Conversation with Tonislav Hristov – director of the film The Good Driver
Your colleagues Andrey Paunov and Svetoslav Draganov made their feature film debut. What made this happen to you as well?
I had a story I wanted to tell, and the instruments of documentary cinema were not enough for this film to happen. It was a challenge to move into the feature cinema, but also a pleasure, because the process is completely different.
There are many documentary elements in our film and they were very important to me not only because they make the story more authentic, but also because I felt in my own waters there, I knew that if I lacked some emotion in the feature scenes, I could get it in the documentaries.
How did this story come to you? Are there real dimensions, based on an actual case, or are they pieces of life with the intervention of creative interpretation?
Part of the story is based on the misadventures of a real taxi driver, whom I met during the filming of my last documentary. But in the process of writing a script, a lot of things changed. We put a lot of personal stories into the script, and myself, and Kaarle, and Konstantin, even during the filming, when we improvised with the actors, parts of these improvisations were used later in the editing and in the final version. But in the end, the story itself in The Good Driver is inspired by reality. The main character from my other documentary The Good Postman, for which I received a nomination for the European Film Awards – the so-called European Oscar, is also present in the film and plays a friend of the main character.
The film looks authentic as a document. How did your work in documentary cinema help you make this film?
Emotions were the main thing for me. Depending on which part of the plot we are in, what the viewer should be experiencing at that moment and how to evoke this emotion. At the beginning of the shooting, we had a feature film crew with cameraman Orlin Ruevski and a documentary film crew with cameraman Alexander Stanishev, we shot 10 hours with Orlin and 6 hours with Alexander. But after a few shooting days, we realized that this way was impossible for Malin and me and we would have to separate the filming processes into documentary and feature.
The main roles are entrusted to experienced actors in cinema and theatre, but the rest are models. How did you work with everyone?
It was not an easy process either for the actors or the models. It took a long time for both of them to understand that the only way to get a solder is to discover themselves in the sense of the scene. As a documentary writer, it was important to me that the characters in The Good Driver in real life come close to the people I imagined when we wrote the script. This applies to both professional and non-professional actors. Otherwise, I like to make movies that are led by the character and I look for the right character until I find it. With their personal story, there’s always a good movie, so first comes the person and then comes the story. In the film I use real actors and non-professional actors, creating a sense of the environment in which all these events take place. The main roles are played by professional actors, and all the rest are ordinary people playing themselves. That is why the filming process was a great challenge, especially for the actors themselves, because they sit at a table with non-professionals and the first filming periods were very difficult for everyone to stand equally side by side and everything to happen and look harmonious and natural. By the way, I did not make an audition for this film. I liked actors whose personal story somehow has something to do with the story written in the script for the film. So, we settled on Malin Krastev and Gerasim Georgiev-Gero, and later on Kitodar Todorov and Slava Doycheva. One of the conditions for them to be in the film was to be able to ask them personal questions and for the answers to be part of the film. Which is what we did.
This is a co-production. Did your foreign colleagues understand the Bulgarian roots of this story?
All my films are international co-productions. In my opinion, a well-told story cannot be local. This knowledge came from the documentaries I’ve made. They travel a lot around the world. The Good Postman toured over 100 international festivals. The stories we tell are human stories, and they are universal. Thus, The Good Driver, although filmed in several small Bulgarian villages, the stories and questions it poses are universal – how to be better people, correct the mistakes we have made and whether we can do it. And universal questions and narratives are understood by everyone no matter what nationality their roots are.
In a scene from the film when asked ‘What’s in Tübingen exactly?’, the heroine of Slava Doycheva replies: “It’s not here”. What is it about our lives that drives us so far from the western part of Europe? What’s not ‘like here’?
For many of us, sweeping problems under the rug is a solution, and it never is. We Eastern Europeans solve everything with money. And that’s also not right in my opinion. We are accustomed to blame someone else, when in fact everything depends on us. In many of the small Bulgarian villages, things happen exactly as shown in the film. The part of the film with the mayor of the village and his ‘activity’ is the true story of a former mayor of the village.
We postpone taking responsibility for the things that happen to us, but at the same time we constantly complain that our children do not have state kindergarten, that our roads are not in good condition, i.e., we postpone responsibility. That’s the problem in the film – the main character was always putting off solving her problems and looking for someone else to blame for them. In fact, it’s us – we have to go out and solve our problems.
Tonislav Hristov is a scriptwriter, director, and producer since 2005. Graduated film director from Metropolia University in Helsinki, Finland. He graduated from the European Programmes for Producers and Directors Documentary Campus Masterclass 2011–2012. Participated in the prestigious documentary campus of the Berlinale Film Festival 2009, where only 7 young directors’ talents are selected each year. In recent years, the films directed and produced by him have presented Bulgarian cinema at the largest film festivals in the world.
His films ‘Love and Engineering’, ‘Soul Food’ and ‘Rules of Single Life’ have won numerous international awards. He is the winner of the ARTE Award for the best cross-media project for Love and Engineering. The film Soul Food, directed and produced by him, was nominated among the three best documentaries at the most prestigious documentary festival in the world IDFA (Amsterdam) for 2013, and the film Once upon a Dream premiered in the documentary competition in Karlovy Vary, 2015.
His latest project enjoys a very strong festival life and success – the film ‘The Good Postman’ was selected in the competition for full-length documentaries at the IDFA, 2016. This is followed by an American premiere at the world’s most prestigious independent cinema festival, SUNDANCE, 2017, where ‘The Good Postman’ (Golden Rhyton Award for Best Film) was nominated for Best International Documentary. Undoubtedly his greatest success is the selection for nomination for the European Film Awards for Best Documentary of 2017. Tonislav Hristov is a member of the Management Board of the Finnish Documentary Guild, a member of the Management Board of the Filmautor Association, as well as of the Association of Independent Producers in Bulgaria. Lecturer at various European universities in the field of production and directing of documentaries. He worked for a long time as a freelancer for the Finnish public broadcaster YLE, which also supported many of his projects. ‘The Good Driver’ is his first full-length feature film.
Photos: Emilian Yalamov