Eye on the Oscars: Foreign Language

They’ve made nearly 60 feature films between them, but directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Lasse Hallstrom and Kim Ki-duk show few signs of slowing down.

The four filmmakers represent the most veteran entrants in this year’s foreign-language Oscar race. Hailing from Italy, Sweden and South Korea, respectively, their names should be familiar to cinephiles and Academy members alike: Paolo, 81, and Vittorio, 83, saw their Cannes winner “The Night of the Shooting Stars” entered in the Oscar race in 1982; Hallstrom, 66, has garnered multiple noms for films such as “My Life as a Dog” and “The Cider House Rules”; and Kim, 52 — the youngest of the bunch, but the most prolific — received much acclaim for “Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall … and Spring,” which was his country’s Oscar submission in 2003.

After so many films, you might think it’d get easier. But these seasoned pros still experience plenty of obstacles, both creatively and financially. “Every time I start working on a new film, I always start from zero, so it is always a challenge,” says Kim, whose 18th feature film “Pieta,” a blistering drama about a thug and his would-be mother, won the Venice Film Festival’s top prize. “For me, an original story, a new film, is what I struggle with most.”

Similarly, Paolo Taviani speaks about each movie being “a completely new adventure. So it doesn’t make it easier.”

In their latest, Italy’s submission “Caesar Must Die,” which observes real-life inmates in an Italo prison performing Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” the filmmakers felt like newbies again. “We were making this movie with the same kind of spirit, the same kind of lack of awareness and the same kind of boldness as our first movie,” Taviani says.

For Hallstrom, on the other hand, filmmaking has become a smoother process. “I think I know more tricks now than when I started out,” he says. “And I don’t need to be in control as much, because I also trust myself as an editor.”

But it’s gotten more difficult for Hallstrom to find the “prestigious” material, such as “Chocolat” or “Cider House Rules,” that he’s cultivated throughout his career. “It’s harder to find the work you love,” he says, “because the mid-size budget movies with ambitions have been drastically cut, but there’s still lots of directors wanting to work on them.”

Partly due to those circumstances, Hallstrom traveled back to his home country to make Sweden’s Oscar entry “The Hypnotist,” about a police detective who enlists the help of a hypnotist to solve a gruesome murder case. In addition to relishing the opportunity to work with his wife, actress Lena Olin, in their mother tongue, the thriller also allowed him the chance to demonstrate his versatility as a filmmaker. “I wanted to prove that I don’t always have a soft heart,” he says. “I love crossing genres.”

In Italy, the Tavianis have struggled with changes in the industry that have made it harder to make movies. In the wake of the global economic crisis and the country’s austerity measures, “the cuts have been particularly tough,” says Paolo.

For Kim, who has never enjoyed much backing from South Korea’s more established film industry, recent technological changes have helped. Going digital, he says, has allowed him both more autonomy from corporate funders as well as the ability to keep making movies.

“Production costs are one of the biggest hurdles I face,” he says. “So using digital cameras have provided such advantages.” “Pieta,” for example, was shot on the Canon Mark II SLR camera, over just 12 days, with a crew of 20, and a budget of only about $100,000.

Hallstrom also welcomes the advantages of digital cinema. “It feels like I’ve been practicing the technique my whole life,” he says, noting that on his first feature, he shot more than 100 hours of film, sometimes with two cameras.

“It really suits me,” he continues, “because I like to work with lots of improvisation and then distill that into honest performances. And now I am able to roll that camera for 40 minutes without having to add additional costs.”

“Caesar Must Die” was also made digitally — a first for the Tavianis. Unfamiliar with the freedom and low cost of shooting digitally, however, Paolo says, “We suddenly felt completely free to do what we wanted: We never said ‘cut.’ But when we went into the editing room, we cursed digital, because we were faced with too many opportunities.”

If such shifts may have been initially daunting, the octogenarian filmmakers are persevering. As Taviani says, “We survived in the past, we survive in the present, and we will survive in the future.”

Eye on the Oscars: Foreign Language
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