One of my favorite films of the summer is “Cold Souls.” Paul Giamatti plays an actor named Paul Giamatti who is anxious and depressed as he prepares to play Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. When he reads in the New Yorker about a place that stores souls, he decides to try it. The immensely inventive writer-director Sophie Barthes has concocted a world just slightly off-register from the one we know and Giamatti’s literal and spiritual journey is funny and provocative and always surprising. So was talking to Barthes.
I have some bigger questions, but I want to start with one small one. We see Paul Giamatti rehearsing “Uncle Vanya” under very different conditions — with his own soul, with a borrowed soul of a Russian poet, and without any soul at all. How did you and he work together to create three very different versions of Vanya?
That was the trickiest part of the film in terms of acting but we were nervous for different reasons. He thought he could act badly but not play Vanya well. I could certainly imagine him playing it well but thought it would fall flat to play it badly. It shows you how modest and humble he is. We had both seen [Louis Malle’s acclaimed] “Vanya on 42nd Street,” and he knew his version would not be like Wallace Shawn’s. He doesn’t like rehearsal much. He is very intuitive. But when it came time to do it badly, for those we took time and rehearsed them. I said, “Let’s not make it robotic, but let’s be the opposite of whatever is called for. Confidence is something Vanya doesn’t have, so show confidence. Take directions very literally.” On the DVD extras we will have some other versions. In one he starts to mimic the wind, taking the direction he is given very literally. The one he does with Elena, he did unconsciously a William Shatner interpretation.
That is the beauty of working with such a talented actor. He is not someone to talk about technique and method. You roll the camera and he delivers and he is excellent — in a different way — in the first three takes.
I read an interview where he says he is always being asked to play the anxious man.
Directors keep asking him to play the anxious man because he is so good with it, so vulnerable, such a sad sack, so funny. Jerry Lewis says that comedy is a man in trouble. That’s what Paul is. He always looks like he is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. He is very human and vulnerable and has the skills of a comedian. He can go from total slapstick to very melancholic. As a film-maker he is like a grand piano. You can play any note and he gives you this performance. We didn’t know how to choose from the takes. They were all interesting in a different way. He can do deadpan and ultra-emotional.
One of your other actors, David Straithairn, who plays the man in charge of the soul storage, was in a role that was quite different from his usual characters.
David was a bit anxious. He has not done much comedy and this is a melancholic kind of comedy. How much larger than life should this doctor be? It was very different from “Good Night and Good Luck.” But he and Paul had played in a Chekov play together and had chemistry like old buddies on set, very playful.
One of my favorite moments in the film is when Paul looks into his own soul. One of the images he sees is of a toddler, walking and crying.
It is a completely absurd moment and it came about by accident. We had a part in the movie that was a dream I had a long time ago about a baby factory where babies are manufactured. I’m going to put that in another film because it did not work out this time. When the casting agency came with the babies I was expecting four or five month old babies. But they brought toddlers who could walk, so we gave up on the factory idea and used the set next door with the white space.
Tell me about shooting in St. Petersburg.
Russia was a very surprising and pleasant experience. We had heard it was tough but from a logistical point of view the crews were super-professional and we never had a problem. Aesthetically, we decided not to shoot it as a postcard and turned the camera the other way.
Now a bigger question, maybe the biggest. Paul Giamatti is very distressed in the film to find that his soul looks like a chick pea. What would your soul look like?
My soul would change every day, maybe liquid. I go through all those moods.