Jonathan Kiefer on ‘Around the Sun’ and the Plurality of Unknowns

Cara Theobold and Gethin Anthony in Around the Sun

There must be an alternative universe in which Jonathan Kiefer and I met in Paris last March, for the French premiere of Around the Sun at the L’Europe autour de l’Europe Film Festival, and had this interview over a glass of rosé. This means that there should be also another universe where Kiefer is still Fandor’s editorial director, so this film he wrote and co-produced with his long-time friend, Oliver Krimpas, as the director does not exist at all. “It is what it is,” though, and it is one of Around the Sun’s characters who pronounces this eternal line (before The Irishman converted it into a meme). So, in this universe, we happen to be locked-at-home parents nine hours apart, scheduling a Skype video call with the meticulousness of a bank robbery.

Inspired by Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle’s 17th century book Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds, one of the first popular science texts explaining the heliocentric model, Around the Sun is set in the French province of Normandy. The plot extrapolates Fontenelle’s multiverse theory by showing the meeting of a man and a woman over and over again, only this meeting goes differently every time. As per Kiefer, his scriptwriting references were canonical works such as Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, Hong Sang-soo’s oeuvre — they are pleasantly recognizable in the dialogue and in the narrative twists. Nevertheless, Around the Sun sits well in the skin of a sci-fi indie, and as such it has been touring international festivals and science-themed events for more than a year.

Unless this universe has another trick up the sleeve, Around the Sun is set for a digital release on August 4 via Giant Pictures on Amazon and Apple. Still, the story behind the making of such a small film is, as usually, a story about warmth and persistence, and one that spans over many years. Despite all open questions at the moment, it is worth going back to those years, and the lessons learned.

Cara Theobold and Gethin Anthony in Around the Sun

YP: Sci-fi and U.S. independent cinema has been a productive combination so far, but you added a French château in Normandy and the real-life history of a French scientist and philosopher who wrote on the multiverses, as well as two British actors who speak with a very British accent — how did it come to this mix?

JK: It is an interesting melange. The spirit of the thing was to make something we knew we can make, something that was achievable. Oliver and I have known each other for so many years — we were actually in school together. He was a graduate student at Boston University, when I was an undergrad there, and he made a thesis film that I acted in. We’ve sort of kept in touch for years after that. 

My partner’s family is from England, so we travel together, and when we where there in London, I got back in touch with Oliver. “Hey, how are you, do you want to meet up?” And we did, so we’ve kept chatting ever since — started forming this idea that somehow we would make a feature, because neither of us had made a feature yet. He had made a lot of TV, some short films, did pretty well with that, and I, as you know, worked in criticism, this sort of commentary side of film, which, for various reasons, is somehow unsatisfying.

We’ve always talked about the idea of finding a way to work on something together, with me writing something he would direct. There was another project that would have been set in the U.S., closer to me, in terms of my own experience. It was just “OK, let’s come up a story, and I’ll make a script.” That proved to be a bit too complicated, a bit too expensive to get off the ground, for what it was. Time was passing, we were not quite developing it. You sort of feel that sense of resistance, “maybe this is too much for where we are now, let’s do something smaller.” 

I was definitely inspired by the American filmmakers who, I think, sort of picked up the reigns of the French New Wave, and have been making films that are really low-budget, not overly ambitious in terms of scope or even genre, yet really saying something about human life, the way we live it, and do so with very limited means in a way that feels true to me. The ethos of that has to do with using what’s at hand to make stories. They say the technology for filmmaking has been democratized — I may take issue with that particular description, but the means to make moving pictures are more available than they have been.

So, the spirit was to do something, and it so happens that Oliver has a friend who had a château in Normandy, and he said “Here is this place where we might be able to shoot something.” All indie filmmakers kind of go through this sense of, like “oh, I know a guy who has a place, where… ” or “I have a friend who is an actor and is really interested in…” — in this case, it was the place. He sent me pictures, and I thought “wow, that’s beautiful!” I’ve always loved France — it would be nice to spend some time there, having only been there once in my life. I said “OK, we should do that.”

At the time, with the previous film being more complicated, having many characters, I decided we should do something really simple, with the minimum possible number of characters, using this location, at the smallest case possible. It was really just a group of friends, hanging out for a while, like a jam session. I said “Let’s talk about story ideas,” and based on what I knew about the place Oliver had access to, I came up with about 10 or 12 loglines — ideas what could be the script of a feature set there. Some of them were pretty conventional, like a period piece set in WWII, or a romantic thriller with a couple out in the country for some reason – standard boilerplate stuff.

But then I looked into the history of this particular building, Château de la Mésangère, which was in fact the setting of Fontenelle’s book. I knew nothing about Bernard de Fontenelle when we started the project — at some point, we found out he stayed there. I looked up the book, I found an English translation, and I thought “this is amazing.” It really is an interesting and a pivotal piece of work, because it is the earliest popular science text having to do with cosmology –the perspective shift that comes from realizing that the sun is the center of our system, not the Earth, which was not Fontenelle’s idea. He wrote the book in 1686, I think, while Galileo made that announcement earlier. Fontenelle’s insight was to figure out how to make it more palatable for the average reader. His strategy was to make a book that is very easy to read, and engaging. He did it as a dialogue between this philosopher/scientist and the lady of the house, which I think is based on a real person too.

I found it very funny and charming, really engaging. It is also very flirty and very romantic, so I decided to have a duet, set in this place. It was specific and interesting to me, personally, and all these other ideas were sort of generic. Since it is an indie film, and we are not sure if anyone is going to see it anyway, we can do something that is weirdly personal, and unique, and quirky. I could describe what I was thinking, but I didn’t quite have it until I scripted it, so Oliver had to be patient until I gave him a draft. To his credit, he is interested in some of the same things, and I think he saw the basic idea I was trying to rework, or adapt from Fontenelle’s book.

We took that and ran with it, then unfortunately we lost our access to the château, which was like a stumbling block, because the whole thing was that we have this place, and we customized the story, and it can only be there. Basically, his friend got divorced, and we were not wanted there. I was scared. I was still sort of proud of myself, but the whole point was that nothing would stop us from making it…

Fortunately, Oliver did a little research and, Normandy being Normandy, there was another place right down the street. Another château built around the same time, and we were sort of taking fictional license anyway, so we decided to stick to what we were doing and just transpose it onto this new place. The people who owned this château were English, so Oliver went along with them pretty well. We had to adjust, but the main thing went forward.

Then Oliver went with the casting director to get the cast involved, and that took a long time — it is only two people, but one of them suddenly becomes unavailable. A lot hangs on the schedule coordination. I think, Cara [Theobold] was the first to be involved, and he said he would send me tapes of actors auditioning, which was really a treat. Not only do I get to see people performing my dialogue, but they also have those lovely accents, which is still very seductive and charming to an American here. So then it took a while to find the other actor — a lot of people auditioned and were interested in the part, but they were not available due to scheduling conflicts. Cara and Gethin [Anthony] actually knew each other, they had some common friends, they also had previous work experience together, so they sort of clicked. 

It was a surreal moment for me. I remember flying from San Francisco to London — I met Oliver, and we packed a bunch of stuff in his car, picked the actors and drove to France. That was my first time meeting the two actors. A small crew came from London as well, but it was international — the sound guy was from Transylvania, our gaffer was from Denmark. I was the only American in the group. 

Gethin Anthony and Cara Theobold in Around the Sun

YP: So, by the time you were writing the script, you still hadn’t visited the château?

JK: Oliver and I talked a lot about it, and we had to rework some things when it became clear that we have to use a different location. He said “OK, the new château doesn’t have a doorway here.” And then, there is this visual motif, a circle with a cross that shows up in various places. The original building has a whole row of windows, so we worked around that. We actually constructed a window that looks like that on the spot, you only see it in the background. We were able to customize what we have — we had to make a couple of little adjustments, but it wasn’t too difficult. It was kind of fun, because you know you have your hands on something, it is not an abstraction.

YP: You were sitting in your house in San Francisco and writing about a French château?

JK: Specifically, I was sitting on the couch in my in-laws’ house in Northern Nevada. We had just purchased the house we are in now, and it was under construction, so there was a period of several weeks when we couldn’t live in our house, and our second child was on the way. It was a pretty stressful moment, it was like “Oh, gosh, we really need to make this movie now, because when the second child is coming, it’s gonna be hard to concentrate!” And that has been true for four years — might be also true for the rest of my life.

YP: How does your experience as a writer and an editor help you when you work on a screenplay?

JK: I don’t know if I can give a good answer, or it would be a subjective answer. I think that it has to do with the need to communicate, and when you’re telling a story, or making a comment, in written or even visual form, you can’t take the audience for granted. You have to earn their trust, and you do have to communicate. It takes practice, it’s a craft.

It is tricky with cinema, because — in this case — it’s taken years to go from the point of writing the script to having a film and showing it to an audience.

I definitely use a different part of the brain when writing original material or adapting something for film, as opposed to making commentary on films, but I also think that working as a critic — as an editor — helped me realize more about my taste, what I am interested in cinematically. You know, the experience at Fandor left me with a bad taste in my mouth for many reasons. I try not to dwell on that, but for a moment there, there was something really nice — opened me up to a possibility what cinema can do. I think I mentioned earlier how American mumblecore filmmakers inspired me, but also those people who are younger than me, and I realized that while I was trying to figure out if I should try to be a movie critic, they were already making movies. And I thought “Yeah, there are different ways you can do it.” Aside from that, obviously, practitioners of cinema from all over the world reminded me that there are a lot of different ways to tell a story in moving pictures.

It is an ongoing process to trust your gut, to trust your instincts, and it takes a while to validate that as you make a film. If you write a review, for example, it usually happens around the same time when the movie you are reviewing comes out. Then, people read it and move on. That’s a different experience from writing a script that takes a long time to become a film, and then the world has changed. Then you see it with different audiences, in different cities — they have different responses. But I still think there is a focus on communicating with the audience — not telling people what to think, necessarily, just expressing something about your own view of the world and taking it on faith, I guess, that other people will respond to that, or at least consider that their intelligence has been respected.

YP: Maggie is very proactive — how does it feel to write such a character? She is nothing like Delphine Seyrig’s character in Last Year at Marienbad, for example?

JK: Yeah, that was intentional…

YP: During rehearsals, did you have any feedback from the actors in terms of dialogue? Was there any improvisation on their part?

JK: In terms of those adjustments, there were minor things… probably the main challenge, or problem to solve, had to do with making it seem authentic in English, as spoken by Brits, but it was really a cosmetic thing. I’ve watched a lot of British films and television, and my partner’s mother is from England, but it’s a bit of ventriloquism on my part. Oliver is half-Greek and half-British, and identifies as a Londoner anyway, so the three of them with the actors went through it and pointed out little figures of speech or things like that that English people wouldn’t say.

So, there were little tweaks like that, which is totally fine with me, because I want it to seem as authentic as possible. Even if you’re playing with what is real and what is imaginary, it needs to be plausible in a certain way.

YP: To get back to my question on Maggie, how does it feel to construct such a character as someone who identifies as a man, so that her agency does not feel artificial or calculated? Do you rely on your intuition?

JK: It is hard to articulate. On some level, both characters are to some extent autobiographical. There are ways in which they think about things, and ways in which they express their feelings that are, I would say, consistent with me. 

It is sort of a magpie approach, when you think of people you know, or of things that inspired you. You put them all together in a certain way. There is a sort of spirit in that character, of Maggie, that I identify with. At some point, I thought that she is the main character, and he [Bernard] is the secondary character. On the other hand, he is the one who has different versions of himself. He has different costume changes, while she has the same outfit the whole time. So, there are different ways to look at that.

At some point, I thought that this movie does not pass the Bechdel test, because there are only two characters, and there is only one woman, depending how you look at it. Along those lines, I remember also thinking, “what right do I have to build a movie around a female character,” but then it can be self-defeating to think that way. At some point, other people will experience it, and they will call bullshit, if they need to. I don’t think this happened very much.

Cara has great instincts, she has great screen presence, and she responded pretty well to this spirit of the character. She is much younger than me, she has a totally different life experience. There is probably a background of noise of sci-fi that I had seen growing up that she has no consciousness of, because she is from a different place and time. But I think she understood the kind of yearning that is at the heart of this character, and, ultimately, that it is about connection, about how you see yourself in the world, the difference between loneliness and companionship — whether it is about human intimacy or about the broader picture, the cosmos.

So, these are universal things, and I hope that people of various genders and orientations can recognize themselves in that spirit.

Cara Theobold in Around the Sun

YP: Your experience in filmmaking dates back from the 1990s, with plenty of projects in the past decade, yet this is probably the only title where you are credited only a screenwriter and a producer. How did it feel to hand over the directorial control to someone else, be it a close friend of yours? Also given the fact that this is his feature debut?

JK: It felt good. We’ve known each other forever. I felt like I couldn’t do it without him. We could do a project that we share, or we could each try to do our projects on our own that don’t get made.

I have other scripts that sit around, as scripts, and there is some frustration about that. And then there is something wonderful about collaboration. Part of what I’ve really enjoyed about making the film was the collaborative moment of being in production with this small group of people, and in a very beautiful setting. It made it easy, because it was very easy to be charmed by where we were, and feel comfortable. We stayed at the place, everybody had their own quarters, the people who own the place looked after us, we had meals with them, and there was one moment when the lady of the house was singing songs on the piano – it was a very joyful experience.

Being a writer, it can be isolating, sort of being in your own head. As a filmmaker you can’t do that, you have to be with other people, you have to bring other people in.

I feel very attached to this project, because I worked so hard on that. I’m doing the publicity, basically, designing stuff, building the website, reaching out to festival programmers — a lot of things in terms of getting it from an idea to a movie. It is very clear that that would not be possible without Oliver, and what he brings to it.

He has a very high standard for how it should look and feel. That early idea was like we should just get a group of people, get a camera and a sound person, do a stripped-down version kind of thing. No lights, no apparatus of filmmaking — this romantic idea that we could just go and make this thing, because it was more achievable, and he said “Well, I want to have a certain degree of polish.” Certainly, the thing you see would not exist otherwise. On some basic level, I am glad to have a finished movie in the world, I’m glad that it is something that Oliver and I can share. It is very educational when you are on set as a writer; I was very blessed to be present. I was very involved with the production, but I could also watch and learn about directing.

YP: If we go back that one year of festival parkour that you had first in the States, and now in Europe, how does it look like from the lockdown’s perspective? When we talk about American independent cinema and sci-fi, Sundance naturally comes to mind (with titles such as Primer or Another Earth that are well-known in Europe too), and sometimes also Slamdance, but you’ve taken a different approach, or it just so happened?

JK: Going into it, I sort of knew that the odds were against us in terms of festivals, that kind of top-tier festivals. I had this idea in mind to not take that personally, because it is just a weird, little, quirky film, and the actors definitely have fan followings, particularly from their TV work — she [Cara] was in Downton Abby and he [Gethin] was in Game of Thrones — but we all know that they are not household names, at least in the U.S. And also just the volume of films that are made now… understanding this, and understanding that there are certain slots at some of the top-tier festivals that are kind of early spoken for, years in advance, in some cases. So, I said to Oliver “Let’s go with who says yes, and do a little reconnaissance on festivals that have good experiences for filmmakers.” 

At one point, I reached out to Claire Carré, who made a low-budget sci-fi a few years ago [Embers, 2015], and other filmmakers as well, asking what are some good festivals that might be within our reach for a film like this. Cleveland was one of those that came up a few times, and people said over and over again “Oh, they have a great audience, and people really show up for your film.” I thought “Oh, that’s interesting, let’s try.” Cleveland was the first that said yes, and the timing worked out. It was a great experience, and did have great audiences. We had three screenings, one of them was at 9 a.m. in the morning on a Saturday, and the house was full. It was amazing! And the people really responded to the movie! We had a long Q&A afterwards — people were very moved by it and interested in it, intellectually. That was a good way to launch.

Around the Sun Cleveland Film Festival

Then, we went from there to Maine International Film Festival, which is also rather small in the States, but has a very good reputation for its curation. The head of that festival, Ken Eisen, runs a little distribution label as well. I think I read something in The New Yorker magazine about great films from a couple of years ago that not enough people saw, and one of them was distributed by his label. So, I wrote to him and he said “sometimes I’m a critic — I don’t know if I’m gonna be writing about it, but I’m curious about this film, can you send me a link?” He did, and we struck up a correspondence. Then I was like “I see that you have a film festival, would you consider our film?” It was incredible, because it was very informal. It was none of this stuff where you submit and wait to hear, and pay fees, and you don’t know if you are in or out. It was a very human interaction, which I loved.

I had a great experience at that festival — it is really beautifully curated. When we were there, I met other filmmakers whose work I like, and I got the impression from some of them that Maine is a place where they go every year, or every time they have a new film, because they have a good, intimate audience experience there — it is just a nice place to be part of. That makes sense to me, that’s what I want — to be able to have a relationship with programmers who have taste, seem like human beings, are able to understand the audience in their community, bring good films to that audience and put on a great event.

The programmers of the Heartland International Film Festival in Indianapolis are fantastic too. Greg Sorvig, the Artistic Director of Heartland — we met him in Cleveland, so it was really about referrals and relationships.

YP: As a producer, how do you see the role of film festivals at this moment, when the live contact with the audience is gone? In addition, some industry professionals have voiced their concern about having an international premiere online — what this would mean for the future prospects of the film?

JK: My opinion changes every day. I’m overwhelmed, and I think everyone is. Someone posted on Facebook something about a live discussion that was part of Oxford Film Festival in Mississippi, which is, from what I understand, a great festival. And I say that because I am connected with some of the programmers there, and I can tell what their values are, which, again, has to do with finding good work and connecting with the community. So, they were having an online discussion on Zoom, some sort of a teleconference thing, having to do with these questions — what the future holds. There were no easy answers, but I appreciated the dialogue was happening, and in a public, transparent way. I only got to watch a little bit of that, because I had my kids, and I had to shut it off, but I remember thinking that those are the kind of people you are glad to know are out there, working hard to preserve something about the festival experience that is a value to the community, to filmmakers and to audiences.

At the same time, now you have access to festivals you didn’t before. You go and look, and you are like “Oh, there is such and such film festival, which is several time zones away from me, and is happening right now.” If it were normal time, that would be happening over there, and I wouldn’t be able to see any of those things, but now they are doing it online, so I can tap into that a little bit. It is an experience you wouldn’t have otherwise, and that’s valuable, certainly. But of course, on the other hand, it is still no substitute for being there, no substitute for being in a room with people. And especially now, at this time, movie theaters are like cathedrals — it is the last place you can go and be free from the distractions, hopefully, as long as everybody in the room cooperates. Not having enough of that is hard, it takes a toll on mental health, on the spirit.

YP: You’ve been through the 2008 crisis, as writer and editor, how do you think that writing, or “commenting” on cinema, as you call it, will change with what is happening right now?

JK: I wish I did have some insight… I’m always struggling to find some, making it up as I go along. It’s a lot of trial and error. I remember in 2008, I’d been working in a newspaper, and I left. I decided to go freelance, so there was this scary time, because the economy was collapsing. I was living in Sacramento, but I moved back to San Francisco. We didn’t have any children yet, so the pressure was not quite as intense.

It was a strange moment, but it is also what I picked up as a freelancer, writing criticism and commentary. I think my support system at that time were the alternative weekly newspapers in the U.S., the flagship of which was The Village Voice, and I was happy and lucky to be able to write for them a little bit. It changed a few times and eventually ended, as so many publications have.

As I got older — and the cost of living in California is famously high — there was a period when it was sustainable, but that ended. It became challenging to write in a way that I thought was meaningful. Just to have access to the stuff you want to write about, it is all very controlled by Hollywood, in some cases. And also, when you are pitching stories to write, you have editors who are not necessarily interested in something that isn’t from Hollywood. That’s a challenge, understandably so, on behalf of the readership that might not be interested, or might not have access to a wider world of cinema.

So, you are thinking “how can I enhance that access.” It is very hard to figure out how to do that, and to make enough of a living out it. Meanwhile, the world changed a lot, in terms of the way films are being made and exhibited. The PR gatekeeping made it a bit of a challenge — eventually, it got to the point where it became hard for me to justify doing it the way that I did.

I worry about it now, because I feel like I haven’t done enough commentary lately, and I miss that, to some extent, but I feel like it’s hard for me to find good places for it. I think the evolution of Twitter kind of changed what people seek in terms of commentary — it is different, compared to five or 10 years ago. Obviously, the swelling up of Netflix into the giant that it is has changed the nature of moviegoing. It is hard to find places to read film commentary that is engaging but also not too elite, or not unwelcoming. Everything is very stratified, sort of provincial in a way, and there are clicks that form around that. It is like you have to find little pieces of things from different places, which is pretty exhausting. You only have so much in terms of resources, whether it’s time or money. 

When thinking about our film, having its digital premiere now, I know it will be tough struggle to get people to even know about it. How are people, who might be interested in it, going to find out about it? That’s an open question.

I do sense that there are periodicals emerging right now that make film commentary engaging, exciting and interesting in new way — really embracing the new world we are in. I hope to eventually find some time and dig more into that, as a reader and as a writer.

Yoana Pavlova (@RoamingWords) is a Bulgarian writer, media researcher and programmer, currently based in Paris. She is the founding editor of Festivalists.com, with bylines for Fandor’s Keyframe, The Calvert Journal, East European Film Bulletin, AltCine, as well as a contributor to the following books: Cinemas of Paris (2016, St Andrews Film Studies), Eastern Promises (2014, Festival Internacional de Cine de Donostia – San Sebastián), The Bulgarian Nouvelle Vague (2012, Edno). Yoana is also a mentor at the IFFR Trainee Project for Young Film Critics and Sarajevo Talent Press.