Films are places you haven’t been yet

Film: » Fuoco sacro – A Search for the Sacred Fire of Song «

On the sidelines of the premiere of his new film » Fuoco sacro «, Rebecca Walter spoke with director Jan Schmidt-Garre about his working methods.

How precisely do you see the finished film in your mind’s eye when you start shooting?

I don’t see a film then. I sense a mood that I want to create. There are, of course, elements of content that I want to convey, in » Fuoco sacro «, for example, the voice of Ermonela Jaho or the question of how an artist prepares herself to perform: what does she have to generate within herself to become a stage character? I have a wish list with building blocks that I would like to create in order to construct the film. But I don’t see a linear sequence in my mind’s eye.

Don’t you need the dramatic arc to get started?

Not in the sense of a finished structure. The dramatic construction develops out of the material – during shooting and then, above all, during editing. That is, of course, a dangerous statement. When I started, documentaries were still strongly determined by content. There was far too little talk about the formal side. And then at some point the turn came, with the sentence: » A film about ... is not a concept. « Which is, of course, completely true. A good director can turn an unremarkable subject into a masterful film, while the most exciting subjects often lead to dull films. Even » An Inconvenient Truth «, the film about Al Gore’s climate protection initiative, which even won the Oscar, is determined purely by content; that’s basically a filmed Power Point presentation.

So the form is at the beginning after all.

Not at the beginning. Yes, I do have to think about the visual language at the beginning – here still shots from a tripod, here steadycam –, about the format, maybe about different narrative levels, things like that, which always read well on paper. But those are ultimately of secondary importance. The strong narrative form that matters only evolves at the end of the process. That’s where it all comes together. And only the strong form leads to the audience staying with it, to them being moved, to them having insights, maybe even to tears coming to their eyes. But it is not possible to name this form precisely in advance. The material is life itself, you have to expose yourself to it, you must not miss it!

What would be an example of the unplannable life in » Fuoco sacro «?

The scenes with Reinbert de Leeuw, the pianist Barbara Hannigan works with. She had told me what concerts, operas, etc. she was planning during the time I was going to shoot the film, including a concert with Reinbert de Leeuw in England. I was immediately excited because I had loved his Satie recordings as a child and said: I want to be there. But I had no idea what an important role he would play in the finished film; these scenes had to come into being first. In their encounters, Barbara Hannigan reveals her deep friendship with him and her concern for his health. It’s very touching and tells a lot about her personality, about her kindness and warmth. That means I come to the shoot with certain ideas and wishes, but I work on the pulse of reality. I push ahead, but am always ready to correct myself if reality takes an unexpected course.

You improvise, like a jazz musician?

Sometimes it feels that way. But I can’t let myself get completely sidetracked from the old course either. There always comes a moment when I take the reins and make sure I work through my wish list. Hitchcock said: » In feature films, the director is God; in documentary films, God is the director. « That’s only partly true. Here, too, the director has a very strong influence on the film. It’s a mixture of anticipating and reacting. My mother was a newspaper editor in the arts section and often had to edit the interviews of a colleague who came to his interviewees with a list of questions. If one of them spontaneously told something unexpected – which I always wish they would! – he would interrupt them: » I’ll ask you about that later! « He systematically drained the life out of the conversations, and my mother then had to try to breathe it back into the texts. In my work, this is called editing. That’s where the form is created.

By putting the scenes into context?

First comes a very long phase of viewing. This is about getting to know the material, internalising it and above all: evaluating it. I take notes, mark good parts, make notes on possible combinations and placements. Again, you have to be completely open and free yourself from the plans from which the scenes emerged. Because if the scene doesn’t contain by itself what I shot it for, then I can’t plant it in it. I have to work with the inner dynamics of the material. The great editor Peter Przygodda, who edited almost all of Wim Wenders’ films and died a few years ago, never used the script in the editing room. He didn’t want to force the material into any form that was not inherent in it. And then finally comes the phase of montage. In what context does a certain scene unfold its effect? How can we charge it so that it has an even stronger effect?

What do you mean by » charging «?

It’s about identifying what the essence of a scene is, and then finding the context in which that essence can be experienced by the spectator. That’s it. And that’s the hardest thing. One scene is strong at the beginning, another at the end, and a third can lie around unredeemed forever. Maybe a really great scene that we thought was a no-brainer. Then we try out different options, putting it in all sorts of places, until all of a sudden it comes to life.

And if not?

Then it’s kicked out. That’s the famous » kill your darlings «; you have to be merciless.

Do you work the same way at operas?

Quite differently. When I stage operas, I prepare them meticulously for months. I determine every step, every gesture and every look with my figurines on the model. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t change things spontaneously or take suggestions from the singers if they are better than what I bring. But I always have the directing book up my sleeve and can therefore rehearse very quickly. I usually get through a two-and-a-half-hour opera in six to eight days, so that the second phase can begin, where everything is deepened and where the real fun begins.

The undetermined outcome may also be an attraction of documentary films.

Planning a film is like imagining a place you don’t know but have heard a lot about. When you actually get there, it looks completely different. Reality then very quickly overlaps the imagination and obliterates it. And a good film brings both together: the film looks different from the diffuse image I had in my head at the beginning. But the mood of this image, its atmosphere is there again, and the great thing is: now I can share it with others.

Film: » Fuoco sacro – A Search for the Sacred Fire of Song «