Woman in Gold/Simon Curtis

Maria Altmann spent her childhood in the sumptuous luxury of the prewar Jewish aristocracy in Vienna–an era and way of life brought to an end when the Nazis invaded Austria in 1938.  In order to save their lives, Maria and her husband fled, leaving behind their mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, to witness the destruction of their people.  Sixty years later, in California, Maria decides to fight back; with the help of young attorney Randy Schoenberg, she has decided to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s fabulous portrait of her aunt Adele, stolen from her home by Nazis to become the centerpiece of the Austrian artworld, where it is renamed Woman in Gold. Simon Curtis directs Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann and Ryan Reynolds as Randy Schoenberg in this lush reimagining of Maria’s real-life story.  Availability:  Opens nationally April 1. Check local listings for a theater near you.  Thanks to Rachel Aberly, PMKBNC, for setting up this interview. 

 

DT:  I love that the film is so lush and big and high-stakes but so internally driven at the same time.  Can you talk about how you balanced that focus on emotions with such a huge set and cast?

 

SC:  Thank you for that.  I don’t really know the answer, actually. You basically just make each scene work and then make the film work in the editing room. In the editing it was always going to be about how the past and the present interact. Photographically we were trying to do something different for each of the time periods, so it was a question of balancing all of that, I suppose.

 

DT:  How did you deal with the different time periods?

 

SC:  I had a brilliant DP in Ross Emery, and we talked about it a lot. We wanted the modern scenes with Helen and Ryan to be as colorful and real and documentary as possible, but contrasting the architecture and light of Vienna and Los Angeles.  The earliest scenes, the Adele scenes, should be as golden and as radiant as possible for obvious reasons. For the 1938 past, which was the end of the Jewish community, the end of an era and a terrifying period, it seemed right to desaturate.

 

DT: Did you use special filters or lights in the Adele scenes, because she’s glowing.

 

SC:  We did a lot of the coloring in post. That’s the simplest answer.

 

DT:  Your enthusiasm for the subject persuaded BBC Films to come on board.  Why did this story matter to you so much?

 

SC:  I just thought it was a very moving story of the twentieth century and placed a woman of a certain age in the center of it. That appealed to me, and it was a story of the immigrant experience.  We’d all love to revisit moments from our past to make things right.

 

DT:  It wasn’t really the typical immigrant experience.

 

SC:  But the universal of having to leave behind a life and having to reinvent oneself is.

 

DT:  Alexi Kaye Campbell, who wrote the screenplay, consulted frequently with Randy Schoenberg, the young attorney who actually prosecuted the case.  Were you involved in those discussions, and did they in any way complicate your job as a director?

 

SC:  No.  Randy was phenomenally helpful. We got two for the price of one because he was able to explain the legal procedure, being a lawyer, and he gave us the emotional stories too.  So, for example, he told Alexi how he’d broken down in front of the Holocaust Memorial, and that became a very important beat in Ryan’s Randy story, too.

 

DT:  That was actually my next question—one of the most moving moments in the film for me is his reaction to the Holocaust Memorial.  To me, it seemed like this moment of self-recognition that comes from realizing you’ve been kidding yourself your entire life.  Is that how the real Randy Schoenberg described it?

 

SC:  We tweaked the character of Randy to make him more of an all-American guy who hasn’t really dealt with his past and his family’s history—that happens before our eyes in the film, if you like.

 

DT:  Let’s talk about the sound design in the dancing scene at Maria’s wedding.  It was really, really remarkable.

 

SC:  We worked very hard on that.  I’d read that their wedding was the last big Jewish social event before the Nazis arrived, so we made it first off as a sort of naturalistic dance, and then it becomes a sort of emblematic dance. We decided to build in the jackboots arriving as part of that concept.

 

DT:  It was very effective.  The chase scene, where Maria and her husband escape, was so exciting it had me sitting on the edge of my seat.  What were the logistics involved in that?

 

SC:  We had a second unit with us in Vienna because we had a lot of things and locations to shoot in our three weeks there.  It was a team effort, and it involved Tatiana Maslany (who played the young Maria Altmann) running more than an Olympic runner ever had to run.  I’m very proud of the sequence.

 

DT:  Did you have to build special sets?

 

SC:  Most of that sequence takes place on the streets of Vienna and in an extraordinary building.  When they’re running down those stairs, that’s actually the building—built, I think, in the 18th century—to paint the back lots of the Vienna opera house.

 

DT:  What kind of reception did you get in Vienna while you were filming there, because the film is not particularly flattering to Austrians?

 

SC:  Really good; they were really supportive of us being there.

 

DT: Why?

 

SC:  They’re very proud of their city, and it’s amazing how few films have been shot there, considering how cinematic it is.  Did you see the homage to The Third Man, where you see Orson Welles’s Ferris wheel at the end of the film?

 

DT: Fantastic.  Can you talk about the replica of the painting?

 

SC:  That was a massive effort, because the credibility of the film hinged on that being close-up proof.  It was a really detailed, tricky thing to do. We had a really brilliant guy in London who worked with Jim Clay, our designer, to achieve that. And we also had to do two versions, a sort of work-in-progress version, and then the finished version, so it was a big achievement.

 

DT:  You did something unusual for such a high-budget film—you shot the early scenes in a foreign language.

 

SC:  That was something I was really pushing for, because that’s part of the identity thing—Maria starting her life in Vienna speaking German and ending her life speaking English in California.

 

DT:  That was a very nice touch. How interventionist were you with your two stars?

 

SC:  I wouldn’t use that word—I would say I collaborated with them. They’re both incredibly smart, both incredibly experienced, both incredibly well prepared.  But also wanting a dialogue.  Usually every member of the cast has a different version of how you can help them, and your job as a director is to work out how you can best help each person on an individual basis. Sometimes that involves a lot of talking and a lot of notes, and sometimes it involves no talking and no notes.

 

DT:  Depending on the actor.

 

SC: Sometimes depending on the actor in different films. I can work with the same actor twice, in different parts, and we’ll have a different version of working.

 

DT:  What was the hardest thing for you about this film?

 

SC:  It was logistically tricky—three time periods, three countries, two languages, English actors speaking German, German actors speaking English. The hardest job was pulling it all together.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2015

John Boorman/Queen & Country

It’s England, 1952, and Billie Rohan—the disarming protagonist of Hope & Glory—is all grown up and entering military service.  Where Hope & Glory showed us Boorman’s London during the Blitz, Queen & Country draws on Boorman’s life in the National Service nine years later. It’s hard to imagine that a film of such forthright and tender humor could come from the man who made Deliverance and Point Blank, but it did, and we feel honored to have had the opportunity to chat with Mr. Boorman about cinema, England, and his brilliant memoir, Adventures of a Suburban Boy.  •Availability: Opens 2/18, Film Forum, New York City; 2/27, Los Angeles, with national rollout to follow.  Click here to find a theater near you.  Thanks to Deborah Schonfeld, BBC, and Adam Walker, Film Forum, for arranging this interview. 

 

DT:  You’ve said there is always one element that makes a scene into cinema, rather than simply being a photographed scene.

 

JB:  I was quoting Sam Fuller about that.  It was his idea that there’s one thing that makes a scene into cinema magic.  It can be anything, really.  I remember doing a scene once. It was a linking scene without much to it. When I came to shoot it, it was teeming with rain and wind, so the characters had to shout at each other, and it became something completely different and rather wonderful.  In the story, they do become antagonistic later on, and somehow that scene was like a prescient moment; because they were shouting at each other in the wind and the rain, it gave you an inkling of their antagonism to come.

 

DT:  That’s fantastic.  Very fortuitous. When you’re in control of that moment, though, how do you produce it?  I’m thinking of the moment in Queen & Country when he sees the back of her head and she’s turning around into that fabulous light.

 

JB:  In the case you mention, he falls in love with the back of her neck, then he fantasizes about her turning.  The light changes, and somehow you’re within his fantasy. This incredible creature turns around then, and he’s completely done for—he’s lost.

In this case, the scenes with her are really about class. The class system was very strong in England at that time, and she of course was very upper class and he was very much lower middle class, so their relationship was doomed. It could never work. She had all sorts of other problems, but it was class that distinguished them. When he goes running after her, she sees him as a toy to be played with. There’s an element of cruelty about her.

 

DT:  You’ve spoken about film’s ability to achieve a sort of radiant transcendence.  What is it about film that does that?

 

JB:  We don’t understand it, really, do we? We all know that feeling of watching a movie and suddenly it ceases to be a movie and we lose our bearings and disappear into the film. We know when a film has reached this stage because we find ourselves saying, “I don’t want it to end.”  Whereas more often than not we’re sitting there with an aching bottom, and we’re saying, “I wish it would end.”  So something happens.  Magic.

 

DT:  When it works, it’s real.  Many of the characters and situations in Queen & Country are based on real people—your family, the people in the army, your court-martial.  Which came first when you were making the movie—the story or the memories?

 

JB:  I think the relationship between memory and imagination is very mysterious. What I would try to do with both those films—Hope & Glory and Queen & Country—was look for the truth rather than accuracy. When I asked Sinead Cusack to play the mother—my mother—formerly played by Sarah Miles, Sinead said to me, “Do you want me to do an impersonation of Sarah Miles?”  I said, “No. I cast Sarah because she had the same spirit as my mother, and I want to cast you for the same reason. You don’t look like her and you don’t really look like Sarah Miles, but it works because of your spirit.”

 

DT:  In your memoirs, you write in great detail about Sgt. Yeomans, who becomes Sergeant Major Bradley in Queen & Country,  as well as many other events and people reincarnated in both Queen & Country and Hope & Glory. Do you ever feel funny about using their foibles as your material?

 

JB:  I had intended to make this film at an earlier date, but the lawyers were worried about these characters being based on real people—they said these people might take offense, they might sue.  Film lawyers are always terrified of that, and even though I pointed out that I’d already written about these people in my books, they nevertheless made me change their names in the film. But anyway, the older soldiers, like Bradley, who was based on Yeomans, were at least ten years older than me at the time, or even older.  I’m 82 now, so they would be in their mid or late nineties if they’re still alive.  So either they’re dead or they’re too old to be worried about suing.

 

DT:  In your memoirs, you talk about capturing the state of grace that you achieved as a young man when you walked into the river without disturbing its surface. You also said that that moment sent you on a quest for images to try to recapture that moment.  How does that work for you as a filmmaker—how do you set out to capture images?

 

JB:  I put that image of the boy walking carefully into the river in Hope & Glory, and I’ve hardly ever made a film without a river in it. I’m very fascinated by the way water reacts to film emulsion, and I think actually magic, God even, exists somehow in that relationship. That’s a really magical thing, and it does something to an audience.  Audiences recognize it right away.  You see flowing water, and the way it reacts to film is right at the heart of things.  Water is a mystery anyway, and the way we’ve found  of capturing these images and reproducing them is rather mysterious.  When I was living with this tribe in the Amazon before I made Emerald Forest, the shaman asked me what I did. I found it incredibly difficult to describe a film to someone who had never seen television or film. I said, “You can see somebody very close up and you can see them far away and you go back in time and you can go forward in time, and you can see a landscape or you can see a blade of grass.” The shaman said to me, “You do the same work I do.  That’s what we do when we go into trance—we’re able to travel in time and see our ancestors.”  It was extraordinary. And perhaps that’s the power of film: it awakens an atavistic memory of Stone Age tribal life.

 

DT:  You were so fastidious with the accuracy of the set in Hope & Glory that you had your mother and sister come to the set to make sure that everything was right, like the radio being on the right side of the room.  Were you that fastidious with Queen & Country?

 

JB:  The army camp and all the objects and accoutrements in the camp all came out of memory. Tony Pratt, who was the production designer on this and Hope & Glory as well, did his army service, too, so between us we could recapture everything exactly right.  That army camp is very, very much exactly as I remember it.

 

DT:  You’ve said that when you think about the real-life events that Queen & Country and Hope & Glory are based on, the scenes in the film have replaced your memories of those events.

 

JB: Well, yes, and there’s a kind of tragedy in the sense that vivid though my memories were of the London Blitz, for instance, I can’t remember them anymore.  I can only remember their depiction in Hope & Glory.  So making Hope & Glory rather destroyed my memories, and the same thing is happening with Queen & Country. I can no longer see Sgt. Yeomans. Now I can only see David Thewlis playing him, and David Thewlis is much more vivid to me than the character he’s based on.

 

DT:  How does that make you feel?

 

JB:  It feels like I’ve betrayed myself in a sense. On the other hand, what I was always looking for in both those films is not appearances so much as spirit and truth.  Somehow if it felt true, I would say, “OK, we’ll do this.  This feels true.” Who knows?  The tragedy of memory is that by definition we can’t know what we’ve forgotten.  If we put all our memories end to end—the memories of a lifetime—they would probably only last about two weeks. When you think of what we’ve forgotten, it’s horrifying, because without memory, there’s no life.  I mean, every plant has a memory, knows what it’s supposed to do, when to come into leaf, and bud, and bloom.  And that’s the great tragedy of Alzheimer’s, isn’t it?  That the memory goes, the personality disappears.

 

DT:  Was it weird finding someone to play yourself?

 

JB:  I did it twice, didn’t I?  I saw a lot of boys for Queen & Country, and what I was looking for was the spirit of the person I was at that time. I was shy, and diffident, and also very much an observer, on the fence, not committing myself, and, I think, very much influenced by having had our house destroyed in the Blitz. We were left with what we stood up in, me, my parents, and my sisters. Clothes were rationed as well as food, so everything was gone. We had nothing. And I remember a feeling of great lightness at the time. I thought it was great. And ever since, I’ve never owned anything I’d be concerned about losing. I think I was detached at that time, and that’s what I was looking for in this boy.  And Callum Turner [who plays Bill, John Boorman’s alter ego] had a truth about him in the way he responded to things.  There was nothing fake.

 

DT:  No. He was wonderful.

 

JB: So probably a lot nicer than I was.

 

DT:  I’m sure that’s not true.  In your memoirs, you’ve described the Arthurian legends as being “an England laying under the numbness of suburban life.” Does that Arthurian England still exist?

 

JB:  No, it’s become much more cynical.  The Arthurian legend was a kind of underpinning of British culture. When I was making Excalibur, I asked people, “When did you first hear about King Arthur?”  Nobody could tell me.  It was always there.

 

DT:  It’s like they were born with it.

 

JB:  No one could remember a time when they first heard about it. It ran so deep into the culture, this notion of Arthur trying to bring harmony and peace to a nation.  England is much better now in many ways, but it also has lost that mythical underpinning that always existed there.

 

DT:  In Queen & Country, like Hope & Glory, I feel like the real pain that you and your family experienced is transcended by the grace of your memory.

 

JB: That’s a very nice way of putting it.  Yes, that’s true. The ending of the film, where Bill goes back to apologize to Bradley, his tormentor, and the apology is not welcome, and it brings him into contact with some of the boys he trained who’ve come back from Korea, there’s suddenly the reality of war. Everything impinges on what has been the often lightheartedness of army life and the ridiculous nature of it and all of that. It brings it home to him, and suddenly it’s a growing up, it’s a maturing of his life at that time, and Callum Turner, who plays Bill, plays that with a great sense of grace.

 

DT: I was thinking about your movies and what ties them all together.  How can the man who made Deliverance and Point Blank make a film as tender as Queen & Country? I was thinking, What’s the key to his cinematic art? It’s funny, but I discovered it in your writing:  it’s your incredible ability to evoke atmosphere.  This is a silly question, but how do you do that?  What do you hone in on, to create, for instance, the fear of that banjo scene in Deliverance?

 

JB:  I don’t know how to answer that because each situation requires something different, but it comes back to your first question about making a scene into magical cinema. There’s always a different solution. To give you one example, in Deliverance, the four men are going down the river and eventually come upon these mountain men who torture them. Up until that point, the cutting had been very rhythmic, and there’s a rhythmic quality about the camera movement as the canoes go down the river. The audience gets used to that movement and that cutting rhythm.  So when they meet the mountain men, I had the camera locked off so it didn’t move. The actors moved in and out of frame with the mountain men, and what that did was unconsciously create a tremendous tension in the audience. Suddenly, from the camera being flowing, it suddenly stopped completely.  It wouldn’t move.  And it didn’t matter if the actor went out of shot—the camera didn’t move, it waited for him to come back in again.  And that was how I solved that particular problem.  So one’s always looking for those solutions when you come up against these scenes and how to do them.

 

DT:  How did you solve those problems in Queen & Country?

 

JB:  In a very simple way, take the scene where Bill falls in love with the girl he saw at a concert.  He’s in a café and he sees her running past. He runs out after her, and he’s embarrassed, and he apologizes.  She just walks on, and he’s always slightly behind her.  That’s very important.  The distance between characters has to reflect their degree of intimacy or antagonism. That’s always very important in staging a scene, the relationship between characters and how close they are and how far away they are from each other.  She walks straight on, she doesn’t look left or right, he’s hovering around her, and the camera is moving with her and he’s trailing in her wake all the time. It was just the design of the shot. Had they been standing still talking to each other, it would have been a completely different scene.  She’s walking away from him the whole time, and he’s trying to catch up with her. So that’s what I always try to do:  see what is at the heart of the scene and try to design it in such a way that it reflects that relationship.

 

DT:  There was a scene in Hope & Glory where the father is going off to war, and there’s a lot of bustle on the street, and suddenly, far in the background, the father and two other men come together and you see them walking off—

 

JB:  And they start walking in a military way, don’t they?

 

DT:  So fabulous.  It was like everything just fell into that one moment. On another topic, can you talk about how you use music in your films?

 

JB:  The relationship between film and music is a longstanding one. In the early films, when they started adding live music, they followed the circus. When the trick was about to be done, you’d get the roll of the drums, the final Chum! and he would leap into the air. That’s how film music began….the scene became more vivid by music. Of course Prokofiev wrote the music for Eisenstein’s films, and Prokofiev really invented incidental music for films. That was picked up, and we see it in some of the great masters.  Music and film are like a marriage. Sometimes it works harmoniously and beautifully, and sometimes marriages fall apart, and people have rows and it doesn’t work.

 

DT:  You have a lot of input into the use of music in your own films.

 

JB:  I do, yes. A lot of people engage a composer before shooting the film, and they talk about it from the beginning. I’ve never been able to do that. I wait until I’ve cut the film together before I think about the music.

 

DT: Really?

 

JB:  The exception to that was probably Deliverance, because I always intended to use these dueling banjos as a theme. Warners was always beating me up over the budget. I eventually had nothing more I could cut. I had money budgeted for a composer and orchestra for the score, so I cut them both and decided just to do variations on dueling banjos. I got two musicians into a room for two hours and recorded it. That way I got the budget down to a point where Warners felt it was a sum of money they could afford to lose.

 

DT:  Kind of like going to Vegas.  One more question.  What was your favorite moment making Queen & Country?

 

JB:  The most moving moment for me was the very simple scene with Bill and his mother. Bill has seen his mother’s lover waving to her from across the river, and he says, “Was that Max you’re waving to?”  And she says, “You saw it.”  He responds, “I was nine years old.  Do I betray my mother, or do I betray my father?”  Well, that was my dilemma at that time, so that really was the most emotional scene for me, because if I didn’t tell my father, I was betraying him, and if I did tell him, I was betraying my mother. That was the dilemma I had when I was a child.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2015

 

Diplomacy/Volker Schlöndorff

Paris, August 25, 1945. One room, two men—a German general sent by Hitler to blow up Paris, and a Swedish consul determined to dissuade him from carrying out his mission. Based on Cyril Gely’s eponymous play, Diplomacy stars André Dussollier (Consul Raoul Nordling) and Niels Arestrup (General Dietrich von Choltitz) brilliantly revising their stage roles for the screen.  •Availability:  US theatrical premiere October 15, Film Forum, New York City, with national rollout to follow.  Click here for local theater listings.  A Zeitgeist Films Release.  Thanks to Adam Walker, Film Forum, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: Each of your films has a different gestalt, which seems to be determined by the characters. Diplomacy is very controlled, for instance, while Tin Drum is very chaotic.

 

VS: For me, filmmaking is working with actors nowadays. I don’t care that much about the rest anymore. Of course I take care with the cinematographer and art director to get things right, but my real work is on the screenplay: thinking about how the actor is going to do it, already prepping in view of a performance. And at the end, if a certain number of characters are…unforgettable may be a big word, but if they impress, that is my work nowadays. It’s about faces and characters, the relationship between people, the ambiguities. In Diplomacy, what I liked outright is that the general is a true villain, not an art lover, who saves Paris ultimately, and the diplomat, who is supposed to be a great humanist and caring person, doesn’t hesitate to lie and deceive. That’s what makes them human, and that’s interesting. To have the actors to go with it—it’s a sheer pleasure.

 

DT: Is your change in approach personal, or is it due to a change in the industry or technology?

 

VS: I think it’s more personal. There was a time when we were looking for great performances. When you could visibly see the effort; say, Actors Studio. It’s a performance. It’s an achievement.  You have to overcome obstacles. And I think that because it’s become so common for everybody to record family, or make movies with a cell phone and whatnot, we become suspicious of anything that points toward a visible performance. So you have to take acting to another level; it has to become an invisible performance, it has to be beyond acting. For me, the quintessential actor was Philip Seymour Hoffman in that direction. And I think that Niels Arestrup [playing the German general in Diplomacy] belongs in that category, where you feel you can see our emotions and feelings expressed in a way that is not fabricated. A good part of that is also in Boyhood. That’s why I love that movie.

 

DT: Can you talk about the difference between adapting novels and stage plays?

 

VS:  Billy Wilder always told me, “Why do you do novels? Take a play. The curtain comes up, you’re within a situation, and an hour and a half later the curtain comes down, and within that structure you told your story. You can change everything—the period, the characters, and so on—but your structure is there, whereas a novel is endless and it doesn’t get you anywhere.” I had the opposite feeling; I had the feeling that generally a novel is more like life. It’s like a river flowing along. Stendhal had this image: A novel is a mirror walking alongside a road, reflecting life. For me, that was always a movie. Meaning there has to be landscape, there has to be open air, there has to be a feeling of time passing by—long stretches of time—whereas a play is confined in a room and the time is ninety minutes or a hundred twenty max. It’s a totally different exercise.

Even though Diplomacy is based on a play, of course, I tried to open it up. But it was dangerous to open up too much, because the whole energy comes from the claustrophobic situation, and if you open it too much, it doesn’t work anymore. A play and a novel are really two different pairs of shoes. I think with a novel it’s harder to find a structure, but it’s easier to film. To film a play and make believe it’s real life is much harder. It takes a lot of concentration from the actors and everybody else to make us forget the artificial situation of two people in a room. I was very skeptical about Diplomacy. I told the producers, “I’m your guy.  I’d love to work with these actors, but I cannot guarantee that this will be interesting in any way.”  Because I was very skeptical, I was more demanding with each sequence and everything that held it together. How can you create suspense even though everybody knows what the outcome is? But what’s more, how can there be emotion? It was hard work.

 

DT:  I watched Death of a Salesman last night right after seeing Diplomacy

 

VS:  You’re very much on the mark, then.  It’s very connected.

 

DT: —but Death of a Salesman you did for TV. Did that account for the difference between the two?

 

VS: Salesman was released worldwide in cinemas except in this country.  It was only because Dustin was scared of the box office that it went straight to television here. It played at major film festivals and at theaters, and it did very well everywhere in the world, so for me it’s a movie movie.  WithSalesman, Arthur Miller wanted the film to have the entire play with all the dialogue.  I said, Well, if that’s what you want, then we can’t go and shoot exteriors in Brooklyn and all that, because it would be redundant…in the play, the words create the world. I came up with this idea to build in studio a set that would somehow look like a theater set with open elements, but it would be artificial and you would always know that this is not real. This is a play.

When we were prepping Diplomacy, at first I had this idea that since Paris is the third character, we could have transparent walls in the room so that we feel the city outside all the time. I soon rejected the idea, because it was more about seeing through the windows, where we go out from time to time. This time we got to do the opposite of Salesman: make you forget it’s theater. And that goes for the performances. In Salesman, you had to have this kind of Actors Studio performances, this powerhouse of emotion where you cannot pretend this is a real family at home right now yelling at each other. It wouldn’t be like that. Diplomacy is a different world. With these two guys in the room, I wanted to have the feeling that there is an intimacy and this indeed is as they speak together—one would sit down on the windowsill, for example, and it would all be very untheatrical.

 

DT: I was struck by how untheatrical it was.

 

VS: Yes.  It took awhile to get there.

 

DT: Music is obviously very important to you, not only in cinema but also as an artform.  You’ve directed a number of operas, for instance.

 

VS:  Normally I hate music in movies.  I mean, it has to have a special function, not simply play all the way through.

 

DT: That was my question.  How do you direct the interplay between music and the moving image?

 

VS: I felt that since Diplomacy is two men in a room debating the destiny of hundreds of thousands outside that room, it could not be an intimate score. It could not be just a piano or guitar. You would say, This is a chamber drama, so it has to be chamber music.  I say no. Maybe this is a chamber drama, but it’s of epic dimension, so we need a huge orchestra. We used the Berlin Babelsberg Film Orchestra, 80 pieces, to give the feeling of the epic dimension of the debate. That was a very conscious choice.  On the other hand, the music is not about the general or the consul; it’s about the people outside this room. It’s the city of Paris, as well as the idea of starting with the destruction of Warsaw and having Furtwängler conducting the Seventh Symphony at the same time the city of Warsaw is destroyed. That again enhanced this feeling that it is not about these two people, it’s about humanity as a whole, and the combination of Warsaw and Beethoven just joined the two sides of the German coin: capable of the worst and of the best.

 

DT: Was that an historic performance of Beethoven’s Seventh?

 

VS:  Yes, it was, including the coughs and everything. It’s a 1943 performance in Berlin, so it’s the kind of stuff that they would certainly air on the radio in those days—at least I pretended it was.

 

DT:  Sticking with the idea of music, in the press notes you say that you divided the script forDiplomacy into musical movements.

 

VS:  That has nothing to do directly with the music; I meant about the rhythm of the film.  I was afraid of monotony.

 

DT:  It was gripping.

 

VS: There were two ways we accomplished this. The first was taking advantage of lighting. The film starts in the middle of the night. It’s pitch dark because there’s a blackout, and then slowly the first light of day, and then the sun, comes in, so from scene to scene it will change the atmosphere in the room. Plus the artificial light goes out when there’s a power break. At the same time, I wanted to do it in the rhythm of the scenes, so I broke them down with the actors during the rehearsal. We determined certain movements…. In the beginning, it’s like a [boxing] match. They test themselves out with a punch here and there to see how the other one reacts, so it’s kind of an andante, slow movement. Then comes the next movement. We found it within the play. Here it has to go really staccato, fast, then we go back to an adagio, the consul is desperate because he thinks that he’s not going to achieve it, and then another event happens. This is what I learned when I was directing operas—to fight monotony, the composers simply change the tempos. I thought this was very interesting for acting, so  I always try to find that somehow. Of course, when you’re outdoors, it doesn’t apply as much as when you have two characters in a room.

 

DT: I feel like you also used silences in the same way. There was a moment when the general accuses the consul of working with the resistance and the consul replies, “If you think I’m in bed with the resistance, I could have murdered you a week ago.”  You leave a long moment of silence on the general’s reaction.

 

VS: It’s all about rhythm. They can talk a lot, very fast, and then you need a long time when there’s no talk at all. This movie was like making a Swiss clock. You had so few elements, and all the cogs had to fit perfectly so that the audience would never lose interest.

 

DT: You’ve said that a film has to have a point of view, while a stage play does not. Why does a film have to have a point of view?

 

VS: I don’t say that a play doesn’t…I think any theater director would jump at my face if I said that. They’re just different, I think. As a filmmaker—and that goes for thirty movies now—I can only tell the story from one point of view. I need to know who my narrator is, not that he has a voiceover, but whose perspective it is. With Diplomacy, I felt it could only be the consul, who penetrates into the den of this German general with the idea that he has to make him change his mind. One could have done it otherwise; a German general arrives in Paris and has to blow up the city, and what’s going on in his mind and so on. But I didn’t feel that would have been interesting. We can never identify, we shouldn’t identify, with the general. We should identify with the outside person. In any story you tell in any movie—it doesn’t always need to be so obvious as in the Tin Drum, where obviously the child is our perspective—but in every Western you have that point of view. In some, you have the hero coming into town, but in others you tell it from the point of view of the town, the population, where the villain’s coming into town. Obviously you’re telling it from another perspective, but I think once you have that, it’s a rule that the audience follows you better when you make them identify with one of the characters and then stick with it to the end. I get very upset when I see movies where they change perspective all of a sudden. I say, Well, this is a major mistake now. You lose your audience. You cannot change the perspective in the editing room. You have to know it at the moment when you write your screenplay. What scenes can be in the movie and what can’t be.  You can’t always cut to Meanwhile, back at the farm…. That’s another perspective. That’s God’s point of view. You can cut everywhere, but it’s very hard to identify with God.

 

DT: Dussollier and Arestrup have very different acting methods.  Can you talk about working with the differences between them?

 

VS: Fortunately, they have a point in common.  They are both very good when it gets very intimate. On stage, of course, there’s a lot of space. You put one on the left side, one on the right side, or one upstage and one close to the ramp. I especially told the consul, “Your way to make the general uneasy is don’t let him sit behind his desk. If he sits behind his desk, don’t sit in front of it. Go around and breathe down his neck. Don’t let him take refuge in this authority. Then of course the way to deliver your line is totally different. That forces him, and he cannot start bellowing at you, because you’re right under his nose.”  Both actors are very, very good at that.  They’re both cinema actors in that way even though they do a lot of stage work. On the other hand, they’re totally different. Dussollier is the kind of virtuoso who always knows what he is doing, he is very much in control. And Arestrup is a natural. He’s like in a trance when he’s acting. He doesn’t quite know what he’s doing. He can only do a couple of takes and then he’s exhausted, because at each given moment he’s giving so much to the part. In that they are totally different.

 

DT: As you said, they played the same characters on stage. In order to regain that “as if for the first time” feeling for the film, you rehearsed again and again and again.  Isn’t that contradictory?

 

VS:  Well, it’s contradictory, but we changed quite a bit of the dialogue. It’s less wordy than on stage. Niels Arestrup complained a lot. He said, “Memory is a terrible thing. Even if I concentrate hard on the new line, the moment I let go, the old one comes back.”  That was exactly the purpose of it—that the old should not come back, that it should be reinvented. Actors love to rehearse. They feel [making a film] is different [from acting in a play]: We are not projecting to an audience. The whole relationship we have is much more intimate now and therefore has to be more personal. Therefore we have to find new ways of communicating with each other. They need rehearsal to achieve that.

 

DT: You shot with two mobile cameras and booms to catch their voices.  How did that work in a confined space?

 

VS:  The room was much larger than any hotel room would be, to start with. We had to build a room that was about twice the size of the real room at the Hotel Meurice so we could move with two cameras that were not handheld. They were kind of suspended, one on a crane. They would not shoot crisscross; we would not do the reverse shot at the same time—that doesn’t work—just to have more material. I wanted to be floating all the time so that it doesn’t feel stiff in the room, that you live it with the actors rather than seeing it from the outside. This meant we needed two boom men as well, with the mics, because I don’t trust these [lavoliers]. You get very squeezy voices, not the full voice. Diplomacy is like a radio play, where the voices are as important as the faces. So we had two boom men, and that’s always a problem, because they get in the way of each other, so that meant more rehearsal.

 

DT: How much did you rehearse?

 

VS: Way ahead, a month earlier. We rehearsed a day and a half per week, and we did four days of shooting week per week.

 

DT: Are you working on another project now?

 

VS:  Fortunately yes, but we don’t have producers or financing yet. I wrote a screenplay with Colm Tóibín, an Irish writer, and I’m working on another project with my old pal Jean-Claude Carrière.

 

DT:  Thank you.  It’s been an honor.

 

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