“Victoria,” German writer/director Sebastian Schipper’s fourth feature, was shot in one continuous, uninterrupted take with a small cast and crew, in the wee small hours in Berlin around 4:30am on April 27, 2014, finishing at about 7:00am.
What you see in this impressive, tightrope act of pure cinema, which follows exchange student Victoria (Laia Costa) on a dark night of the soul with a band of criminal Berliners, is exactly what you get, and it’s not a gimmick. Which is why Schipper gives his DP Sturla Brandth Grøvlen top billing in the end credits. Not since Alexander Sokurov’s 2002 “Russian Ark” has a film, by my watch, so exuberantly used the one-take form to drive its narrative, which in “Victoria” is a sort-of heist thriller story, but as the director insists, “it’s not about a bank heist; it is a bank heist.”
Director Schipper, whose film won three prizes in Berlin, plays Toronto this week and opens from Adopt Films October 9, sat down with me at a cafe in Los Angeles this Summer to talk making and releasing “Victoria.” It turns out that both Toronto (which ultimately booked the film after the Berlin premiere) and Sundance both turned the movie down—and then came crawling back. Why? They didn’t believe “Victoria” could possibly be one take.
How did you end up getting a spot in Toronto, after Berlin?
For Toronto, to show the film as a special presentation, after it’s been screened at the Berlinale is a big honor, and on top of that, a year ago, we tried to get into the festival, as our premiere. And they didn’t take us.
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Toronto didn’t accept “Victoria” last year, but then wanted you back for 2015?
Yes, right. It’s like the date you always wanted to have, but she never called back.
Why didn’t they accept the film initially?
Back then it was the old, “oh you know how it is.” They said, “we don’t really know where to put it,” what segment, “plus we don’t believe it’s a one-take.” I don’t know, I felt this venom. I told my international distributor, “So, did you give them a bit of a talk, you know, about the one-take?” But he’s a very calm person, he’s not up for that. So we were just a little sad.
But Berlin was still a great platform to premiere the film, and in your home country.
Of course! It was a perfect storm. It was on the home turf. But we also tried to get into Sundance. And then we had a screening, in New York, and a lady comes up to me and she said, “Hello my name is so and so, I’m working with Robert Redford, I would love to show your film.” And I said, “We did too! We sent it to you last year, but you didn’t want it.” Of course, when you project that, in the future, what you think is a great moment, happens like, ha, triumph at last!
Why was the film ruled ineligible for the foreign Oscar? Germany ended up submitting “Labyrinth of Lies.” Was this because half of “Victoria” is not in German, but also English and Spanish?
I can say this: rule 13 says, predominantly, it needs to be a foreign language. We had that. By a small margin. It’s like 51-percent German, and Spanish. Last year on April 27th, which is not that long ago, we shot what you saw between 4:20am and 7:00am in the morning. Of course that’s not really like, if you do a sprint, in the Olympics or whatever, it only lasts 10 seconds. Of course it’s not just that time, it’s the preparation. If you look at the film, those 2 hours and 14 minutes, that we did on that day, so much has happened since then. Of course we always had a big, self-belief, but what happens now with the film is, you know, really crazy.
How many takes did you shoot before choosing the one take that’s now the movie?
We filmed it three times, and technically it worked three times. Yes, the film is about a bank robbery and it’s filmed in one take. But on some level, those two aspects are the most important and the least important. That’s hopefully not all people who come out of the cinema are thinking about. Some people will say: “you can CGI everything.” I don’t think that’s valid, because you can’t. If you could, they would have done it with “Birdman” too. We thought we could do a jumpcut version of this, if it didn’t work out. And, well, that never worked out. The material does not work like that. I feel like we are much better than we think at decoding certain situations, you know the flow, or the temperature of the flow, I think you would feel it. I think you would detect it. You would detect that all of a sudden, you’re in a different stream. Especially if you have been used to one and not the other.
Is it frustrating to be put in the same sentence as “Birdman”?
Honestly, that’s such a crazy, over-the-top project, and it’s so great, that this kind of craziness still exists in cinema. And not only on TV shows. I think this whole idea of “we did what you couldn’t do” is crazy, because these two films are in the same family, of kind of crazy, interesting freaks.
It seems like at the box office, everybody is asking “where’s the crazy stuff?” Of course, when you’re writing, crazy’s not interesting by itself, there has to be a narrative and weird story. It’s not a one-size-fits-all. Cinema is like a restaurant: you have all these things to consume, and the superhero movie is like a real juicy burger. I like burgers, I have nothing against them. But I would even take it so far as to say, especially “if you like that,” you should once in a while eat something else. If you get a burger and fries every day, one day you’re going to really hate that. It’s going to spoil that dish for you. And I think that’s what they’re doing. If that’s the only thing you do, to stare at the audience and ask “what do you guys want?” I don’t think that’s a good idea.
What came first with “Victoria,” the story, or wanting to make a film in one take?
One of the starting ideas of doing “Victoria” was to get outside of the box. To not go through the movements of “this is what you call making a movie”: you work on the script forever, then you finally have financing, then you shoot it like crazy, then you hope that the material comes together. Sometimes people ask me, “What films did you reference? What inspired you?” And I think this adds to the reason people feel like they’ve seen the same things before. Our reference was a bank robbery, so that was really the starting point. Daydreaming about a bank robbery, then thinking about how I could make a film about it that’s interesting.
The bank robbery isn’t even what I walk away from the movie remembering. The scene that really struck me was after the bank robbery, when everyone is high off the thrill of what they just did.
We worked on that scene for a long time. Because for the longest time it wasn’t a celebration. They went through the movements, but I said you gotta “freak out” and then they didn’t. It felt robotic. The slightest taste of going through the movements was poisonous for this film, so by the end, when we did this last take, I said you cannot “perform,” you have to go through all the emotions. There’s got to be the reality you’re in.
I’ve come around more and more to maybe one of the most known entries to a diary ever, from Kafka. It said: “Went to the cinema. Cried.” And I just thought about that the other day. Maybe we kind of underestimate that that’s really what it’s about, why we watch films, to come into contact with something very strong, sometimes dark and maybe sometimes scary, and maybe a movie enables you to face some stuff, not consciously.
What was your rehearsal process?
What we didn’t do was go through all the movement. The universe of filmmaking is like a nautical world, with all the men working at sea. You have the stories told in the bars and pubs, the ports, and I have a feeling that the one-take movie is like a mystical island. And some people say, “I’ve been there!” But you never really know if that’s entirely true. We’re not the first ones on this island, yet the most important thing is that once we were there, we couldn’t ask anybody, “How do things work here?” There was no reference, and that’s a big challenge, because you have to learn everything, all the creatures on the island, all the rules. But at the same time it’s really great because you don’t have to look or be good. You’re out of the standard, “good boy trying to get an A” thing. In the movie industry, we are a lot of times, like, “we want to be as good as them,” or “better than them,” and that’s not a very creative way of thinking.
If you, really in your voice, make the music you want to make, you don’t make it against anything or in reference to anything, you just make it. You need arrogance to sustain this journey. The biggest challenge was for the actors to be present, and in the “now” entirely. That is the definition of charisma, presence. For the longest time my most important aspect of my job was to take away the fear of too much respect. Don’t be afraid of mistakes. It doesn’t matter. You just have to go in and experience what they go through, all the crazy things, joy, flirting, love, fear, fear for you life, being bored. They’re going through a lot of different stuff.
What levels of anxiety were you going through behind the camera?
The process of making “Victoria” was the process of realizing it was impossible. The more we went on, I realized I was delusional. I believed my own bullshit. We had a plan B. I steal this line from Francis Ford Coppola that he said about “Apocalypse Now” at Cannes: “It’s not a movie, it’s not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam.” Sometimes I say, “‘Victoria’ is not a movie, it’s not about a bank heist, it is a bank heist.” There is truth to that. We were very nervous. There was a positive aggression. Some people smoked a lot. Some people did jump-roping, to kind of piss the other guys off.
So, about that rehearsal process.
Plan B was to do a jumpcut version. That’s how I got the financing. I told people if it doesn’t work out, I need to be able to give them a product. The DNA of these pictures is going to be different, it’s going to be great, even if we jumpcut. We had 10 days of 10 minutes where we went through the film in 10-minute pieces. The first night, we started at the dance floor, in the bar, she meets the boys in the street. We cut, and did it again and again. That was our rehearsal process. My plan was to tell them, “We did it! We have the film.” We have a crazy, supercharged jumpcut film already and now we have three one-takes and we’re going to have fun with that. The first one, nobody wanted to fuck up. We went through all the movements but it was not entertainment. It’s probably like for you Americans, when you watch a soccer game, and it ends 0-0. I said, “Don’t be afraid of mistakes, don’t be afraid of chaos.” The second one was crazy and that was exactly when I saw the jumpcut version for the first time, and it was not good, and it was 48 hours before our last take. The first two takes didn’t work out, the jumpcut version was not great, then things got really—plan B for a bank robbery would be, we run, we don’t have money, but they’ll catch us. That solution was not there. We had 48 hours and things became very “passionate” to say the least.
How did you settle on the final cut?
The agony or frustration came in. I gave like a hairdryer speech. I was so angry with the second take, probably I was terrified too, knowing we had nothing. We had money for one last take. What came into the mix was that we got to know each other, it was fun, creative, inspired, but if I look at it now what came in at the last 48 hours was not just sprinkled on top but a big spoon of aggression. Aggression has a bad name. I think destruction is not great. But aggression? I have a feeling there are some aspects of creativity, if they’re not daring, it’s missing something. And the worst thing is that all these authenticity, being radical, being authentic, keeping it real, all these words have been kidnapped. They’re being used to sell the art around, and maybe we were like that too. That was not a meeting that ended in hugs and “good talk.” It was crazy. But the tension was built on knowing we wanted the same thing. That created this all-in. Because we’re in Hollywood, I’ll say it, that made us do the “leap of faith.” It’s just a cheesy term but again, authenticity has become a cheesy word because it has been so dragged-around.
I talk so much because I could only talk so little during this film. Directors always have to explain their world, and there it was more like a coach. I was on the sidelines and in the last take I was closer, and they went crazy, and on the last take I was very close. I did say stuff once in awhile but only very minor.
Is Hollywood coming after you now, and does that interest you?
Yes, and yes. It does interest me but let’s put it this way: what interests me here is that you guys are a real industry, which is not the case in Germany. I mean, we make films. But in the US, there are actors and screenwriters. Your actors are amazing, and I would love to work with some of the American actors. The talent and scriptwriting, which has run off to television, but the understanding of the narrative of film I like very much. I am also reading stuff they send me, but I’m more focused on my own material.
How will you mold your vision to Hollywood?
This is my fourth film, and of course I’m not a punk rocker, but if I were a musician, this is the first album that sounds like me, where we didn’t copy our favorite band. We did this and didn’t care about anybody else anymore. I wasn’t a good boy in Germany going through the “three-act blah-blah-blah.” To copy and paste didn’t bring me here. Not being a good boy, but doing something else over-the-top. I’m not going to do one-take movies anymore but I believe in the process that we create this together. The best film I’ve ever seen is “Apocalypse Now.” They weren’t all pro, “I’m going to portray my actor, is this my closeup? Here we go.” We underestimate that. Making a film is always crazy and the more we try to domesticate this animal, the more something has been destroyed. Everything in the cinema always has to be for kids, it’s always on this kid-level of everything.