LET’S TALK ABOUT CONTENT! - Training

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EFA Conference 2003

The EFA Conference 2003 was dedicated to the importance of a film’s content, bringing together film school directors and teachers, established filmmakers and film students from all over Europe. Searching for a new approach to a film’s content, one of the panels concentrated on “Expectations and Reality”. Chaired by film journalist Peter Cowie, the panel included Patrice Chéreau (director, France), Andreas Dresen (director, Germany), Dick Ross (script writer/lecturer, UK), and Vibeke Windeløv (producer, Denmark). Here is an excerpt of their discussion:

Peter Cowie: Patrice, you’ve worked on adaptations of novels but you’ve also worked from original screenplays. Which are easier to handle?

Patrice Chéreau: I have a very simple problem. I’m not writing myself, so I have a huge admiration for filmmakers who can write their own scripts - like Bergman or Antonioni a long time ago. I’m not able to write, so I read books, or newspapers and I take notes on my own and try to find a subject, to have a spark and find the subject. Sometimes I can find the subject in my own experience and in a novel. I think both are difficult because when you’re writing your own story, it’s exactly as difficult as working on a novel. You cannot just adapt because the rules of the narration are totally different between the film and the novel. They are two different arts with totally different rules.

Peter Cowie: Andreas, HALBE TREPPE was an original film in the real sense, did it begin in your mind with just one of the characters or with all four of them?

Andreas Dresen: It started with the idea of working with a very small crew. We didn’t want to have a script. Usually you have a script and then you create a reality in front of the camera. Most of the time, I develop scripts over years together with screenwriters, but here the idea was to go into the reality, see what happens there, what we can create if we pick up things we see. Of course nobody will give you money if you don’t have a script. But we had a film prize for a former production and we decided to use the money for this kind of experience - to experiment. We went through the city and saw how people live there - for example the character of Uwe who sells sausages in the film was inspired by a real man. We were hungry and we found this man and we were inspired by him.

Dick Ross: I agree entirely - great example of the sausage seller - you know, stories don’t arrive, people don’t get up in the morning and say ‘Oh my God, I must get it on paper, it’ll be all over by lunchtime’, it’s not like that at all. Years ago here in Berlin I said this to students, I said you could look out of the window and you will see a story. And of course the one thing I didn’t want to happen, happened. A student said, ‘why don’t we all go look out of the window and look for some stories.’ And so we looked out of the window and it was one of those days when everybody in Berlin must have been somewhere else because they said ‘is it possible to have a story with no characters?’ And I said ’somebody will come eventually’. And around the corner came a very big African woman, dressed in the most fabulous clothes I have ever seen. She had yards of material - orange, purple, green - it was magnificent. And on top of her head, she had a huge bundle tied up in a sheet and under one arm she had an ironing board and in the other hand she had two electric irons, and I promised the God of teachers that I would light several candles that night because I couldn’t have designed a better event. The students stood there completely open-mouthed and I said ‘well, what’s the first question?’ And they said ‘I’ve never seen that in Berlin before’, ‘That’s not the point!,’ I said, ‘she’s carrying two electric irons and why is she carrying two electric irons?’ And you wouldn’t believe it, the students are so practical they said ‘well, it is possible that the first one will break down, so she’s got a spare’, - and I thought God Almighty, have you got no imagination. And then we worked out that she was taking her ironing to go to a friend’s house and they were going to iron together, and we had this marvellous idea of trying to iron quickly, by two people ironing the same shirt at the same time - that’s what I’m talking about.

Peter Cowie: The subtitle of this discussion is ‘How can we remain faithful to our aims?’ Vibeke, you’ve worked with a number of directors in Denmark, are they similar, do they cling to their aims, do they fight for their aims?

Vibeke Windeløv: If we talk about Lars [von Trier], he definitely fights for his right to do exactly what he wants to do, but he’s also very engaged in that people actually understand what he’s trying to say. I think there is a big difference between trying to please an audience and to reach an audience, and I think it’s very important that you want to reach your audience and tell them the story you really have in your mind.

Peter Cowie: Patrice, one of the big handicaps of European cinema, many people would say, is that we’re a number of countries with a number of languages and economic reality dictates that very often we have to shoot in another language. You shot INTIMACY in English, did that create a barrier between your original vision and what you created on the screen? Did you have problems when you were shooting in English?

Patrice Chéreau: I wanted to do the film in England because I didn’t want to change the story. I felt that transposing the story to France would be another story. It wasn’t so difficult, but we had to accept that the script needed to be changed. I worked with a British writer who re-wrote all the dialogues, because you cannot ask an actor to act a translation. I had to accept that somebody tells me that that would never be said by English people. I’m interested in learning something, I’m doing a film in order to learn how to make it better, in order to learn more about how to tell a story and the English actors helped me.

Andreas Dresen: Of course all the time when you work, you have to adjust. When I’m making a film, I’m searching for something and I’m changing all the time. Somebody comes when I’m sitting in the editing room, we have discussions and I’m interested in his opinion. Most of the time, I’m working in this so-called independent scene with not so high budgets and that’s not the problem, it’s only the problem of yourself - are you strong enough to follow your vision and to create what you wanted. But that’s always a process of discussion with other people, and then you have to find your own way, because sometimes, one person says one thing and another says something completely different from that. And then you have to find your own way out.

Peter Cowie: A film like HALBE TREPPE, although it’s made obviously with a German audience in mind, transcends that national barrier and can have equal success when shown abroad. Dick, have you found that filmmakers in smaller countries, tend to have a greater concern about reaching the outside world than those in the big countries?

Dick Ross: I think that the local quality becomes their strength. If the localness is merely the location or the style of the person, but what they’re doing and what they’re feeling is broader, then the film travels.

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