Ilian Metev is the Bulgarian director of the documentary Sofia’s Last Ambulance (2012), a film that followed three employees in charge of what was, at the time, the only ambulance in Sofia. Its impact was such that the movie led to the decision to provide the city with two more emergency units. Metev’s film, his feature debut, is an example of the intrinsic social function of cinema, a movie without hesitation.
3/4 is Metev’s second feature film and was awarded with the Pardo d’Oro Cineasti of the Present at the 70th edition of the Locarno Festival. It is an organic drama full of subtlety, in which the photography of Julian Atanassov resembles the fine brush of a painter who, with its warm tones, invites us to enter into the intimacy of a family that will live their last summer together. The “three fourths” are a father (Todor Veltchev), and his daughter Mila (Mila Mihova) and son Niki (Nikolay Mashalov)—the mother implicitly missing. The actors, working with dialogues from Metev and co-writer Betina Ip, precisely draw the family disorder and the breakdown.
Ilian Metev makes a portrait about the great complexity of taking control, reconciling work and personal life, as he will say later in our conversation. 3/4 talks about the mechanisms that today govern relationships between siblings, and between parents and siblings. These last relationships are ruled by distance, and this film talks about the abyss between a father and his two children, a gap that seems insurmountable.
NOTEBOOK: Comparing Sofia’s Last Ambulance, a particularly impressive documentary, with 3/4, an incursion on the territory of fiction, how did you experience the transition from documentary to fiction?
ILIAN METEV: To me, every project is a new start, a beginning from zero, and I enjoy the new challenges. On one hand, I was surprised how close documentary and fiction can be—the process of working with the camera, sound, editing and post-production was in a way similar, if we don’t consider the fact that the crew was much larger in 3/4. In both instances we were hunting with camera and sound for eloquent moments which will work for each film’s composition. The major difference was the way we arrived at those moments. Whereas in Sofia’s Last Ambulance, our highest principle was to never interfere with reality, in 3/4 we had to create situations which would feel real. We tried to lay the basis for those situations already in the script, but things really came together in the collaborative work with the actors. Real life can be so full of ambiguities, contradictions, illogical behavior and surprises, which you can never come up with. 3/4 taught me a lot about looking closer at reality.
NOTEBOOK: How and when did you start designing this project?
METEV: It’s been on my mind since the edit of the previous film. However, for a long time it was only an abstract idea, a feeling, a collage of personal recollections. People work differently. Some say they ‘see’ their film in their entirety at the beginning and they only have to execute it. For me it’s different, it´s a long journey full of ups and downs, excitements, insecurities—until suddenly, as if by miracle, you’re done with the post-production and all the years of work are condensed in 82 minutes. For me, the film started becoming concrete the moment we met the protagonists. I need the personal contact and loved the collaborative aspect of the process.
NOTEBOOK: What is the main idea behind 3/4?
METEV: The combination of natural performances with a precise film language; to create a film without exaggerated drama; to focus on the more delicate interactions between family members. To be honest, I’m surprised that many viewers and critics recognized what was important to us. In the process, regardless of your efforts, you prepare yourself for the possible outcome that no one will understand anything. We’ve been talking with my friend Ralitza [Petrova, the director of Godless] that one should always be prepared for failure and embrace the risks. Still, it is immensely encouraging when in the end the film has some meaning for others too.
NOTEBOOK: So, this film would be a portrait of a family, and the role that each member occupies within it. In that way, Niki and Mila have their anxieties, but they are very different from each other. Mila is a pianist and is orderly, methodical. Niki has a talent for the absurd. Each one occupies the place left by the other. What do you think about this idea?
METEV: Yes. In the casting, regardless if documentary or fiction, I always look for people who complement each other. However, the casting decisions are intuitive. What you see with Mila’s more methodical behaviour and Niki’s more spontaneous side comes entirely from them. It was amazing to see how they opened up during the preparation and shooting.
NOTEBOOK: Could you tell us about your method of working with the actors?
METEV: We cast all the actors a year prior to shooting and engaged in weekly acting workshops. They were immensely creative. The workshops consisted initially of very simple activities, domestic work, shopping, et cetera, and we would motivate gently philosophical or personal conversations between them. The idea was for them to really get to know each other and us. Gradually we introduced more tensions into the workshops and in a way rehearsed the background to the film’s story. The shoot was a continuation of this process. We would try to create a framework—in a way, real situations—and would let them improvise for up to one or two hours, each having to fulfill one or two goals per scene.
NOTEBOOK: Through this method of working with the actors, did you want to maintain the documentary spirit of your first feature film?
METEV: That is correct. I want to film people the way I see them in everyday life. When shooting a scene, it was crucial that the actors would not know the details and the outcome of what would happen. Otherwise they would start interpreting the situation, they would not really look or listen to each other and would try to be too expressive—the outcome would sometimes resemble bad theatre. Creating a framework of ignorance for every scene was the only way I could observe them being natural and attentive. At the same time, it was crucial that they had some direction, a desire, a goal, something to cling on for each scene. However, they would not know how the others would respond to their goals. We tried to keep things fresh by having variations and new details not only for every scene, but every single take. That asked of us, as filmmakers, to try and be incessantly inventive. It was exhausting but also hugely enjoyable.
NOTEBOOK: The sensitivity is the same in both films, but you have changed the frontally with respect to the characters and the style has become more invisible.
METEV: In both films I’ve been very interested in faces. The ambulance film was framed a bit tighter and frontally, because that’s what worked for the ambulance car and for the three protagonists who would sit closely next to each other. I deliberately wanted to frame out anything gruesome and the patients, since I believed that would give us a closer insight onto our protagonists. In 3/4, I wanted a consistent framing style, where the angles would be kept the same, where we could isolate the family members in separate frames, and yet where we could leave a bit more space for the frames to breathe. I was interested in this particular and consistent distance, because I believe it leaves more room for the spectator. Changes from close-ups to long shots can be very effective in cinema, but personally I feel they can be too manipulative. Of course, cinema is inherently manipulative—but still. Ultimately, I believe that a strong stylistic unity helps to bring out the subtler nuances of what is being filmed, as well as help all the material cohere into a whole.
NOTEBOOK: 3/4 seems to be a psychological treatise on human behavior. For example, in the relationship between the two siblings, Niki sabotages and distracts Mila. In this sense, I would like to ask you about writing the script with Betina Ip. Did you do any research?
METEV: Both Betina and I have older siblings, so we drew from our personal experiences. In the writing it was important for us that the feelings are never expressed directly. We were interested in contradictory and ambiguous behavior. For example, when Niki sees his sister saddened by a bad piano lesson he tries to cheer her up by annoying, insulting even hitting her. Those were elements already in the script, but we never showed the script to the actors. Instead we indirectly directed them to arrive at this place themselves. Furthermore, prior to shooting every scene, we would give them only limited instructions, consisting of, as I told you before, one or two goals and a few details. They would never know of each other’s instructions. We did this to in order to try and keep them always in a state of ignorance, surprise and inside the moment. With their trust and engagement everything became much more alive and truthful than it was in our written document.
NOTEBOOK: Niki is de-centered, and sometimes he gives a critical sense to the situation that they live. How did you work his character?
METEV: In a similar way as with the others. An important thing I learnt from working with kids is that it is crucial to give little and clear information. Whenever I tried to explain too much or be too analytical, psychological or metaphorical, it wouldn’t work. As with nearly everything: less is more. However, the question of trust was crucial and it was essential that Niki felt comfortable with the entire team. Nikolay Hristov, our assistant director, dedicated a lot of time to the kids and helped him also relax in front of the camera. Niki was a bit self-conscious and anxious at the start of the shoot since there were suddenly so many people. Yet, a couple of weeks on he was unstoppable, coming up with the most wonderous lines and behaviour.
NOTEBOOK: Todor, the father of both, is an essential figure to understand what happens. He is always absent. He doesn´t attend, for example, the auditions of Mila. He never helps them. This is the great problem. Is Todor’s character inspired by reality?
METEV: Yes. Despite best intensions many parents fail to be there in key moments during the growing up of their children. It is something I’ve observed in my family, something Todor has experienced in his family and Mila in hers. Ironically, during the shoot of the film in Bulgaria, I had to be often away from my young daughter and partner who live in the U.K. The thing is that Todor isn’t absent, because he doesn’t love his children. No, he struggles to find a balance between his profession and private life. That’s a deliberate theme in the film and in my opinion a contemporary dilemma.
NOTEBOOK: The title of the film possibly alludes to the absence of the mother, because most of the time the children live with their father. This is another essential idea that helps to break the family. Do you think the film talks about the gradual separation of the family?
METEV: Yes. Everyone is too preoccupied with their own desires, so before noticing it, everyone has already left the family home.