NEW YORK – Imagination and resourcefulness have characterized the Greeks in the face of challenges for 4000 years, enabling them to survive – and to create art even in times of troubles. That spirit lives on Kostas Koutsoliotas, the director of the film O Xeimonas – The Winter, produced by his wife Elizabeth E. Schuch, who was also its art director.
Of course, challenges are harder if you are not sure they are real.
In the movie Niko, an aspiring writer and Greek expatriate in England, loses his job after the financial crash and is having a hard time getting his act together.
His focus turns to memories of his late father, who died mysteriously and whose own issues caused Niko’s mother to divorce him.
The father planted ideas in the son that in addition to ghosts, there was some kind of treasure in their ancestral home.
Without telling anyone, including his worrisome mother, he returned to the centuries-old house in the dead of winter – to find himself, and to seek – God knows what.
“Surrounded by the ghosts of the past, Niko must uncover the mystery of his father’s death and retain his grasp on reality.”
Koutsoliotas and Schuch were born in their countries’ Northern regions – he in Larissa and she in Chicago – and they shared a fascination with ghost stories and fantasy.
They took a class in 3-D animation at the Glasgow School of Art in Scotland and soon worked together on school projects. A year later they were married.
Schuch’s path to film making began in theater design and his in psychology, and the film was born of a blend of topics that interested them and practical concerns.
The idea came to them during a visit to Koutsoliotas’s parents’ house in mountainous Siatista in Northern Greece.
Koutsoliotas and his father regaled her with the family ghost stories, but the house also imposed its will.
Beyond being a cheap location, Schuch realized “This place needs to be filmed – it’s dying to have a story told about it,” she thought. “We began to develop what kind of character would go there and what would happen and we wrote the script together.”
Koutsoliotas heard the ghost stories all his life, but he is a skeptic, with a complex relationship with religion. His musing informs The Winter: “When there are no people around, what is fantasy, what is reality – how can you judge? And even with people around, who is to say who is right and who is wrong…”
Asked if skeptics in his family would tell the storytellers that they were talking nonsense, he said “of course – but then they would tell their own ghost stories!”
Schuch became intrigued by the contrast between the way Americans and Greeks would share supernatural experiences. In the Midwest, stories are about wild over-the-top experiences, while in rural Greece, “the ghosts were part of the natural fabric of village life –tales of that grannies tell…reading coffee cups, exorcisms and ‘the mati’ are woven into one’s experience” and interpretations of everyday life.
The end result is a thought-provoking movie that explores the nature and perceptions of reality, but it delves even deeper, into questions about evil – is it man made, a product of imagination, or elemental? Who can help us understand it? Is it rooted in man’s nature but mediated through corrupt or decayed institutions that are not up to its challenges, like the Church?
The Winter also poses a practical question to viewers: are there two murders, or one (or none)?
The director used all his tools, most of all wonderful cinematography, to keep the borderlines between different worlds and worldviews blurry – but compelling.
Schuch told TNH “Kosta is amazing at the effects. He has a fantasy oriented mind,” conditioned by the graphics of novels by his favorite writers like H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Alan Poe…That kind of visual poetry and imagery had an effect on the film.”
His favorite films include Brazil and Dark City, “that get into your head,” he said.
The Winter is a low budget, self-funded film, shot in 18 days in Greece, and few days in London. “Our crew consisted of good friends and industry contacts from Greece, England, the USA, and Poland and INKAS is the production company that assisted us with casting and advice,” Schuch said.
They feel fortunate to have found artists like first-time actor Theo Albanis, who fell in love with the script, and established Greek indie actor Vaggelis Mourikis.
“We were also lucky to have the music of Active Member…Mihalis Mytakidis music was a second layer of characters …The music is beautiful and complements the story line. It gives you an insight into the soul of Niko, who is often seen alone with his thoughts in the house.”
Koutsoliotas, who worked on digital composition for 300, was VFX supervisor for The Winter.
The film opened at the Thessaloniki Film Festival and the New York Greek Film Festival in 2014 and it will soon open in Greece. After that, it will either be made available online or distributed as a DVD. The trailer can be seen at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K7Ob0w1wtg4#action=share.