This interview will appear soon in the Polish moto magazine, MotoMania:
INTERVIEW with director, ERIC TRETBAR by Pacyfka in MotoMania Magazine, Poland (Aug, 2013)
Kat, the main character of your film, falls in love with Guzzi bike - at the first sight. And how did you "meet the bike"?
I fell in love with my Moto Guzzi at first sight in a Guzzi dealership located on a rustic Minnesota farm--which is frequently the case in the US. My friend was with me who also loved Guzzis and said: "if you don't buy it, I'm going to."
The dealer man was very casual and asked if I wanted to ride it. I couldn't believe he asked--like your dream girl or boy asking if you'd like to go straight to bed! We started it up outside on a bright October day, and immediately, the gearbox wouldn't go into gear. It had 9000 miles on it, but was in perfect condition. I thought this couldn't be good.
But the five Guzzi customers watching me smiled and said "It's a Guzzi. You have to roll it forward a bit so it can find the cog." I realized that even a new Guzzi was just like an old Guzzi...but then we fired it up and the low baritone note washed over me, I suddenly didn't care about the gearbox, my lack of money, or aything else. I was in love.
I rode carefully down the gravel road to the paved highway, then whacked open the throttle...very quickly, the tachometer read 8000, and I went to redline in each gear. Knowing that I was well over 100 mph (140kph), I slowed and saw the tach at 65--still probably about 110 mph. I passed a car, turned around, and returned to the farm with the biggest smile I'd had since I got to sit next to Jeanette Ashby in high school science class.
A new customer said: "You just passed me going pretty fast!" I said--not really--the speedometer said 65. He eyed the dealer man with an old-timer smile: "I think that was the tachometer he was looking at."
The dealer man asked if I'd like to buy it. He could see that I was "the one" for this bike, telling me he had rejected the continuing offer from an old bearded farmer who wanted to make this cafe racer into a chopper with high handlebars and a sheepskin seat. I said I wanted it badly, but just didn't have the money.
"Can you put some money down?" he asked.
I sighed deeply.
"Can you put ANYTHING down?"
I looked at my friend who had the money in his pocket.
I looked at my pathetic check book. "I could give you...$150," I said, sheepishly.
"Hm," said the dealer, unphased. "Well, when do you think you could have it paid off?"
"By the spring, probably--summer for sure."
I heard these words coming from my mouth as if spoken by someone else--someone who actually had several thousand dollars and the least idea where such money would come from. I had no idea, but suddenly, I realized that I'd just bought my dream bike with almost no money down and absolutely no credit. A handshake took the place of contracts and signatures--a farm deal between two people who believed in love--especially the green and black Moto Guzzi kind.
Do you remember the moment when for the first time in your life you thought - "movies - this is what i want to do in life"? Was there a specific movie that inspired you?
The moment I knew that Cinema was for me and I was for Cinema came in three parts. They were all during my undergraduate college years as a film student, and involved watching films during classes and examinations. The first was seeing Resnais' HIROSHIMA, MON AMOUR. The ambiguous, complex, and very adult imagery and story showed me what films could be. The opening image of intertwined bodies sprinkled with sand and glitter could be lovers on the beach or corpses burnt by atomic heat--unforgettable, especially to my 19-year-old self!
The second film was L'AVVENTURA by Antonioni. I began as a still photographer, following the kind of artsy street photography of Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank. Antonioni showed me that feature films could use precise compositions and highly-structured choreography. Resnais also used these techniques, appealing to my formalist tendencies.
The final inspiration came during a final exam where we were shown a scene from Fellini's LA DOLCE VITA. In it, two children lead a film crew and many "paparazzi" photographers on a goose chase, claiming to see a vision of The Madona. The children's vision is a hoax, but the rain is real--which comes pouring down like a natural miracle, bursting the hot movie lights to show even the sympathetic art of cinema who's boss. I realized that Fellini had expressed the mysterious origins and desires of art: nature, our intertwined human desires of spirit and flesh, and the constant interplay of illusion and reality--in religion, art, and everyday life. I realized that those were crucial considerations for me, and that cinema was the most powerful and beautiful means of expressing them. It was also pure fun.
I later went through other periods--Godard (BREATHLESS), Bergman (THE SEVENTH SEAL), Kieslowski (RED, WHITE, BLUE), and Frankenheimer (GRAND PRIX, RONIN). My favorites today are Michael Haneke (THE WHITE RIBBON) and Christian Mungiu (4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS). I also owe my practical beginning to Jim Jarmusch whose 1984 film, STRANGER THAN PARADISE, showed me that the street photography of Robert Frank could even tell a story (minimal as it was). My best friend and I were watching the film, and said to each other: "This is like a Robert Frank photo that MOVES." In the credits, we saw Jarmusch's thank you to "Robert Frank". Young and dumb as we were, we said: "That can't be THE Robert Frank..." Of course it WAS. Frank lived a few doors from Jarmusch in New York and was something of a mentor to him. Now we know!
How does it work - being indie filmmaker in XXI century? Internet created kind of "download culture", but on the other hand, reaching everyone in the world with our message has never been so easy..
The tradition question in Cinema, posed by Andre Bazin's seminal book, WHAT IS CINEMA?, is now largely a settled question. There is so much information about filmmaking with "making of" documentaries, that the grammar and construction of films (shot, reaction shot, "point-of-view", deep focus, shallow focus, etc) are long-settled aesthetics.
Contained in your question is the new, fascinating question which is deeply changing the nature and language of cinema: WHERE IS CINEMA? We can watch movies on our cell phones now, or computer, or home screen over Sony Playstation.
The irony of internet connectivity which has already become a movie and cliche is "TOGETHER/ALONE". The more connected we are via new media, the more isolation and alienation, too. Antonioni's fashionable 1960s social, spiritual, and philophical alienation is nothing compared to our new media alienation. He was worried that endless blocks of post-WW2 apartments and factory jobs separated people from each other and their true selves. But the internet allows people to disconnect THEMSELVES from their own bodies, rendering real time and space almost a quaint relic of the past as we begin to abandon our bodies in favor of virtual identities and lives.
I made a small point of this in GIRL MEETS BIKE with Kat's boyfriend, James. He's a computer guy while she's moving into a completely PHYSICAL world of motorcycles. And that's a very appealing part of motorcycling which most of us riding bikes consciously discuss. Your cellphone, computer, email and internet can come along for the ride. But when you're ACTUALLY RIDING, you want and NEED to concentrate fully on driving. If you don't, you could kill yourself. In this age of "multi-tasking", it's refreshing to do one thing completely, without distraction or thought to your smartphone.
Being an indie filmmaker in the 21st century means speaking the classical language of Cinema with rapidly-changing technologies. Cinema was born of a new technology in 1885 (the movie camera), and is now changing with our digital technolgies. The basic grammar of movies remains unchanged (shot, reaction shot, wide shot, dolly, point-of-view, etc). But the SCALE of the image is wildly CHANGEABLE. This creates the biggest problem for Cinema today. I must compose a shot that works simultaneously on a theatrical screen 15 meters wide, a TV screen 1 meter wide, a computer 50cm and a cellphone 8cm. It's almost impossible to frame compositions which simultaneously work at the scale of Picasso's GUERNICA and a postage stamp.
The social consequences of the internet may be even more significant. The actual meaning of a film is created by the audience: total strangers sit in a dark room in public and, together, experience a waking dream. Their reaction is a mix of their own life experience and expectations, combined with the reactions of people around them. We gasp, laugh, criticize, cry, condemn and empathize together--sometimes BECAUSE of each other. A serious film can become a comedy to a raucous college audience, and a funny film can meet the silence of humorless government censors.
The problem today is that the internet allows people to watch films alone at their convenience. That's great, because it allows people to see ALL of world cinema that was once unavailable. But Cinema is a public, social art. When we lose the common, public experience of watching a film, we lose that socially-created meaning. And the MEANING of any movie contributes a small part to any society's overall culture.
The internet's "download culture" also created the desire for FREE downloads. If it's not already free, someone will post a song or film, to "give it" to the world for free. This started in the early 1990s as a reaction to the music industry's greed in the change from vinyl records to plastic CDs. The record companies wanted us all to buy our existing record collection ALL OVER AGAIN, and we were mad! Plus, their price went from $8.00 for a $1.50 manufacturing cost to $13.00 for a $0.50 manufacturing cost. That's what REALLY made people mad. In reaction, people said SCREW THE INDUSTRY--and Napster was born.
The problem for indie FILLMMAKERS now is that the same attitude now exists for MOVIES. People transferred their "punish-the-greedy-company" attitude from the music to the film industry. But even a small indie film costs 1000s of times more to create than a CD/album, and people still want it for free. The only solution we indies see is the honor system where people recognize that we are the little guy who can't afford to give 4 or 5 years of unpaid work away for free. Ask anyone if they would go to their job for 5 years for nothing. That's the harsh reality of indie filmmaking. We do it because we love it, yes! (And we do mostly live on love, it's true--some of us even die of it in the Romantic style!) But we also have to pay the rent.
Ultimately, we filmmakers know the internet helps us get our films out to wider audiences, and that's great. The best part is meeting your "kind" of people around the world and forming new alliances, but you miss having a scene that exists in real space. It sometimes feels like what Homer Simpson said about beer after guzzling down a can: "Ah, beer...the cause and solution of all problems!"
You made your first film in 1992. How has filmmaking changed since that time?
The practical challenges of filmmaking remain exactly the same. Cheaper cameras and limitless "film" (memory cards) to shoot don't alter the fact that TIME is the non-negotiable element: the time to write the script (1 year), shoot it (1-2 months), and edit it (1-2 years). Yes, you can do it faster, but more time equals more quality--of camera work, actor performances, nuance in sound and picture design.
The real change is, again, the feeling of isolation among indie filmmakers. Before the internet, you HAD to go to cinematheques and film societies to see the movies you loved and that influenced you (such as HIROSHIMA, MON AMOUR). At these screenings, you'd meet "your kind" of filmmakers, then go out and argue all night over beer and coffee.
Now, there are on-line chats about all this--but it lacks the romanticism of those late-night sessions. I did find this to still exist when I went to a film festival in Sao Paulo, Brazil. It was like Paris in the 60s--a cinematheque on every corner, and impassioned film students and makers arguing aesthetics all night. Ahhh.
A natural part of filmmakers' isolation is simply becoming a working professional. Godard, Truffaut, Kieslowski and Holland talk about getting so busy MAKING films once their careers were underway that they no longer had time to meet their cinema friends and "talk film" as they had in their student days. They miss the comraderie and dreams of their youth. But dreams give way to realities of actually MAKING films, although every film begins as a dream in the mind of the filmmaker. I still enjoy this time most in the whole process, sitting alone, daydreaming about a new story idea--how it will feel, be shot, be cast, be cut. Then you begin to write, shoot and edit, and all your dreams are cut down to your budget, time restrictions and other resources. That's just how it is, but I try to return to my original dream as I'm making a film and experience those original emotions again.
Why is a woman a main character in your film? If it was a movie about a boy, would it have the same meaning?
I intentionally told a woman's story since the built-in social tensions, expectations and pressure accentuate the drama. GIRL MEETS BIKE is an education plot, but making the student female and the teacher(s) mostly male, it's a story of a woman in a mostly male world of motorcycling. I learned from Melissa Holbrook-Pierson's amazing and poetic book, THE PERFECT VEHICLE, that since 1900, 8-12% of motorcyclists have consistently female. But, first time buyers of new motorcyles are 30% female today.
Female riders are an growing group, but a woman coming into a mostly male group of riders is always subject to romantic advances and flirtations disguised as offers of assistance. It's no surprise that women receive a lot of (sometimes unwanted) attention since they're rare in the bike world. And the sexuality that is a natural part of the motorcycle world is played for comedy, drama, romance. I haven't met any motorcyclists who don't have a sense of humor about the fact that we're all riding around on giant phallic symbols. And when a woman takes control of her own phallic rocket, the fur is going to fly!
If this were a male main character, the conflicts of interest might not be so plain to see. You could still have unwanted advances (from women AND men, as it is in GIRL MEETS BIKE); but the cultural assumptions for men are usually that they don't need (or want) help. I like giving certain behaviors to characters you don't expect them from. That makes them clearer to the audience, and actually makes the audience see themselves more in a character who doesn't exactly resemble them.
I also like to see a woman doing all the things men are rewarded for (independence, mechanical competence, willfullness, sexual desire), because we all KNOW women like this (or we ARE these women:), but they are rarely ALLOWED in cinema because of moral restrictions which are beyond obsolete--they're actually harmful. But attempts to control women with morality persist. If a man can't control a woman sexually (by having her to himself), he can try to control her morally (by calling her a whore). This childish reaction to not getting his own way still runs across all cultures, even "liberal" and "progressive" cultures. I happen to believe that men and women are largely the same, with equal abilities and desires. I prefer to show the world as I wish it to be: women doing what they want, when they want, and men and women actually getting along with friendship, wit, and a sexy sense of humor.
I am so moved with Kat's story - I feel it is also a story about me and my life, finding my way towards freedom on the back of steel horse. I hope "GMB" will give a lot of women an inspiration to change their lives too. (Those, who haven't started this path yet)
Even before the film is done, I've had many wonderful reactions from women who I've told the story to. Many have said: "That's me! That's my story!" This was also my sister's story, and I dedicate much of this movie to her and her courage to get a bike, learn to ride (within one month!), then have a big crash which took her off of it. I don't know if she'll return, but she did everything with such gusto, that I had to laugh!
I was in Los Angeles with my motorcycle one summer just after her divorce, and she asked if she could ride on back into town. I was puzzled since I thought she hated motorcycles. "No," she said, "my ex-HUSBAND was the one who didn't like them." Ahhhhh. So she climbed on, we rode fast through Laurel Canyon, and when we arrived, she said: "I LOVE IT! I'M GETTING A MOTORCYCLE!" I asked her if she'd ever driven a motorcycle before. "No, but I can learn!"
She signed up for a state class, but before she even knew how to start a bike, she bought a 1972 BMW R60/5 which is quite a heavy (and difficult) first bike! I told her maybe she should start with something like a Honda 350, but she would not even consider anything but the BMW. She was in love and HAD to have it. "OK," I said, "But it's gonna be pig to ride!"
She took the class, was the best student out of 40--and the only woman. The instructor was so impressed, he gave half the class to her to teach turning and braking. The next week, I came home to her apartment and found her and the BMW gone. I called her and asked where she was. "Oh, I'm in Simi Valley visiting a guy I met at the cafe."
"WHAT???" Simi Valley was about 100 km away from her apartment and she had only been riding for 2 weeks! She had ridden that heavy, uncooperative BMW all the way through Los Angeles traffic and arrived safely. I was quite impressed! No one could tell her what to do, and haven't we all felt that way?
What I like about GIRL MEETS BIKE is that it's a beginner's story which, like any beginner's story, is really about a person having to do something BY HERSELF, FOR HERSELF, with NO ONE'S HELP. All parents have to watch their children grow up and make mistakes. And all motorcyclists make similar mistakes, too--especially being overly-confident from your incredible LUST to ride! Overall, I hope the film will inspire more women to ride so that motorcycling ceases to be a "man's world". But I also hope that men also see themselves in the story of Kat, since each one of us had a bike which was our "first love". And like the first boy or girl who noticed us when we were teenagers, our "first love" was maybe not the perfect or even appropriate one for us. Thus the pain, the confusion, danger and comedy!
And what are your experiences with Poland - Polish movies, audience, people?
I brought my first film to the Warsaw Film Festival in 1992. I'm sure it's a different world now, but I have very fond memories. One of them is that CB (citizen band) radios had just been made legal, so everyone had a CB radio in almost every room. It was quite funny to me, since there was a CB Radio craze (fashion) in the U.S. when I was 10 years old (same time as the movie SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT which featured CB Radios).
I was most impressed in Poland by the sense of culture in everyone I met. Of course, I was meeting very intelligent, sophisticated people working around the film festival, but I had the sense that it wasn't just intellectuals who valued Chopin and Kieslowski and poetry. I felt it everywhere I went. I also received a great punk rock album from my guide by a Solidarity-era band called DEZERTER. It was great to find punk rock in common across the world, and also Cinema. The questions I was asked were quite serious and aesthetic after my screening, compared to the very frivolous and practical questions you usually get in the U.S. ("What is your budget?" or "What kind of camera did you use?")
I know mostly the old Polish Cinema--Wadja, etc--but am still a disciple of Kieslowski, although I'm sure many considered him to have defected to France for his last few films. Recently, it suddenly struck me what DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE is about, after years of thinking it was simply a structural game: HE is Veronique, with one self still living spiritually in Poland, content; and the other self, now in Paris, but mysteriously drawn to Poland.
You'll see many male art-film directors use female characters to camouflage their self-portraits, as da Vinci is now supposed to have done with THE MONA LISA. I think male artists are frequently as much feminine as masculine (we're not usually football hooligans:), so we identify with female consciousness and experience. Because social attitudes attribute emotions and complexity to women, too, female characters create a wider range of dramatic possibilities for the screenwriter. Of course, this suggests that there is an unwritten cinema of TRUE male experience which is just as nuanced and complex as "female" experience, but remains hidden BECAUSE of social expectations.
But back to Poland! I have several friends here in the U.S. who have recently visited Poland--for school, for skiing, and cinema who all say that Berlin is now too expensive, Prague is "finished" many years ago, and that the next "big" city in Europe is Warsaw. So let's go!
Being an artist has never been easy, we say "only hungry artist is trustworthy". The more you want to be true to yourself, the more difficulties you meet?
I have never quite had the opportunity to "sell out", that is, to betray my ideals, convictions or aesthetics for a large bag of money. Because my films have been small, I've made them on my own terms, according to my own design and beliefs. I've been forturnate to find good financiers to work with who let me do the art while they did the money. But I would very much like to have bigger budgets so that I can execute my ideas more completely.
You can ALWAYS use more money in cinema, because it buys more shooting days. But the more money you have, the more people are looking over your shoulder "making sure" that nothing is wasted. Sometimes, they even insists that you DO waste money on things you find unnecessary, but are matters of professional protocol to satisfy big actors...I am trying to find larger budgets for bigger productions. But so far, I am very happy with the 7 films I've made. All films have compromises due to limited resources. But the few times I have met the possibility to go down the wrong road, my instinct steered me back toward myself and everything was fine.
Art and bikes in one movie, how do you think an audience is gonna react to that mixture?
I think many people will, at first, find the movie to be unfamiliar. That is, they expect an exploitation film with cartoon emotions and silly kitsch actions. That audience (who loves Tarantino) will think--wait, this is serious! The serious art audience will initially be horrified by the bad behavior, beer guzzling, sex and obnoxiously-loud motorcycles. But isn't sex and bad behavior the meat and potatoes of art films?
What makes me happy is that usually, people will come back to me two or three weeks later after seeing my film and say: "I didn't know what to think of your movie at all. It wasn't what I expected. But I've kept thinking about it. It keeps coming back to me..." That's exactly my intention, and the way that Cinema works on a deep level. When that happens, it means people's deep subconscious has been affected and is processing the film--even when their conscious mind may have dismissed it.
Cinema is dreaming with your eyes open. That's a confusing concept in itself, so I'm not surprised that my films take a while to "sink in". Stanley Kubrick's films sometimes took 20 years to sink in, so if I improve as a filmmaker, people may take longer and longer to know what they think after viewing. But there's only one way to find out!