Swiss filmmaker Tim Fehlbaum’s dystopian feature “Tides” is screening in this year’s Berlinale Special section and looking to make a mark at the European Film Market while in town, where Mister Smith Entertainment is handling international sales.
“Tides” has science fiction in its production DNA, co-produced by leading European independent company Constantin, which has established itself among the world’s leading producers of genre cinema with titles like “Resident Evil” and “Monster Hunters” in its catalog, and German Studio Babelsberg, the oldest large-scale film studio in the world and the home of cinema science fiction, where Fritz Lang shot “Metropolis.” Roland Emmerich was also on board as an executive producer, and Munich based BerghausWöbke Filmproduktion (Thomas Wöbke, Philipp Trauer) and Swiss Vega Film AG (Ruth Waldburger) co-produced.
Fehlbaum’s story unspools in a dark and wet future when the privileged few who were able to leave Earth and avoid the consequences of climate change have learned to regret their exodus and begin to wonder what things are like back on the blue dot. To learn more, expeditions are sent from their new colony of Kepler back to Earth, to see if a return is at all realistic. Blake, a young astronaut and one of the brave few willing to embark on the journey, lands and is surprised to discover that small communities still exist, just barely surviving on a water-logged planet.
Fehlbaum co-wrote the original screenplay with Mariko Minoguchi and enlisted one of the world’s top sci-fi cinematographers in Markus Förderer (“Bliss,” “Independence Day: Resurgence”) to give the film its look and feel.
Fehlbaum spoke with Variety about the challenges he faced in filming “Tides,” his green screen allergies and how he found his Blake.
This is your second sci-fi feature set on a not-too-distant future Earth. Is there something about the genre that appeals to you specifically, or were these just the two stories that you wanted to tell and they both happened to take place in dystopian hellscapes?
I try not too much to think about genre when starting to think about a movie. On the other hand, I have to say I like to play with genres, to play with the rules while keeping my approach as authentic as possible. I like to go as far outside the rules of a specific genre as possible while keeping my feet very much on the ground. At the end of the day with “Tides,” our most important rule was to find the authenticity and the physicality in every little bit of our film. It was also important for me that, although often with sci-fi movies you immediately see a lot of green screen scenes, we tried to avoid using green screens as much as possible. I don’t want to downplay the work of the VFX department, who did a great job to stitch together elements that we photographed in reality.
That’s definitely one of the standout aspects of “Tides,” your heavy reliance on practical effects over digital. How did you plan and create the futuristic Kepler settlement, and how much of it was constructed for the film?
For Kepler we built only the two walls you see in the film. Outside the window in that room, we didn’t even use green screen, just clever lighting from my cinematographer Markus Förderer, who I consider one of the best in all of the world. Then for the scene with the Kepler community, that was shot in a building in the middle of my hometown which was constructed by a famous Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron that uses materials in an interesting and futuristic way.
And what about the parts of the film which take place on Earth?
For the outdoor scenes we went to the German Tidelands, which was where the idea for the film started. I’m a very visual director and my ideas often have a visual trigger. I had never been to the Tidelands and having grown up in the Swiss mountains being at the low point of Germany was eye-opening. Looking out at this expanse of water was so interesting because in an hour or so, everything you just saw becomes covered in water. The floods in the film are real, and they come in twice a day. Shooting there was exceedingly difficult because we could never shoot much longer than two or three hours, and I always wanted to keep shooting, but it becomes a question of minutes before the water is at your knees and suddenly up to your chest.
So, you really did go to great lengths to avoid building any of your future in computers.
I am very allergic to green screen shots. I always believe there must be some real elements in movement, especially in the water or fog, how these little water particles in the air move. No computer can ever calculate or copy that. On set they gave me a nickname as the Tropfenregisseur (director of drops). I was obsessed with everything being wet, especially the actors in front of the camera. They were always completely soaked, but so was our team. That was so important to me that I had a guy with a little spray bottle that you use for plants running around spraying everyone. I think, I hope at least, that the audience will feel that coming off screen.
The success of this film, creatively at least, depended heavily on the performance of Nora Arnezeder as Blake, who is in nearly every shot. Can you talk about her casting and what she brought to the production?
Sometimes there may be a lot of discussion about trying to get big names for all the leads in this kind of movie. We were so lucky to get Iain Glen, he was perfect for the part, and of course it’s helpful he is so well known from “Game of Thrones.” Other times, casting is really simple. With Nora it was just the case that during casting she was the best to audition. I knew right away I trusted her to do the best job. She was the one in casting who, when she spoke the dialogues that we wrote, my co-screenwriter Mariko Minoguchi and, we believed those words that we wrote.