As recently as this past December, I did not know the name Stiven Luka nor had I seen any of his performances. After an acquaintance brought to my attention the premiere of a documentary feature, I reached out to Stiven who kindly agreed to chat with me. As per his bio, “Stiven Luka is an Albanian-American filmmaker and theater-maker. IMDB page live works have played across the US in venues such as Performance Space and The Bushwick Starr in New York, and HAU in Berlin. He’s directed a number of shorts, including Fish Will Bite; Joy Don’t Kill; Tight Pinch and Other Ear. He’s also the creator of Crystal, a character that will appear next on Crystal’s The World. His first feature, Nobody May Come, premiered at the 31st annual New Orleans Film Festival. BFA- NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.”
Your first feature premiered at the 31st annual NOFF and received positive reviews and the Jury Cinematography Award. How does directing a feature compare to your writing, adapting theater shows and shorts?
I approach all the work the same way—by piling some givens and a lot of unknowns together and observing the interplay that follows. I get involved as much as I need to for any given project, so that’s really the main variable. I shot this feature myself, along with the co-director, Ella Hatamian, firstly as a constraint, then out of a need to make something intimate. Most of the shoot was just the two of us following Valerie, the subject, around. In my films, I have kept a mentality from the theatre, of constantly switching things up. The phrase “finished piece” eludes me.
The title “Nobody May Come” sounds intriguing and somewhat uninviting yet memorable. Incidentally, all these qualities comport with the main character. Although we are invited to be up close with Valerie Sassyfras, she remains elusive.
I went at it from a perverse angle and chose the title specifically because it’s something that bothers me—hearing the title delivered as a line, that is. Unless it’s something like an action film and the delivery is tongue-in-cheek. I didn’t really think about it being inviting or uninviting, but more that it presents an event and the contingency of an audience turnout is built in. Valerie says it early on in the film, and it speaks to a fear that’s embedded in most live performers—one that I’ve encountered many times from my years in the theater—which is the fear of playing to an audience of zero. It makes me think of Grotowski in the Polish woods, putting on shows intended for no one.
The photography is artful and one would be forgiven for taking for granted the sound track as music is an intricate part of who she is rather than what she does.
The intention was always to make a work centered on the music, and the scenes are built around that. It’s Chekhovian pop in the sense that it’s all on the page. So what she experiences is the territory that the songs cover.
Valerie is unapologetic about being herself even though the media would characterize her as a New Orleans eccentric, pop star, celebrity, outsider artist, party jam meme etc. How did you find Valerie?
I lived in New Orleans from 2015-2017. I went to a group show at this bar called Siberia, and I had no idea who she was. I went to see David Liebe Hart perform but she took the stage before him, and she had such a command that I was instantly mesmerized, particularly when she went behind this scrim for a prop. Eventually, she would trade the scrim for backup dancers, but at that point she was mostly a one-woman show. And then I read something later on about how she wanted to be the next Taylor Swift and I thought that was fantastic, but by that point I had already decided to make a movie about her. As [Roland] Barthes would say, I got to the punctum before the studium. I bring up Barthes because, along with [Susan] Sontag, he pays special attention to the accidental in image-making.
Whose works do you admire or who do you consider the best in your craft?
This changes all the time, but off the top of my head, it’s writers like Gary Indiana and Dennis Cooper, artists like Eva Hesse and Rebecca Horn, and performers like Liberace and Zeki Muren. I don’t know about “best” because I view it no differently than shopping for socks. Being from Shkodër, its theatrical, comedic tradition resonates with me—I look for some of that in everything.
Then there’s the personal connection—I have no memories of my aunt Lola other than watching her as the roles she played, most notably in “Kur xhirohej një film” (1981). The last time she saw me, I was only two. Contextualizing my relationship with her mainly through a screen means I have a screwed up connection to cinema.
Your aunt, Lola, is the renowned actress Violeta Dede, that the Albanian public has seen in many movies through the decades. Jim Belushi, Eliza Dushku, and others have achieved recognition status here in the US as well. I often hear from Albanian actors how writer and leading actor Nia Vardalos of My Big Fat Greek Wedding “caught her break” with the help of Rita Wilson thanks in part to common ethnic family origins. What are your thoughts?
I’m reminded of that Woody Allen via Groucho Marx quote about refusing to join any club that would have me as its member. But if Rita Wilson wants to promote my career, I won’t scoff at it, especially if Chet Hanks can contribute to the soundtrack.
As it happens, I find both Belushi and Dushku endearing. Dushku was a good reference growing up, for people who otherwise had never heard of Albanians. It was either her, or Mother Teresa, who was, sadly, not involved with “Bring It On” (2000). I like to think that I dig them not because of our shared heritage, but I can’t prove that either way.
I describe myself as Albanian American because of my nationality, but I don’t fully embrace all the connotations that come along with it. Culturally, I don’t know if I identify as either Albanian or American—I’ve always felt peripherally associated with either identity, one as a result of the accident of being born and the other of uprooting, and neither of which I chose. This is why I feel more connected to someone like [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder.
In what way?
I mean specifically connected to him in the pursuit of exploring a fractured identity. The opening scene of “The Marriage of Braun” (1979) captures in under four minutes this tension of re-building on top of destruction—which is an image perfectly synonymous with how I felt the first time I was driving over Verrazano Bridge. My childhood home might as well have blown up—it would have certainly made leaving it make sense.
Do you think you will continue with features? Or theater? What might determine that for you?
The projects I end up developing are flukes, in the sense that I’m often working on something else. “Nobody May Come” came about because the project I was invested in, at the time, was falling apart. So I can’t say whether or not what I’m working on right now might ever be realized. Working independently, like I do, comes with uncertainties beyond my temperament. At this point, I’m thinking about what I fear or what repulses me—a war movie, or a contemporary, stage musical.
Thank you and good luck!