Screening at the 57th BFI London Film Festival’s First Feature Competition, Luton is an insightful film and an alarming tour de force about personal responsibilities. Director Michalis Konstantatos talks about his debut feature.
The world of Luton, the debut feature of Michalis Konstantatos, is common people in their everyday lives. The three lead characters seem to have nothing in common: Jimmy (Nicholas Vlachakis) is a wealthy high-school student dominated by his controlling mother, Mary (Eleftheria Komi) is a trainee lawyer in her 30s and Makis (Christos Sapountzis) is a 50 year-old family man and the owner of a mini market. What at first looks like episodes of their ordinary lives, it turns into a gothic tale of a city drifting into bleak, doubtful and gloomy prospect.
Atmospherically Luton follows in the footsteps of other realist dramas, such as Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective and Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. There is a shot of clear reference to Gus Van Sant’s Elephant when Jimmy walks down the school’s corridor but these references are only “a synthesis of films that I like and grew up with: it is the cinema I understand and admire but each one of these works is different”, Konstantatos explains.
In 2010, I screened Michalis Konstantatos’ intense short film, Two Times Now (2007), in London as part of the film programme Happy End at Yinka Shonibare’s Guest Projects space. The reactions to the story were mixed but there was the feeling that the precise detail and tension in Two Times Now was vital signage this newcomer writer-director has something to say.
It’s no surprise that three years later his debut feature film created a lot of curiosity since its premier at the San Sebastián Film Festival last month. Shortly before its premier at the 57th BFI London Film Festival, I rush to read Luton through the crisis in Greece and the rest of the world but “the idea of Luton started before the crisis” he tells me and he adds “it’s about what leads to a crisis.”
Luton took shape four years ago as work in progress at the Sarajevo Film Festival’s CineLink Co-Production Market. The project was acknowledged by representatives of the Cannes Film Festival and in spring 2011 it got invited as part of the fifteen international projects selected that year for The Atelier. But how Luton kicked off? “The spark of this film” Konstantatos continues, “started from random incidents of violence I was reading about happening around the world and concluded that those who were causing this violence were everyday people and not some thugs or criminals.” Luton is not an easy watch. It’s an insightful film that grows layer by layer. “I started to search for this world, how could we arrive at such violence, coming from what facts, who is doing it and what pushes them to do it. In my previous films violence is employed as a phenomenon [Two Times Now] but just four years ago we gave this idea a shape, a scenario” he reveals.
The script was co-written with Stelios Likouresis and the whole rhythm of the film is built on discovering what’s hidden behind each character. For the first hour we’re taken through the details of three people’s daily routine, near isolated and almost manic depressing. Konstantatos focuses on the details of everyday life, which we pass unnoticed. His long takes with his all time collaborator, DoP Yannis Fotou, give the viewer the space to focus on the invisible signs of madness on the body language of those surrounding us, who otherwise seem normal.
The pale contrasts and flat photography in the film reflect the characters’ equally flat psychology and what Luton says at first hand is that people need to help themselves before anything else. According to Konstantatos, “Luton is very close to realism: simply I want to place the characters in their own environment, relate them as objectively as possible.” He later explains, “I want to demonstrate how the environment influences people, how it forms their psychology, if they react towards it and if not, where exactly reaction and resistance exist?”
In almost every scene in the film there’s a repetitive moment of frustration, people’s desires, which some try to get in vain or simply don’t bother to try: like Makis failing to pick up the phone and place an order complaint at his work. “It’s easy to express your feelings but at the same time very difficult and this is an element that guided me to make this film. I believe most problems are created out of incapability to recognise and express ourselves to the outside world” he adds.
The title of the film, we learn from Konstantatos, is a metaphor. For Jimmy, the fact that his mother sends him to Luton University is not a new phenomenon. His mother asks him to have Sunday lunch every week with his granny but neither his granny nor him want to be there. Like with many teenagers from a wealthy background, Jimmy’s future is prescribed by his consumerist bent parents. Essentially Jimmy’s escape to an unknown city like Luton (for most people it is only known as an Easyjet destination) is insignificant.
For Konstantatos, the film works like when you look yourself in the mirror: “By recalling the scenes [from the film] you recall elements of yourself and it’s quite challenging because it’s not the way we’re taught to think in our life. It’s not the rhythm we’re used to. Usually nobody tells you, wait, think and make your choices. Usually you’re asked to harry up and make profits otherwise you loose your job. Therefore I believe many responses to the film will be influenced by this element because we’re not used to take the time to reflect”, he observes.
Despite the current craggy financial landscape in its native country, Luton has secured distribution in Greece by Feelgood: a partner who supported the film from its script stage together with co-producer Christos Konstantakopoulos of Faliro House Production. Last June Greek broadcaster ERT went off air and the closure’s influence on cultural production has been, as predicted, catastrophic. For Luton too the closure of ERT left agreements in the air, even though their support towards the project has been compelling.
“The instability, so much madness and standstill of the market that exists in Greece today naturally create an enormous damage in the psychology of people. Luckily there are people who believe in projects and they are willing to contribute without obvious income. But this has an expiry date when you need to earn your living. If there weren’t young people and producers such as Yorgos Tsourgiannis [from Horsefly production label] who has the momentum and enthusiasm to come in and put his head down to make films and Chris Konstantakopoulos who takes the risk to support non-mainstream cinema, there would be no movies in Greece. Also without the support of the film’s co-producers, the involvement of the Greek Film Centre, Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation, Arctos Broadcast Facilities, Two Thirty Five post production company, Endorphine Production, Costas Varybopiotis and Yiannis Fotou, Luton would not be able to be completed.”
But what can we expect for the future of Greek cinema? “I see that movies do get made” he replies. “Though the thing is that they should be made rightly with people getting paid. When it happens with coordination and clean agreements then it is very nice to be happening. I see there is a number of people who are very talented, directors, producers, directors of photography and I think if we don’t go out of our minds riding the so called Greek Wave, things can progress with the local film production industry. In recent years every movie made by a Greek filmmaker has to ride this Greek Wave label and I believe there is a risk to become like the idea of the stock market in Greece in the 90s, when everybody joined in and finally the bubble bursted. So it needs some attention and everyone should look to work more precisely and responsibly in order to make movies.”
While waiting to get the green light for his new film, Konstantatos has been working on TV series, music videos and theatre productions and he is the co-founder and director of the Blind Spot theatre group based in Athens. His new film has a working title Carbon and is currently developed through the nine-month long residency at the Torino FilmLab Script & Pitch programme.
See the trailer and head to Day 10 of the festival’s liveblog to check Konstantatos’ eight-song playlist that sparked his imagination while writing the script for Luton.
Georgia Korossi is a writer and producer of film based in London and Athens.