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Whereas some directors speed through one movie after another, Germany’s Maren Ade takes her time. The filmmaker’s 2009 romance "Everyone Else" was a breakout at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it won several prizes, and continued to great success in theaters. But instead of jumping on a new opportunity, Ade settled into a slow-moving career that involved teaching, producing, and — every now and then — preparing her film. "Toni Erdmann," which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last week, represents the result of that multi-year journey: a nearly three-hour comedy-drama surrounding the experiences of workaholic Ines (Sandra Hüller) who copes with a demanding corporate job in Romania until her goofball father (Peter Simonischek) shows up trying to rekindle their estranged relationship.
To get to know her current life, he puts on a disguise and follows her around, leading to a series of awkward and ultimately touching moments.
A leading contender for the Palme d’Or from the moment it premiered, "Toni Erdmann" confirms Ade’s gift for nuanced storytelling that taps into the nature of intimate bonds. Its success catapults her to a list of major women directors working today. Here are some of her reflections on the experience of pulling "Toni Erdmann" together, shared with IndieWire during this year’s festival.
I spent almost five years thinking about this story. I knew it would take this long. "Everyone Else" also took me a while. I put everything in that film that I was thinking about over the last five years. It’s just one topic, but I would put in things that interested me, like the economy, her being a woman, the family stuff, the sex. I think I’m just a slow filmmaker. It’s great as long as you don’t get bored.
It’s not that I wrote it down right away. First I have the characters and I fill them out the way they are. Ina’s character took a long time to do some research on, to find the job she’s doing. I had to do some research on Romania. So the writing took almost two years. In the meantime, I produced several films, which was also a lot of work. I teach a little bit. I had 100 hours of footage, so I edited for one-and-a-half years. I became a mother twice. The scariest thing about this film was being away from my children for five months in Romania. It was funny to write about somebody who doesn’t have a work-life balance, because I do.
We sold the script as a comedy. Sometimes, while we were shooting, I would tell my producer, "Oh, fuck, this is a super-sad film." And she was like, "No matter what, it will be good, so we’ll have a good excuse." Because all humor comes out of desperation, there’s always this serious, grounded basis for the film. I was surprised how much laughter there was. If you watched the film alone on your laptop, it might seem as funny.
I think you’re allowed to sell the film as a comedy. Once people go, you hope they like it. You just have to get the people in there. But there’s also a big desire for drama, so if the two work together, I’m happy.
I didn’t expect the film be so long. I found out that these moments need a certain preparation. The story needed to rest in order to come up again. The dynamic at the ending was so strong because when I cut out some scenes to make it shorter, other parts weren’t so believable. I do a lot of takes. As everything develops out of the characters, I took more time with the film. If the film wasn’t good, it would have been my own fault.
I can find myself in all of these characters. The father brings all his human values out of his generation, and his daughter settled on something completely different. She can’t tell if she’s happy or not. This is something I understand: She likes her job a lot and puts it very high, sometimes over individual needs, which is very common in the business world — but filmmaking is also sometimes like that. With "Everyone Else," I found out that family is a heavy topic because you can’t change where you come from. It has a lot to do with you, it’s a lifelong thing. It was was a very emotional topic in this film, too.
I didn’t have any time to expect anything for Cannes. On Monday, like five days before the premiere, I was still mixing it. On Tuesday, I saw the final copy. On Wednesday, I bought clothes for the festival.
I like that the film has its own life now. It was a script and a lot of the things were planned out very much, but still some audience reactions surprised me. When a maid knocks on the door before a sex scene, everyone laughed, which I didn’t expect. It belongs to the audience now. But during the premiere, I still took some little notes about the sound mix.
As a producer, I try to create the right conditions for people to make their films. We don’t say, "This is the way you make your film," we go in and see if this structure will work for you or not. For me, it’s important to have a long pre-production to put as much as I can into the script before the shooting. Some people need more shooting days. So it depends. Migel Gomes has a great producer, Luis Urbano. It’s very rare to find this type of producer and you can be very lucky when you have someone who does everything for you because he thinks you’re a great filmmaker. I invite the directors we work with to my editing room or to read some scripts. We try to be honest because that’s the only thing that helps. A filmmaker sees what is and is not possible.
I sometimes feel very, very old. I’m so tired from post-production on this film. The thing is, because I’m so slow, I can count how many films I’ll do for the first of my life — it’ll be maybe four or five more, if I’m lucky.