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Cold Souls

We speak to first time director Sophie Barthes about her surreal soul-stealing debut.

Metaphysical ramblings on the existence of the soul have become quite tiresome in recent years, with Richard Dawkins playing the pantomime villain trying to spoil everyone’s fun and fuelling the vitriolic fire of the barfly atheist to vainglorious levels. It's refreshing then that with childlike playfulness Cold Souls sets out with the far more interesting proposition – what shape would the soul be? 

First-time director Sophie Barthes offers a brilliantly unique debut rich in insight and imagination, and its Jungian themes and capitalist critiques never come off as laboured or indulgent. The lead role was written especially for Paul Giamatti who gives a powerful performance as a neurotic actor too held back by his own emotional baggage to fully embody Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. He looks to overcome his problem via a service he reads about in the New Yorker, in which a company offers to temporarily remove your soul. After going through with the operation, and coming to terms with the idea that his soul is the shape of a chickpea, he fumbles about soullessly like a mannequin. After his soul goes missing from storage, he sets off on a mission to Moscow to reclaim it. His investigations lead him to a black-market soul-trading ring who have already sold his soul to a talentless soap actress who believes it to be the soul of Al Pacino. With the help of blurry-eyed “soul-mule”, Nina, he attempts to steal his soul back and head back to New York.

In short, Cold Souls is a hugely enjoyable genre melange – an existential surrealist sci-fi in the Blade Runner vein and a nod to the French noir tradition of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville. Its bleak realism, set in the present, gives the film a startling pertinence, and Paul Giamatti’s self-caricaturing has all the charm and neuroses he displayed in Sideways. Dazed Digital spoke to soul-stealing director Sophie Barthes about Woody Allen, capitalism and, well... chickpeas.

Dazed Digital: Why use a chickpea to represent the soul?
SB: I was just finishing this book by Carl Jung called Modern Man In Search Of A Soul. I had this strange dream that I was in an office holding a white box, and Woody Allen was in there holding a box, too. This doctor came in the office and said they had extracted his soul and that they would check its shape for any psychological problems. When Woody Allen opened his box he saw there was just a little chickpea. He became very neurotic and said, “There’s no way that I could have made 40 movies and have a chickpea for a soul!” In the dream, I thought, “Woody Allen’s one of my idols and he has a chickpea for a soul? What is mine going to look like?” I opened my box, but the dream ended at that precise moment, so I never saw the shape of my soul. When I woke up, I thought it was a great idea for a short film or a play.

DD: Did you have Paul Giamatti in mind when you wrote the script?
Sophie Barthes: When I decided to write the screenplay I entertained the idea of writing it for Woody Allen. Then I thought I was a little delusional, either he wouldn’t accept or end up directing it himself. At the same time I saw American Splendour. I loved Paul Giamatti’s performance in that, and thought he had that Allen-esque neurotic presence, but that he also had this very melancholic soulful quality.

DD: As a first time director, how did you persuade Paul Giamatti to do the film?
SB: This was a crazy twist of fate. After I wrote it for him I won the screenplay competition at the Nantucket Film Festival. By coincidence Paul Giamatti was there to give an award to Alexander Payne. So I went and told him about the dream and why I wrote it for him. He was very open and gave me his address and told me to send the script on Monday. I thought we’d just all had a little bit too much champagne and it wouldn’t go anywhere, but he read it and rang me two days later to tell me that he wanted to do it.

DD: What do you see as the main idea of the film?
SB: The idea was to be playful with the concept of the soul, because it’s impossible to give a definition of what the soul is – philosophers and religions have been trying to understand it for the past 2,000 years. The point of the film isn’t to say what the soul is but to raise questions and ask what we do to our souls – how do we reconnect? How do we neglect or take care of our souls every day?

DD: Is there any other significance in the soul being represented by a chickpea?
SB: I thought that the chickpea as a symbol was so interesting, and that such a small thing was so disturbing. There is something in the collective unconscious about the pea. As a child my favourite story was The Princess And The Pea. I liked the idea that there is this little pea that is disturbing her; I never fully understood the symbolism of this tale. I think there is something funny in imagining the materiality of the soul and what shape it would be.

DD: How did Paul react to the idea that his soul was the shape of a chickpea?
Sophie Barthes: We had lots of conversations about the soul with Paul while we were filming, because it was difficult for him to imagine how to act without a soul. At one point we said that even if we didn’t want to say what the soul is, we would have to define some parameters. So we decided that when he was soulless he couldn’t be completely robotic because it wouldn’t be very interesting if he has open eyes and no emotion.

DD: In the restaurant, after having his soul extracted, he seems to act with brutal honesty?
Sophie Barthes: Yes, he lacks something like pity or compassion. People in the US are always trying to be nice all the time; there’s a special behaviour where everyone’s fine and everything is nice and cheerful. It sounds a bit clichéd but it is all big smiles and you shouldn’t say anything that would hurt people’s feelings. When he doesn’t have the soul he has no compassion or empathy for people.

DD: Was much of it improvised?
SB: It wasn’t improvised at all because we had a very tiny budget; there was really not time for improvisation. Also Paul doesn’t like improvisation, he likes to work from the script. Improvising is a luxury. I’d love to shoot an improvised film. With the way the industry is organised here there is very little room for improvisation, it’s almost like a safety net, they get very nervous if you want to go away from the script. It’s like a control thing. In the French New Wave, the directors were much freer and they would improvise a lot more and work with actors.

DD: Despite the small budget, some of the sets looked quite impressive.
SB: You know the big machine that he goes in to see how much of his soul has been extracted? This was a product placement from London so we didn’t have to pay for it. Two brothers invented something called the Entertainment Pod that you can just get in and watch TV and listen to music and won’t be disturbed by anyone in your house. And an artist friend of mine built the soul extractor in his garage with his brother. They put this machine in the back of their truck and crossed America from Oregon to New York. We wanted to do a documentary of that trip where along the way they would stop and extract people’s souls, but we didn’t have time.

DD: What was it like to work with Paul Giamatti?
SB: He’s not a method actor; he doesn’t believe in the method, he’s truly in the moment and he’s completely in connection with the emotion he’s living in. It’s very powerful, you can feel it on set, he’s taking a lot of the oxygen. I can feel the strength of his acting; other actors are so impressed by him because he’s so natural. He’s such a sophisticated actor that he can free himself from everything. He has an acting style that is completely natural, but it comes from a lot of control; he can give you any emotion.

DD: Is there also a political or social critique in the idea of trading souls?
SB: It was a comment about how far capitalism can go; sometimes you have the feeling that everything is for sale. I think if it was possible to trade souls, people would consider it. There’s so much marketing surrounding drugs that promise to make people happy. Soul extraction is like Prozac – if it was available maybe people would do it tomorrow.
The funny thing is that the bit at the end of the film when the company collapses and the hedge fund takes over, I wrote before the economic crash last year. Sometimes when you write you don’t know consciously but you have a feeling that things are not going the right way. Maybe it was just from this feeling I had that the whole thing was going to collapse. New York was insanely crazy in the last few years before the economic crash, there was so much money floating around. Everyone was living on credit, and living way beyond their means.

Cold Souls released nationwide from November 13.

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