A staple on the art house and festival scene, the Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan has become an international sensation since the release of his 2006 film, Climates. His latest work, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (reviewed here), follows a group of policemen in a cold and distant land as they search for the body of a dead man, of which the two criminals cannot remember where he has been buried. Less procedural than meandering and existential, and certainly in no rush to subscribe to anything resembling a classical narrative structure, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia won the Grand Prix and has been chosen as the official submission by Turkey for the Foreign Language Film Oscar. When the film premiered at the New York Film Festival in October, Mr. Ceylan spoke about some of the influences and choices he makes in this philosophical epic. (One note: Mr. Ceylan spoke in English, and some of his sentences did not make complete sense. I eliminated some of his answers, and tried my best to interpret some of his words to the best of my understanding. I apologize for any inaccuracy).
On the genesis of the film
Actually, everything started from a real story. One of the scriptwriters followed this story in Anatolia in the 80s, when he was doing his social service, right in the same place; in this town. They searched for the body till the morning, and that interested me a lot. We decided we could make a film out of it. Of course, we changed a lot. We just kept the [premise] of the story. All the characters are created [by us].
The film’s title suggests a fairy tale like narrative…
I actually wanted it to be as realistic as possible, and as historic to today. But we wanted to make the present as the past of the picture. In this way, we tried to create a kind of pointless feeling.
The influence of Chekov
He’s one of my favorite writers. Actually, he’s influenced all of my films in a way. As written in the final credits, he also had some quotations. I think he also influenced the tone of this film, though we didn’t realize it. Chekov is the kind of writers who wrote almost illustrations and all kinds of characters, so when you start to write a script, and you’ve read all of Chekov’s stories like me, you will end up having his point of view. You use it somehow.
The idea and execution of the apple rolling down the hilm
It was not in the script. When I was in location, there were two days where we couldn’t shoot because there some actors who were Syrians, and had to go to Syria for two days. So I went to the location and walked alone, and thought about what else I could make. And I saw this apple tree. And I saw an apple falling down, and I followed it. It was just like [in the film]. And it seemed like a metaphor of a whole life. So I wanted to share the fate of the apple. The execution was quite difficult, actually. We had to [use some effects]. I placed all the broken apples myself.
On pairing down the film’s large backstories
One of the things was to create a small story with all the characters. We used everything we had to bring that together. Chekov helped, observations, memories. Everything I should bring together. Of course, that’s one of the most difficult things to bring together, and then you make the film and write the story.
On the humor of the police being satire or social commentary
They are not like that, because they have police. I see everything like that. If you love police, it’s a coincidence. I tend to see the humorous side in most situations.
Deciding the final shot of the film
[I decided] at the end of editing, of course! When I finish editing. I changed it many times. I shoot a lot of material, and sometimes, I changed. But this film, I [in the end] went with the ending I had in the script.