By Amir Ganjavie.
Various contemporary filmmakers like Aleksandr Sokurov and Shahram Mokri have tried to make features through single continuous takes, introducing creative ways to establish the relationship between digital technology, time, and cinema. Sebastian Schipper is among the latest generation of young directors who has entered the field with Victoria (2015), a unique German film with its entire story actualized in one long 138-minute sequence shot. The following interview with Schipper explores the film, which won the Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution for Cinematography at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival.
Making a one-shot feature is a difficult process, and the lingering frustration may explain the brief, often cranky responses provided by Schipper below. (Warning: most questions were left unanswered; many have been edited out of this piece.)
The movie has two parts, the first of which can be described as a type of romance set in a city, which reminds me of Linklater’s movies. The second part is a gangster movie. Why did you decide to combine these two genres?
There are some things that I like about independent films and others in commercial films. I like that the characters in independent films are three-dimensional but I also like the excitement and the momentum of heist movies so I tried to provide that by mixing these two genres.
Did you find difficulty in shooting the action scenes given the fact that it was one long take?
And how does the idea of the action movie come into reality? Did you want to do something impossible in a one-take movie?
Yeah, I think you could say that.
Time is one of the main preoccupations in movies that use one long take, which usually attempts to represent the experience of time’s passage. However, it seems that you are reluctant to make us reflect on the experience of time here. Time passes in your film but a real understanding of time is impossible. There is no hesitation here but rather there are actions after actions. Hesitation is necessary in order to understand time so it appears that you were not very interested in the idea of time and its experience in itself. Is this correct?
Yeah, but you know sometimes there’s hesitation in time and sometimes there’s not. When you rob a bank there is sometimes not much hesitation, you know? And you know it depends what two hours you take of your life; if you make a film like what Andy Warhol did about sleeping, that is of course something else.
What is interesting in this movie is that we never see anything about these bank robberies. Apparently, you didn’t feel any necessity to say how they became familiar with robbing a bank.
I don’t like backstories. I hate them. Too many movies waste too much time explaining everything. I don’t find that interesting most of the time.
And what is also interesting is that the camera did not follow the three burglars and instead focused on the young woman’s experience. Why did you decide to focus on the woman and her experience in the street?
Because it’s more interesting. It’s a film about a woman who becomes a driver in a robbery. For me, she’s more interesting than what’s going on in the bank.
The film was made with a digital camera in one shot. Digital technology has enabled us to make such long films more easily so we no longer live in Hitchcock’s time, when producing just a ten-minute sequence was extraordinary. In recent years, various directors have tried to make one-shot films using newly-available innovations. As an innovative person, what have you done to make your work look different? What was your approach?
I shot the film in one take. What I made different is that I shot this film in one take.
Yes, I know but I mean compared to the previous movies that try to do this in one take.
You think they all look the same? You think my film looks like Russian Ark (2002)?
No, I have some opinions about their differences, but as a filmmaker I’m just curious to know – how do you personally think your work is different from others?
Honestly, I make films. I can’t explain to you what’s the difference between my film and Russian Ark. I would feel really silly. I mean, look at Russian Ark, and look at my film; these are two different films, as different as they can be.
Of course, what I like about your movies is that, for example, Russian Ark only takes place in one location, in one museum. However, you are trying to use several locations for your movie, which takes place in a whole city, and that was great. There should be serious difficulty in this process. How did you manage to shoot perfectly in more than two hours in the city of Berlin? Did you encounter unexpected events during the shooting?
As for the actors in this film, there is an ongoing sense of newness and freshness in their performances, which do not look mechanized. There is high degree of improvisation. How did you achieve this with the actors?
Well, I think mostly I told them that they shouldn’t perform. I told them that on a very personal level, they had to go through everything that the characters go through. So it was not so much about performance as it was to really submerge into what’s going on.
And you let them improvise in this process?
Some of the dialogue is difficult to understand and seems not to be very useful for the development of story. I guess that the high level of improvisation was also involved in creating the dialogue.
All the dialogue was improvised.
I’m also very interested in the use of music in the movie because at certain moments you deliberately remove dialogue and introduce the music. I’m curious to know what you were trying to achieve with this. Did you want to bring some other dimensions to the movie with the music?
Yeah, actually it’s mainly two things. One, I think that what the music does in some passages is that it becomes like a montage. So when we see them celebrating in the club after the bank robbery, I think what the music does is to give you the feeling that they are there for longer, you know like a montage of celebration. They are actually only dancing for maybe four minutes or something but it gives you the impression that they are there for maybe an hour really celebrating. Another aspect is that I believe when you go through some special day in your life or special night or special occasion or whatever time you’re going through then there is always the time when it happens and the time when you remember it. I think that this moment has some kind of nostalgic effect, like a memory, remembering that night.
I realized that there were moments in the film when you had to possibility of cutting the film without anybody noticing of this, such a couple of times when the camera moves towards a dark space in the car. So you had the possibility of having cuts and reshoot some scenes that went wrong in order to enhance the general aesthetic quality of the movie. Did it ever come to your mind that maybe it would be better to cut and make things perfect?
If I would have cut then I would have told everybody. And yeah, it’s just a little bit like if you make spaghetti and somebody says “Why don’t you make sushi?” You know, it’s both a choice and both are really delicious but it’s a different thing. I have nothing against spaghetti, I have nothing against sushi, but we decided to do this film without cutting. If something would have really gone wrong then of course you’re right that we would have had to cut.
Why for a story set in Germany did you choose the young Spanish woman as the protagonist? Did you take into account the relationship between Spain and Germany for this matter?
Maybe, I think, yeah. There is something to it, yeah.
Fascinated by the issue of alternative and utopian space in cinema and architecture, Amir Ganjavie has published widely about cinema, architecture and cultural studies. He has recently co-edited a special volume on alternative Iranian cinema for Film International and edited Humanism of the Other, an essay collection on the Dardenne brothers (in Persian). His most recent contribution is an article on the meaning of space and utopia in cinema by analysing the films of Tsai Ming-Liang.