The Rise of Stefan Ruzowitzky's "The Inheritors": From
Rotterdam to Stratosphere
by Anthony Kaufman
Austrian writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzky’s first experiences with
America were “millionaire’s parties,” “marvelous weather” and “agents
and producers” at the Telluride Film Festival, where his film “The
Inheritors” had its North American premiere. Originally made as an
Austrian TV movie and titled, “The One-Seventh Farmers,” the $1.5
million movie follows the exploits of seven upstart peasants in the
1930’s who inherit a farm after their despicable landlord is killed by a
mysterious woman. Faced with prejudice and insults, the seven outcasts
struggle against church, citizenry and sexism to prove that even
low-life peasants can be members of the farmer-elite.
Ruzowitzky debuted the film at the 1998 Rotterdam film festival where he
took away the Tiger Award for Best Picture. At the Berlin market, a
positive Variety review gave way to even greater heat and Stratosphere
Entertainment swept up the film for U.S. distribution. The film
continued to play at festivals all around the world, from New Zealand to
Telluride — where Ruzowitzky signed up with the United Talent Agency.
“I had no idea why I was I going to Telluride. I was looking at the map
where is Telluride and I thought someone must know why they’re sending
me there.” Ruzowitzky now comes to New York, where the film plays today
at the New York Film Festival and opens in theaters this Friday.
indieWIRE: When you won the Tiger in Rotterdam, I imagine that was a
huge boost for the film?
Stefan Ruzowitzky: Yeah, the film was in pre-selection for the Berlin
Competition, but when it was not accepted there, I was quite
disappointed. So we went to Rotterdam. But it made very much sense,
because it’s a good place to start things. Many journalists go there,
just to see new films and all the Asian stuff goes there. And Berlin
has a lot of politics, and strange films are in competition, for
whatever reasons. Rotterdam, for a young filmmaker, is definitely a
good place. The advantage in Rotterdam was right away I got a world
sales agent [Fortissimo]. In Berlin, at the market, the film was
represented by Fortissimo and then right away they sold it to
Stratosphere. And I was very happy about this, because this is not
typical of Austrians: if you have a success, to make use of it right
away. It wasn’t like, “Oh, we won this prize, let’s see.” In this case,
the film won, and the film was hot, and right away, sold. And now, it’s
really sold all over the world. And concerning festivals, you can get a
lot of festival invitations in Rotterdam, because everybody is there.
Most of the festivals I’ve been invited to, they saw it in Rotterdam. .
. . You can have a great movie, you can have a success, but you have to
make use of it right away. And this is what everybody told me: the
crucial time is from Rotterdam to Cannes, because then the film is hot
and then at Cannes, there will be other films that are hot.
iW: Tell me how did the film go from a TV pilot to a feature film? Was
it the producers who said we’ve got something more here or what?
Ruzowitzky: It was my first finished script and I offered it to
producers and they were not able to get it financed with me as a
first-time director. So, we made this other film in between called
“Tempo” (“Speed“) which was much easier and cheaper to make. And when
this had worked, it was easier to get this one financed. Still, the
producers thought it would be better to make a TV movie out of it, which
I was unhappy with from the beginning. I think you can see the camera
style is not that of a TV movie. I had an agreement with the producers
that if its really good, then we get a theatrical release. . . . When it
was pre-selected for Berlin, and invited to Rotterdam, it was hard for
them to say, “This is not good enough for theatrical release.” So, of
course, for me, it’s quite a long way from the Austrian TV movie to the
New York Film Festival and having a UTA agent. (Laughs).
iW: What do you think of the way the film looks now? It was shot on
Super-16, but then the print is a tape-to-film transfer, so it has a bit
of the video pixels in it.
Ruzowitzky: Here, what we did is we had the Super-16 negative, then
edited on AVID, then made for television a very, nice good-looking video
transfer. And doing a video transfer, at least, in Austria, you can
manipulate colors and all these things to quite an extent. We don’t
have a big film industry, so making a good print is very complicated. My
producer and I agreed on making three prints for the festivals. We
said, this is too dangerous to have three bad prints, so rather do a
tape-to-film transfer from the very, well-matched, well-manipulated
color tape version. So, it was filmed on Super-16, from there, Super-16
negative transferred to videotape, and from videotape to 35mm. If you
are close to the screen, and you are technically educated, you can see
it [the video]. But you almost never see the lines, which was the
problem years ago. It’s rather the problem that it’s not very sharp,
sometimes, a little bit soft. But on the other hand, you have nice
colors and strange colors — you can say that it’s a look. I don’t
dislike it. We were able to get the maximum out of all these sunset,
magic hour shots, and you can really do a lot in the film to tape
transfer process. Still, if you’re sitting in one of the front rows,
you can see the difference. It doesn’t bother me, and we discussed it
with Stratosphere, but they didn’t have problems with it either.
iW: Your next project, a thriller-horror film, will be the first
Columbia/TriStar/German production. How did that come about?
Ruzowitzky: In Germany, I think, people know my work. It’s good for me,
having made two completely different films, different in genre and
style. If you’ve made two period films, you’re done — everyone will
say, these are nice period films and you won’t get a chance to do
anything else. Whereas in my case, “Tempo” is very contemporary, with
fast editing, handheld camera, gritty and in between that and this film
[“The Inheritors”], there’s everything in between.
iW: How did Columbia/TriStar actually find you?
Ruzowitzky: In Germany, things have changed a bit from when there was
these very successful, domestic comedies, but now it’s changing a bit
with films like “23” [directed by Hans-Christian Schmid] and “Run, Lola,
Run” [directed by Tom Tykwer] which are successful as well. So,
Columbia has commercial concepts, but are working with people like me
and are also talking to Tom Tykwer and the director of “23”. . . . And
so have a mixture of commercial genre films, but working together with
people who are coming from arthouse backgrounds.
iW: How do you feel about jumping from a 1.5 million budget to something
Ruzowitzky: I’m very interested in the experience. These first two
films I’d done were 100% independent in funding and in the working
process — I had the script, I gave it to the producers, and they said,
yes. And no major changes were made and in the whole creative process,
I was very free. And it probably won’t be like that. This is Columbia
and they’ll want to make money with it. But I think they are
intelligent and they know what they did when they hired me. They want
my personal style, apparently, when they hired me, so why should they
work against it.