Dima (Jamie Day) and Kostas (Bruce Ross) in The Writer. Romas Zabarauskas: 'I believe that we cannot allow ourselves to isolate. And these isolationist tendencies are happening on both sides of the political spectrum'
You’re still quite young but you’ve chosen older characters to work with in this film, can you tell us a bit about that?
RZ: For this project, I was impacted by Russia's intensified terror in Ukraine that started last year because it made me think about my own country and about our past and present. I think that in our region, oftentimes, we want to move beyond the past. But in reality, this war made me realise that Russia’s terror is very similar to Soviet Russia’s terror, and 50 years of solid occupation truly did have an impact and still does in our country. And it's not something we can brush it off, even though yes, I was born in 1990, exactly the same year Lithuanian gained its independence. But yes, I think that the impact is still there. And we need to kind of rethink our past, to assess our past so that we can truly move beyond and even the younger generations from mine have to deal with this. And they are. And there are many renewed discussions in our societies about the Sovietisation processes, like taking down further sculptures from the Soviet era, and talking about the responsibility of former Communist Party members, and many new specific discussions.
The film also has a geographical argument. Whether you think of yourself as a ‘geographical nomad’ or whether you can truly leave behind where you come when you adopt a new country. Was that why you chose to set it in the US?
RZ: On one hand, I wanted to do a film in a different way, outside of the European arthouse film system, and publicly funded even though my last one, The Lawyer, and my next one, The Activist, did receive public funding from the Lithuanian Film Centre, but I want to explore different places to make movies. But I also just feel that our region in current times has a lot of interesting things to say, and vision to share. And I wanted to contribute to that. And it is a discussion about west versus the east. We live in times of minefields of political debates that they're very contentious. But I think that those kinds of political conversations are actually a big part of our lives, for many of us, and I think it's nice to represent it on the big screen, not to shy away from it. And to still allow the audience also to choose which character they sid with, Kostas or Dima.
Oftentimes, cinema focuses on this kind of humanitarian message, to try to be broader but I think that it is actually interesting to go more specifically, because it is part of our lives to discuss things like that.
At the reception yesterday, I got a lot of people saying that, “Oh, my God, I look so much like Kostas” and that I will look like him when I get older and it might be true. But I do side with Dima’s politics a little bit more, because he is a little bit more realistic. And I think that perspective, he is authentic, coming from our region, and this is something we can share with the world. Because yes oftentimes, American left, for example, or Western left focuses on self criticism, which is important. But at the same time, we need to have this kind of broad attention to what's happening in the world. I believe that we cannot allow ourselves to isolate. And these isolationist tendencies are happening on both sides of the political spectrum. And I think it's important to not become cynical and to think on how we can progress together in the world.
In terms of the writing, how did the collaboration work?
RZ: The process was unusual because it was based on conversations that I had, mostly individually with each co-writer. And then all of them reviewed the script as it grew. And they contributed in different ways also, individually, but all these four writers bring their own experiences to the table. We have a Scottish writer, Mark David Jakobs, we have Arturas Tereskinas who has a PhD in history from Harvard and so he has some time in the US and he is a writer. And Anastasia Sosunova is a Russian-speaking Lithuanian who is a contemporary artist. So each of the co-writers brought their own experiences and stories and even complex and opposite, oftentimes political views. I really think that's also a success for me, personally, of our film, that we were able to agree to disagree, to portray that on the big screen. We don't have to agree on everything and it's nice to celebrate the freedom of speech. Not every country has that.
How was the casting, because it’s so crucial in a two-hander like this
RZ: Well, I spent my summer in New York, not this year, but last year to finalise my research for the movie and to cast it. And so we tested Bruce Ross, who is based in New York, while there, and then we continued to look for Dima and we found Jamie Day online. He is based in Virginia.
It’s interesting too because it’s not so usual to get a queer film with a straight actor, Day, in a key role
RZ: This is a separate debate on its own. But of course, it's important to note also that the character is bisexual. And he did live with his wife for a long time. I’ve always tried to cast the queer actors for different roles, also for straight roles in my other movies, because I do want to give those opportunities to them and you know, also appreciate their talent. I tried to involve queer people in the production as well. But Jamie was just right for the role, he did amazing work.
Romas Zabarauskas: 'The process was unusual because it was based on conversations that I had, mostly individually with each co-writer. And then all of them reviewed the script as it grew'
In my personal opinion, I see a distinction between gender and sexuality because, like, usually we don't think about it. But if we do, if we do think about it, male roles are most often played by men. And then female roles are played by women. So in terms of trans characters, I think it is good that trans actors play the role, or at least that it is not played as a transformation, so it makes sense that if a trans male character is played by a man, it is done better than if it's played by a woman. And then, you know, the whole campaign of the film used to focus on this transformation, which is distasteful. So you know, as everything, it has its nuances. That’s the idea of The Writer, that we don’t shy away from nuances and we don't cut any corners. And I think sometimes filmmakers are afraid and don't trust the audience will appreciate all the nuance, because it will divide the audience further. But I think if the audience is given the chance, they will enjoy that because it's very human actually to, you know, to discuss nuances and to think aboutnuances.
There is a romantic subtext to the film. But it's not the chief driver of the conversation
RZ: It just so happens that there's a story about two men who fell in love. But there's something for everyone to think about. And the film raises the question, ultimately, of how much choice do we have in our lives and how much our lives are defined by different circumstances, political, historical, social. And in the Western countries, we need to acknowledge as Costas does, that there are some limits. And there are some defining factors. But ultimately, I'm an optimist like Dima. And if we do have a baseline of comfort and our lives, then actually we do have a lot of choice in our lives. And we should go ahead and use it.
You mentioned The Activist are you already on track for finishing that as well
RZ: Yes. Well, I'm very grateful for these opportunities. So it is true that we already shot The Activist this year. So this year was very busy because we shot The Writer also this year. Yes. It's a little bit of a coincidence that it all happened this way. They're created within different systems. So we're not rushing the post-production, we haven't really started the post-production yet. We will finalise the post-production next year and premiere it in 2025.
Tell us a little bit about the film
RZ: The Activist is a very different film, it's a thriller, it’s a Lithuanian language film. It tells the story of a young man who infiltrates a neo-Nazi group to find the killer of his boyfriend. Basically, it's a trilogy that started with The Lawyer in 2020, and it talks about male couples in different political circumstances. And so there are thematic underlying themes. But I also do want to show my range and experiment in different directions.