While the coronavirus pandemic has shut down productions around the world, forced cinemas to shutter and film festivals to cancel their gatherings, folks in the worldwide film industry are stilll pushing forward with their art, ideas and hopes for creations after the pandemic has eased. Variety talked to a handful of international directors about their latest works, partnerships and collaborations, how they’re coping with the current situation, and even what they are watching right now. Most have films that were headed to major spring and summer film festivals, while others saw their works being pulled from screens and sent to VOD. Still others have hopes that their productions will make it to fall and winter festivals. But all the filmmakers see hope for the future of cinema.
Helmer-scribe Marcos Carnevale, best-known for his international hits “Corazon de Leon” and “Elsa y Fred,” has so far emerged unscathed from natural disasters. On Jan. 7, the first day of filming his latest dramedy “El Cuartito” in Puerto Rico, a 6.8-magnitude earthquake struck, followed by some 80 aftershocks during the shoot. He decided to incorporate the tremors in his film, which revolves around five people from disparate backgrounds who are detained together in a security screening room at Puerto Rico’s airport.
“It was one of the best experiences I have ever had, thanks in large part to my producers Cynthia Wiesner and Fernando Sumaza,” says Carnevale. He also had to contend with a crew he didn’t know and actors from different countries, led by Spain’s Mario de la Rosa (“The Night Manager,” “Money Heist”).
Despite the shaky start, the film is now in post and is slated for an autumn release. Confined at home in Argentina, he’s been watching his favorite series “Tales From the Loop” and “The Outsider.”
“I think the world as we knew it before COVID-19 no longer exists,” he says. “I wouldn’t say that we’re going back to normal, I think we’re going to enter a new or at least a modified world.”
Whether the industry will ever go back to the way it was remains to be seen. “We’ve all been invited to an introspective journey that has made us look closely at our lives and, in many cases, make changes; we are going to have to adapt to another way of filming and watching movies.”
What won’t change is what he likes to explore in his films: “I am interested in humanity, in people and their complexities,” he says, citing Federico Fellini and Argentine filmmakers Leonardo Favio and Adolfo Aristarain as his muses. “Cinema, in addition to entertaining, has to strongly impact people’s lives.”
— ANNA MARIE DE LA FUENTE
Egyptian director Mohamed Diab was in the U.S., working on “Amira” in post when the pandemic lockdown began. He and his wife and producing partner, Sarah Goher, hunkered down near Detroit with their two children.
There, he has been home-schooling his kids while writing and learning new skills.
“I was hoping to take [“Amira”] to Cannes, but due to coronavirus the film is not finished yet,” says Diab, whose “Clash” played in Un Certain Regard in 2016.
“Amira” is based on a real phenomenon in which Palestinian prisoners in Israel smuggle out their semen so that they may have children. One such child seeks out her real dad.
“A lot of my stories, I find them on the news. This was something I read about and then I saw a whole documentary about it. I was fascinated by it. I’d never heard about something like this in my life. As a writer, I just kept thinking, what if something went wrong. The idea gave me a platform to tell a story about that area from a completely different angle. A story that is not what we’re all used to, about politics and stuff, no. It’s a human story, but the best thing about the story is the way we are handling it. We never delve into the specifics of the place. … The story could have happened in any place; that’s what makes it universal.”
His other two projects are a film “about a virus that infects the world and affects people’s lives” and another about a refugee superhero, which is waiting to go into production with Blumhouse. “I love that story, no one has ever approached the superhero genre from this angle. I love entertaining movies that at the same time say something.”
— SHALINI DORE
German filmmaker Nora Fingscheidt’s feature debut, “System Crasher,” about Benni, an out-of-control 9-year-old girl, won a Silver Bear at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival, and eight German Film Awards.
Fingscheidt is now directing an untitled drama, starring Sandra Bullock, for Netflix. Christopher McQuarrie adapted the script from the British miniseries “Unforgiven”; Graham King is producing with Bullock and Veronica Ferres. Fingscheidt is in Vancouver, where the project was shooting before the coronavirus lockdown.
“System Crasher,” in which the titular character bounces from government safety net to government safety net because of her extreme behavior, asks a lot of its young protagonist.
“The biggest challenge was working with Helena [Zengel], who was 9 years old at the time, and guide her carefully through this process without putting her at any risk. We had six months of preparation and then five months of filming. It was very intense, but also a lot of fun.”
Although it was a surprise hit and received critical acclaim, it was a challenge to mount the production.
“The most important decision was to invest in shooting days instead of equipment or a big crew,” says Fingscheidt. “We were a low-budget production with a small team. Yet, for the movie, it was just right, because the small crew grew together like a family and really believed that Benni’s story had to be told.”
Fingscheidt credits her editor as the person she leaned on most.
“My most important creative collaborator is the editor Stephan Bechinger, with whom I have worked on six projects so far. We usually start our work during the development process. In general, I prefer working with the same people more than once and I like working with friends because after all we spend quite a big amount of our lifetime together.”
Besides the Bullock series, “One of the projects I am working on is with writer Martin Behnke about a true story that happened in Germany in the early ’60s,” she says. “I wanted to turn this family story into a script for the last 12 years and I think the time for this passion project has finally come.”
Despite the setback of the pandemic, “I am with my family in Vancouver, spending most of my time in the editing room or homeschooling. Also, it is a good time to read scripts, books and catch up on films and series that I missed.
“For me personally, things will be ‘normal’ when I can travel to Europe and visit my family. Besides that, I don’t know. Let’s hope for the best and that we, as human beings, can learn from this crisis.”
— LEO BARRACLOUGH
As with many, French filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve has been personally affected by the pandemic on a deeply personal level, having lost her father to COVID-19.
“There is nothing really positive I can be saying about these times,” Hansen-Løve says. “I find them quite awful. They have not been inspiring at all for me. From the start it’s been impossible to imagine using the situation as an ‘opportunity’ to write, or create. I have been mostly stunned, paralyzed. Maybe these times will look more inspiring to me one day, but for now it’s about sadness and grief. And the hope that if not for me, something good for the world will result from it that will give a meaning to it.”
Hansen-Løve has built a career listening to her instincts and making beautiful, personal films including “Eden” and “Father of My Children.” She has also done so against the odds; when asked about challenges, she notes, “Overall they all have to do with the exigency of preserving my voice in the brutal context of the film industry. It’s always a battle to get the kind of films I do financed, and you can lose a lot of energy — and self-confidence — in the struggle.”
Her next film, “Bergman Island,” was shot entirely on Farö, Sweden — where auteur Ingmar Bergman lived out his final years. It was far from Hansen-Løve’s own home and country. “The challenges I faced had to do with both this remoteness from my own world and this intimacy with Bergman’s,” she says. “Also, the shooting took place during two successive summers, which raised many questions. One of them was: how do I deal with the fact that I am not exactly the same person in 2018 and in 2019?”
The film reunites Hansen-Løve with collaborators she’s been working with for years, from producers Charles Gillibert, Philippe Martin and David Thion, to the crew. “The editor Marion Monnier, the first AD Marie Doller, the script supervisor Clémentine Schaeffer and the sound engineers Vincent Vatoux and Olivier Goinard are people I have been working with for almost 15 years,” she notes. “That means a level of trust and complicity that is extremely valuable.” She also notes her strong relationship with her DP Denis Lenoir, whom she met as an actor 20 years ago on the shooting of “Late August, Early September.”
Kathleen Hepburn’s 2019 drama “The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open,” which nabbed best Canadian film honorable mention at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival and was picked up by Ava DuVernay’s Array, was nearing the end of its theatrical run when the coronavirus pandemic reared its ugly head.
“We had to cancel several screenings, but we were already streaming on Netflix in English-language territories outside of Canada, and then were able to stream on iTunes, Pik TV, Google Play and VOD shortly after we went into lockdown,” says the writer-director. “The film will also be on CBC Gem later on this year.”
Hepburn co-wrote and directed “The Body Remembers” with Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, a member of both the Kainai First Nation and Norway’s Sámi community. Hepburn describes the film, which centers on a pregnant domestic-abuse victim, as “logistically and emotionally very challenging.”
“We were creating a film to be shot almost entirely in one shot, working with a lead actor who had never acted before in her life but had a personal connection to the material, which was complex and potentially triggering,” says Hepburn.
As COVID-19 shuttered the film biz and Hepburn retreated into quarantine, she found that the alone time complemented her creative process.
“As a writer, I feel very privileged to be able to embrace isolation as a part of my process, and to have a safe space to live and work,” says Hepburn. She’s writing two dramatic series, one about the housing crisis in Vancouver and the other “a hybrid teen-coming-of-age anthology-cum-detective series.”
“There’s always work to be done and never enough time in the day,” she says. “I’ve also found, when I do leave the house now, my emotional state seems to be heightened — the sight of the trees overhead, the rise of the river, the feel of the rain, all has an intoxicating effect.”
— MALINA SAVAL
In mid-March, like the rest of the world, Poland closed down in an effort to contain the coronavirus. One victim was filmmaker Jan Komasa’s “The Hater,” which had been released in Poland by Kino Świat on March 6 to critical praise and strong ticket sales.
Now instead of more press tours, Komasa, who earned an Oscar nomination this year for “Corpus Christi,” is hunkered down with his wife and 11-year-old son in their Warsaw home.
“I decided to make a bucket list for my family so at least when the pandemic ends we will emerge more educated about film,” he says.
He and his wife are going through the French New Wave oeuvre while he has introduced his son to Monty Python and the documentaries of Krzysztof Kieślowski.
“The Hater,” which follows a young social-media expert at a PR agency where he discovers that he excels in the online manipulation of political campaigns, generated a lot of buzz before its release. Komasa even graced the cover of Newsweek Polska in a story about the “virus of hate” growing in Poland.
The film was also scheduled to screen in competition at the Tribeca Film Festival, but that too was cancelled; however, it did win the fest’s prize for international narrative. Netflix has snapped up worldwide rights to the pointed drama.
“ ‘The Hater’ [is] a very rare model of financing in Europe,” Komasa says. “There’s no public financing at all. It was produced only using private funding,” including private TV station TVN and Canal Plus Polska.
He and screenwriter Mateusz Pacewicz were intent on making the film as independently as possible: They didn’t want anyone reading it beforehand and giving notes or diluting the film’s themes.
“We were making a provocation,” he says. “We wanted to show everybody that we could make an ambitious independent film, and we could get to a festival like Tribeca’s caliber and we could make money. And [the lockdown] was the worst thing that could happen to our producers.”
So while he guides his family through film history he’s also reading tons of scripts, novels and even comic books, prepping his first English-language feature with producers Nick Wechsler and Steven Schwartz.
— CAROLE HORST
In early March when the coronavirus pandemic hit Italy, Susanna Nicchiarelli was in Rome finishing post on “Miss Marx,” her English-language drama starring Romola Garai as Karl Marx’s younger daughter Eleanor, a 19th-century political activist and proto-feminist.
“We were doing the last minor changes before closing the editing … then everything stopped,” she recounts.
Aside from impediments due to its being a European co-production — the sound mixer and sound editor are in Belgium — “it was impossible to concentrate on the film [and] not think about what was going on,” she says.
After a while the film stopped being a major concern; other things became more important.
“The whole tragedy of people dying … and also I was very worried for my children,” she says. “For the kind of world they were going to be living in.”
Nicchiarelli now also worries about those being hit hard economically, such as “people who for many different reasons haven’t been able to get help from the government.”
Roughly two months later, as lockdown has started to lift, she watched “Miss Marx” again with a clearer mind, and “had a beautiful feeling, because I thought the film was still very right for the moment. Maybe even more than before.”
That’s because it “deals with universal issues: condition of workers and poverty … and social injustice … and also love, since it’s a very tragic love story.”
If there is a positive side of the pandemic for her, it’s that “there are a lot of people helping other people.”
Now she can’t wait for “Miss Marx” to be shown “in a theater with lots of people, who will be able to discuss and criticize it, and participate and share the experience of the film together, because that’s what it was made for.”
— NICK VIVARELLI
Franka Potente’s feature debut, “Home,” takes place in an economically downtrodden California desert town. That might seem like an unusual choice of locale for the writer-director, who spent much of her earlier career as an actor bouncing between gigs in Hollywood and her native Germany, but per Potente, small towns are much the same all over.
“I grew up, myself, in a small town and was surrounded by that universe all my life,” she says. “Of course, you could say a small town in Germany is different from a small town in California, but crazily, some things are universally the same: The prejudice, the stagnation, the surprising amount of people who are still there when you return 20 years later, the families everyone knows. …For this story, I was looking for a setting that was simple, that was something I didn’t have to research or invent. This was something I felt I knew intuitively, emotionally.”
The film, which stars Jake McLaughlin, Kathy Bates and Aisling Franciosi, is an intimate character study focusing on a man who returns to his small town to care for his ailing mother two decades after being sent to prison for a brutal crime. Potente had precious little time to shoot it, though she came armed with DP Frank Griebe (whom she first met on her acting breakthrough, Tom Tykwer’s “Run Lola Run”), as well as plenty of notes on directing from her time in front of the camera.
“One thing that I learned from Tom Tykwer is the ability to praise,” she says. “You would think, that’s so simple, it costs nothing, but sometimes we forget. It’s good to really celebrate things and let people know, ‘hey, that was awesome.’ And then that also makes it easier when you need to be critical and say, ‘OK, this needs to be done differently.’”
Though the film was locked and loaded for the 2020 festival season, Potente says she’d rather hold out on releasing it until the old ecosystem starts to make a comeback.
In any case, she has plenty to keep her busy; she recently finished another screenplay, and she’s currently at work on yet another, a thriller. But to be clear, she doesn’t want to give off the impression of Shakespeare-writing-Lear productivity during quarantine: “To be very honest with you, every Sunday I get from 9 to 12 [to write]. Once a week. That’s it. Because we’re homeschooling, and I’m not an evening writer. And by then I’m just mentally exhausted, and my inner compass is a little bit off.”
— ANDREW BARKER
Bassam Tariq thought he’d be back in New York by now, operating the butchery he co-owns while celebrating the successful Berlin launch of his narrative feature debut, “Mogul Mowgli.” Instead, he has been holed up in Texas with his young family, observing Ramadan and conducting Zoom meetings with industry folk in L.A. while the pandemic runs its course.
While grateful for the reception his film, produced by U.K. based Pulse Films, received in Berlin, its distribution is unsettled at this point. “We’re looking at a few offers, and we haven’t made a call yet because I think the market is changing dramatically, so it’s also affecting what decisions we make,” says Tariq.
In “Mogul Mowgli,” Riz Ahmed plays Zed, a British-Pakistani rapper on the verge of a big break before illness sidelines him. An outgrowth of the friendship between the two men, it reflects Tariq’s global approach to filmmaking.
Ahmed and Tariq bonded over the filmmaker’s first film, a Pakistan-set doc called “These Birds Walk,” while the actor-musician was making “The Night Of” in New York. Tariq directed Ahmed’s music video “Mogambo” in 2018 before collaborating with him on “Mogul Mowgli.”
Tariq, who was born in Pakistan, immigrated to Queens when he was a toddler, moving with his family to the Houston suburbs when he was 11, eventually becoming a U.S. citizen. For him, setting “Mogul Mowgli” in London, rather than New York made for a more compelling story about Muslims and the South Asian diaspora. “I’m fascinated by these conversations we can have globally,” he says.
He’s working on his next feature and TV projects and itching to do a documentary about Muslim immigration. “Mogul Mowgli” deals with illness and identity as an artist, themes with extra resonance now. “It’s this feeling of, how will you ever make it out, and who are you outside of this?”
— DIANE GARRETT