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We Watch Films with Our Nervous Systems: Sebastian Schipper on "Victoria"

It’s telling that so many reviews of Sebastian Schipper’s new film "Victoria" use the word “gimmick”—specifically to deny that the film gives in to one. It seems necessary to acknowledge that someone might accuse it of gimmickry, but writers are scrambling to defend it from a critique no one seems to be making—at least not if they’ve actually seen the film. "Victoria"’s central conceit sounds unlikely: it’s a 138-minute heist film, shot in a single unbroken take on the streets of Berlin. In fact, Schipper says, it sounds so unlikely that Toronto and Sundance both initially rejected the film, because programmers simply didn’t believe he was telling the truth about how he shot it. But after the film won six German Film Awards (Best Film, Direction, Cinematography, Actor, Actress, and Score), plus the Silver Bear and other awards at the Berlin Film Festival, people stopped dismissing it. And the film speaks for itself, clearly and defiantly.

Schipper wasn’t always confident it would. He was afraid the conversation out of the year’s festival showings would focus on whether he had cheated by stitching scenes together with CGI. But that discussion hasn’t materialized. And at this point, he thinks it’s because people can sense that it’s authentic. “I think if we had cut, the discussion would have been there. Because the flow of this film is seamless. We don’t watch films with our brains, and we don’t watch films with our hearts. I think we watch films with our nervous systems. You’re in this river, and whether it’s fast or at times really slow, if we changed rivers, you would feel it.”

"Victoria" opens with the eponymous character, a Spanish woman out for a night on the town in Berlin, running into a group of young men who invite her to come drinking. Victoria (Laia Costa) is lonely enough to take them up on it. Over the course of more than two hours, bits of her background emerge, revealing why she’s so aimless and reckless, and why she’s willing to jump in on their other plans as well. Eventually, the film develops into a gangster story. Then there’s a bank robbery, a shootout, and much more—all as one continuous, flowing “river” of story. "Victoria" travels into and out of a nightclub, up onto a rooftop, through a bank, into a hotel, and around the city streets, with the actors staying in character the entire time. And cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen is in the midst of it all, weaving in and out of the action, using a Canon C300 to capture the dialogue from an intimate distance.

Schipper says he’s always reluctant to admit what camera he used on the shoot, because he and his producers approached Canon about using their equipment, “and they didn’t even answer our email.” It was one of the few places in the film where they couldn’t economize. Otherwise, it was a cheap, lean shoot: Schipper admits he underpaid his actors and crew. He didn’t seek permits for his run-and-gun shoot, because he couldn’t afford them. He just started the shoot at 4:20 a.m. on a Saturday, in a “rather lame area of Berlin” without much nightlife. He used three separate roving sound crews and nearly two dozen assistant directors to ward off pedestrians and create a moving “bubble” around the action. He shot a dramatic gunfight in a closed housing project, on private property where he could control the action. He replaced low-level lights on a billboard and in a parking garage with brighter ones to give him more light to work with.

But ultimately, he didn’t worry much about the logistics, especially about trying to direct his actors in the moment. “I know it’s a bit of a hippie answer, but the film was not in the planning,” he says. “It was not in the logistics. If we’d just concentrated on the logistics, we would not have been able to make it. If this had been a super-long list of boxes to tick, this would have never gotten together. We had to neglect all the boxes and concentrate on some other level that was more vital and flexible and organic. And that’s the heart and soul of the performance, which also includes the performance of the camera.” The primary issues became keeping people off the set—Schipper personally had to head off one drunk Russian couple who tried to help one of his actors, who was playing out an emotional breakdown. And when Schipper got one setting ahead of the action, he found three men waiting to unload a truck in an alley where a key scene was about to take place. He had to convince them to hide for just 10 minutes, while the action moved through the alley, and then kept going.

“That’s why I had to produce it myself,” Schipper says. Any other producer, he says, would have insisted on more practical planning. And any other producer might have known what Schipper was getting himself into. “When I realized it was impossible, we were way past the point of no return. There was a certain naïveté to it, and that was great, that also infected other people, like the actors and my cinematographer. The rules to this were not clear. None of them had tried it before and failed, so I just had to convince them I knew how to do it. They looked at me like, ‘You’re crazy, but it sounds like fun.’ Of course, for them it’s easy, right? If it doesn’t come together, I’m the idiot. So they gave it all they had, and I promised them that we could do it. Don’t underestimate how people are willing to do something crazy. That’s how they ended up in this business in the first place.”

Schipper says he “even seduced people with money into this kind of thinking,” emphasizing the excitement of the shoot and the novelty of a single-take project on a never-before-seen scale. He used the same line on Spanish actor Laia Costa, who plays Victoria, and on her casting agent, Luci Lenox: “We don’t have much money, but we’re really going to do something here.” Then he presented his cast with a 12-page outline of the story, and had them improvise their own dialogue, scene by scene, developing their own roles.

“The actors loved that because it gave them freedom,” he says. “Not everyone even read the 12 pages. The factory setting for an actor—the crazy-meter for all of them is not on 10, but it’s above 5 for everyone who’s an actor. They want to play.”

And after shooting three conventional films that didn’t bring across his personal voice, he was tired of the traditional filmmaking process. The idea for "Victoria" came when he was daydreaming about robbing a bank, to distract himself from a screenplay that wasn’t coming together. “You know, your mind does everything to get away from that work. You goof around in your mind with ‘What if?’” He had his heist all planned out, and was convinced he really could successfully rob a bank: “I would ask my two best friends [to help], and that would create a brotherhood, because we wouldn’t be able to tell anybody.”

But once he started considering a heist movie, it seemed stale. “I was amazed at how little that was attractive. It just felt like another script, another film, another project to raise money for.” He’d seen enough heist films that he didn’t want to compete with the greats: “It was a very pure, instinct-driven intuition that I wanted to get away from what had already been done. If you have a menu of heist movies, you already have the burger of 'Ocean’s Eleven,' and the spare ribs are 'Dog Day Afternoon,' and the steak is 'Heat.' I’m a chef, so what am I going to put on that menu, a second-best burger or the second-best ribs? It was, ‘How can I cook something genuine? How can I do something that’s not pretty much a clone of what I admire? How can I get away from the references?’”

The answer involved giving up control to his actors, his cinematographer and to the energy of improv. The method produced a much more exhilarating, energized film than something scripted and full of conventional cuts. “We don’t want lies. We don’t want scripts,” he says. “We want stories, and we want pain. We want love and run-for-your-life, the real thing. We want pure joy, not a performance.” Instead of micromanaging his actors, he pushed them to understand their characters, invent their roles in the middle of the action, then come back to him to discuss the choices they’d made. “If they don’t own their parts, if they don’t make it entirely theirs, they can’t go through these two-plus hours.”

In most interviews, Schipper draws on Francis Ford Coppola presenting "Apocalypse Now" at Cannes with the quote, “My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam.” Schipper feels that in the same way, "Victoria" actually is a bank robbery: It’s a guerilla-style art project, an extended illicit act of public creativity. And for him, the unconventional methods give the film its life, in the same way that with "Apocalypse Now," “it’s obvious in the performances that they didn’t just go to the Philippines, go through the pages of the script, and come back home. It was a crazy process that transcended the script, and maybe any plan they ever had with the project. I think when you watch a film, you feel the process that was going on when this film was being made.”

Schipper says he’s wary of suggesting that “we live in a bad cultural time,” because that would be overstating. But he sees a danger in the increasingly sophisticated ways post-production manipulation can eliminate any shooting mistake or rough patches in a film. "Victoria" doesn’t feel seamless to him: There are still things that bother him, like when the male lead, played by Frederick Lau, puts his beer down on a piano, and it sits in one long, emotional shot “with the label facing the camera.” "Victoria" was only shot three times—the theatrical release is the third take—and in the previous two, Schipper told Lau not to leave the beer in the shot, “but he always forgot. That’s why this business is so crazy. That’s why directors are so crazy. Because how could they not be?”

Still, according to Schipper, the best music in the world is soul music—but only if there’s pain and grit in it, “some kind of dirt under the fingernails of your soul. And the worst music in the world is also soul—clean radio soul. You need your mistakes. For me, I don’t see anything [in this film] I want to change.”

Schipper says he has no interest in making another single-take film. What he’s learned from Victoria instead is that he wants to keep creating collaborative works, and finding new ways to bring immediacy into his projects. “On some crazy level, certain beautiful and maybe even divine things can only happen if you jump. And if you jump, you jump. That doesn’t mean you’re brainless and you don’t know anything. But if you want to discover the North Pole, or record A Love Supreme in three days, you just gotta go. You better know what you’re doing, and you have to believe in what you’re doing. But you’ve still just got to go.”

Victoria is in limited theatrical release around the country, with openings at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre on Nov. 6, Landmark “E” Street Cinemas in Washington D.C. on Nov. 13, and more planned in New York, Arizona, Minnesota, Maryland, and more. Check Adopt Films’ release page for local release dates.

Tasha Robinson is a freelance writer and a former Senior Editor at The Dissolve.

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