The Fencer/Klaus Haro

In the 1950s, the citizens of Haapsalu never knew when to expect the knock on the door signaling that one of their family members was about to be taken away by the Soviets. Nevertheless, it is Haapsalu that fencing master Endel Nelis, on the run from the authorities in Leningrad, chooses as safe harbor. There, under an assumed name, he establishes a fencing school for the children, many of whom have been orphaned by the Soviet occupiers. Just when he begins to think he can have a normal life in this tiny Estonian town, the children beg him to take them to the national fencing competition in Leningrad, unknowingly forcing Endel to choose between his own fate and the trust they’ve found in his care. Based on the true story of Endel Nelis, whose fencing club still exists to this day. Availability: Opens July 21, NYC, August 11, L.A., with national rollout to follow. Thanks to Sasha Berman, Shotwell Media, for arranging this interview.

 

DT:  In a very quiet, personal way, you captured the fear of people living in Soviet-occupied countries. What details did you focus on?

Mart Avandi as Endel Nelis.

Mart Avandi as Endel Nelis.

KH: We thought a lot about that. There had recently been novels concerning the occupation in this part of the world, really graphic in their description of everything that could go on—everything perverse and really harsh. We were telling the story of a man who’s a loner and finds a community, and this is what we wanted to focus on, so we decided we’re not going to show all the graphic things we could show.

This was a story about a teacher and his pupils. This man is a loner, and he’s a loner for a reason. He doesn’t enjoy it particularly—he’s a loner because he needs to protect himself. We wanted to give the film his perspective, his point of view and ways of thinking. When I read the script, one of the first visions to show the world through his eyes was to follow him behind his neck, like there’s someone behind him at all times.

We wanted the feeling of oppression to be really subtle so the people who know what it’s about will recognize this feeling.  [Our film] would not be something that turns people away, something they wouldn’t see because it’s so disgusting. The main thing of the film was not to tell what oppression does to you physically but what it does to you mentally. When it comes to the point where there’s no one to trust, no one to rely on, but you need…  It’s just each one looking after themselves and asking the question, Is there a way out of this crap, this loneliness?

 

DT: You mentioned “people who know what it’s about.”  I was struck by how much you could see this in the actors’ faces, especially the children. You could see the understanding in their eyes; they knew each other’s fear. When the children saw Endel being taken away, they didn’t say, as an American kid would, “What’s happening?” These children understood exactly what was happening.

KH: What we see, even today, is that people know what it’s about. The folks in Estonia have a tendency not to talk too much about these things, but once you start getting to know them, you find that every family is connected to an event when a family member was taken away. The knock at your door late at night was always bad news, and you see it in their eyes.

It’s a beautiful country, and the people are so beautiful. In northern Europe it’s still light around 9:00 in the evening. It’s beautiful, it’s green, it’s like paradise, but I remember driving around one beautiful summer evening scouting for locations and seeing that flags all over the country were at half mast. I asked the young man who was driving me around, “How come?” He said, “This is in memory of the first night when thousands of Estonians were taken from their homes one beautiful summer evening.” Tens of thousands of people were taken from their homes to some far-away place in Siberia; again and again people were taken from their homes. In the middle of all this beauty you have this sorrow, this memory of these events, and you can see it in people’s faces, their expressions turning from relaxed to a tense awareness of what’s going on.

 

Leningrad

The Soviet giant in Leningrad.

DT: As you mentioned before, you also captured Endel’s longing for a normal life. You didn’t see it at the beginning of the film—it just grew so subtly and so gently as he began to see the possibility of a normal life in Haapsalu. I loved the way you handled that. Can you talk abut carving that path for his emotional development?

KH: For this film I was the pupil and these Estonian actors were the teachers. I really relied on them. I was a newcomer. A foreign director in Estonia. They told me, “Look, we know what this is about,” and I trusted them. They were really taking this from their own experience and their own memory. I was humble in this circumstance.

When we were looking for financing, quite a lot of financiers were concerned that the film wasn’t threatening enough, wasn’t dangerous enough. They were reading the script, they were reading words on paper, saying, “Maybe this should be more graphic. Maybe you need to begin with something really violent to sell this thing.” The writer and I were the minority on this.

We were looking at a place where every grown-up person has some kind of recollection or understanding of what this is about; even if you haven’t lived this situation, you still have some experience of fear of some sort, whether it’s firsthand or secondhand. When you just read the words, it may be hard to imagine, but when you see it on film, it’s so clear from the acting what’s going on, even without words. When I make a movie, I really, really try to look for ways to tell the story without words, and to come across with whatever the film is about without overexplaining it. I’m always afraid of that. Whenever an actor says, “Can we leave this line out?” I’m so happy. Whenever we don’t have to explain what’s going on and we just see it, that’s when cinema is at its best—Charlie Chaplin, or the great silent directors in America. The best directing is just telling it in visuals, so that wherever people see the film—in the States or Europe or China or Africa—they will say,  “I know what this is about.” That’s what’s great about cinema.

 

DT: For me, one of the main messages of the film is that there is no division between a person’s personal life and the life of the nation—that individuals are not isolated from the actions their governments make.

KH: It’s always easy to see afterwards what we’re doing in the present. When something is going on, you just have a notion that something is not right, and afterward you think about it. When you do historical films that are focused on the past, you need to also draw from the present. Of course the people were different, the situations were different, but what are our fears? What are our fears today, and how can we draw on them?

As we were shooting this film, something very spooky happened. One night, we were shooting the scene where the grandfather is being taken away. That particular night, that dark night, was one of the first scenes with the young boy who plays his grandson, a very sensitive scene. There was a tension on the set, and I was personally very tense to see how this young boy was going to perform. You never know with children—they might perform, and they might not. I was trying to give him secure surroundings, I was trying to create a very focused atmosphere on the set, and suddenly I noticed the Estonian part of the crew were all on their iPhones. I was really irritated, saying, “Come on guys, this isn’t Facebook time, we’re shooting something really crucial here.”  They turned to me and said, “We’re not on Facebook, we’re reading the news that Russia has just entered Ukraine.” It was exactly the same: These events in Russia and the Ukraine were starting to unfold exactly as they had the night we were shooting in this scene. It was really frightening to see how this Estonian crew two generations, three generations later, were on their toes. We Finns didn’t always see it; we would look at the events in Russia and say, “Well, if this happens it will be like this, but on the other hand maybe it will go like that.” We looked at it as something to discuss, but for the Estonians it was really close. Whatever I’d say today, I’d probably be wrong, but whenever you live where suspicion and prejudice grow, we’re easily back in this sort of situation where you look around and can’t trust anyone and realize you can’t live in society.

 

DT: You chose not to reveal that the story was based on a real-life person, Endel Nelis, until the end of the film. Why?

Little Estonia.

Little Estonia.

KH: That was the intention of the writer, which I thought was an intelligent one because we have taken some liberties with the story. The film is based on this fencing club, but at the same time it’s a dramatization and it’s also a David and Goliath story about little Estonia and the big Soviet Union, so there are three levels to it. If you say at the beginning that this is a true story, then people will read everything and expect it to be just like it happened. A lot of things about the club happened exactly as we show in the film, and we know that Endel Nelis, the main character of the film, had some trouble with the authorities, but we don’t know exactly what happened. It probably happened over the course of a decade, while in the film we had to speed it up.

Also we thought that this way you could watch the film without second-guessing, without people sitting in the cinema and googling Wikipedia. We wanted them first to enjoy the drama, and then the idea that the Soviet Union, this big giant, was at war with little Estonia. This little fencing club that Endel started from such humble beginnings is still there today. That’s such a beautiful picture. I think that putting the reveal about Endel comes across much stronger at the end of the film.

 

DT: How did you choose and train the actors?

KH: That was a hard one because Estonia is such a small country. They see so few movies. They don’t have agents. They don’t have managers. To scope out an actor you want to see, you have to go to the theater. And that is what I did—I went to Estonia to see plays. In Estonia, sometimes the plays are four hours long. I didn’t understand much of what they were saying, but I remember being really impressed with some of the actors. That really struck me—for three or four hours I didn’t understand what they were saying, but they left an impression. I figured they would on the silver screen as well.

When it came to the children, we had a casting director. For a year she was looking for these children, going to schools, going to dancing clubs. The main children in the film, the big part of the fencing club, knew fencing from before, but the main children, who eventually go to the competition in Leningrad, really didn’t fence from before. They had to go into intensive training for the film, and that was true for the main character as well. Mart Avandi, the actor who played Endel Nelis, didn’t know fencing from before. He trained in fencing just for those scenes, so basically he didn’t train as a sport, he trained fencing as a dance. He needed to know the choreography for those scenes so he could be a believable teacher. Of course we had fencing coaches along with us on the shoot, and especially at the ending scenes—at the Leningrad fencing competition we had a lot of coaches and mentors with us on the set.

Mart Avandi, the main actor, is that kind of actor. When this film was over, he was in a play in the theater and learned to play the accordion. He’s that kind of guy. Whatever he does he does 110 percent. He’ll do whatever it takes to do his part. I could recommend him to any American or European director because he’s a fantastic coworker.

Then of course the grown-up actors were my teachers, my mentors when it came to sharing experiences. When it came to the little children, I didn’t have a common language with them, and that was the challenge there. We tried to have someone to be there to translate for us, but that didn’t really work. You need a firsthand sort of relationship…you need eye contact in order to direct a child, so we just went with really basic things, like “Look here, do this, take that, go.” It was really basic code language—“Go.” “Talk.” “Look.”—this sort of really primitive English. I think that was better than having a translator giving really detailed instruction. It’s not too intellectual working with children, it’s more physical, emotional, sort of direct, getting the feeling of what I want and repeating that many times to get that particular emotion.

 

DT: Did you consult with anybody from Endel’s fencing club?

KH: Not really. Endel’s daughter still trains people at the little fencing club in Haapsalu, Estonia, and we had some of her pupils, and Endel’s son is a coach in Helsinki, Finland. Both Endel’s daughter and son are fencing coaches and their children are fencers, so a little fencing dynasty came out of that family. I did not consult with them, but the writer of the script heard about the story of the fencing club from Endel’s daughter. I chose not to talk with them before shooting the film in order to keep the focus on the drama of the story.

I’ve done historical films before. There are always a number of details that you want to get into the film, but they will weaken the film. They will not strengthen the film. They weaken it because you’ll end up with a docudrama rather than a drama. In order to keep the drama, you must focus, get to where we originally felt the script needed to go. I chose not to talk with them so I wouldn’t be emotionally involved with what went on in real life and  wouldn’t be able to tell the story in the best way.

Afterwards I sat down to talk with them, and it was really rewarding. It was great to hear their perspective about the film. Of course they were really happy the film was made. They didn’t agree with everything in the film, but they’re happy it was made.

One really nice thing…you can imagine it’s 2016, the film is an official selection for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, the cold war has ended and the Soviets have left Estonia. It’s taken a lot of work and a lot of effort for the Estonians to build up their country. They’ve built it up in a wonderful way, but they still have really limited resources to work with. For instance, this fencing club didn’t have a fancy place to train, but due to this film, they were able to gather resources to build a brand-new fencing area for those children in Haapsalu. Of course we didn’t do the film for this, but they were able to raise awareness of their little fencing club. I haven’t visited yet, but I’m told Endel’s daughter is really beaming, she’s saying, “This is what I wanted to have twenty years ago, thirty years ago, and now finally I can give the children a state-of-the-art place to train.” It’s so beautiful when you can give something back. We owe them a lot for being able to tell this story, and we were able to give something back. I think that’s great.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

Chasing Coral/Jeff Orlowski

Breaking with Director Talk tradition, we are presenting a write-up of Chasing Coral rather than an interview with the film’s director. Jeff Orlowski’s schedule was too packed to arrange a chat, but we felt that the film is too important to pass by.  •Availability: Streaming now on Netflix, and available in select theaters. Thanks to Kate Patterson, Brigade Marketing, and Kim Parker Gordon, Netflix, for arranging a screening.

Life on earth began in the oceans nearly four billion years ago.

Life on earth began in the oceans nearly four billion years ago.

To most of us, the oceans are alien worlds, populated by strange creatures who live  in unknowable depths. Yet oceans are the source of all life on earth. They control our weather and air. They provide us with pleasure, food, raw materials to make cancer-fighting drugs. They inspire love.

For all that, we’re killing the oceans and the remarkable creatures who live there. It’s a simple but tragic process: The carbon dioxide we pour into the air traps heat; 93 percent of that heat is absorbed by the oceans. (Without them, the average land temperature would be 122 degrees.) In the process, the temperature of the oceans has risen to such an extent that they’re becoming inhospitable to marine life.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the coral reefs, living superstructures that create their own habitats, much like cities aboveground. The reefs support vast quantities of fish, which many human communities depend on for survival. But in the last thirty years alone, 50 percent of the world’s coral has died, affecting a quarter of the life in the oceans.  In twenty-five years, the oceans may be too warm for coral reefs to survive at all.  According to a March 15, 2017 article in the New York Times, “Hundreds of millions of people get their protein primarily from reef fish, and the loss of that food supply could become a humanitarian crisis.”

Richard Vevers, founder and CEO of The Ocean Agency, knew he wanted to address the calamity unfolding below, but he didn’t quite know how. Before entering the field of ocean conversation, Vevers had spent ten years as a top London ad exec, and he’d brought this advertising mentality to The Ocean Agency. The advertising problem with oceans, he discovered, was that they’re largely out of sight—and therefore out of mind. So he formulated an ambitious goal: revealing the oceans to the world.

Corals respond to rising temperatures by turning white, or bleaching.

Corals respond to rising temperatures by turning white, or bleaching.

But how best to alert a largely uncaring world to a problem they couldn’t see?  As it turns out, corals respond to rising temperatures by bleaching, or turning stark white. For an ad exec seeking to communicate the dire state of ocean affairs, that was an unfortunate response, because the white looked beautiful, not stressed. Vevers realized he needed to communicate the problem in a different way. One night, after watching Chasing Ice, the Emmy-winning documentary about the effects of climate change on the world’s glaciers, Vevers realized that the answer to his ocean problem was change: in order to move people to action, he had to show them what they were losing.

And so Chasing Coral was born. Vevers brought Jeff Orlowski, director of Chasing Ice, onboard, along with an amazing crew, who would use remote-controlled underwater time-lapse photography to document the ongoing death of coral reefs. They designed and created a revolutionary photography system, in which underwater cameras manufactured with 3D printers would be placed inside transparent bubbles and situated on the ocean floor, where they would communicate wirelessly with an operator sitting in a boat. There was only one problem: the system didn’t work. Under pressure to catch the corals before they died completely, they switched to the old-fashioned method: documenting the change by hand, making twenty-five dives per day along the Great Barrier Reef.

In their final death throes, corals phosphoresce to protect themselves from the heat.

In their final death throes, corals phosphoresce to protect themselves from the heat.

In the process, they discovered that stressed corals did more than turn a beautiful white: In their second stress response, the corals glowed, producing the equivalent of a chemical sunscreen to ward off the heat. It was as if they were screaming, in their final phase of death, Look at me. Please notice.

Shooting dead coral reefs.

Shooting dead coral reefs.

Shooting manually, the crew developed emotional ties to the reefs. Besides the utter beauty of the corals themselves and the astonishing creatures who live there, the crew’s love for the coral humanizes the reefs, giving Chasing Coral a stirring resonance.

Corals, when alive, are breathtakingly beautiful. They’re enchanting, and mysterious, and life-giving. We see all of that in Chasing Coral. But they are not only objects of beauty to be admired from a distance; they’re also valued neighbors in this ecological web we share with other lifeforms. That’s in Chasing Coral, too. And that’s the part we really need to see.

Shooting healthy coral reefs.

Shooting healthy coral reefs.

Go to chasingcoral.com to learn about how you can get involved.

 

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

 

 

 

Lady Macbeth/William Oldroyd

Florence Pugh in LADY MACBETH. Photo credit: Laurie Sparham. Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Florence Pugh in LADY MACBETH. Photo credit: Laurie Sparham.
Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Sold to a bitter old man, Katherine suffocates in a loveless marriage. She is forbidden to leave her house and spends her days frustrated and bored, attended by the diffident Anna. When Katherine’s husband is called away on business, she defies his orders and escapes to the wild world outside, bringing its savagery—and a new lover—into her home. Based on Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (later made into an opera by Shostakovich, which was denounced by Stalin), William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth is ghastly and beautiful, horrific and ecstatic. •Availability: Opens NYC, Angelika and Lincoln Plaza Cinema, and L.A. July 14, with national rollout to follow. Thanks to Keaton Kail and Marija Silk, Susan Norget Film Promotion, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: There are some horrific scenes in the film, but some scenes are very, very beautiful. How did you approach blending those two elements?

Paul Hilton and Florence Pugh in LADY MACBETH. Photo credit: Laurie Sparham. Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Paul Hilton and Florence Pugh in LADY MACBETH. Photo credit: Laurie Sparham.
Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

WO: We were dealing with a lifeless, airless, and austere environment. Running through it were very raw and visceral emotions, so this is the contrast  we wanted to play with. We brought it out with the design, looking at these simple rooms and trying to enhance that by emphasizing the austerity and the sense in which it might be like a vacuum for Katherine. Jacqueline Abrahams, our production designer, brought in a whole series of images to reference that. She designed The Lobster, which also has a simple and beautiful aesthetic.

She called the series of images she brought in “viscera”: they were basically biting, scratching, cuts, bruises, drowned things, dead animals, wounds. I thought, ‘Wow.’ There was something so interesting about seeing the formality and the simplicity and the sparsity [of the images] contrasted with these scratches and bites and scars. So that became the basis for our work, that became a sort of palette; it came out of that. And they were things that existed in nature as well. It felt very symbolic of the story as a whole. When Katherine runs in after Sebastian has been beaten, she immediately licks his wounds, like an animal. I loved that because it feels very different from expected behavior of Victorian Englanders.

DT: Although that combination of viscera and austerity is almost how I think of that era. We don’t have that viscera today.

WO: It was there…we know it was there because we read the books now, but at the time it was not spoken about. The sacred and profane of Victorian England: how many churches were built in Victorian England? More churches were built in Victoria’s reign than all of the churches that had been built up to that point put together, then you think how many whorehouses and opium dens there were in Victorian England underneath that. There was a huge number of prostitutes.

 

DT: Both you and your screenwriter had major careers in theater before entering the world of film. What surprised you? What didn’t you anticipate?

Cosmo Jarvis and Florence Pugh in LADY MACBETH. Photo credit: Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Cosmo Jarvis and Florence Pugh in LADY MACBETH. Photo credit: Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

WO: The first surprise was that in preparation for the film, all the financiers kept asking me how I was going to get into the point of view of the character. How do you get into POV? I thought that was such a strange idea, because in theater you don’t need to worry about getting into POV. When I put on a play, there are the words, the actors know the words, they perform it, and the audience can choose where to look. But when somebody said to me, “How are you going to get into Katherine’s mind? How are we going to see this story from Katherine’s point of view?”  I thought, ‘God, I have no idea.’ And suddenly I realized that as a director of film, I had to choose where people looked, against the idea that an audience essentially self-edits in the theater.

So when they said, “How are you going to get us into Katherine’s point of view?” I said, “Well that’s a good question.” I had to teach myself. Realizing as a director you’re responsible for choosing where the audience looks, as opposed to theater, where they look for themselves, was a big, big thing to learn. Control: I suppose what you realize is that people will believe whatever you tell them to believe. Actually the medium of film is quite manipulative.

One other thing I suppose I learned  is that you really try to capture thought in cinema…the spoken word is not as important. It’s not a priority, in the same way that in theater it’s the engine; the spoken word is the thing that drives the scene. Also in theater scenes complete, then you move on to another scene, whereas in cinema you don’t need to complete a scene. You just need to basically make sure that a thought will carry across into the next moment, next beat, next scene. These are all things I learned through the process of making and also editing the film.

 

DT: How did you learn what you needed to know?

WO: Very naively I thought POV meant you’re seeing it literally from her point of view, through her eyes,  which means that the camera becomes the eyes of the person. Well no, of course it doesn’t. It was that basic. I had so much to learn making this film.

DT: Did you watch films with that in mind?

WO: Yes, but this is the danger: it ruins your cinemagoing experience forever, because as you’re watching a film you’re constantly pulling it apart and analyzing and dissecting. As I would watch a film, I began to think, ‘Why do I love this film, and how is it so clear that it’s her point of view? Oh, I see, they’ve done that. OK. So when she sits there, we hear her breathing really heavily. It brings us closer to the character.’ Something like that.

DT: Which films did you watch?

WO: We watched Night Moves, [DP] Ari Wegner and I. We liked that film for the way it builds tension. Last Days has a sort of simplicity. We really wanted simplicity. I really liked The Piano Teacher and White Ribbon. For me one of the greatest period dramas of all times is La Reine Margot. I think it’s just fantastic. Talk about viscera, there you’ve got it all. Again, that was about understanding how Patrice Chereau brought us so close to Isabelle Adjani.

 

DT: You had to work with a very low budget while doing a period piece. How did that work?

WO: We were interested to know why the common perception is that you need a big budget to do a period piece, because ultimately our film is four or five or six people in one location, and they wear one or two costumes each.

Florence Pugh in LADY MACBETH. Photo credit: Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Florence Pugh in LADY MACBETH. Photo credit: Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

DT: But what a dress that blue dress was.

WO: If you’re going to have one dress, you’ve got to make it the very best. We knew it was going to be a tight shoot—twenty-four days—and we knew we couldn’t move away from the location. We had one or two days offsite, but it didn’t seem to impede the story.

DT: It may have helped it?

WO: I think it really focused our creativity, it really focused us to make decisions. If something didn’t serve the story, then it wasn’t relevant. It wasn’t necessary. We used the low budget to our advantage in the sense that if we just couldn’t afford something, we’d ask, “Do we really need it? Probably not.”

But there were other things, like the horse being shot. That was something I really didn’t want to compromise on, so I told the producers, “I know it’s not very affordable, but I want to see this horse being killed in one shot.  I don’t want to have to cut to the gun, cut back to the dead horse, because we’ll know it’s a cheat. It will have far more impact.” But trying to find a horse that will fall over on command is expensive, so again, we probably could have afforded more background action in one of the scenes and not have the horse, but then did we need it? So it was always a balance.

DT: You couldn’t shoot the horse with a dart gun?

WO: That was probably more dangerous because then it would be somebody’s real horse. I know there are films where they do tranquilize the animals—The Lobster, for example, where they tranquilized the donkey, then pulled it over with a rope.

DT: How did you find a horse that fell over on command?

WO: We just Googled it and found a company called AB Film Horses. The horse we got is actually the biggest celebrity in our film, because it was also shot on the beaches of Dunkirk for Atonement. We have a famous horse in our film!

 

DT: You deviated from filmmaking tradition in several important ways. One, you had a female DP. Two, you had the editor on set. And three, you had the writer on set.

WO: Ari was the best person I met, so it was a no-brainer to work with her as cinematographer. It was a great advantage to have Nick [Emerson], our editor, on set, because we shot in sequence. By the end of the third week, he had very roughly assembled the first three-quarters of the film. We watched it, which could have been a disaster that sent us into our last week depressed. But ultimately we watched it and thought, ‘OK, it’s not nearly perfect, but there is at least something here that’s working. What’s missing?’ And we just wrote down a list of all the things that were missing, which we then put into a list of pickups for the last week. It also meant that because Nick was there every lunchtime we could watch rushes, every evening we could watch rushes, and I could even go to him and say, “Could you come on set for a minute?” which apparently is really forbidden, having the editor coming on set. I would say, “I’m thinking of shooting this in one shot, what do you think?” And he would be very fair in his appraisal and say, “Maybe you just need to get me the reverse.” It was very useful to have that, and we were constantly checking in. As for Alice [Birch, the screenwriter], she wasn’t there the whole time, but she did come and do some rewrites for us on set. She didn’t know she was coming to do rewrites; she thought she was coming for a set visit, but we sat her down and gave her a pen.

DT: What did you have to rewrite?

SPOILER ALERT

WO: The end. There was a scene where Sebastian’s confession is forced from him rather than coming naturally from his guilt, and we felt like it was probably much better if he felt compelled to confess, so that needed a bit of tweaking at the end.

END OF SPOILER ALERT

 

DT: I don’t know if it’s the same from a British perspective, but at least from an American perspective, you introduced a racial tension that is not in the original story. I don’t believe it’s in Shostakovich’s opera, either.  Was that intentional?

Naomi Ackie and Florence Pugh in LADY MACBETH. Photo credit: Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Naomi Ackie and Florence Pugh in LADY MACBETH. Photo credit: Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

WO: We weren’t casting those actors in order to create racial tension. If there was tension, it’s tension that exists in the story between these characters. In terms of the way we cast the film, we met everybody of all backgrounds and cast the best actors for the role. I did read one review which suggested that Katherine acts the way she does because Anna is black, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. That is not our intention, and I don’t even think it’s what comes across in the film either.

DT: From an American point of view you can certainly read it that way, because racial tension is much more important than class tension in America. You Brits would read it as class tension. We Americans would read it as racial tension. What’s your next project?

WO: I’m working with Walter Mosley, on The Man in My Basement. It’s an adaptation of a book he wrote about fifteen years ago. He’s done the screenplay and we’re shooting in Sag Harbor at some point this year.

 

DT: So you’re hooked on film. How come?

WO: I had such a good experience making this. I think film is the total medium for an artist in terms of preparation, building, establishing, creating, and then the final control you have in the end.

It’s terrifying…you have so much more control than in any other medium. Maybe not painting, but painting is lonely because you’re not collaborating. I really like the collaboration element of filmmaking…and the control. In a way painting is easier. You do it, it’s on your own, and you just stick it on the wall. You don’t have to wait for people’s response. They will either buy it or they won’t, whereas the part of film that is frustrating is that you have to make something that people think they have already bought or will buy. And that, I think, is difficult for art.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

13 Minutes/Oliver Hirschbiegel

Christian Friedel as Geroge Elser in 13 MINUTES, planting the bomb that nearly killed Adolf Hitler in 1939. Photo Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Christian Friedel as Geroge Elser in 13 MINUTES, planting the bomb that nearly killed Adolf Hitler in 1939. Photo Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

In November 1939, a small-town carpenter from the south of Germany nearly changed the course of world history. Revolted by what Hitler and his thugs were planning for Germany, Georg Elser, acting alone, embarked on a plan to assassinate the entire top Nazi leadership by blowing up the beer hall where they would be holding their annual meeting. He built a near-perfect bomb, installed it without being detected, and escaped almost to the Swiss border, where he discovered that his plan had failed only because Hitler and his gang had unexpectedly left 13 minutes before the bomb was set to go off. Oliver Hirschbiegel directs this riveting biopic about the life and death of this unsung hero. Availability: Opens June 30, New York City, Lincoln Plaza Cinema and Quad Cinema; L.A., Royal Theater, with national rollout to follow. Click here for theater listings near you. Thanks to Gary Springer, Springer Associates PR, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: As a young man growing up in West Germany, what did you know of Elser’s story, and how did it differ from what you ultimately came to know and feel about him?

Christian Friedel as Georg Elser in the Munich Beer Hall after setting the bomb in 13 MINUTES. Photo Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics copy

Christian Friedel as Georg Elser in the Munich Beer Hall after setting the bomb in 13 MINUTES. Photo Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

OH: I happened to do quite a bit of my own research about the history of my people, especially in regard to the Third Reich, so I stumbled over George Elser when I was about thirteen or fourteen. At that time he was regarded as a weirdo, somebody who had a weird vision: he was considered a bit of a psychopath. Then I saw the bomb, and the bomb was fascinating. It was a nearly perfectly planned-out construction of a really effective instrument, so I wasn’t really able to put 1 and 1 together and end up with a weirdo.

Then I forgot about this guy. Only when I was doing research for Downfall did I stumble over his name again and thought, Wow, that’s an interesting story—one should really look into that. As a matter of fact, while I was editing Downfall I was approached by the writers of 13 Minutes, who asked if I would be interested in doing a film about Elser. At the time, it was tough to deal with the Third Reich; I didn’t want to go back there. But it took another couple of years until they had the final draft, and because I know them and respect them, I finally agreed to just read it.  I still didn’t feel like I wanted to go there, but then I was surprised, because I liked their approach, I liked the idea of really going back into my own history, into the early days of this horrific system, and that’s how I got into Elser.

 

DT: According to Fred Breinersdorfer, one of the cowriters, 13 Minutes is a subversion of the heimat film. First, can you talk about the tradition of the heimat film, and then how your film subverts it.

OH: The heimat film was generated during the Third Reich and continued throughout the ’50s into the ’60s. It romanticizes German traditions, the beauty of living in the countryside, living in the mountains, which does have a lot of beauty, a lot of poetry. It’s the root of much of what our culture is based on—the music, the thinkers, the philosophers—but of course it was a very cliched image. I was always fascinated with it as a genre.

One of the values of being from the countryside was Gemutlichkeit (friendliness, good cheer). One of the crimes of the Nazi system was using that as an ideal; now the typical German country life will forever be tainted with the brown color of the Nazi ideology. So even more so, I set out to portray life in those days in the countryside, in the provinces. I tried to do it in a loving way and not in a cliched way, because what you see in the beginning [of the film] is actually what the Nazis destroyed.

DT: Did heimat films start out being propaganda films or nostalgia films?

OH: Both actually—they used it for propaganda reasons and of course they used it in nostalgic, romantic comedies, things set in the mountains or the countryside of Bavaria.

 

DT: I was fascinated to learn that Elser’s living relatives were ashamed of being related to him.

OH: Part of the family refused to be in touch with us. Right after Georg’s failed assassination, the people of [Georg’s hometown] Konigsbronn—the family to start with—had to suffer greatly. The men all got drafted into the army and were forced into the worst war theaters, ending up in Russia fighting at Stalingrad. Georg was regarded as a traitor. It’s a German thing, you know, the concept of obedience. As it is in Japanese society, obedience is—or was—one of the cornerstones of German society. As an officer, as a soldier, you had to obey orders, and there was no way to turn against your superiors. So even people like Stauffenberg and his guys [who attempted to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944] were regarded as traitors. Same with Elser.

 

Christian Friedel plays Georg Elser in 13 MINUTES. Here, he's constructing the bomb that nearly killed Hitler in 1939. Photo Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Christian Friedel plays Georg Elser in 13 MINUTES. Here he’s constructing the bomb. Photo Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

DT: Elser was from the working class, while Stauffenberg was an aristocrat. Did class difference make a difference in the way they were ultimately regarded?

OH: Yes. Yes. Most definitely. To start with, Stauffenberg and his men and women attempted to take out Hitler at a time when it was obvious that somebody had to do something. Everybody knew about the camps at the time, everybody knew the war would not be won, there was just going to be more and more destruction, and Hitler had to be stopped. Even then, it took twenty-five years or so until they were properly recognized as resistance fighters and found their place in German history. Stauffenberg and his crew, and the Scholls [Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans, members of the White Rose resistance group] all came from an elite background. They of course had a much better lobby than a little carpenter without a proper education coming from the provinces in the south of Germany. It took a long, long, long time until Elser was at least recognized with a tiny little museum, but it was actually our film that gave him full recognition and sort of put him where he really belongs in German history.

 

DT: What are the biggest challenges in directing a biopic?

OH: Giving the audience something new, staying authentic to the character that is portrayed, finding the right dose of what are the facts that you’re giving, what is the information that you’re giving, what are the gaps that you’re leaving for the audience to fill in. Then, of course, it’s a question of how much do we know about this person, how much as a director do you have to invent or reinvent in order to portray this character even if you can’t tell for sure if it had been like that. If there’s nobody to ask, you have to start guessing, you have to do police work and try to put all the information that you have together and then come up with your interpretation. Those aspects of course are in any biopic, because there’s hardly any character, any biography that’s totally covered, but the key target must be to stay true to the character. Don’t bend it. You cannot bend a character in the portrayal just for the sake of making it work in matters of suspense or drama.

 

DT: How much leeway did you give your cast in interpreting the characters and guiding the film in the directions they wanted it to take?

Georg Elser was a simple craftsman from the countryside, who loved life, love, music and freedom, and was turned into a resistance fighter by the choking embrace of totalitarian Nazism.

Georg Elser was a simple craftsman from the countryside, who loved life, love, music and freedom, and was turned into a resistance fighter by the choking embrace of totalitarian Nazism. Photo Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

OH: I told them, especially in the beginning, that I wanted to portray German country life in an authentic way, not romanticizing it. When it came to the characters, I gave them as much information as I had, with a few guidelines. With Christian Friedel, who plays Elser, I told him basic cornerstones of Elser’s character: Imagine this man—he believes in freedom, he doesn’t understand what’s going on, he’s sort of like a hippie in the ’60s. He wants everybody to be free, he wants to travel, he’s curious, he wants to understand the world, he wants to meet other people, he doesn’t understand the concept of borders. He’s a musician as well. And as it is with musicians, he was attractive to the ladies—ladies like a man who can play guitar and sing songs. And Georg was a man who liked to dress better than the others, he was a man of style within the limits of his money, he was a charmer, a bit of a bad boy…so you hand out these little clues, and at the same time I told Christian just to think “pop star”—Georg was a little bit of a pop star. You give these tiny little things to the actors, and they create wonders. How they do it, I don’t know, but I think it worked out.

 

DT: The performances were fantastic. Let’s talk about authenticity for a bit: How did you seek to achieve it?

OH: Formally, in depicting the country life—the early days of Georg’s biography—I used a lot of handheld camera and rich colors. I used Super 8 footage to re-create the dreams and the visions. I wanted to get across this aspect of joy that was destroyed by the whole Nazi system, which believed in suppression, control, violence. If you look at the film, all the scenes that are set up within the gestapo, when the system is controlling everything, are static. They’re all shot from the tripod, hardly ever any movement, hardly ever any pans. There’s a certain aspect of claustrophobia there as well, I believe.

 

DT: You’ve said that you followed Ozu and Kurosawa in directing the interrogation scenes. What did you mean by that?

OH: Ozu especially. If you look at Tokyo Story and other films, Ozu sets up the camera and you just watch, and the people moving about or not moving about define the suspense of a scene or a moment. I used that element to create something else here. Back in the day, traveling shots were by far not as common as they are now: people are used to zoom-ins, travel-ins, side shots and high-angle shots that are moving. So if you use Ozu’s kind of storytelling today, it radiates a new quality. People don’t really notice what they’re watching—only in the subconscious they realize there’s something different in the way it’s told.

 

D: With the rise of right-wing movements across Europe and the United States, the film is especially relevant today. When you were shooting, did you direct with an eye to modern social developments, or was that completely irrelevant to you at that point?

OH: That’s dangerous. That line is for the audience to draw. I don’t set out to put my finger on that. Especially if you’re doing an historical film, you have to try to stick to what happened then and depict that, leaving it to the audience to possibly put 1 and 1 together. Plus at the time I was shooting 13 Minutes, that right-wing populist movement basically did not exist in Germany; it’s something that’s developed in the past two and a half years and really became strong last year, so that was not really on the agenda.

It’s kind of shocking to see what’s happening in Turkey right now, to see what’s happening in your country [the USA] as well. To hear what Trump and his people are saying is pretty alarming, but if there is a working democratic system in the world, it’s your country.  People forget that. For me, the United States is the exemplary democratic society—the way it’s set up in the Constitution, the way the president acts, the way the Congress acts, the way the judicial system acts, freedom of speech, freedom of press. There is no way that something like what happened in Germany would ever happen in the US, I’m absolutely certain of that. As a matter of fact, your country being a true democracy is unfortunately the reason that somebody like Trump was able to get elected. So I’m afraid you will have to ride that car for a while, but my hope is that people are smart enough to realize that is not the way to go. I think it’s a wake-up call. I hope it is. It’s much worse in Turkey. What’s going on there right now is a disaster. They’re really aiming for fascism, it’s just a tiny little step until they kill the whole concept of a parliament. But that will never happen in the United States. No way.

DT: How did 13 Minutes do in Germany?

OH: Good. Of course as a filmmaker you want it to be a big hit, but these films never become big hits. Downfall was an exception. But 13 Minutes caused so many articles and so much talk that everybody knows who Elser is now. That’s the greatest effect you can create with a film.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

The Women’s Balcony/Emil Ben-Shimon

Loving husband and wife Zion (Igal Naor) and Ettie (Evelin Hagoel) share an evening meal together.

Loving husband and wife Zion (Igal Naor) and Ettie (Evelin Hagoel) share an evening meal together.

A Jerusalem rabbi loses his mind when the women’s balcony in his synagogue collapses, sending his wife into a coma. His congregation, lacking a spiritual leader, is delighted when a charismatic ultra-Orthodox rabbi miraculously comes to their aid. Fashioning himself as their savior, he fascinates the men with his biblical tales, even as he puts more and more restrictions on the women. Lysistrata fashion, they rebel. Gently, sweetly, this comedy addresses one of the most potent problems of our time:  religious fundamentalism.  Availability: Opens May 26, New York City, Lincoln Plaza Cinema, Quad Cinema, with national rollout to follow. Click here for local listings and trailer.  Thanks to Isil Bagdadi-Sergio, CAVU Pictures, for arranging this e-mail interview. 

 

DT: The film depicts a very specific problem within a minority community in Israel, yet it’s doing very well all around the world. When you directed the film, did you intentionally focus on its more universal aspects? If so, how did you do that?

EBS: I did not think at all about how I would make the story universal. Generally, I believe that if you go deeper in a local depiction and keep it authentic, you have a better chance of having universal appeal. Sometimes I am more interested in the ways to tell a story than in the story itself. When I watch foreign films there are nuances that do not travel or get to me, but if the characters are full and human and the story is told in a fresh and interesting way, I’m happy with it.

The community (left-to-right; Nissan (Herzl Tobey), Rahamim (Haim Zanati), Ora (Sharona Elimelech), Ettie (Evelin Hagoel), Margalit (Einat Sarouf) and Zion (Igal Naor) walk through the Jerusalem streets to a bar mitzvah celebration.

The community (left-to-right; Nissan (Herzl Tobey), Rahamim (Haim Zanati), Ora (Sharona Elimelech), Ettie (Evelin Hagoel), Margalit (Einat Sarouf) and Zion (Igal Naor) walk through the Jerusalem streets to a bar mitzvah celebration.

 

DT: The film is also doing well in Israel, where there is a huge rift between the secular and ultra-Orthodox. Did you hit a nerve with this story?

EBS: Yes. The film was a huge success in Israel and sold more tickets than Titanic in its time. This is definitely a sign that it hit a nerve in Israeli society. The tension between Orthodox and secular or traditional often comes up on the surface, and it was important for me to transmit the message that no one has a monopoly on God. Many viewers asked me if I wasn’t scared to touch such a charged subject, and my answer is simple: making films is not for cowards.

 

DT: In Israeli film history, the Mizrahim [Jews from the Middle East] were often represented in boureka movies [silly comedies with stereotypical depictions]. Were you afraid of repeating that stereotype? Did you go out of your way to avoid it?

EBS: When you are doing a movie about simple Mizrahi characters, there is always a chance you will be tagged as a bourekas movie, and indeed there were a few reviewers that claimed wrongfully this is a bourekas film. That is why I was so glad to read the reviews from the US and Spain, where reviewers understood the film much better than the Israeli critics. For me the big challenge was to navigate between comedy and drama, to be comedic without turning ridiculous, and to be dramatic without being overly melodramatic, as it was done in bourekas films.

 

DT: Talk about the casting process. Many of your actors played against type; Orna Banai, whose character becomes very religious, is a famous comedian, while Aviv Alush, who plays the rabbi, is a teen heartthrob in Israel.

Rabbi David (Aviv Alush, center) joins the congregation for dinner.

Rabbi David (Aviv Alush, center) joins the congregation for dinner.

EBS: That is very true. Orna Banai is one of the greatest comedians in Israel. She appears every week in a satire show on TV and has a very clear agenda against the Orthodox. That is why I was very interested in taking her to play a part that is opposite her personal views and that is also very dramatic as opposed to her comedic persona. I think this stresses more the huge impact Rabbi David has on the community. I was amazed by the way she gave herself to the character and became her. I think the audience also loved seeing this opposite. Taking Aviv Alush to play a rabbi was also a great challenge, since he is indeed a teenage heartthrob. Also Yigal Naor who always plays hard characters (Sadam Hussein) had to get into the character of the mellow and good-hearted Zion. To cast against type can be dangerous, but when it works it pays off.

 

DT: Your composer, Ahuva Ozeri, is also very famous in Israel. Talk about her work on the film.

EBS: Ahuva Ozeri was a brilliant musician and a cultural hero to many in Israel. Together with Shaul Besser, her partner, we searched for music that will be minimalist but will lead the emotional core in the film. We worked for a very long time on the music because it was essential for me to find the punctuality and tenderness. It might also be that the work took so much time because I loved Ahuva and her personality. Very sadly Ahuva passed away as the film was released. I am positive that the film’s soundtrack will be played for many years forward and will be part of her tremendously important legacy.

 

 DT: Much of your cast had an extensive TV background, much like you.  Compared to American TV, Israeli TV is very sophisticated, but there’s still a transition from TV, even a TV film, to a film made for theatrical release.  Can you talk about transitioning from TV to film?

EBS: Starting at a young age I knew I wanted to make films for cinema, but circumstances led me to TV. For me reaching the big screen is a dream come true. In TV my creative freedom is very narrow, in cinema it’s different, you can create your vision in a more lucid way. So it was obvious to me that if this film will not succeed, I will be the first one to perform Harakiri! I think that subconsciously I wanted to cast actors who also would be transitioning for the first time from TV to film. Happily it was a successful passage for all of us.

 

DT: The role of women in religion is changing around the world. What do those changes mean in a country like Israel, and how are they reflected in your film?

EBS: A rabbi in a community has great powers and everyone is supposed to honor him. The fact that in this film we see women turning against the rabbi is not trivial at all. I think it created a discussion on where does the line between following a rabbi blindly and asking yourself questions go. One of the scenes I love most in the film is when the women gather to protest outside his yeshiva and his shock when he sees them.

 

DT: Is there anything you want to add?

EBS: The film has a good ending, which is almost euphoric, and I decided to go with it full ahead, out of my belief that it is a well-earned ending for this story, although I was afraid the audience will feel it is too sweet. Happily this didn’t happen, and it gave me an appetite to keep on telling stories for the big screen.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

Dawson City: Frozen Time/Bill Morrison

In Dawson City, a depopulated town left over from the Klondike Gold Rush, a bulldozer operator was razing the defunct swimming pool of the abandoned rec hall when he discovered a vast cache of film reels: 533 in all. The films were all from the silent era, and the discovery, in 1978, was hailed as one of the greatest finds in cinematic history. In Dawson City, Bill Morrison uses the excavated footage to tell the story of the discovery, as well as the history of the Klondike Gold Rush, the advent of American capitalism, labor movements, women’s right to vote—and the downfall of the Chicago White Sox. Mesmerizing, mind-bending, Dawson City brings us to the heart of cinema and everything American. Availability: Opens June 9, NYC, IFC Center, with national rollout to follow. Thanks to Susan Norget, Susan Norget Film Promotion, for arranging this interview. 

 

DT: Did you have an Aha! moment while you were looking through the material, or did you know in advance how you were going to put it together?

BM: This is what I knew in advance: it was a great story, it was a fairly linear story, and there was so much material that I was going to be able to piece some of it together just using the material that was there. I knew there was also a lot of supporting material out there, and as I started to look I found that there was quite a bit more than I anticipated—local stuff, home movies. I had no way of knowing there would be so much there.

Cliff Thomson, the bank manager, laid out the causality of how the films ended up in the swimming pool, and I thought there was some way I would be able to put that together. What I didn’t realize was that I would be able to expand it to include the entire century. I thought, OK, I have every decade represented here, and I can fill in the gaps from 1895 to 1929, then from 1929 to 1978, so at one point I realized I was working on a film that was much bigger than just the discovery of these films.

 

DT: There are so many layers to this movie. When you watch a film, it feels like a very fleeting thing, and you don’t think of it as a physical object that ends up somewhere. You included juxtapositions that made viewing the film a really rich experience: the juxtaposition of fleeting/enduring, the ephemeral/the physical, and also destruction—the destruction of the environment, the native population—vs. corporate “construction.” Talk about how you dealt with juxtaposition, because for me that was a very salient characteristic of the film.

BM: Destruction runs through the whole film. You’ve identified a lot of the themes, but of course a big underlying point is that these films were physical, like we are, and that they in some ways mimic our own travel through the century as physical beings. Then there’s this other component to them, and that’s that they are ethereal; they’re fleeting both in their physicality and also when they’re projected, and of course they’re only projected a few times.

Marking my way through it, there were these themes that just kept coming up. They would link and pair with each other, so there were times when I would make pockets of them, and there were times when just by adopting a fairly chronological structure they would just intercept again with the timeline. When the fires came up, that took care of itself, but as I started to go through the massive trove of the footage, I had to find ways to organize it.

Of course the first thing I looked for was the Chicago White Sox. But after that, I started looking in the database for ways to tell my story, so I looked for Gold, I looked for Swimming Pool, I looked for Film, because the database was fairly descriptive. Then I started making sequences of all the things that rhymed with each other: a series of sequences for all the newsreels that were world events—labor, suffragettes, races. Then there were ones for the narrative films—entrances, exits, wilderness, nature, interactions with decay. This sort of thing became my own database, my own stock library of this footage. So those were ways that I could then dive back into that pool when I needed to tell something: answer the telephone; writes a letter. They became their own dynamic sequences. It was sort of like making building blocks of things that would tell the [story], first from atoms, then into words, then into sentences.

DT: Did you have an organizing principle before you started creating the sequences, or did the organizing principle come from the sequences themselves?

BM: There was a timeline, sort of decade by decade and then within that year by year. It certainly is a more detailed and exacting timeline up until ’29, then it starts to leap by decades up to the discovery [of the collection in 1978], but the first half or two-thirds of the film I’m really structuring it year by year.

There’s an organizing principle that has been throughout all my work, and that’s the awareness that these are physical things that people needed to carry and store and that have the same qualities that any physical being has; they can decay, they’re heavy, they can be a nuisance, they can be flammable, in fact, they can be a danger. So what do we do with stuff?—that was one of the organizing principles. What do we do with the stuff that we accrue?

Unlike any of my other work, this has a real narrative arc to it, and it’s certainly the only strictly chronological piece I’ve built. But at the core of it it’s about an archaeological dig, so my idea was to start at the very surface, and that was the 2014 Major League baseball footage that begins the film. Then you dip down a little deeper to 1979 and then even deeper into the very beginning of nitrocellulose and the 1850s and back up to the Lumieres and the 1890s. From there you sort of scale this mountain, if you will; like the 45 degree Chilkoot Pass, you’re going up to a point. Then there are many fluctuations with the town. It rises and falls many times, but it’s basically on a downward arc. Then there’s a moment where time sort of stops and it’s elasticized, and that’s the failed double play during the 1919 World Series, where it’s sort of a page out of Chris Marker’s La Jetee, if you will, where you’re looking at every frame for a couple of seconds and time is stretched and these frames are paintings. That comes right in the middle of the film, then it cascades on into the future and climbs out at 1978 and you’re back with your narrator again.

 

DT: Talk about the Dawson City Collection and how you came to be associated with it.

BM: I came to be associated purely out of interest. The story of the Dawson City Film Fund was something people used to talk about…at least in my circles, the archival circle.

DT: That’s an elite group.

BM: It became more elite. In the late ’80s and early ’90s this was a story. I didn’t realize that people had stopped talking about it, or at least stopped talking about it correctly or even remembered it. Now I realize that I was one of the youngest people who remembered it; nobody younger than me had even heard of it. The group that was older stopped talking about it, and I don’t know what to attribute that to. Sam Kula [founder and director of the film, sound, and television archives in the National Archives of Canada] wrote a few pages in a compendium of essays called This Film Is Dangerous: A Celebration of Nitrate Film, but there was never any real scholarly book or even essay about it. There was certainly no film about it, and not too much was made of the films that were discovered.

My theory is that the story of the discovery almost eclipsed what the contents were. It was enough to say they found a bunch of films underneath an ice skating rink or in a swimming pool. I even heard someone in the Library of Congress tell CNN, “They found these films under a bowling alley.” I was like, Stop interview! Things get misconstrued and the details get dulled and it really somehow skipped a generation, so it was always a story I thought I could tell. It’s the type of story I like to tell in that you can use the content of the story as the form. I come from painting, so the idea that the two things are equally visible has always been attractive to me. A lot of my films deal with that, making not just the film stuff visible but the viewership visible: you realize that you’re watching a film.

One day I was in Ottawa showing some of my films in a local theater, the ByTowne, when the programmer said, “My day job is Digital Migration at the Library and Archives Canada.” I said, “So you have Dawson City.” He said, “Yeah, we also have a new 4K scanner.” I asked, “Can we move Dawson City to the front of your queue?” He said, “There is no queue, so yes.”

I realized I had an ally inside who had the wherewithal and the time to do these scans at a really outstanding level. I really couldn’t have made this film before that without making an enormous number of  internegatives, which would have gone way beyond my means. The timing was perfect, and the programmer’s name is Paul Gordon, who is credited as an associate producer on this film. I would just say to Paul, “I need these titles,” and he could make the scan and give me a screener—eventually the high-res—so I was working with an online version all through the edit, which afforded me an enormous amount of flexibility.

 

DT: It’s a tautology to say that archival film makes a statement about the past. But here you make a very potent bridge to the present. Was that intentional? If so, how did you achieve that?

BM: I think any time I make a film it’s a bridge to the present. I’m in the present; these are films that are coming from my perspective. Then pairing them very obviously with contemporary music is a reminder that you’re seeing it of this moment. I eschew any effort to use silent movie music or anything that would historically contextualize it in that way. I’m not interested in that. My idea with Dawson City is that here is a microcosm, a town built at the cusp of the 20th century in a vacuum, so it came part and parcel with all the problems of the 20th century compacted into it: it became a sort of test tube town. Tracing its rise and fall was in some ways a parable for our modern times.

 

BM: It was deep into the research that I realized that Frederick Trump had a brothel that serviced stampeders on their way to Dawson.

DT: Frederick was Donald Trump’s grandfather.

BM: His grandfather, an immigrant from Germany.

DT: Last name Drumpf.

BM: He had already called himself Trump at that point, but he was born Drumpf. He went back to Germany with all the money he earned in Canada, then he immigrated again, so maybe there’s something to keeping these immigrants out. I still didn’t want to use this guy’s name in my film; I thought he was a flash in the pan, if you will. I moved to New York in ’85, so as a New Yorker, I grew up with him. He’s been in the headlines every year since I’ve been here. I never took him seriously, and even when I learned that factoid about his grandfather, Donald was one of twenty-two Republican candidates, or whatever it came out to be, and I just said I’m not going to pollute my film with his name. Later I thought, Well he’s the Republican candidate…that’s good for this year anyway. I’m not ever considering he would win the election. Finally, well, I said, I guess he’s part of history now. So to answer your question, there were ways that the present time caught up with the film in ways I couldn’t have foreseen. I didn’t know how significant Frederick Drumpf being a brothel owner would be.

I think you also see in the idea of Manifest Destiny the disposability of the indigenous population and that land, as well as the privateering: the local source miners, the hundreds of thousands of guys who were elbow to elbow getting their own but forming a community, or a town anyway, and then that entire economic system being replaced overnight when the machines come in and they corporatize with no union, creating a company town. What happens to a town like that? You have an enormously stratified class system immediately, and the bottom drops out. By the time the ’20s rolled around, there were maybe a thousand people left, tumbleweed blowing through the town, and the main distraction was still the movies. That was the thing that kept people going.

 

DT: One of the shots you used depicted laborers hauling wheelbarrows up a wooden track. What that really struck home was the sense that these prospectors were suddenly turned into a labor pool, which is an entirely different animal: they came to be their own men and ended up as hired workers.

BM: The people who sold out left. I was just there a few months ago for the Dawson City International Short Film Festival—I was the opening night film. It’s still like you’re back in a storybook land. I went into the casino and this guy with a huge gray beard and a felt hat was drinking whiskey at the bar. I said, “You look like a prospector,” and he said, “I am.” These guys still work in very much the same way. There was another young hot-shot prospector who struck it big in zinc and silver twice before, and he was hired to come in to find the motherlode. He made seven core samples last year and he had three years to find the big lode of gold that all these little flakes are just the dandruff of.

DT: Still?

BM: Still. It’s still under there. He wants to hit it, and he said, “I’m going to be in the Mining Hall of Fame” as his eyeballs turned into big dollar signs. That’s still going on up there.

 

DT: Talk about working with your composer, Alex Somers.

BM: It was great. We hardly met. I met him backstage at a Sigur Ros concert in Ottawa, in March 2014. At the time I thought he and Jonsi were going to collaborate on this together. They made three tracks on a long weekend for me, about twenty-two minutes’ worth of music, and that really informed my rough cut. I worked with those three tracks and their 2009 release, Riceboy Sleeps.

DT: Had they seen any of the footage?

BM: Yeah, they came over to the house a few months later, and I showed it to them…they just loved the idea that there was all this film in a swimming pool. They recorded in the swimming pool. They were big Decasia fans—that’s how I came to be in touch with them. So I told them the story, and they created this bed of music using Riceboy Sleeps. That informed the timing and the edit of my rough cut.

Eventually Alex took over the project, and April of last year I was able to finally send him a rough cut. From that he started sending me back drafts of what he was thinking and brought his brother John Somers in to do the sound design. The sound design and the composition fit really well together, so I was really happy with what I was hearing. However, I felt like this is actually a tragic story, so I said we needed more cello, more strings. Basically what I was saying amounted to, This piece you’ve written here is really good, let’s expand that, let’s work with that as a theme. Alex was really responsive, and he understood what I said. I went through each cue and gave notes on it, sort of like a long Excel spreadsheet. The second draft was really much closer to what I wanted, and we worked back and forth until we got something that  held together and held the piece together. He really gave it a great narrative arc.

 

DT: This is your longest film by far. Did you plan on this length, or was it due to the wealth of the material, and how did that affect the editing?

BM: It wasn’t intentional—it was due to the wealth of the material for sure, and I could have kept going. I had to lop off ten minutes about what happened after the collection got to Ottawa, because that’s a fascinating story too, and there are all kinds of events that rhyme with what you’ve already seen. The Orpheum, which burned down and was rebuilt four or five times, finally gets taken out by the 1979 flood, so the town’s recovering from the flood when the films are finally shown there. The Suitland Maryland National Archives fire also happens that spring and takes out an enormous amount of our nitrate heritage in one fire. Then these films are brought to that same compound, not the same vault, in Suitland as part of the Library of Congress’s property. So the story continues. There was just a great poetic ending when the military planes fly away with this material that started its life as a military material, and that had to be the end.

I read that people feel it’s still too long, but for me it kept building. It’s about minutiae and it’s about detail, and I felt very strongly that when you come out of it you should feel like you’ve lived through the 20th century in a certain way: there should be this moment of, Oh my God, so much happened, all these rolls contain so much, so when you see them as physical objects, each one of these containing a history, it should hit you like a wave. You’ve been overwhelmed by the minutiae and the detail of it.

DT: It’s totally overwhelming.

B: That was intended. I didn’t want it to be an easily digestible film. I didn’t want it to be a History Channel film. I wanted it to be a film that you emerge from the theater and say, Wow, where have I been?

 

DT: When you work deeply with anything, when you really go into it, you begin to see things that you wouldn’t see if you didn’t take that deep journey. You’ve spent your life working with archival footage and early films. What have you learned from your deep journey that someone who just sees a little snippet wouldn’t see, or someone who sees an occasional Charlie Chaplin movie wouldn’t see?

 

BM: I’m always looking for footage that’s self-reflexive in some way, that somehow draws attention to the fact that it’s film, whether it’s the content of the picture or what’s happening on the frame. I’m not sure somebody else would be attracted to the same thing. But I’m not sure my films are really for people who are silent film fans per se. A Charlie Chaplin fan isn’t necessarily going to think my film is that interesting, while an early film fan would say, What’s all this—where’s Lionel Barrymore?

This collection has suffered from that, I think. Sam Kula said they came out looking for Theda Bara and Cleopatra, the idea that the great lost feature might be down there that could be restored. Of course whatever might have been there in its entirety was no longer there, it was all reel 1 and reel 2 or reel 5—it was all piecemeal. So again it was like the stampeder who came too late—the rich claims had been made.

I’m looking at film not from a cinephile’s perspective. I’m still looking at it from my perspective, a plastic art, something’s that’s lived through the world, and the picture has to reflect that. I don’t know if my experience in the archive is going to be informative for somebody else. I just followed my whims, and I’ve been lucky to have good friends on the inside of the archive, who save stuff for me, who don’t throw stuff away,  show me where stuff might be buried.

 

DT: One of the things that struck me about Dawson City was the early film footage that you chose: you didn’t have a lot of stereotypically dramatic poses. In fact, the compositions you chose were very classical images. Timeless, and very beautiful.

B: I think they’re beautiful too. That’s why I chose them. First of all I was much more interested in the newsreel footage than in the narrative footage. The narrative footage served a purpose, usually to advance the story in some way, but there wasn’t a lot of fawning over the movie stars who are recognizable in the collection, and there’s half a dozen really famous people there.

I find there’s sort of a cheap shot you can make—how quaint silent film was, or that it didn’t reach the level of sophistication we have. Of course there were a ton of narrative tropes that kept being repeated, like the listening at the door as a way of advancing a narrative, a secret in a silent movie, where it gives you this expositional moment. But there were ways of bringing attention to that without saying, This is silly.

 

DT: When you made this film, did you consciously balance your role as storyteller, as archivist, as historian, as defender of lost causes, or did that happen naturally?

B: One thing I did: This is a much wordier film than I’ve ever made before. I’ve never had speaking parts in it, and there’s just an enormous amount of text. There was this idea that by telling a very detailed story, the more detailed I could make it the more universal it would become. The first thing, though, was always going to be the hypnotic edit. The edit was going to follow my editing style, and it was going to have the same sort of elasticity. Then I was going to find a way to tell the story within that, the blank spaces in the frame.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan/Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger

Considered by many to be the world’s greatest living ballerina, Wendy Whelan is also the epitome of dedication to one’s art, a supreme example of what it takes to be great. Having danced since she was three, Whelan faced possible career-ending surgery at the age of forty-seven–an age at which most other dancers move away from performing into teaching or choreography. But Whelan so identified with the dance itself that she refused to give up, instead staging a comeback that allowed her to retire from City Ballet on her own terms and begin to explore the new world of  modern dance. Whelan’s personal struggle, as well as her breathtaking dancing, is captured with great humanity and passion in Restless Creature. Availability: Opens May 24, New York City, Film Forum and Lincoln Center. Click here for listings near you. Click here for trailer. Thanks to Michelle DiMartino, Falco Ink, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: Your film left me speechless. There have been a lot of documentaries about people who are completely dedicated to their craft or artists whose identity is synonymous with their art, but with Whelan there’s no daylight between what she does and who she is. I wanted to talk to you about how you chose to deal with that in your filmmaking.

AS: The way the project came about relates to what you’re asking. Diana DiMenna, our executive producer, knows Wendy very well, and she realized this was a moment in Wendy’s life that was a pivotal transitional moment. She also knows Wendy’s personality. She approached us with the thought that this would be a very interesting time to explore an artist’s life.

We met with Wendy and she told us a little bit about what she was going through. I think she was a little hesitant at first to do the film. It was this unsure moment in her life, but she agreed to let us film some work she was doing in the studio. We really wanted to show her that we were going to be as much a fly on the wall as possible and blend in and just follow her process as she was going through her life experiences at this moment.

The first day we filmed her she was in the studio working. Then we spent some time talking to her a little bit on film. We showed her the footage and she was happy with what she saw, so we took it from there. Little by little we got to know each other more and more, and she became more and more comfortable with us.

LS: She was always very approachable. She was never a diva. I was a fan of hers and I loved watching her as a spectator. In my opinion—and in most people’s opinion—she’s the greatest ballerina of our time, but she was just so grounded. She knows she’s good, but she’s also still a kid from Lousiville. There’s something relatable about her.

She was also able to articulate to us how to get her body into a certain condition where she was able to achieve a difficult move, as well as the feeling of it. She could take us into that world, and suddenly I felt, Oh, I get it, I understand! She was able to get us into her world and allow us to feel like we were experiencing what she was experiencing.

 

DT: Who drove the film—you or Wendy?

AS:We wanted to follow her through this transition. As things would occur, she would be in touch with us and say, “This is what I’m doing today.” Little by little things started to unfold that way, but we would also be reaching out to her regularly, ask her, “What are you up to? What are you doing? We want to film that.”

LS: We had an agenda of certain things we’d make sure to get—things we might need later on. Sometimes it would come out in conversations Wendy was having with a friend, and we could say, Oh, we got it—we don’t need to try and pull it out of her unnaturally. For instance, there’s a scene in a coffee shop where she’s talking to another former principal dancer from the New York City Ballet. She’s describing Balanchine’s world: “I’m in, I’m in, no boyfriend, no babies, I want this, I’m in.” We didn’t have to say, “So, you gave up having a family.” Instead it came out in a very natural way.

AS: As opposed to us saying, “So why didn’t you have children?” she was going through this process of dealing with coming to the end of a career. She was meeting with different friends and talking about their experiences. In the conversation Linda is referring to, Wendy said that if you’re in Balanchine’s world, you didn’t have babies, you didn’t get married, you were all in, you were all or nothing. For us what was important was to capture her process of going through and dealing with this moment in time, and we felt, Let’s take that approach to it.

 

DT: It’s so interesting to me that everyone talks about ending her career, whereas in fact she did not end her career at all; it just took a different trajectory. One remark in the film struck me like a thunderbolt: She said that other people had the option of teaching or coaching dance, but that option was not available to her. The only option available to her was to dance. She didn’t end up not dancing, she didn’t stop doing what she needs to do.

AS: Exactly right. When someone asked us about the film, we we’d say,  It’s not about the end, it’s about  re-creating yourself and figuring out how you can still continue to create under the circumstance, as a pure artist. That’s what Wendy’s mission and goal are, and that’s what was so interesting for us. It wasn’t about the end; that’s what was exciting about it. For us the idea that she was doing Restless Creature and using that vehicle to explore a new world and a new dance form was very interesting. One of the original reasons we started the project was that question: I know I can’t dance ballet the rest of my life, but I do want to continue to create, so how am I going to do that? I’ll do it by trying this.

LS: It was actually very difficult in the edit room. We took a lot longer than necessary to edit this film; we were grappling with it because there were so many different types of endings. The one thing we were not going to do was have this being the end of her career at City Ballet. But there it was: footage of the curtain call, the final performance. We asked, Should we make a comeback film—can she do it? The finale [at City Ballet] is an end, and we were really working to make sure that wasn’t the end of our film. It was very hard to get the ending we had.

 

DT: Catching dance on film is very difficult, but you were lucky to have Don Lenzer as your DP, a cinematographer who not only knows dance but knows City Ballet from previous films he’d shot, like Dancing for Mr. B: Six American Ballerinas and Suzanne Farrell: Elusive Muse. Can you talk about working with Lenzer and what he brought to your film?

LS: He’s brilliant, and he disappears. He disappears with this big camera on his shoulder, and he captures these moments so beautifully. He’s like a ballerina when he has it. He dances with his subject. He’s in and out and it’s magic. We’d worked with him on other projects, but we knew from the first day’s shoot that he was the perfect cinematographer for this because the way he shoots dance is just so subtle. It looks like there’s no cameraman.

AS: When Wendy saw that first bit of footage we shot of her in the rehearsal studio… One technique Don uses is to put his camera on a tripod with wheels. The dance studio is the ideal space for that because he can actually move with the dancer as he or she is doing their choreography. It’s a really beautiful technique and very smooth. And Don has the background. The world of dance is a passion for him, it’s something he just loves to death. He’s always excited to come to work every day, but particularly so with this project.

 

DT: Linda, you were a fan of Whelan’s long before you began the film. When you first started shooting, was it difficult to separate the individual from the legend?

LS: On any film that Adam and I both do we really try to be objective, in a “Here’s this person I know nothing about and I want that person to take us into their world” way. We really want to get inside their heads. We really want to feel and understand who they are. It just so happened that Wendy was a wonderful person. It could have been horrible, but it wasn’t. We really try to be objective.

We did the same thing with Ron Galella [Smash His Camera]. Going into that project I kind of thought he’s got to be horrible, he’s got to be a terrible human being, but we went in saying, We’re going to tell the story and get to know him. We ended up thinking, He’s an artist, and this is his craft as a paparazzi. It’s fun to throw away anything we may think or know about the person and then start fresh. With Wendy it wasn’t very difficult. She’s a brilliant dancer, and I would be speechless after some of her performances.

AS: What was interesting was that Linda had no idea what Wendy’s personality would be, and that was what was kind of exciting about it.

LS: I didn’t know how much work went into doing what she did. She really took us into the ballet world, and you see that for these athletes, these artists, the work they do is grueling.  Six days a week, maybe seven, in the morning they go to class, then rehearsal, then PT, then they do a performance, then they go to bed and repeat it the next morning. They’re constantly working on their bodies, and they know every detail  about their bodies.

AS: As you were saying at the beginning, there’s no separation between Wendy as an artist and what she does, because that’s her day. Every day. That’s who she is.

DT: Other dancers do the same thing, but there’s something about Wendy in particular that is just different.

LS:  Vocation. It’s her being. It’s truly who she is: an artist who expresses herself through her body. She does find other ways to express herself—as I discovered, she’s a very smart woman, she’s a photographer, she’s very articulate, she’s a philosopher. But the way she expresses her emotions and her feelings really comes through her body. It’s her essence.

AS: As she says in the film, “If I don’t dance, I’d rather die.”

 

DT: What about her surprised you the most?

AS: I was surprised at how down-to-earth she is. I always had this image of the prima ballerina as something different. Her salt-of-the-earth qualities were really interesting to me. I got the feeling that maybe this exemplifies what the modern ballet dancer is.

LS: She’s so honest. So approachable. One night she was talking at great length with this couple after a performance, and I thought they were friends of the family or friends of hers or maybe patrons. When I asked her who they were, she said, “Fans. They come to the ballet a lot.”

AS: I would also say her work ethic and her determination are really, really extraordinary. You don’t get to where she is by not having that. All of the other dancers respected that in her and were enamored and in awe of that. She works that much harder, that much longer, and she demands that from her partners. She works truly hard with them but in the most respectful ways. She seeks to get the most out of. She conveys that when she’s talking to Craig [Hall] and Tiler [Peck] at the end of the movie, when she says, “You guys are now masters.”  She takes very seriously the whole idea of passing the baton, so to speak, from man to woman to woman to man. That’s very important to her.

DT: Moving from ballet to modern was something of a double-edged sword for her—in one way it was liberation into the future and in another way it was acknowledgment of a completed past. You’ve seen her do both. You’re not dance critics, but did you sense that in her dancing at all?

LS: It was more a sense that she was going to work as hard as she worked in ballet to really master another form of dance. We filmed a few rehearsals with Risa Steinberg over at Juilliard, hours on end trying to let go of the ballet moves and redirect her body. She hasn’t perfected that craft yet, but she’s continually working at getting there, going to class every day.

AS: At one Q&A she was talking about the difference for her between doing modern dance vs ballet. Taking the toe shoes off was a big deal for her. She hadn’t had toe shoes on for a very long time, and then she put them back on and she basically said, “Aaaah,” because she was so comfortable in the toe shoes.

LS: She said, “I’m home, I’m home.”

AS: The idea of taking her shoes off and dancing without them was so different for her. I don’t know if it was a double-edged sword, but it was definitely something unique for her, the idea of not having—I don’t know—maybe the security of having the toe shoes, ironically.

LS: Also the craft she was trained in since she was three. At age forty-seven…

 

DT: At what point did you decide to make her leaving the City Ballet the focus of the film?

LS: The story of the film really came through in the edit room when we could look at all the material. When we started, we really didn’t know if she was going to retire during our filming. She didn’t make that decision until March 2014. We started filming in the summer of 2013, so we were looking at what would happen when she got back onstage. Once she made that decision, we said, We’ve got to keep going, we’ve got to follow this, and we’ve got to get access, of course this is the end, or do we start with the end?

AS: There was so much going on. She’d had the surgery; she was now doing Restless Creature and had scheduled shows for that; she was trying to make a comeback and then ultimately retire. There was just so much, so we were following it to see what would happen. Ultimately she kind of answered the question for us when she said, I can’t do these other things—I need to just focus on getting back to dancing ballet, and getting back on the stage of the New York City Ballet.

LS: There was a point where we didn’t know if she was going to get back onstage, because there was also the issue of her surgery. She was so emotional, too: My body! Will it work?

DT: How did that feel to you as filmmakers? Were you invested in an outcome for her?

AS: Not at all. We were just following her. Of course we were hoping that she’d make it through—

LS: Because of her more than the film. You say, Of course she’s going to do it, but we knew that this was just a very very scary time for her.

AS: She was afraid; she didn’t want to fail. She was very afraid of that. She wanted to end it on her own terms. None of us would have been happy if it had all fallen flat, but we knew it was a risk for sure.

 

DT: Is there anything you regret?

LS: I wish we could have shown more of the dance in the film, scenes we had to cut out because they were taking us in a different direction. There were more moments with the other dancers that were beautiful. The regretting is wishing we could put more material in the film.

AS: With regard to the dancing, during her final performance she danced a total of five pieces, including the final piece that we show in the film. They were pieces from all different points in her career, and we have all that footage, but we ultimately made the decision to leave it out. We had the exclusive on that final piece, which was a one-night only, onetime performance, and we ultimately chose that as the focus for that last night. It was quite an evening, but we had to make a decision.

LS: During those weeks she wasn’t just getting ready and rehearsing for her final performance. She was also dancing in the season, so she was doing other performances. It was like candy. She couldn’t get enough of it. She knew it was coming to an end, and it was nonstop. We just kept thinking, How does she do this?

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

Manifesto/Julian Rosefeldt

The film Manifesto began its life as a 13-screen installation. Each screen projected Cate Blanchett playing a different character situated in a bizarre setting somewhere in Berlin. Each character delivered a “supermanifesto” stitched together from such manifestos as Marx and Engels’s Manifesto of the Communist Party, The Manifesto of Futurist Architecture, the Fluxus Manifesto, and Jim Jarmusch’s Golden Rules of Filmmaking. In the film, Blanchett’s first character, for example, plays a homeless man wandering through the streets quoting text from the Situationist movement, including Alexander Rodchenko (The Manifesto of Suprematists and Non-Objective Painters, 1919), the Draft Manifesto of the John Reed Club of New York (1932), and Lucio Fontana, White Manifestos (1946). Manifesto is enthralling, hilarious, and an acting tour de force. Click here for trailer. Availability: Opens May 10, NYC, Film Forum, with national rollout to follow. Click here for a theater listing near you.  Thanks to Keaton Kail and Susan Norget, Susan Norget Film Promotion, for arranging this interview.

DT: Julian, I’m interested in how you matched the various pieces of Manifesto together: text to text, text to character, text to location.

JR: It’s very important to keep in mind that the original work is a 13-screen film installation.  At the beginning, I started working mainly on the installation but knowing that there would also be a film, because in order to finance the installation I had to bring on board people who were more interested in the linear version.  So I was thinking about the film from the beginning. There are thirteen characters and  twelve scenes—in one scene Cate plays two characters. In the installation, each scene was displayed on a different screen. The challenge in editing the linear version was how to create a film out of that, because there’s no narrative. There aren’t even twelve short stories, so it’s more like we created a visual narrative.

Coming back to your question, I started working in parallel on the manifesto collages—re-editing manifestos into “major” manifestos—and, on the other side, collecting ideas for scenes in which a woman (and one “man”) delivers monologues. Cate and I were playing together on a long list of ideas. At first there were more than fifty, and we ended up doing twelve out of that.

Sometimes it was easy to translate a certain manifesto collage into a contemporary scene. Sometimes I wanted the spirit of the manifesto very much contained in the scenery. Take, for instance, Futurism, where we set the Futurists’ fascination for speed and technology in a stock exchange, which had the same ethos. Sometimes the combination was playful, even antipodic; for instance Pop Art, where we took a Claes Oldenburg text and combined it with a conservative family at lunch, which is everything but Pop Art.

DT: The family at the table was in fact Cate’s family.

JR: That was her family, in a world where only the little pink salt and pepper shakers could be called poppy. And Cate calls the dog Poppy. But that scene depicts the world against which Pop Art had to run. So there were two strategies: directly playing with the content of the manifesto by analogy or juxtaposition, but also sometimes just playing with it, like with the Fluxus collage, where we integrated Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s Maintenance Art Manifesto and Yvonne Rainer’s No Manifesto—performance manifestos, because we just felt that the scene needed some liberation.

DT: Liberation from a one-to-one translation, even if it was antithetical?

JR: Yes. That’s also the recipe for some other aspects of the work, for instance the way we use the architecture. I believe it’s interesting if you separate images from content, because then you as a viewer are much more engaged and much more asked to participate and complete what you see. The image has no didactic mission. We urgently need the audience to complete what we created. So you are seeing something, and your senses are supersharp from the beginning, because you see places that you haven’t seen before, the action doesn’t necessarily have to happen where it does, in these weird places, and the text material, which is highly intellectual and very poetic at the same time, also sharpens your senses. Things happen there that are absurd in a way.

All of these—including  the fact that a woman impersonates or reenacts all these testosterone-driven male texts, which is another strategy—aim to peel out the nucleus of the original beauty of the texts. Because these texts have been interpreted so many times by art historians, they became monuments of art history. But I was very interested in the actual poetry of the words of these writers, whom we know more for their visual work of course than for their writings. It’s interesting if you keep in mind that these texts were written at a very early stage of the artists’ lives, when the work for which we know these artists now, the visual work, sometimes wasn’t even created yet.

 

DT: What work did you and Cate do  before shooting?

JR: Cate very generously gave us two weeks in Berlin, so we had eleven shooting days with her plus two rehearsal days. In order to do everything in such a short time, my team and I had to work half a year on all the preparations, but at the same time Cate and I talked a lot about the attitudes and accents of each and every character. These are not really characters, they are more vessels for ideas. They are archetypes, some of them very exaggerated, like the choreographer or the tattooed punk, which are rather like exercises in acting. Others are very believable, like the teacher or the single mother who turns out to be a factory worker.

Out of hundreds of manifestos, I distilled thirteen text collages. The question became, How would you speak these texts? And there’s not only Cate onscreen, there’s also a lot of inner monologue, which we recorded later. Cate likes to say that there was no time for intellectual reflection during the shooting of the film, so she just went for it and felt the attitude of whatever we had  scripted. Then, with a few comments like “getting angry,” she really used her fantastic knowledge and experience to make this very beautifully detailed evolution of each and every character.

DT: How long did she have the texts beforehand?

JR: We met in New York probably half a year before we started shooting and went through all the text material together.  We also played a ping-pong of ideas to select those twelve scenes out of many other ideas.

DT: Ideas about characters or ideas about texts?

JR: Characters.

 

DT: In the scene where Cate plays two characters—the news anchor and the reporter on the street—I  got a very clear sense that you weren’t only illuminating the text but you were also deconstructing it.

JR: Deconstructing through the way we constructed the visual scene or in the text itself?

DT: No, in the way she delivered it.

JR: Isn’t it amazing that when you read these texts—they’re quoted word for word—they seem so very serious, and when you speak them as she speaks them, they’re hilarious. Many people laugh, and I think that in this particular scene, current politics overrun us. When we world-premiered the film at Sundance, people were laughing so much, and all of a sudden I understood that they were referencing the fake news debate connected to Trump. A similar thing happened when I talked about the project in Istanbul just a week before the referendum. People at the Q&A talked about populism—in France the same thing happened—so all of a sudden this project, which had a political interest but was also a love declaration to all the writings, became a super-actuated call for action. But you were asking about deconstruction in this piece.

DT: There’s an acting exercise that’s supposed to help you separate what you’re feeling from the words you’re saying, which Cate brought to mind when she played the news anchor.

JR: At the beginning of the scene, one of the people on the news crew says very quietly: “Time to go, let’s put our truth faces on before the show starts.” It’s all about the attitude. What you consider to be true is all about the attitude in the news. Cate would say something with her truth face on, and they sell us everything with that attitude.

 

DT: Exactly. The words are completely irrelevant. As you said before, this began as a 13-screen installation. You shot it knowing it was going to be a feature film, but what choices did you make when editing the linear version? Or did you not have to make any, since that was your intention all along?

JR: At first we thought it would be very easy. When we premiered the installation, we knew the material by heart, of course, as we had worked on postproduction over a year. Our first attempt was to just put the scenes in a certain order with titles in between explaining which artist movement they referred to, but that was very boring, very didactic.

As I mentioned in the beginning of our conversation, there is no narrative in this film, so I understood that my editor and I had to create a visual narrative to drag people in. I think it works quite well. You don’t reflect, you don’t miss having a story, it’s just happening as you go from location to location, and it’s also fun watching Cate’s transformation. But you’re also struck by the texts, which in the filmic version become more like one very long text instead of opposite opinions, because it’s always her voice, and you hear only one voice, whereas in the installation you have a cacophony of voices all at the same time, where you’re moving in the space and deciding how long you want to stay in front of each screen.

What I like about it now is that it’s not only this love declaration to manifesto writing, it’s not only a call for action, but it’s also, if you want, a piece as it really shows us. I like to say you can be loud but you have to have something to say. Populists are just loud. There’s absolutely nothing in what they say. It’s just hollow. But there’s also a third aspect, probably more visible in the film, which is a kind of research on filmmaking. This film is not a normal film, yet it is entertaining. If you go on my website, you can see more of my multi-channel installations. I’m always very interested in the mechanics of filmmaking, and to what degree you can actually create realities and deconstruct them again. That fascinates me a lot, but we don’t reflect it much anymore.  You are forced to see a short film, a long film, or a documentary, and that’s it. Those three boxes. Sometimes when I see a Bollywood movie, I realize, Oh, there’s also a way of seeing cinema like that, and every film should be three and a half hours long.

There are many, many more possibilities for making a movie, but we’ve unfortunately left these experimental times. Think of early Godard works, where in every film he tried something out. Sadly, because of the industry and the pessure, that’s gone. We just have always the same first, second, third act. The same romantic comedy again. The same action film again. The same thriller again. Always what you see tells you what’s going to happen. Always the music tells you how you should feel. There are very few exceptions to that approach, and if you have an exception, it often ends up being an experimental film that never makes it into the theaters. So here of course Cate’s fame helps a lot because it creates a hype around seeing her in thirteen different characters, which I’m grateful for, because it drags people into this film that would otherwise never go if it would just be an “artistic” film.

 

DT: You teach Digital and Time-Based Media in Munich. How do you see the relationship between music and the moving image?

JR: I like to use music not as something that illustrates what’s happening onscreen. Of course sometimes music happens in my films because it’s contained in the image—you see singers or musicians and necessarily you hear their music—but I like to avoid using music (with some strong exceptions, I must say) just forcing you into a certain feeling. I also like to use music that doesn’t belong to what you see. I did a project on Westerns called American Night. It’s a five-channel installation that’s an homage to the Western genre, but it’s combined with current foreign policy: I believe attacking Iraq had a lot to do with the “out here a man settles his own problems his own way” attitude, the myth of the frontier, taking the right in your own hands, I’m my own sheriff. It’s still very present. Also the whole weapons cult, this is still very present, even in pop culture; rap music also derives from the Western.  I used Mozart for the big scene at the end, and it works really well.

If I can say one thing, I really do not want music to announce a feeling. If the scene doesn’t create it, you’ve failed with the scene, so you better do it again in a different way. You can add up music, of course, or use strange or entertaining music.  In Manifesto the music was very important. I worked with two composers: Nils Frahm and Ben Lukas Boysen. It was important to stitch together all these different elements, different sceneries and sets. There are two musical motifs in the film. One is more electrifying, speaking about the sparkling ideas, and the other is a piano motif, which is more of a dreamy thing that helps stitch together what doesn’t belong together.

 

DT: A number of directors have architectural backgrounds like you—Eugene Green (Italy) or Amos Gitai (Israel). How does your background in architecture translate into your filmmaking?

JR: I’ve always had a very strong interest in architecture, not only as a motif in my films and as a very strong influence on how I build the sets together with the set designers but also in the actual showing of my work, which happens more in the art context in the form of multiscreen installations, where I work a lot with the space and so on. But in this film, architecture has a very important function, because the architecture doesn’t necessarily illustrate what you see in the movie. We shot everything in Berlin and surroundings, and even Berliners have a hard time understanding where is what location. There are just a few things that everybody would recognize, but I tried to avoid using Berlin as a symbol. So it’s more architectural surprises, where you as a viewer again are very alert because you don’t know what that weird building is: That’s a strange thing, you think, What is the function of this building? So your senses are sharpened.

As an example of what architecture normally does in a film, you see a narrow, dark street with no end, and you know a crime will happen soon. If I use a narrow, dark street, I will probably do something completely different with it. There’s a lot of painter attitude to the composition of my films. I always say shooting on film has much more to do with painting, where you build an image layer by layer, than shooting a documentary on video, which is equally interesting but is something else. The composition of each and every image in my films matters to me. I guess it does to every filmmaker, but I think a lot about compositional ideas. In Manifesto, clearly the architecture is an important protagonist for Cate.

 

DT: In your opinion, which was the most successful segment in Manifesto, and why?

JR: I think various segments are successful for different reasons. The conceptual art scene [with the news anchor] is very funny, and it’s a vignette of a conceptual piece of art in itself. Then you have the funeral speech, where Cate is so breathtakingly good in the way she dramaturgically shapes the speech. I personally like the school scene a lot for many reasons. The children are amazing, it’s hilarious, and there’s also a recipe for my attitude toward those original texts. When Jim Jarmusch’s Golden Rules of Filmmaking say “Steal from everywhere. Nothing is original,” that’s what I did. I stole from everywhere. And it also has a lot of hope at the end, with the pigeons and the last text that says, “Tomorrow we begin together the construction of a city.”

DT: The final tracking shot is achingly beautiful.

JR: I get goose bumps when I see it. I created it, but nevertheless I still get goose bumps. I think after hearing all this beautiful poetry and visionary ideas, you see these children and you hear this last line, and you understand that OK, whatever we create now, they have to cope with it. It’s very clearly in this shot, and I love to understand that final phrase from Lebbeus Woods—“Tomorrow we begin together the construction of a city”—as a city of ideas.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

A Woman’s Life/Stephane Brize

Stephane Brize based this tender but brutal portrait of a 19th-century minor aristocrat on Guy de Maupassant’s novel Une Vie. In both novel and film, Jeanne discovers that the man she’s chosen to marry is both cruel and unfaithful, but she refuses to pander to cynicism, even while her life descends into misery. Beautiful and unsettling, the film lets moviegoers experience Jeanne’s claustrophobia but never asks them to abandon their own point of view.  • Availability: Opens May 5, New York, Lincoln Plaza and Quad cinemas, with national rollout to follow. • Thanks to Keaton Kail and Susan Norget, Susan Norget Film Promotion, and Karen Tran, Big Time PR & Marketing, for arranging this interview.• 

 

 

DT: You have a very subtle way of dealing with the horrible things people do to each other. This film exemplified that, and your previous film, Measure of a Man, exemplified that. How do you achieve such a restrained but powerful message?

SB: To be very honest, I have zero imagination, but I  am a very good observer. With that, I try to watch the lie. A lie is more interesting than the idea of the lie.

 

DT: Let’s talk about the way you structure time in the film. You start out with a number of sequences from Jeanne’s late adolescence. You then cut to Jeanne twenty-five years later and the audience realizes the beginning of the film is actually a flashback. Then you return to the original time frame. It’s a very effective way of dealing with time.

SB:  In the book, the forty years are perfectly chronological. But the tools of Maupassant are not mine, so to re-create a vertical time I had to use another tool. When Jeanne is twenty and suddenly she’s fifty and suddenly she’s twenty, you create with a very cinematographic tool a vertical nontime. It is very interesting to see that in a nontime—she was twenty and suddenly fifty—you can put all the time you want. It’s a cinematographic tool that re-creates the sensation you feel in the book. It is the most complicated, incredible discovery, which I made in this film: how to speak about time. It’s very, very interesting to perceive that we can fix time with nontime.

 

DTT: In the film, as in the book, Jeanne is given the choice to marry, making this an existential rather than a sociopolitical film. How did the fact that you were making a film about Jeane’s choices rather than her social situation influence the choices you made?

SB: I chose that book because it is not about women’s condition in the 19th century. It’s much more universal and timeless. The book speaks about the relationship of a woman with life. Even if it is in the 19th century, it speaks about me, who is a man, about you, about everybody. Everybody was a Jeanne, and everybody becomes an adult. The film speaks about that.

It speaks about the difficulty of becoming an adult. Jeanne refused; she can’t become an adult. It is my link with her. When I was twenty, I can remember I had this difficulty. But in the film, it is not a difficulty: It is impossible for Jeanne to change her point of view. This can create a very, very strong story.

Jeanne’s family is not representative of the model rural family of the 19th century. In the book, the father likes Jean-Jacques Rousseau, so he’s a modern man. When Jeanne is being courted, her parents ask her, “Do you want to marry this man? You can say yes, you can say no.”  But we can see that in the two very important moments of the story—first, when she has to decide to choose a husband, and then when she decides whether or not to leave him—the person who decides instead of Jeanne is her mother. So this young woman, Jeanne, is in quite the same situation as a young woman now whose parents have a strong responsibility in their daughter’s decisions. So it speaks about everybody, even now.

More than that, because for me it’s not enough to make a film, I was very interested in one thing. This story, like my previous film, The Measure of a Man, speaks abut the difficulty of illusion. I think that we live at a very, very crucial moment of our world story: We live at the end of illusion. With Trump in the White House, it is the end of our illusion.

 

DT: Agreed. In terms of the film, period pieces can be very stodgy and heavy. But the handheld camera in your film puts the audience in the very moment the action is happening.

SB: It was very difficult to fight against the images I had from older period pieces, always with very beautiful dresses, very clean dresses, very beautiful traveling in Cinemascope. All these images were poison for me. I wanted my film to be like a documentary of the 19th century. I wanted to film Jeanne like a documentary. The question of a documentary was a point I always made on set.  Where can I put my camera to re-create life?

My answers came from The Measure of a Man. Without The Measure of a Man, I could not have made A Woman’s Life. It was an incredible experience that doing The Measure of a Man, which is a contemporary film dealing with modern social problems, gave me many answers for directing A Woman’s Life. You can see the link between the two films. Another strong link is the fact that the main character is at the very middle of the story, always on the screen. In Maupassant’s book, Jeanne is not always in the story, but in my film, she is. We are always with her, like in Measure of a Man. All the time you are with them, they become the path of the plot.

 

DT: I adored Measure of a Man. Let’s talk about the way you direct actors, because both performances—Judith Chemla’s in this film and Vincent Lindon’s in Measure of a Man—were just so outstanding.

SB: Directing actors means choosing actors. If you choose the right actors, you don’t have to direct them. I don’t tell them many things, but I told them, “I’m making a documentary about you. The fiction is the script.” In other words, Everybody will believe you are the character, so now I want to film what you are.

These are the rules on my set. If they accept, OK. If they want to play, it won’t be OK. I want them to be. Just that. I don’t want them to act. I want them to be themselves.

 

DT: You write, and you’ve also acted in a few films. Do these skills intersect with your directing at all?

SB: I went to drama school when I was twenty for three years, but I could see at that time that I simply wasn’t an actor. I played very small characters in my first two short films, so my career was so short that it’s impossible to say I was an actor. Psychoanalysis was much more important for me for erecting characters. I would not be here without Sigmund Freud. I would be dead.

 

DT: Can you talk about working with Antoine Heberle, your director of photography, especially in relation to conversations about using the 1.33 format?

SB: The DP didn’t choose the format. It was my choice at the very beginning. Before we started, I tried to shoot in Cinemascope. I thought 1.33 was the best format, but I thought I’d try something else. Immediately when I saw the scenes in 1.33 I knew it was the right decision, because it speaks about the claustrophobic feeling of the piece. The 1.33 format translates this for Jeanne. I didn’t have to speak about it; the format spoke about it to the audience. All the choices I make speak about the psychology of the character.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

Glory/Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov

The second of a trilogy of films based on Bulgarian news stories, Glory features a poor railroad worker who finds a motherlode of cash spilled across the train tracks. When he dutifully reports his find to the police, the glory that should have been his is replaced by mockery and spite. A black comedy that couldn’t get any darker, Glory features outstanding performances from Bulgaria’s leading actors. • Availability: April 12, New York City, Film Forum, and select theaters nationwide. Also available on DVD or streaming from Film Movement . • Thanks to Adam Walker, Film Forum, for arranging this email interview. • 

 

DT: Glory is based on a news story. In what ways did you change the original story to arrive at the final screenplay?

PV: A railway linesman did find a huge pile of cash spilled on the rails, he did return it to the police, and the transport ministry did award him for it with a new watch, which stopped working a few days later. Those are pretty much all of the “real” elements in the film. Everything else—the characters, the conflict, the resolution—is fictional.

 

DT: Both of your lead actors, Margita Gosheva amd Stefan Denolyubov, have extensive backgrounds in theater as well as film. As directors, how did you take advantage of their experience in the theater?

PV: Stefan and Margita are wonderful actors, very organic, intuitive and most of all self-critical. They put a lot of analysis into everything they do and never cease to explore new territory. Whether they gained these skills from theater or cinema, we don’t really know.

 

DT: Glory is the second film in a trilogy. Can you talk about the trilogy as a whole and how this fits into it?

PV: The word “trilogy” has a certain weight about it that really makes the whole idea sound much more conceptual than it is. Our basic idea was that these films are inspired by headlines in Bulgarian newspapers that have caught our attention over the years. That’s the unifying principle…plus the theme about the reversal of values and the absurdity of the reality we live in.

 

DT: This film reverses the roles that Gosheva and Denolyubov played in The Lesson [the first film in the trilogy], where he’s the bad guy and she’s the harrassed worker. Did they intentionally use that while working on this film?

PV: This idea came at a later stage of development. Initially [in Glory] it was supposed to be a male antagonist, but it all sounded quite bland, and then we had one of those “what if” moments when we imagined just how intriguing it would be if we used Stefan and Margita again, but with reversed polarities.

 

DT: I’m interested in your use of extreme close-ups throughout the film. Was that an aesthetic decision, or did it have a deeper motivation?

PV: We love the close-up because it gives a different scale even to the finest nuances in an actor’s expression. Although it’s mostly typical of the dramatic genre, the use of close-ups in a comic situation gives the scene a more special feel—the combination of drama and comedy.

 

DT: Denolyubov’s transformation at the end of the film was so radical that I sucked in my breath. How did you go about achieving the power of that moment?

PV: Makeup and camera angle.

KG: We are very grateful to our makeup artist Bistra Ketchedjieva for doing a great job for the scene. About how we got there: we discussed the transformation at length with Stefan. It was very important for us that it’s logical and not just there for the shocker effect. One of the things we did, however, was to keep it secret from Margita, so his transformation was a real surprise for her.

 

DT: What are the pitfalls and advantages of codirecting?

PV: We’ve been working together since long before Glory, so by now it’s become as natural as breathing. We started to help each other out while we were still students at the National Academy for Theatre and Film Arts in Sofia. We found it to be so productive that we kept using the formula after graduating. We did a TV film, a documentary and then the short film Jump, which was successful enough to enable us to shoot our feature debut, The Lesson. When we work together, we’re much more confident and brave, and it’s also much more fun. It’s very important to have somebody next to you that both supports and provokes you.

 

DT: Glory is getting lots of notice internationally, but how was it received in Bulgaria?

PV: The reactions in Bulgaria are overwhelmingly positive—it seems like we managed to strike a chord. However, we still haven’t received feedback from any officials or institutions that might have potentially felt offended by the film.

KG: For better or worse though, this time we decided to distribute the film ourselves and you could say that we did that also on a low budget, just like the production itself. For a number of reasons we’re showing it only in small art-house cinemas, which means that not so many people have seen the film.

 

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017