Interview with Bombay Beach Director Alma Har’El
- Posted: 3rd Feb 2012
- Category: Articles
- Tags: interview,  grace pluckrose-oliver,  bombay beach,  director
by Grace Pluckrose-Oliver
The award-winning Bombay Beach, from first time director Alma Har’El, shapes a beautiful and unsettling image of a forgotten 50s seaside resort, in southern California. Once the summertime haunt of the glamorous, Bombay Beach is now home to a jumble of misfits and outsiders. Coming from a background as a music video director, Har’El weaves her characters’ stories with surreal dance sequences to the music of Bob Dylan and Beirut’s Zach Condon, and creates a moving portrait of a distinctly rundown American Dream.
DFG’s Grace Pluckrose-Oliver speaks to Har’El about turning her hand to documentary, the benefits of self-financing and getting contributors to dance.
It seemed like the place really inspired you in terms of this film, was there a moment when you thought: “there’s a film here”?
It was a process. I wanted to make a film that had dance in it, and a documentary because I feel like there is so much in dance and movement that captures things that are not verbal – that are more nuanced and emotional. I particularly wanted to use dance to explore themes in the life of somebody who is not a dancer. So I wanted to do that but I didn’t know where and I ended up doing a music video for Beirut in Bombay Beach and the place really haunted me. When I got back, when I saw the music video together – with the Parrish kids, and their house and everything – and with the Beirut music on it, it all made sense to me.
It was just so fascinating to me that a place that is so beautiful and so tragic at the same time, has such fascinating characters living in it. There are so many people that go to Bombay Beach to take photos of sunsets and eroding signs and buses and dead fish. If you go on Twitter and search Bombay Beach you’ll see that every day by-passers go there especially to take photos or use it for a shoot. They use it as a backdrop to a lot of things, but it’s almost like they don’t notice that people are actually living there. I thought it would be really interesting to see who the people are who live there and to do the idea I had with the dance with them, and they were very open to it. So it was just like a fit – it made sense.
I couldn’t get any money for it even though I thought I would. Nobody wanted to do anything with it but I ended up just moving there and me and my husband basically produced it and financed it.
Do you watch many documentaries?
I recently saw The Arbor and I thought that it was excellent and very, very interesting and deals with documentary and representation and all those things in a very conscious, artistic way. I feel like I’m probably a much less planned out director than that I guess, and that film seems so meticulous in how it was done - it’s very impressive and at the same time has so much to offer emotionally and it’s great, but I think my process, if there is a process, because this was my first film, is very fluid and intuitive. In the editing you do construct the story, but when I set out to do the film I shot a lot of things – I had 160 hours – and I didn’t occupy myself a lot with asking – what does this mean? What does this symbolise? How does that reflect this? I just knew that it was rich with something that I wanted to explore. Then I later on found the way to explore it. Sometimes I would just film it on a whim.
Did you have an aim when you set out to make the film? Is the final film what you thought it would be?
Retrospectively I think that it is more or less the film that I set out to do, although I think that when I went to Bombay Beach I thought it was going to be even less of a documentary. I thought it would maybe have some scripted scenes or that I would even take it further. But when I came there and I met the people, their stories were so important to me and tragic and interesting that I felt like I should stay with their stories and not dilute them too much, or try to strengthen them by inserting things. So I ended up doing a lot more of a documentary than I had actually set out to do but the tone of it and how it came out and the relationship between the dance and the themes and the music is definitely, what I feel like I had in mind – if you can say that about something that is so abstract, because you don’t really have it in your mind.
I love that process of not knowing what something is beforehand and I think because film is an industry that relies on money much more than any other art form it’s really hard to be in a position where you can do things without knowing what they are beforehand and get them financed.
So there was maybe a benefit of you not being able to get funding and not having to say what it was before you’d made it?
Totally. As a documentary filmmaker I think you have to go and see what is there in front of you and go with it and if it takes a different direction to the one you intended you have to follow that path, even if you come out with nothing. And then with certain things, it’s the opposite, like you have something and you feel like it has a real potential but you haven’t really covered it at all and then you have to come back and I was doing that, because while I was editing I was going back and shooting more all the time if I found that there were bits of the character’s stories that I wanted to explore more.
I loved the characters in the film and was really moved by their stories. What do the contributors think of the film? Have they seen it? Are you still in touch?
Of course! Benny and Paula saw it for the first time on the big screen, so the first time they saw it they were eating popcorn! It’s been brilliant for Benny actually. It’s changed his life. He’s off all the drugs now and he’s in therapy and he has been told by all these people how special he is. It’s been really brilliant for him. I am still in touch with them and I see them – they’ll come to New York or I’ll go there. Red was concerned that he was going to be in it too much and was keen that the young people were the centre of the film. I showed it to him on my laptop in his trailer – he was actually the last one to see it. He was really happy with how it came out. I also took it to Ceejay who got a full scholarship to college. There are three follow up clips on the DVD that update you on where the characters are now.
The dance sequences that are woven throughout the film really enhance the surreal quality of Bombay Beach and the movement seems so well observed, almost idiosyncratic. How did the dance sequences emerge and were your contributors happy to dance for you?
The movement came completely from them. My choreographer and I took lots of their movements and put it into sequences. Like the Benny Dance – that was made up entirely of things we’d seen Benny do. Then we rehearsed the dance for two weeks with the kids. It was actually really empowering for Benny to be teaching the others his dance. It wasn’t that difficult to get them to dance because they were their movements. The movement came from them and we worked with what they gave us.
Have you been surprised by the response the film has had?
Totally. We sent it to a number of festivals and at first it didn’t seem to be getting through and we just thought, “ah well it might not be seen anywhere.” But then it got into Tribeca and then was screened at like 30 more after that. But we were really lucky. It’s just luck that the seven people on the panel liked it. There are a lot of good films out there that don’t make it through. But you don’t really do it for that – you do it for the sake of itself. The best thing about the success of Bombay Beach is that it allows me to make more!
It’s also really interesting to see how it’s received differently in different countries. It seems to be really popular here whereas in the US it only had a few screenings and nothing in France. It must speak to something in the British psyche.
What are you working on now?
I am currently working on a documentary with actors, with a grant from the Tribeca Documentary Fund, which looks at the internal decisions one makes in love. All the questioning you go through when you’re in a relationship – is this the person I see myself with? Where is this going? With actors playing the older and younger parts of the characters. I’m also working on a narrative film, which I’m writing.
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