The Director Who Pulled Off a Heist
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because directors are taking new risks — if you know where to look.
By Libby Coleman
For director Sebastian Schipper, making the film Victoria was like staging a heist. Plan to bust into a bank vault, and you get exactly one chance — whether you make off with the loot, die trying or end up in jail, you won’t be back. Same, in a way, for Schipper’s plan to film a two-hour heist movie (naturally) in a single take: 134 minutes, no cuts, no mistakes. In fact, Schipper’s budget allowed him three attempts, but the first take was way too controlled. The second was too chaotic. It was his Goldilocks moment: He had one last attempt to get it just right.
The director could have taken the easy way out — and he did consider cheating by cobbling together a jump-cut film from the first two long takes. But Schipper, 47, hated the initial result. “When everything’s going real bad, you know that plan B has just evaporated,” he says. So he went for it and filmed a third and final take in April that confirmed he’d made a clean getaway. “After 2 hours and 14 minutes, I knew we’d done it,” Schipper tells OZY.
Now Victoria is also cleaning up. Schipper received the 2015 German Film Award for best direction; his film, advertised with the slogan “One City. One Night. One Take,” also won best picture in the German equivalent of the Oscars —the Lolas — as well as five more Lolas. Thriller director Darren Aronofsky reportedly said the movie “rocked my world.” When Jeff Lipsky, an executive at Adopt Films, saw Victoria in Berlin, he says he fell “head over heels in love with the film,” negotiated the U.S. rights and released the film in the U.S. in October.
The rousing reception for Schipper’s quirky, auteur-driven movie cuts a sharp contrast with the wholesale recycling that currently dominates global cinema. In 2014, nine of the 10 top-grossing films worldwide derived from borrowed concepts — whether books like The Hunger Games and The Hobbit, comics like Captain America, even toys like LEGO. (Interstellar, at No. 10, was the only big film based on an original idea.) As mainstream cinema increasingly chews its own cultural cud, indie film is taking on new life with decidedly anti-blockbuster movies that implicitly reject the notion that films have to be familiar to be interesting. Even if that means embracing and extending techniques like the extended take, which has been an attention-getting trick for directors since the days of Alfred Hitchcock (Rope) and Orson Welles (Touch of Evil).
The son of a minister and a church musician, Schipper grew up in Hanover, Germany. He began his film career not as a director, but as an actor. His deep-set eyes, youthful haircut and dimpled smile give him a resemblance to Ryan Gosling. In 1997, as an actor on the set of Run Lola Run — another innovative, flow-of-time-focused German thriller that Victoria mirrors in some ways — he met director Tom Tykwer, who helped him direct his first film. “I think he’s responsible for me,” Schipper says. His first films — Gigantics (1999), A Friend of Mine (2006), Sometime in August (2009) — never made it to U.S. theaters. Victoria is his big international debut.
The single-take approach might strike you as a gimmick; a few critics have agreed. But Schipper wanted to put the audience directly in the action, to make people feel like they were in a heist, not seeing a movie about a heist. Director of photography Sturla Brandth Grøvlen says he was told to “act like a war photographer,” to capture the action in real time. Victoria’s tone is more consistent without cuts. His crazy idea wasn’t completely original; the 2002 indie film Russian Ark was shot in a single 87-minute take. But that movie, which consisted largely of a stately glide through a Hermitage Museum mysteriously populated with historical figures, is a far cry from the raucous and violent Victoria.
Like it or not, experimental indie films draw more critical eyes, which can then determine whether a movie lives or dies. Say, by filming your movie with iPhone cameras, as Sean Baker did with his Sundance hit Tangerine. Schipper, too, knows how to get attention in oddball ways. Grøvlen remembers that one of his first meetings with Schipper took place in the director’s Berlin apartment. Schipper put on a record he liked — a 1998 solo album by former Talk Talk lead singer Mark Hollis — and they sat there in silence while it played. ”We had a lot of general discussions where we’d start talking about the film,” Grøvlen says, “but the talk would kind of develop into philosophy or art in general.”
To be sure, going experimental isn’t always an economic slam dunk. “Quality seldom equals profit,” Lipsky says. He’s witnessed many of his favorite films crash and burn financially, and some German cultural references sometimes don’t translate for foreign audiences. “Let’s say you’re raised in a small U.S. town and you see something from Berlin, it’s hard to compare to whatever you’re raised with here in the U.S.,” says Oliver Marhdt, president of the talent agency Hanns Wolters International.
Schipper’s accomplishment still leaves many skeptical that he actually pulled it off. Even Aronofsky questioned Schipper after watching Victoria. “He came over to our table and said, ‘Man, look me in the eye and tell me you didn’t cut,’ ” Schipper says; of course, the director did just that. But Schipper knows not to try this heist ever again. “It’s a completely brainless idea,” he says. ”It’s asking for trouble.”