FIT 728x90 Film Society of Lincoln Center

Interview: Emil Christov

By Jonathan Robbins on March 26, 2013

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Subject of the “Hot Property” column in the March/April issue, The Color of the Chameleon follows the life arc of Batko, a brazen Bulgarian police informant who goes rogue and single-handedly manipulates an assortment of officials, secret police operatives, and academic intelligentsia. Veteran cinematographer Emil Christov credits “a fulminating mix of intuition, common sense and . . . the ‘audacity of ignorance’” with getting him through his directorial debut. The result is a stylish take on Bulgaria’s transition from Communism, tinged with semi-ironic nostalgia for Communism’s iconography and travesties alongside a open distaste for its monstrous spy apparatus.

Color of the Chameleon movie Emil Chistov

Is the group that Batko spies on, The Club for New Thinking, based on a real “subversive” association? Are elements of the film based on actual events or real rogue agents?

Before the fall of Communism, there were various clubs like that at Sofia University—small debating groups of young aspiring intellectuals. Some peculiar fellows among them produced pieces of cryptic samizdat, and most of them still flatter themselves with words like “dissident” and “rebel.” After the Berlin Wall came down and the system collapsed, the power vacuum was filled with members of these groups who quickly became the new ruling elite and prominent public figures in the country. Other than that, nothing is based on actual events or people. It’s a paradox, but the truth is that the system was ruined not by those who resisted it and hated it, but by those who fanatically served it and absolutely loved it, just like our antihero.    

Are there inside references in the film (historical events, intellectual figures being parodied) that only people who grew up in Bulgaria or the Eastern bloc would get?

Yes, there is certain background that would speak only to insiders, but we tried to minimize it as much as we could. One great symbol of the Cold War communist brotherhood that is fading out: the great kiss between Brezhnev and Honecker. So, we tried to reinstate it in the public domain.

Were there actual instances of former intelligence or government agents going on talk shows, as in the movie, to expose their former enemies or colleagues?

No. No one dared to do that publicly. Instead, secret police files of public personages were leaked to the media.

Could you talk about your relationship and collaboration with the screenwriter, Vladislav Todorov?

We’ve been close friends for about 30 years now. I encouraged him to write Zift [a novel which was later developed into the 2008 film on which Christov served as DP]. In return, he encouraged me to direct The Color of the Chameleon. We worked for almost six months on the script, deleting scenes and adding new ones. It was a pleasant and creative exercise based on mutual trust. It was not a war of words against image. Wim Wenders said once that the narrative of modern cinema has killed the image, and in a sense we tried to make a film that reinstates the power of the image.

Your last collaboration with Todorov, Zift, is also about the life of a young iconoclast who witnesses major shifts in Bulgarian history. Were there any elements of Zift’s relationship between narrative and mise en scène that you wished to maintain for The Color of the Chameleon?

I think the only unifying thing about the two movies is the author who wrote them, his peculiar language, postmodern style, and characteristic sense of humor. As far as my work in Zift is concerned [as a DP], I worked primarily with the director Javor Gardev. Screenwriters are generally unapproachable for DPs.

The Color of the Chameleon Emil Christov

Was directing what you expected it to be like?

Yes, as far as the preparation and the shooting goes, it happened as expected. I had to complete the shooting in 28 days and I sought to minimize surprises as much as possible. The postproduction, though—and especially the editing—really surprised me with its unlimited potential to manipulate virtually every component of the final result, as well as the sound design with its power to influence the viewer’s perception. I had no prior experience with this phase. I had to manage it by means of a fulminating mix of intuition, common sense and something that a friend of mine calls the “audacity of ignorance.”

Would you give a few examples of how you used your newfound powers in editing and sound design? How did the final result differ from what you’d initially had in mind?

I found the sound design so important that I did not participate in the color correction of the film (done in a Hungarian lab). Now, when I watch and listen, I wish I could change few things, but it's too late. To quote my sound engineer Pierre-Yves Lavoie: “Be careful, Emil: in cinema everything is forever.” Regarding the editing, I had next to me a very intelligent and competent editor named Alexander Etimov. Together we played like little children with brand new toys without thinking about the consequences. The consequences are that the film is different from what I originally expected, which is good. If it was not different from my initial expectations I should have been an accountant, not a filmmaker.

The Color of the Chameleon is filled with priceless details about life under Communism. Was John Updike’s Rabbit, Run a favorite book in Bulgaria for young men, as suggested in the film?

Unlike today, when people mainly watch stuff, during the Communist times we used to read a lot. I read Rabbit, Run when I was 15. I personally like [Updike’s] The Centaur. I was 16 when I read it.  

Batko uses Rabbit, Run as fodder for masturbation. Was the book known for those purposes or is that detail Batko-specific?

Rabbit, Run was one of the few books translated into Bulgarian with explicitly erotic scenes. These things would be normally censored, cut out from movies or books. This one survived by sheer chance. But one can masturbate even reading the yellow pages; depends on the imagination. Of course Rabbit, Run is not a pornographic novel, nor is The Centaur nor the yellow pages...

The Color of the Chameleon Emil Christov

Were the Bulgarian secret police involved in matters as personal as sexuality?

The Bulgarian secret police operated on the same basis as the Federal Bureau of Investigation under Hoover, or the KGB, MI6, etc. These services collect and classify damaging info about all kinds of ordinary and extraordinary people and use it to manipulate them. It’s universal. Welcome to modernity. But when a rogue agent dares to mimic and duplicate the system in his own creative way, the system spins out of control. Like the butterfly effect. This could happen anywhere, in any modern country controlled by secret policing.    

Was there really a “Certificate of Trustworthiness” needed to attend Bulgarian university under Communism?

Yes. If you wanted to enroll in the faculty of philosophy—the temple of communist teaching—you needed to obtain a recommendation from local community regulators who knew you well and could vouch for your soundness of mind and character. In fact, as far as I know, the first time in history such certificates were introduced was by the Russian authorities in the 19th century after a system of antiterrorism homeland security was put into place that turned Russia into a perfect police state.

In the amazing house that Batko stays in, there is a radio that seems to have dual decorative figurines of Lenin and Stalin attached to it. Were such artifacts common in Bulgaria?

There, you’ve noticed the radio. It’s so beautiful, isn’t it? I tried to buy it but failed. It was manufactured in the 50s in the Soviet Union. The statuettes of Lenin and Stalin are not part of it. I put them there.  

Are you more interested in directing more films now or focused on continuing your work as a cinematographer?

The question baffles me. I have no answer. I had no ambition to change my profession. I still subscribe to American Cinematographer. I approach this project as a temporary adventure with no consequences. Now people encourage me to continue. On the other hand, I love my profession and I feel capable in it. But, as the mother of my son puts it: “You never know, Emil.” Recently, I read a beautiful novel, Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann, and I said to myself, “Well, if Paul Haggis wrote the script and if Sean Penn agreed to play in it…” Also, Vladislav may be working on a new script. So, you never know…

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