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HomeColumnsDirector SeriesDirector Interview-Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck-Lives of Others

Director Interview-Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck-Lives of Others


Guillermo del Toro was the odds-on favorite to make a trip to the podium on Oscar night when the Best Foreign Film winner was announced—his Pan’s Labyrinth had good buzz, and several award accolades going into Academy night, and besides, everyone likes Guillermo. Yet when the envelope was torn open, it was another director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who got to dance around and make the trip to the stage.And while del Toro’s film about how a child’s imagination can resist fascist excess struck several chords in this authoritarian age, von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others clearly struck another. The film is a meditation on what happens when the main business of the state—in this case, the late East Germany—becomes the constant surveillance of its citizens. It also explores the old question first posed by the ancient philosophers: Who watches the watchmen? And in this case, what happens when that “watching” begins to change the people in charge?The enthusiastic and forthcoming von Donnersmarck spoke with Below the Line during a recent whirlwind tour of the US, which culminated with his Oscar-evening triumph. Lives is his first feature.Below the Line: Since this is your first feature right out of film school, did you know any of your department heads beforehand? How did you assemble this crew?von Donnersmarck: My director of photography Hagen Bogdanski, by the way, has now shot his first American film! He shot a film with a German director, and it stars Renee Zellweger. It’s a supernatural thriller called Case 39. I actually talked to his producer and they were so impressed with his work on The Lives of Others, and I think, rightly so. He’s just a great director of photography. And we actually worked together on a short film while I was in film school. This was something I was co-directing with my brother, and I really appreciated Hagen’s way of working.BTL: How does he work?von Donnersmarck: He is incredibly fast. At the same time he is very focused on the actors, which I think is very important. And he does a kind of lighting arrangement which allows the actors and me great freedom to change even between takes. It’s not one of those things where you have to move from one mark to the next. It’s almost like the light will allow you to look good in every corner of the room! He’s developed that very well for himself. And I remember that while I was shooting that short film with him, which was a horror short, I told him about this idea I had for The Lives of Others, and he said to me, if you make that, you’ll be able to get the very best actors. I vowed at that moment that if I actually finished this screenplay, I would ask him to be the DP. He’s not afraid of trying out new things, which is important to me. We both wanted to try out these new anamorphic lenses that had been developed in Germany, where people normally don’t shoot anamorphic. I also said to him, “look, Hagen, I want you to choose our makeup artist.” Who knows better who’s a good makeup artist than the director of photography? I said, you tell me who you want and we will get that person, [Annett Schulze]. And we did!BTL: And how did he know Annett?von Donnersmarck: He’d worked with her before on another film and was really impressed with how delicate her makeup application was. I was paying everybody on the film just about half of their normal wages. We couldn’t have done it otherwise. The entire film cost $2 million. So that’s a very tight budget to be working on. Sometimes it was hard to convince people to do this. But if you go up to a makeup lady and say to her, I really like your work, and Hagen really wants you, it’s so hard for someone to refuse!BTL: Was it analogous to the way American low-budget works with deferred pay?von Donnersmarck: No. Unions aren’t that strong in Germany. And I think half was just about acceptable. I mean that’s still not nothing. You know, people can live on that. Actors were paid about 20 percent of what they normally make, but they each have a piece of the film. And that was how the makeup person came on board. Now, the editor… The editor—is that also considered below the line? BTL: Well, here it is.von Donnersmarck: The editor, Patricia Rommel, was a lady whose work I have been watching since I had one of my first films at a festival in 1999. It was a short film that was programmed before one of hers. And I watched that film and just thought the editing was so amazing. You know good editing is when no single cut hurts. And I feel that a bad cut hurts. And this lady is just perfect. It is just such a perfect flow. And so I watched every single one of her films. She’s the only editor that I will actually go and watch films just because she edited them. And so I followed her and said to her, “Look, either you edit this film, although I’m just paying you half, or I have to edit it myself and that will be my ruin. But I cannot go to any other editor. It’s either you or no one.” Patricia is a genius. This is her third film [as editor] that has been nominated for an Academy Award. The other two were Beyond Silence and Nowhere in Africa, which actually won. So she’ll be around forever, or at least as long as I’m around!BTL: Have you lined these people up for your next film? Is there a next project?von Donnersmarck: I haven’t lined it up yet, but I made them swear they’d cancel any project to work with me. BTL: I also wanted to ask about the staging of the plays within the film. Were you going for a Brechtian look with how you lit and staged the play, or maybe Georg Büchner? von Donnersmarck: Are you a playwright? I like to make fun of theater directors, just as they like to make fun of film directors. You know, in eastern Germany you had to stage everything in this socialist, realist way, playing in factories and so on. And then in the ’90s, when I staged the play again, it was the dogma to do everything like [avant-garde director] Robert Wilson. It was the new dogma. So in New York Robert Wilson came to the premier and he said, “I saw what you’re doing! That was really funny.”BTL: How much theater background did you need your crew to have in terms of replicating lighting, and everything else. Did they necessarily have to have worked on a play?von Donnersmarck: We actually worked with the theater lighting people. I had my cameraman hook up with the theater lighting people to discuss how, and we actually used original theater lights to do this. And we watched a few plays together to make sure it was given the direction that we wanted it to have.BTL: Well it all worked, so I’m rooting for you to keep that crew together for as many films as you can.von Donnersmarck: Thank you very much. I think it’s so important to honor these people who really don’t get enough honor. I know that without my costume designer and my editor, this film would not have had the success it has. My costume designer is this brilliant lady, Gabriele Binder. She used to work in fashion and she is so good that she could have easily become a big fashion designer, but she didn’t want to do that because she’s interested in searching for and finding the type of clothes and costume that are perfect for the character and that will help her tell a story. So she puts her incredible artistry into film work. I think it’s immensely important to illuminate the below-the-line things.BTL: We’re trying to get that concept out around Hollywood.von Donnersmarck: I’ll be your ally in that fight.

Written by Mark London Williams

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