Not a Sad Clown Story: Igor Drljača Talks 'The Waiting Room'

Director Igor Drljača attends the Canadian Screen Awards.
Director Igor Drljača returns with The Waiting Room, a thematic companion piece to his acclaimed 2012 Krivina. The Waiting Room is the fourth feature from Drljača’s production company TimeLapse Pictures, which Drljača co-founded with Albert Shin and recently earned wide praise for their Canadian Screen Award nominee In Her Place. As with the previous works, The Waiting Room adds to the growing spectrum of Canadian films that link Canadian stories within larger global themes and narratives of migration. The film stars Jasmin Geljo in a bold, dark, and deeply funny performance as an actor playing the part of the immigrant on the Toronto film scene as a new role brings back memories of the past. (Geljo received a Canadian Screen Award nomination for his performance, as did co-star Cynthia Ashperger.) In a bit of art imitating life, The Waiting Room draws on Geljo’s experience as Drljača observes an actor finding himself through the roles he plays.

Drljača recently took a break from doing postering for the film (indie filmmaking is a DIY affair in Canada) to discuss The Waiting Room via phone and chat about drawing art from life, representing stories of migration, and observing actors.

PM: Pat Mullen
ID: Igor Drljača

PM: I love Jasmin Geljo’s performance. How did you two develop his character?

ID: I’ve known him since 2006, but I’ve known of him since I was a kid, and the idea to have him in a film where I kind of follow him was an idea I had for a second year documentary class in film school. The idea was to have him go to different auditions and follow him for two or three months. He was actually away because he was doing a tour of Audicija, the little skit you see in the film, in Macedonia and other countries in the former Yugoslav Republic, so he couldn’t do it for me. So, we left it at that and I hadn’t talked to him for a few years.
Jasmin Geljo in The Waiting Room.
Courtesy of A71
PM: Oh, that’s nice. That adds a layer to the performance, seeing his work in the film.

ID: Yes. Then, in 2006, I had a role for him in a small film, a short, and he agreed to do it and then we kept in touch. Then I had had a role for him in my Master’s thesis, which ended up being Krivina. That’s where our collaboration went to the next level. We just talked about the alien representation of cultural workers within Canada or immigrants in drama who have a very hard time doing what they did back home, so there’s this alienation they feel more so than those who are involved in other disciplines. I became fascinated by this man who doesn’t have such a bad time, but he longs for this country that doesn’t exist, that can’t exist, and he oscillates between wanting to be in Canada and wanting to go home to Sarajevo, which wouldn’t offer him too many opportunities, anyway. He would probably go back to theatre or something like that. But because he’s been out of the game there for a while, getting his bearings would probably be very difficult.

PM: How so?

ID: I wanted to create this character that’s partially a fictional character, but it’s inspired by him. To create somebody that is between these two worlds. Our working relations essentially revolve around Jasmin telling me stories about his immigrant experiences, the auditions process, and the types of roles he would be auditioning for, so some of those ideas informed the scenes for the film and other stuff was purely fictionalised. The element about the initial arrival, the wife, and the daughter were fictionalised, but the elements around the father and son relationship, because they’re really father and son—

PM: I hadn’t realised that. That’s so interesting!

ID: That stuff is inspired by Jasmin’s life.

PM: You’ve talked about how you wanted to make a film that was a character study of “an immigrant performer” rather than a film about immigration.

ID: It’s both. It’s performing immigration, but he’s not performing it well.

PM: Ya, well, he’s getting typecast., so I imagine it’s difficult. I like the scene where he’s asked to speak “native” and starts sarcastically undercutting the director. That was funny.

ID: Ya.

PM: And with the setting, I like how with the composition and the locations, you’re often left unsure if it’s in Toronto or Bosnia. Was that a conscious choice to blur the two worlds?

ID: Ya, because he’s kind of in between places and the idea was to create a space that’s neither/or. When we see Toronto, it’s this cold, grey mass of concrete, but it isn’t really like that; it’s in his mind. And this idea of Bosnia being sunny and green, like we see in the drive itself, that was an attempt to have a character create a space and then through the creation of that space, we get a glimpse into his inner struggle, inner process, and inner trauma.
Courtesy of A71

PM: The use of long takes and lingering shots is very effective in that regard.

ID: Most of my films use shot duration in a very specific way. We get the tonality of the space, the textures. But then stuff happens that you would not be able to script, just in the way that the face breaks down. Studying the face, studying the movement. I become very involved in the actor’s inner self and just seeing him, the actor, come through. Like in Krivina, which was with Jasmin as well but the main character was Goran, having the camera linger on his movement was a very conscious decision. The inspiration behind it is through the themes of the film—this sort of melancholy that’s very difficult to describe, but better expressed through duration-driven approaches.

PM: It gives you a better feel for the characters. The film also has a strong political backstory, but it conveys it without having to say a lot. How do you decide how much to withhold from the audience and how much to reveal?

ID: For people that are engaged with issues related to that war, they would be able to pick up on a lot of the nuances. But for the audience that was not from that region, it was important not to overwhelm them with information about what happened there. We could say that Jasmin left because there was violence and I think it’s better to leave it at that. What the violence was, what he saw or didn’t see, isn’t as important. Even though I think a lot of people, when talking in English, feel a need to exoticise this place within the dominant language. When it’s a Bosnia-Herzegovinian story, or Croatian story, they want these visual metaphors and images that relate to the war and the violence. “The other.” And this “othering” process was something that I was very conscious of in making the film. I did not want to play with these easy, safe caricatures in terms of both the images and the characterisation.

I think for you, it’s easy to spot, but for general audiences, it’s harder to spot when a Canadian film is taking advantage of locations, or a locale or a culture and doesn’t entirely understand it, but it still makes for a very safe and engaging story nonetheless. I did not want to do that, which might be why the film works for some viewers and not for others. People often ask why I didn’t show violence, but there’s always your imagination.

PM: The film often blurs past and present. Does that help with conveying these same things?

ID: It seems like it has linear narration for the first hour, and then the audience realises that some things are linear and others are non-linear. It’s almost like an ellipsis.

PM: Yes, this was the second time I’d seen the film and I’d forgotten, even while watching it again, that it came around to the beginning with the scene in the car.

ID: This week could be happening eight times in his life.
Jasmin Geljo and Cynthia Ashperger in The Waiting Room.
Courtesy of A71.

PM: Now, would you say The Waiting Room is a ghost story?

ID: It has those elements for sure. The daughter is a personification of his internal struggle. He knew that she could have existed and he created something to make his life easier, like an internal dialogue that I wanted to have and use this character that is probably not there, although some people think she is real. Some people also think that she is not real, but that the story works either way you see it.

PM: Ya, I think it works either way. I remember seeing it at TIFF and then discussing it with someone at a party, and she and I had completely different readings of the daughter, but both seemed to make sense.

ID: Mmm-hmm, so that’s why it could have been more obvious, but I left it up to your interpretation to see how the daughter plays into the narrative. She’s real in the sense that she existed in some form, but after what happened, she never became what he thinks she’d be.

PM: Okay, that makes sense. How do you then balance the tones? Because that story is fairly heavy, but the film’s also quite funny.

ID: That was very tough because you’re dealing with a comedian and I think that people going into the film are anticipating a comedy, or a black comedy at least, and then they realise that the humour is far and in between. And I did not want it to become a sad clown story. I needed it to have elements related to the immigrant experience and the idea of representation. And I think some people’s interpretation of the character, this sad clown character, is not entirely followed through enough.

PM: Oh, really?

ID: Through this tone, my approach was to have the film observe him, more so than engage with him. That was something I had in my formal outline for the film. It was very easy to fall in love with Jasmin, and Jasmin tells jokes throughout the film, but if we were to follow through with that, it would create a sensationalist approach. He discussed that a lot and he was pushing for that approach, whereas I resisted. Like in consultations with him on the character, he gave me that reign to do what I wanted. Ultimately, the impulse for a lot of people would be to take the sensational approach to reach a bigger audience or to have the film play to a mainstream crowd.

PM: How’s the film been playing in different territories?

ID: I think the film was more positively received in Canada overall, but for the most part the critics internationally received it well. And whether it be Italy, Germany, Russia, or anywhere we’ve screened, people have really engaged with it and they really understood the themes and the idea of representation. I think they see in it their own culture and their own country, especially in countries with a heavy immigrant population. In Europe, there’s more awareness of that war. It was in their backyard, so to speak and they know the legacy of the refugees from the former Yugoslav territories because they’re still dealing with them and these refugees have made these countries their homes. This, in conjunction with the proximity of the space, and the proximity of the war itself, the war wasn’t that long ago in the minds of Europeans. It had a very melancholic quality that they might have appreciated it more than North American audiences would. I talked to people here and they hadn’t heard of the war.

PM: What? Seriously? Wow.

ID: Yes. In Canada. They knew there was “something” in Eastern Europe in the 90s, but it just did not connect that there was a war there.

PM: That’s crazy.

ID: But that also made it really interesting for discussing the film. A lot of discussions were framed around why we didn’t show violence or easy images.

PM: I think it helps by giving a sense of how one person experienced it.

ID: If you’ve seen Krivina, the idea with this “migrants trilogy” is to have another film and close this chapter with one of the characters from The Waiting Room, I’m not going to say who, as the primary character and end it. The script’s ready and we’re just going through the financing stage.

PM: Well, I hope this film helps get the money rolling for that one!

ID: We’ll see. But that’s easier said than done. [Laughs.]

The Waiting Room opens in Toronto on Friday, June 3 at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Read the Cinemablographer review of The Waiting Room here.