In 2004, when I began writing the script for LOOK, STRANGER, I envisioned a spare, visual story about a displaced woman trying to get home through an extraordinarily hostile environment. I foresaw the emotional core of my story being about the connections the woman made with different characters along the way and how she was transformed and enlightened by her journey. The film would be a testament to hope in a dark world.

But films have a mysterious personality all of their own that pushes them into being the stories they long to be. By the time I finished filming and editing, the film’s story had become a tragedy. The damage from the war was so deeply wound into the woman’s existence that she was no longer capable of connecting emotionally with others. Her journey had not only brought her home to a shell of a house, it had brought her home to a spiritual shell. Is there hope in a dark world?

“Who’s there?” is the first question in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and to me, one of the most mysterious questions in Western literature. It suggests so much more: Why are we here? Is there a witness to my suffering? Am I alone? I’ve always been drawn to this question and felt it should be the emotional idea driving the woman as she struggles with grief, loss, her past, and a world seemingly absent of a god. I felt also that the question resonated with the desire of refugees all over the world to believe that somewhere, somehow, someone was bearing witness to their displacement. Do you see me?

My intention with this first film is to tell a story that narrates the physical drama of a displaced person. But I hope the film also offers a vision of something more enigmatic: some of the mystery and loneliness of spiritual longing.

The landscape is an important main character in the film’s story, and it was the point of departure from which the rest of the visual design of the film was created. Searching for an evocative but geographically ambiguous setting, I scouted locations in the western United States, northeastern Turkey, and the Republic of Georgia before finding the right combination of beauty and desolation in the mountains and neglected urban towns of southwestern Serbia. I wanted to suggest something bitter and melancholic in the contrast between the film’s beautiful natural world and the ugliness of the film’s manmade ruins, abandoned buildings, and scattered trash.

Working with very little, Nevena Mijuskovic, the production designer, was extremely resourceful at creating a cohesive environment that for the most part defies time, place, and language. COME AND SEE, STALKER, and THE LAST BATTLE were a few of the cinematic influences we discussed when designing the look and feel of the film’s exteriors. We also strove to create a sense of claustrophobia in the film’s interiors, and worked with the rule that no prop should be in the film that couldn’t be found at a trash dump or carried over a long period and distance.

Michael Simmonds, the cinematographer, was, along with the lead cast, my most important creative collaborator, and he and I prepped the look of the film extensively. We worked with two central visual ideas: First, a dangerous world that’s difficult to see clearly and that’s in continual conflict with the characters moving through it. Secondly, a world that is experienced only with available light, firelight, and fluorescent camping light. These two ideas contribute to the film’s tension and to its realism. To balance this, Simmonds used vintage Cooke lenses that give the film a soft, dream-like quality, and that allow us to sense some of the woman’s inner, psychological world.

As soon as I met the actress Anamaria Marinca I knew she was the right person to play the protagonist of the film. Her combination of intelligence, strength, and moral vigor, both as a person and as an artist, would make this character complex, inspiring, irritating, moving, and believable.

The man in my story was much more challenging to cast. I wanted to portray a male character not typically represented in the war film genre: a man who doesn’t belong in a war environment at all, who finds himself severed from civil society and at a loss for an identity in a world of male brutality. When I met Tom Burke, I was moved by the sensitivity and inner conflict he was able to project. Within the story, his character’s vulnerability is a complicated contrast to the female character’s toughness.

Last but not least: the child. During an extensive casting process in which I met boys from all different nationalities and backgrounds, I became more and more convinced that the child should be played by a gypsy. In the film, the child character may be a real child being remembered, a ghost, a spiritual witness, or the woman’s alter ego. I felt this ambiguity fit well with the mystery and itinerant history of gypsies. When I met with a group of thirty local gypsy boys near our mountain town, there was one girl who had stubbornly insisted on tagging along with her brothers. She was the most gifted of the whole group, but she was a girl, and I had envisioned the character as a boy. After the audition was over, she ran and jumped into one of our production vans parked outside and refused to climb out. The role was cast there and then. How could I make a film about a woman’s refusal to give up and not be moved by the fight in this six year-old girl? Valentina Berisa cast herself.