Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Directing Menschen

Only a few days ago, I wrapped production on MENSCHEN my first independent short film. Compared to my prior films the scale of Menschen was even more epic than the usual costume drama I've come to be known for. The intensive 8-day shoot brought a lot of challenges that the cast and crew overcame at every turn. For my role I had to adapt a lot to direct working with a language I was not fluent in and working with a young actor with Down Syndrome among other things.

Menschen takes place in WWII but it is hard to compare it to my other film from the period The Last Bogatyr (a surreal film which takes place on the Russian front). Menschen is a narrative work of fiction around an Austrian captain in the Wehrmacht who takes a developmentally disabled boy under his wing in his journey to surrender to the Americans. The word "menschen" is German for human beings, a word I'd come across that conveyed the value of the individual regardless of their background. In 2010, Menschen was a concept for feature, a four page treatment and an unfinished screenplay. Two years later, I completely rewrote the script and was foraging ahead into production for Menschen as a short.

I have been really blessed with an array of talented people on board the production, first and foremost my producers Anastasia Cummings and Robert von Dassanowsky. Some of the events were loosely inspired by stories from Robert's own family history during the era, his support and encouragement never allowed me to abandon the concept. Once Anastasia came on board she moved the production along in a big way turning it into something far larger than I could have hoped for.

It was always on my mind to have Menschen in German. I have a great passion for history and as a filmmaker I feel responsible to be as true to the culture and period as possible. The screenplay was translated numerous times to the point of tweaking words on set to make them more true to the Austrian dialect. We spent a lot of time in casting to find German speaking actors who could fill the roles of  Menschen's Austrian and German characters. Our dialect coach Adrian Kadanka worked to perfect the Austrian accent with the actors. During the shoot we were blessed with Anastasia and our own Austrian Director of Photography Peter Wigand who lent their fluent ear to the dialogue as well.

The experience of watching your words come to life is always fulfilling, in my case I was hearing them for what felt like the first time in German. I picked up on key words and the cues in blocking in order to keep up with the action in each scene. For the most part what I had to draw direction from was the actors' body language. If I had to give a note on a line I almost always referred to the english version of the line.

What has always attracted me to directing is the beauty between choreographing the movement between camera and talent--in many ways it is a meticulous and well grafted dance.  I realized when I began working with Peter Wigand he had so much to offer the film. I appreciated the way he had an eye not only for translating the emotional narrative to screen, but also for representing his national heritage on our set. I think in many ways he really enhanced my vision for Menschen. During one of the days while we were in Black Forest, Peter introduced a way to capture the entire scene in a single moving shot. While it sound sounds simple, the move is something I think very few directors of photography could pull off as easily as Peter did. Moving the camera seamlessly from actor to actor and pulling the focus with only his eye for reference encapsulates the beauty from both sides of the camera.

The unique angle in Menschen's narrative was always the film's perspective on disability. Films predominately featuring individuals with disability are rare enough and novel to the WWII genre. Historically they were targeted in the Nazi's T-4 program, in Menschen there is a story of hope of how one such individual was preserved from the purges.  I'm rather sensitive to special needs because my own brother and sister have disabilities. My brother and sister are rather severe, although they have Down Syndrome my sister's Autism has created a lot of behaviors we as a family are still working to manage. When it came to casting the role of the Czech boy Radek, I was searching for an actor with Down Syndrome. When we first saw Connor Long, I was blown away by his performance.

Just 17-years old, Connor has achieved so much as an athlete and leader in his own community. I remember watching him in auditions as he brought the actress reading with him to tears. I thought to myself there is something precious and genuine in his performance that is really going to read on screen. As the production moved on Connor really took the hearts of all those who worked with him. He had a big smile and slick sense of humor.

I really bonded with Connor, whenever I turned around there he was smiling at me and telling me I was beautiful (what girl wouldn't fall for that one). The role of Radek required Connor to really bring out behaviors and trauma in his performance. I'd discuss ideas with his parents that they would rehearse with him at home, then on set I would refine his performance. Connor and I made a game out of it at one point: I became his mirror. I stood off-camera at his eye-line and emoted or moved in the way I wanted him to reflect for key moments in the film. On the very last day shooting we approached his scene in this way for the final farewell and this time I was the one who was brought to tears by his performance.

Looking back I'm still amazed by all we were able to accomplish for Menschen. I had learned from working with WWII re-eanctors and pyrotechnics teams on The Last Bogatyr what to prepare for to direct large scenes with background and visual effects on site. We started off production with a bang (quite literally) with the bombing of the Wehrmacht convoy and we closed the film on just as large a note with an elaborate setup for the American camp and POW enclosure. I am so grateful to the production design team and support from the WWII re-enacting groups for what they brought to the production value of the film. As I prepare myself to enter post-production, I can only sigh and smile for all I have gained from this incredible shoot. A director is only as good as the people supporting them and I am so very proud of each and everyone's contribution to Menschen, it shows in the footage.