Variety approached five foreign-language directors who have been to the awards circuit before about the changes in their lives and their show business careers since their previous visit to the kudos rodeo whether it was five or 15 years earlier. For some technological advances were in the forefront while for others it was financing. We also asked them if they were interested in taking a path others had before them to Hollywood. The answers may surprise, or enlighten as each director has a unique take on new technology, recognition and of course the motivation and inspiration behind their current films.
There was a time in the Oscar foreign-language category’s not-too-distant history when the nominating committee fell for films about the sentimental bond between a grandfatherly old man and the bright-eyed boy he takes under his wing — feel-good films such as “Kolya” and “Cinema Paradiso.”
Ruben Ostlund’s “The Square” is not that movie. In fact, it’s very nearly the opposite, hinging on the standoff between Christian (Claes Bang), the liberal-minded director of a Swedish art museum, and the immigrant child he falsely accuses of stealing his wallet. It’s a confrontation that goes unresolved, leaving Christian (and the audience) to cope with his guilt.
That’s hardly the formula for an Oscar nominations, and yet, Östlund came close (he was shortlisted in 2015) with his provocative film “Force Majeure.” Plus, the jury at this year’s Cannes clearly responded to Ostlund’s provocation (which includes a scene in which a performance artist takes his monkey-imitation shtick too far among a crowd of donors wearing gowns and tuxedos, which the director knew would premiere in a room full of people wearing gowns and tuxedos), awarding “The Square” the Palme d’Or.
“This chief curator, Christian, can support these humanistic values when it comes to the art museum, but I wanted to make it a little bit harder in his own life,” Ostlund says. “I see myself as Christian very much. I don’t look at him as hypocritical. I thought it was interesting to ask, how do we deal with these ideals on a practical level? I think that when we look at situations where we fail, we can actually understand a lot about ourselves.”
“The Square” toys with this idea in various ways, using a relatively simplistic narrative (involving the theft of Christian’s wallet and its consequences) as a frame of sorts in which to pose a number of uneasy sociological micro-dramas, inspired either by personal experience or anecdotes shared by friends (the scene in which the crowd reacts as a man with Tourette Syndrome disrupts a museum interview actually happened at a play Ostlund attended). Through it all, the common theme is the disconnect between how liberal-minded people aspire to behave and where they fall short when tested by real-life situations.
The Oscar, like all consensus prizes, tends to shy away from confrontation, although there are exceptions, such as Luis Buñuel, whose 1972 winner “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” Ostlund looks to as an inspiration (though he prefers the title to the film itself). By setting “The Square” in the museum world, Ostlund underscores how art is supposed to challenge — something the director sets out to accomplish in terms of both content and form (hence the loose plot interrupted by uncomfortable real-time sketches).
The version released in theaters has been tightened slightly since Cannes.
“I was provoked by these people saying, ‘It’s too long, it’s too long,’” Ostlund says. “I thought, ‘But come on! Your kids are watching “Harry Potter” and it’s three hours long.’ As soon as it comes to adult cinema, and you’re dealing with contemporary things that are important, then you don’t have two hours and 25 minutes. So I said in the interviews that I am going to make the film longer.”
According to Ostlund, he held five test screenings after Cannes in which he studied the crowd’s reaction (a process he swears by in order to perfect the pacing), after which he made a few small adjustments. “Actually, the film is shorter now.”
After the near-nomination of “Force Majeure,” Ostlund was approached about making a studio movie in Hollywood. “I was offered ‘Passengers,’” confides the director, who was intrigued by what he describes as its “existential setup,” though the producers rejected his take, which imagined Chris Pratt’s character as a father, debating whether to wake his wife and kids, or else choose another woman to be his companion. “Because then it becomes so much more interesting,” he says.
Although open to the idea, Ostlund is somewhat wary of working in Hollywood, especially after what happened to fellow Swedish helmer Tomas Alfredson on “The Snowman,” and prefers to develop material through his production company, over which he has control. For now, he teases just the milieu (the fashion industry, where his photographer wife works) and title of his next project, “Triangle of Sadness,” which refers to the wrinkles that appear between the brows of those who have suffered in life — nothing that a little Botox can’t fix, he teases.
MICHAEL R. ROSKAM
For anyone who wants proof of what an Academy Award nomination can do for a foreign filmmaker, look no further than “The Racer and the Jailbird” director Michael R. Roskam.
In 2011, Roskam’s film “Bullhead” was selected as Belgium’s official Oscar submission, and the director flew to Los Angeles to support the film — a trip full of screenings and soirées that led to landing an agent, pitching at various studios and meeting one of his filmmaking gods, Michael Mann.
“‘Heat’ is one of my favorite movies. I think I must have seen it 20 times,” says Roskam.
Mann had been tapped by Academy foreign language committee chair Mark Johnson to serve on his elite selection team, and by all reports, Mann was blown away by “Bullhead,” giving a glowing speech on its behalf.
“He became a kind of mentor, the person who represents your film at the Oscar ceremony when you get the certificate,” Roskam says.
Not all foreign directors want to work in Hollywood, but for Roskam, meeting both Mann and Johnson immediately opened that door.
Together, the trio hatched a television project for HBO, tentatively called “Buda Bridge,” to be shot in Belgium by Roskam with “Bullhead” star Matthias Schoenaerts.
For various reasons, the project fell through, but not before giving Roskam a chance to work with his idol.
“I had an office there, and I was constantly writing and analyzing [with Mann]. It was like some kind of master class in series writing,” Roskam says. “He had just made ‘Luck,’ which I thought was just fantastic.”
At that point, Roskam already had the idea for “Racer and the Jailbird,” about an amour fou between two daredevils: She drives dangerously fast for a living, he robs banks.
But all the Oscar momentum created another opportunity that Roskam seized first: Fox Searchlight was looking for someone to direct crime thriller “The Drop,” from a Dennis Lehane script.
Roskam stuck around and made that movie in Boston, learning how the American film production system works.
“Filmmaking here is a different culture,” Roskam says. “You’ve got to fight for your ideas, but you also have to be aware that the producers are part of the makers’ team, and you share control with them. A lot of European directors don’t know how to deal with it. But in the end, ‘The Drop’ turned out exactly the way I wanted it.”
Among the multiple projects Roskam is developing at the moment, he is writing an original script for Searchlight.
Looking back, Roskam thinks it’s for the best that he didn’t tackle “Racer and the Jailbird” immediately after “Bullhead,” since the experience of working on “The Drop” made it possible for him to raise the money for what, by Belgium standards at least, is a relatively expensive film.
Plus, he now had the confidence to stage several bravura set pieces, including a spectacular, nearly all-practical, single-shot armored car heist that rivals nearly any scene in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” — although, of course, it was Mann he was thinking of.
“For me, it’s like ‘Heat’ turned inside-out, in a way,” Roskam says. “In ‘Heat,’ we see crime under pressure from love, whereas in ‘Racer and the Jailbird,’ it’s the other way around: It’s a love story that is receiving pressure from crime.”
Schoenaerts plays a thrill-seeking bandit who falls for a sexy young racecar driver (“Blue Is the Warmest Color” star Adèle Exarchopoulos), but as the couple gets serious, his criminal activity threatens to sabotage their romance.
Roskam saw the movie as an homage to film noir, one that reached back to the roots of the genre.
“At the very origin of film noir, before things turned all hard-boiled, the films were melodramatic love stories,” he says, though he was also determined to give it a slick, 21st century twist, while also tipping his hat to the likes of directors such as Jean-Pierre Melville and Claude Lelouch and his swoon-worthy classic “A Man and a Woman.”
“This film is my fantasma of absolute love,” says Roskam, explaining how the script was inspired by a rash of over-the-top real-life robberies in and around Brussels during the 1980s and ’90s.
“They all had these notorious love stories, so the ladies were always present, and their lives were often just as interesting as the bandits.”
The golden globe win and Oscar nomination for 2014’s “Leviathan” became an opportunity for helmer Zvyagintsev “to move forward as an artist and feel freer in terms of the scope of the projects that I pursue,” he says. “Not that I was ever constrained in that respect, but still, it helps me think about bigger stories and this is the only way that awards affect my work.”
His producer Alexander Rodnyansky says: “The screenplay award in Cannes, multiple prizes at other important film festivals, the Golden Globe win and the Oscar nomination that ‘Leviathan’ received opened a lot of doors for us. First and foremost it made our negotiations with potential investors, both private and institutional, significantly easier.
“It allowed us to ditch [Russian] state financing altogether and structure ‘Loveless’ as a European co-production with some of the financing provided by a private investor, Gleb Fetisov. Also, ‘Loveless’ got much more attention from the press and the distributors than ‘Leviathan’ did. Even before Cannes was over, ‘Loveless’ was sold to almost every country.”
Discussing the state of the film biz in Russia, Zvyagintsev says: “As a director my priority is the level of freedom that is allowed to an artist, so that he can speak freely about the times that he lives in and to tell the truth about it. Both young and established Russian filmmakers made some very important films recently. They weren’t supported by the state, which supports only the films that glorify it, but until the free voice of an artist can be heard, I think it is a duty to speak only the truth.”
Rodnyansky adds: “The Russian film industry is getting in better shape with each year. In 2017 we already had two Russian films crossing the 1 billion rubles [$17 million] benchmark at the box office and another three did over [$8.55 million] at home. Independent filmmaking also got a boost with a couple of really good films that were screened at Russian festivals and got theatrical distribution.
“Overall it seems that Russian filmmakers finally found their way to the local audience. Now the industry is poised for international integration. It is definitely ready for international co-productions for TV or streaming services, and in a few years it might also be ready for feature films.”
Michael Haneke’s “Happy End,” Austria’s submission for in the foreign-language film category, comes five years after his Oscar-winning “Amour.”
Haneke says his latest work, a dark family farce, was inspired by a chilling crime that took place in Japan as well as by some of the themes he explored in “Amour.”
While the role of social media and digital communication is central to the story of “Happy End,” the filmmaker says he’s not judging internet-based technologies but rather simply illustrating their ubiquitousness in modern life.
“You only need to go into a restaurant or a coffee house and look at the people,” Haneke says. “Most people sitting there are not talking to the person across from them but are looking at their phones. It wasn’t my intention to judge social media; it’s simply that it’s become an integral part of life.”
Haneke argues that social media has even taken over the role of the church and confession in particular.
“It used to be that when you did something bad you’d go to a priest, confess and seek forgiveness. Today you go on an online forum and confess there with the same anonymity.”
For Haneke, it is the internet that has had an immense impact not only on today’s society but also on the film industry.
“The internet has changed the world in a manner never before seen in the history of humanity. The invention of the printing press took much longer to change the world. The internet has changed the entire world with such speed — it’s incredible, it’s incomprehensible.”
Digital technologies, and visual effects in particular, have facilitated many aspects of filmmaking, Haneke says, pointing to sequence in “Happy End” that depicts a catastrophic construction site accident.
“We wouldn’t have been able to do that a few years ago.”
Years of success have made it easier for Haneke to make films, particularly in securing financing.
“For me personally, however, it’s not at all easier because my own aspirations grow and its just as difficult for me to make a film now as it was 40 years ago,” the 75-year-old director says.
Director fatih akin is again representing Germany with his Oscar submission “In the Fade” a decade after the country selected his drama “The Edge of Heaven.”
Akin’s latest work, starring Diane Kruger, tackles the issue of neo-Nazi terrorism — a topic the filmmaker had long wanted to explore.
It was the real-life case of the far-right National Socialist Underground (NSU) terrorist cell, which allegedly murdered 10 people, most of them of Turkish or Kurdish origin, and committed 14 bank robberies between 2000 and 2011, that inspired his thriller about a woman seeking vengeance following a race-hate attack.
“For many years the police and the media thought that these crimes were done by the Turkish or Kurdish mafia,” Akin says. “Once it came out that they were done by neo-Nazis, I was very angry. This anger was the motor that drove me to sit down and write.”
Looking for an actress outside Germany’s “usual suspects” and someone who could help the film break out, Akin approached Kruger about the project. “Working with her was a very beautiful experience in every manner.”
Akin has been making films for two decades and he’s seen many changes in the industry. One of the biggest was the transition from 35mm film to digital, namely the ARRI Alexa.
“Also the change from the Steenbeck [flatbed editor] to digital — the first two features I edited with Andrew Bird were done on the Steenbeck. And working now in digital, that was the transformation that I witnessed. That was a revolution. It still is. People like Sean Baker can take their iPhone and go out and shoot and do these masterpieces for almost nothing. That has made film really become an art form.
“The other change is television. Television is really challenging cinema in terms of quality, in terms of quality of writing.”
Looking at his own work today, Akin says, “I have learned that I have to stay with small budgets. Five million [euros] in Germany is a middle budget. I do everything to not cross that line. If films are too expensive, they’re not profitable.”
Leo Barraclough contributed to this report.