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Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has had a very busy year. First, he promoted his film The Lives of Others on the fest circuit; now he's shepherding it through the awards season. For almost a year now, von Donnersmarck has worked tirelessly on behalf of his film. He very graciously took the time to sit down with Cinematical here in Seattle to chat about his film, his views on filmmaking ... and which actor he'd want as his commanding officer in an actual war situation.
The central theme that I got out of The Lives of Others was change and the capacity of people to change, and I wondered if you could talk a bit about that, and how you wove that theme throughout the film.
You're right that that's a central theme, because I think it's one of the big questions in life: can we change, or are we just what our horoscopes tell us that we will be? At Oxford I studied Scholastic Philosophy, which included studying the works of Thomas Aquinas. Thomas Aquinas always formulates things as a statement, and then he'll have pros and cons about them and come to his own conclusion.
In one of these he debates the question of astrology. And he actually comes to the conclusion that astrology will tell you something about your future and where you are and where you're going -- maybe even tell you exactly. And he says that is why it's so hard to change, why change feels like swimming upstream, because you're fighting against all the stars and all the weight of that, against the current of the universe. I think it's important to realize that when people change it's always a legion of things that drive the change, not just one thing.
More after the jump ...
And for the character to have a believeable arc, which is a part of that, right? I'm really drawn to films like this one, that have a really strong character arc, although I will see the occasional experimental or artsy film at the fests.
And dramatic films with a strong arc are so much harder to make. Of course, I spent many years watching lots of experimental films in film school because that's all anyone there makes. If you make an experimental film, you see, you don't have to subject yourself to any kind of comparison. But once you enter that field of classically constructed, really emotional, psychological drama, you're offering your film up for comparison. Everyone now knows the standards by which you are making this film
So you think it's harder, as a storyteller, to take a very basic story of a character going through change and make that interesting and do it really well, than to just be very freeform and artistic and experimental.
Look, ninety-nine percent of the people who do those experimental-type films, they use it to mask their lack of talent. And that seems cruel to just say, but I know from the reality of film school -- that's what it is. For every 100 people in film school trying to be "artsy," 99 are just pseudo, and there's only one David Lynch. I think it's fantastic when that does happen. Although, having said that, I really think of Lynch as more of a classical storyteller who's in touch with his wild side.
Lynch may be out there, but he does good story.
Yeah, you're right. So who can we take as the one person who's the exception? But see, Lynch, that's about as far as I'm willing to go in terms of accepting people leaving the classical field of psychology in filmmaking.
Tom Twyker, perhaps, he has a wild side but also strong structure.
Tom Tykwer, yes, perhaps ... I really loved Run, Lola, Run, see, and that was actually very classical. In form it was maybe a little bit different because of the way he used certain insights from video games and movie videos to affect the film.
Getting back to your film: you had this basic story idea about a man who's going to change, and you set the film around the fall of the Berlin Wall. I remember reading that Ulrich Mühe was involved in the protests around the wall, and I wondered if you knew each other then, and if you were involved in those protests as well?
He was there, but no, no, I didn't know any of the cast before. He's just a great, very feeling and very intelligent man. I think actors have to be that. To be an actor you have to feel life very extremely and you have to understand so much. There's this whole idea about actors not being intelligent. You know what I think it is? I think directors came up with that idea so they could get some of the credit.
At the end of the day, you cannot do it, especially in a film that deals with very complex matters, without very intelligent actors. You know how you can tell from looking whether people are intelligent or not? When you're up that close, on the big screen, you can't fake it. You could feel it, believe me. Just as you can feel that here is a man (Mühe) who has a level of intensity of feeling that's almost supernatural.
I liked also how Mühe made everything Wiesler did reflect his character. Even the habit he had of very stiffly zipping up his jacket, as if he was zipping himself shut and penting up all emotion, putting on that stoic face. And then you see the cracks show through in his moments of intense concentration, and then the mask comes back.
You're right, you're right. He's very intense, very focused. Also, this film was a very hard film, because we only had 38 days to shoot it. It was really a very extreme experience, the whole thing. And Mühe never complained about anything, although for him this was the least luxurious and least easy shoot he'd ever had. He was just so game for anything.
Did you know going in that you wanted him for the part of Wiesler?
From when I was writing the script? No, no. When I write I try to keep everything focused except for the faces. I made that mistake once on a short film, I really wanted the actor who plays the playwright in this film to play the lead part. And I couldn't get him because his agent didn't want him to take a part in a short film. And I was so disappointed not to have the person I wanted in the part, it was really unfair to the actor who did have it. So from that I learned you should never work like that. You just always have to work with what you have. Work with the actor's personality, even if it's different than you imagined it to be, because he goes in there with his whole being.
Actors tend to be like the parts that they play, in good films at least, the really good actors -- they're not that far from characters that they play. They really apply their own personalities and a good director lets them do that. Like think of someone as gentle and kind and loving as Forest Whitaker -- he has to have Idi Amin in there somewhere. He has to have that dark side, somewhere inside. He just has to. And I say that knowing that every time I've met him on the awards circuit, he's very warm and very loving and very gracious -- he's so cheery, he's like Father Christmas. But you can imagine that he has that darkness in him.
Or take another big star: Denzel Washington. I'm sure he's that kind of in-control, together guy in real life.
I kinda see Denzel as a bit of a control freak.
Not a control freak, just a person who's a born leader, a person who I always think, if I were in some kind of war situation I want him in command of my troop. Or someone like Tom Cruise, the kind of incredibly compact energy that guy can play.
Who would you not want as your commanding officer in a war situation?
Woody Allen. (laughs)
You've said that you won't have time in your life to complete more than 5% of the projects in your head. Any idea what's next?
I've been too busy with this film to really look at those things. Suddenly while I'm showering in the morning I'll have an idea and I'll think, yeah, I'm gonna do that one! Then I'll have some old idea pop up and I'll think no, no, that's the one I want to do. Engaging in a new project is like going into a new marriage or something -- you have to be sure it's not just this fleeting feeling of being in love. Actually you almost have to wait for the feeling of love to subside.
You're really going to be doing this a long time, especially as a writer-director. You're going to spend a year-and-a-half writing it, another year-and-a-half making it and then, if all goes well, another year traveling around and promoting it. Think of Guillermo (del Toro) – he's been on tour (with Pan's Labyrinth) for over a year. In a way you can end up losing yourself because you can't act 16 hours a day, every day, you can't act like you find every screening fascinating. So what I do next, that's something I'll put a lot of thought into.
I don't want to get into a whole thing where I have to do the next thing right now, just because I'm hot. If it's a good story, it will wait a year. And if it's not a good story, if I sell them a bad story based on where I am now, I could tank my whole career just through that project. So why rush?