German director Sebastian Schipper reveals the secrets behind his one-take tour de force, from his football coach approach to directing to his fascination with bank robberies.
Only ever so often comes a film that gets under your skin, not only because of the story, the brilliant performances or pumping soundtrack, but because it is fresh, radical, vigorous and raw and, most importantly, highly entertaining. Victoria is all of that and more, as the film follows its eponymous heroine (played by newcomer actress Laia Costa) in one continuous 140-minute shot from her first encounter with a gang of four persuasive thugs led by the charming Sonne (Frederick Lau) on a mild summer night in Berlin to an ill-fated bank robbery and the nerve-racking police hunt that follows it – all in all zipping through 20 odd locations in the early hours before the city awakens. No doubt that a venture like this required not only months of meticulous planning and an excellent crew, but also one big leap of faith. After two disastrous attempts Schipper managed to pull it off, making Victoria not only the runaway favourite at last year’s Berlinale but the most exciting film to come out of Germany in a very long time.
Pamela Jahn talked to the actor-turned-director about his football coach approach to directing and his fascination with bank robberies to get behind the secret of his one-take tour de force.
Pamela Jahn: What came first, the concept of shooting the film in one take or the story that you wanted to tell?
Sebastian Schipper: To be honest with you, I cannot separate them. What I actually had in mind was to make a film about a bank robbery that grabs you like one. It was, first of all, an emotional concept in terms of how to make it feel real, how to share the experience. And why is it, that if you make a film about a bank robbery, it always has to be the biggest bank robbery in the world? Presumably, that’s because it means you create the greatest possible experience for the audience, but I think that sort of approach sometimes kills the opportunity to really get into the moment, to feel what is actually going on. That’s how the concept to do the film in one shot evolved. The more we worked on it, the more I realised that this is not necessarily a film that tackles the brain or the mind, maybe it doesn’t even affect the heart, but it feels as if it has a direct impact on your nervous system. And I really like that. Of course, there are many mistakes in it, which, ultimately, I would have liked to cut or correct in the editing process. But at the same time I feel that because it’s all in there, because time flows and you can’t really escape the high points and the low points, it is almost like you’ve been conditioned by the way you watch the film.
You both write and direct. Does that make it easier when you’re shooting, especially with a project like this?
I wish I could say it’s easier but I find writing a script really painful. It takes an awful long time, sometimes years. Even if you write fast, it still takes at least two years, and that’s only the basic amount of time you are investing. But for some reason I feel I have to do it myself. Having said that, for this project I wrote only 12 pages and we didn’t edit anything in the end. When I think about it, the one big idea I had was that I wanted everything to happen in a team. Of course, with that kind of approach you lose a lot of power as a director in the overall hierarchy on set, but everybody else gains more. At the same time, the pressure is on everyone who is part of that crew. Like the smallest runner, everybody knew, ‘I can’t fuck it up! If the elevator is not downstairs when they come, I am the one who’s made that mistake.’ So everybody involved has a lot more responsibility, and I like that. I also wanted to bring the creation of the characters, of the story and the rhythm – which is normally part of the scriptwriting – into the entire process. To some extent that was a crazy thing to do, but it was also really beautiful.
Apart from the responsibility you also give your actors an incredible freedom to improvise.
It’s funny that you’re saying that because when I did my first film Absolute Giganten, people would ask me, ‘So, did you improvise a lot?’ Back then, I felt almost offended and said, ‘I didn’t, I wrote it all myself.’ And now it’s the complete opposite. That’s something that is very important to me, to have a sense of how people speak, for example, or how it really feels to talk to a friend, a soul mate or whoever. I am very interested in that. And I love actors. But again, this was different to when you direct actors in a more conventional way where you give them instructions about how you want them to say this line or that line. This time I really talked to them about their deepest feelings about the characters, not about the scene, not about the moment, not about the line. I felt almost like a football coach telling them their position on the field, and then they had to play football and follow the match and know what was going on all the time. They all had to take care of themselves.
Did you rehearse at all?
Yes, we had some rehearsals. But I don’t really want to go too much into detail about the way we made the film, because it takes away the magic. All I can say is that we did have rehearsals and then we had three days where we shot the whole film three times. So theoretically, there are now three films, but honestly, only the last one is actually a film. The other two are works in progress.
Did shooting become more difficult after the first run-through, because you then had a version of the film, an idea of the dialogue, the action and so on?
No, thank God. It was an improvisation, but there was still a very strict structure we had to follow from the outset every time we did it. It’s like a band who is playing an improvised piece. You’ve still got to know when it’s your solo, or that this is the rhythm, this is the tune and so on. But most importantly, you have to really know your instrument if you want to improvise. So we were very focused in that way.
How much do the three versions differ from each other?
A lot, mainly in quality. In the first one, nobody wanted to fuck it up, so everyone was very concentrated and technical, but there was no sparkle, no chemistry. So afterwards I said to them, ‘OK, guys, you’ve got to be alive. Make mistakes! Be chaotic, just go with it’. But then they tried that too hard and were all over the place. Those three days were horrible, because I was very nervous and tense – again, like a coach at half time. It was all very heartfelt and so I said to them, ‘You know what, we don’t have to win this game, but we have to start playing football. We have to show them that we are a good team. So don’t be afraid of making mistakes, but please, please concentrate’. And after that they really put it all together.
You talked about the rhythm of the film earlier. How did you manage the energy between your main cast?
They very much managed it themselves. I just had to organise it slightly. For me, it was all down to the casting, especially if you have them improvise so much as in this film. It’s very important that it feels organic, that it flows. And Burak and Freddy are friends in real life as well. First I was sceptical about that because Freddy showed me a picture and I thought Burak might be too much of a macho type and I didn’t want that. But when I met him in person I realised that he is actually very charming in his own way and that he has the biggest heart of all. And then it made sense to me, because he is like the heart of this group, Boxer is the leader while Sonne is good in talking to people, and Fuss is the little sidekick who always comes up with a crazy idea. I think if you structure a group like that then they become a team. It’s a natural process so they don’t all fight for the same spot. In a way it’s like an X-Men group, they all have their little super powers and that’s what I think is really important here too.
Where does your obsession with bank robberies come from?
I think it’s because I have that feeling that we sometimes get trapped in thinking that life is just one consecutive stage after another. You did this, now you are allowed to do that. Then you go a bit further, you move up into a better position, you get a little more money, a little more respect, and this is your life. And I guess the thing with bank robberies is that you walk in and pull your gun and you say, ‘I want everything, motherfucker! Give me my life, right now! I don’t want to be good anymore, I don’t want to wait’. And that’s why Victoria is the piano player in the film. She tried so hard and she’s always been the good girl, but I think we live in a world where things are getting more and more absurd, where you don’t have to be good anymore. On the contrary, it seems like you have to be sneaky and you have to betray people to get further in life. And that’s also what I see in this bank philosophy, it’s all about the money and no one cares about anybody else anymore. It’s like Brecht used to say, ‘Bank robbery is the business of amateurs. True professionals found a bank’.
Interview by Pamela Jahn