Last week at the LA Film Festival, writer/director Sophie Barthes premiered her third film Cold Souls starring Paul Giamatti (check out the trailer and poster). After the screening, both of them got up to talk about making a comedy about a world where soul-removal is the new Xanax.
In a world were consumers can have anything they want people choose to go soulless as easily as they decide to give up carbs. Of course, an actor struggling with Chekov is the perfect subject for someone looking to lighten their mood.
In the film Paul Giamatti plays several different versions of himself in search of the best performance of the character, unfortunately everything goes wrong when his soul gets mysteriously “misplaced” and he finds himself in Russia searching for it…
Where did the idea for Cold Souls come from?
Sophie Barthes: I took the idea from a dream I had two years ago. In the dream, I was in a strange office very much like the office in the movie. I was holding a white box and Woody Allen was there. A doctor came in with an assistant and told us our souls had been extracted. They were going to check the shape of our souls and tell us our psychological profiles. So when Woody Allen’s turn came, and they opened his box, it was a little chickpea. He got extremely offended and very neurotic about it and was kind of fidgety. He said, “There is no way I can make 40 movies and be a chickpea.” I opened my box and the dream ended, so I didn’t see my soul. I have been writing my dreams down for a long time.
Paul, what was it like to play different versions of yourself?
Paul Giamatti: Yeah, well that was the thing that interested me about it. I do play a kind of “type”. The idea that it was me didn’t strike me so much until I was filming it. I was like, “Oh my God, I’m filming myself.” The interesting thing was the soulless, partially souled, and having a Russian factory worker soul. It being me? I didn’t really care.
What was it like to play different versions of Chekov’a play Vanya?
PG: That was kind of the most daunting. Knowing that I had to do it badly, but I had to do it well. I knew that I could do it badly, and that wasn’t going to be a problem, but I had to actually be kind of good. I was crapping myself about that. I thought, “This won’t work if I just blow the whole time.” So, I don’t know if I pulled it off. It was fun doing the whole soulless thing. It is almost like the soul is the superego, the regulating device. I kind of having this overly confident approach to the film, and I end up having the stupidest, wrong-headed way of playing Vanya, but I do it with incredible gusto. I thought that was a great way of playing it. It was really fun to do it.
SB: When Paul started doing it, I had the feeling he was doing a William Shatner impersonation. I was just laughing so much I couldn’t even direct anymore.
PG: I love Shatner, so I would never do that to him.
Did you have any ideas of how you wanted the actors to play their characters?
SB: I knew very specifically what I wanted to do. It was tricky because it is a very abstract story. With Paul and the William Shatner thing, I would have never imagined him to take it in that direction. Sometimes I am surprised by actors, they are very creative and use their intuition and propose things that a director wouldn’t think about.
What was it like filming in Russia?
SB: Russia, was actually a very pleasant surprise. The producers told us “No way. You are not going to Russia. You have to shoot in Minnesota.” I said, “No way. Did you see the architecture in Minnesota?” Russia was really part of the script. For me, it was just really important. We heard all these stories about corruption, but we actually didn’t have any problems. They were very professional. It was a good experience for me.
PG: We ended up going to a lot of places with the Russian crew. Many of these actors had never lived in the communal houses, which were kind of insane. There were like sixteen people living in these places. The actors were great. I was kind of intimidated to work with the Russian actors. Yeah, they were kind of terrifying. They are really serious folks, and they take it really seriously. Everyone proclaims, “Do you realize you are working with this great Russian actor?” [laughs] The actor who plays Dimitri, he doesn’t speak English so he learned all of his lines phonetically. He is amazing. He was a terrifying human being. He really was scary.
SB: He is an artist actually. He has a cooking show. [laughs]
PG: He was killing elk, and teaching us how to dress an elk. It was insane.
The film has a fairy tale sensibility, was that planned?
SB: I realized afterwards, when I was editing, it was inspired by my favorite tale The Princess and the Pea. I now understand the chickpea. I think it is something in the collective unconscious. What is the pea? Is it her soul? Is it her sensibility?
What was the idea behind the film taking place in space?
SB: The idea was to make science fiction that takes place today. It is the next step of the process. The idea was to shoot New York the way it is. I love science fiction.
How did you decide to write the part for Paul Giamatti?
SB: After the dream, I thought to write it for Woody Allen and then I thought I would never come close to being able to talk to him. Then I saw American Splendor and I was completely blown away by Paul’s performance and this soulfulness he had. Then I wrote it for him. I actually became really stubborn, I thought if he wouldn’t do it then I wouldn’t shoot it. The screenplay won an award in Nantucket, in a screenplay competition. By a crazy twist of fate, Paul was there to give an award and I was there to get my award. I was too shy to talk to him. I got a bit drunk and started to talk to his wife. She was really open. I told them about the chickpea dream with Woody Allen and they really liked it. Then they gave me their address. I just thought, “Okay, I’m drunk. I’m drunk”. Then they called back on Monday! It was beginners luck.
What was it like to have a screenplay written for you?
PG: Hey, well she was drunk and she’s got that accent; I couldn’t understand a word she was saying. I was like, “Just nod sweetheart.” She was drunk and French. No, actually it was nice. When she told me the idea, I thought it sounded great. Then when she sent it to us, it was more dreamlike. I loved all the Russian stuff. I was really happy she approached me about it.