Sober Sunrises, and Other Tales of Making Maya Dardel

What happens when a poet and a novelist start making movies together?

Sex and violence in paragraph six!

Now that I have your attention, I’d like to talk about walking alone in the woods writing poetry. A percentage of hominids still write and read poetry. I am one of those retrograde animals. I’ve done it for decades, and my most effective method for producing poems worth a damn is walking alone amid trees with paper and pen, full-bore Wordsworthian self-serious pastoral pondering, even if my poems are about 21st -century pain and angelic supercomputers. And by “worth a damn,” I mean, poems during the writing of which one feels the electric sensation in the back of the neck one gets from first-rate chamber music and then later, reading them, an electric echo — it wasn’t mere egotism (always a danger, but a world without vanity is a world without art) — other minds I’ll never meet might just be moved by this pattern of language.

Alone is critical, as seriousness shatters against the first note of a contemporary human voice, because we live in a cartoon time, with cartoon emoji people, cartoon politicians, cartoon apathy in the face of genuine impending environmental collapse, and poetry is no cartoon.

“So, what was it like to become a film director?” To go from composing alone in the woods to composing in a cyclone of caveats, complaints, tears, laughter, lingo, memes, mutiny, flattery, tomfoolery and budgetary broadsides? It was awful. I know the expected thing to say here is, “It was such an eye-opening, blessed experience, learning to work with other people, and everyone was so wonderful,” but I’m an unsentimental malcontent.

Humans are wonderful in very small groups, but as soon as you introduce a budget, a timeframe and more than six of us, we start to devastate the planet. At the same time, we distract each other from the eternity of nonexistence coming for us all; we do so via banter, gossip, karaoke and intolerance of all things serious. This is for the best in quotidian life. I wouldn’t want everyone incessantly reminding me sea levels are rising, overpopulation will cause global war, I probably shouldn’t have children but will anyway because I’m a genetic automaton

But art should remind us. Composing a serious, poetic piece of art on a film set is a punishing challenge. Maybe I’m oversensitive, having come to filmmaking from such a solitary art form, but I do find the most powerful moments in filmmaking occur in the eye of the cyclone, between small groups of people: actors and director, actor and actor, director and cinematographer, producer and caterer. Also, I was outright lying when I promised sex and violence in this paragraph. “Life is disappointing,” as simpletons say, and my sense of humor is so dry it can’t have sex, ever.

So, shouldn’t I return to my serious woods and write self-serious poems for my serious readers? I should, but there’s something so awful about filmmaking, so degrading for everyone, that I can’t help wanting to spend the rest of my short life doing it. I think, as desertification spreads and fisheries collapse and pollinators go extinct and all the wonderful cartoon people keep electing cartoon leaders to handle the world’s unbelievably serious problems, I’d like to make 40 more films and then irrevocably cease to exist. ?

— Zachary Cotler


After that uplifting diatribe, I think we need a little reassurance. Apparently, it’s reassuring to begin an article with dubious facts. Dubious fact: a Pleistocene woman spent most of her days lounging around on the veldt, committing only 30 hours a week to food-procuring efforts. A modern woman of the wholesome childless childlike variety, presumably a writer, filmmaker or other “content creator,” also spends only 30 hours a week “working,” that is, lounging around on the office chair or sofa.

Unlike that of her primal counterpart (who didn’t own a lamp), whose leisure was unencumbered by anxieties about art in favor of those concerning mere survival, the modern writer/filmmaker’s circadian pattern is hopelessly out of whack. She sleeps in and stays up writing, determined to add her script/article/libretto to the already obscenely overburdened culture. She never sees a sunrise. For respite, she re-watches films about women in unstable conditions.

At the end of Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles makes a cameo to quote himself: “Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don’t know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It’s that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don’t know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really … How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”

Bowles looks old and unwell in the film, and now is dead, so he was right. It’s very unfashionable for millennials to worry about death and, in contradiction to their own moniker, to think in contexts longer than a decade, but this particular filmmaker, the abovementioned thirtysomething, with a leg in Gen-X, bravely straddles historicity. In high contrarian fashion (rebellion is, she hears, the zeitgeist that threatens to stay), she becomes fixated not on Bowles’ rising of the moon, but of the sun.

How many sunrises has she seen? She sifts through the sunrises of her life: chicken pox, scarlet fever, stomach bugs, adolescent romances, post-coital talks in early adulthood, post-communist summer camp drills in late childhood, jet lag day-nights, layovers, a gripping book or ten, one in particular by Marquez that made her check herself for rabies, all night long, by sniffing a glass of water. Even then, the sun also rises.

How many sunrises has she seen drunk? More than sober but not many. Cities have legislated against her goal. In Los Angeles, the infamous last call is 1:30. In London, it’s midnight or earlier. In Krakow, some bars never open, some stay open till noon. The latter should be avoided. The stamina to drink at home until dawn is reserved for the more robust generation of her parents. The rare occasions left for drunken sunrise-watching: New Year’s, divorce.

Then, the screenplay she wrote with her partner — his presence thus far bound to the sofa across the room, where he’s been undergoing his own tribulations, with an occasional sluggish SOS — finds a producer, a cast, and goes into production. They become fanatical about first light, the so-called “magic hour” (not to be confused with a “happy hour”). They marshal their actors across marshes at 6 a.m. Each day an alarm clock rings at 4 a.m.

At the end of first week, they’ve traded their urbane circadian rhythms for the rhythms of the Pleistocene. In three weeks of shooting, they soberly witness more sunrises than in the past 10 years combined. In the dawn light cinematographers covet, the actors appear preternatural in a way almost no artificial light provides. But principal photography, like all things, ends, and a sunrise remains as alien to me as a lamp to a Pleistocene woman.

— Magdalena Zyzak

Zachary Cotler and Magdalena Zyzak are the writer-directors of Maya Dardel, starring Lena Olin, which is on release theatrically through Samuel Goldwyn Films. A graduate of Cornell and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Cotler is the author of a novel, Ghost at the Loom (2014), a critical monograph, Elegies for Humanism (2015), and three books of poetry, Supplice (2014), Sonnets to the Humans (2013) and House with a Dark Sky Roof (2011). A native of Poland, Zyzak moved to the U.S. In 2002, where she produced Asiel Norton’s films Redland (2009) and Orion (2015), also co-writing the latter. Her first novel, The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel, was published to widespread critical acclaim in 2014. In 2014, Cotler and Zyzak became a filmmaking team; their forthcoming feature, When I’m a Moth, is currently in postproduction.