Chinonye Chukwu’s debut feature-film alaskaLand premiered at the Chicago International Film Festival and recently also played at the 21st Philadelphia Film Festival.
After several screenings at PFF I found time to sit down with Chinonye and chat about her film and working on a tight timeframe.
Neal Dhand: At the Q&A you mentioned that the script is partially autobiographical. Can you talk more about its genesis?
Chinonye Chukwu: From conception to completion the script took 4 months. It was just me and a really good friend of mine who’s a screenwriter. I’m writing draft after draft and he’s just annihilating it for four really intense months.
I had production mind while I was writing, so I was writing according to the resources that I had. Plot-wise it’s largely not autobiographical. I wanted to intentionally do that.
There are obvious parallels. My father’s a petroleum engineer. I pretty much grew up at the university there. My father’s a professor my mom’s in academia. I’m Nigerian and Alaskan, so there are those obvious similarities.
But it’s really just the emotional moments and complexities. I have three other siblings and I’m the youngest of 4. They all left the house by the time I was 13, so trying to reconnect as an adult has been a challenge. I drew from those challenges and put them in the script a bit.
That’s really where it ends. We were rewriting as we were shooting as well. We had to cut about 20% of the script. We didn’t have time. We shot the film in two weeks and we only had two weeks.
We had to scrap 20% of it. We had to rewrite scenes so that it made sense. We had an editor on-set, which was fabulous. He’d edit the film going along and let us know how many holes there were.
ND: What did you have to change? Watching the film it doesn’t feel like you had to chop out big pieces.
CC: In the initial script Chuck (Alex Ubokudom) was actually in a relationship with someone. And we cut her out completely. We realized it worked because it furthered his sense of loneliness and isolation.
There were just huge scenes that we just chopped. Scenes at the airport and we just cut it.
The scene where they’re having a snowball fight – that was a completely different scene that we just logistically couldn’t do at the last minute. We were all like, ‘oh crap, what are we going to do.’ And we wanted an exterior scene because there were too many interiors and the film is called alaskaLand so we have to show Alaska.
And so we just kind of made something up. That was really the process.
ND: Were you changing scenes on the fly? What about the process with your actors?
CC: It wasn’t difficult. They were down. The main actors were there for the full two weeks shoot even during the days we didn’t need them.
They had nowhere else to go [laughs]. We were in Fairbanks.
So as there were changes I had one of my assistant directors go to their hotel rooms and they’d prep during lunch or dinner or whatever or on their day off I’d sneak away and talk to them about it.
There was a scene – the scene between Brandon and Chidinma that we completely rewrote. That was the hardest shooting day. It took us 6 hours to not just rewrite it but to go through blocking and figure out what the hell we were doing shooting-wise. And that was really difficult. The actors found that to be really challenging.
I had an amazing crew who really understood where my mind was. I had a great 2nd assistant director especially who was always thinking five steps ahead. She knew where I was going with this and she would communicate with the actors ahead.
One of my producers – Maya Salganek – is amazing and she was really great in just communicating.
ND: Is this a crew you’ve worked with before?
CC: Most of them I’ve never worked with before. Maya was actually an instructor of mine, years ago. Ages ago. In high school days. That was a great homecoming but I’ve never worked with her in a professional setting before. I was a PA on a film she was a producer on but that’s it.
The costume designer I’ve worked with her on every single film.
My script supervisor and 2nd assistant director I’m really good friends with but we’d never worked together. That was pretty much it. Everybody else was new.
I’m really close to my post-production team. My composer John Avarese – we have a shorthand. He gets me. And my colorist, these are people I’ve worked with consistently.
ND: What about cinematographer?
CC: Dave Selle – I’ve never worked with him before. I needed a cinematographer who lived in Fairbanks. They knew the locations. They understood how to shoot in a really cold place.
During pickups and reshoots I couldn’t be there all the time so he was able to pick up slack.
ND: There’s a big moment where a car crash happens off-screen. Was this for budgetary or aesthetic reasons?
CC: It was a combination of both. That was an idea of my cinematographer’s off the top. He was like, ‘what if we just stay with Chuck?’
I thought it was a risky decision. Also, budget-wise. If we needed to do it I’m sure we would’ve found the money.
The obvious decision is to see the car crash and I just thought what if we just stay with him. So it was kind of both.
ND: There’s a 2-year time jump in this film. You give us some pieces but not all of them. Are we supposed to fill in those blanks about what happened in that gap? Or do you want it to remain a mystery?
CC: It’s a little of both. I want people to piece it together as the film goes along. And their question might be ‘well where’s the sister?’ And I don’t want to give everything away. I want to give the impression that he’s been alone and we don’t exactly know what he’s been doing. It just kind of gets pieced together as the film goes on. I didn’t want to over-explain.
ND: I appreciated that there were only few wide-shots in the film. For a film called alaskaLand I would think it to be the opposite. Was that an intentional strategy?
CC: Absolutely. I thought the same thing. I don’t want it to be just a bunch of expansive, gorgeous shots of Alaska. This isn’t National Geographic.
I wanted it to feel insular and a bit claustrophobic. Even in those moments of vastness. I wanted us to get a sense for Chuck’s smallness. That was a big decision. I cut a lot of wide-shots. My DP loved the wide-shots. He was using a 12mm lens. I had to tell him: ‘let it go.’
ND: The end of the film is a bit open. Chuck goes somewhere but it’s hard to tell where. My read is that he wants one last moment in Alaska. Is this how you see it?
CC: I read it just like you said. He wants to be alone and be with himself. This is probably his last moment in Fairbanks. That’s how I wanted it to be read.
We had a couple of different endings for the film. A couple [laughs].
That was the one we chose for many reasons.
ND: A couple of endings? Were they visually different or emotionally different endings?
CC: Both. I don’t want to give it away, but they were both. They were completely different endings. And that was the one we went with for a lot of different reasons.
He’s by himself and needs a moment. He needs to get away and take it all in for the last time.
ND: What was the decision process like for picking which ending you use?
CC: It’s me, the editor, the producers and the assistant directors. We all take a look at our options. What works visually. What works narratively, thematically. I did test screenings with different endings and this is the one that I was the most satisfied with the reaction.
ND: You mentioned your composer. How do you guys work together?
CC: John Avarese has taught me so much. One of the first things he told me was that people aren’t supposed to know when music comes in.
I’ve been talking about the music with him since the conception of the story. And we go through each character and first figure out whose emotional moment is it for the entire story and for different moments of the film.
I bring all different types of songs and colors and films and pieces of art that get a sense for what I want to feel or what I see musically.
And he computes it all and then he scores – the whole thing. And then it’s never what I exactly want but it’s not supposed to be. And then we work from there and chip it away.
And because we’ve worked together for a couple years now I’m able to be incredibly blunt and honest with him. He’s able to be very blunt and honest with me. And he gets me. Because we’re committed to working on different projects we want to make sure that the sounds aren’t the same.
So I actually just finished a short film and the sound is completely different from alaskaLand and the next film I’m going to work on. We want progression we want growth.
ND: What type of art or music did you bring?
CC: I really like The Hours soundtrack, some Fela Kuti. What he actually did – I got the musicians to give me their Pro Tools file – and there are maybe 32 tracks of different audio. So we actually would extract a track – like take the drums from it and make it all funky – and use that to score part of the film.
I really like the idea of using one song and manipulating it throughout the film. So we used the Zozo Afrobeat song throughout the entire film. But just took different extractions or instruments and used it to score.
We listened to the score from The Help. There was a song from there specifically that there were parts where I was like, ‘Ah! That’s what I want to feel.’
ND: Where’s the film going from here?
CC: We did Chicago International. And now Philly. We have a couple more festivals and we’ve bee talking to distributors. We’re doing Trenton International. We’re going to do our Alaska premiere in December. We’re doing Fairbanks. Our set designer, Adrina Knutson, unfortunately passed away a few weeks ago so we’re going to do a screening in her honor.
Then we’re going to do the Anchorage International Film Festival and then there are some festivals in Italy and Australia that have asked us to screen.
The goal is distribution as soon as possible. Because I’m moving on. It’s so crazy screening it now because I’ve made another film since then. It’s time to move on.
ND: What do you have coming up after alaskaLand?
I just finished a short film called Bottom, which is different from anything I’ve ever done. It’s incredibly provocative. I was inspired by an artist named Kevin Jerome Everson who is probably one of the best experimental filmmakers I’ve ever had the honor of meeting. Talking to him – he’s like challenged my aesthetic. I’m in a very different artistic space now.
I’m getting ready to shoot another feature in March that’s on a completely different scale than alaskaLand. It’s kind of my exercise in minimalism. Just really focusing on the craft of filmmaking. It takes place in three locations. Two actors.
Then I’m finishing up another feature script. I just want to tell stories. These are completely different stories. I’m excited to share with the world my growth and evolution as an artist.
The Philadelphia Film Festival celebrates 21 years and runs from October 18 to October 28, 2012. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please see the Philadelphia Film Society’s official site.