Interview - Lux Prize - Wolfgang Fischer & Ika Künzel

Interview with Wolfgang Fischer & Ika Künzel

By Vojtech Konecny & Diego Aparicio

As the part of the LUX Prize screenings at the Venice Film Festival, and as the future ambassadors of this project’s 2018 edition, we had the chance to speak to the filmmakers of one of the 3 short-listed films for this price, Styx(2018). Our dear guests were writer/director Wolfgang Fischer and writer Ika Künzel. We talked about various themes in the film, about the writing process, casting, production challenges and much more.

Let’s start with an obvious question: Why the title Styx?

WF: Styx is the river of the dead in the Greek mythology. It divides the region of the living and the dead. For us, it fits perfectly for the movie and also for the story - where it’s based and what it means if one goes into this river Styx, what kind of journey he has to make.

IK: It’s clearly based in the underworld and we like the approach that you can perceive it differently - if you come from the north, it’s easy to enter. If you come from the south, it’s a hard journey. It’s a existential experience which you have to do to define your future.

There was a theme of paradise in your film. There is also the Ascension Island where the main character goes to and which is also a form of an artificial paradise. Can you talk a bit about that?

WF: The film raises the question about what paradise means for us. What is paradise for the main character? And what does it mean for the people trying to escape war and find peace and security?

IK: The Ascension Island is an utopian fantasy which came to life and which, therefore, is a form of paradise. Our main character is looking for it because she’s interested in science. She wants to grow her knowledge and her wisdom and she wants to add a meaning to life. Whereas the people she’s facing when she meets the other boat, they’re just trying to survive, to find their future and actually to make the future possible. So very different kinds of starting points for their journeys and different ideas of paradise.

There is also a strong connection to nature and the film opens with a very distinctive scene with Apes.

WF: We decided to shoot the beginning in Gibraltar because it is in a way the end of Europe. There is also this special thing with the Gibraltar apes, which normally live on the hills. We wanted to show them in the city, in civilisation, where you don’t see any human beings. The reason was to give the impression that the world is out of balance.

IK: I think it’s essential that you get the feeling that there is something wrong because the apes shouldn’t be there. Also the car accident which is created by people enjoying themselves ads up to that feeling that something is out of balance. They are irresponsible and they take the advantage of the emergency system which works perfectly.

Is this a commentary on how fast the man in the car gets help opposed to the refugees on the wrecked boat?

IK: Yes, of course. I think we all want to live in a society which provides that kind of help and protection. A society where people are not judged whether they did something for a good or a bad reason, where they are heard and seen. Obviously, that doesn’t always work and that isn’t always available for everybody. And that’s kind of an imbalance that we have to deal with.

When did you start working on Styx?

WF: We started working on the script 9 years ago. This was a period of big changes in Europe: everywhere on TV and the media you would hear about migration - a theme I think we will be discussing for the next decade. And it’s a very strong theme, so how do you deal with it? Who are we? Who do we want to be, and who do we have to be? It raises a moral dilemma, and we wanted to make a film about it.

You were both screenwriters for this film. What was your approach on working together?

IK: We obviously had to do a lot of research. We had a long, long way to go when we started 9 years ago – mainly because of financing. This was before the Arab Spring, before Kaddafi was brought down, and before ISIS. The reception back then was completely different. The culture in Germany was much more welcoming, and people were applauding the script. A lot of refugees were arriving in Munich through the Balkans at the time. But things changed, people’s perceptions changed, and we had to do a lot of re-writing all the time. We had to make it more general, something more relatable for the audience – and that was an intense process. But we always worked as a team, so we were able to find new solutions, new ways to go ahead with writing.

Can we talk about your decision to have the boy push the heroine off the sailing yacht? In many ways, this was the scene that made me feel most uneasy for what was to follow. It made me think how horrible it is that, in the case of refugees, we take suffering and hardships for granted – but not for the German lead.

WF: The boy is not a weak character. Refugees also have their own ideas of what paradise should be, and the destination they want to reach. It’s not just a case of ‘give them food, problem solved’. He wants to help his sister and fellow human beings as well. The scene establishes the fact that he has his own ideas of surviving and helping people.

May I ask you about your usage of close-ups and framing? There were several frames within frames…

WF: Yes, it’s kind of two-dimensional because we didn’t use long lenses. It’s very short and wide angle lenses. So we wanted to show this two-dimensional images but with different layers behind them. There is always something going on both in the foreground and background and framing helped us to express it.

A question on casting. Suzanne Wolff is a professional actress. How did you find her, and how did you find Guideon?

WF: For Suzanne Wolff we did a casting call all over Europe. As well as someone able to portray the character we’d written, we needed someone with sailing experience. Suzanne had a sailing license for lakes, but had never been out in the ocean – we had to train a lot for this. All the people in the movie came from their real professions: firemen; rescue teams; everyone was from their own ‘natural environment’. For this reason, it was a bit more difficult to find Guideon.

It would have been ridiculous to just go and find him in, say, Paris. A friend of mine, director Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run) – is the co-founder of an organisation in Nairobi called One Fine Day. Through it, children from the slums can explore creativity; these children have no other way of doing this – they don’t even have a playground. [At One Fine Day] they can get a taste of dance classes, film, and drama classes. In Nairobi, we auditioned 60 boys, until we finally found Guideon. He had to learn how to swim in a pool in Nairobi; he had never even seen Europe before. I want to thank him for his courage. Everyone was impressed by his attitude. And it’s something that has an impact on the local community in Nairobi: children in these slums are now embracing the possibility of achieving something in life through creativity.

You said earlier that all of the boat scenes were shot in open sea. Is this also true for the thunderstorm scene?

WF: The scene where she puts down the sails, and the night-time scene where she gets hit by the mast – those are the only two scenes not shot in open see. We filmed those in a tank in Malta.

How big was the crew? What were the difficulties of shooting in such an environment?

WF: You can’t control the ocean, it’s impossible. Instead, you have to react to it. But everything we shot was written in the script; even the bird that sits on the yacht at one point, that’s in the script. It was always a question of ‘what scene can we shoot today?’. If the sea was calm, we would focus on Guideon’s scenes. At night, we could focus on the storm scenes. Having said that, we preferred to shoot more or less chronologically, so that the cast and crew would be going through the same emotional journey as the characters. There was no intimacy for the main actress: where can you go on an 11-metre yacht when you need to cry? We would often sit there shoulder to shoulder, with a crew of 10 people. The filming lasted 45 days in open sea. Because we wanted everything to feel real. We didn’t want (and didn’t use) any CGI or green screens at all!

A technical question. How did you shoot your bird-angle, wide shots? Did you use a helicopter?

WF: [laughs] No drone, no helicopter. Just a peak in Malta, facing the open sea, 80 metres high. That’s how we shot those angles. We did the same with Gibraltar. We used a very simple camera set up, so we could easily act at the right moments for what the script needed. On a good day, we’d shoot using up to 4 camera set-ups. Many times, we would only use one. The sky’s colours would change, boats would drift away, the weather and the waves were always an issue for continuity.

IK: Time destroys the set – because you have to be so quick when you react to the elements while filming the same scene.

What is the responsibility of a filmmaker in these days?

WF: Film is a powerful force. We tried to explore the world we are living in. The reactions we had at different festivals were interesting. Someone came up to us after a screening once and said that they saw this topic through images on TV and through numbers, but with the film they had an emotional response to it. Our hope is that Styx creates a dialogue and triggers emotions among cinema audiences.

IK: Storytelling is always a shortcut to empathy. It is our responsibility to use that. Especially when people have a need to talk to somebody about these issues. Films can create a safe space where people can experience things, and let the question sink in. The answers are often found in a grey zone – they are not really black or white.

Whose responsibility do you think it is to act on the refugee crisis?

WF: Everyone has to find out their own answer to that.

IK: If our film can make people think, that would be nice. To think with their brains, but also with their hearts. To question if this is the society they want to live in – one which is cold and apathetic.

Any new projects on the horizon?

WF: Many! We are promoting the film as finalist of the LUX Prize until the end of the year, but there are several projects we would like to work on after that.

IK: We’ll see what comes out of the opportunities that are slowly appearing.