Playing at Festival TFF: Alexis Alexiou's Gangster Film, Wednesday O4:45
(from Sag Harbor Express Online 5/4/15)
By Danny Peary
The title of Greek director-writer Alexis Alexiou’s visually striking Wednesday 04:45, which made its world premiere at the recent Tribeca Film Festival, refers to the time Athens jazz club owner, Stelios (Stelios Mainas), must pay off his debt to a ruthless Romanian gangster or face the consequences.
Director-writer Alexis Alexiou (left) and editor Lambis Charalambidis.
As the seemingly doomed man tries to change his sorry destiny, he deals with his demons from a life that was not always well-spent. During the festival I did the following interview with Alexiou and his editor, Lambis Charalambidis. about his stylized, action-packed but dreamy second feature–both a tribute to American gangster films and westerns and sad commentary on his once proud country that is in economic crisis.
Danny Peary: I’m sure the look of the film is the first thing people respond to. I think it looks spectacular. Is that the way you pictured it? Did you spend a lot of time storyboarding this and figuring out all your camera angles?
Alexis Alexiou: Yeah, we spent six or seven months storyboarding, and we spent even more time, a year, doing location scouting. The storyboards were based on the actual locations, and they were very close to the final way we shot it. I also made notes about lighting, production design, and the costumes. So we really worked hard to visualizeeverything. What I wanted to do was create a very visual and aural experience.
DP: So Lambis when did you come in? I would think pretty early on.
Lambis Charalambidis: I came in two or three months before Alex started shooting. I wasn’t present for the storyboarding. We tested a lot of cameras to have the look that they wanted. And we made this work. We checked everything and after we started editing. We tried to deconstruct the storyboards. Since Alexis shoots from many different angles we had choices of what shots to use. We could change things that didn’t work or had problems.
DP: Alexis, what was your initial conversation with Lambis?
AA: I gave him a couple of films to see.
LC: He gave me many films to see!
AA: Some gangster films, some westerns.
DP: Am I right in thinking Sergio Leone was an influence on you?
AA: For sure. And Sam Peckinpah.
DP: Is your lead actor Stelios Mainas well-known in Greece?
LC: He’s one of the biggest stars there.
DP: And he plays a character with the same name, Stelios.
AA: That was a coincidence.
DP: When did he come on the project?
AA: When I had a first draft I gave it to him. I wasn’t sure if he was perfect for the part at the time, but when he read it and really liked it, I realized he understood everything I wanted to do.
DP: The character he plays, Stelios, dominates the film, appearing in almost every scene other than when the two Tarantino-like henchmen are having nutty conversations, In fact, there are not that many characters in your movie, but it has the look of an epic. So did you have the biggest budget in the world, or did you have a limited budget and try to make it grandiose?
AA: The latter. We knew we had a limited budget but we didn’t really know how much. We were trying to set up the film and we were always losing financing because of the economic situation in Greece. At some point Greek public television collapsed, and we had other problems. At the end we had very little money, and we tried to put everything into the shoot. That’s also why we tried to plan everything beforehand—if you don’t have enough money, then you have to be very specific about what you shoot.
LC: A lot of people worked for very little money.
AA: Nobody was paid properly.
DP: What is going on with the Greek film industry at this point, and where is your film situated—is it the only gangster film?
AA: It’s rocky. Dying—well, financially, but movies are still being made, and some of them are interesting. Most of the movies are dramas or comedies, we don’t really have a tradition in genre filmmaking.
DP: I came across this quote by you is “I want to convince people that it’s possible to make a genre film, in this case a crime thriller in a country without a relevant cinematic tradition.”
AA: There are a few film noirs and crime dramas but they tend toward naturalism or realism.
DP: Would you call yours expressionistic?
AA: Yeah, I would say it’s stylized, not realistic. The story is kind of realistic, but the way that the story and the visual style of the film unfolds, make it seem to me to be almost surreal or even absurd. That’s one of the things I’m afraid not everyone likes. So they say, “What the hell am I watching?” But I believe it still makes sense.
DP: You wanted to be surreal stylistically but you also are making real political comments about the economy of Greece, which is on the decline. So there are two levels you’re working at. Is that a fair assessment?
AA: It is. The crisis in Greece is of course part of it; it affects the storyline. The fact that the protagonist can not actually find a way to pay the money he owes has a lot to do with the economy. The riots and the burning trees is rather surreal way to show it.
DP: Stelios once was thriving and now he’s on the decline. You deliberately wrote of an older, past-his-prime guy, so was it your intention that he embody Greece?
AA: When I was writing the screenplay, an article in an American newspaper, probably TheFinancial Times, stated that “watching Greece is like watching a car crash in slow motion.” I thought it was a great idea. We have the story of a man, Stelios, and you’re watching his life, and see him crashing slowly against the wall. He knows that is what is happening, but he can’t do anything. It’s all slow motion, but he cannot escape.
DP: I like the rise-and-fall theme found in most gangster movies, from the Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney films of the thirties to Avalon. We see Stelios on the decline, but what was he like twenty or thirty years ago?
AA: He was probably living the high life. He had already made some money, smuggling furs out of Greece to the Balkans. Russia, Bulgaria. There were a lot of furs produced in the ‘80s. He had a lot of money and then he decided to stop being a criminal and to say, “No, I can come to Athens and be a legitimate businessman and do something classy, like run a jazz club.”
DP: He doesn’t just run the club, but is an expert and devotee of jazz, which I think makes you like this guy. Is that true?
AA: Yeah, yeah. He’s a guy who loves jazz, but in a way he has lost his way, and confused his love for jazz, his passion, with vanity and ambition. Now it’s important for him to have the perfect sound system, even though it costs a fortune and maybe there’s nothing wrong with the speakers he already has. But he has to make everything perfect.
DP: I came across a review in which a Green critic stated “innocence and perpetual return of childhood occupy the heart of the movie, otherwise a dark and violent exercise in postmodern noir, taking place in contemporary Athens, a city with a bleak future, very much like the central hero.” He goes on to write about the great Leone-like moment when the boys ice cream melts as a gun fight is nearing outside the café. What does this represent–the end of innocence?
AA: Yeah, exactly. At this point, the father of the kid is getting shot. So for the kid, it’s the end—he has to grow up. It’s also ties into one of the themes of the film. Stelios, the protagonist, is a completely immature guy. He cannot even tie his shoelaces, like a kid. He’s made all those mistakes in his life, but he’s not able to take responsibility as an adult. He’s still very much pursuing a kid’s dream.
DP: So is this a movie about failed dreams?
AA: Yes, of course.
DP: Of course? This guy had potential to go legit, but he wanted more and dreamt about more…
AA: And for the wrong reasons, maybe. Or he got lost on the way, or confused his priorities. He didn’t only want the flat and the good music, he wanted the expensive car, the expensive house, the wife, the girlfriend. He wanted a bigger life and status.
DP: Talk about the violence. Is that influenced by westerns more than old gangster films?
AA: The way the film is structured, it leads to the final shootout—it’s more like a western.
DP: Lambis, was it fun editing the big action sequences outside the café and on the roof of the building?
LC: It was fun and very interesting. You don’t know what you see, you want to cry and to laugh, so there is double meaning. You see it with the music and the slo-mo. It is violent, but in a way it isn’t violent.
DP: The slow-mo recalls Peckinpah. That’s it’s operatic recalls Leone.
LC: I think it’s poetic.
DP: Alexis, did you do that at the beginning or at the end of the shoot, the final action?
AA: That scene on the rooftop was the last thing we did, and it was very complex. We shot most of the film during winter or early spring, but this scene has rain and we couldn’t have the actors be wet during winter, so we had to wait until the end.
LC: It also helped the movie that the actors knew what was taking place.
AA: Yes, they had already played the rest of the scene, so they knew how to do that final sequence.
DP: How has your experience been at the Tribeca Film Festival? Are people understanding that Wednesday 04:45 is made by someone from Greece who has seen a lot of American movies?
AA: I think they’ve really enjoyed it. They have stayed for the Q&As and have really aksed good questions. I think it’s resonating with the audience.