“As a Greek producer, Homer’s Odyssey is the beginning of everything”

Konstantinos Kontovrakis discusses the highs and lows of producing The Return – Uberto’s Pasolini’s interpretation of the final rhapsody of Homer’s Odyssey – and reflects on his life as producer and role as TIFF 23 jury member.

What is your relationship to TIFF and how are you finding this year’s edition?

I’ve been here many times before, at least five times. The first year I came here was as a guest, but I have also shown my own films here as a producer (Triangle of Sadness, Do Not Expect Too Much From The End of The World, etc). Perhaps my most important experience with TIFF though, was when the festival invited me to be an expert, training young filmmakers ahead of the first edition of  ‘Transylvania Pitch Stop’ – a programme inviting first and second time directors to pitch in-development projects to be awarded post-production services, co-production partners, or external funding etc. So, my relationship with the festival is special: it goes back a long way, though this will be my first time sitting on the jury for the official competition selection.

What can you share with us about your upcoming project, The Return, starring Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche?

We’re in the final stages of post-production right now. The film came to me a couple years ago totally randomly – I received an email from an unknown sender claiming to be a producer of Uberto Pasolini’s new film retelling the last rhapsody of The Odyssey. I was sure it was some kind of crazy person – delusional –  who just thinks they are working with Ralph Fiennes! Luckily, it was real. That email was from James Clayton who is indeed producing this pre-historical epic which follows Odysseus after he washes up, exhausted, on the shores of Ithaca, having returned from the Trojan War. As a Greek producer, Homer’s Odyssey is the beginning of everything – the ultimate story – so it’s an offer you can’t refuse, especially with the talent attached.

What kind of challenges did you face shooting a film set against not just ancient historical but, as you say, a pre-historical backdrop?

We shot half of the film in Greece (for the exteriors) and half in a studio in Italy (for the interiors), and for Greece, Pasolini identified two Medieval castles that would be perfect for recreating the palace of Ithaca. One castle is on Corfu, the other on the Peloponnese, and with two such major archaeological sites it is a real struggle obtaining all the necessary permits and permissions for filming there. The fact that we were filming complex set-pieces on these sites only added to the challenge. Plus, the locations in Corfu were incredibly remote because we needed as little reference to modernity and infrastructure as possible. So simply accessing these locations and bringing everything to them – from extras to equipment – was a massive practical challenge. Creatively though, the challenge for me was ensuring we made a film about Ancient Greece that avoided becoming tacky, cringey or cliché. Our aim was always to make something true, but also timeless, and fit for an epic: it is such a delicate balance and constant, close attention had to be paid to everything from costume to make-up to set design. As the Greek on set, I also felt a special sense of responsibility to do this story justice. 

Triangle of Sadness, How to Have Sex, Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World and now, The Returned, are distinctive films – stylistically and thematically. So, what is it that attracts you to the projects you work on?

I think the best way of articulating it is instinct. It’s a cliché, but it really is a gut feeling. Both in relation to the talent and the content; when you read the script and you meet the creatives behind it. It’s when you sense a clear vision and you think ‘I can help communicate this’, because that’s our job – transforming an idea into something tangible. So that’s the project, but knowing you can work effectively with a particular team is just as important. It’s a very intense relationship with a lot of stressful moments on set – I need to know I can be honest with them and have fun. How To Have Sex was a gamechanger in that sense; after a long time of working in very stressful situations – almost hating myself for subjecting myself to it – I was reminded you can make a good film, with good people. 

Are there any films, other than those you are judging, that you especially want to see at TIFF 23?

I would love to watch Tudor Giurgiu’s new film Nasty – his documentary following the life of Ilie Năstase. It screened for the first time in Cannes just a few weeks ago and, frustratingly, I missed it there too. I’m unsure if it is coming to Greece right now, so I do hope I have a chance to see it while at TIFF 23. Bizarrely, the first person I saw as soon as I arrived in Cluj this year was a major Romanian tennis star. We entered the hotel right at the same moment, so perhaps it’s a sign.

As a jury member for TIFF 23, what are you looking for in the official competition films?

I don’t know how to describe it other than, when you watch a good film (which you usually know from the first ten minutes), you can feel it under your skin. It enters from the fingertips. I am looking forward to that feeling because two months ago I decided to take a break and left my company, Heretic, which I created eleven years ago. Now I have more time, I am excited to feel inspired again. 

Could you tell us about one film that is special to you and another film that got you interested in filmmaking as an art form, and as a career?

The first film I remember watching and being in awe of – both the experience and the spectacle itself – was E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. I was seven years old and it’s the first film I remember watching at the cinema. Of course, I was captivated, fascinated, wanted to have this alien in my own house as a friend, was crying when he left Elliot – everything! I then watched it on VHS at least twenty times. Every time I saw my friend at the weekend, we were watching E.T. Then, as a teenager, I realised films could be a little bit different to the mainstream model I had grown up with. I started going to the movies more – it was one of the things my parents would actually let me do as a teenager – and watched back-to-back films like Peter Weir’s Dead Poet’s Society (and, as a teenager, sympathised with every character) and Jane Campion’s The Piano. For me, these were a turning point, I saw that films could be expressive in totally different ways.

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