Fin Manjoo and Nicolas Joray on ‘Woodwind’

Woodwind is an introspective mystery, music drama and the story of a South American composer, who travels to India in search of the truth behind a vision, and to discover the source of his music inspiration. South African film-maker, Fin Manjoo, has created a mature, thought-provoking and original piece of cinema. Together with veteran Swiss-Italian cinematographer, Nicolas Joray, they took some time out to discuss the film while playing at the Cape Town International Film Market and Festival in competition. Woodwind’s international festival circuit is due to start in 2018, after garnering rave reviews in South Africa.

No opening credits, sparse dialogue, was Woodwind always going to be a minimalist undertaking?

Fin: Yes, definitely because it was inspired by the philosophy of minimalism and music, especially holy minimalism from Arvo Part and Philip Glass. For me it was obvious to approach it with the same style throughout the movie… the art, the music, everything. Since Bonifaz is learning to feel his music in this way, as a director I always had to use the same language.

Can you tell us about the 10 year evolution of the story?

Fin: I started researching the story at UCT. Elizabeth Triegaardt helped by giving me books on music and dance, I would go and watch her train with her students and ballerinas. At that time, I was writing the first screenplay and was listening to Beethoven. I heard that Beethoven had made a ballet, which is now lost. These pieces are now present in parts of Symphony no. 3 and 4, so I was often listening to these pieces while writing the early screenplay.

Coincidentally my story seemed to have a very similar outline to his lost ballet, something I found out months later. I used to wonder about this coincidence… the way I understood it, is that Beethoven himself said that music can be used to communicate hypnotically, so that ideas can be passed from one person to another. I previously thought that that was not true, some kind of hocus-pocus talk, but then I spoke to Stefan Fraunberger about this and he believes this is possible. I don’t know what you think?


Nicolas Joray and Fin Manjoo discuss a shot in the woods in Shimla, India

I think so too, based on how important sound is in film – in terms of grounding, translating or conveying a mood and creating an emotional currency. When you’ve got music behind the scene or even no music, it creates a conversation with the audience, so I tend to agree.

Fin: Yes, Beethoven composed a prologue, called The Creatures of Prometheus and the themes of his ballet were very similar to mine… that’s how my work started about 11 years ago. I decided to go to Vienna to do more research and found the original ballet at the Burg Theatre. Now there’s not
much more detail about it. While living in Vienna I decided to not make it a mythology based on
Beethoven anymore. What I learnt is that it would be much more interesting to go forward instead of backwards.

I used to watch many classical music movies, I always felt that there wasn’t a truly great film on this subject. I wanted to make a film about the future instead of the past and taking music to another level. Ironically what I found is that when musicians such as Arvo Part and Philip Glass are supposedly taking music forward, in their approach they are actually inspired by eastern philosophy from centuries ago. This is really what the movie is about and for me it’s an important realization because of my Indian descent and I feel that the importance of Indian and Eastern art to world culture is underestimated.

The cinematography is pristine and there were many luscious images that one can admire and be mesmerized by for a long time. The composition of images was amazing, I could just sit there and enjoy every moment… from the blades of grass to the rich colour. How did you two meet?

Nicolas: It’s a hypnotic transportation from the usual. The photography of this film was a little bit
different from the others because you can stray from American story lines that push the images. You have to transport the lines, the words, the actors. There was a little bit more space and the audience can see more of the image.

How we met was very funny. I was working in South Africa and looked through a crew list and saw Fin’s name on it. He was searching for a cinematographer. I thought this was interesting and after three weeks I had still heard nothing… we found each other digitally, by emailing first, then Skyping without video. We got closer and closer, then I read the script and some parts touched me and other parts I didn’t understand, so we continued to discuss it.

Fin: I had a short list of cinematographers from around Europe… many countries, different ages and levels of experience. There are many reasons why I chose Nicolas, he needed to be very brave and go through all the challenges in India, he’s got a wide range of experience in Africa and he also worked in Chernobyl, which really impressed me.

A location photo behind the scenes of the staircase leading up to the lighthouse scene

The time you gave the images reminded me of Bela Tarr and the suspense that builds…

Fin: I mentioned that this movie tells you how beautiful nature and the world is, but it also contrasts the so-called ugliness in the world by showing the dirt in India and the poverty. It’s all about perspective, these people are not miserable in their poverty, they’re actually very content and living a beautiful life. It’s not about materialism and that’s one of the reasons I chose Varanasi. I was fascinated with many towns going up into the Himalayas because it’s like going back in time… these places remain the same even after hundreds of years. So it’s all about going back to your roots and nature.

Talking about Bela Tarr, I’m very strict on how I approach this, I admire Bela Tarr’s work. Another filmmaker that uses a lot of walking in his work is Gus Van Sant and I didn’t quite figure out the reasons for them using the walks so much, except for Gus Van Sant’s Elephant where I could see he was mapping the geography of that school, it was very cleverly done there. If you look at our official site it’s very interesting that I mentioned the art of walking and why I chose this. This movie is about the paths in life, how three paths connect to specific walks of two different characters at different points in the film… There’s the leap of faith of Bonifaz, then there’s coincidences within these pathways, the patterns he finds in these journeys. Both Bonifaz and the audience need to identify the recurring signs in these paths.

I hope you’re going to have a director’s commentary when you release the DVD or Blu-ray because I think that would really flesh out the experience for viewers watching it again… there are so many hidden treasures.

Leandro Taub is a quietly fascinating actor… how did you find him?

I chose Leandro Taub after a long process. Months before I chose him I was wanting a character with a mythological presence. I was thinking about all the movies I’d ever seen and felt the best example was Jodorowsky in El Topo, who was in the back of my mind. I knew I couldn’t use him because he’s now in his 80s. I was looking at actors from all over the world and contacted agencies in Europe and I would get a whole list with trailers and clips from their other work. If it’s Tom Cruise you don’t need to see that material but if you’re casting relatively unknown actors then you need to watch. I watched clips from about half a dozen of their movies.

With Leandro he reminded me of Jodorowsky but at the time he was obviously much younger and I wasn’t considering someone so young. I was looking for an older character then, it’s when I saw Leandro’s photo and then a few months later when I was looking for the actor for Bonifaz, I somehow stumbled upon Leandro’s picture again. During those earlier months I was playing with the idea of using a real musician instead of an actor so obviously I thought of Arvo Part, but being such a shy person it would’ve been impossible with him and I didn’t approach him at that point.

Looking at age, it became clear to us that this wasn’t about a musician who has reached his peak but it’s about a younger musician who is learning. So, Leandro’s age worked. Funny enough, I interviewed Leandro and I found out later that he had actually just acted in Jodorowsky’s latest movie. I didn’t know that because at the time I selected him he didn’t even have that detail on his IMDb page… so, maybe it was meant to be.

Who’s the mysterious woman in Woodwind?

Woodwind seems to have a spontaneity about it going on some of the interactions with locals… did you anticipate that… is that something you naturally rolled with?

Fin: The contrast is important in this movie and it can feel like magic realism. In another way I wanted to make it very real, especially in Varanasi, almost like a documentary. What you are watching is real and we intentionally approached it this way. Nicolas and I had many Skype meetings talking about how we were going to do it logistically… contrasting the reality and the magic. There’s this mysterious character Agna for example, you wonder if she is real and it’s happening in broad daylight in Varanasi with cow dung on the streets and all the car’s hooting. So, we weaved our fictional characters and script into this background.

Nicolas: It’s also a big compliment to the actors in the way they interacted with the people and we didn’t shoot with a big crew in Varanasi, like we did in South Africa, because we didn’t want to disturb the reality. Depending on the situation, the people would not even recognise the camera, they looked at the actors. They started to interact with the actors. I had a friend of mine who shot a movie a few months earlier who said their experience was horrible, everyone was jumping in front of the camera, dancing and making funny faces. We went in like a snake and shot the feature film in the Varanasi scenes like a documentary style, in a similar way to Italian Neorealism.

Fin: That was especially the plan for Varanasi. So that scene in which the people were looking at the actors… it was the only time that happened, and I think it worked very well because it was a domestic argument going on in the middle of the street and in reality people are going to look at you for that, we were just happy they looked at the actors instead of the camera.

Nicolas: It was crazy but it worked. I have to say I love the Indian people because they’re not shy even if you’re running around with a camera… they take it as it is.

Fin: One of my favourite moments was when Leandro interacts with someone on the river and he smiled and waved. At the same time, it’s mixed with his longing and hurt at what just happened. I love it when somebody is mixed between two different emotions, it adds the extra dimension to the behaviour. But this interaction with the real world was only valid for certain scenes in India, and we already knew from the script where we needed to do that.

Similarly, what were some of the challenges of shooting in India?

Fin: Looking back, it was a wonderful experience, but there were endless challenges in each moment. I could name about ten for each day. To focus on the bigger ones… we worked out the weather for every day before we went to India and how it would go with our schedule. Our schedule was then redone because the cargo wasn’t available for two days because they couldn’t speak English when we went there the first day.

With all the metal boxes it was like a military operation and we thought it would be very suspicious especially since there was an uprising in Kashmir at the same time. We were supposed to shoot in Kashmir and we had to change all our flights, hotel bookings and fortunately got our money back from the hotels. We then had to go from the opposite side of the mountain from the other side of the border where there wouldn’t be any militarized zone and we could find a solution. The terrain is the same from both sides of the Kashmir border so it worked out for us.

Actor Leandro Taub prepares for his scene in the waterfall in India

The weather didn’t work out so well for about one day. We had to film in the mountains and we read that if it starts snowing, we could be stuck up there for a week. That would throw out our plan of going to Varanasi in time with our flights and hotels there, so the whole shooting production would be completely at risk with snow

Heading up the mountains there were many challenges such as the oxygen levels… we couldn’t over exert ourselves… it was my responsibility that didn’t happen and that nobody ended up having serious problems. We had to read up on how people needed to prepare for that altitude of being 4,000m above sea level.

We had one location where we had to take a Jeep over rocky land for a few hours and then walk for about half a day to get to the location with all the gear. We made a plan to go with donkeys and I told Nicolas that he could stay at the hotel while all of us young camera crew could go shoot this one. Nicolas said “What? I come from the mountains in the Alps… that’s nothing for me.”. We managed to find another location, which was closer and easier to get to through cable cars. It was even better.

Nicolas: I felt very comfortable there. They help you in a certain way. It was like a classic road movie. We had to have flexibility for this operation, if that doesn’t work what can we do? What’s the goal and that’s where the flexibility came in. It was like jazz music… you need the bass first. It’s good if you have a plan.

Water serves as a recurring symbol…

The most powerful theory for water is that all human life comes from it. Personally I just love looking at waterfalls, all kinds of water. I grew up in Durban and I always imagined that I couldn’t live far away from the beach. Even inland in Vienna I had the Danube, Lake Michigan in Chicago and Bosnia, the Drina. I always needed this constant flow of water near me. The sound and visual of all nature is essential to Woodwind.

It carries the message of spirituality, purity and served as a continuity thing… threading its way through the film and it’s beautiful to look at too.

Nicolas: It’s the dialogue between the stones and the water. In the long exposure shots there was a
similar structure as it flowed between the stones. It’s continually changing, a symbol for spirituality in different forms and states.

Which directors have inspired you?

Fin: From a young age, I used to list dozens of directors who inspired me. There are a few hundred movies. The ones that inspire me the most… I’ll choose two from each type of language… in the English language, it would be Terrence Malick and Stanley Kubrick; then for foreign languages there’s Andrei Tarkovsky and Ingmar Bergman.

For those concentrated on just this new century, I feel that Paul Thomas Anderson’s created the best work from the year 2000. Going back a century, I prefer John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley to There Will Be Blood, but they’re both outstanding films.

Photography: Ivana Nešković | Woodwind Website: