Serhat Karaaslan, the director from Turkey who gained recognition with his feature film Passed By Censor — winner of the the Federation of Film Critics of Europe and the Mediterranean Critics Award at the 2019 Karlovy Vary Film Festival — has entered the Academy Awards Short List for Live Action Short with his latest work: The Criminals.
The short film, takes place in one night in a Turkish town, where the laws do not allow a couple who is in love to share a hotel room without a marriage license. What seems like a light drama, that starts with a delicate, perky and delightful tone, turns into a Hitchcockian suspenseful story.
In this Exclusive Interview, filmmaker Serhat Karaaslan shares the making of Les Criminels:
Q : What inspired you for this story, did you hear of any true stories about youngsters in Turkey getting in trouble for going in a hotel without a marriage license?
Serhat Karaaslan : It’s based on my own personal experience. Something that happened to me while I was at university. After screenings of The Criminals in Turkey, many people came to tell me they had similar experiences. I also got messages from people in other countries such as India. So, you can see this is not just a Turkish situation, it is global.
Q : Just like your previous work, Passed By Censor, you are making a strong critique to the policies of your country of origin, do you feel political films define your filmmaking style?
Serhat Karaaslan : My initial intention is not to make political films, but as you said, the political aspect of my last two films stands out. When I’m writing, the problems of the society I live in naturally influence the script. They are part of the lives of my characters. I use them as dramatic tools as they stand in the way of their paths. I didn’t want The Criminals to be just a love story. What happens to the young people in this movie is an expression of social and political oppression exerted by an authoritarian regime. I wanted to mix social realism with elements of the thriller and film it like a genre movie as I care about how young people feel today in Turkey and how they resist social expectations…I don’t want to make films that shout out slogans or give lectures. I carefully avoid this.
Q : You currently live in Paris, how has this affected your creative freedom?
Serhat Karaaslan : I’m living between Paris and Istanbul. I went to Paris after making Passed by Censor, as It was not possible for me to make a new film financed in Turkey at that time. I do believe being in Paris has given me another perspective. It both gave me the opportunity to make this film and the courage to try something new. Paris is a city of arts where every artist would like to live for a while. Full of cinemas, museums, exhibitions etc. It is a very inspiring city.
Q : Are there any directors or films that inspired you for the thrilling style of The Criminals?
Serhat Karaaslan : After some screenings of the film, there were people who mentioned Hitchcock and asked if I was inspired by him. I love Hitchcock very much, I am influenced by his cinema, but to be honest, I didn’t rewatch Hitchcock’s films while making this film. On the other hand, there were some films that I watched again and again. For example, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Hard Eight. It takes place in a hotel room mostly, and when I was talking to the art director (Meral Aktan) about location design, I showed this movie as a reference. Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train as well. And Chantal Akerman’s Hotel Monterey especially for the location. Barton Fink also was one of my references. Especially how the hotel itself becomes a character. I like Bong Joon-Ho a lot. I love how he mixes genres and resorts to dark humour.
Q : The cinematography is particularly impressive, what was your process with director of photography Tudor Mircea for the look of the film?
Serhat Karaaslan : I had been following Tudor’s work for a while and he was one of 2-3 directors of photography who I had in mind for this film. When he read the script, he liked it and accepted it right away. We talked several times over Skype. We discussed the script, the tone, the style, and the locations. I shared some references with him. Tudor also liked the escalating tension in the script, and the way I used the surveillance cameras. After we had prepared the locations with the art director, Tudor came to Turkey and we toured them together. After, on the shoot, every day we were going over the scenes we were going to shoot that day and reviewing the technicalities. After this stage, while I was rehearsing with the actors, Tudor was preparing the lights and watching the rehearsals and preparing the lights. His input was tremendous.
Q : The young actors are very talented, how did you cast Deniz Altan and Lorin Merhart, and prepare them for this story?
Serhat Karaaslan : We started the casting 7-8 months before the shoot. We did a lot of auditions, 50+ for each character. When we received Deniz’s audition, she caught our attention right away and we immediately called her. Her performance was great and I liked how she interpreted the character. It took a longer time to find the actor for “Emre.” Just 2-3 weeks before the shoot we found Lorin and then I auditioned them together. The chemistry between them worked. Both were very good and they looked like a couple. The casting for this film was a bit difficult because of the sex scenes. Some actors were very interested in the parts but when they read the script they declined. Some of them were afraid of losing work in the TV industry if they acted in a sex scene. Others were negotiating with me how much of their bodies would be shown or how I would shoot these scenes. So, after a lot of auditions and negotiations we found two great and brave actors.
I like to spend time with actors and talk about general things first, to get to know each other a bit. And only afterwards do I talk about the script and the characters. We did rehearsals for the main scenes before shooting. I gave Deniz & Lorin some homework, I asked them to hang out together etc.
Q : The film seems to mirror the current Orwellian society we are living in, was this intentional?
Serhat Karaaslan : I like the expression ‘‘the current Orwellian society.’’ I believe that this film has a thematic common thread with my previous film Passed by Censor, where there was pressure applied directly by the State on almost every character. In The Criminals, this pressure takes a more social shape, it’s an extension of the State.
That’s why I used surveillance cameras very similarly in both films, without showing who was using them. The whole country has turned into a gigantic prison and everyone interferes with everybody else’s lifestyle.
Q : The Criminals has won a variety of awards at various films festivals, like the Special Jury Award at Sundance, and is now in the shortlist for the Oscars in the category Live Action Short, how meaningful is this for you in your journey as a director?
Serhat Karaaslan : Awards mean being accepted, recognized. They open doors and create opportunities for us to make new films and we need this. The most important effect is that it gives me the opportunity to make the next film.
Of course, we are all very happy and proud that our film is one of the 15 films in the race for the Oscar, but the best part is that the film will reach audiences all over the world.
Q : Would you be interested in the future to make movies set in countries other than Turkey?
Serhat Karaaslan : Yes, sure. I’m very interested.
Q : Do you have another short or feature film in the works at the moment?
Serhat Karaaslan : Yes, I’m working on a new feature film but it’s in early stages. I’m just doing some research now.