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CANNES L’ATELIER ’06 INTERVIEW: Ursula Meier: “I wanted to change the perspective, to look at things

CANNES L'ATELIER '06 INTERVIEW: Ursula Meier: "I wanted to change the perspective, to look at things

Every day through the end of the 2006 Festival de Cannes, including weekends, indieWIRE will be publishing interviews with filmmakers participating in the L’Atelier du Festival, which according to Cannes, “was created in 2005 to reveal a new generation of filmmakers through the world, whose works, still at the project stage, might one day be honoured by being selected for the Cannes Film Festival.” Eighteen filmmakers were given the opportunity to participate in an e-mail interview, and each was sent the same questions.

Director Ursula Meier is at L’Atelier with her feature film project, “Home,” which L’Atelier describes as “a contemporary fable about the family. “”Home” is the story of a handful of people gradually cut off and disconnected from the world, who end up shutting themselves in.”

Please tell us about yourself and your background, including where you were born and grew up, as well as how you became a filmmaker.

I was born in France in Besancon. My origins, on the side of my mother, are in Ornans (Ornans is the city of the painter Gustave Courbet, one of my favourite painters). My father is Swiss German, he came from the Zurich area. I grew up in France, near the Swiss border, a place called “the country of Gex”. It is a kind of geographical no man’s land which is not Switzerland and not really France. With my family we passed the border every day, and that creates a very strange relationship with space and with the idea of borders. We can find that kind of geographical strangeness in my film project “Home“, which has been selected at the Atelier of the Film Festival of Cannes.

My family was made up of film enthusiasts. My parents were fans of J. Tati, O. Welles, L. Bunuel, W. Allen, but my first cinematographic shock came when I was approximately 15 years old, watching Robert Bresson‘s “The Money” on television. I didn’t really understand anything about the film but I probably felt that essential was elsewhere. I was unsettled and I felt a kind of special cinematographic emotion, which came from the work on image, sound, editing and the actors’ minimalist way of playing. Suddenly and for the first time, I was conscious of the force of the cinematographic language. An infinite language. At the age of 15, I played the main role in a film directed by my sister who was then studying at the Art school of Paris. The shooting of her film took over two years. We were three persons working on it and we did all: the light, the set decoration…we managed all that, and it is like that I began.

Around 16 years old, I worked during the summer and used my spare money to buy a video camera. I shot, during two summers, a feature film. I never edited it because of a sound problem. A friend of mine and my family were playing in the film. The film told about the vicissitudes of a cashier who was wrongly accused of robbery and then laid off. When I was 17 years old I met Alain Tanner who lives in Switzerland, just on the other side of the border. This meeting is what determining, amongst other things, my choice to go to school for cinema.

I then studied in Belgium at the Institute of Arts of Diffusion in section film-making. The success of the film I shot for the end of studies “Isaac’s Dream” allowed me to shoot my own films while working as assistant on two Alain Tanner films.

Please tell us about your previous work, including information about your recent films and other creative projects.

I directed some short films (“Sleepless“, “Table Manners“), two documentaries (“Around Pinget” about a writer of the New Novel: Robert Pinget, and “Not the cops, Not the blacks, Not the whites” about a police officer and former extreme right list militant, which was converted into intercultural dialogue), and a TV film for the chain of television ARTE called “Strong Shoulders.” This film, which was made at the beginning for television, had the chance to be shown in many international film festivals, among which was the New Directors New Films Festival in New York.

“Home” director Ursula Meier. Photo courtesy of the filmmaker.

Please tell us about your new project. What is it about and what inspired you to pursue this new project?

“Home” tells the story of a family which lives in an isolated place, as if on a desert island, near an empty motorway. The motorway hasn’t been used since its construction ten years ago. It is the beginning of the summer and the motorway is about to be open. Literally “planted” beside the motorway, only a few metres from exhaust fumes, the family slowly loses its references, its fragile balance being broken by the noise that gets increasingly infernal. The family finishes by closing in on itself, becoming even more isolated and by falling bit by bit into madness.

The idea for “Home” came to me while driving in the car looking at what was beside the motorway : often there were houses only a few metres away, with people in the garden, tables a few metres from exhaust pipes, or even houses with the windows bricked up. The houses were like stories passing on the other side of my car window. I wanted to change the perspective, to look at things from the other point of view, and to use fiction to discover and invent what people saw or had seen from their windows night and day. Like all my other films, “Home” tells the story of obsessive characters, who go to the point of exhaustion, who plunge into madness. It is also a film situated at the limits of different kinds of film: the burlesque one, the suspense, the drama.

What do you hope to accomplish for the project while you are in Cannes? What are your specific needs to continue developing your new project?

The Atelier of the festival will allow, I hope, to finalize the financing of the film and to bring other partners in the project. We are also looking for the location, which is rather specific. In Cannes I am going to meet persons in charge of film locations in different countries. There will be thus a large amount of work in order to find an ideal location. I will also meet foreign producers, international sales and distributors. We will benefit from the platform offered by the Atelier in order to advance the project as far as possible.

What are some of your favourite movies and influences, including other films and filmmakers, as well as other creative influences? Which films are you most interested in seeing at this year’s Festival?

For me, Bresson is one of the most important filmmakers ever. There is a grace which crosses all his films and which escapes any cinematographic analysis. Films of J. Cassavetes, as well of M. Pialat nourished me totally. Dreyer, Ozu, and Bergman also. More particularly, “Fanny and Alexandre,” which seems to me one of the most beautiful films in the history of cinema. All Bergman aside, J. Campion, Kaurismaki, and T. Ming Liang also influenced me. I have very eclectic tastes, but in today’s cinema, I am rather attracted by directors who take narrative and formal risks, who experiment and question unceasingly the cinema. I mean directors like G. Van Sant, L. Martel, N. Kawase, L. Von Trier, and P. Almodovar. In Cannes I shall try not to miss films like the Kaurismaki and Almodovar of course, but also B. Dumont, L. Belvaux, S. Coppola, P.Costa, A. Sissako, and certainly many other directors who I haven’t heard of and who I am eager to discover.

[Get the latest from the Festival de Cannes throughout the day in indieWIRE’s special Cannes ’06 section.]

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