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Categories: Interviews

The stylish filmmaker discusses the making of his atmospheric French-language thriller.

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Jacob Migicovsky is a Canadian-born and London-based writer and director, best known for his historical shorts Waiting for a Stranger and Avenue to Nowhere. With a knack for visual flair enhanced by his love for photography, Jacob’s work is noticeable for its immersive style and focus on performance, as well as his innate ability to throw back to classic eras in cinema, with films of the 60s and 70s being his favorite sources of inspiration.

The first film Jacob made after moving to London, Waiting for a Stranger (2011), is set in 1955, and tells the story of a woman who witnesses a murder – and ends up falling in love with the murderer. A “complete genre film”, Waiting was the first major project to showcase Jacob’s affinity with classic film and ability to translate it for a modern audience.

Susanna Cappellaro, who has a small part in Waiting, looked so fitting in a black-and-white behind-the-scenes photo of the film that Jacob tapped her to star in his ambitious follow-up, the French-language suspense noir Avenue to Nowhere (Avenue de Nulle Part). A stunningly-crafted black-and-white thriller in which the audience is enthralled in a romance between Susanna’s character, Gabrielle and her lover Julien (Hugo Nicolau) and the subsequent chase that is incited when they attempt to steal money from local criminals, Avenue is an adventurous period film made all the more authentic by its 16mm cinematography and lively jazz score. 

Since sending Avenue off to such places as Portugal, Latvia, New York, and of course many events in London – including our most recent Jam Session – Jacob has been working on developing two features: Man High, about test pilot Joe Kittinger, who jumped from the edge of space in 1960, and This Time Tomorrow, a semi-autobiographical roadtrip comedy inspired by a trip around Europe he took with his friend – a trip complicated when his friend fell in love with a woman from Prague. I spoke with Jacob about his influences, career experiences and some of the crazy production stories he has from making Avenue to Nowhere.

What was the inspiration for “Avenue to Nowhere”?

This film called Elevator to the Gallows, by Louis Malle film, a great French director from the 60s, from the new wave. This French photographer who was living in LA showed me the film, and the way he sold it was that it had a Miles Davis improvised score, and that just got me. I watched the film and it was really fucking cool – the black and white, the mood, the tension, the music, it was all just so classic. That sparked something in me.

I was always into photography, and always took black-and-white street photos, so another thing that got me into this was walking around at night and taking shots of people, and grabbing those sort of old-style photos. It was a very visual film, and it was about the visuals and about the music. I had it in my head for years, and tried to write it a few times and I didn’t know what the story was gonna be, so I just sort of went into my visuals and was like “what’s happening right now?” And then, one night, it luckily just clicked and I was able to flow the story onto paper, which was different from the final film.

And you funded the film through Indiegogo – what was that experience like?

Crowdfunding I’d tried to do for Waiting for a Stranger; it wasn’t as successful. Indiegogo this time around, it was a great experience, and what I think was interesting about it was that I had a bunch of people already involved in the film. So Susanna was involved, and the DoP [Christopher Moon] was involved. I asked most of the people back, and they were all helping with the campaign. They were putting it on Facebook, sharing it with their friends. Susanna, she was a huge help, she emailed a lot of people. Because I had a team, it wasn’t just me asking for money on Indiegogo, it was about 10 people asking their respective groups for money.

And we made a mood reel out of old French films, and that was our idea of what it was gonna feel like. So obviously all that helped, but I do think ultimately with crowdfunding, people give because they like their friends and their friends ask them for money, and then we got some gigantic donations which just completely floored us. At the end of the film, one of the last credits is just a page of thank-you’s for contributions, and it’s like 50 down, 6 to right, a massive list of hundreds of people.

Some of it was word-of-mouth, some of it was emailing specific people and letting them know about it, and some of it was facebook. I think the rule of 3s applies for crowdfunding: someone hears about something once and they think it’s cool, but they’re not gonna get off their ass and do something about it. And then, it’s posted somewhere on their wall a few weeks later, and they’re like “oh yeah, I’ve been meaning to do that, [but they don’t].” But when they see it a third time, they’re like “o.k., now I should do that.”

“Avenue to Nowhere”, like a lot of your work, is shot in a very old-school film noir style. Why do you think this style is still appealing to audiences today?

I think the mood is there, and the genre and the style is so different from anything that’s done anymore. We tried to make it very tense, and give it a very tangible feeling throughout. It was like making an action film, but like the way they used to make action films. I would never want to make an action film now – Transformers or something like that – but I think their version of what an action film was back in those days, it wasn’t CG explosions, it was just tension. We had this great chase sequence in Avenue, and it was just about looks and expressions and music and tension. If you can make good, tense cinema, it doesn’t matter what it looks like.

And you shot it on film, correct?

Yeah, 16mm. I knew that if we were gonna do this film, which was supposed to be a 1960s film, the whole idea was that this is going to feel genuine. I didn’t want to make a film that was a modern take on the 60s film. I didn’t want to make something where it would be like “yeah, I can see what they’re doing, how clever.” The goal was to make something that felt like that if people walk into the cinema late, they’d feel it was a 1960s film on the screen.

If you can make good, tense cinema, it doesn’t matter what it looks like.”

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How long did the film take to shoot?

4 days in London, and 3 days in Paris.

What were some of the big takeaways from shooting on location in Paris?

We had a car that I rented for nine people, and we drove from London to Paris. The first thing that happened was two of the crew did not have their passports on them, cause they thought “I don’t need a passport to go from London to Paris,” so we get to the Eurostar terminal, and the woman’s like “you can’t go, I don’t think you can go.” And then her boss was like “wait, you can go, but there’s no way the British are gonna let you back into Britain without your passport.” So we got their roommates to email over their passports, and then the rest of the drive up to Paris was me on the phone and them on the phone talking to their people, seeing how we could immediately get their passports sent over to where we were staying in Paris in the next two days, so we’d have them by the time they came back. It was hilarious, but that was just the start of it.

Shooting in Paris was crazy. The film takes place all over one night, so we didn’t start shooting until 7 o’clock, and we didn’t finish till 5 in the morning. We’re going to these places at 2, 3, 4 in the morning, and it was nutty. It was not always the best areas of the city, and though we had gone to these places before, and we’d seen them, we hadn’t gone at like 2, 3 in the morning, so you show up to some of these places and the kind of people who’re on the street at 4 in the morning who aren’t cops are not always the friendliest people.

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We had to move one location once, cause it wasn’t gonna be good. So we all had to pack up, get the camera, and head out. But we had backup locations because we’d gone there so many times to scout. So it was all about scouting – I was going up to Paris every weekend beforehand with the DoP, and then when we got there it was adrenaline, everyone staying awake and drinking coffee.

We had to run down the street in one shot with fake AK-47s, and because we didn’t know the times and the places we couldn’t get permits for places because we couldn’t tell the people ahead of time, so at 4 in the morning we’re running down the street with AK-47s hoping nobody calls the cops on us. It was a nutty time.

Would you do it again?

I don’t know. Yes. It was freezing [filming at night], but yeah, I’d definitely do it again, but I wouldn’t sit here and know how the hell I’d do it again. Avenue to Nowhere was one of those films where you get into it and you’re planning it and you think everything’s possible, and you somehow pull it off. Now, years later, I’m like “how the hell did we do that, how did we pull that off?” and I don’t even know.

What was the biggest lesson you learned making the film?

One of the big things about Avenue was, in the script, the story was different. The basics were the same – the couple, they run, and the ending was the same – but all the details in the plot were pretty different. It was about the FLN, and the Algerian War at that time. That was the backdrop, and there was a scene at the beginning that sets that up, with a car crash.

It was interesting because, we thought it would work, but we had our reservations about the whole thing, cause it’s not a very famous war, not a lot of people know about it – especially outside Europe. So it was about “will people get it? If not, we’ll put titles at the beginning, and that’ll work.” But it didn’t work. Nobody knew what that was, cause there was a lot of politics to follow, and every time we showed the film nothing worked.

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So what we had to do was, in the middle of editing – and it was a long editing process – me and the editor had to meet and take a step back and say o.k., this is the film we’ve got, this is the dialogue we have, there are the shots we have, and then we had to take it all, separate it, and create a new story from what we had filmed, and piece it together so it made sense in a very simple way, without using any of the politics and the war, and that’s what we did.

What I learned is you can’t bank on the collective consciousness of people knowing, that they’re just gonna get you film and be on board with it. I always like to be vague when I write scripts; with Waiting and Avenue there’s definitely a vagueness to the plot and story, and I just try to focus on the tension, but what I learned on that was, it’s all fine and well to do that, but you do have to sometimes take time, putting your focus towards details and making sure the audience gets it. So I think it was just helping the audience along a little more, knowing that not everyone’s in my head.

You can’t bank on the collective consciousness of people knowing, that they’re just gonna get you film and be on board with it.”

The score is very memorable – how did you accomplish that?

We created our own tracks with early-60s Miles Davis stuff as our inspiration. I met a bassist, and he knew a bunch of Jazz musicians who’d studied at Guildhall, and that was the team that we put together. We rehearsed a bit, but it wasn’t like we wrote anything down, we were just like “let’s try these kind of chord structures, this is the style that we’re going for,” so then they walked in and they had one day of recording, and it was the way they actually recorded the score for the Louis Malle film: we had the movie playing during the recording session and they were reacting to it. So they would be watching the film and improvising to what was going on, to give it that feeling that, if she opens the door, the audience is reacting at the same time as the musicians. That gives it this kind of impulsive quality. And the band is also in the film, they were the guys in the nightclub. That was our way of getting them in, which was fun.

Are there any current films or directors you’ve been a fan of?

I’m a fan of everything Iñárritu’s doing – Birdman, Revenant. A lot of that is Lubezki, the DoP; obviously they’re working on it together, but there’s a mood that’s different about [Lubezki’s] films. It’s not really about the story, really. Revenant is not about the story, Birdman is not about the story, they’re about characters and feelings and moods, and it doesn’t even have to be tense – obviously The Revenant is very tense the whole time – it’s just about giving the audience an experience, an atmosphere, that’s consistent, and that builds and builds, while a lot of other films are just worried about “how do we tell this plot and get from A to B to C.”

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But there’s not a ton of other directors coming out now that I think are great. Jeff Nichols, who did Midnight Special, is really good. But I just have a really big love for old cinema. The first film I did in London was Waiting, which took place in ’55, and Avenue took place in ’60, and it just encapsulated all those 60s films in general. So I did a 50s film and then a 60s film, and then I really wanted to do a 70s film, and I sort of was able to do that in a small way. I made a spec commercial for the BFI and it’s a 40-second spot about 70s film, so I was able to, to a lesser extent, do my 70s film. But that’s where it stops. I don’t wanna go into the 80s. Obviously it would’ve been fun to live in the 80s, but the style completely changed, and the colors and the neons and the music – it’s fun to dance to at the club when you’re drunk, but it doesn’t move me the same way.

Find out more about Jacob’s work on his website.

Cameron Johnson

Cameron Johnson is a writer and filmmaker born in England, based in Michigan, USA, and currently living in Enniscrone, Ireland. He writes about all things entertainment with a speciality in film criticism. He has been working on films ever since middle school, when his shorts "Moving Stateside" and "The Random News" competed in the West Branch Children's Film Festival. Since then he's written and directed a number of his own films and worked in many different crew jobs. Follow him on Twitter @GambasUK and look at his daily film diary at letterboxd.com/gambasUK.

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Posted on May 2, 2016

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