Jeremy Podeswa
by Rob Blackwelder/SPLICED
WHO: Jeremy Podeswa
WHAT: writer-director
WHEN: July 13, 2000
WHERE: Palace Hotel, SF, CA
HOW (you might know him):
His 1994 film "Eclipse" saw heavy rotation on the festival circuit

"The Five Senses"
Writer-director Podeswa invented ways to portray touch, taste, smell in a medium of sight, sound

By Rob Blackwelder

Try to imagine the kind of philosophical, metaphysical, metaphorical thought process that would be involved in making a movie that characterizes sensory perception. Not a documentary, but an engrossing fiction, vividly symbolic of not only sight and sound -- the natural mediums of cinema -- but also touch, taste and smell. How would one portray on film, say, the sense of smell?

It makes my brain hurt just thinking about it.

But within a few minutes of meeting Canadian writer-director Jeremy Podeswa, he seems like exactly the kind of holistically-minded, hyper-observational filmmaker who could pull it off, which he does in the viscerally absorbing "The Five Senses."

Seeming at once very Manhattan (dressed head to toe in designer black and sporting boxy, beatnik spectacles) and equally Walden Pond, Podeswa carries himself like he's enveloped in a kind of tranquility that doesn't separate him from the world, but rather allows him to slow it down and take notice of every detail overlooked by those of us with endless "to do" lists that distract from, say, noticing how beautiful clouds are.

"You gotta take the time to do that stuff," he says with almost religious fervor as we sit down to talk about the film in his San Francisco hotel room. "When was the last time you smelled a flower?"

I don't even remember the last time I smelled a flower, I tell him.

"Go now! Smell a flower!" he insists sincerely.

Podeswa's personality is reflected in "The Five Senses," a film that immerses the viewer in a five well-conceived, inter-connected narratives (one for each sense) and palpably taps its characters' deepest stirrings and insecurities by watching them embrace, misunderstand and/or rediscover sensations we often take for granted.

Structured around the emotional effects felt by several denizens of Montreal when a local child disappears, the penetrating film overlaps sensory stories about a withdrawn teenage voyeur (sight), an doctor collecting the sounds of life as he is going deaf (hearing), a neurotic, apprehensive massage therapist (touch), a lonely single man obsessed with human pheromones (smell) and a cake decorator so preoccupied with visual design that her sweets lack any flavor (taste).

But before Podeswa could being to weave together these characters and stories into a corporeal cinematic experience -- full of delicate, deeply felt performances from a strong ensemble cast -- he had to figure out how to build a five-dimensional story of sensory experience in a two-dimension medium. How he even got the idea was the first thing I wanted to asked him.

Q:What was the genesis of the concept for "The Five Senses?"

A: The germ of the whole thing was me reading a book called "The Natural History of the Senses" by Diane Ackerman. It's this great non-fiction book about the senses and how they function in our lives, and how we tend to take them for granted -- about how we're too busy to really take notice of how a flower smells or how a cup of coffee tastes, or whatever. We'd rather have fast food and just keep moving. She really makes you want to just stop and take notice of everything around you. I found that a very powerful metaphor for modern living. We tend to rush through life generally. We don't appreciate the people around us, the relationships we have, or anything. I really wanted to make a movie about that, using senses as a vehicle to deal with this kind of very urban, contemporary issue.

Q:How much of a process was it from this concept to these complex, character-rich stories?

A: It's a big process. Normally when you're writing a script you have a character, you have a story, and this I had an idea -- a very abstract idea. There was no story, there were no characters. So the thing that kind of made it start to chug along was this idea of having five characters that each have something to do with one of the senses, and then I could start to think narratively. OK, touch -- what could I write about? Then I started to spin out all these ideas and came up with this character who is a massage therapist, and the irony of her life is that she touches people for a living, yet nobody ever touches her, and she can't touch the people who are the closest to her because she's never gotten over the loss of her husband. So that became a very compelling story for me.

Q:You really build an intrinsic sense of these characters with very little information, which you've placed in the film carefully and deliberately.

A: I've given you a lot of clues about these people, but I had to be very economical and I didn't have a lot of time for exposition. The audience constructs it all in their head. You don't have to give them a lot and they add in all the information that they need. And that has to do with the actors being really great. As soon as these actors walk on screen you feel like you know their whole life story and you don't have to say much about them. But I (also tried to) create a sense of mystery around people. Slowly, slowly things become revealed...You start to care about the characters, you start to get invested in the story and that's more important than the concept.

Q:Not only did you have a lot of information to get across about the characters, but you had all this sensory information to get across.

A: The entry point was the sensory stuff. My way into these stories was through the sensory motif. The first thing I knew about Richard (the doctor) was that he was going deaf, then I built a whole story around him.

Q:The story of the missing girl -- did that come along because you needed something to tie the stories together?

A: It was partially the feeling that it needed something to tie it together. But it was also the feeling that it needed another layer of metaphor. I wanted the story not to be just about these five people and the senses, but about something else, a kind of larger thing. It created tension and created a forward movement through the story. But it was also a beautiful metaphor. This missing child, in a way, obviously stands for missing innocence, and missing youth and naivete that all these characters who are kind of wounded have.

Q:It also correlates to something you mentioned moments ago: When a child goes missing, it makes people stop and become aware. Even if you're just watching it on the news, it hits you in a place you often have shut off.

A: That's right, because most of the time you do the same thing every day. You go to work, you go home, whatever. But when something happens -- somebody dies or there's some tragedy, or even just something out of the ordinary happens -- it makes you realize you're in this pattern. If you have children and you hear about a child being kidnapped, it makes you really appreciate your own children. It makes you want to spend time with them. But I think anything that shakes you out of your daily patterns in a good thing. Sometimes it takes something shocking or difficult, but in the end, it's a good thing.

Q:Did you put in the scene where we see the little girl wander into the construction site so we would know she wasn't kidnapped and could comfortably focus out attention on the other characters instead of being focused on the little girl the whole time?

A: Yes, I did. What I wanted was for people to not be distracted in that way, but for there to still be some tension. We know that the kid was not murdered, we know she wasn't kidnapped. Yet as time goes on, we really don't know what happens to her.

Q:Let's talk about the two senses you had available to you as building blocks for this story. The color scheme was beautiful, all those autumn colors. And it even seemed especially like a Canadian autumn. Obviously that played a part in setting the mood.

A: Autumn is a big thing in Canada. It's really clearly a time of transition, going from summer into winter. For me, all these characters are in some kind of transition, and I really thought that the season was an important metaphor and a really nice way of subtly talking about change in people's lives. So we really carried that whole color palate through the entire movie. It's in the wardrobe, it's in the art direction, it's in everything. My art director was so anal about that. Even cars that went buy on the street were all our cars -- picture cars -- because we didn't want, say, a red car to go by. I think that's what gives the film a polished feel.

Q:Were the sight and sound stories easier to create because of the medium?

A: Yeah, well, certain things are obviously more cinematic. But at the same time, movies have the capacity to deal with all kinds of things. You just have to find a way of presenting it. So smell, which doesn't seem very cinematic -- well except for "Polyester"...

Q:John Waters!

A: ...yeah! In Odor-rama!

Um, so what you have to do is find a literary way of dealing with it. So in this case, I thought, what is smell really about? The strongest quality of smell is that it's an emotive quality, an essential quality, and how it's connected to memory. So it's really in the writing that you deal with all those kinds of things and not so much in how you use your cinematic tools. It's in the script. You follow the emotional journey of the character.

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