Three Monkeys: Interview with Turkish Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Three Monkeys world premiered in competition at the 2008 Cannes Film Fest.  Zeitgeist will release the film, which was initially picked up by New Yorker, in April 2009.


Initial idea forThree Monkeys


One generally forgets the very first motivations for a project. I think that the first scene that came to mind was the image of a son hitting his mother. What reason would provoke such an improbable situation? Writing a screenplay is a very chaotic process. For this film it was more complicated than for my previous ones and made it necessary to bring in a co-screenwriter.


The actor who plays the politician


Yes, but I started with my wife Ebru. For Climates, she had given me key ideas, like the motorcycle accident, but she didn’t want to appear as screenwriter in the credits. I decided to work with her again on this new film. She knows me very well, which cuts down on explanations! We rented a house in the mountains, where we worked for a few months. But the story became more and more complex, and we decided to invite our friend Ercan Kesal to join our team. He is a doctor and runs a hospital. He had done his military service in far-off regions and excelled at recounting colorful memories of it. For three months, we saw each other every day for sessions of about four hours, during which we talked about the screenplay and the characters. Every day I gave them ‘homework’ on specific scenes for the following day. But I have to say that the architecture of the screenplay is really the work of Ebru, who, once again, gave me the screenplay’s key ideas. As for Ercan, it was his first writing experience. He’s also been involved in politics, which is why the character he plays is a politician.


Political aspects


The important thing is that he was able to have this affair with the wife of the man who is in prison because of him. When he loses the elections, he has to hold in the violence he feels inclined to due to his humiliation. During the shoot, there were elections in Turkey, which allowed us to get footage – left out in the editing process – and record interesting atmospheric sound. We made up an imaginary political party for him.


Autobiographical filmmaker


All my previous films are works of fiction, even if I act in them! It’s easy to make mistakes when interpreting a work: if I had used an existing party, people would immediately have taken that to entail a political message, while my concerns here are more existential than political.


Melodramatic elements


I really like the melodramatic elements as one finds them in popular Turkish cinema. Turkish filmgoers, myself included, are crazy about them. I wanted to borrow those themes and re-appropriate them in a realistic way. Most melodramas involve unrealistic situations, which become acceptable if you treat them realistically. For me, the essence of life is melodramatic, especially in Turkey!


Realism in the writing stage


Realism is in the writing. But sometimes one doesn’t realize until the moment of shooting that something doesn’t work and what was written should be tweaked. You have to be very wary. For example, when the mother comes back home and shows her son the money the politician has given her, the son rejoices in the screenplay. During the shoot that didn’t work, and he ended up being more contrarian.


Mother’s infidelity


Not necessarily. As Nietzsche said, there are two tragedies in life: to not attain one’s goal and-worse–to attain one’s goal. They’re doing something dangerous without the father’s approval. During the shoot, the credibility of the scene was not dictated by logic, but by intuition.


Melodramatic codes and Fassbinder connection


Certainly. And also Bergman, I think.


Inside characters’ heads


I like to explore the soul of the characters. The cinema is maybe not as powerful as literature for that. It’s still a young art, but I don’t have the impression that on this track, the cinema has produced a body of work equal to that of Dostoievski. Maybe one day filmmakers will manage that. What interests me is to try and understand what is generated in the deepest realm of human nature. It’s only by getting to know your own dark side better that you can hope to improve oneself.


The Title


I found the title very late! It comes from Confucius’ philosophy, where, in fact, the three monkeys have a positive meaning that represents goodness: to not hear evil, not see it and not talk about it. In the film, the son pretends that he hasn’t seen his mother commit adultery, the father pretends that he hasn’t heard his boss’s voice on the phone, and the mother lies to the other two. In our days, though, the metaphor of the three monkeys is used in a negative way, to denounce the hypocrisy of appearances.


Consequences vs. Pure Action


I shot the accident, but I didn’t keep it in editing. If I show too much action, that risks eclipsing the other moments of the film.


Film’s photography


I adore working with my chief cameraman, Gokhan Tiryaki. I had hired him for Climates, because I couldn’t frame the shots while playing the leading role. And I kept him on this film. He has very stimulating ideas and gives me a lot, even though I decide the camera and light placement. Then I control everything on the monitor, which is easier than working the frame. This gives me an overall vision and allows me to better focus on the actors.


Image of film


I wanted everything to be focused on the three members of that family. Therefore I insisted on visually isolating them from the surrounding world. Initially I had even planned never to show faces other than theirs! I also wanted to create around them a particular chromatic atmosphere, consisting of de-saturated colors, which I accomplished in post-production. I wanted a less naturalistic and more stylized image than that of my previous films. I had decided to create my

own visual universe, which I probably would have done on earlier projects had I had more skill.


Somber, tragic story


I don’t know if one should exaggerate its significance. Those are the images of my soul. They correspond to my worldview of the past twenty years. And now, I manage to technically achieve what I want better than before. My character is pretty somber! And I fight for life to be more bearable.


Scenes shot in close-up


There were cries, violent action. The kind of thing I don’t like to show too much. It seemed enough to shoot it from a distance.


Violent action between husband and wife


The setting was too small for me to put the camera further away! But in that scene the violence is mostly dormant: you wait for it to explode, but it’s deferred, so the close-up is allowed for. The other scene, by contrast, is violent from the start.


Someone watching them from afar


Yes, I wanted to give that impression, especially since I’m shooting them from behind the bushes. But I wanted to let ambiguity linger. They could also be observed by the father.


Setting of the house


We didn’t have the means for that! One day, while passing by the railroad, I noticed that house. At first I hesitated to choose it: it was almost too good a fit, as if it had been constructed for the film. I was looking for a more banal-looking, more realistic house. The connection between the terrace and the interior wasn’t at all what I had imagined. I didn’t want to show the sea, I found that too beautiful. What sold me on it was the proximity to the railroad: one of the titles envisaged for the film was “The Sound of the Trains”. The spaces of the house were too small to film: they enforced on us an interesting challenge, since the camera and the crew often had to position themselves in another room than the characters. Generally speaking I’m not very demanding in terms of locations, and I adapt very easily to natural settings. If I had shot in another house, I would have created a specific atmosphere for it. When you decide to shoot in a certain setting, you force yourself to make the best possible use of it. As the screenplay had been written before the house was chosen, I had to change the writing considerably in function of the setting. I had written it with a balcony in mind, and not the big terrace that ended up playing an important role.


To be able to adapt is part of the work of mise-en-scène. I’m someone very practical on the set. I don’t change the meaning of the film, but I adapt very easily. That’s what I mean when I compare myself to a chameleon.


Casting the other actors?


We had to speed up preparations for the shoot because of the elections I wanted to film.  But we had to get the cast together in fifteen days. The casting director had only been able to find the young man. I had sent my assistant out to film people in the street! For the father and the mother, we placed ads in the papers, and we did many screen tests. I didn’t manage to find a convincing actor for the role of the father. Then I remembered this man I had met during a Turkish film festival in Strasbourg. He is a well-known singer in Turkey, who has acted on television. When I saw the tests I had no doubt: he was the father. The mother is a theatre actress, who also acted in television series.


Work with Actors


Every actor is different. You have to create a method for everyone. The mother acted way too theatrically, which I had to incessantly fight against. I cheated a lot by having the camera roll without telling her, while she was rehearsing. For certain delicate scenes, I left the camera rolling in the kitchen while she was rehearsing there all alone! Nobody was watching her, and she appeared much more natural. During that time I watched the take on the monitor in another

room! Then I went back and said “We’re going to shoot!” and often she wouldn’t do as well.  For the father I started by filming exactly what was written, to ‘make sure’; then I shot variations, asking him to improvise. I would ask him “If you were in the character’s place, how would you react?” And sometimes, he would come up with better things than I could have imagined.


The son is enigmatic


The first week I didn’t think he was good. He was very stressed. He’s a young actor who had just come out of a dramatic arts school, and it was his first role. But as of the second week, he was



Difficulties directing actors with little dialogue


Yes, especially theatre actors: they feel obliged to fill silences with useless mimicry; those are the most difficult moments to play. That’s when I have to cheat and let the camera roll without telling them. With the chief cameraman, we always had to be on alert to capture the unexpected. We perfected a code with words that we changed on a daily basis to have the camera roll without the actors knowing! Therefore I never use a clapboard. Given all this I shot twice as much footage on this film than on Climates. I have to add that when I was playing the leading role myself, it was difficult to have the camera roll in secret!


Digital High Definition Shoot


Climates was shot with the same camera. But the whole difference consists of the digital process in post-production. It’s not the camera that makes the difference; everybody uses the same one! It’s been known for a long time in photography: photographers can use the same camera, but what matters is the work done after the shoot, on the print. The definition of the image is not the most important thing. What’s essential is the density of the image, to be able to decide which part of the image will have which density. That’s what imparts depth and meaning: you decide that the corners will be darker, that the blacks will be more dense in a particular section of the frame, etc. Thus you can retouch every shot as if you were painting a picture. For example, when the boy follows his father toward the railroad, he is shot from the house in a high angle, as if the mother were watching him. In the film there is a big shadow on the terrace, which darkens the image. That shadow wasn’t there in the original take, yet it’s what gives the shot its force.


Three Monkeys inspired by Ylmaz Güney film?


The film’s point of origin resembles a film by Güney I like a lot, namely The Father, but that’s where the influence ends. It’s the story of a rich man whose son commits a murder, and who pays the caretaker of his property to turn himself in in the son’s place. Güney plays the part of the caretaker, who spends years in prison.




Robert Bresson is one of my great examples. To convey certain things, the image is useless; sound suffices. But I never think of this during the shoot. Everything comes together in sound editing and mixing. It is extremely difficult to take decisions regarding sound. Possibilities are infinite, every sound can create a different event. This is the first time I don’t use any music in a film, which pleases me. The only exception is the song that makes up the ring tone of the cell phone.


The song


When we were shooting Climates, in the far East of Turkey, we were removed from everything. One night, we were obliged to sleep in the crew bus. The cold woke us up in the dead of night, and the motor refused to start. If we stayed there, we were going to die of cold. So we started to walk. We noticed a light in the distance, and when we knocked on the door of this place, there were three young people around a fire. One of them told us he was in love with a girl. In Turkey, to get married, you have to give money to the family of the bride. He had been scraping for two years to get the required sum together, and said that he’d have to work five more years to manage that. In the background, this love song was playing! I’ve never forgotten either the encounter or the song.


Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan


Nuri Bilge Ceylan was born in Istanbul, Turkey, 1959. After graduating from Engineering Department of Bosphorus University, Istanbul, he studied filmmaking for two years at Mimar Sinan University, Istanbul.



Cannes 2008 – Winner Best Director



Cannes 2003 – Winner Grand Prix and Best Actor



Berlin 1998 – Prix Caligari





2008 Cannes Film Festival

WINNER Best Director

2008 Asia-Pacific Screen Awards

WINNER Best Director

2008 Osian's Cinefan Film Festival

WINNER Best Director

2008 “Manaki Brothers” Film Camera Festival

WINNER Mosfilm Award for Cinematography

2008 Haifa Film Festival

WINNER Best Film (Golden Anchor)