`Camera Obscura` marks the movie-making debut of a talented young writer-director, Hamlet Sarkissian, and of an exciting new production company, Fish Eye, L.L.C., which was formed by the partnership of four close friends; Sarkissian, cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, producer Tassos Kazinos, and businessman Albertino Abela.
The partners - Hamlet from Armenia, Haris and Tassos from Cyprus, and Albertino from Lebanon - met in Los Angeles where they determined to get their film made and establish themselves in the industry. Appropriately, their first production reflected their feelings for and understanding of a new environment in which they were working.
`Camera Obscura` is a captivating psychological thriller drama unfolding through the eyes of an LAPD crime scene photographer. It is set in the complex, multi-layered and ethnically diverse environment of contemporary Los Angeles and deals with the blurred distinctions between reality and fantasy that are increasingly a part of the modern psyche. A young couple, struggling to support themselves, are driven to take actions that draw them into a nightmare situation that threatens to destroy everything they value, especially their love for each other.
Jimmy (ADAM TRESE), a talented photographer with true artist`s sensibilities, takes a job as a crime scene photographer with the LAPD to support himself and his beautiful wife, Maria (ARIADNA GIL). Unable to comprehend and accept the dark and cruel reality of the crime scenes, he tries to counter balance it by photographing anything beautiful. But the images he sees become so powerful and vivid they begin to haunt his mind and soul until one day, alone at a crime scene, he begins to alter reality. Soon the victims in Jimmy`s photographs don`t look dead anymore and he is drawn further and further into a bizarre fantasy world.
``What compelled me to write the script is the dilemma most people face choosing between reality and illusion,`` says writer-director Hamlet Sarkissian. ``The constant struggle between these two worlds pushes the human mind and spirit to search for an answer."
`Camera Obscura` is an attempt to marry reality with fantasy, to place the heart inside the mind, and to reflect the bizarre in the reasonable. In short, to create a reality which will become a metaphor for the human struggle between what we think and what we feel.`` Hamlet wrote the screenplay while studying at the American Film Institute under the supervision of Leslie Stevens, creator of Outer Limits and Twilight Zone.
Both the film and Fish Eye, L.L.C. developed out of the friendship that was established when Hamlet and Haris met at the American Film Institute during their post-graduate studies, and Tassos, a childhood friend of Haris, joined them to help put together their first business plan. Tassos met Albertino while studying at the London School of Economics and the two have been working together since on various entrepreneurial ventures.
“I just wanted to help them make it happen," says Tassos," and before I knew it, I was so deep into it. I think they wanted me to end up producing it and having spent many intense hours together going through it all, I realized this was fun and a lifetime opportunity. I was committed.”
The struggle to finance the production was aided by the many contacts the partners made in the film industry, in particular the mentorship of AFI’s Leslie Stevens, and the tremendous support from Academy Award-winning cinematographer Conrad Hall, A.S.C., who was a creative consultant to the team.
Conrad Hall wrote: “The director-cinematographer relationship between Hamlet and Haris is very unique……… They complement and learn from each other and make a great team.” He added: ’Camera Obscura’ is a captivating, personal story. It’s dramatic, dark, engaging, intelligent and, most important, realistic. It’s very visual and has all the elements to become an exceptional film.”
"Our aim was to make a quality low budget film and retain artistic control until our festival premiere", say Tassos, "We are deeply grateful to Panavision, Deluxe Laboratories, Mole Richardson Company, Eastman Kodak and many others who have helped us with sponsorships to achieve our vision. Without them this would have not been possible."
The unfolding suspense drama of the story and the psychological complexity of the love relationship between Jimmy and Maria are at the core of `Camera Obscura`. This called for leading actors who were sensitive, experienced and versatile.
While considering European actors for the part of Maria, Hamlet recalls meeting a former AFI classmate in a video store and asking him to recommend some foreign actresses. “When I saw Ariadna it was clear right away that she was Maria,” he says. “We contacted her agents in Hollywood and they called back and said she was not interested in the part. Then a month later, one of our classmates who was Spanish, came back to visit and said, so what happened to the movie. We told him the story and he said, all right let me check on this thing."
The project started to become reality three weeks later when Hamlet received a call from Ariadna to say she just read the screenplay and was very interested in playing the role of Maria. Says Hamlet: ``Everything just snowballed from there on. She`s one of the most amazing actresses and human beings I ever came across. Her support for this movie was unconditional.``
After seeing a multitude of possible male leads and just a few weeks before the schedule start date, Hamlet remembered seeing a young actor, Adam Trese, in Laws of Gravity. Adam was also remembered from Palookaville, and recently starred with Claire Danes in Polish Wedding. After meeting with Adam, Hamlet and his partners were convinced that they had finally found Jimmy.
"I will never forget that day," says Tassos, "we were well into pre-production and hiring crew, but had no male lead. We did not want to cast somebody we were not totally sure about, but the stress and costs were escalating. That day we drank champagne and celebrated as if we finished shooting. “I am very happy with his work and with his dedication to this project,” continues Hamlet. “He and Ariadna are a very interesting couple in the movie.”
The actors were equally enthusiastic as the director about working on the film.
“Hamlet went above and beyond anybody I’ve ever worked with,” says Adam Trese. “He’s an extremely passionate, intelligent and sensitive man, and he’s intuitive. He was really able to cut through a lot of my own fear at kind of tackling this character. I enjoyed every second of the filming. He loves this movie and he loves these people and you can tell.”
Ariadna agrees: “We worked with Hamlet a lot before starting. I came three weeks before shooting and we talked a lot about the relationship because it was very important to make it real. Hamlet was very clear and had many ideas. He knows what he wants and so during the shooting it was very good.”
The three lead supporting actors in the film, Cully Fredricksen, VJ Foster and Kirk Ward were all friends of Hamlet`s from student films and productions he had been involved with at the Actors Gang, a well known theatrical company in Los Angeles founded by Tim Robbins. ``Many of the Actors Gang members are in small and supporting roles in this movie,`` he says. ``I wanted to bring together a group of people who knew each other, trusted each other so that we could have that family atmosphere to create something good.``
Hamlet was born in Armenia and studied film-making in Leningrad before coming to the United States. ``When I first came to Los Angeles, I was fascinated by downtown", he recalls. ``The first thing I saw which really blew my mind away was this mixture of new and old buildings, and these abandoned people who live on the street and nobody really cares about them. So in the back of my mind was always to tell a story in that particular setting."
"Los Angeles is a critical element of the story. The multiracial and multicultural society, the uneven social structure, the concrete jungle of skyscrapers and the constant bombardment of violent images from television and newspapers. Most people immune their minds from these images, but Jimmy can not ignore this and stands up and says no. His fight is a personal fight and Los Angeles is the setting where the boundaries of reality and illusion cross."
In presenting Los Angeles as an important character of the film, cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos wanted to show it through the protagonost`s eyes. ``The cinematography is motivated by his emotional development and concealed in naturalism",says Haris. "Light and darkness have a profound impact on the human mind. They can reveal or disguise, confuse or enlighten. Everything Jimmy sees exists as a projection of his consciousness, and the camera is his frame of mind and the frame in which distinctions between reality and fantasy begin to blur. It personalizes Jimmy`s struggle by following his mood and gestures thus revealing his inner self through his outward appearance and expression."
``The photography of the crime scenes presented an artistic challenge in superimposing reality and illusion as they blur in the eyes of the protagonist. When Jimmy `beautifies` the crime scenes, he uses an array of photographic techniques to manipulate images of victims and their surroundings. He changes light and composition, shoots from extraordinary angles, crops photographs, and makes collages. These photographs are a manifestation of his mental condition and were carefully crafted to be haunting and intriguing, to fascinate and compel the audience closer to their creator," says Haris.
The filmmakers thoroughly researched the background of crime scene photography with the help of established photo-journalist, D. Stevens. D. introduced Hamlet and Haris to the Inglewood Police Department who granted them access to crime scenes and information on how a crime scene photographer works.
Says Hamlet: "This photographer came, it was an image I will never forget, he was dressed like a commando, one camera here, another one there, a thousand flashes everywhere. I told him I was doing a movie on a crime scene photographer and his face changed. He said what happens to Jimmy happened to him. He once went to a crime scene and had to photograph a dead kid. He had a nervous breakdown and could not talk about it, he needed time to think."
"A month later we talked again after he read the script. Everything, the emotions of what can happen to a crime scene photographer in these circumstances, seemed to be very accurate."
Another very important element of the film, according to the filmmakers, was their choice of music - "an eclectic combination of pre-recorded contemporary urban sounds to bring the rhythms of downtown Los Angles to life and original classical score that reflects the protagonists` frame of mind."
For the original score, Hamlet called on a distinguished compatriot from Armenia, renowned classical composer Tigran Mansurian. Tigran`s holistic world-view - a prominent trait in his personality - is equally characteristic of his music which forms a unified whole centered on mankind. Mansurian`s work has been recorded by some of the world’s leading orchestras and musicians. It includes orchestral works, seven concertos for string instruments and orchestra, works for voice and orchestra, sonatas for cello and piano, three string quartets and madrigals, as well as chamber music and pieces for unaccompanied instruments.
At Hamlet’s request, Mansurian traveled specially to Los Angeles to write the score for `Camera Obscura`. The original score, recorded in Boston, is lyrical and bestows upon the film a power of suggestion and lends it clarity and emotionality.
The director recalls that it was initially hard to find a title for the film. “I had this thing in my mind about the dark room and I found out that camera obscura was the first camera and also, in Latin, means dark room. And that’s what this movie is about, it’s a cameraman and his dark room, and what happens there. I also find it kind of very stylized, very appropriate for an independent movie title.”