This was my very first film! I had been meaning to make an adaptation of Christos Vakalopoulos’ short story, titled “The meaning of life”, from the collection “New Athenian stories”.
In December 1992, knowing that he was gravely ill with leukemia, I got in touch with him, with the intention of presenting him my adaptation of his short story..
I was very nervous, as I tried to explain the reason for my phone call.
He was very polite, but he declined, and added that he would have liked to make it into a film himself some day, as it was his favorite.
Twenty days later, he passed away.
(I have chronicled the entire incident in the form of a short story entitled “The meeting”, which was included in a tribute volume to Vakalopoulos, published in 2012)
Eventually, three years had gone by and I decided to go for a loosely based adaptation of Vakalopoulos’ story, since it still interested me more than anything else I had read.
I ended up with a story, in which a photojournalist, having heard of the death of an old man, who had been living alone and neglected, hurries into the building, where the body has been found, in the hopes of selling the story to TV stations and tabloids, as a piece of socially sensitive reporting.
He gets stuck in the elevator (this is the opening of the film), together with a young music student, a peculiar old man and a young woman.
As the film progresses, and while confinement has made the atmosphere tense and awkward, brief flashbacks are interjected, showing the old man many years younger and the woman exactly the same.
During the film’s short development, once the passengers of the elevator are released, the photojournalist rushes to the apartment, only to find out that the deceased was the same man that he had been trapped in the elevator. The flashbacks referred to an old incident of entrapment in the same elevator, which after the man’s death becomes briefly haunted and this instance of the supernatural involves the photojournalist and the young student, who were the only real people in the elevator episode.
The film’s premise had certainly drawn inspiration from Vakalopoulos’ story, but with considerable alterations.
Perhaps the screenplay suffered from lack of clarity, but on the other hand these subjects are based on the predominant feeling that gets across to the audience through the film’s atmosphere and film direction.
I remember, I was intrigued by the idea of making a film in such a confined space. Antonis Halkias had created a really convincing elevator set, in which the greatest part of the film was shot. The opening scene as well as the film’s finale, were shot in ‘The Blue Condominium of Exarhia’.
Back then, I was hung up on fantasy cinema and literature, which I still appreciate a lot.
The four actors came from different backgrounds. Manos Vakousis had recently come to public notice for his performance in the title role of Nikos Koundouros’ “Byron: A ballad of a daemon”, for which he had received an award for best leading actor.
Fotis Makris was a “Theatro Technis” (“Art Theatre”) graduate. He later worked for TV and for the last 12 years he has been running his own theatre on Mavromichali street, where he works as a director, producer and actor.
Maria Spyrakou had only worked as an amateur actress. We had become friends at the Stavrakos Film School.
Lakis Karalis was the most remarkable case of all four. He was a sui generis personality and an unforgettable friend.
Lakis detested being anything specific. He detested being a professional.
He was body-and-soul an amateur. And he was proud about it.
He came from Volos and was one of the major contributors in the famed Theatre Club of Volos, which lead by Nikos Skylodimos and Spyros Vrachoritis, in the late 70s and the early 80s became the legendary theatre group it still is today.
Lakis, who was also passionate about Papandiamantis, was teaching Greek tragedy to first-year drama students and amateurs. That was how he got to teach some of the later-to-become great actors, at the drama school of the “Embros” theatre. He, subsequently, formed a very lively amateur theatre group in Lavrion.
Lakis was also a musician. Besides, it was through rhythm that he was trying to approach Greek tragedy.
We had met and become friends during the filming of “The Enchanted”, by Giorgos Karypidis.
I was the assistant director in the picture. Lakis had written the music and also held one of the parts in the film. In the same film, I had met Lefteris Pavlopoulos as well, who agreed to do the cinematography for “The Last Act” as well as to undertake the film’s production.
When the editing of “The Last Act” was complete, Lakis dropped by, one afternoon, and took us to the sound studio I had hired. He was carrying with him an array of bizarre, makeshift musical instruments; buckets of water, in which we were splashing our hands, in order to produce a special ‘wet’ beat, as he called it; some strange cymbals; pieces of zinc that we fanned around, that made unusual sounds, etc.
The music score (less of a music and more of a sound-music variety) was beautiful and unique.
Watching the film today, I can see it has weakness, and I refer mainly to the flashbacks, which did not work. (In other words, I had fallen on my face...). It was the first tough lesson I had learned on the use of dreamy and ‘atmospheric’ interjected sequences. More lessons were going to follow.
All in all, despite the 20 years that have passed, I believe the film is still engaging, it is atmospheric, it has a nice fugal style and some moments of very good cinema.
And it has offered me two beautiful presents.
One was the award from the Kotronis Foundation. Vangelis Kotronis had been a filmmaker specializing in short subjects and passionate about fantasy cinema. Before his premature death, in a motorcycle accident, in 1985, he had the chance to make some very interesting fantasy films.
His mother later established an annual award in memory of him, for the best short subject fantasy film
The prize was entirely separate and was awarded by a different jury than that at the Drama Short Film Festival.
This, as I recall, was the reason the artistic director of the Drama Festival antagonized the award fiercely. When he saw that Kotronis’ mother would not agree to the award being incorporated in the Festival, on the basis that it would affect its singularity and autonomy, he banned the prize from the Drama Festival ceremony.
As it happened, the ban was imposed the year I was competing with “The Last Act”, 1996.
Thus, the prize for fantasy film was awarded later, on 18 December of that year. I remember there were many strong players that year; expensive productions, with impressive filming and special effects. Some of them were made by Greeks who had studied film in the US, England or Germany. There were also productions that had been funded by the Greek Film Centre and ERT.
Therefore, positive that there was no chance of winning, I showed up for the screenings and the subsequent ceremony, relaxed and unshaven, in a half-torn pullover and carrying no money.
What is more, I had gone alone. No cast member or, at least, friend, had joined me.
I thought I would go unnoticed, therefore I went wearing my everyday clothes.
Eventually, to everyone’s surprise, the film won unanimously.
I remember that when the winner was announced (who also received a handsome sum of 500000 drachmas in prize money), some of the nominees where giving me a black look, since they had been confident that they would win.
I had to walk up to the stage, looking all scruffy, and accept the award. But I was overjoyed. It was my first award and totally unexpected, so I got up, I received it and managed to conjure up a few words.
To top it all, I was supposed to treat the other contenders (the ones that had not left...) to a pint of beer and as I had no money on me, they ended up treating me, instead...
The award worked wonders for my self-confidence. The prize money, once I had collected it, went to the members of the cast.
The second gift was the film’s official entry in the competition section of the Brussels Fantastic Film festival.
It was a very prestigious film festival, where Roman Polanski had first gained prominence, in 1959, with “Two Men and a Wardrobe”, for which he had also received an award.
Since that time, every year, the festival assembles the best specimens of feature-length and short-subject fantasy, science-fiction and thriller films.
In Brussels, where I had gone alone again, in March 1998, the film was very well received. Many filmmakers, producers and journalists approached me with positive comments about the film. Despite the tough competition from other noteworthy international productions, many people maintained until the end that the film had really good chances for one of the awards.
Eventually, that never came to be. I recall that Best Picture went to an elaborate science-fiction thriller, directed by the son of Costa Gavras. In any case, it was, altogether, a very nice experience.
The experience of the film as a whole gave me the self-confidence to carry on. Besides, it was only my first work and I was already 28. I had made it late, like so many other things in my life.
Seven years later, I got to shoot a scene in an elevator once again. Making a flawless elevator scene was something that had been weighing on me. So, I wrote in a lift scene for “Alemaya”. And it turned out to be one of the best moments in the film. Something that had started out as an idea in 1992, was finally fulfilled and justified in 2003. One might not be able to achieve something from the start, but it is important to achieve it eventually...