Dialogue: Ulrich Seidl
EmptyAuthenticity and unsettling intimacy are at the core of Austrian director Ulrich Seidl's work. His dramatic documentaries and documentary-style dramas are unflinching in their portrayal of reality and the covered-up sides of modern life. In this year's In Competition entry "Import/Export," Seidl tells parallel stories about a Ukrainian woman who comes to Austria to work as a cleaning lady and a pair of unemployed Austrians who head to Ukraine to find work and perhaps a meaning to life. Seidl speaks about his documentary style, improvising a script and other unsettling truths.
The Hollywood Reporter: How did "Import/ Export" come about?
Ulrich Seidl: I worked around four years on the film. My screenplays are more shooting instructions -- I don't write any dialogue. And the stories are not connected -- I write each one straight from beginning to end. A lot changes after I decide on casting, and then again with the selection of the locations. And I take a long time to shoot. I take the luxury after a day's shooting to look at the dailies and, depending on the result, to change things or not.
THR: It sounds like a pretty risky way to make a film.
Seidl: Well, it's worked so far (laughs). All of my films so far worked. By now, my team is used to working this way. But as you can imagine, it takes a lot of patience, and the financial risk is much higher than with a simple eight-week shoot. For "Import/Export," I wanted to do a winter film. No sunshine. We started in winter 2004 but it was a very short winter, so we had to wait for the next winter to finish. I also take the luxury of shooting a lot of material but with very little technical apparatus. I don't use any artificial light -- maybe I'll change a light bulb or two, that's it. For "Import/Export," I shot 80 hours of film. Then I cut it down to the final film in a very long editing process.
THR: Where did the idea for the stories come from?
Seidl: On the one hand, from my interest with the countries of Eastern Europe. I've been there several times the past few years and I enjoy it -- I like the attitude, the mentality of the people there. I knew I wanted to do something there. Then, as often happens, while I was making one film the idea for another came to me. I met a working-class family in Vienna -- five grown children -- and all of them, all seven, are unemployed. I did a documentary portrait of them, which I never released, but I decided instead to develop a drama out of their story. That was the start of "Import/Export."
THR: Your cast is a mix of professional and amateur actors. How did you cast the film?
Seidl: To cast the lead role of Olga I went to Ukraine. We did castings in eastern Ukrainian villages. It was a long process. The woman we eventually found had never been to the West before. She didn't speak a word of German. She came to Austria for the first time in the scenes I shot for the film. I wanted to use this first trip to get the real feel as she crosses over. For the Austrian roles, we looked on the streets, in the schools, in reformatories, in prisons -- wherever you'd think you could find people on the edges of society. Very quickly you find very interesting people with very interesting stories. But it is much harder to find someone who can perform in front of a camera, who can carry a film.
THR: When you started shooting, you had a script but without any dialogue, correct?
Seidl: I never write any dialogue. All the scenes are improvised. I want the actors to be speaking in their own language, with their own words. Shortly before we shoot a scene, I tell the individual actors what it is about. I don't give them much notice because I don't want them to plan out how they are going to play it. I want that spontaneity. The result can be a surprise; it can also be a disappointment. I change my script accordingly. If I see something isn't working, some scene I had planned isn't getting better, then I'll drop it from the film. Or something new comes up that I hadn't thought of, and that will make it into the film.
THR: Does this way of working come from your background as a documentary filmmaker?
Seidl: I started with documentaries, but even my first documentary was a mix, with drama elements. I felt increasingly drawn to fiction because of the greater freedom it offers. What I've kept from documentary filmmaking is doing things with less technical apparatus in order to stay flexible.
THR: What do you gain from this flexible, documentary style?
Seidl: It gives me an authenticity. Using both amateur and professional actors where the audience doesn't know which is which. I'm aiming for that authenticity that I can only get if I work this way. But I want the images to be cinematic. My impulse is to tell things in a cinematic way. So these two impulses -- the documentary authenticity and the cinematic narrative -- sort of clash in my films. I plan shots very carefully, I have a very clear idea what I want in the frame and what not. The scenes are carefully staged and blocked out. I use a hand camera as well, but often the hand camera has very specific instructions what to do, how and where to move.
THR: Your technique seems to be good at capturing very disturbing -- some would even say repulsive -- moments, when your actors seem off guard.
Seidl: For me it isn't about being repulsive, though sometimes it is about being unsettling. But it is really about intimacy. I point my camera at the intimate moments. That's where life is found. It's not sugar-coated. I'm looking for a truth. This phenomenon of a woman coming west to work illegally is very common. They come in with a tourist visa and try to stay as long as possible, usually working as cleaning ladies. During the making of the film, I got to know the woman who was cleaning for us, and her life story was very similar to Olga's. I eventually cast her as Olga's friend in the film.
THR: How do you link up the two separate stories in the film?
Seidl: The film moves back and forth between the two stories. There is no direct connection. Any connection occurs in the minds of the audience. I had originally planned to shoot a scene where the figures meet on the border, briefly, without knowing one another. But as it got closer to the shoot, I became less and less interested in that scene. I couldn't think of a way to shoot it. So I dropped it. I don't think the film needed it.
THR: What does it mean to you to be presenting your film In Competition at Cannes?
Seidl: Of course I'm delighted and very proud. Also because of the long production process I go through with my film, there are always those moments of doubt where you don't know if the film will work, it you will manage it or not. So after all that, the success of having the film In Competition in Cannes, I can't imagine a better ending.
Nationality: Austrian; born: 1952
Selected filmography: "Loss Is to Be Expected" (1992), "Animal Love" (1995), "Models" (1999), "Dog Days" (2001), "Jesus, You Know" (2003)
Notable awards: Karlovy Vary Film Festival best documentary, "Jesus, You Know" (2003); Vienna Film Award, "Jesus, You Know" (2003); Venice Film Festival Special Grand Jury Prize, "Dog Days" (2001); Amsterdam Documentary Film Festival Special Jury Award, "Loss Is to Be Expected" (1992)