13 Minutes/Oliver Hirschbiegel

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?

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.

 

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?

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

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.

 

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.

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

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer/Joseph Cedar (director) and Richard Gere (actor)

Norman fixes deals, but right now no one’s buying into his schemes, and no one needs his help. One day he meets Eshel, an Israeli politician who’s also down on his luck.  Moved by the possibility of helping out a fellow Jew, Norman does Eshel a favor: he buys Eshel an expensive pair of shoes. Three years later, Eshel becomes prime minister of Israel. Unable to forget Norman’s kindness, Eshel allows Norman to draw him into a crazy business deal, but when cries of corruption begin to sound, he’s forced to cut Norman loose. An atypical comedy with an off-type cast, Norman strikes an inventive comedic chord that will offend some and thrill others. To see the trailer, click here.  Availability: Opens 4/14 New York and L.A. Check local listings for a theater near you.  Thanks to Gary Springer, Springer Associates PR, for arranging this interview.

DT: Norman isn’t the kind of character Richard usually plays. Richard, can you talk about acting off type, and Joseph, can you talk about directing an actor who’s playing off type?

RG: First of all, they’re all off type. There’s not a character that’s not off type, but this one’s further off than most. Part of the process with this one lay in the fact that he’s a totally unique character, and I didn’t want to play any cliches with him. Joseph didn’t want me to, either. I laughed about it, because Joseph was so nervous about this and wanted to get it right.

We had a lot of time; we spent eight or nine months, just talking, no pressure, Joseph bringing me slowly into his universe: the universe of the movie, the universe of this character, the universe of thousands of years of Jewish history, and emotions, and psychology. Narratives. It was perfect—I like to do things slowly that way, too. It gets deeper. Then, when you start making choices, you have a strong foundation, and it’s connected to something real, something authentic. That’s who we started to discover: the Norman in all of us, which was more important than being the Jewish Norman or the nebbish Norman, the whatever Norman.

DT: The Woody Allen Norman.

RG: The Woody Allen Norman, or even the Charlie Chaplin Norman. It was a matter of finding the emotion that we all have: that we want to belong. We want to be in.

JC: We mention Charlie Chaplin over and over again. I’ve always perceived the Little Tramp as a Jew, but it may be only the way I see it.

RG: Maybe. The Tramp’s always looking for a home.

JC: There’s something about his size, he’s everywhere the story needs him to be but never really welcome. Or it might have to do with his costume.

RG: He’s always on the road, isn’t he? Things don’t work out, and he’s got to get back on the road.

 

DT: Joseph, you’ve said at a number of Q&As and interviews that the character of Norman is based on the historical figure of the court Jew, of whom there are a number of specific examples throughout history. But I found that your Norman reflects not only one type of Jew but Jews as a race as well, with a history of assimilation, contribution, and expulsion.

That’s not a funny subject, but I found your movie hysterical. I was wondering if you dropped the character of Norman into the context of Israeli/American-Jewish politics to put a comedic spin on a subject that’s really not very funny.

JC: At the end, the subject is detached from the work itself. Norman is an individual person, and working with Richard on this character was not about anything but Norman at a specific time. Every scene had its own emotional truth to it for Norman. Everything else is either something that had to do with my intentions before the movie got off the ground or, now that it’s made, talking to journalists. The work itself was finding the human need in every situation that was specific for Norman. I don’t think I understood Norman the way I did after these conversations with Richard. We came to the set knowing something about how Norman functions that I didn’t know while I was working on the script.

RG: I was asking questions on a lot of levels that a Jewish actor probably would not have asked.

DT: My guess is that you were asking acting questions that an actor of any faith would ask, which a non-actor would not.

RG: Yes, they were acting questions, but there’s a mysterious process that starts between a director, especially a writer/director, and an actor. You know that everything you do from the moment you meet to talk about the project is rehearsing. Every second. I don’t care if you’re ordering a burger, you’re walking down the street, you’re watching TV. I don’t care what it is; you’re rehearsing. You’re working on the project. We danced through that in a very leisurely way—not without intensity, but it was leisurely because of the eight or nine months we had before we started shooting.

JC: It’s a great period, because you start seeing everything through the filter of what understanding Norman requires. So suddenly everything that I encounter has, in some way, an echo: If I bring it up with Richard in our next conversation, it will help us uncover something in Norman. For instance—and there are many examples like the one I’m about to give you—Norman name-drops all the time. Now, people around us always name-drop, but if you try to figure out when someone drops a name, it always reveals something about the situation that he’s in, something about what he’s trying to achieve, something about the personality of the person who feels that he needs to use someone else’s name in order to gain entrance into a certain situation. Just using that example, you can take every scene in the movie and see where Norman decides to say “I know this person” or when he decides to mention that he’s married. It always comes at a point where if he wouldn’t do that—and this is intuitive for Norman—he’d probably be pushed away. Finding that mechanism in Norman and then finding how to make it feel intuitive for Richard in any given scene was almost like rewriting the script. It’s understanding everything through the eyes of an actor who has to believe what’s happening.

DT:  Was this a different process from working with other actors?

JC: Every process with an actor is always different, and every actor approaches the character differently. This process had more influence on the script than I’ve had in the past. There were things that came up in our conversation that affected the script…and affected the whole journey that Norman goes through. One of the things that came from Richard was a discussion around what desire or wanting is. I always perceived Norman as someone who wants more than either he can deserve or he can handle. It’s like someone at a great restaurant ordering more than he’ll ever need, either because he wants to taste everything and he’s just eager to be making the most out of this great restaurant, or because he’s afraid someone will take it from him and he needs extra. I think Richard’s understanding of wanting is very different from Norman’s understanding. Norman is constantly wanting more than he needs, and every time he gets what he thinks he wants, he immediately wants the next thing. Part of what happens to Norman over this film is that at a certain point he stops wanting. The third act is about him not wanting anymore, and that’s something that came out of Richard and came out of his understanding of Norman’s journey.

 

DT: We all know the saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Do you think that applies to Norman?

RG: I think there’s no dark intent in him at all. I keep saying there’s no Iago in him. He could never play Iago. He doesn’t have that. He doesn’t have anger. He doesn’t have resentment. He can’t afford that, and he’s found a way that that instinct has been muted in him, in a genuine way. It’s just not there. I think he genuinely wants everyone to have everything, and he found a way to do it by the end of the movie. Including himself. Everyone got what they wanted.

SPOILER ALERT

DT: But Norman essentially commits suicide in the end.

RG: He found a way to get what he wanted: He was essential. He was essential. And he delivered happiness to everybody. And he was anonymous, like in the last frame of the picture.

END SPOILER ALERT

JC: But judging things morally by only intention is always problematic. Bad things can happen with good intentions. I occasionally witness someone doing something that I think is conniving—for example, someone sneaks his way into an event that I’ve arranged and I’m upset that he’s there; that happens every once in a while. How bad can the intentions be when someone sneaks into someone else’s dinner uninvited? Even if it’s not nice, it’s not evil. Still, I’d tend to be really upset at that person: how dare you do that? But most likely if I’m in his shoes, his intentions are probably reasonable, and I shouldn’t be as upset as I am at him. The way people deal with Norman challenges the way I deal with some of the situations in my life that are close to what Norman does. Seeing someone try to take a piece of what’s mine for whatever reason is aggravating, but I don’t think it almost ever comes from a bad intention.

 

DT: I’d like to draw a comparison between this film and another Israeli film, Ephraim Kishon’s film Sallah Shabati.  In Kishon’s film, there’s a scene where a big American car drives up to the forest where Sallah is planting a tree paid for by donations from American Jews. Over the forest is a big sign that says The Goldberg Forest. The Goldbergs get out of their big car, look at their forest, and leave. Then you hear the sound of another car. Before it arrives, the  Goldberg Forest sign is replaced by a sign that says The Rosenstein Forest. The Rosensteins get out, look at their forest—the same forest—and leave.  In the space of that one scene, I suddenly understood the Israeli view of American Jews like me, little kids in Hebrew school walking up to the front of the classroom to drop their quarter in the blue-and-white charity box.

As an American Jew, I never imagined that Israelis could be making fun of me. I had that same moment in Norman with the travel posters…suddenly that whole thing opened up for me again, thirty years later—that experience of This is how I look to an Israeli.

JC: There’s another side to it. The American who’s giving money to plant the tree doesn’t really care what’s being planted in Israel. He’s just happy that his check is doing something for his conscience. He’s happy about that, and Israelis can do whatever they want with that check. As long as the American thinks there’s a tree and he has that picture in his mind, he’s happy.

DT: So what’s the difference with Norman?

JC: Norman feels that he’s doing something that is good for Israel, and doing something good for Israel is huge. That’s being part of history. Whether he is or not doesn’t make a difference. That’s his sense. He’s almost messianic.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

Heal the Living/Katell Quillevere

When a young teenager is left brain-dead after a car accident, his parents agree to donate his powerful heart to a a sickly middle-aged mother. The story line deftly weaves together the lives of donor, recipient, and the doctors who bring them together, but beneath the story line lies a tender homage to the wonders of our earthly existence, pulsing with vibrant life.  Availability: Opens April 14, New York City, Quad Cinema. To see the trailer, click here. Thanks to Aimee Morris, Sophie Gluck & Associates, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: As you watch certain films, you slowly become aware that they’re about something else—something far beyond what’s happening on the screen. Heal the Living is such a film.  My question to you is this:  How do you accomplish something so ephemeral? Through working with the actors? Through intention? Through the editing process?

KQ: In this film, the big question for me behind the story of organ donation and the transfer of life is the question of the link between human beings; the larger idea of taking part in a family or a community, like the hospital. Hiding the link influenced me in every step of the process of the film, even in directing and choosing my actors. I chose them as a team, a collective, based on the diversity of their physical aspects, their appearance, the different movies they’d made, famous not famous, professional or not, because I wanted the casting to be an image of the diversity of society.

In my work with them, I helped them understand that the goal was not their own performance but the fact that they were participating in a story that was stronger than them, so they had to be generous and focused on more than what was crossing their own paths. And it was a good way also for them to forget themselves. In France, many of them are really famous, like Emmanuelle Seigner, Tahar Rahim, Anne Dorval, and you discover them as characters, not as actors. This was difficult, as there were no main actors and they don’t appear til later in the film, but that was the big challenge: to forget them as actors. One of my techniques was to bring them into the reality of the story. I asked all of them to work at the hospital. They were trained by real doctors, surgeons, nurses, and we really loved that. It was a great experience for them to discover their characters, in the medical way but also in the emotional way, and I think you can tell that in the movie.

 

DT: Absolutely. Can you talk about mise-en-scene, also from the same perspective.

KQ: How to build on the question of the link was trying to figure out what the movie looked like with my camera operator. We wanted to define the camera’s figure of the movie. The metaphoric figure of the movie was a circle, so we wanted to move this into life, to the center of life, not at the end of the line, like the caboose on a train. We wanted to put it inside to show how it even engenders life, so we built the aesthetic effect of the movie in echoes, from the center of the movie, which is when the heart recipient is in bed with the woman who is her lover.

From there, we worked it in echoes. For example, at the beginning of the film [when the boys are returning home after surfing but before the accident that renders Simon brain-dead], there’s a shot of   the two teenagers in the car falling asleep head to head.  You can find this image at the end of the movie, with the two young sons waiting to see if their mother, the heart recipient, has survived surgery. Another example: the movie starts with two faces, of two teenagers in bed. One is falling asleep, the other [the organ donor] is watching her, and it’s exactly the same image as the organ recipient and her girlfriend in bed, so there are a lot of examples like that, symmetrical to the center of the movie, to create this organic aspect, this feeling of human connection, finding the link, looking for a link to each other all the time.

We also found that the traveling movement of the camera was like the DNA of the film, the filmmaker always traveling, irrigating the movie like the blood in the veins of the body. When it comes time to fixate it, it’s a series of steps until the intensity arrives, and then when the decisions are made [to give the organ or to accept the donation], movement comes back into the movie.

 

DT: Can you talk about the editing process, addressing the same question?

KQ: For me the question of editing is a question of writing the movie. You always write a movie three times; the script, the shooting, and the editing, and it’s always the same question: Informing. The big question while editing this film was the balance between the major plot line and telling the story from one body to another, from death to life, and also the detours the movie had to make to bring humanity inside this story, which helped every character have his own singularity.

It also meant that everyone’s smallest gesture had an influence on the big picture, as it does in life, working with the way that we are constantly influenced by the gestures and the decisions of others and that we are linked together. That balance was really difficult to get; it was our big goal for the success of our movie, for making the movie function.

DT: What gestures in particular?

KQ: I paid attention to gestures during the whole movie. The way the surfers dressed, the way they put on their wet suits, the way they took care of their surfboards, how the doctors washed up in the hospital, how they took care of a body. In a way it’s really how these gestures, which are all part of what human capabilities are, are responsible for helping lives to continue.

 

DT: I love the way that you approached objects. Some critics called it very clinical, but I found the shot of the blood pumping during the surgery to be one of the most beautiful images I’ve ever seen.

KQ: All through the movie we tried to film objects in their metaphoric aspect. There are a lot of tubes and wires in this film. The tubes are things that link people to each other, but there are also tunnels, like when you see the teenager biking through a tunnel. All these tunnels and tubes are all linked from one to another, like the veins inside the body.

 

DT: There are a lot of dangers in making a film like this one, which is so sweeping and has such a wide perspective. Can you talk about your greatest fears in making this film and the dangers that you had to avoid?

KQ: You’re right—you have fears when you’re making a movie. One of our biggest fears concerned the emotions, the feelings. I really didn’t want the movie to be over the top in the sense that the viewer becomes hostage to the emotional situation that is portrayed. And the idea of how to view the subject of death without being morbid—going beyond that was something that really obsessed me.

 

DT: What difficulties did you encounter in adapting Maylis De Karangal’s novel?

KQ: The first was the whole issue of temporality and time in a film versus a book. In a book you can move forward and backward in time, you can be in the present, you can go back in the characters’ memories, and also to their future hopes. In cinema you can’t do that. You’re much more in the present moment in film, so that was really one of the challenges.

The other was the thoughts of the organ recipient. Her character is not really developed in the novel, but I felt that it was really important to develop her character to give balance and symmetry with the figure of the donor.

DT: How did you use the score?

KQ: One of the challenges with the score was to find music that would enable me to find the organic dimension of the film and to define it. It’s a choral film with many characters, and what was important was that the link between the characters be defined. One of the roles of the music was to help those links become more evident. I worked with Alexandre Desplat because he’s a melodic genius, and he was very, very good at finding the appropriate melody to bring these things out.

 

DT: When you watch the finished film, how do you feel?

KQ: Whenever I finish a film, I look at it and I’m really happy because I know that in the process of making it I’ve gone as far as I can and I’ve done as much as I can. At that moment when it’s all done I really feel a sense of happiness, but later on, when I have a chance to take a few steps back and I see how others react to it and what others’ impressions were, then doubts begin to arrive.

DT: You shouldn’t have any doubts about this one. Thank you for making this film.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

Power to Change/Carl Fechner

In Power to Change, filmmaker and journalist Carl Fechner issues an open invitation to people around the world: Come join the energy rebellion.  Fechner speaks with members of Parliament, students, inventors, investors, and ordinary folks who understand the crisis of climate change and implement solutions in their own lives, from fighting for energy independence to reducing their personal carbon footprint through simple energy-saving techniques at home. Come: Join the energy rebellion. It’s an invitation we can’t afford to refuse. To learn how you can join the energy rebellion, visit the film’s website  Availability: Sunshine Cinema, New York City, April 5 and 6. Thanks to Thessa Mooij and Laura Schwab, Silversalt PR, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: What do you mean by “energy rebellion”?

CF: It means that people take power in their own hands. They make their own decisions to change to 100 percent renewable energy. They don’t wait for big companies with lots of money to do it—they decide to produce energy efficiently on their own. They decide to heat with solar collectors. All of these things, which everybody can do without the government, without laws: That’s what I call energy revolution, or energy rebellion.

 

DT: In the film, you present a selection of people who are participating in the energy rebellion, as well as the solutions they’re choosing, such as collective battery storage facilities, transport mobility, skysails, energy efficiency training.

CF: People know more about the problems than about the solutions. We know about all those catastrophes, but we don’t focus on the fact that there are lots of possibilities for everybody to solve the problem. We have this climate catastrophe coming up—the water level is rising, we already have more than 20 million refugees in Europe because of climate change. I don’t want to deny that, but the most important part is that people get the idea in their hearts, in their heads, that they can solve the problem, that they are responsible for their lives. Those are the prototypes of people we chose to be in the film, out of more than a thousand examples we found during our year of research. Our subjects all had ideas focusing on fighting for justice and fighting for nature. We chose people you could recognize anywhere. When we showed the film in Iran, people came up to me after the Q&A and said, “The guy in your film is like my brother” or “I am like him” or “He is like me.” It was very touching for me because we saw that this idea was starting to take hold. We showed this film in 350 cities in Germany, and you could see the people reacting.

To answer your question about solutions, you see a broad range in the film. In Berlin you see a man working as an energy efficiency expert [going to people’s apartments and analyzing how they can save money by using energy more efficiently]. He’s living on 380 euros a month, he’s very poor, but he’s fully engaged in this energy efficiency job because it gives him new courage and new ideas. For me, he was one of the most important.

 

DT: One of the solutions I found the most interesting was in Bordesholm, where they’re making their town completely energy independent, which seems to be the essence of what you’re talking about—people taking energy independence into their own hands, which is actually happening in Germany.

CF: It is happening. We’ve already changed our energy production, so that 33 percent of the electricity is coming out of renewable energy. This is only working because of the engagement of private people and small companies. The big international companies we have here in Germany, RWE or ENVW, have only 7 percent investment in renewables. Seven. So more than 2.5 billion euros in the past eight or ten years is coming out of normal people, with a little bit from the investment sector. That means a lot of people are changing their behavior, for example, not eating so much meat or flying less. It’s a movement in general society. In my company, for example, we don’t fly in the country anymore. Tomorrow I’m giving a keynote speech in Berlin. I’ll drive my electric car to the station in Stuttgart, where I’ll take the train, which gets me to Berlin in six hours. Before I always flew.

 

DT: In the United States, Germany, and the Ukraine, fossil fuel industries have been the major source of funding for totalitarian regimes, but energy independence would completely change international geopolitics. Can you talk about the effect of energy independence on global relations, as it was presented in the film?

CF: That’s why we selected Ukraine. Most people don’t know very much about the background of that war.  In the east of Ukraine they have very big coal mines; nearly 90 percent of the energy used in Ukraine, which is a rather big country, comes out of that region. The war is about that, among other things. Their movement for energy independence is growing bigger and bigger; the minister of the environment says they could be energy independent [from Russia].

At the moment they are codependent not only on Russia but on other countries too. There are lots of American companies, for example, that are already involved in fracking there. That’s what it means to be dependent. For example, Germany at the moment is dependent on Turkey, that’s why we are so soft on Erdogan. Dependence is always a problem, especially if you are dependent on power for electricity and heating. Years ago people were dying in Ukraine because of lack of gas when Russia stopped gas imports into the country. Energy autonomy would have a very big role in the war, and that’s why we say in the film that it’s a very important subject for peacemaking.

 

DT: One of the people you profile in your film is Mr. Roughani, a wealthy businessman who’s considering joining the energy rebellion by remodeling his company.

CF: In 2015, we had more than a million refugees in Germany. Chancellor Merkel said, “OK, we got it, no problem,” and she’s right. For all the trouble that causes, we’re very happy about people like Mr. Roughani, who’s a refugee from Iran, and Anya, from the Ukraine, who have come to us and are now part of the solution. Mr. Roughani is a rich young man who’s decided to take his business more and more down a renewable energy path. He’s changing not only his company but his personal behavior as well.

 

DT: In order to get people on board the energy rebellion, they have to understand the problem of climate change, but many people say it’s simply too big to grasp. As I was watching your film, I was struck by an analogy that might be useful: we’re like a person who has a heart attack, who’s told that he must change his diet if he wants to survive.  It seems like a useful image because everyone can understand it. And the fact of the matter is that  unless we change our energy diet, we’re not going to survive as a species.

CF: The image of a heart attack is right, and there are many good reasons to change. Unfortunately there are many very powerful people, rich people, who are fighting against that. They’re fighting against their personal health, if you stay with your image.

This struggle  is not over at all—it’s getting even more difficult. In my previous film, The Fourth Revolution: Energy (2010), we interviewed Hermann Scheer [Member of the German Parliament, President of the European Association for Renewable Energy EUROSOLAR, Chairman of the World Council for Renewable Energy WCRE]. Ten years ago, he said, “We have 5 percent renewable energy, we want to take it up to 10 percent.” Today we’re starting at 33 percent. The big companies, as well as the part of the government that is dependent on these big companies, are really losing money. That’s why this fight is harder, that’s why we speak now about resistance: we really have to fight for all that. Perhaps it is a final fight.

We would like to leave atomic power in Germany, but in France they have more than 80 percent of their energy produced by atomic power. We have a long way to go, but we don’t have the time for that. In Germany and other industrial countries we have to go down to 0 carbonization, 0 production, by 2040. If not, the planet will heat by two degrees. That means we have only 23 years. That’s very close. That’s why we say it requires a big change in people’s minds, in their self-definitions. That’s why we speak about a revolution—an energy rebellion.

 

DT: You’re truly talking about a worldwide revolution of values, of lifestyles, of a way of relating to each other.

CF: Yes. That is what we’re thinking about, and that means that we have to change our focus. These are personal decisions.  I wanted to stop making films after making The Fourth Revolution, but there was a lot of interest in this film. People say that the energy revolution is working.

We need to make personal decisions in our hearts. That’s why we made this film. We didn’t just share optimistic people with good solutions—we issued an invitation to everybody to be part of this movement, because I think it’s better to invite people than to shock them.

 

DT: The United States has a president who wants to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency, which is headed by Scott Pruitt, who doesn’t even believe that climate change is man-made. How big a threat is that to the global situation, and also to the energy revolution?

CF: In the beginning, many people were really frustrated about the election in America, especially when we saw that he’s not only talking about what he calls change but doing it.  But now we see here that people are beginning to realize they have to fight for their ideas. If they don’t, they’ll get a situation like America. So there’s increased resistance, and perhaps that’s a good message that we have from this man. Never again, an election like that. However, in Switzerland, for example, people had a referendum about stopping atomic power at once or in ten years, and they voted for ten years, so we don’t have to look as far away as America to see people deciding something strange. But never give up, never give up the movement, especially when you’re tired.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017