have any similarities with them, but that’s why I wanted them to play these roles and to create these characters. At the beginning it was quite difficult for the actors because of the characters’ lifestyle, because of the story, but after some time they just felt it and it just became really easy for us.”

Tekla Machavariani: “I would just add that she gave the actors films to watch as references and they were talking a lot before starting the rehearsals, so it helped them a lot I guess to understand their characters.”

Comets. Courtesy of TIFF.

What about the contrasting look and feel of the scenes of characters when they’re younger and when they’re older? And the choices for lighting and cinematography in those scenes.

“I didn’t want them to look exactly like the older Irina and Nana, I wanted them to be different physically, but I had this intuition and just felt that they were the right right ones. In terms of the look, this we agreed with the DOP, I didn’t want to have a big difference between present time and the past, and the DOP suggested creating this really simple visual which is lit a bit different from present day but still not very contrasted.”

(l-r) Comets Director Tamar Shavgulidze and Producer Tekla Machavariani speak to The Queer Review’s Editor James Kleinmann at the Toronto International Film Festival 2019

And what about that third sci-fi section because that does look a bit different too doesn’t it?

“The third section, I’ll be honest about it, at the beginning I didn’t think about having a third section at all, but during the editing process I felt that the film needed five minutes or so longer. I was thinking about what could be added and I decided to choose an absolutely different thing, which can be something the younger characters are watching perhaps, which could be something they are relating to, the characters, so I created this sci-fi story about unconditional love, which is also the theme of the film. That was just a choice, the film within a film was easy and interesting to create.”

Was there any particular inspiration for that sequence? It made me think a little of The Man Who Fell To Earth…

“Well, I love sci-fi literature, so it comes from that. I always wanted to create something based on the sci-fi literature that I read, so I just created this opportunity for myself.”

Comets. Courtesy of TIFF.

Can we talk a bit about the older women and their different memories of the past. I liked the moment where they were talking about kissing when they were younger in front of people at a party and Nana remembers the music stopping and Irina says that the music didn’t stop.

“We don’t know which memory is the right one. This memory just exists in their minds, but differently, so we don’t want to know exactly which was the reality, we are just giving both perspectives. When there is unconditional love between two people there is no past, present or future, it’s just everything is all together and this togetherness and these differences are just coming and just creating one whole. I just wanted to have didn’t perspectives on the same moment, just to understand also the difference between these two characters. Nana remembers it one way, for her it was just like silence, whereas for Irina it was more real, she was there, she was understanding the situation more, so it also explains something about the characters.”

I think memory is subjective and particularly when love is involved and so many years have passed. It’s such a powerful thing, two people reconnecting after so many years, could you talk a bit about the emotional potency of that situation.

“The difference between cinema and real life is that in the cinema you can do what you want. It means you can do something like create the situation where two people can meet after thirty years, which can’t really be done in real life, or is unlikely to happen, but my hope is that in reality people in their situation do meet up after so many years and they still have unconditional love like in this story.”

Comets. Courtesy of TIFF.

And in terms of them being together as a lesbian couple, it’s partly to do with the time and culture that it would have been very unusual for them to have stayed together and been open about being a couple wouldn’t it?

“Just to explain the background in post-Soviet countries like ours, it’s still an issue to be with a loved one, whoever you love and especially at the time when Irina and Nana were young. Of course it was very difficult for them to be together because of society’s views, but also because in our society to say what you want and to be who are you have to be very strong and brave, and these two girls were not in that position. So one of them just ran away from the situation and the other one chose to stay and live a different life. So of course society’s views played a part and all the problems which we are facing even today. It’s becoming better, but these are the reasons why they could not be together, why they were not strong enough to be.”

What about having a same sex relationship depicted relationship in your film, the practical implications of that, getting the film made and seen in Georgia?

“It’s difficult to answer. I never thought about it like that, I just made the film and I want an audience to just watch it. I hope it will be well received.”

Tekla Machavariani: “In terms of financing this film, I thought it would be really difficult, but we were lucky to win the competition at the national film Centre and they are promoting the film right now out there, supporting us, which means a lot. It means they are becoming much more confident in supporting films with topics that are less accepted in our country. So I’m also hoping that audiences will receive it really well and especially at a time when we have quite big films being released around LGBTQ topics.”

What’s your experience of TIFF been like so far? 

“The festival is amazing, but I was also amazed by the county, by the people and the city itself, it’s my first time here. Very kind people and it’s very unusual for me to see so many kind people. They are so very nice here!”

Do you have a favourite LGBTQ+ film that’s really spoken to you, a favourite one that resonates?

“William Wyler film’s The Children’s Hour with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine. And actually when we were thinking about making the poster we were looking around for inspiration and one of the inspirations was the poster for The Children’s Hour.”

Tekla Machavariani: “It’s a very interesting film and I watched it because she told me that it was a film she’s inspired by and I really enjoyed it as well. It was also very inspiring for me.”

Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine in William Wyler The Children’s Hour

I saw the London stage production, but I’ve never seen that film version, only seen clips and it looks great. Very melodramatic.

“Yes, you must watch it. I think that film version is much better than it would have been on stage.”

Yes, the play was a bit dull actually.

 “I was guessing that you’d say that!”

Comets had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

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