It’s a sweltering afternoon in mid-August, but German filmmaker Sebastian Schipper couldn’t be more cool or collected. Joining Indiewire at SoHo’s Grand Hotel for a discussion about his latest feature, the heist drama “Victoria,” Schipper beams from ear to ear with a charismatic smile, and he couldn’t be happier to be here. “If I were to be a winemaker, it would be the most the most exciting thing for me to go to France,” he says. “If I would make whiskey, it would be the most exciting thing to go to Scotland. But I make films, so it’s the most exciting thing to come to America.”
Flash forward a month and a half, and Schipper has more cause for excitement as the film is set to open this weekend. Starring dazzling newcomer Laia Costa, the drama centers on a free-spirited young woman in Berlin who has the night of her life when she agrees to be the accomplice in a heist after meeting a group of guys at a club. The press around the film has focused mainly on its sensational execution — it is an uninterrupted 138 minute one-take — and while the narrative device has earned it more than few comparisons to last year’s Oscar-winning “Birdman,” Schipper uses it in a far more subtle and visceral way.
As the one-take grounds you in the real-time immediacy of Victoria’s life, Schipper is able to maneuver a genre bait and switch with natural ease, successfully pulling off an effective romance film that boldly transitions into a taut suspense picture. Below, the director talks about navigating this genre duality, reveals secrets from the film’s production and celebrates his protagonist as a wholly refreshing female character.
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“Victoria” is your fourth feature film —
Yes! It’s funny, everyone thinks it’s my first. I’ve had Q&As in the past and they always presume it’s my first film [laughs].
Given its ingenuity, it’s certainly providing the most exposure you’ve ever had — at least in the U.S.
Absolutely, man. And to be honest, I totally take [people thinking it’s my first film] as a compliment, because I’ll never know as much about filmmaking as on the first day of my first film. You just know everything. You’re going to entertain them, you’re certain about it, and it’s going to be great — that’s how you feel. After that, you only realize how huge this business is, and that’s when fear creeps in and you start to play it safe. With “Victoria,” I managed to break free from that and be stupid again, be fearless again. It was like being on set on my first film all over again.
“I didn’t care” was my mentality on set. Nobody comes out of the cinema saying, “Oh, I love this movie. It made no mistakes.” You don’t care then. You care when you feel something. You want to see colors. You want to have some eroticism that is not connected to sex, you just want it to be like wow, great, harsh and horrible. It’s not about avoiding mistakes, and I feel that’s what filmmaking has become. In a way, I don’t want to sound like a big old grandfather, but it seems like that’s what life has become, too — avoiding mistakes, and we shouldn’t do that. What happened to us? It seems like punk rock and authenticity and keeping it real and being radical is dying.
What’s the best mistake you’ve ever made on a film?
Oh, that’s a good one. No one asks me that. Honestly, the idea to shoot a movie in one-take! That was a huge mistake! [laughs]
I worked on the script for five years, and it took so much out of me. It’s the best mistake — it paid off, of coursse — but I don’t know what I was thinking.
Where did the necessity for the one-take start?
It all started because I had a daydream of a bank robbery, just like people daydream about the one girl they’ll never date or whatever, but I thought, “I’m not a bank robber. I can’t be honest with that.” But it was like asking your parents for ice cream and they give you dried fruit. I had the idea and I wanted two scoops for this. So I kept thinking about how to flesh out this daydream, and the real thing was not about the heist action and shooting guns, but it was just being there, being present for the robbery. What would that be like?
I then asked myself: Why am I kind of bored right away by the idea of a heist movie? Why is that? If you would’ve been the driver of the most boring bank robbery of the last 10 years, it would still be one of the most exciting things you’ve ever done. You’d still be traumatized and euphoric at the same time. Why is the real thing so amazing even if it comes in a small size? That’s where it came from. I wanted everyone watching to be there, and the one-take creates that immediacy, if you will. If you’re doing a one-take and [Victoria] is in the car, well, you can’t leave, and I didn’t want you to leave. It’s not about the robbery going on inside, in fact the ambiguity about what is or isn’t happening only increases the tension of being there in the car.
That’s probably one of the most startling things about this film. You hear it’s a “heist movie” and yet it’s not really about the heist at all. You don’t even see it.
Exactly. It’s a one-take movie about a heist and it totally isn’t — that might as well be the least important thing that happens in this film.
A majority of it is this central relationship that’s quite beautiful.
I think it’s fascating to deal with each other. It’s a little hippie and a little lame to say that, but to meet somebody else — and it can be meeting a lover, a friend, a crew member, whatever — it’s just so vibrant and attractive. I knew if I could capture that sensation first and foremost, then by the time the heist stuff had to be executed I’d already have people in the palm of the film’s hands in a way. The priority couldn’t be the heist because the movie isn’t going to show you the heist. I had to nail that relationship first.
I had a friend the other day write the definition of wonder in a spiritual or religious way, and the definition is “God speaks to you directly,” because normally he speaks to you through other people. I really love that. In other people there is the meaning of life, there is wonder. Love or connection is the most horrible thing that will happen to you and them, but it’s also the most beautiful and exciting and funny and sexy and brutal and relentless thing.
How does adding in the heist element enhance your fascination with relationships?
Well, it’s a nuts and bolts set up, too. As Godard once said, “All you need for a film is a girl and guy.” It kind of covers your ass in a way. If you just do the walking and talking, it can be so rickety, but if they rob a bank, well, then you have that. You have something else, another dimension, but it’s still that same core of a girl and guy, just they’re robbing a bank instead of walking and talking around a city the whole time. Just look at “Breathless,” someone is shot at the beginning and the end and in between is the walking and talking in Paris, almost like “Before Sunrise.” So we sort of spun that and did the walking and talking to start and then the heist action. But, again, the one-take lets that transition happen more naturally. It’s not here’s romance, here’s heist.
The character of Victoria is also important. We don’t see women like her in most heist films. Women are usually the shade, but here we have someone who is driving the action and still allowed to be vulnerable to her feelings for love.
That’s all Laia. I always scare myself when I think, “What if I hadn’t had found her?” If you look around and you could pick anybody, I don’t know who would’ve done this — probably Natalie Portman 10 years ago would be the only one to pull this off. Laia has a presence. She feels comfortable in her skin and she’s all in. She doesn’t care if she’s pretty, and of course that’s pretty. It’s funny because I didn’t know that she’s never been the lead in a movie, and in Spain I’m now considered to have discovered her.
Walk me through finding the core of this character.
Rehearsals, really. With Victoria, for awhile she was this good girl going to the dark side and it absolutely just didn’t work. Even though, from one prospective, you could still see her that way — and for some viewers that will be enough for them to see her that way — but we didn’t want to create the foundations of her that way. It’s flat. So we changed gears to this: Victoria is an idealist, a thrill-seeker. She’s asking for the devil’s dance by going with these guys and she’s not scared of it. She knows if she does this heist she’ll never be the same again, and for her that’s seductive. It’s a pilot being throw out of a plane.
Finding that core came out rehearsing. I always tell people that it’s not about how long we rehearsed, but what we rehearsed. We didn’t go through all the movements. I did not tell them what to do or even what to say. It was more trying to deeply understand who their characters are and what they’re doing. Once Laia had that notion about Victoria being an idealist, she was free. From there we could create stuff and throw her into situations — her buying a shot, her dancing, her wandering the street. We didn’t need a script, we could just go to these different “scenes” and have Laia explore them in character. When she’s dancing, she dances alone — that tells you something. She’s in the bar and she goes to hit on someone — that tells you something. It was just filling these setups with honest character moments.
How many takes were required during production?
We shot it three times through. Funny enough, we first tried shooting the film in 10-minute takes over the course of 10 days, shooting chronologically. They’d do something and then I’d yell cut and we’d try to fix things, work on things, find what was good, what wasn’t good, decide what needed to be faster and do it one more time. We shot these first 10 minutes of the film eight times in one night, and then the next night the next 10 minutes. I knew we could put the film together from this kind of filmmaking, so we had a process of simultaneously editing and shooting, but later on we found out that it didn’t work at all with the material. We needed the one-take for all the reasons we’ve discussed here. It had to remain immediate, so in many ways doing it in 10-minute takes ended up being the best rehearsal process.
What does the take people will see in theaters have that the other two don’t?
I saw it and I knew it right away. More than the others, it was alive. It was happy. The first take was really slow, everybody was playing it safe. I told them, “You’re all playing it safe. Don’t be afraid of mistakes! We don’t have to win this 10-0; I’d love this win 10-9.” But then we lost 0-10 on the second take. They went crazy and too overboard. I was always thought that we would probably do three to five cuts, and it was always part of this project to say this. We planned for three, expected to do more, but by that third take it was so great.
And then post-production was just sound. We worked a lot on sound. I wanted it to be deep and existential. I wanted it to be happening at that very moment — which the one-take does for you — but have it also be nostalgic, which is where the music came in, those orchestral melodies. I wanted it to feel like it was really happening but also that it was a memory. The big moments of our lives, and the big nights we have, they are amazing while they happen, but they almost always have second or third lives in what we remember of them, and they stand for something. That’s what makes them so amazing, they give you orientation in your life.
“Victoria” opens in theaters October 9.