Jessica Woodworth on “LUKA”: “Casting is one small step and it must be the right step”

LUKA” is the latest feature written and directed by American-Belgian filmmaker Jessica Woodworth (b. 1971). The film is a gripping black-and-white audiovisual tour de force, set in Sicily and starring Jonas Smulders (Berlinale’s ‘Shooting Star’ in 2018), Geraldine Chaplin and Jan Bijvoet, and features music from Teho Teardo. The film is inspired by Dino Buzzati’s classic novel “Il deserto dei Tartari” (1940, a.k.a. “The Desert of the Tartars” and “The Tartar Steppe”).

Jonas Smulders plays the title character, Luka, a young and ambitious soldier who embeds himself in the legendary Fort Kairos, where heroic warriors defend the remains of civilization. His hopes to serve as an elite sniper are crushed when he is assigned to maintenance and must submit to the code of Kairos: obedience, endurance, and sacrifice. As he rises through the ranks, Luka finds joy and strength in friendships with Konstantin, an enigmatic radar engineer, and Geronimo, a light-hearted private.

Screen Daily wrote in its January 29, 2023, film review that the film is ‘elevated by spectacular settings and a magnetic supporting turn by iconic veteran Geraldine Chaplin.’ The International Cinephile Society concludes its review that ‘a uniformly strong cast of character actors like Jan Bijvoet and Sam Louwyck, and particularly the actors portraying those in charge, turn “LUKA” into a bizarre but beautiful meditative film about the fight between dogma and truth and perhaps a more poignant commentary on the stasis of Western society than one might think at first.’

“LUKA” (2023, trailer)

“LUKA“ is a Belgian-Italian-Dutch-Bulgarian coproduction in association with Armenia, and is produced by Peter Brosens for Bo Films; Mr. Brosens also co-directed all of Ms. Woodworth’s previous features. The film is available in several territories and now also playing in theaters in Belgium where it is distributed by De Filmfreak. International sales: Films Boutique.

The following interview with Jessica Woodworth was conducted at the Ostend Film Festival last January, where the film was screened one day after its world premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam.

Ms. Woodworth, what inspired you to tell this story?

I have wanted to do an adaptation for many years, and I had a moment in time between “King of the Belgians” [2016] and “The Barefoot Emperor” [2019]; there was a window when we were financing and I’ve known Dino Buzzati’s book “Il deserto dei Tartari” [1940] since I was a teenager. I’ve reread it through the years. It became very familiar, comforting, and, at the same time, provocative. I was not at all interested in a literal adaptation because that has already been done by Valerio Zurlini [“The Desert of the Tartars,” 1976], and I was not at all interested in the end of the story in the book because that was not suitable for what I knew I was going to do. So I wanted to change many things; I tried to push it to the future because the future is what interests me most right now, and in an arena that—although abstract—is still relevant for today’s turbulence in society. Little did I know that Covid was on its way, which added a dimension and trouble to our process and many challenges to all of us.

Did that change the outcome of the film?

Indirectly, inevitably. War came in Ukraine; war came to Armenia where I was supposed to shoot the film. War came in my story where there was supposed to be no war; I had no enemy that appeared over the horizon. That was one of the challenges. I moved it over to Sicily and was liberated by the architecture I found there. It was not post-Sovjet and more free from time, geography, history, and culture. There’s a dam. The north is Mount Etna, just the volcano, alive and dangerous. It was maybe foolish to shoot there, and we also shot close to Mellili near Siracusa. So we used those different locations. They fit together to create this Fort Kairos that I had conceived, which is very different from the book. So the film is not an adaptation really; it was inspired by the book, but the premise remains the same. The book is not story-based; it digs into the subconscious and the fears and desires of this main protagonist as he stares at a landscape that fills him with every color of emotion you can imagine—pride, angst, hope, and salvation. And I love the contradictions and when we’re reminded how small we are. I love the idea of these men standing there on the brink of nothing and nowhere, staring at a landscape that stares back at them, seeing how they digest that and how they come to terms with that when their purpose is so fragile, and their convictions are so flimsy. They cling so tight to an illusion—many of us do, many societies do—and sometimes it’s imposed, sometimes it’s required, sometimes it’s a survival tactic, like a cling to illusions. But there we are, and this is all familiar territory to us as citizens and human beings. So one of the keys was how to make this story breathe in an organic way when we’re shooting in totally different locations and making it with a very tight budget. And more important was how to bring to life these characters on screen.

The casting of your actors is very interesting. There are actors such as Geraldine Chaplin, Sam Louwyck, and Jan Bijvoet with very expressive faces, and for the part of Luka, you cast Jonas Smulders with this young, almost innocent face. That’s a very beautiful mix.

Casting is a very intuitive and immediate process. I never looked for a type or any person who, on the surface, could represent anything or any type. It’s the feeling—how they carry themselves, the timber of their voice, and then the overall complementarity. Geraldine was cast extremely early; we built the role together. So were Sam Louwyck and Jonas Smulders. They were my references, and then I could fill it out from there, bit by bit. That took a long time. Then I started the process of workshops, trying to figure out the technicality of the dynamics between them, how much violence did we want to show… But it was clear that “LUKA” would not be a cynical film; it’s not a mockery of men. So how do you suggest the fragility and vulnerability, and at the same time believe their world, and enjoy the journey of this one character as he travels through the story and comes to the realization that things have woken up inside of him unexpectedly, his disappointments, and then settles into a kind of paralysis which is immediately upended when his loyalty to the Fort is challenged, and he has to make a choice. Then starts a new movement to the story, a completely different movement.

Jonas Smulders, Geraldine Chaplin, and Jessica Woodworth at the Ostend Film Festival, Belgium, in January 2023 | Film Talk

And you can only do that if the casting is right?

Casting is one small step and it must be the right step. It’s the beginning of the work, and then you have to fall off a cliff backward together—and trust and work. Like Geraldine says all the time, ‘It’s discipline.’ You work and work and work, which means you’re always thinking. It’s a level of commitment and devotion to the craft. I always choose people who are extremely curious. I want to know what they think and what they think is funny because if you can’t gauge someone’s humor, you can’t open too many doors toward them. So we all have to know each other’s sense of humor and that’s one of the keys in the process. Then we can all make fun of each other and of ourselves; we’re just human and we have this strange privilege of making a film, which is a luxury and a responsibility that we should never lose perspective. We should work hard because cinema is important to many of us. Then comes the phase when you start to look at one another, listen to one another, and explore a dynamic. You will never know what’s going to lead you, so you’re constantly interacting, you’re learning from each other, and building together. It’s always a search; I never doubt because you’re searching until something becomes lucid, vivid, obvious, and clear. That’s the result of a very enjoyable and daunting process.

Can you tell something about Virginie Surdej’s cinematography? Because it’s absolutely stunning.

We went many times to Sicily, we did many tests, we never storyboarded—never—and the decisions were made at the last minute. Handheld or on a tripod, these were made at the very last minute because it has to be born from a feeling when you’re on set. The actors are in costume with their props, looking at one another as if they already inhabit this world. And then the answers were very clear. The scale of things invited a certain frame. The scale is important, that’s why these locations were chosen. They’re so bare that you can only fill them up with sound. And that was a choice. You can’t decorate those caves, or you can’t add props in the dam. Every prop looked absurd. We had to maximize what we had and strip it down to its essence. There’s a long table that had to be conceived of, so we made the table. The flag was a long search; the body language of the men, the rituals… that was all emerged during workshops.

Samvel Tadevossian, Jan Bijvoet, and Jonas Smulders in “LUKA” | Carl De Keyzer/Bo Films

Was it physically a difficult film to make?

Physically, all my films were hard to make. We shot six days on seven, so when you’re happy, fatigue is not a problem. Fatigue also imaged the process and the result. When you’re exhausted, you’re on the edge, but so is the film. The story is on the edge—everything is on the edge. It’s a danger zone. Actually, when we were shooting, it was all a danger zone–earthquake zone, and the volcano was erupting all the time. Of course, we were cautious and careful; we didn’t put the team in any kind of real danger, but extremities were all around us. That time was the hottest time ever on record in Europe. On the first day of shooting, it was forty-eight degrees in Siracusa, and there were many fires in Sicily. This sort of burning world, disappearing world, crumbling world—that is our world, that’s where we live, and it’s our home.

The film gives the impression that the characters live in an isolated world. Did you also have that feeling when you were shooting?

Yes. We worked three weeks in the underground, then two weeks on the dam, and we ended on the North, on the Etna. We did it in that order; we had to because of the temperature. That was part of the pleasure. Everyone felt privileged to work in these three separate environments which are equally stunning. I mean, Etna is Etna, but the dam was built by the hand of man, and it was beautiful, it’s colossal. It’s a monument and it’s astonishing what we’re capable of doing. Okay, they never finished the dam, which is a tragedy for the region and the community because they destroyed a village to build it. But they’re grand.

When did you decide to shoot the film in black and white?

On day one. That was the only way I could imagine it. It brought the truth closer. It’s more arresting, more startling, deeper, more real, more accessible. That was the only way the film could be made. There was no need for color; color is a distraction sometimes, and I didn’t want to be distracted. So black and white was part of the strength.

Valentin Ganev, Geraldine Chaplin, Hal Yamanouchi in “LUKA” | Virginie Surdej/Bo Films

You said that “LUKA” is a low-budget film. The Dardenne brothers [Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne] have several restrictions when they’re shooting their low-budget films, like no limousines, no catering, and everybody brings their own lunches. What are your compromises to stay within the budget?

Time. We just didn’t have enough time. The budget is the time; a day costs a fortune, so we had to cut many scenes as we didn’t have enough time. That’s heartbreaking, but you have to make choices. We couldn’t afford wind machines or rain machines, for example. It’s very humbling, but that’s with all of our films. They’re all humbly made. We would never have an actor on set who required a van or a camper. He wouldn’t have survived one day. There are no divas allowed [laughs]. So all I needed was a few more days, that’s all. Working inside a financial constraint forces you to make choices. And if you can’t make a fine film with two or three million, don’t make cinema. Allez, come on, there are always solutions.

It also stimulates your creativity?

Yes because you can’t have what you thought you could have. When you can’t have forty-two shooting days and only have thirty-one, you have to cut scenes. You only shoot the essential ones, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s a good thing; you don’t waste time and energy on scenes that are not essential. I would have liked three more days, though [laughs]. But we didn’t need them. I mean, there it is. There is the film. It works, and in the end, the raw material was enough.

Watching your films is like going on a journey. You never know what to expect because your films are always surprising and original.

I would be heartbroken if people were indifferent. And at the world premiere last night in Rotterdam, that was not a risk. People were a little bit surprised [laughs], and also a little bit stunned. That’s a good thing. I hope the film is a physical experience and that you’re not busy in your head. The purpose of a film, the screenplay and postproduction is to bring the viewer into a state of mind, liberate the viewer, and hope he will connect with the plot. Pull that carpet out from under the viewer so he’s without a sense of gravity, and it’s okay [laughs], without boring him either. It should remain compelling, but how? That’s the challenge for any filmmaker.

Ostend Film Festival
January 30, 2023


KHADAK (2006) DIR – SCR Jessica Woodworth, Peter Brosens PROD Heino Deckert CO-PROD Jessica Woodworth, Peter Brosens, Nadia Khamlichi, Adrian Politowski, Leontine Petit CAM Rimvydas Leipus ED Nico Leunen MUS Christian Fennesz, Altan Urag, Dominique Lawalrée, Michel Schöpping CAST Batzul Khayankhyarvaa, Tsetsegee Byamba, Banzar Damchaa, Tserendarizav Dashnyam, Dugarsuren Dagvadorj, Uuriintuya Enkhtaivan

ALTIPLANO (2009) DIR – SCR Jessica Woodworth, Peter Brosens PROD Heino Deckert CO-PROD Jessica Woodworth, Peter Brosens, Jost de Vries, Diana Elbaum, Leontine Petit CAM Francisco Gózon ED Nico Leunen MUS Michel Schöpping CAST Magaly Solier, Jasmin Tabatabai, Olivier Gourmet, Andreas Pietschmann, Behi Djanato Atai

LA CINQUIÈME SAISON, a.k.a. THE FIFTH SEASON (2012) DIR – SCR Jessica Woodworth, Peter Brosens PROD Jessica Woodworth, Peter Brosens, Philippe Avril, Diana Elbaum, Sébastien Delloye, Joop van Wijk, J.B. Macrander CAM Hans Bruch Jr. ED Jessica Woodworth MUS Michel Schöpping CAST Aurélia Poirier, Django Schrevers, Sam Louwyck, Gill Vancompernolle, Peter Van den Begin

KING OF THE BELGIANS (2016) DIR – PROD – SCR Jessica Woodworth, Peter Brosens CAM Ton Peeters ED David Verdurme CAST Peter Van den Begin, Lucie Debay, Titus De Voogdt, Bruno Georis, Goran Radakovic, Pieter van der Houwen, Nina Nikolina, Valentin Ganev, Nathalie Laroche

THE BAREFOOT EMPEROR (2019) DIR – PROD – SCR Jessica Woodworth, Peter Brosens CAM Ton Peters ED David Verdurme CAST Peter Van den Begin, Lucie Debay, Udo Kier, Geraldine Chaplin, Bruno Georis, Titus De Voogdt, Pieter van der Houwen, Sinisa Labrovic, Darko Satzic, Maya Storm Brosens

LUKA (2022) DIR Jessica Woodworth PROD Peter Brosens SCR Jessica Woodworth (novel “Il deserto dei Tartari” [1940] by Dino Buzzati) CAM Virginie Surdej ED David Verdurme MUS Teho Teardo CAST Jonas Smulders, Geraldine Chaplin, Jan Bijvoet, Samvel Tadevossian, Django Schrevens, Sam Louwyck, Valentin Ganev, Hal Yamanouchi