‘It Became Totally Irrelevant Whether She Was Male or Female’: Jessica Woodworth Talks Working With Geraldine Chaplin in ‘Luka’

“I knew from day one it was Geraldine Chaplin who needed to play The General,” says director Jessica Woodworth about having Charlie Chaplin’s daughter play one of the central characters in her latest drama, “Luka,” which is having its world premiere in the Big Screen Competition at the International Film Festival Rotterdam.

“Not because she’s female, however,” emphasizes the director. “This had nothing to do with it. In fact, my intention was to have her incarnate a male character, but our working relationship is so strong, I told her I couldn’t make a film without her. In the end, it became totally irrelevant whether she was male or female.”

The film is inspired by Dino Buzzati’s classic novel “The Tartar Steppe,” and stars Chaplin and Jonas Smulders, a previous European Shooting Star, as the titular character. “I studied Italian literature at university, and lived in Italy for a while,” Woodworth says of how she first encountered Buzzati’s story. “It’s the kind of book that calls into your soul and stays there, sort of echoing it through you over time. And it has always stayed close to me somehow. It became something like an ongoing source of fascination and I had this great desire to transpose it onto the screen.”

“From the moment I decided to adapt it to screen, I had already made several decisions: one was that I was going to transpose it to the future,” continues the director, who has set “Luka” into a futuristic, water-parched reality. The other decision to come early in the project was to shoot it monochrome. “From day one, it was black and white. There was no discussion. The sensations you get from black and white are entirely different from color, it transposes things into a kind of abstraction.”

The beautiful Sicilian locations are captured in vivid 16mm film, another decision made early on by Woodworth, who shot two of her previous films (“Khadak” and “Altiplano”) in 35mm. Shooting in film, she says, is a “slow, cumbersome process” that bonds together cast and crew in a way that was vital to her latest film. “‘Luka’ required a degree of mobility which I call oxygen — like you’re being asked to breathe — the camera team needs to breathe with the actors, it has to be nimble, there’s an interaction between these bodies, the lens and the camera. So, 16mm was naturally more flexible and allowed for that dance between the protagonist and the camera.”

“I work really closely with the actors,” says Woodworth of her process, which also includes a focus on performance over dialogue. “I only confirm the dialogue on the day of shooting, which is very bold. Maybe reckless. I find that actually brings the most truthful performances. And I really encourage them to always break open their ideas and look at things from different angles.”

“Luka” marks the first solo directing credit for Woodworth since her 2002 feature debut “The Virgin Diaries.” All of her other films since have been co-directed with Peter Brosens, who serves as an executive producer on her latest film. The decision to be a sole director sprung out of practicalities: both Woodworth and Brosens could not be away from home for long stretches of time. “I developed it through the years on my own and [Brosens] was very closely involved in every step of the way. I also speak Italian and this project comes from years and years of engagement in Italian literature, it was a very natural evolution.”

Bringing “Luka” to Rotterdam felt just as natural to Woodworth. “I’m convinced it’s the perfect platform. We’ve been there with all of our other films and this is a Dutch co-production, so it’s almost like a home territory. And we’re eager because it took a long time to finish because we were searching for the right tone and structure. It’s a great festival and we know it well. Also, I think the audiences are very honest and very expressive, and that’s great too. It’s a great radar to have where you can feel the pulse, and how the film is perceived, which is not the case everywhere. In Rotterdam, it is the case.”

As for what comes next, Woodworth says she and Brosens have already started to develop their next project, “The Grass Sings,” a film about “a girl who can hear the grass.” Will the project reunite her and Brosens as co-directors? She doesn’t yet know. “Maybe. We’re for sure building it together. I was also invited to direct a different project, so we’ll see. As you know, co-productions take a long time, but we’re here to stay.”

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