Director Boaz Yakin’s 1994 feature Fresh still resonates today, and throughout the years Yakin has carved his own path with helming higher profile pictures (Remember the Titans, Max, the Jason Statham headlined Safe) and indie driven projects (Death in Love, Boarding School). Yakin’s lifelong passion for subverting genres as well as pushing himself as an artist has led to Aviva, a new feature that marks his finest moment in cinema. During our extensive conversation, Yakin talked about the creative process behind making his ambitious film.
Aviva centers on Eden (Tyler Phillips, Bobbi Jene Smith) and Aviva (Zina Zinchenko, Or Schraiber), a passionate couple that are ultimately trying to make their relationship work. Smith also serves as the choreographer, and the expression driven dancing, coupled with Yakin’s dedication to viscerally charged moments, leads to one of this year’s finest cinematic works. Eden and Aviva are both played by male and female actors, and this decision gives a refreshingly layered (and brutally honest) look at relationships.
During the interview Yakin talked about the integral nature of Bobbi Jene Smith’s collaboration and how this experience has shaped him as a filmmaker.
Can you talk about the visual design behind your film, especially since it’s an ambitious project with an indie budget?
I had a fantastic, young director of photography – Arseni Khachaturan. (He’s a) 26-year-old going on 40 Russian kid who is just amazing.
I had never written anything before where I saw the script was only a blueprint for what we were going to do when we shot. And the combination of what Bobbi Jene Smith, the choreographer and co-star brought to it and the feeling of looseness and improvisation, was something that I really wanted for the film to have.
I didn’t shot list anything. I didn’t storyboard anything. I really almost didn’t plan anything. There would be a few shots here and there that I knew I had in my heart that I wanted to capture. But in terms of how the film was shot and how we captured it, it was all about “Let’s see what’s happening there right now, let’s figure out the best way to shoot it.” And it worked it.
What’s really interesting is we shot this with the smallest crew I’ve ever shot with. Arseni had himself and a camera operator and for indoor scenes one gaffer to move lights around. He had a crew of four people max. The kind of equipment you have these days really enables you to do that in a way that if we had shot on film in the old days you wouldn’t have been able to. All that played into it.
Was the Coney Island sequence, where you had several kids be front and center to all the action, a gratifying one for you?
That was one of the most fun scenes in the movie to do. We had these great kids and in fact the producer, Carlos Zozaya and I were trying to figure out how to end their New York in the 90s dance sequence. It was a hot (day) on the summer we shot.
I saw a poster for the Cyclone and me and Carlos looked at each other and (said) “This thing has to end in Coney Island.” We got there on the boardwalk and Bobbi brought 50 dancers that she knows on it to back the kids up. It was really fun.
How important was your collaboration with choreographer Bobbi Jene Smith and how did her contributions shape your narrative?
I wrote the script knowing that whoever was going to choreograph the movie was going to in a way become half the movie. Even before I had finished writing the script I had finished writing the script, a friend told me, ‘You have to look at the work of Bobbi Jene Smith.’ She had just made a documentary about her life called Bobbi Jene that hadn’t even come out yet. I saw some of her work online and I just understood she was the person I had to work with.
Her work is so emotional. It’s not like your usual choreographer. It has technique and it has structure but it comes so much from the inside. And that’s what this movie needed. The movement needed to be emotional and the dance needed to feel not like the usual movie or Broadway musical where you have a scene and then you have dance and it’s very presentational and “showbizzy.”
I wanted to make a movie that used dance in a way that maybe you have never seen dancers before. Contemporary dance that was part of the fabric of the storytelling and not just highlight dance sequences.
Once Bobbi became on board, she really became my partner. She cast the movie – all the characters are dancers she has worked with in the past in the Batsheva Dance Company in Israel and people she knew from New York from that show Sleep No More.
The movie is half Bobbi’s in terms of its vision and what you see.
This movie feels like it was made by a young filmmaker, but obviously you have tons of directing experience. Can you talk about blending your experience as well as infusing a bit of a youthful approach to Aviva?
It does for, lack of a better word, feels like the youngest movie I have made maybe since I started making movies.
I’ve had a very strange career in terms of how I try to approach things but I think too many people get into a place where they “know” what they are doing. They stop trying to challenge themselves. They do what they’re doing well and they make a lot of money or whatever it is. But, to me, for a creative person in any field, challenging yourself and trying things you’ve never done before is the most important thing to keep you alive and to keep other people feeling like they are seeing and experiencing something that has a freshness to it.
It was a combination. I was only able to pull this movie off in the time and with the budget that we had because of my experience. There were times when I was seeing one of Bobbi’s super complex dance sequence that because we had a six week prep period, I barely had a chance to see rehearsed and me and Arseni had to be like ‘Okay, there’s 15 people flying around the room right now, what the f**k are we going to do?’
I was only able to do that because of the level of experience I had. But at the same time, I was very much influenced by the way Jean-Luc Godard was treating movies in the ’60s. In fact, a movie he made not while I was writing it but while I was working on directing that influenced me a lot – I think it’s called A Woman Is A Woman.
It’s almost a musical but it isn’t. It’s got a young Jean-Paul Belmondo in it. You’ll also see the lights that are lighting the scene in the shots and there is no pretense in it that they are not making a movie. There is also a scene where one of the characters walks from room to room holding a lamp to light the scene as he goes from one room to the next room. I feel like we haven’t grown at all since Godard in the 1960s (laughs). He was just doing things and opening up movies in a way that we haven’t even responded.
To me it was a combination of using my experience to make the youngest movie that I have ever made.
A portion of my audio interview with Boaz Yakin, along with my review of Aviva, is featured in the latest episode of Flick City:
The easy description for Aviva is it is directly inspired by your life (Yakin’s ex-wife is Honeyboy director Alma Har’el). But it’s much more than that and maybe looking at your film as a purely personal movie would be reductive.
The thing is we’re all human beings so if you can tap into something very pure and true in your own experience it becomes relatable to other people. The truth is even though I used some personal experiences in my life and things I went through, once you start writing it, you become responsible to the story that you are writing and not to the events in your life anymore. So it’s a highly fictionalized view of how I was experiencing my relationship to masculinity and femininity in the self and how that relates to my relationship with other people.
I wanted to take my personal experience and create something that had a primal quality that could be related to by other people as well. I don’t think that the personal is the opposite of universal. I think people make that mistakes sometimes and I think the most personal things are the most universal things.
Do you see cinema becoming more revolutionary or risk taking with more streaming options and the ability to just grab a camera and go? Or is that a myth from your vantage point?
From my vantage point, not as much as you would hope or think. The technology is allowing young people access to telling stories and people who want to make movies that would have cost exponentially more shooting on film. I think people are able to make films for lower budgets and it has democratized the process to a certain degree.
But I also think that we live in a time where the corporatization and capitalization of our minds and of young people’s minds and how we see ourselves as people has created an environment that doesn’t promote creativity or risk taking. Even though you would think that the ability to tell any story for much less money – the avenues for showing that work and for people to see that work and appreciating it have narrowed down so much that it is harder now to tell interesting and challenging and experimental stories than ever before.
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There is a ton of genre subversion in your work, and I’m wondering if your early love of comic books helped shape you in that manner?
Certainly growing up I was the biggest Jack Kirby fan and I grew up on comics. Back when I was a very young man I wrote The Punisher movie which sort of kicked off the whole comic book thing way back in the day before anyone thought it was worth doing. But for me when I approach a genre, I’m always looking for the thing where you can find your own personal take on and how you can use that genre to tell something that is more your take on it (as opposed to) owning a responsibility to the tropes of that genre.
Some people when they see a horror film, they want it just to feel like a horror film. When you try to do things and subvert the genre in certain ways, some people appreciate it and others might be taken aback by it.
Aviva, in some ways, is a musical but it also very subverts what a musical is or how it is approached.
How much a gratifying experience was Aviva for you in terms, to coin the cliche term, feeding your soul?
Expressing myself as a creative person does feed my soul. Every once in a while I get to a place where if I don’t do something that really means something to me, I don’t know how to go on. Even if I have to put all my money into it, my whole life’s savings into it.
I’ve done that three times in my life where I’ve taken all my life’s savings and put them into a movie. I did it with Death in Love, I partially financed Boarding School. This one is all me and it’s money I somehow managed to get from projects I did in 2004 or whatever it is.
To me being honest, truthful and creatively does feed my soul and it enables me to go on and honestly sometimes do the kinds of things that you just have to do to keep a roof over your head and pay the bills. This is one of the ones where I very much got to say “you know what, f**k it.” I’m going to do it exactly how I wanted to do it.
The only responsibility I feel is towards the other creative people I’m working with and telling it in a truthful and interesting way to a viewer who might appreciate that.
On a personal level, is Aviva really about friendship and creating your own family when all is said and done?
I think it’s something that I grew to learn and I’ve been able to be a good friend externally but I’ve had a harder time being a good friend to myself internally. Aviva is about that struggle – until you become a good friend to yourself that it’s hard to become a good friend to somebody else. For me, Aviva is really about finding a way to do that – to become responsible (and be) your own friend so you can also be positive to the people around you.
That’s very much what it’s about.
I really love the film. Thank you for your time.
Thank you for the taking the time and I really apprecate the kind words.