Starting with its premiere at The Sundance Film Festival 2009 to its New York debut at New Directors New Films, Cold Souls was finally released in theaters this month after a long year of building interest and positive press reaction. Given its wonderfully wacked-out premise, it is a film that does not deserve to be lost in the summer shuffle.
The story goes something like this: The Actor Paul Giamatti is rife with anxiety over a production of Uncle Vanya -- so much so that when he sees an article about a company that can remove your soul and store it, he seeks it out to see if the removal of his soul will quell his agony. He meets with Dr Flintstein (a perfectly devilish-in-his-banality David Straithairn) who convinces him to try it and guarantees his soul will be safe in cold storage. Lo and behold, things go awry when Giamatti's soul goes missing and in order to recover it, finds himself going to Russia where trafficking in "borrowed" souls is part of the underground economy.
Devised by the seemingly sane young French-accented director Sophie Barthes, the gets more absurd as it goes along. Barthes went from Columbia University's School of International Affairs to co-directing two films with cinematographer/director Andrij Parekh. Then she attended both the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Lab to develop this debut feature with Giamatti (as both the actor and as a producer) and d.p. Parekh in tow.
Of course scoring the Oscar-nominated Giamatti was a coup. Now much in demand, the American-born actor started landing lead roles after his remarkable turn in American Splendor playing cranky graphic novel creator Harvey Pekar. He then did an amazing job in the sort-of road movie Sideways and the boxer bio pic Cinderella Man (and garnered his Oscar-nom for it).
With such a track record in mind, Giamatti and Barthes sat down with few of us journos to discuss how she came up with the idea, convinced Giamatti to play himself, and how they survived their surreal soulful ordeal.
PG: The only thing I felt any pressure to do was make sure that that persona was put across.
Q: So is that "you?"
PG: It's me to some extent, playing an idea of me based on other movies. But mostly it was a character, and mostly it felt like a character, like a very distinct type of New York actor. So there's a type, a character, and a bit of a persona. I just mixed that all together.
Q: Was that character based on your idea of a New York Actor who has done theater?
PG: Yeah, to some extent. I felt like I got it, right? I mean, I don't think I'm wrong in saying there's a certain amount of type, and also it was helpful to know to some extent that [Sophie] originally conceived the role for Woody Allen. I don't think I was doing Woody Allen in any way, but I knew the idea was this kind of neurotic sort of fuzzy bearded New Yorker guy who reads the New Yorker and that kind of guy. So I got the joke of that too.
Q: Especially when compared to Sleeper, Weird Science, or James Bond.
PG: Weird Science is an awesome movie.
Q: Or it could have been "Bob Balaban."
PG: Well that's exactly the kind of guy it was; Bob Balaban, right, it's that kind of guy. Or Wallace Shawn or something. Guys we know and think of as these classic New York [types].
SB: Wallace Shawn was a big inspiration because of Vanya on 42nd Street [the late Louis Malle film starring Shawn as Vanya], and so when I saw that--I saw it a long time ago--but I saw it again when I was writing the draft, and I could totally see Paul doing Vanya the way Wallace Shawn does.
Q: How do you rehearse with yourself the idea that you're doing maybe a little Wallace Shawn?
PG: I didn't consciously think of Wallace Shawn, but it's that type; I was clear on the archetype of it--it made sense to me.
Q: Even though it was you playing yourself, it didn't seem like you were playing yourself.
PG: No, I never did either--it was a character.
Q: Sometimes it seemed that you had changed the name a little bit but kept it similar, but then it becomes apparrent--"Oh he is playing Paul Giamatti!"
PG: That always threw me off when people said my name in the movie; that was the only thing that ever annoyed me about it.
SB: At one point we had [him as] "Paul Gianelli."
PG: They changed it but that felt kind of coy and sort of like, "Well why not?"
SB: Because the producers were scared of all the trouble we were going to get, so they said, "Make it Paul Gianelli."
Q: Because you might sue Sophie? [chuckles]
PG: No I think they were just worried about it being... There were concerns about it being... I don't know. See I like it because I actually feel like it maintains the kind of surreal edge of it; the fact that it's a real person keeps you wondering why is it this real person and that actually is why I like it.
And when we did actually change it at one point to Bob Stevens or something like that, I felt like it really lost something, because I really liked this sense of you kind of going, "I'll have a dream and Wallace Shawn will be in it," and I'll be like, "Why the fuck was I dreaming that Wallace Shawn is my dentist?" I'll sit there going, "There's got to be some significance to this," and then you try to figure it out, and you base it on, well, Wallace Shawn is this kind of guy. It just draws you into what the movie's about, I feel, like, by having it be me.
Q: If Russia represents the new frontier and New York sort of represents the decaying bourgeoise society as it is, where do you see the link in particular to the soul?
SB: Well the idea was to flirt with the cliché of the Russian soul.
PG: They're the most soulful people.
SB: It's in all the Russian literature.
PG: And the idea that everybody's got a poet's soul there; the soldier, the factory worker etc...
SB: And they talk about the Russian soul and you're like, "Uhh..."
PG: And they sit around talking about it, they literally sit around talking about their souls.
SB: But it's also a theme that Chekov makes fun of in Vanya; there is a long monologue of Vanya's when he says he could have been a Dostoyevsky and all this, and that a man of talent is something so precious. They talk so much about the Russian soul but what is the Russian soul? I wanted to flirt with the cliché, the stereotypes, I think it was funny.
Also, I think the US and Russia are mirroring each other and they have this love/hate relationship since the Cold War. You feel it when you go to Russia; they admire and hate the US at the same time, and here also there's this mistrust and it's always going to be there.
Q: Besides getting a chance to get a free trip to Russia, how do you feel about Russia, the link between Russia and America, and the other aspects, economically or politically?
PG: That's why I took the job [for the trip]. No, that was one of the most appealing things to me about it because I have a similar affection for Russian culture, history, literature and stuff like that, so that was something that right away struck me and made me interested in it; I liked the playing around with it and thought the idea was very funny, that the source of souls for the world was Russia. They're willing to sell anything for any amount of money, fuck it, they're just like, "The hell with it," but what they've got a surplus of is souls is funny to me.
Q: Or the lack thereof.
PG: Or the lack thereof. So the Russia thing was very appealing to me; it was kind of one of the biggest things about it that appealed to me.
Q: Paul, as your character did in this film, did you ever struggled with taking your work home so to speak, having separation anxiety from a character that you were playing?
PG: I've been sad to stop playing a character, mostly that's happened on stage because you get more attached to them in a more intimate way I think on stage. I've been sad to have to let go of playing something.
Q: Which character?
PG: I did a play once, I played a really wonderful character in a David Hare play, Racing Demon, just a great character, a very happy person which was actually really hard to do and not have him be an idiot. Because he wasn't an idiot, he was a very smart guy who was incredibly optimistic and happy, I loved playing this part. It was a fantastic and it broke my heart when I had to stop doing it.
But I've never had it to this degree; I've had a hard time, more so with theater because I think not only is it the part, it's the repetition of it. Although movie stuff can be hard too but you don't have to do the same thing over and over again all the time.
Q: Without giving it away, the ending was interesting because we are at war and in the film you see the military wanting new souls.
SB: I wrote this in 2003 during the Bush administration and I was literally feeling like my soul was shrinking in that environment. I was also thinking to move out at one point; it was so gloomy and the rhetoric and the atmosphere was really not pleasant. So it must have influenced this reference to the soldiers and the country was at war and we're going to take souls for soldiers.
Q: Would you come up with a different ending now?
SB: I'm much more optimistic.
PG: It was much more specific what the military was doing there, and you cut back on it. So now it's just there's this military presence and Flintstein says, "I'd rather not talk about it." And in Russia it's happening too, that this technology it's inevitably going to be co-opted for something. So that's what still remains of that idea.
SB: No, it is more like [the paranoid cult sci-fi writer] Philip K. Dick saying that the government...
PG: They're always going to take control.
SB: And so there was a scene that was cut where they're literally extracting soldier's souls and sending them to the war without a soul so the families could claim the soul in case they die.
PG: It opens the idea up more to have gotten rid of that problem.
SB: But then the movie was three hours and we had to cut it.
Q: How did you decide that his soul is a chick pea?
SB: It's from the dream.
Q: It almost doesn't have a significant meaning that it's a chick pea but at the same time it's an intriguing idea to draw attention.
SB: Well it came from that dream where Woody Allen had a chick pea soul so I made the film from that dream, but I think there is something in the pea that must be shared in the collective unconscious because as a kid my favorite tale was The Princess and The Pea.
I don't know if you remember the story, but it's a princess and she sleeps on this mattress and there's a little pea that is bothering her and you can interpret it many ways but it's maybe her sensibility, so there is something in something very small and round that is bothering this woman so much. So I think the dream has an element of that.
PG: Didn't you read a poem too, isn't there a Sufi poem [in there somewhere]?
SB: Yeah, because one day I was like, "I'm going to check on Google" and I put "chick pea soul" in and saw the Sufi poem.
Q: Really, by Rumi--the great Sufi poet?
SB: Not Rumi, but someone in the same movement as Rumi; it's about a soul that is a chick pea and has to be cooked to soften. So there is a theme about the chick pea being the soul somewhere, because it's a round little thing that is maybe hard...
PG: And contains a lot.
SB: Yeah, contains a lot and is bothering you. Also, I thought it was so comical because the appearance is so tiny and it's so ridiculous, but it's so important.
PG: But it doesn't matter too; the vanity of worrying about what it looks like is funny too. And he says, it doesn't matter what it looks like, it doesn't have any correlation, but it does matter.
Q: The funniest parts were when you went to go eat salad. How do you feel about eating chick peas now?
PG: I love chick peas, yeah I love chick peas.
Q: Then there was the reaction you had when the Russian actress was upset that she didn't get Al Pacino's soul. That was so funny; and it was really funny when you found out she was really a soap opera actress, "That ruined my soul!"
PG: Yeah, I love that whole Al Pacino thing. He's got to have a good soul.
Q: Was it your original decision to make the Dr. Flintstein character a dark comic character with a dry wit? Or did he evolve into that kind of persona and was that a play on words with the name?
SB: I was wanting him to be like this; he was inspired by actually an article I read in the New Yorker of an architect who had developed this technology for cryogenics to freeze people and he had whole workshops...
PG: Built a kind of city, wasn't he building a city?
SB: Yeah, he built an amazing thing that he wants to build in Arizona that is going to be like...
Q: I read about this.
SB: You read about it?
PG: It's wild, a huge sort of dome refrigeration.
SB: I'm forgetting his last name now. The article was hilarious; it was like a four-page article in the New Yorker with his picture and the model and he really believed he would freeze people and that all of these old Jewish ladies of the upper east side would go to his workshops to get a spot in the thing, and you can get frozen either your head, or your head and your body, either the entire family together, and the structure is going to be bomb proof and earthquake proof and it's supposed to last for 200 years; it's like Sleeper . And they would unfreeze you in 200 years, so it was based on that.
Q: I think Philip K. Dick has written about people in a state of suspended animation... what was that book?
PG: Ubik . That's true, I forgot about that in Ubik ; they can talk with the dead people because the dead [in their half-life state] are still capable of speech. Those kind of corporate visionary guys are always creepy like that.
SB: And architects [are like that] because they have such a big ego.
PG: They're so psychotic.
SB: [The guy in the New Yorker article] believed he was doing something good for people; very naïve at the same time.
Q: But as we were saying, Strathairn was a great choice; Paul, didn't you work with him before?
PG: I have. It's funny because everybody says to me, "Oh he has such a kind of creepiness in this part," but I guess because it's him I never think of him as creepy; he's so not a creepy guy. David's like the least creepy human being alive, so I always look at him and it's like, "Oh it's David, he's a nice guy." But there's that persona thing; I can't think of him as creepy.
Q: So what happens when a soul owner dies?
SB: Well that's the big question that the movie doesn't want to answer; it's up to anyone to decide what happens with the soul. I don't know, I would be God if I knew. So if you're religious you can have a religious interpretation and if you're an atheist you can believe that it disintegrates or it stays.
What I'm resisting a lot is to define [things here]; a lot of people are like, "Oh you're talking about the soul but you're not giving a religious interpretation, you're not defining what the soul is." I think it's irrelevant to this film because I'm not going to define in two hours what philosophers and religion spent 2000 years trying to figure out.
So the aim of the film is just to raise questions; "What is the soul and what do we do to our soul?" It comes more from psychoanalysis; Jung is a very big inspiration. He was saying a big fear that people had in primitive society was called "the loss of the soul" and they believed that their soul would leave their body and would go in a tree or an animal.
Jung said that this is what today is neurosis or depression when we feel we are not in connection with our feelings, or we don't feel anymore, and this is when you lose your soul and you have to reconnect with yourself.
That's what interests me; raising those questions, not saying, "Oh this is what the soul is" because every culture even has different words for it; it's the psyche, anima, I don't know.
Q: Do you have any historical figures whose soul you'd like to have?
PG: Would I rather have somebody else's soul? Somebody asked me that and I said Winston Churchill, because that guy just seems like you can't knock him over, so I said Winston Churchill.
SB: That would be nice.