INTERVIEW: Tolga Karaçelik on A Sincere Work

Rob Avila talks with Tolga Karaçelik about capturing the right chemical reaction on the set and on the screen in TOLL BOOTH…

Tolga Karçelik on the set of the Global Lens 2012 film Toll Booth

TOLL BOOTH, the first Turkish film to receive a weeklong premiere at the New York Museum of Modern Art, is the debut feature of 31-year-old Istanbul native Tolga Karaçelik. It concerns the life and progressive collapse of a tollbooth attendant and bachelor named Kenan (played by the marvelous Serkan Ercan). A poet by longstanding practice and inclination, with a quick mind and generous spirit, Karaçelik studied law before coming to New York City to study filmmaking. It was back in New York, at the MoMA in January, that he sat down to talk about the genesis of his award-winning Toll Booth, the opening night film of the Global Film Initiative’s 2012 Global Lens series. 

Rob Avila: You mentioned you went to law school. Did you know you wanted to make films by then?

Tolga Karaçelik: No, I didn’t know, actually. I was always into writing, especially poetry. I was always expressing myself in that way. And then, when I was 22, I got stuck. I was writing boring stuff, repeating myself. I was not happy at all. Now I can write again. I’m happy it was just a phase. But that’s when I started thinking about filmmaking, when I was 22, 23.

As a new avenue to free up your creative mind?

Exactly. My poetry was trying to create the feeling and the emotions in the subconscious. I realized that this is also possible—and actually gives much more freedom to the [subconscious]—if you do it with images. That’s how I started thinking about filmmaking.

How did you first approach film then?

I made six short films. I did DP (director of photography) work for a feature film. I did work as a lighting gaffer for a couple of films. And I acted in some shorts, in cameos. I did a music video also. So every year, what I was trying to do was shoot a short that would teach me something else. For example, in my first short it was all about that image-driven idea, and about feeling. It was about a guy who lost his child and who wanted to give birth to his child, actually, [to have it] reborn. He stole a fetus and ate it to be able to feel it inside him. When I came here [to New York to study filmmaking], I came here for nine months, and it was a new way of expressing myself, so that’s how I saw it.

The second film was called SPOON MAN. It was about people who have these experiences and start seeing everything upside-down. In that short film, I was trying to learn how to channel two characters at the same time from scene to scene, and script-wise to be able to focus on two characters at the same time, to give their existence an importance in the same scene, and make everyone else seem a little less important. In my third film, it was more comedy. Comedy was something I wanted to try to get into. In this film [TOLL BOOTH], I wanted to go up to the comedy and down to the drama, and wanted the audience to travel with it. What I care about always is the written dimension, that’s how everything starts in my mind. I first know the emotion, the feeling. The images, the colors, etc., come later still for me.

Kenan, the film's robotic toll booth attendent and protagonist.

What were the feelings that you started with in developing TOLL BOOTH?

The feeling was claustrophobia. The feeling was not being able to move. The feeling was not breathing—you know when you’re under the water, you see things but you don’t see, you hear things but you don’t hear? At that time in my life, that’s how I felt. When I passed by that tollbooth, I knew that feeling—that was how I felt in my own life. I was in a [toll] line, a huge line, waiting for my turn to come. I watched this guy [tollbooth operator]. He was looking continuously at one point. Getting the money without looking at the money, without looking at the [driver]; giving the change, getting the ticket, pushing the button, doing the same thing over and over again.

My turn came and I said, “Have a nice day, sir.” He looked at me like I had cursed him or something. He looked so angry. I felt so bad. I thought about it seriously for maybe two days. I didn’t understand. Then Ifigured it out: I took him away from his concentration. He had to kill himself—he had to kill his humanity—to become that machine, to be able to survive in that two-meters-square area. That’s how I felt in my cubicle in the office. Being in the middle of people who pass by you, and not being able to go. Being in the middle of two points, not where you start, not where you will end. You’re in the middle of everyone else’s two points. I felt like that when I was 27. That helped me create my main character, Kenan. That familiar feeling of claustrophobia, being stuck, not being able to move, being in the middle of two points, and the only way to survive is by shutting yourself off—that was the first feeling, where I started.

One feels that acutely in Kenan’s home life, where there’s a serious power struggle going on between father and son…

I don’t know if it can be called a power struggle. Their existence to each other doesn’t create anger anymore. I think Kenan’s anger is more about being able to leave, he wants to leave but he stays. The father has a hidden anger, because this is the guy that most probably made it impossible for him to leave. I love that father figure. I don’t blame him at all. I totally understand him. This is the only way that he has to continue that family. Most probably Kenan always reminded him of the good old days when Kenan’s mother was there. His trauma is much bigger than Kenan’s trauma. He’s not able to leave because of Kenan, although Kenan thinks he’s not able to leave because of the father, which is also true. That creates their tension. I don’t think there is a power struggle, but that tension of not being able to leave the crime scene.

Kenan and his father, "unable to leave the crime scene."

Even the dialogue. I don’t improvise that much with the actors. I thought I was much more of a democratic guy, but I’m more the smiling fascist in that sense. Because I act also, while I’m writing. It’s all about rhythms. I try to let it go, and let the actors say the lines in their own way. But then I realize I want every word in the same way that I had written it, because of the rhythm. I’m not saying there isn’t input from the actors, of course there is, a huge amount. But I spent a lot of time with the script. I think I did 23 drafts, something like that. I worked also, for a month, as a tollbooth guy.

You actually worked in the booth, like Kenan and his coworkers?

Yes. When I realized this familiarity between my life and the tollbooth guy’s, I wrote a poem, actually. I sent it to the syndicate. I said, at the end, I’m going to shoot a film about tollbooths, and if you help me it will be a better film; if you don’t I will still shoot it. They replied, saying the person to contact. I went to their center and they asked me, “Why?” I told them the story, about my taking the man out of his concentration. The syndicate leader told me a story of something that had happened just a day earlier. His nephew came, knocked on his door, and said, “Uncle, do we have a problem?” He said, “Why?” Well, apparently his nephew was passing by his tollbooth three days in a row and saying, “Have a nice day,” and the uncle was not responding at all, not talking with him, so the nephew thought there was a problem. The uncle said, “No, actually, I was not there. That’s how I get through my day.”

So they helped me to get into the tollbooth area and spend some time with them. I did an eight-hour shift. This really helped me understand the way of thinking more. It really was more hardcore than I had thought. A job that doesn’t finish—I didn’t understand that before, actually—a job that doesn’t finish really kills you. Imagine, you’re doing it over and over and over, and when you raise your head, there are still cars in line. If feels like you didn’t do anything. That is really a powerful feeling. Not being able to complete anything makes you also incomplete, in a sense. If you close it, there’s just this machine doing the same thing. That really gives you a feeling that you’re worthless, in a sense. Sixty percent of them are using pills for their psychological problems. Not only psychic ones, it is about chemicals also. There are too many hazards, like lead, in the air. Imagine, they don’t let [markets sell] cucumbers that are raised next to highways. These guys are standing there eight hours a day. That really made me understand their way of thinking more. I spent most of the time [after that] with the script.

How long did you spend writing it?

I think I spent more than I needed, actually, because I had everything in my head when I went to the set, and it made me kind of like a robot, like my character. Then I saw the dailies on the second day. It was like a person learning how to speak English for the first time. For example, I go to a deli and I say, “Can—I—get—a—cup—of—coffee—please.” Instead of, “Give me a coffee.” I realized I was doing “Can—I—get—a—cup—of—coffee—please,” everything was like that. Everything was planned. Yes, it’s telling the story, but it doesn’t have any feeling. So on the second day I burned down all my storyboards.

You took them down?

I burned them down. I had a huge crisis in my hotel room. I said, give me a break until the morning and if I’m ready I’ll come to the set, and if not we will wait one more day. If not one more day, in three days we’ll go home and I won’t shoot this film, because I don’t feel it. I didn’t sleep that night. I came to the set [the next day] and I was shooting it the way that I wanted to shoot it. I’d look at the scenes every day and start from zero again. I had become that character. Sometimes I cried, sometimes I laughed a lot, but I enjoyed every bit of it. I felt in the rhythm at that moment. I had become one with the film. If there hadn’t been so much of a script, maybe it would have been easier to cope, get in the same rhythm. That’s why I’m saying maybe I spent too much time on the script.

Kenan helps a mysterious woman's broken-down car through the toll booth.

Did you screen the film for the tollbooth employees?

Yes.

What was their response to it?

They love it. They love the idea of making a film about themselves, of course, and they told me that it was exactly how they felt. Lots of them, in different areas, told me that they know this guy. “We have our Kenan.” The thing was, when I was shooting it, they were finishing [i.e., being phased out to be replaced by automated tolls]. Now they are finished. That’s why I shot it in 16mm, to add that nostalgic look to the film, and a timeless look. That’s how we went with the art direction also. It can be the 1950s, it can be the 2000s, it can be any time. I wanted it to have that nostalgic and timeless feeling. So now they’re finished in Turkey. It’s all machines. I think there are some couple of roads in the east that are still [not automated].

They’ve all been phased out pretty much?

Yes. And they have also torn down the tollbooth areas—the week after I shot the first tollbooth in which Kenan was working, it was all gone. It was sort of stressful for a first-time filmmaker. [laughs] If you don’t take everything you need in that week…

I remember a bit of dialogue coming from Kenan in a field, where he’s relaxing with the woman he loves, talking about a childhood memory…

That’s a personal story. That’s exactly my own story. Well, again, the shooting of that scene: I had planned nine shots. Then the night before, I told my AD [assistant director] that we’re going to shoot it in three shots. Then, on the set, I decided to make it only one shot. At that moment everyone had to change plans, the DP and the actors, everyone. But I just wanted to focus on the story. Not being able to see their faces would make us focus more on the story and imagine it for ourselves. I wanted it to have that literature feeling, actually; to create your own world and be shoulder-to-shoulder with Kenan, like I’m talking to you. That kind of thing makes you sympathize and makes you more connected with the character.

And that was your own story he tells.

I always wanted to be a knight. That’s exactly what happened to me [as a child]. I went to this castle, and that day they were making a show with knights. Just when I thought that I wouldn’t be able to find any, just when I was about to lose my hope, seeing those knights there actually made me understand that if you really think about something, if you really believe in something, then it will exist. Most probably that moment is what made me want to create. Those knights exist. Believing in them, thinking about them, imagining them like that—reality doesn’t count that much. If you believe in knights, believe in knights, and you will see them somewhere. My mom didn’t believe me when I went down [to tell her]. I was really crying, “Come, mom, come see.” My father came and said, “Man, there are knights upstairs.” Both of them went mad. [laughs] Shooting that scene—I cried at the end, because it was so personal. Most probably the reason that we were on that set is because of that memory, and we’re shooting that memory.

Did the crew understand this significance?

My sound guy said something, it was so important: I always believe that if you’re a gaffer or a sound guy who’s just doing his job and not looking at the scene—like the light guy who’s just doing the lights and then going off and smoking—then that film cannot succeed, the sincerity of it. Because it’s a chemical thing. With everything—bodies putting something in the air that the light passes through and it hits the film—there’s a chemical reaction going on. I believe that. On this set, with my crew, we were always feeling the movie; we were always one. I talked earlier about me getting into the rhythm of the movie? Everyone was in the rhythm of the movie. After that single shot we made [in the field], I said cut, and my sound guy just threw off his headphones and said, “Man, this is a beautiful scene!” He shouted it to me. Like he forgot that he was actually on the set. “It’s a beautiful scene!” And then he just made himself shut up. He was so innocent. It made me understand again that we were doing something sincere.

Rob Avila is a San Francisco-based writer, and film and stage critic. He is a regular contributor to SF360 and the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and has worked with the Global Film Initiative on a range of projects and programs, including Global Lens educational resources, filmmaker interviews and the Initiative’s Granting Program.

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