Deep in the east side of downtown L.A., Slamdance’s DIG Showcase took place at Wisdome LA’s immersive art park. Filled with interactive art installations by emerging visual artists and indie game developers, it took up a whole square block with giant domes, taking us a second to find our subject for the evening – Hayk Matevosyan, director of his film Art in Motion, which is playing on display here as a featured exhibit.
Featuring music written, produced, and arranged by Serj Tankian of System of a Down, the work features live action recreations of classical paintings, all shot in ultra-high frame rates to give a psychedelic revivalist feeling to the pieces, to the point where they don’t even feel classical anymore. If this film was a painting, then time would be the paint itself.
After perusing the grounds for a while, we finally catch a glimpse of Matevosyan from afar, given away by his bright leopard print button-down along with his small posse, in full hosting/entertaining mode. Throughout the night, he’s been pulled to and fro by visiting friends and random viewers. But rather than taking in the moment, he’s worried about all of his equipment on display.
“Are you leaving your equipment here overnight?” he asks one of the other filmmakers. “I’m worried if I should keep it here. They said they have security. Do you know?”
He pesters some of the grounds crew for information, before taking us into what looks like the biggest bubble installation of the program, one with full on VR projections on the ceiling that completely surround you. He takes us to the side of the tent where Art in Motion plays on loop, which began as a fully independently funded project.
“I always wanted to recreate paintings. A lot of people did it, y’know? Peter Greenaway… a lot of filmmakers tried to get images very similar to paintings, or homages to those paintings. When I was at UCLA, when I was 21 or 22, I came up with the concept, and have since worked with my cinematographer Justin Richards who helped put it together visually, and then we hired an entire team to do the lighting. Because for painting you have to really pay attention to the lighting, so we did a lot of extensive lighting work. The main goal was to not use any CGI and have a completely real live action recreation of the paintings.
“When I was creating it, I had Serj [Tankian’s] Symphony in mind while shooting. I had met him only once before, very briefly. So after I was done with a rough version of it, I was able to get it to Serj and said I was interested in having his symphony over it. And after he watched it and reviewed it, he was like ‘Yes, I’d love to do it.’”
Since then, Art in Motion has made its debut at last year’s LA Film Festival, and is now represented at Slamdance, as well as being submitted to other festivals and programs around the world.
Aside from working with Serj Tankian for Art in Motion, Matevosyan also had a hand in the comeback of the System of a Down side-project Scars on Broadway, in which his work was chosen out of an entire portfolio of filmmakers.
“Those projects actually came from two separate sources, so after one project–”
–We’re interrupted by another passing group of Hayk’s friends. “Hey check it out they’re doing an interview! He’s interviewing me!” he says jubilantly. We continue.
“Daron [Malakian] hadn’t released an album for ten years,” Matevosyan carries on. “And then he decided to do his new album with Scars on Broadway. He had a single that he wanted to make a music video for. He reviewed a bunch of work from other directors and chose me to do it. …So it wasn’t like ‘Oh this person introduced me.’ It just, came out from nowhere.” Since then, the song and video have been written up in numerous publications including Rolling Stone, and the video has amassed several million views.
In addition to working with members of System of a Down, Matevosyan also had the privilege of being mentored by legendary filmmakers Werner Herzog and Béla Tarr, making projects under their guidance.
“Just randomly last minute I would find out about these workshops or residencies. A year and a half ago, last May, I found out there was a workshop where you travel to the Peruvian jungle and Werner Herzog was going to be your mentor where he teaches you directing as you direct a short film where he made Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre.”
The result? A film shot, edited, and completed in which Herzog took the best films of his students and submitted them to festivals around the world.
“We were there for two weeks in the middle of nowhere in the jungle where everyday, at 6 AM, we would wake up, see the sun rise and the fog leave the Amazon. We took like a wooden kind of boat, and it took us two hours to get from our location to the small indigenous village in the middle of the jungle. And throughout the whole two-hour period Herzog would tell us stories. And we would hear this meditative voice of Herzog on the Amazon River talking about everything from Donald Trump, to the Beatles, to the Roman Empire, to aliens, and if they exist or not and if we are alone in the universe.
“And then the Locarno Film Festival has this section where you do a two week long directing residency and then the film premieres at the Locarno Film Festival in August. And they were doing it with Béla Tarr this year. He would select only 15 filmmakers from around the world. And Art in Motion was the sample I sent in. He said he didn’t read my motivation letter, he didn’t read my bio, he just watched Art in Motion, and selected me based off that.”
He once again interrupts abruptly to yell something in Armenian to his passing friends from across the field. I don’t understand any of what he says, but I do recognize the word “interview” thrown around as he gestures to me excitedly.
And when asked about the biggest takeaways from working with the two legends, he didn’t hesitate:
“Fuck Hollywood bull shit movies. Don’t give a shit about this industry bull shit. Herzog actually urged every one of us not to do ‘film jobs,’ like be on film sets for others or do any film production work. He told us that we should go have interesting day jobs, like working as a security guard in a mental hospital, or a bouncer in a strip club. You’ll learn more about life and make better movies through that rather than being on film sets or working as an assistant at a production company.”
After graduating from film school and being mentored by Penelope Spheeris (Wayne’s World, Decline of the Western Civilization), he soon took up odd day jobs as a night security guard and would work on his projects during the day. His screenwriting mentor, Mardik Martin, aided during the day in this process. Having been Martin Scorsese’s screenwriting partner for years, he wrote the early drafts of Mean Streets, New York, New York, and Raging Bull, in addition to working on others such as Carlito’s Way.
“I would do a bunch of different kinds of day jobs. I quit a film set job and I would do various overnight security guard jobs just to kind of experience what Herzog meant, y’know? Like he’s right, my brain is much clearer. I see some crazy stuff as I do that. But at the same time, it helped me kind of concentrate more on filmmaking. Cause if you do overnight jobs, you can sit down and write or contemplate about your idea. Rather than being on a film set where you’re making someone else’s dream.”
“I’m working on my feature script that I want to shoot in Armenia which is based on my grandfather and great-grandmother. My grandfather is 83 and my great-grandmother is 102, living in a village. It’s a story based on them but it’s fiction. A story of a mother and a son and a love of a land because they don’t want to abandon the village, no matter what. I’m following Béla Tarr’s advice where I’m not really writing in a typical Hollywood sense. He had this writing method where he would basically describe what’s going on in the script and keep it very open. He doesn’t write scripts. He doesn’t believe in script writing. And he would teach us that anybody could write a story or could make a movie, but not many people can understand life and understand people. So once you, as a filmmaker, understand life and understand people, then you know you’re a filmmaker, because filmmaking is the easy part. Knowing life and knowing people is the hardest. He would suggest, if you’re making a movie in a village, you go live with the people. Understand the life, and then the writing and the story and everything will come from that. I’m actually planning to go back to Armenia and live with my grandfather and great-grandmother for a few months, maybe film them a little bit, just get to know the whole life. Because after being in America for twelve years now, I forgot most of the village life and how people live and how people survive.
“And now after working with Tarr, I like using non-professional actors. I kind of find it liberating, I don’t know, they’re very interesting to work with. Because they’re more, like, real. Like I want to get the reality of life. I don’t even direct them, I let them be in their natural habitat. You don’t have to tell them much. You find the right character so you don’t have to direct them. If you find the right character, they don’t have to act. They just be.”
Another friend of Hayk’s drops by briefly. Hayk hops up, “Yo what’s up man! Check it out we’re doing an interview right now, he’s interviewing me. Have you seen the film yet?” Hayk shoos him away.
In addition to his own projects, he also has his own production company, Dolly Bell Films, with which he holds acting and directing workshops for aspiring filmmakers. “After all these experiences I’ve had with these amazing legendary filmmakers and the workshops I did, I was like, ‘Well I think I should open up a production company,’ but at the same time it started with the idea of doing four week long fully practical workshops, bringing all my knowledge from the workshops I did with Herzog and Tarr to the L.A. setting. Basically actors, directors, and writers come together, you sign up for the class, you write, direct, and edit your own short film. Or any project if you want to do documentary, music video, or experimental, in four weeks and you have a final edit and a copy of your own short film. It’s kind of like an incubator, like a smaller version of what you would do with bigger budget stuff or a feature. Pre-production, casting, production, and post-production. And it’s open for all levels.”
But when asked about his work/life balance routine in working odd jobs, and if he’d even recommend that kind of lifestyle, he replied with an honest answer:
“Every night I fall asleep I have a crisis of confidence. Like ‘Why am I doing this? Maybe I’m not good enough, etc. I don’t know so much. I gotta learn so much, I don’t have time…’ But every morning I look back at what I’ve done so far and I think ‘Okay, maybe there’s a one percent chance I should give another try.’ And I think it improves myself, and I constantly try to improve. That’s why I do those workshops, to learn from the masters, I constantly try to improve on my work. Let’s say I shoot something, after two months, I’m over it. I would find a lot of mistakes etc. and I wouldn’t even want to watch it again. And then I say ‘Okay, gotta do better stuff. Move on.’”
When speaking with Hayk, I couldn’t help but feel that there was something exciting happening, as if we were on the precipice of something big. In the next decade, we’ll have a giant wave of new filmmakers coming out of the woodwork, each one better than the last, as we wait for the next “most exciting” auteur. But hopefully by the end of the next decade, internet scroungers will come across this interview: “Matevosyan. DeKoning. They knew each other. They were good friends. Look at them now.”
All photos by Gabriel Ovalle