Meta on top of meta, the choreographic psychodrama Aviva is a romance in which the primary characters—star-crossed Israeli lovers-in-New-York Aviva and Eden—are each played by two performers, one of each gender, pairing and tripling and quadrupling off as the ecstasies and heartbreak of a relationship turn into a sometimes dizzying hall of mirrors. The film, which has its virtual world premiere today (June 12), is a collaboration between writer-director Boaz Yakin (Fresh, Remember the Titans) and dancer-choreographer Bobbi Jene Smith, formerly of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, and the irrepressible subject of the 2017 documentary Bobbi Jene. The masculine/feminine divide, embodied by dancers Zina Zinchenko (and Or Schraiber) as Aviva and Tyler Phillips (and Smith) as Eden, is the fault line that runs through the film, generating tension released in rapturous and combative dance sequences and frank sexual encounters that generate humidity across various gender preferences. The life-as-art-as-life-as-art swirl at times evokes bits of Synecdoche, New York or Persona, while the autobiographical elements underscore even the most far-flung excursions on screen: The dancers come from Smith’s circle as well as performers from New York’s Sleep No More, and include her husband Schraiber, and Yakin enlists his filmmaker ex Alma Har’el (Honey Boy) as DP for the Los Angeles portion of the film.
Although the film stands as singular in Yakin’s body of work (which, as a writer, director and/or producer ranges indie dramas to action thrillers and horror flicks), the filmmaker stresses that he’s not be considered by his big-screen output alone. Filmmaker spoke to Yakin (who was in upstate New York visiting his parents) and Smith (in Vermont “making work” in a studio) about the risks and challenges of making Aviva.
Filmmaker: Right from the start, Aviva is wide open in its exhibition of human bodies and the feelings that erupt out of them. How risky did all this exposure feel?
Smith: I feel lucky, because Boaz created such an incredible script to rely on and to feel safe inside of, and for myself and everyone else right away to dig into and let ourselves go inside of it. It was never a question of, “Oh, am I exposing myself too much?” or “Is this too much?” It felt like the language of the film, to be this open. So, it felt very safe, and meaningful. It felt like that the more we exposed, the more the layers come off and that we can start to get to the bones of things.
Yakin: For me, it was amazing to be exposed to Bobbi’s work while I was in the middle of writing the screenplay. Because I knew I was writing something that needed both a physical and emotional openness and an approach to—you can call it acting, or performing, or just being, that nearly all American actors won’t even go to. It’s a completely different world in terms of that. When I saw Bobbi’s work, and saw how committed she was to complete openness emotionally—and she has incredible technique, both as a dancer and choreographer, but the technique is there in order to allow the emotion to come through, not the other way around—I knew she was the only person I could do this movie with. What you see in the movie is a real collaboration. Yes, I wrote the script and so many of the ideas are mine, but once it becomes embodied through these actors and dancers, it becomes their movie. And unless they’re willing to go everywhere the script goes, it’s not going to be interesting. And they were, so I was really lucky.
Filmmaker: What were the origins of the story before Bobbi got involved?
Yakin: The script came from two different places. I had been wanting to explore the idea of the duality, and the frustration with the duality, of the masculine/feminine balance within the self. A lot of times in a relationship, when we’re struggling with our partner we’re really struggling with ourselves, and that’s what this movie is about. I wanted to take the theatrical step of casting a man and a woman as each person. And also, at the same time, I’d been mulling over, like “Wow I grew up in theater, my father’s a movement teacher and a pantomime, and I’ve never done a movie with dance, and I want to do a movie with dance.” I was sitting having coffee with an old friend of mine, who used to be a dancer, and I told him I was thinking about these things, and he said, “Why don’t you make that your dance movie?” It was like a light bulb went off in my head. I started writing it and within three weeks I had a script. Once I understood that movement could give validity and theatrical expression to this internal idea, it’s what opened the door on the whole thing being able to get done.
Filmmaker: What was the process of collaborating like?
Yakin: We only had six weeks of prep. Bobbi choreographed this entire movie in six weeks. It became a very organic process. It was very alive and challenging because the time gave it a real pressure.
Smith: The exciting part was trying to find that language of movement and narrative, and trying to find how we speak physically throughout the film so it doesn’t become music videos or dance breaks. How can dance enhance the story and how can the story enhance the dance?
Filmmaker: How tricky was finding the balance?
Smith: Sometimes you can make movement, and make more movement, then all of a sudden it’s: but why? Where is the why, and why are they moving like that? And what do we hope that movement will expose or elicit? Trying to find that fine balance. Sometimes we needed more material and sometimes it was about cancelling and editing and distilling down a moment.
Yakin: Bobbi didn’t want the dance in this film to feel presentational, the way it is in just about every other movie. For Bobbi it was super-important for the dance to come out of an organic place. It became really important for me to shoot it in a way that reflected the organic way that Bobbi was building the dances.
Filmmaker: Were there any good examples to draw on?
Smith: DV8 [Physical Theatre] has this piece, Enter Achilles, I think it’s from the ‘80s, which has some incredible dance scenes that were major inspirations for us.
Yakin: A British dance company, they made short films. I love this one called The Cost of Living. If I had to think of American movies, the only one I can think of is West Side Story. It’s one of the only musicals, or dance movies, where the dances integrate into the fabric of the film and are an organic part of what’s going on, even though they’re more showoff-y and showbiz-y than what we’re doing here.
Filmmaker: I wanted to ask Boaz what it was like working with performers who are primarily dancers, and conversely ask Bobbi what it’s like as a dancer to not only be dancing but acting as a character in a movie? I know the lines blur, but those are very different disciplines.
Smith: One thing I felt was fun and exciting was just playing with volume. So often when we perform onstage, the audience is much further away and the amount of energy is so different than when the camera is close and you know small, micro-movements are being tracked. That was something new, and I learned a lot about how to play more with that frequency. Of course, there were challenges, and sometimes I didn’t feel like I had the tools to do this. We were lucky to have Boaz help us through those moments, and to have each other and be humble about it, [because] this is new for us.
Yakin: For me, it was so much more important for there to be truth, and exploration, and a commitment, than for it to be the “right thing” at any given point. In movies so often we’re so concerned whether something is working. As a filmmaker, when you’re having meetings, everything is about, “Is it working? Is it not working?” It’s like, what the fuck are you talking about? It’s a work of expressive art. Why are we so concerned whether it’s working or not, as opposed to whether we’re exploring it truthfully, What I found so exciting was, Bobbi’s acted a bit and Zina’s acted a bit, but because they see themselves as dancers primarily, their relationship to acting is different than people who have this huge investment in it as their career, and how does it look and what is their next project going to be, and how is this going to make them look for the next thing? If there’s any American actor who tells you that that’s not 70 percent of what they’re thinking about whenever they make a choice of how to turn their head on screen, they’re lying to you. Even if they’re not thinking about that, it’s so ingrained that it affects their choices. And Bobbi and Or and Zina and Tyler were really just focused on how do I find something honest in this scene. Whether it’s working or not working, that’s not the point.
Filmmaker: You’ve made so many different kinds of films in a wide range of genres, but this strikes me as, to paraphrase The Hollywood Reporter, a big leap for you. Did it feel liberating?
Yakin: It was. I’ve written a lot of things like this, and I’ve done experimentation in arenas that aren’t the ones that people see when they look at your IMDb page. Because I live inside my life, when people are like, “Well that’s crazy! Where did that come from?” And you’re like, “Well, it’s been part of my life for the last 20 years.” Looking at it from the outside, people haven’t really seen all that stuff.
Filmmaker: The sheer physicality and sexuality of the performers is captured with such grace and electricity. It’s hot. It’s not mumblecore sex, even though there are moments of great awkwardness and humor. Perhaps it’s all second nature for the dancers, but you don’t really see this kind of eroticism in films that often, certainly not American films.
Yakin: It’s a movie about sexuality, and sexual identity and how we feel about our own sexuality and how we feel about it in the context of a relationship. We make so many movies about sex. Even When Harry Met Sally is a movie about sex. The thing that often breaks apart or binds a relationship is sexuality … [which] is always glossed over or it’s the part you don’t see. I very much wanted to make a film that treated sex with the same importance of every other aspect of life. This is a movie about sex, so we’re going to show you sex scenes, because this is where a lot of this relationship falls apart or works. But it was challenging, even though Bobbi and the others are more used to exposing themselves physically and emotionally than a traditional actor.
Smith: When I was reading the script, something that I really loved, that connected with me in terms of my own work, is trying to make that gap smaller between what we classify as something sexual and maybe private and something that is physical. Physicality is physicality, and how can that also be a dance that can be seen in a beautiful way? How can something that has more tension in it also be seen as a dance, but it’s not only something that’s beautiful and flowing and all of those things? I loved reading that in the script, that it was showing more of a full spectrum of what sex is, to different people, and how many contradictions and how many different layers are happening all at once.
Filmmaker: Boaz, are you worried that audiences can keep track of the different personas and layers of the film?
Yakin: There’s a concern but that’s also the fun. It does start with Bobbi pretty much telling you the structure of it. But after that, let people catch up to the fact that Aviva also is being played by a man, as well. Once the concept was explained, now let people catch up. When you’re making a movie like this it’s really freeing not to have to worry that everybody in every theater in every seat gets the move at the same speed or the same level of connection.