POLISH SAILOR SEEKS NEW HORIZONS : an interview with Norman Leto

A 'lifeshape' from Norman Leto's 'Sailor'

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Norman Leto ‘ – no relation to Jared – is the nom de guerre of a Polish multi-media artist who was born Łukasz Banach in 1980. His debut feature Sailor was unveiled at the ERA New Horizons film festival in Wrocław last month.
    The film is a 100-minute experimental feature (there is a “plot” of sorts, though somewhat hidden) about an egotistical physics tutor, and chiefly comprises three extended, illustrated lectures on various sociological, philosophical and anthropological issues.
   The result is a bit like Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation.), Stanislaw Lem (Solaris) and Michel Houellebecq (Atomised) collaborating on an 1970s Open University spoof: a range of computer graphics – from the basic monochromes of the pre-Spectrum era to the more painterly abstractions of the present day – guide us through rather gracefully through our very unreliable narrator / protagonist’s spiky, brainiac preoccupations…

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NEIL YOUNG: I just got back from ERA New Horizons where one of the best things I saw was your film Sailor. Was this the world premiere?

NORMAN LETO: Yes, it was. By the way, the “premiere” of my novel (the same title, Sailor) is planned for October. If you liked the movie, you’ll like the book even more.

NY: Do you have a publisher lined up?

NL: I have Polish publishers, but I haven’t penetrated the situation regarding UK/US publication yet. The novel will be more narrative and less scientific – kind of transgressive fiction, around 250-300 pages long. The book’s narrator is even more of a cold bastard than the film’s narrator.

NY: How did you get the money to make the film? I can’t imagine this is the kind of script that will have producers and funding-bodies falling over themselves to get involved. Did you ever study film? Are your collaborators more experienced in terms of film-making? 

"These guys are like stereotypical Hollywood nerds clicking their computer keyboards..."

NL: This movie was actually “non-budget,” and almost without any collaborators – I’ve done  nearly everything by myself on my own hardware. Among all these scientific visualisations and 3D lifeshapes, there were some shots involving actor, filmed by the young and talented cameraman Michal Marczak. But I played the Narrator myself, and apart from that there were only two girls involved – both of them non-actors.
   I hate to be dependent, so I gathered the money for the movie by myself. As a so-called modern artist, I do ‘lifeshapes’ of people for money. It’s like painting portraits but instead of a brush I use data-gathering methods. They pay and they receive a large lifeshape photo to hang on their wall. Or a video with their lifeshape rotating in 3D, if they pay more.
   I think the budget of this movie was below $5,000, which came straight from my pocket. It’s unbelievable what you can do just with a desktop computer these days. I never attended any film or art school, to be honest, I left high school when I was 19, and that was the end of my institutionalised education.

NY: Are these “lifeshapes” your invention? Is anything like this actually existing in the real world? How did you achieve the 3D computer effects? NL: Yes, the basic idea is simple. I just gather the biographical data of a given person and I visualise it with my own custom-made software. I collect various data, filling in a kind of questionnaire, with about 150 questions covering very different parts of a given person’s life (with reasonable accuracy): number of kilometres travelled, number of sexual partners per year and during the lifetime, annual money income during the lifetime, subjective strength of various life experiences (on a scale from 1-10) and some much more sophisticated questions.
   The result of processing this data is a sophisticated 3D diagram that is called a lifeshape. It’s a form of a modern portrait, but not based on a person’s facial expression, but rather on their “life expression.” It’s nice to see which lifeshapes are repetitive and boring, and which one indicates a powerful influence on person’s environment. I render them with 3D software.

NY: How do people know how many kilometres they have travelled? Can they guess with reasonable accuracy?

"A man in a coma does not move at all"

NL: They just click on a map indicating the countries they visited, how many times, and the approximate amount of kilometres is calculated, added to what the average citizen travels during their daily routines. There is no high accuracy needed, this question is just needed to judge the level of mobility of given person: none, low, medium, high or extremely high. A man in a coma does not move at all; a homeless person isn’t mobile that much. Rock stars, actors and people working in some other professions do a lot of travelling, and this also determines the outline of their lifeshape.

NY: Are you expecting to get trouble from Geraldine Chaplin once she hears about Sailor and the representation of her lifeshape, or did you “clear things” with her beforehand?

NL: I think that Geraldine Chaplin’s lifeshape is very beautiful, actually. I’d rather expect to get a thank-you from her for that instead of trouble, but she hasn’t seen it yet…

NY: No doubt a copy will find its way to her. These things have a way of happening. Are you a particular fan of hers, or did she appeal because of her connections to “more famous” men (Charlie Chaplin, Carlos Saura)?

NL: No, I really liked the aesthetics of her face and her overall impression, as a woman. The first time I saw her was in Cría cuervos while I was around 12 years old, and she really caught my attention as a really beautiful woman. This somehow set a standard for my aesthetical taste in women. I recently realized that my ex-girlfriend is very similar to her. But, as you noticed, her lifeshape presentation in Sailor was also a good moment to mention that lifeshapes are quite often hereditary.

"... although very bright and smart, he remains emotionally immature."

NY: Do you plan to do more films, or is cinema just one avenue of creative expression among many?

NL: The method I used on Sailor – that I can write a book and make a movie attached to it – works for me perfectly right now. It works as a self-propelling tandem. I’ll do the same thing with my next book, I presume.

NY: Do you alternate between the two or develop them in unison?

NL: Five days of writing, five days of moviemaking. Something like that. But I spent three years on the book of Sailor and about six months on the movie.

NY: Are you familiar with Michel Houellebecq – who has also been trying his hand at film-making after making his name with fiction?  

NL: Some people who were allowed to read the first draft of the Sailor book told me that there is some similarity to Houellebecq’s type of cynicism. But the Narrator from Sailor is less miserable and more handsome than most of characters from Houellebecq’s books – although very bright and smart, he remains emotionally immature.
   On the whole, I avoid quotations or references. I’m tired of that approach, it’s everywhere in modern literature and art, in general. I try to remain clean – and my Narrator does so. He doesn’t quote Huxley, he doesn’t quote existentialists, classics or the lyrics of underground songs. He’s uneducated but well-equipped by nature, with a fresh perception of reality.

NY: You say you don’t watch so many films. But are there any directors/writers/performers etc working in film – or any other form of modern art – whom you particularly like/respect/ are interested in? This can be current artists, or those from the past.

NL: To be honest, I can’t think of any current artists that would leave me speechless with their achievements. From what I’ve seen in some exhibitions and festivals, current art is too political, too homosexual, too ecological, or too much like MTV videos.
   I always loved the more “universal” approach like that of Stanley Kubrick. But almost everyone loves Stanley Kubrick and those classics, so, well, you know, I don’t think my answer is useful in any way.

"poets call this phenomenon LUCK"

NY: And in literature, what about Stanislaw Lem?

NL: Lem was a really influential writer. He had lots of enemies during lifetime, but now he is a classic here in Poland. Quite a regular, lifeshape, but very solid.

NY: Influential in general, or do you mean upon yourself in particular?

NL: Stanislaw Lem is influential in general. I liked one of his books very much, Solaris, but I can’t say I am a fan. To be honest I don’t read that much and I don’t watch too many movies, being focused on my own writing, trying to keep my mind as clear as possible.

NY: Is the title of Sailor an oblique nod to Solaris?

NL: No. I just needed a title that will sound and spread good, like HONDA or KODAK. SAILOR is a nicely shaped word.

NY: Other comparisons that came to my mind when watching Sailor were Charlie Kaufman’s films, Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs, with perhaps an oblique homage to John Carpenter’s The Thing in some regards, especially the music.

NL: I don’t remember the music, but I will look out for it, if you think it’s similar. With regard to Kaufman, the only one I know is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I liked the overall idea of the movie, but for me it was somehow too light, too much like a pop video, if you know what I mean. These guys are like stereotypical Hollywood nerds clicking their computer keyboards – but I think it’s not Kaufman’s fault but that of the director, Michel Gondry.

NY: I would say that Sailor is closer to the Spike Jonze films from Kaufman scripts, such as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation.

NL: I’ll see these movies, but not today. Tomorrow.

Transcript by Neil Young // 14th August, 2010
[full ERA New Horizons report]

Narrator, 'Nel', BOSCH