'Housekeeping for Beginners' - gay filmmaker Goran Stolevski on his fictional family

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Tuesday April 30, 2024
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(L-R) Samson Selim, Vladimir Tintor, Anamaria Marinca, and Sara Klimoska in 'Housekeeping for Beginners'  (photo: Viktor Irvin Ivanov/Focus Features)
(L-R) Samson Selim, Vladimir Tintor, Anamaria Marinca, and Sara Klimoska in 'Housekeeping for Beginners' (photo: Viktor Irvin Ivanov/Focus Features)

The year 2023 was an exceptional one for gay filmmakers. Ira Sachs' "Passengers" and Andrew Haigh's "All of Us Strangers" were well-received by audiences and critics alike and could also be found on numerous end-of-the-year "best of" lists.

With "Housekeeping for Beginners" (Focus), gay filmmaker Goran Stolevski didn't keep us waiting long for the follow-up to his brilliant "Of an Age," which opened domestically in early 2023. In the same way Stolevski made us laugh and cry (sometimes simultaneously) in "Of an Age," he achieves the same emotional tug-of-war in "Housekeeping for Beginners."

Suada (Alina Serban), a mother of two daughters — Vanesa (Mia Mustafi) and Mia (Dzada Selim) — by different, absent fathers, is in end-stage pancreatic cancer. Her partner Dita (Anamaria Marinca), the more responsible one in the relationship is suddenly faced with the task of raising a teenager and a kindergartener. Add to that the fact that Dita's house has become something of a crash pad for outcasts, as well as her gay male housemate Toni (Vladimir Tintor), and his younger lover Ali (Samson Selim), and you can feel the powder keg of her life getting ready to blow.

"Housekeeping for Beginners" is an amazing achievement, and it's all due to Stolevski's talents as a writer/director.

Filmmaker Goran Stolevski  

Gregg Shapiro: What was the inspiration for your "Housekeeping for Beginners" screenplay?
Goran Stolevski: The first moment the idea came to me is when I saw a photograph a friend had posted online from his life, from when he first moved to Melbourne with his boyfriend in the 1970s. They moved into a house with eight gay women. It was just a random snapshot from their day-to-day life at the time. I remember seeing it and going, "I love this energy, this context." A kind of cocoon of queerness.

I wanted to live within it, essentially, come up with a story that takes me there. I wanted it to be present tense. That story doesn't quite make sense in Australia anymore. But most of the world isn't like Australia or like America or like the developed west. As much as Macedonia might seem exotic onscreen, in this context this is closer to what day-to-day life feels like for queer people in most of the world. I feel like a lot of these stories don't get documented.

One of the things that stands out about "Housekeeping for Beginners" is the way that dialogue and the absence of dialogue have equal weight. Emotions and responses are communicated without dialogue.
It's also in my older work, and I realized that it didn't happen by design. It just happened organically in "You Won't Be Alone" and especially in "Of an Age." Dialogue is very important to me. I grew up on a lot of 1930s and '40s Hollywood screwball comedies. The dialogue used to be so snappy and perfect.

I think that's difficult to find these days. I think it's important to aim for the highest that you possibly can. I do love dialogue. But what I realized in making these films is that quite often, the most important lines of dialogue are entirely unspoken. They happen in the eyes. The actors and characters speak to each other silently; I look for those moments.

Sometimes they happen in a way that's unexpected. I often encourage my actors to improvise or rephrase things in a way that feels comfortable for them, feels real for them. I'm not a stickler about these things. Also, when you say improvisation, most people think of dialogue. But improvisation can just be a glance or a gesture or someone taking someone's hand and looking at it. Those moments, to me, contain a whole story or put a frame around it that feels very whole and profound. I'm always looking for them.

Sometimes an entire scene of dialogue that I love ends up deleted [laughs] because something's happened along the way that is so much more elegant and eloquent and silent that gives me the emotional detail that I'm looking for which makes the dialogue redundant. I'm grateful when I find them.

Dzada Selim and Anamaria Marinca in 'Housekeeping for Beginners' (photo: Focus Features)  

As the screenwriter, is there a special significance to Suada having two daughters, as opposed to a daughter and a son, or two sons?
Not theoretically. It's quite common that I do end up writing more female characters than male ones in my work. I feel like if you took out my brain cells and analyzed them somehow scientifically in the future, most of them would match that of a girl [laughs].

Even when I was little, I remember in fourth grade, my class of 36 (children) had to be stopped because there was a crisis. Goran's been hanging out with girls for an hour. Everyone had to stop and make sense of this. Why is it happening? It has to stop! It's not an objective, analytical thing. I just connect with girls and women a lot more than I appear to on the outside [laughs]. The only creative work I trust is the stuff that comes instinctively. Not the stuff where I'm trying to make a statement.

Following Suada's death, her widow Dita, who does welfare work, is talking to a co-worker who expresses her condolences for the death of Dita's "cousin," because she obviously can't be out at work. Is that what you were referring to earlier, when you talked about the rest of the world, and how difficult it is to be out in many other places?
Yes. Even if there were legal rights in place to protect queer people in these countries, it barely makes a difference when the legal and social systems don't function. You can have anti-discrimination policies, but discrimination will still exist. You need to hope for a policeman or a judge to somehow be the kind of person who follows rules rather follows their own prejudices.

Most of them will follow the prejudices, and the bribes [laughs]. It's not like that makes Macedonia chaotic or strange to most of the world. That is, genuinely, most of the world. I saw a list where the world's 190 countries got ranked based on GDP, and Macedonia was dead set in the middle. It was like at number 90. This is the average in the world, it's not the exception.

In order to function in a workplace and not be seen as something dirty, especially if you're a welfare worker and you have to be around children, she cannot be openly gay anywhere, but especially at work. Even in making this film, one of the most complicated things that we had to be very careful with, even during auditions and finding locations, was how do you introduce the idea that you're making a film that has homosexuals and children in it. Because those two things are not allowed to be around each other. Again, this is not an exception to the rule, this is most of the world. That scene is a reflection of daily, normal life.

Mia Mustafa in 'Housekeeping for Beginners' (photo: Focus Features)  

You mentioned old movies, and I was thinking about how actor and comedian W.C. Fields was known for his dislike of children, and he had a famous quote about never working with children. So, what was the experience of working with Dzada Selim, who played Mia, like for you?
The little girl, the five-year-old. I remember we set up a quick shoot of what turned out to be the opening scene of the film, in the end, just as practice, with a crew, to get used to my methods of working on set, for like an hour, before we started shooting the film properly.

The three people on-screen in that scene had never been on set before, and I wanted to introduce them gradually, with no sense of pressure. We had to do things in a correct way. It was about us adjusting to their comfort, and also for me to try to figure out how the hell does one direct a five-year-old.

The lesson was that one doesn't direct her, she gets to direct you, and you should be grateful and shut up [laughs]. Especially because Dzada speaks two languages fluently, and a little bit of English on top of that. And she's five! She's not a kid from a privileged background, so this is a brain that has caught on to so much.

The other thing is, you don't want to manipulate a child and don't get a chance to with Dzada. She's in charge. She's too smart. She's on to you at every point. Every single day we had to create this environment on-set where she was going to enjoy whatever she was doing. There aren't actually child labor laws in Macedonia, which is problematic on many levels.

Luckily, Dzada comes with her own child labors which are she'll give you six minutes and then she's going to go play with her dolls. And then her double takes over [laughs]. The way she approached it was like role-playing, and then she was commenting on things that were going on. Every day felt wonderful, but then the next day we were like, how are we going to get through this? Because every day had to be different.

Throughout "Housekeeping for Beginners," I kept finding myself drawn to Ali, Dita, and Vanesa, who come across as the most sympathetic characters. I know you created all of them, but would you agree with the three I named, that they're sort of the heart of the movie?
Ultimately, at its core, it's about a mom, a dad, and a child. Dita is dad, Ali is mom, and Vanesa is the child. That was apparent to me at script level, but also in the shooting of it. A lot of this story is my brain split between two women, and that's Dita and Vanesa, quite frankly.

There are a lot of emotional notes from my own life that are transposed in it, although it's not an autobiographical film. There's a reason that the final image of the film is Vanesa in the end. That part wasn't written, that sequence, but it was in the prepping of it that I was like, this is the key to my story. This is where my heart lies.

I'm especially drawn to people who are complicated, and even a little bit abrasive. I don't like idealized, traditionally loveable characters. The ones that make sense to me, that I connect to, are people like Vanesa. Then, Ali, you can't help but love, even me. Dita is the rest of my brain, transposed through (actor) Anamaria Marinca, who usually gets to play me onscreen, quite often [laughs].

What do you think the denizens of Shutka would think of the way it is portrayed in "Housekeeping for Beginners"?
Obviously, they need to answer that more than I do. But I think they're happy with it because there's a range of people and experiences. I teared up in Venice (at the Venice International Film Festival in 2023). When we first enter Shutka itself, onscreen, a lot of the actors in the film live there, and they were there, watching the film. The look and the gasps that came from them when they saw it was just so profoundly moving.

Shutka's been depicted in little documentaries and other films within the region, before. A lot of the time it's very exoticized and it doesn't feel like real life. Whereas I wanted it to feel like what everyday life feels like. And in a lot of the locations we shot in, we were vaguely controlling traffic, but it's impossible to do in that place. It's just real life going on around it. It's a gift to me, as a filmmaker, that I get to capture this, and that I had actors who were happy to work in this kind of way that isn't very controlled, that is like an unfolding situation in real-time. I hope the reactions continue to be as they've been so far.

"Housekeeping for Beginners" is your third film after "You Are Not Alone" and "Of an Age," both of which are certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, while "Housekeeping for Beginners" is currently at 100% on the site. What does that kind of response mean to you?
To me, a critic is a viewer, first and foremost. Ideally, not always, looking at your work very closely. That means that someone is coming at your story so openly that the depths of them are available to you when they're watching it. It's someone you would hope loves cinema in the same way that I do.

I wanted to be a movie critic before becoming a filmmaker [laughs]. I was a film nerd, first. I discovered movies through reading reviews. A friend of mine sent me a link that one of my favorite critics just put "Housekeeping for Beginners" in his top 10. To me, top 10s mean so much more to me than the Oscars [laughs]. The Oscars are also important to me. I don't love that sense of being reduced to a number.

I think that's really confronting and sometimes can be misleading, as well. That's how life is today. I don't think it's limited to film criticism or movies in general. It's still early days, there's not that many reviews, so I don't want to get too carried away. I hope it continues for this film. Ultimately, you want people to find your film. Films like this don't exist without critics championing them. I don't have the budget of "Barbie" [laughs] to advertise myself. Without critics and festivals, I don't get to make films.

Have you started working on or thinking about your next film project?
The next two films are a little bit more expensive, so they're trickier to finance. Not a lot more, but slightly. I'm told to be optimistic, but I don't believe anything until I'm on set [laughs]. I'm told to expect to be shooting in the middle of this year.

I don't want to talk about the details of those until I know they're going to be something that's real. I'm also writing something at the moment; and talking to an actor that I love who's very generous and expressed interest in working with me. That's kind of what's keeping my brain occupied. I have the kind of brain that starts eating away at itself unless it's got something bigger to lose itself in. Right now, that screenplay is serving that purpose until I get the budget to shoot another movie.


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