Simon Gray was fortunate enough to talk to Theo Angelopoulos for Close-up Film in November 2004 when he came to London for a screening of The Weeping Meadow at the London Film Festival. In December, The Weeping Meadow won the Critics' Award at the European Film Academy Awards.
You built the two refugee villages in the film from scratch. Was that your original intention?
When we write something, we don't know what exists in the real world. You look; you try to find what you need. But there was nothing.
Interiors and exteriors? The interiors were shot in the villages you built?
Everything. Except the big house with the family. That's a real house in a little village nearby. It's 150 years old - when it was built, that region was still under the Ottoman rule.
It was built by the Turks?
No - Greek, but by a Greek who collaborated with the Ottomans. We exactly copied the outside of the real house for the house in the village that we constructed.
There's a real sense of history in that house. I found the flood and the smashing of the windows moving and terrifying. How did you achieve the flood?
We used a light, metallic lining to contain the water in the basement like a basin.
And the flood outside was real?
Yes - the village was by a river.
How did you know when the banks of the river would burst?
We built the set in a big part of a lake that is dry for three months - October, November and December. We had to build the village very quickly. Then shoot. And then the flood came. Then we filmed the flood.
It's a great risk!
Yes! But there was an even greater risk. If there had been three days of rain the water would have risen very quickly.
And it must have been very expensive to construct the sets - more so than in your previous films.
Yes - the two villages I built cost half of the entire budget.
I assume that the lighting was also completely natural because the angles are so wide and the focus so deep that it would be impossible to light it artificially.
During the day, I never use artificial light. I always choose grey skies because the light is uniform. When you work in the sun, you need artificial light to balance out the shadow.
Were there many occasions when you couldn't shoot because of the sun - or is there never sun in the North?
There were some days when we just had to wait and wait. It's true that this whole operation was a great risk. But it was the only way to do it. Otherwise, we'd have given up.
The critics will presumably write that the flood is a symbol for the dissolution of the traditional village, the rural community.
I don't know what they're going to say!
But it's a theme you return to again and again in your work. Do you like critics trying to analyse your symbolism in their own words, or do you think that the images suffice on their own?
Personally, I never try to translate in a logical manner, like an equation - this signifies this; you lose the poetry. A film sometimes has to be received through the skin and not through the head - in a magical way. Obviously if the film is ready for that is open to question: you cannot receive a film in a magical way if it is not poetic. Other than that, a film that respects itself and respects its audience should be open to different readings.
It's hard to define that 'respect'. Do you mean not explaining everything in a concrete fashion - letting the audience do some work?
It's what is called the 'ambiguity of the real'. And it's that which gives poetry to certain films and creates a very special feeling. Very often people watch a film and have to understand exactly what is being said - he goes there, he does this. But I'm more in favour of films that keep a certain amount secret and don't let go of their secret easily.
In this film, compared with your previous work, you adopt a language that is more direct, more linear. Why did you choose, for the most part, to abandon one of your characteristic techniques - the overlaying of different chronologies and histories in once take?
It's true this is a more linear film. It was originally to be one film, with a duration of five hours of more, which wasn't at all linear. But I couldn't shoot it. It would have been impossible. So I decided to make three films. The first is linear. The second is not.
And the third?
You have previously said that as we, as a society, become more technologically advanced so we forsake a certain clarity - a clarity of conscience. I think this philosophy is very powerfully expressed in The Weeping Meadow . Do you think that this applies to the medium of film itself?
With certain technology, yes. I have seen several experiments with digital technology in Japan . I have not found the finesse, the variation of colour and depth of field that exists with a reel of film. In a few years, as the development of digital technology progresses, we will perhaps see astonishing results - but we are not there yet.
I think it would compromise your vision. There is a mystery in your work - a connection with the past, with history, that the immediacy of the digital medium would ruin.
Absolutely. With digital, there is always a feeling that it is all about conveying information. As opposed to the very material nature of a reel of film. Sometimes, when a can of film is being developed in the lab, I go down there just to enjoy the smell.
Are there any contemporary filmmakers who you like?
I can't really talk about filmmakers. I can talk about film. There are certain films that are interesting but. [sizeable pause] The feeling of seeing something incredible for the first time. [pause] I remember when I first saw a film by Tarkovsky. I was in New Delhi - I had never seen a film by Tarkovsky before. And I saw Stalker . It was a screening they organized especially for me. There were English subtitles. My English is terrible, so my wife sat next to me whispering a translation. And it was an extraordinary experience. I remember one night on television, I saw Ordet by Dreyer, a film I hadn't seen for many, many years. That night I couldn't sleep. Nowadays, these are rare experiences. Now I have a few years on my back and I'm not going to be satisfied with half-measures. I will wait for such experiences.
I sense that your latest film is perhaps your most risky - both in terms of the shooting of the film and the bleakness of its vision. As you get older and your understand life more - or maybe less - does it get more difficult to express in your films some kind of truth?
Yes. More and more difficult. I think we must ask ourselves a question all the time, again and again. It's a question that I asked in Ulysees' Gaze : do I still see? Like the first time I put my eye to the camera, the first time I discovered the world through the camera lens, do I still have the innocence of the gaze that I first had?