Linguistic barriers in a foreign land can cause human connections to decompose into alienation. This disorienting phenomenon is central to Director Julia Loktev’s acclaimed film, “The Loneliest Planet,” which will be released in the U.S. on Friday, Oct. 26.
The screenplay, written by Loktev, is adapted from a short story by Tom Bissell titled “Expensive Trips Nowhere.” The summer before their marriage, a young couple Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg) hire a local tour guide named Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze) to lead them through the countryside of the Democratic Republic of Georgia. Extremely close-up shots of their intimate relationship are beautifully juxtaposed with sweeping panoramic views of their journey across the mountains. Within this vast expanse, the strength of the couple’s relationship is apparent until the group has a dangerous encounter with a man who speaks no English. In this fleeting moment, Alex reacts with cowardice, and consequently their once deeply close relationship begins to fracture.
“Sometimes the hugest moments in life can only take a split second,” said Loktev concerning this central scene. “A person can be absolutely normal one moment and then suddenly something happens that completely changes everything.” In this way, the close interactions between Alex and Nica leading up to and following this small moment are vastly different.
Because much of the film hinges on the physical dialogue between the characters, casting was integral to its success. “For me it was very important how the couple worked together, so how Hani and Gael fit was very important,” Loktev said. And, indeed, the chemistry between the actors is incredible. They interact in a way that implies years of familiarity. “I wish I could take credit for that, but chemistry is ultimately just chemistry,” Loktev added. “We rehearsed and worked in a very physical way and they just sort of clicked together well.”
But the relationship between Alex and Nica is not the only one central to the film. As a witness to all that befalls this couple, Dato plays a significant role in their fate. The actor, Bidzina Gujabidze is, in fact, not an actor at all, but a very famous Georgian mountaineer. “It’s funny because in Georgia he got stopped on the street more than Gael,” joked Loktev. As she pointed out, Gujabidze turned out to be a natural. At the end of the film he performs an emotional seven-minute monologue. Loktev said, “There are a lot of people who ask me if it’s his own story … it’s not. It’s something that I wrote and it has nothing to do with his life.”
Fortunately, Gujabidze clicked with the other actors as well. Loktev said, “Gael and Hani also had really great chemistry with Bidzina and that makes the movie.” Much of this chemistry can be attributed to their rehearsal process in which Gujabidze led Loktev and the other two actors on a camping trip through wretched weather. “All four of us ended up in a two-person tent waiting out this hailstorm, so it was a good bonding experience I think,” said Loktev.
This chaotic atmosphere prepared them for the actual shoot, during which the cast and crew camped out for part of its six-week duration. “Doing this very elaborate shoot in the mountains, but with a very tiny crew, very little money, and a condensed schedule was pretty nutty,” said Loktev. “But I’m glad we did and we did end up having fun in the end.”