One of the most exciting new filmmakers I’ve had a chance to discover and watch films from is a writer-director from Azerbaijan named Tofiq Rzayev. In both 2015 and 2016, I had the pleasure of watching three short films each year by Rzayev, several of which have been among the best, and favorite films, of mine each of those years. (In 2015, it was “Akibet (Aftermath)”. Last year, it was “Araf”.) Every film has been uniquely poignant and powerful, following unique paths to their conclusion. After watching his most recent film, “Leftovers”, I decided it was time to ask him some questions about how he got into filmmaking, and what inspires him. His answers are a reflection of his unique voice in cinema. I hope you enjoy!
1) What films and filmmakers have inspired you as a filmmaker?
Well, back when I was just a little child, I remember that for me watching movies was like watching real life events. And I mean literally…I had no idea that there were people behind the camera, a writer, set decorator and that all the people were acting. So that is why whenever I saw a movie, especially horror films, it really got to me, it really disturbed me to my very core. Because I did not know that it was not real, I thought people were actually crying or getting killed. At around the age of 13 or 14, I remember coming across a movie that just stuck with me, and that was Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” The reason why it has a special place in my heart is because it was for that movie that I saw “Behind the Scenes footage” for the first time, and my life from then on was changed forever. It was there and then I realized that movies are moving images that are created by people in order to communicate and resonate with feelings and the human mind. So long story short, whenever I get asked who inspires me the most as a filmmaker, my first and initial answer is Stanley Kubrick. Other filmmakers that inspired my craft for film are Andrei Tarkovsky when it comes to composing shots, which I think I focused on the most when I made “Nihan: The Last Page”. Also when it came to writing, reading short stories of Anton Chekhov was a great source for getting ideas and inspiration. Another filmmaker that I really admire is Harmony Korine. Anyone who is familiar with him always gets shocked when I mention his name after Kubrick and Tarkovsky, due to the fact that he is just so the complete opposite. His film “Kids” (1995) is one of the most brilliantly crafted realistic documentary-like films that I have ever seen. Just the fact that it was his first written work for film made when he was just 19 is absolutely insane.
2) One of the things that I’ve noticed about many of your films is that they start out as traditional genre exercises, but then turn to stories about the heart. Where does the inspiration for that come from?
The thing with my short films and the way I craft them is that I start out with a simple premise and end up taking it to places based on my personal emotions. There are times where I do not think about the whole “movie logic” or worry about what is right or wrong to show in a theoretical perspective and end up going with the flow with my emotions. For example, during the writing process of “In a Time for Sleep”, there were a lot of arguments on how the story should unfold. But at the end of the day we scrapped everything and decided to go based on our emotional instincts. Because at the end, the story at it’s core is about emotional uprising and coming head to head with your emotions. In stories I also try to tackle personal situations. Situations that would be kept secret in someone’s actual life. I try to show situations of the characters’s lives, where after it’s all over, they won’t dare to share their story with others.
3) While I’ve very much enjoyed your short film output over the past couple of years, I’ve wondered, when might we see a feature-length film from you?
Now that is a question that I hear at least once a month from someone. But the thing is I have yet to tackle a story that is worth molding into a feature film. The thing I love about short films is the small time you get to introduce your character JUST ENOUGH to make the story work. Also I do not think I am even close to handle a feature film right now. I have a lot to learn and short films are my way of learning on my own mistakes. But hopefully in the near future I will come up with something that will make me drown in euphoria, the camera closes up on my face, cue the music and boom! I’m making a feature film. The question that really excites me though is if I make one in the future, what kind of story will it be. It has always been my dream to make a teen-coming of age-John Hughes-like film since I can remember. Maybe one day.
4) As an American viewer who largely watches American films, my country’s cinema is largely homogenized and predictable in its conventions. What influence would you say your homeland and culture has in terms of when you think of making a movie, if it has any influence?
Well, the thing is when it comes to American cinema, I think that there are certainly huge expectations both domestically and internationally. Films mostly try to appeal to what the audience wants rather than make something and think that “okay, we are making this, this might not be for everyone, but the main thing is to do the story and the characters justice”. This is where I think the problem rises. Sometimes as movies try to cater hard on the audience, the quality and the main focus on the story gets lost in translation. This is why I absolutely respect indie filmmakers. They make things that they want to make. The experiment on ideas and stories. One of my favorite films that I have seen is the recently released “Swiss Army Man.” That movie made me laugh, cry and think about life. Did I also mention that it is about a farting corpse that likes singing songs? In cinema nothing is impossible. The sky is the limit, it’s just the need to find the right balance.
In terms of influences, Definitely! Being born and living in a Post-Soviet Union country, the history has really effected my view on cinema. I personally think that the best films were released during the soviet era of our country, and that has definitely affected the coming years of rising filmmakers. Because back in the day, people were so inspired by rising Soviet filmmakers such as Andrei Tarkovsky, Lev Kuleshovor, Mikhail Kalatozov. Because they thought that “Ok, these successful filmmakers come from the same culture, we both come from the similar economic background and both want to tell stories on the screen.” So thus a rise and inspiration was boiling in the veins of the new wave of filmmakers that I think still continues to this day.
5) What is the most important thing for you to express to a viewer in your movies?
For me the most important thing to express is how life itself is a never-ending mystery and at the end it is we that are left emotionally uplifted or scarred for life. In my films I always try to use the themes of mystery. Not knowing where life will take you in the next minute. Even when I tried to tackle a romantic comedy (“The Cleaner”) I still tried to put that theme and idea in the foreground. I tried also to take that idea to the dark and extreme with “The Leftovers.” As much as there uplifting surprises waiting in the corner of life, there are also ten times darker shadows as well that can’t wait to get their hands on you.
Thanks for listening,