VIFF 2019 Interview – THE PHYSICS OF SORROW director Theodore Ushev

“A labyrinth film. A time capsule of our generation. The film tracks the outlines of an unknown man’s life as he sifts through memories of circuses, bubble-gum wrappers, first crushes and army service from his youth in communist Bulgaria, through his increasingly rootless and melancholic adulthood in Canada as he struggles to locate home, family and self.” Director Theodore Ushev on THE PHYSICS OF SORROW which screens at the 2019 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival. 

You are back this year! Tell me about what you have had here in the past, and your favorite aspects of the city.

My films have played at VIFF many times. What do I love about Vancouver? The ambience, the mighty presence of the mountains. The wild salmon. Sadly, I won’t be coming to VIFF, unless I can divide myself in four.

So how did you get into this business? Talk to me a bit about how you got your start and what you have worked on in the past.

I don’t call filmmaking a business. It is an art. For me, it’s the only way to survive. I don’t even remember when I started painting, although I do remember when I made my first animated film. I was 16, and the film won the grand prize at a school film festival in Belgium. So I guess I have always been destined to do this. 

How did this project come together for you? Give me a rundown from the preparation, to shooting, to post-production to now!

THE PHYSICS OF SORROW is the first fully animated film made using the encaustic painting technique,  and it was inspired by the novel of the same name by Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov. I read the book in one night, and the next morning, I had the film in my head. After that, there was only the hard work of painting the film, frame by frame. For seven years. 

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you? How much coffee/sugar/tea?

The need to express myself through this art form. I’m very grateful to my producer (Marc Bertrand, NFB) for the ideal conditions he provided me. It is rare these days, when an artist can have a secure opportunity to work and be provided with all he needs. 

What was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

The biggest challenge was the death of my father. He is in the film, his presence. Just when I was finishing my last scenes, he passed away. While editing the film, I kept bursting into tears… That was the toughest part.

I’m about to get technical, but I would love to know about the visual design of the movie; what camera did you film with, your relationship to the director of photography and how the movie was photographed. 

The encaustic painting technique, also known as hot wax painting, dates back to antiquity and involves the use of heated beeswax and the addition of coloured pigments. The liquid or paste is then applied to a surface like wood and canvas and other things. The technique was used in mummy portraits in Egypt and later by contemporary artists like Jasper Johns and Tony Scherman. 

In applying the encaustic painting technique, I would mix slightly bleached beeswax with pigments. It was an old recipe that my father gave me. Then I would paint the ingredients onto paper and let it dry. After that, I’d heat it up so that it becomes liquefied. Then you can change the movement and colours. It’s very physically demanding. You have to paint very fast because the hot wax dries quite quickly.

Using encaustic painting was not a random choice. The first time capsules were the Egyptian tombs and coffins. They would place everyday objects alongside the buried person, with an encaustic portrait on the cover. Encaustic painting was the first technique used to create realistic portraits of the dead on Egyptian sarcophagi, thus allowing the memory of the buried person to be preserved over centuries. With THE PHYSICS OF SORROW, I wanted to create a sarcophagus of my generation.

After the film screens at Vancouver, where is the film going to show next? Theatrical, online, more festivals?

The next festival is the Festival du nouveau cinéma in Montreal, Canada. Then, across the globe. There are at least two festivals per week, somewhere in the world, where the film will be playing. 

What would you say to someone who was being disruptive through a movie?

I would “accidentally” spill a bottle of water or Cola on them.

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?

Call your grandma and ask her if she’s ready to give you her life savings. 

And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival? 

STALKER by Andrei Tarkovsky.

For this and more movies playing at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, point your browser to www.viff.org

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