Sebastian Schipper and Laia Costa Talk ‘Victoria’, Improvisation, Style, Berlin, and More
German director Sebastian Schipper transforms a 12-page script about a night out with friends that turns deadly into an exhilarating, largely improvised, 138-minute single take thriller in his new film, Victoria, starring Laia Costa and Frederick Lau. Schipper gives his extraordinary cinematographer, Sturla Grovlen, top billing in the film’s credits for his groundbreaking work. Using only a Canon C300 hand-held camera and available lighting, Grovlen follows the action as it unfolds across 22 locations in Berlin. The ambitious, genre-shifting movie, which goes from innocent flirtation to a budding romance to a terrifying heist and its violent aftermath, is driven by a mesmerizing electro-orchestral score by composer Nils Frahm.
In an exclusive interview with Collider, Schipper and Costa discussed the film’s bold visual style, what it was like finding the characters through improvisation, why Schipper decided to stop playing it safe, how he compares himself to a chef who wants to change the menu and offer up a crazy and original dish, why Laia was the best choice for the complex role of Victoria, what happened when they accidentally took a wrong turn down a street in a film with no cuts, why Berlin was the perfect setting, his favorite heist movies, and his plans to adapt Jessica Stern’s best-selling novel, Denial: A Memoir of Terror, as his first U.S. project.
How did this project first come together for you? What convinced you to attempt such a bold and ambitious film?
SEBASTIAN SCHIPPER: It was to get away, to get out of the box of optimizing stuff and playing safe and being a good director. In a way, maybe I want to be a bad director, because something needs to happen. Sometimes I have a feeling that way too much of what we do is playing it safe or going through all the movements of how you’re supposed to do it. We’re all “A” students, or good boys and good girls, even if we have a big, old punk attitude. A lot of times it feels to me like we’re just going through the motions. I don’t know what that is. I’m not going to point my finger at the digital age too much, because we owe our camera to that age, but I think it’s very obvious. I don’t know what’s going on. It seems like every music you listen to is a reproduction of something you have heard somewhere else. So many books read like you’ve read them before. And so many films especially feel like films you’ve seen before. I wanted to get away from that.
It was last year in April when we did this film. It was a very small, crazy, punk rock project that we filmed on the streets of Berlin. At times, I’m sure this production looked smaller than a student film or like a small student film. Of course, what I wanted to do is get together with people I trust and like and just do our thing. Even now, it’s a wonderful, amazing and breathtaking success. This was never a commercial project. It’s a cheap film and we did it. I just wanted to do something that I really like. And I wanted for my actors to do something, but they don’t do it for me. Let’s do something and let’s cut ourselves off from all the references of all these films. “This is a little like Godfather. This is a little bit like Apocalypse Now. This is a little like Bourne Identity or whatever.” What that always says is it’s not as good. That’s what that says. You might as well just watch the real thing than something like that.
Also, as a director, I’m a little bit of a cook. If I’m a cook, I’d better cook something that somebody else doesn’t have. I love all the heist movies that came with written scripts – Ocean’s Eleven, Heat, Dog Day Afternoon. I love these films, but the only thing I can do to love these films is not reenact them, but look at the menu and put something else on that menu. Maybe it’s just going to be a small kind of crazy dish that people won’t really order, but I can’t replicate, because if I replicate the other things that are on the dish, people are just going to order the real thing like I would. I’m not against popcorn movies. I’m all for them. I like to eat a burger sometimes and fries, but I can’t eat it all the time. I almost have a feeling with all the superhero movies, and of course, the criticism about them is right. I know one thing for sure. If I would be a big superhero movie fan, these would be kind of crazy times for me right now, because my favorite dish has almost been taken away from me. It’s almost like you tell your mom , “I love fries.” Then, from then on, you just eat fries every day, and that’s going to ruin it for you. So, in a way, it’s against maybe some of that, but it’s definitely 100 percent pro-cinema and not just pro-indie. Of course, we’re some kind of an indie film, but it’s pro-cooking and eating original stuff. And that can also be a burger or a crazy dish like Victoria.
Laia, what was your reaction when you realized the script was only 12 pages? Was it exciting to find your character through the improvisation of the one take?
LAIA COSTA: Yes. Of course, it was challenging and it was exciting. I really liked when we improvised during this process. For me, it was a good point to start. I was not frightened by the role. It was like, “Okay, this is going to be fun.” When you improvise and you rehearse, you can find a lot of stuff for your character, which you cannot find if you just go to the set, and you shoot one day, and then you go home. The process was richer for me. I was happy to do it like this.
Did you have any concerns about shooting in real time and what might happen if you made a mistake?
SCHIPPER: First of all, I had to coordinate it with my First AD and Second AD, and with the whole Assistant Director department, so that everything is there when they get there. But honestly, as a director, you look at all these problems, and the moment you realize it’s not a problem, you take that box and you don’t even think about it anymore. Pretty early on, I realized they can pull it off, because organizing a set and organizing a shoot is always crazy for the First AD, and my First AD pulled it off. She came to me and she said, “I can do this, but I can only do it if I can bring my 2nds and 3rds, the ones I know and I can trust. That was the best interview I had with any First AD because she just went right to the point, which is their job. She said, “I can be as good as I want, but I need good people. I need a good cavalry. If I have my cavalry, I can pull this off.” I realized they could. They were so amazing.
The next thing I realized was that the true challenge in this film for me was for the actors, because you might think that this documentary-style kind of filming makes things more believable naturally, but it’s the other way. In this kind of style, if somebody lies or if somebody over performs, you don’t think, “Oh, this acting is not so good.” What you think is, “What’s wrong with him? Why is he lying?” You don’t differentiate between the character and the actor. If they’re not really in the moment, if Boxer and the bald guy are not really in the moment, you don’t think, “Oh, he doesn’t perform this well.” Instead, you think, “What’s going on? That can’t be.” Some people say, “Oh, it’s like theater, two hours, and some plays are longer.” I say, “No. It’s not like theater at all.” I think a camera is like a gun. It comes from the same background almost. If a camera is being pointed at you, it always provokes some kind of uncomfortableness in you. That’s why we make these faces when our picture is being taken. I think in this case the camera is almost like a criminal or somebody saying, “What’s going on with you?” for two hours, and you can’t flinch. You’ve got to be in that flow.
Was it a daunting experience to keep up with the action?
SCHIPPER: Laia always says, “Oh, it was easy.” But that’s just crazy. I’ve been saying this a lot today, but I’ll say it again because it’s so true. It points to her talent of being able to deal with this kind of pressure, because she says for her it wasn’t pressure. But that’s huge. The camera is always there. You’re not on stage in a costume where you can use the greatest gestures. When you are on stage, you can be artificial, and you have to be to fill the room. You have to use your voice and all that. That also helps you go through the night on stage. Here, I always say, “In this film, they had to pay cash. They can’t use their credit card.” You have to pay cash all the time, all through those two hours. You can’t lie. At a point, it was my most important job as a director to say, “Don’t perform.” This is what I said before we went and did the last take that became the film. “I can only feel what you feel. If you don’t feel it, if you just show me, it means nothing to me. I just sit there and I’m getting bored. Of course, now, if you look at it, they are bored at the beginning, and then they flirt, and then they have joy, and then they tell their stories, and then they’re afraid, and then they’re full of panic, and then they’re euphoric, and then they pull it off, and then they’re scared for their lives. I mean, tell me an emotion that these guys don’t go through in front of the camera, especially Laia.
What were you looking for when you cast Victoria? This is a challenging role to pull off. What did Laia bring to this?
SCHIPPER: First of all, it was not a lengthy casting process, because I have a background as an actor and I hate castings. I’ve mostly met one or two people. I don’t like a line up. I want to work with people and then see that within that we function together. I think the most complex role was Laia’s. The most complex aspects of acting involved the part of Victoria. She’s a young girl. I need to look at her and say she’s a good girl. I need to look at her and say, “Yes, she played piano at the conservatory for half her life.” At the same time, that crazy, Mephisto Waltz darkness in her needs to be where she gathers the strength to excel, and it needs to be believable, too. I need somebody that can pull this off mentally and also be my captain, so to speak, on the field. Of course, this is in a way a compliment because Laia sits here, but honestly sometimes I look back and I wonder, “What made me think that Victoria has to be Spanish?” because honestly, it has to be her.
I know I’m being flattering, and I’m promoting the movie and all that, but who do you think in movie history could have played Victoria? I’m not even talking about right now. If I could pick anybody, there are so many wonderful actors, and Laia is one of them. But the configuration, if you want to call it that, for that part is almost crazy. It’s unbelievable. For example, let’s take the wonderful Audrey Hepburn. She wouldn’t rob a bank. She would be the wonderful girl that would go… Well, maybe she would. But again, you can feel how thin the air gets once you really go through it. This character needs to have the utmost believability and authenticity. It’s not just at some point make believe. Also, when the boys first see her, she needs to be a bit of a little girl. It’s very important. She can’t be older than the boys. It would alter their flirt behavior in the wrong direction. Hitting on an older woman is exciting. This is exciting. It could work, but it’s a different kind. Then, what she pulls off later would not be as surprising and crazy, because she was a little above them right from the beginning if she’d been a little bit older and more experienced and all that. She’s a dark horse. She’s the surprise. She’s what we can’t believe, and having said that, “Whoa! A girl like this would never rob a bank. Implausible!” Maybe. I think life is implausible.
Can you talk a little about your collaboration with your DP Sturla Grovlen?
SCHIPPER: This is the second film he ever did and it’s the first lead Laia ever did. Talk about great people.
It’s amazing work. You gave him top billing on the credits.
SCHIPPER: Yes, of course. It’s a sign that we do things outside the box. It’s a huge tip of the hat to Sturla Grovlen. But also, in my world, it’s a little tip to the whole crew because the cinematographer is the first guy of the crew. I was like, “It’s to all you guys and especially to him.” I just didn’t feel comfortable with “A film by Sebastian Schipper.” That didn’t feel right to be the first title afterwards. We worked a lot on motivation. We shot a 10-minute short in one take in the hotel room to convince people to give us money. It’s going to be on the DVD, and I think it’s on the internet somewhere. Some people said, “That’s not going to work. It’s not even going to work for 5 minutes.” I said, “It will work.” And so, we shot this film in the hotel room, but the problem with that, and it’s so great, and it’s a great short, I didn’t know Laia then, and I just shot with the boys in January last year, but the camera anticipated everything. There’s the typical, “He comes here. I pan. She grabs the tea. I look at you. You go out. I stay with you. They come in. I go back.” It’s beautiful, but after that, I told Sturla, “I can’t have that. You can’t anticipate. You can’t know anything. You’ve got to be like a war photographer. You can go in and follow.” Then, we worked on that, because we also shot rehearsals.
Then, the next big thing was to make Victoria the center of it. So, the first thing is no anticipation. The next thing is we’re going with her, going back to her, around her, look at the boys, not forget that looking at the boys always means it’s a POV. It’s really to make her the center. That was also something that only came with time and working on Victoria with Laia, and working on Victoria within the story with my co-authors, working on Victoria with Sturla to give her this position. When are we looking at the world? When is it important to see her looking at stuff, smiling when they’re on the street drinking, and when they rehearse the robbery down in the garage. Those are moments when we can’t just be running off with the boys.
In the scene right after the bank heist, Laia turns down the wrong street by accident and drives past crew members, but Sturla reacted quickly to shoot around it. What was that experience like?
COSTA: When we ran away from the robbery, it was a crazy moment. I was listening [to Schipper who was in the trunk of the car giving direction], “Left! Right! Faster! Slower!” I really don’t remember if I took the right or the wrong way because it was really stressful. It was stressful, but it was fun. We were running away, so it worked.
SCHIPPER: It was really my mistake. A lot of this thing was in the flow. My way of editing was to alter things from the last take. We shot this film three times. The first take was very controlled and good for the Guinness Book of Records, but it wasn’t a film for me. The second take was very much out of control for me. So, before we shot the third take, there was a lot for me to talk about. We had these meetings when I was telling everybody [what to do]. I had a list. I had notes. I gave everybody notes. But sometimes, we would get to the point where I knew I couldn’t tell them anymore. I knew one thing, the end when they go from the bank to the club is way too long, but I forgot to tell them. Or, I did tell them, but the morning we got together, Laia came to me and said, “By the way, you said we take a shortcut from the bank to the club. Which way do we have to go?” and I said, “Oh, no. We’ve got to start shooting pretty soon. I can’t tell you now. You know what? I’m going to be in the back of the car, so I’m just going to give you directions from the back of the car because we’re going to work on the sound anyway.” There are some moments in the film where I’m talking [which were later removed in post production].
What happened is I fucked up. I told them, “Go right,” but there are two alleyways. When they get out of the car after the robbery, there’s some kind of an alleyway. There’s an identical alleyway like that 20 meters before that. So, we approached it. Of course, I had adrenaline, too. I said, “Okay, right!” She turned and only then did I see that the one alleyway was our set and the other alleyway we used to park the ambulance, the Special Forces, and they were all standing there, all the extras. I was like, “Fuck! Go back! Stop!” At that point, I didn’t care about audio. For the longest time, or for me it was long, until I saw the film the next day, I thought we needed major CGI work on that. But Sturla saw that and he turned the camera and just filmed Freddie, but the craziness inside the car was very authentic.
One thing that also feeds into that story, which is all true, is that Laia is the coolest, most relaxed, great person. You can say anything to her, but one thing you shouldn’t do is criticize her driving. One time in rehearsals somebody criticized her driving, and she was like, “Shut up!” That’s something she doesn’t want to be criticized for, and that kind of came into it, too. I’m going, “No! Stop! Go back!” and she’s going, “What the fuck? You told me to go there. Now I have to go back?!” and I’m like, “Concentrate! Stop! Go Back! Don’t go back!” Everybody was yelling. That’s a hugely productive mistake at that moment.
Why was Berlin such a great setting for this story?
SCHIPPER: First of all, in a way, this story could take place anywhere. Of course, then having said that, it’s a total, complete film about the Berlin of today. Some people said, “Victoria doesn’t speak German, but she works in a café? That doesn’t make sense.”
COSTA: Berlin is full of people like that.
SCHIPPER: Well, come to Berlin. There’s a lot of young people from all over the world. And Germans, at least the Germans of Berlin, they all speak English. You can survive on English for years and years in Berlin. I know people who have lived in Berlin for 10 years and they don’t really speak any German. And yes, you can work in a café just speaking English. I think that undercurrent is on some level important for the film. It has this “let’s go to Europe” kind of vibe. Everybody after high school, before college, goes to Europe. Some people go to Australia, but some go to Europe and travel. It’s also a big thing within Europe to just travel in the summer. I did that when I was in my twenties. A friend of mine and I would get train tickets or a cheap car and just take off. You meet people. Of course, even being German, you run into somebody French, or you run into somebody Spanish, or you run into somebody Irish. Whoever you meet, you speak English to them. I like that, too, and the age they’re in. For me, that’s what I always call the undercurrent of this film. I like the solidarity between them and the openness, and I think a lot of that is going on in Berlin. It contributes to young people going to Berlin or coming back from Berlin, which is such a great city, and that’s because a lot of that is going on there.
What are each of you working on next?
COSTA: For me, now, I’m just promoting Victoria, and then the next steps we’ll see. I don’t know yet.
SCHIPPER: I bought the rights to a book. It’s called “Denial.” I read it in 2011 and I was blown away. It’s an autobiographical story of Jessica Stern. Back then, she was teaching at the Harvard School of Law. She’s a terror expert. She was part of the Clinton administration. One day she got a call from her home town. There was a police officer on the phone, and he said, “You are Jessica Stern. You were raped when you were 14 with your sister in the house of your parents, and we believe that the guy is still at large and we’d like to talk to you about this.” She pretty much came out and said, “No, you’ve got the wrong person.” The way I understand it is it wasn’t that she forgot it, but she thought it was not who she is now. She was a teenager when it happened. She goes back to her home town to face that with her dad. I met her a couple of times in 2011. From her position, she said, “I am not a victim. I am a victim because of what happened, but I don’t let this define my life or who I am.” That’s how she goes back and reencounters what happened to her then. It’s extremely touching. It’s very strong. It’s breathtaking considering that it’s not fiction but that it happened to her. I went to Boston to meet her and I spent two days talking about it, but I was in no position to pull it off. And now, when I meet people who say, “What do you want to do next?”, I say, “That!” I’m very excited about that.
Victoria opens in theaters today.