You were one of the few directors chosen by Sigur Rós to direct a video for their latest album. Having been given complete creative control, how did you decide on the concept for the song 'Fjögur Piano'?
For me, it hardly ever feels like a decision; it just comes together in my head. It's a lot easier for me to write a script for a music video [than a film], because I feel like I'm working to touch the heart of the song. Of course, it's a subjective heart, but it's still a clear guide. A combination of objects I'm interested in – subject matters, moods etc – circulate at any given time in my head. Then, when I'm presented with a track I connect to, it draws on all the material and makes it its own. I just have to listen to it again and again and wait for the images and story to unfold.
Shia LaBeouf featured, doing some fairly unusual things... How did you convince such a big star to take part?
I was very lucky, because I didn't need to do any convincing! Shia randomly picked up my movie Bombay Beach at a store, and then contacted me so we could do something together. The only thing I had to do was to believe that it was for real – I kept waiting for him to not show up or disappear, but he was there all the way.
What do you think this level of creative freedom and variety brought to the overall process?
I think it made everybody involved have a very unique experience. Freedom is still the most priceless thing in this world, and we definitely celebrated it. I was high for days after we filmed it; but not with an adrenalin or dopamine kind of high – it was something else. Yesterday, we all went to see Sigur Rósat the Hollywood Cemetery, and it was great to feel so alive and sit together on the grass among the dead. It was one of the best concerts I’ve seen.
Your first feature film, Bombay Beach, was a huge success. You covered some pretty harrowing ground in it concerning the lives of those in Salton Sea, California. What did seeing this way of life teach you about your own?
As someone who first moved to America from Israel, I needed to meet these people. I needed to know that if I lived there, I could connect to this country – and not only through the sheer image it had in my mind. As marginalised as [the residents] are, they made me feel at home.
You can find soul mates everywhere, and getting to know another human being through making a film together is one of my favourite ways to reach intimacy and feel rooted. It's so easy to get caught up in an excessive life style in the US, and these people make me remember what's important and to have a sense of proportion. I saw Queen of Versailles the other day, and that's at the other end of the spectrum here.
In a recent interview, you mentioned four questions that you asked the character Red in the film: what is love, what is friendship, what is responsibility and what is childhood? How would you answer these questions yourself?
If I had answers to these questions, I would probably not be making films. I try to answer them through my work, but I believe I'm only starting. Give me a few more years and ask me again.
You use a lot of highly choreographed dance sequences in both your music videos and Bombay Beach. Why choose dance in particular as a means of expression?
For me, dance is the best way to talk about the unspoken; to visualise the inwardness of our lives. I'm in awe of the meditative effect it has on my brain – and it's just fucking beautiful, isn't it? I can't take my eyes off it. What is it? It’s such a strange thing, to just move our bodies like that. [Dance] makes me happy and I can't take it out of my head, it keeps coming back.
How do you feel your style and work has progressed since you started out? As someone who didn’t go to film school, were you something of a blank canvas at the beginning?
I'm so fortunate that I didn't go to film school. I can only speak for myself, but school was one of the most depressing experiences of my life; I still have nightmares about it. One of the most important things I learned about filmmaking is to understand what parts of what I see in my mind need translation, and what parts are just going to get translated if I create the right environment. Learning is such a beautiful process when it's not forced on you, and when you don't need to compare yourself to others. It's a privilege to teach ourselves. I'm writing my first script now, and realise how much I have to learn. It hurts like growing pains; you can feel your bones hurting. I hate it too. Hopefully, my style is a reflection of something that exists inside of me – that's the most important thing. Otherwise, you're just lost, and you don't want to feel the painful part.
So, what’s next? I heard rumours that you’re producing a film called I Wuv You…?
Nooooooo! That's a terrible name that started as half a joke. I still don't have a name, but yeah, shooting starts next month in Alaska, and we’ll be there for over a month. I'll know more about what it is when I'm back.
You can check out more of Alma Har'el's work at www.almaharel.com.