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Past Article

Veit Helmer's European Declaration of Independence
By Jonathan Marlow
December 18, 2005 - 12:25 PM PST

"Be open for the story to happen."

Was it difficult to interest people in a story as unusual as Tuvalu?

Yes, very much. To shoot In Bulgaria, with no dialogue, in black-and-white, with actors from all over the world. People said, "You can do shorts without dialogue, but you can't do a long film without dialogue."

Clearly, they're wrong.

I don't know. I think the film showed that it can be entertaining. The question is, do you attract people or not? I think that there's an audience out there interested in films which are different. There are even more audiences out there, internationally speaking, for films which are different than for films which are normal. To export European cinema doesn't work if you make normal films. If you want, for instance, to succeed on the American market, you should have a film which looks different. I will have more problems with my film now, Gate to Heaven, selling it in the US because it's not as idiosyncratic and not as artistic. It's a more mainstream film. That domain is occupied by Hollywood. Even though I won't say my film is Hollywood. It's better to do more offbeat and outstanding films for conquering the foreign market.

Even with the success of Tuvalu, you don't have distributors coming to you for Gate to Heaven...

Oh yes, we've sold the film in many countries - Japan and throughout Europe - but I have not yet sold it in the US.

The US is a stubborn place. Since the film is in English, there shouldn't be the obstacle that distributors regularly remark on, "Audiences aren't willing to see subtitled films."

But maybe the art-house audience wants subtitles.

I think maybe they do.

Maybe there's this audience who is surprised to see a European film in English. Maybe that doesn't matter. I don't know.

Chulpan Khamatova and Denis Lavant in Tuvalu

How did you come to cast Denis Lavant in Tuvalu?

He was offered by my casting director for another role, the part of the brother, but I immediately felt he would be right for the main actor. Even if he was twelve years, fourteen years older than the main character was intended. We had this spontaneous chemistry. I mean, from that moment I never thought about anybody else. It was really a match made in heaven. I was wrong in the beginning, thinking I needed a very young actor for that part. It's much more powerful in the movie. Maybe even deeper, more heavy. That makes the film more interesting. In the beginning, I thought of something more comedic. With Denis, it was profound. If someone who is twenty never goes out of his house, you hope that he might still grow up. But somebody like Denis Levant, who was thirty-five at the time, is unable to leave his house, you know there is something wrong. This is not grown up, this is sick.

The actress that played Eva [Chulpan Khamatova] recently appeared in Goodbye, Lenin.

Yeah, she's shooting. She became a big star. I met her in Moscow and it was like digging for gold. If you stay long enough next to the river, then you'll find these little crumbs which are blinking into your eyes. If you stay long enough, you never know how long you need to stay at the river. You don't know when the crumbs will start falling into the...

...the pan. It's been a few years since you released Tuvalu. You mentioned earlier that Gate to Heaven was a ten-year process to finish...

I actually thought that Gate to Heaven would be my first film. It turned out to be very big, so Tuvalu came first since I thought that I would do it quicker. Tuvalu also turned out to be very big but, in the beginning, I thought that I could handle Tuvalu better. This film cost three times the budget of Tuvalu. It was at the Frankfurt airport. It was very difficult. I couldn't have done this as a first-time project.

How long was the shoot?

I shot for ten to eleven weeks. Tuvalu was twelve weeks. Here I have more money but I have less time. In Germany, everything's so expensive. I shot for fifty-eight days.

How were you able to work around the Frankfurt airport schedule? Do they have a part of the airport that...

They hate me.

They hate you?

Well, they didn't want to let me shoot. They were nice but said, "Here and there, you can't shoot." So we worked together with Lufthansa. They have an area of the airport which looks just like the airport. They said, "This is a nice project about people dreaming to become pilots and flight attendants." They supported me. They made the airport also help me. When the airport saw that Lufthansa was helping me they said, "Okay, we're going to help you as well."

And that's something that you negotiated yourself?

This is the key. I have people that do stuff for me, but if it's about making the movie or not then I'd better go myself to speak to these people.

Was someone at Lufthansa familiar with your work? Had they seen Surprise!?

I gave them a tape. This guy who is head of communication, I set up a meeting. I told him about me and about the project, about the script and then during a long, long process he made the company come into the project. Seeing the movie, Lufthansa is a little bit less excited because they feel there is too much about asylum seeking and they thought that the film was more romantic than sociopolitical. It doesn't matter, they still like the film, but they're just not investing as much in the promotion as we were hoping. We were hoping that they would participate as a promotional partner.

Gate to Heaven

Do you think it has a destination of playing in-flight?

It's not a big "cash cow." I would have loved to have Masumi [Makhija], my main actress, here [at SFIFF] but she would only fly business class, which was too much for the guys here [at the festival] to get her to San Francisco.

The poster for the film is beautiful. Even if Gate to Heaven and Tuvalu are very different, their visual aesthetic is very clear.

When I finish, then I can see more of a connection. In the beginning, I think that I embark on a completely new trip. When I finish, it's about a man, it's about a woman, it's about one place, it's about people trying to gain freedom, it's about others who behave like a child. There are similarities.

Do you think that you'll bring those same stylistic and narrative parallels into the next project? You'll make a film out of your teaching assignment?

I do a lot of these films. These are short films. Last week we did one, but those are different. Those are not really my films. I bring a lot from my person in this. It's not that I'm earning a lot of money. I try to show people in countries which are not connected to the film industry how you make movies in these industrial conditions. That means I'm going there, we shoot on 35mm, we have a three-day schedule, we're working very hard and these people used to shoot on video for film academies and their teachers haven't shot for many, many years. This is a crash course for them and some of them see that they really love this job and some see that they will never make it.

The majority of them, I suppose.

No, most of these students are very ambitious and very good, but some of them also understand that it takes a lot. You need to be willing to die for this profession.

You have another script?

I always have a couple of projects going at the same time. My next project is a documentary I'm going to shoot about casting in Los Angeles. I go out July, August, September to Los Angeles. I'm invited to Villa Aurora, which is an artist-in-residence place for German artists and I want to do something about the process of casting in Los Angeles which I discovered to be something really special when I cast Tuvalu and Gate to Heaven. I cast in over a dozen countries, all over the world. India, Russia, France, England, wherever. There's no place like Los Angeles, where you can access 80,000 actors within twenty-four hours. Sending out a casting brief and getting 10,000 submissions out of a resource of 80,000 actors. I want to do this from the perspective of the director. The directors have the challenge, have the problem, have this mission to find the best people for their films. I want to follow three directors and to watch behind-the-scenes, inside their head, to see how they gather their actors.

Sounds like a great project.

It's new for me, going into the world of documentary. I once directed a documentary as a work-for-hire for British television but it was not my project. Now this will be my first documentary. Maybe it turns out amazing, but...

At least you have a summer in Los Angeles, which should be interesting.

I'm sure something will turn out. I'm not sure if this one will turn out. You need some starting point and then you must be open and adapt to whatever comes in front of your camera. To follow and to be open for the story to happen.

back to past articles >>>

"I adapted Wim's style of being really independent."
"Be open for the story to happen."

back to past articles


Jonathan Marlow
In addition to his persistence in acquiring obscure films for GreenCine, Marlow is a writer, filmmaker, curator and occasional critic. Not necessarily in that order. He is also a dedicated skeptic.

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January 12, 2007. Clint Eastwood: Flags and Letters From the "Good War" by Jeff Shannon

view past articles

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