BERLIN — On the surface, a film described as a political thriller about 9/11 seems like a strange production choice for a company that presents itself as a supplier of nature, science and history programming.
But there’s a hybrid method to the narrative madness behind Vienna’s Terra Mater Factual Studios, which has just wrapped principal photography on its first theatrical feature, “The Lazarus Protocol.” The pic stars Peter Fonda, Travis Fimmel (“The Experiment”) and Michael Desante (“The Hurt Locker”).
Terra Mater, a wholly owned subsidiary of Red Bull Media House, has a slate for the coming five years that focuses on 100 hours of factual programming for its dedicated weekly slot on Austria’s Servus TV channel — also owned by Red Bull. Also in the pipeline: 10 theatrical films on factual themes.
While theatrical plans include docs such as “Mind Over Matter,” a film following five Paralympic athletes, company chief Walter Kohler, former head of Austria TV network ORF’s nature strand, Universum, is primarily interested in films that combine fact and fiction.
“The goal is to achieve a hybrid of the two genres where you don’t perceive the border between them,” he explains, citing two films prepping for production, “Cry of the Eagle” and “Lighthouse of the Orcas” where crews will spend up to a year in the wild shooting material that then becomes the basis for a dramatic story with actors.
It’s the hybrid element that drew Terra Mater to “Lazarus.” Production partner Thomas Feldkircher, who brought the script to Kohler, calls the film a “factual thriller.” Inspired by the events of 9/11, the film weaves news footage of the terrorist attack and its aftermath into a story of a Navy Seal intelligence agent, Lazarus Fell (Fimmel) who fakes his own death and drops off the grid to pursue a 10-year manhunt for an unnamed terrorist (Desante) responsible for 9/11.
It all plays out as a three-man Kammerspiel — or portrait of lower-middle-class life — shot in 21 days in a disused ironworks outside of Vienna, which substitutes for an abandoned Nazi-era railway station Lazarus uses as his base of operations. The use of archival news material — making up approximately one-third of the film — functions not as illustration, but, as Kohler says, “a protagonist” in the story.
“When you see films that deal with social issues or political issues, they’re couched in layers of fiction and metaphor,” says writer-director Paul Finelli, “but we’re using evidence from the real world, actual news reports, presidents’ speeches, all the stuff that you know because you saw it on TV, and we’re re-imagining the context.”
Kohler says he knew the film would be difficult to finance in the U.S. and the financing came from Terra Mater, Tomcat Prods. (Thomas Feldkirche) and some Austrian state subsidy money. Terra Mater would not be drawn on a budget, and they do their own international sales.
Originally conceived as part of a theme evening for Servus TV for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Terra Mater execs ultimately decided the project would be better served as a feature film.
“Doing a thriller is a departure for us,” says Sophokles Tasioulis, head of cinema and international sales at Terra Mater. “We are still focused on nature, but if we come across something driven by a strong element of reality, (that’s) unusual, we will consider it. We are in a position to take a risk. That speeds up projects; you don’t have to wait for decisions. n