THR's Cologne Conference Roundtable
French star Isabelle Huppert on always feeling like an amateur, "Game of Thrones" actress Sibel Kekilli on not working with "a-holes," and why Harmony Korine loves to torture his actors.
The boundaries between art and pop culture, between the amateur and the professional, were all mashed up in THR's talk with the winners of this year's Cologne Conference film and television festival. French star Isabelle Huppert (Amour), winner of the inaugural International Actors Award, found common ground with German actress Sibel Kekilli (Game of Thrones), this year's Hollywood Reporter Award winner. Director Harmony Korine (Spring Breakers), Cologne Film Prize honoree, meanwhile, bonded over art and pop music with Turner Award-nominated video artist Phil Collins. And first-time filmmakers, German husband and wife writer-director team Christian Kracht and Frauke Finsterwalder, winners of Cologne's TV Speilfilm Prize, explained why they signed a cinematic prenup before making their debut feature, Finsterworld.
When was the moment you knew you wanted to make movies?
Harmony Korine: I don't think it was a specific moment, but I grew up watching movies so it was a cumulative thing. I think watching Marx brothers movies or Buster Keaton films, Three Stooges, things like that, made me think I could do it. But there were things that I watched as a young kid that definitely got me excited -- Rumble Fish, The Outsiders, Stroszek, the Werner Herzog movie, Do the Right Thing. When I was really young I could start to understand the language and see an entry point. It was really just what I loved.
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Sibel Kekilli: I think I've never had that moment. When I'm filming, I think 'this is the moment' and then when it's over, I'm not so sure anymore. Do you know what I mean? I never wanted to be an actress. It started when I did When We Leave , I think.
So before then you didn't feel comfortable as an actress?
Kekilli: No, I felt comfortable because of my wonderful directors, Fatih Akin or Hans Steinbichler, for example, but I never knew if this was what I wanted to do for my whole life. I was never sure. I just slipped into this profession, into this business and then it was just, "Let's see what will happen." And after When We Leave, I was sure that I was maybe good at what I'm doing. That was the moment where I felt comfortable and thought, "OK, maybe I want to be an actress for at least the next few years."
Isabelle, do you remember the moment?
Isabelle Huppert: No. Maybe it was the first time I looked at myself in the mirror? And said "Oh! Here I am!" No, it's like Sibel said, it's progressive. It's not a revelation. Well, maybe not a revelation, but it's a surprise. And in a way it is still a surprise [to be an actress]. Which is nice. It's like a paradox. It is something completely normal and evident, and on the other hand, not normal and evident. Every day. You do it for the first time. Every time. It is a nice mixture because it makes you feel very confident and very unsure. Which is good, it's a good feeling.
So after all your experience and success, you still feel unsure?
Huppert: Well, unsure in the sense of being an amateur. Not like a professional actress. Which is good, because it makes you do things all the time like for the first time. Which is the only good way to do things.
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Christian, Frauke -- you both dove into the unknown for Finsterworld, your first film. Were you terrified to make that leap?
Frauke Finsterwalder: I wasn't terrified because that is what I wanted to do. But of course it was very different to work with actors than to work with ordinary people as I had done before [as a documentary filmmaker]. But it was a lot more fun. As a documentary filmmaker, the people were dictating the film much more than I could. I was never really satisfied with what happened. In a fiction film you have many more possibilities in telling the story. But I was terrified of the actors. But then they told me they were terrified of directors too. So after that it worked.
Christian Kracht: I'm a novelist, and when you write books, you are all alone with your ego monster in your little room. And so it was actually quite humbling to move into a team that actually bettered what you did. Because [as a writer] you think of yourself as a little genius. Then other people come, the team, the editors move what you think is good and cut things out. It was a very humbling but also very good learning experience.
Phil Collins: I didn't come from an artist background. My best friend [growing up] was the TV. I was quite a lonely child, no one wanted to play with me. So I would sit and record the audio of the TV and play it back so things like pop music and television culture were really central to me. I really never like art that is academic in the way that it excludes people. I always wanted to make art that your granny could understand. Like Tele-shopping shows. Which I really like. When I go to America, watching endless rings and endlessly speaking about nothing. I think it's great television. It's something I admire in the most profound way. So those kind of areas, karaoke and pop music, debased forms have always been incredibly moving for me.
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Harmony, your films, particularly Spring Breakers, mix elements of pop culture with very art house elements in terms of themes and structure. Do you seen a boundary between the artistic and the commercial?
Korine: For me, no. I don't see any difference. Because there is no such thing as underground culture anymore. The Internet and the way that people view things, there is no above ground or below ground. It's all exposed, it's all up in the air, for better or worse. Whether its commercial or independent, I don't really care so much. Usually things are either good or bad. For me its more making sense of that and putting it out in the world, if that makes any sense. I see merit in things that are very commercial and I see nothing in things that people say are deep. It's weird, but that's how I see it.
What about you, Isabelle? You've done both European and U.S. films but never a truly commercial Hollywood film.
Huppert: No, I have never done what you would call, in a candid way, a Hollywood picture. I've done what you would term independent movies. I'm also not quite sure what it means either but it can mean an attempt to make something a bit more interesting. So if I do a picture with Hal Hartley, for example, I don't see that many differences from a movie I would do in Europe. I don't think you can establish differences between countries. You can establish differences between talents. Between individuals. But whether they are American or Korean? You can establish differences from the mass means of doing a film. That not necessarily alters the way of doing it, but definitely orients the way a movie is made. Especially compared to a very small way of doing movies, like I did, for example, in Korea with Hong Sang-soo [In Another Country].
There are so many ways to do a movie. In the end, you get this object which is called a film but the disparities between how you arrive there are great. But it is more complex and complicated than just establishing differences between a Hollywood movie and a European film. Those borders, those differences are very very rough and not very accurate, I think. For me the director is the only good reason to do a movie. It is not the script, it is not the story, it is not the character. It is not the nationality. It is just the director.
You've often worked with Michael Haneke, who has a reputation for being very strict on set.
Huppert: Beware of reputations. It is only a reputation. No one is to be reduced to that. Of course he is said to be strict because his framing is strict. His movies are strict but that doesn't mean that he is strict. He is quite free and easy. And normal. And sometimes even funny. But sometimes it is difficult when you meet a person. Like meeting Harmony Korine. If you put Spring Breakers on one side and then him on the other side, you can't necessarily connect him with the film. So then you have to adjust to the fact that he did this movie, which, by the way, I love. It is always the same. When you meet someone, you meet a human being. But when you make a movie, it isn't what you are. It's what you think, it is what you dream, it's your fantasies, it's your inner thoughts. It doesn't really resemble who you are.
Sibel, you have been very selective in the projects you've done. What is it that makes you say yes to a project?
Kekilli: Most of the time, as Isabelle said, it's the director. I have to have the feeling I can trust him. I couldn't work with a director if I was scared of him. It has to be respect and trust. It's like starting a new relationship or partnership, like how far can I go? Can he or she direct me? But if the director isn't well known or its maybe his first movie, you have to trust your... instinct?
Kekilli: Intuition, yes. Thank you. You have to trust yourself. If a director is a monster, a real asshole, I can't work with him. He has to have some respect for my work. It's OK if he's strict and says, "You have to do THIS -- I know exactly the picture I want." I have to trust him, of course. But respect and trust are the most important thing. Because if he is not nice to me, if he's mean, I can't trust him. I can't be naked, I can't show him my inner feelings. And that's the most important thing.
Finsterwalder: It's like Sibel says – you meet someone and you know you can work with them. It's a little like falling in love. It happens or it doesn't happen. And if it doesn't happen, you can't work together.
For you Christian, how was it to give up control over your work in adapting it for the screen?
Kracht: Well, we went to an attorney, a lawyer before we did this and wrote up a contract where I pledged not to exert any kind of, you know, evil influence. Because we know each other very well and I have means of manipulation beyond the regular writer-director team. So I signed this thing and it was very good that we did it so I didn't go back into the project. I wasn't allowed on set.
Finsterwalder: You were allowed on set.
Kracht: But I didn't go. It was a good thing to let go. Of course you are sad when scenes are erased but it was all for the better.
You actually signed a prenup agreement for your film?
Kracht: Well, we weren't going to sue each other or anything, but it was a symbolic ritual to see who is really in control.
Kekilli: So it was an agreement between you and your wife?
Korine: And you went to a lawyer? Man, you guys are hard core! Holy shit.
Finsterwalder: It was a South American lawyer, so it would never have stood up in European court. But, seriously, Christian is a well-known novelist. And he asked me not to work with another writer [on the script] so I thought it was good just to make it clear so that we wouldn't argue about things like. "Why did you change the orange seat in the script to a blue one?" It was more a symbolic thing.
Harmony, you work both with amateur and professional actors. How do you see the difference between the professional and the amateur?
Korine: I love them both. I love great performers: professional actors, because of what they give you, and I love amateurs because of what they give you. Mostly I'm attracted to an energy. I like putting putting actors in real situations with people who don't know what to expect and I like the opposite.
I like that there's no rules. I like to experiment with actors. I like it when actors are uncomfortable. I like it when they are comfortable. I like to make them remember their lines. I like to make them forget their lines. I like to torture them. I like to love them. When you work with a great actor, or an amateur, it can almost become like music, you start to riff.
It's weird, because everyone says, "Ah, you improvise with actors." I don't like that term because improvising suggest you just go with actors and make stuff up. Usually, that is terrible. To me the most magical moments comes in this grey area between things that are written and things that are spontaneous.
So let's say on the day of the shooting, you have rehearsed with actors, you've blocked the scene out and everything and then you just notice something that is going on with an extra or in the corner of the screen that you had never dreamed of, or an actor says something in a way that is interesting.
So it isn't improvisation. It's mistakes. I'm interested in mistakes or the randomness, the disorder of things. It's like putting chemicals into a bottle and shaking it up and documenting the explosion. Sometimes there is a kind of beauty in things that go off on their own. But they are not really improvised. It's more of a magic trick.
Don't the actors gets scared when they don't know what do to?
Korine: Yeah. I love that. That's the best for me. For me as a director, I hate the feeling of routine. I don't like sitting there thinking it is going the way I imagined it would go. I always feel it's almost a disaster. But I need that. I need to be unsure because I need to be kept alive. I don't ever want to hear the lines exactly as they are written or as I dreamt them, because then it is like a routine. I like it when actors are unsure, when they are outside their comfort zone. Especially when it coincides with the character or what is happening in the movie. That's the best. What I hate is the routine. Or the professionalism. I can't stand the professional. I want something that is more wild.
What was the most surprising “mistake” that came out in the making of Spring Breakers?
Korine: There was a lot of stuff. That whole sequence in the back where James Franco sticks his finger in Selena Gomez's throat, none of that was written. I was thinking about that sequence for months without telling them and trying to find a way to make it happen without freaking them out, or paralyzing her by the situation. And so the night before I called him and I told him but I didn't tell her. I told him what could happen. I had designed this room with all these people in the back who were kind of waiting for it. She thought she was going home, that she was done for the day, and I just tapped her on the shoulder and was like, "Hey, there's one more thing I want you to try." She looked at me and she got a little nervous. I took her in the room and all I did was say "I just want you to react as if it's really happening." That's it, that's all I said. And then we just did it over and over again. Till we had it.
If you hadn't become a filmmaker or you couldn't work in film anymore, what would you do?
Huppert: It is a difficult question. I often think about it. And I think my thinking about it is different now than when I started [acting]. You always think of doing something else than what you are doing. I think it is easier to deal with your work if you don't put it in the center of your life. But of course that's only pretending. Of course work is a central point in one's life. But it is better to keep some distance to it. You think you could do anything else -- just leave. Because you think -- what I think most of the time -- that life has more value than the movies. But if you want to answer this question honestly, “what would I do instead?” Probably nothing. There's the trouble. The work has to be somewhere, either at the center or on the outskirts. If it is nowhere, I wouldn't know where I am myself.
Kekilli: I don't know. I wish I could sing. But I can't. I would love to write novels. I can't. Housewife? No. I would love to learn languages and take photos and make a documentary, and, and, and... but I don't want to think about that. Because this, acting, is my passion and I want, I need, to learn so many things in being an actress. Being an actress for me is like being alive. I feel alive when I'm acting. If I couldn't do that it would be dangerous for me. I can explode in what I do. I can scream, I can cry and can just live. If I couldn't, I don't know. I think I'd die.
Finsterwalder: I tried a lot of things before I became a filmmaker, although that was what I always wanted to be, I think, since I was born. But I wasn't very useful to anyone at the other stuff and I got very bored at the routine, like Korine said. And I think there is no other profession that is so exciting, so different every day. I became a filmmaker not to die in another profession.
Kracht: I would really like to be a priest.
Are you serious?
Kracht: Yes. I like the outfit. I don't know any priests but it seems nice.
Finsterworld: I would be gone, then.
Kracht: Yes, you would be gone. But I think it would be quite fulfilling to be a Catholic priest. In the Vatican.
Korine: I don't care. I wouldn't die [if I couldn't make films]. I'd be happy. I don't care. I would make paintings. I'd mow my grass. It doesn't matter to me. I would just live life. Be a criminal maybe. It's the same thing, being a director and being a criminal. It's the same exact thing. It's the same part of your brain. I think, like a criminal. It'd be a small step. I really wouldn't care.
Collins: A drummer. A singer. Pop star. Actually I was a bingo caller. For two years, before I became an artist. At the Sheppard's Bush Mecca. A huge, 2,000 seater bingo hall. I would go in at 11, open the doors and crowds of people would rush in, lie to their husbands and wives about where they were going and spend all their money on the fruit machines and play the bingo. I had to play a tape: "Now, it's time/to come to the show." They'd all come down, get their docker pens out and I'd do bingo. It was really repetitive and quite harsh atmosphere: I would probably still be there. That's where I applied to art school from. From the bingo. I might still be at the Mecca.