In this series NYC film-journalist, Dana Knight speaks with filmmakers about their work in the context of the wider world
For this edition of Filmmakers and Their Global Lens, The Independent’s special contributor Dana Knight speaks with co-creators about collaboration, acting and more. Knight initially spoke with Alex Holdridge and Linnea Saasen in Toronto in September.
Dana Knight (DK): Could you please introduce the film and tell us what inspired it and how the whole process unfolded.
Alex Holdridge: Meet Me in Montenegro is a love story, it is semi-autobiographical, I co-wrote it and co-directed it with Linnea Saasen. The film follows an American filmmaker as he travels to Berlin where he ends up meeting this woman, a Norwegian dancer, and he has an incredible experience with her. They spend this incredible night together, they have a really strong connection and they decide spontaneously to jump on a train to the Balkans. And it turns into several weeks together and it’s incredibly romantic but it ends quickly and bitterly. She leaves him and only leaves a note saying “Goodbye, let’s end on a high note”. The movie really picks up three years later when the filmmaker is back in Los Angeles and his career is at a major crossroads and he has an opportunity to salvage his career and his film by flying to Berlin and going to a meeting with an actor. And in doing so he runs into Linnea, the Norwegian dancer again. So over a handful of days in Berlin the two reconnect and once again their lives are pulling them apart, she’s heading off to art school and he’s supposed to go back and make his film. And it’s about them connecting over these days in Berlin and resurrecting romance and ideas of travel again.
DK: This is an indie feature but I recognised certain plot-points and reversals of situation that create the same emotional roller-coaster that a Hollywood romance would offer. Was this a conscious choice on your part, have you deliberately structured it according to certain criteria that Hollywood script would be bound to follow?
Linnea Saasen: We shot this over three years and we had a script with a three-act structure. At the very beginning the script had a looser structure but as we worked on it and analysed it and talked about it, it became more compact. It’s also a comment on love and movie-making and it’s also love for movie-making.
Holdridge: I think your observation is an interesting perspective, we haven’t talked about that at all with anyone. The reality is that I was making a film in Hollywood and it fell apart and at that moment in time there really was this idea that romance doesn’t work in movies anymore. A few romantic films fail and […] no one wants to make a romantic film anymore.
DK: Or at least not traditionally romantic, nowadays a romance film would tend to put forward its own ironic view of romance.
Holdridge: Exactly. But this ended up being a very genuine story based on things that happened to us and having the texture of life to it. […] Personally I love romantic films when they seem true. So there is a bit of play with understanding how movies are structured, how romance is structured.
DK: Did you have any films in mind when you wrote and directed this one?In terms of influences…
Saasen: Personally I’m very inspired by a film by Roy Andersson called A Swedish Love Story. It feels very honest and true. Our story doesn’t really look or feel like that maybe. But we strived to find something that’s genuine and try to recreate that. Ingmar Bergman is also a great inspiration. Also the Before Sunset trilogy, it’s about an American falling in love with an European.
Holdridge: For me it was nothing, this one was so loose, such a collaboration. And it was so sprawling, we were shooting so many different stories, there was so much beyond our personal lives and photos and history that it felt like we don’t know what we’re making. But I hope it turns out well.
DK: How did you collaborate at the writing stage? Keeping in mind that this is based on your personal life, were there any disagreements over what goes in and what stays out?
Saasen: It was very natural and organic. When we started writing, it was a very special moment, we were on this trip together and we didn’t really know each other. And at this time both our lives, career-wise, had fallen apart and we were kind of stuck together. And we decided to create this thing, on the train we took from Berlin to the Balkans.
DK: I wasn’t aware that the idea for the film came so early! Basically you thought of making a film based on your encounter immediately after you met.
Holdridge: Yes, we got a little apartment in Sarajevo and we just talked up a hundred different stories. We thought the film would be made up of many stories and ours would just be one of them, that’s how we began. There was this general thing called Berlin Love Stories and it would be told from many different perspectives. By the time we got back to Berlin and started shaping it, it got narrowed down to us and one other couple because we realised it would be huge to include ten stories.
DK: Your initial plan was very ambitious but even having to weave two stories together can raise many problems. What were your thoughts about introducing a second couple in the film, was that an attempt to comment on modern relationships in general or to mirror the tribulations of the main couple?
Holdridge: Each of these couples are looking at love and relationships and ambitions and how they want to live their lives from different angles. Each of them are having obstacles and failures in their personal lives and careers. And they are figuring out what they want to do and having to make that decision. In our case it’s two people coming together for the first time and you have to sacrifice where you’re coming from, what your sense of home is, what your career aims are, your identity that’s wrapped up in that. From the flip side, people that are together for a long time, oftentimes things can start to strain and you have to decide whether to walk away or not and it’s very terrifying. Maybe it’s the right thing to do, maybe not, but in both versions you have to accept a new future and have the energy to rebuild yourself, create a new identity and so on. Looking at love, ambition and failure and how you pick yourself up from that, that was what we were looking at thematically.
DK: On this note, the story of the second couple is very surprising. There is one scene where you think they are so emotionally connected and immediately the following scene contradicts that.
Holdridge: My take is that’s how our life is, how you make decisions sometimes. You’re inching up to making a big decision about your life and you’re consciously not sure what’s motivating you, you want to step away or embrace a relationship. And then you do but all of a sudden you see something that freaks you out and you run away from it. So it’s a process that she’s going through emotionally. She’s subconsciously having to make a decision about which direction she’s going to go in life. And on the surface she might have these rushes of emotion about how she feels about what’s happening but then the other parts come into her mind and she has to make a decision. This is based on things that have happened. And people’s own love stories, our friends’ experiences and the whiplash of emotions and decision-making are part of the story. This is what we were trying to capture.
DK: On the style you chose for the film, how did you collaborate on that, how did you make all the stylistic decisions that go into it?
Saasen: It was quite easy because we’d normally go through all the shots and what we tried to capture and then we’d have a discussion about how we want to shoot it. It was very easy to collaborate because we have the same ideas.
Holdridge: Yes and there was so much to do that it took two people working full-time. We didn’t have a huge crew with tons of people. Our best friend, Robert Murphy, he is the director of photography, he said he could come and live with us and shoot in all these locations and live out of a backpack like we did. So Ineke Hagedorn, our friend and producer, would go and find a location and we’d go and shoot there. And she’d find out about this club that is also an art exhibition and we’d go and speak with them and they’d say yes. So it’s a combination of all these efforts coming together, it’s a conversation I think. We didn’t want it to be this one-sided objectification. There’s so many men in movies, all this ego and machismo. So this is a take on love that’s told from two people.
DK: I know the film was very low-budget but did you actually have any budget at all when you started or it was just you living your lives and making this film with friends who came aboard to help you?
Holdridge: It was a little bit of both. It started off with us putting in a little bit. And we knew we could shoot Jenny and Rupert and we didn’t know how much it was going to cost. And it just kept rolling and rolling, year after year. Then people put in a little bit more…
Saasen: All our friends and family pitched in…
Holdridge: We gave it every penny we had until we were borrowing and our accounts were drained. So it was a very low-budget film but it was a budget that grew over the course of three years.
DK: How come you didn’t try Kickstarter to raise money?
Holdridge: We were thinking of it right before we premiered but all of the sudden we’re in Toronto and we don’t have the time to do it properly. But we might do it afterwards depending on what else we need to do.
DK: Had you had a bigger budget, what would you have spent it on?And how much do you think the film would cost if you were to do it without such pressure on your personal lives?
Holdridge: It would have cost a fortune. […]To do it properly, where you’re counting in flying, renting apartments, having proper post-production and crew, doing all the things that we just did ourselves, it would have cost several million dollars for sure.
DK: Acting-wise, neither of you is a professional actor so how difficult was it to act in a film for the first time?
Saasen: It wasn’t easy. Leaving aside that it’s very easy to have chemistry with Alex…But we’re not professional actors and also acting and directing at the same time makes it difficult to know what is right, you need to think of the frame and you still have to be in the moment of acting. And then you see the scene afterwords and realise that it didn’t really play out as you expected. But the good thing was that we were always there and available, we could reshoot and make it exactly how we wanted.
Holdridge: Yeah, we did cover our mistakes, we made it acceptable. And when you cast someone like Rupert and Jenny it’s magic, you’re just rolling and they look great and they say it beautifully. For us it’s hard and you get to really appreciate actors who can be so present in the moment.
DK: Going back to aesthetics, in the production notes you mention that you didn’t want a hand-held “shoe-gazing aesthetic”, what did you mean by that?
Holdridge: That’s funny because I asked for that to be taken out […]. From the production standpoint, independent films made by contemporary, young filmmakers in general, aim at having a certain aesthetic: I’m just going to go like this, we’re going to shoot hand-held, we’re going to shoot in my apartment, everyone is going to dress like shit, the walls are going to be painted, I’m not going to think about set design…
DK: So this is a filmmaking cliche, you think?
Holdridge: I’m thinking that it’s not living up to the standards of all the filmmakers that came before us, for many generations, from all over the world. You watch an old film, from wherever it may be, the same things they are working on are the same things we’re stressing about. And you’re trying to improve your films: the performance, the story, and from a technical standpoint, the angles, the lens, what’s in the background, the set design. And you so appreciate the language that people are taking their time to capture. From an independent standpoint, we have these tiny cameras, we have access now to all these great lenses, even if we have no money and we’re shooting in very difficult circumstances, on the cliffs of Montenegro, in a sex club in Berlin, at an underground club, in the middle of the Christmas market filled with people. Even though these are difficult places, let’s set the bar where we’re trying to have a respectable language of cinema. So we’re going to put the camera on a tripod, we’re going to move the camera when it’s motivated, we’re going to come from that world of aesthetics. Whether we achieved it or not is another thing…
DK: What’s next for you both?
Saasen: We are developing a TV show that is set in Berlin in 1945 directly after the war. It’s a really fascinating moment in time and the city is divided into four sectors, it’s the beginning of the Cold War and the beginning of the CIA and the KGB so there’s a lot of tension.
Holdridge: It’s called Hour Zero, it’s also a moment in time when after all those years of war, the Russians lost so many people and so did the allies but now they are stuck together trying to be friends. But there’s also a renaissance of culture and sex, the gay scene comes alive, people who had been forbidden to dance for years now can go out and dance, jazz musicians are there and all this mixed with complete brutality and death and mistrust. You couldn’t pitch a more brutal concept!
DK: Sounds like a complete change of tone and genre for you!
Holdridge: Yes, we’ve become quite obsessed with that time period so we’ll see how it progresses but we think it could be quite interesting.
Meet Me in Montenegro premiered at TIFF 2014.
Filmmaker Update: Alex and Linnea have recently struck a theatrical deal with Orchard in the U.S and the film will come out sometime in 2015 in theaters.