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Finding My Film Legs: Sean Ellis on Anthropoid

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By Paul Risker.

British filmmaker Sean Ellis’ Anthropoid (2016) tells the story of Operation Anthropoid, a daring chapter of the Second World War whose objective was the assassination of the Nazi third in command, SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich. While the Second World War is a dark chapter of history that haunts our present and future – Heydrich himself the architect of the Final Solution – the familiarity of this chapter sits in counterpoint to the place it occupies within Ellis’ filmography. It represents the first foray into the past for the filmmaker, his previous film the contemporary-set corruption drama-thriller Metro Manilla (2013). Meanwhile the supermarket reveries of Cashback (2006) and the memory loss infused mystery horror-thriller The Broken (2008) only deepens the contours of his eclectic filmography. Whether successful or not, Anthropoid presents Ellis as a filmmaker with an interest in telling a variety of stories, wading through the depths of not one thematic inclination or period of time, but with an uncertain trajectory that prevents industry and audience from pigeon-holing him.

In conversation with Film International, Ellis discussed the relationship of the film and filmmaker, and the role of the audience in the question of the ownership of a film. He also reflected on his intent to accurately recreate the past to give his audience an authentic impression of how it looked and felt, as well as the comprise between historical accuracy and the need for narrative creative licence.

Discussing the relationship of the film and the filmmaker, writer/director Rebecca Miller remarked to me: “If they are made honestly, all pieces of art are self-portraits of the person making them.” If you were to look back over your films, can you perceive something contained within them that connects you to them personally?

Yeah I guess, because they are like your children in a weird way, and so you do see elements of yourself in them. But they sort of become their own individual person – they go off and they have their own lives because obviously at a certain point you let go of them, and they become public domain. So it’s a little bit like taking the kids to school and hoping they make friends.

Speaking of the public domain, when I interviewed Carol Morley for The Falling (2015) she explained: “You take it 90% of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” Would you agree and do you perceive there to be a transfer of ownership?

I think that’s definitely it because anybody that loves movies will say: “What have you seen that you loved?” Then sometimes there will almost be an argument about it – I hated that movie… Why do you hate that movie? And it can be like: Oh, you’ve changed in my opinion, and I can’t like anyone that doesn’t like that film. People become very passionate about it and sometimes a film will really talk to somebody, and become part of their life; their soundtrack. The way they will list lines from it, they’ll communicate through it, and people will get that in-joke or won’t, and it becomes a part of that person. And when they have experienced that film then you are no longer the author – it actually belongs or doesn’t belong to that person. There are people that hate a film that will travel with it just as much as somebody that loves a film. They will hate it so much that they will be telling everybody about how much they hate it, or there will be people that like it so much that they will be telling everybody about it. But when it’s finished like you say you edit it, and you will show it to an audience to see where the strong points are working, and whether anything can be done. You might tweak it a little bit, but then once it’s done, it’s done.

There is a perspective amongst filmmakers that there are three versions of the script – the script that is written, the script that is shot and the script that is edited. Has this been something you’ve encountered of not knowing what the film is until you reach the final edit?

No… I am not saying I am not that filmmaker, I am just saying that I have not made a film that way yet. It’s not to say that I won’t, but with this, it was definitely the written script that became the budgeted script, and then the shoot we needed to make in thirty-nine days. And then you can only edit with what you’ve got [laughs]. In that respect I don’t think that there were ever three versions of this film. I think we all set forward to make one version based on the script that we had.

What led you to this particular chapter in history and compelled your interest to tell this story?

I saw a documentary about it in 2001 – I didn’t know the story before that and I found it fascinating. I started to research the story a bit more from there, and I found an enormous part of the history of that part of the world during that time I knew nothing about. And it was all integrated. It’s an enormous and fascinating period, and you could probably make three or four different movies about the stories that are interwoven into the Czech Resistance at that time. I basically continued to research for a number of years, on and off, in-between downtime and other projects. Then after I completed Metro Manila it was looking at what I wanted to do next and this project had the most research done on it. I was still interested in trying to tell this story and having had some success with Metro, it enabled me to look for the bigger budget that was going to be needed in order to tell this story.

Looking through your filmography it is an eclectic one. I recall interviewing Pablo Larraín who spoke of intentionally trying to avoid staying out of the boxes a filmmaker can be forced into by either the industry or the audience. Have you been conscious of building an eclectic group of films or has it been more a coincidence of stories that interested you at a specific moment in time?

anthro-02I think it’s the latter. I don’t purposely say, okay what can I do that is a hundred per cent different to what I did last time? I think you are looking for stories that drive your passion. It’s difficult to make a film, it’s very difficult, and you need a lot of passion and a lot of energy. It’s a marathon run. To do that amount of work for something that you don’t really care about seems like torture to me. So I look for stories that capture my imagination and drive me forward, and propel me into that situation where I’ll do anything in order to tell it. And they are often different because I don’t want to continue to make the same film for the rest of my life. I don’t think I am one of those directors that has got one issue that I am constantly exploring through film. So I hope that I’ll continue to find interesting stories and continue to be in a situation where I can make them.

And when you set out to tell a story set in the past, in which you essentially attempt to bring the past to life, how does this dynamic influence the storytelling and filmmaking process for you?

I wanted to experience what it was like in that time and period, and so for me it was getting it accurate to find what that era felt, looked and tasted like. So we spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the visual representation of that was. I look at period films now and the problem for me is that they are shot on 4K digital, and they look like 4K digital [laughs], which for me doesn’t really look like the past. So it was very important for us to even go back and use a small Super 16 film camera that would give us the grain that I feel has been missing in a lot of these period dramas that I see. And for some weird reason it all looks like TV, but I just wanted it to look very filmic and cinematic. So I did a lot of tests at the beginning with film stock and grain, and tobacco filters, just to get that sense of a very lived in time that when you look at it in the cinema, you are transported back to that time – you are not looking at a digital image that’s very clean, and what obviously looks like extras in costumes.

You’ve spoken about researching this story and chapter of history. When you bring the past to life in a film, as a piece of entertainment then a film of this nature has certain cinematic or dramatic needs. I would imagine there were occasions where compromise was required between when to exercise creative licence and when not to?

I made a rule for myself right at the beginning that I wasn’t going to change anything historically – I was going to keep to the historical facts. You can’t mess with those because then people have really got something over you. Basically what you do have licence with is the dramatisation of it. You don’t know the relationships or the inter-politics of the people that were in the film or in real life, so you have licence to play there. If somebody said to me that’s not what they said – Well how do you know that? Is there a document that says what he said? There isn’t. Although there are a few documents where we do know what people said, and even those people were saying: “No he didn’t say that” and I’m: “Well we have the documents.” It gets interesting in that respect. But you know when you are crossing that line from history to changing history; you are very aware of it, and we only did it two or three times. We did it at the beginning of the film – they actually landed in a field where they met a resistance member that took them straight to the Czech Resistance, which for an opening of a film is really exciting, but it also doesn’t really tell us about what was going on at that time. So for me to get that information about anti-Nazi activity, it was important to dramatise a sequence that didn’t really happen. And then I took some liberties in protecting Jan (Jamie Dornan) and Josef (Cillian Murphy) a little bit from the reality of the situation they were in. I think both of them knew that they weren’t probably going to survive and so they take more than one girlfriend each. These were things that came to light years after, when girls came forward and said: “He used to stay at my flat sometimes.” And you suddenly piece it together that there were actually quite a few girlfriends in Prague. But you are trying to present these heroic figures, especially to have the audience identify with them and to not lose empathy for them, and so I chose to hide that part of it. And the third part that we changed was Jan actually didn’t shoot himself. He was overcome by his wounds and they tried to resuscitate him, but then he died. So he never actually got to shoot himself. But we only really ever see the gun go to his head, and then the gun shot is off-camera. So there was a little bit of a liberty that we took there, but nothing like for instance Operation Daybreak, which put the two men in the crypt together, because we know for a fact that didn’t happen.

German filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” In counterpoint, filmmaker Abner Pastoll suggested to me that what changes is other people’s perception of the filmmaker. Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?

Only in the fact that I feel like I am starting to find my film legs and that I am progressing as a filmmaker. I am still learning and moving forward, and I am thankful for that. But I think it might be the case that other people’s perceptions of you change. You just continue doing what you are passionate about, and then you just hope you get to a position where more people see what you are doing, or what you are doing is important and seen by people. It’s a difficult question because I don’t think many artists do work for other people or for the glory of what other people see. They do it because they have a passion to do it and it actually fulfils something in them. For me when I make a film it is because I want to see this film. I am happy that other people see it, but I don’t sit there thinking: Oh people really love this, I am thinking: I would really love this…This for me would be exciting. So I am trying to make it as if I was the audience, which is always a weird place to try to make something because you are never really the audience. You are never seeing it for the first time – you are always orchestrating it. So you never really get that pleasure or displeasure of seeing something completely new or fresh for the first time like other people that see it.

Anthropoid is released theatrically in the UK on Friday 9th September 2016 by Icon.

Paul Risker is an independent scholar and film critic who contributes regularly to Film International. He is an Editor for Mise-en-scène: The Journal of Film and Visual Narration, which will launch in Fall 2016.

 

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