One night in Berlin, a young woman from Spain meets a group of local guys while leaving a nightclub. She clicks with one of them, and so she decides to hang out with the group. Instead of being repelled when they attempt to break into a car that isn’t theirs, she’s enticed. They kick off a wild night that involves ominous drug dealers, heist, baby-theft, peril at almost every turn, and more partying. And it’s all captured in one single take.
That’s German director’s Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria in a nutshell. Per the official Director’s Statement, the movie was filmed on April 17, 2014 between the hours of 4:30 AM and 7 AM. The movie’s tagline says it all: “One City. One Night. One Take.” Schipper claims that unlike other one-take movies like Birdman, his was done without tricks or cheats. He and his cast spent about three months preparing their improvised film, and then performed it twice before getting it right (the finished product is, supposedly, the third one-take go).
On the film’s genesis, Schipper said, “The first thought I ever had about this project was that I realized that in my life I would never rob a bank. And I didn’t like that thought.” That m.o. creates a vicarious thrill like no other (usually people see movies because they’ll never experience what they portray). Victoria is astonishing. Its frenetic energy reminds me most of the prodigiously paced Trainspotting. Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s camerawork is unbelievable—shots are composed so well that they look like Grøvlen spent time setting them up, even though you just watched the camera swing and settle where it does. The fluidity is absurd (at one point, the camera switches places with the titular Victoria). More than anything, this movie captures what one of those late-night post-club hangouts feels like (though I can’t say that such a situation has ever led me to grand larceny).
I spoke with Schipper and his star Laia Costa (who plays Victoria) yesterday at New York’s Soho Grand about the making of their film. They are as wild, lively, and European as their film (Laia, like her character, is from Spain). An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.
Gawker: I imagine filming this was like running a marathon. Was it?
Laia Costa: Um…I guess? I’m not sure. I have never thought that.
I just can’t imagine what the feeling was like when he yelled cut after recording this thing for two hours and eighteen minutes.
LC: After doing it, my feeling was, “Do it again, please.”
Why? The adrenalin?
LC: Yeah, I love it. When I knew the third take was a good one and we weren’t going to to anymore, I was like, “Let’s do one more take.”
I kept forgetting the movie was one take. I mean, I’d remind myself, but it’s oddly not flashy about the thing that makes it so compelling. The fluidity of the movement and the composition of the shots were amazing.
Sebastian Schipper: We did rehearse. We did work on this for a long time, but we didn’t block it. We had to go to a deeper core of what this is about. Laia and I spoke on a deeper level than: “What does this scene mean?” or “What does this sentence mean?” What we had to talk about was the core, like the deep, dark undercurrent of what is she made of, essentially. It was the same way [cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen] talked: “What is the essence of this camerawork?” That took away a lot of my superpowers as a director, but honestly if you really look at it, a lot of the superpowers of a director, once you’re in the editing room, sometimes fall flat. Can you micromanage every little thing in the process of making the film? Yes. Is that always good? No.
I think one of the least important things you need for making a film whether you’re an an actor or director is your brain. One of the most important things is your intuition and to get into the flow and really understand. That’s what makes a film radiate. Your brain can get in the way so that you’re controlling everything and eliminate mistakes, so that all of a sudden your job as a director is to always make everything clean.
At the same time, [shooting in a one-take format] was a great, amazing gift: losing a lot and winning way more. It was still a very close call. I know the actors loved all three takes we did, but in my world only the last one is a film. The other two are experiments. If the first or second one-shots would have been the film, we would not be sitting here.
How extensively did you document the process of filming?
SS: We didn’t. We were so busy with everything else. If we would have known we would end up in a situation like this, we could have made a great documentary. There was a little iPhone filming here and there, but on the other hand, there couldn’t have been a documentary. The camera would have picked it up.
How in control did you feel Laia?
LC: I think I had no control at all. We worked before the one takes, we rehearsed a lot, so the actors and the crew knew our roles, and we knew exactly what’s going on in every location. I was completely sure everything was going to be right. We did our homework. You have to remember some technical things, like you have to open the door like this, or stupid things, but this is easy to do.
SS: That was the challenge for the actors and for Sturla: to let control go. But to have that happen while your’e being filmed is a mindfuck. I had to let go, but they had to let go, too.
What is the essence of Victoria?
SS: Honestly, we have not decided. You decide on things, but the true heart will…sometimes I feel like a movie is an organism and that organism can be a little healthy or that organism can be a little sick. But from a certain point on, you have to listen to what the film needs. You have to step down from being the big boss and be like the butler. Sometimes I feel like the film is a big house and I’m the butler. Now, down in the kitchen, I’m the boss, but I have to serve, and I need this whole building to be beautiful and for the people to be happy in it.
So the essence is…I think Julien Green the author…is that even? I’m really bad with quotes but I love to use them all the time. I think he said, “I write a book to read what it is about.” I think there’s a lot of truth to that. You give all your instincts and intuitions to what you believe is right and then it comes back. We knew the essence of the cinematography, we knew the essence of Victoria, but the essence of the film at times only now appears in front of my eyes. I’m reluctant to say it because I don’t want to label it, but I know that one heart that’s beating in this organism is solidarity—love as an act of solidarity, friendship, loyalty. That’s what the film is about: they stick together. And that’s what we did. Our hierarchy was flat.
I expected Victoria to get punished. From the beginning, I thought she was setting herself up to get raped.
SS: A lot of people think that. I wonder if that’s a cultural thing.
LC: But the guys are so sweet!
They break into a car within five minutes of her meeting them!
LC: But at that point, when they break the car, Victoria has had something with Sonne already. It’s not that dark. It’s not that bad.
Did you intend the movie to have the running time that it does?
SS: I wanted it to be a little bit shorter, but there was a time when I had to decide: This is not about time, this is about entertainment. For example, the scene after she plays piano, it had never been this good, because just before we shot the last take, I said to Laia, “Bring in some more stories from the conservatory,” and she said, “But there’s no time because he’s getting his call.” I said, “No, the call is timed after you. I give the cue when I’m feeling you’re through.” That probably added three or four minutes to the scene, and look at the payoff. But most people say the movie doesn’t feel as long as it is.
In the second club scene, you take out the sound and put in the score. Why did you do that?
SS: You like that?
It was my least favorite scene, actually.
SS: Wow, that’s amazing. For a lot of people that’s their favorite scene.
I love the opening [also in the club] so much. It’s so immersive immediately, and such a great way of explaining Victoria’s appeal. Taking the music out the second time pulled me out of the movie. It’s not a cut, but it works like a cut.
SS: You’re right, you’re right. There are two moments in the film when I take the music out. It has nothing to do with mistakes, all these scenes are great. Here’s why I do that: What it creates at the beginning is kind of a feeling like a montage. I have a feeling we are getting closer to the boys. They’re talking, and everyone’s kind of drunk. It is a montage that pretends like time is passing. They’re spending time. I wanted it to feel like they were partying for an hour.
And another thing, and again this is rationalizing after things happen. The decision you make you feel right about and then through interviews you rationalize. If you have the best night of your life, the best vacation or the craziest weekend, it lives within this weekend, but also the memory. Looking back on it might be just as important, the nostalgic memory. There’s a truth to that memory, looking back and having your buddies say, “Dude, you remember when that happened?” For me, these moments are also a memory of that night. It’s almost like Victoria in the future looking back on that night. It’s almost saying: Remember? Remember how we were? Remember how young we were? Remember how crazy we were?
[To Laia] Was this hard at all for you? It seems like you just had a great time.
LC: I did! He’s always saying to journalists, “You cannot do this again, because you’re gonna wet your pants, you’re gonna bleed, and you’re gonna cry and it’s going to be super hard!” For me it was super fun all the time. The three one-takes are great. It was easy! Everyone is like, “How about your pressure on your shoulders?” I’m like, “What pressure, man? Relax, take it easy!” It was easy!
How do you top this?
LC: The thing is this is a very special project, and it’s a very crazy one, and the way we did it was very crazy. I mean, it did not look like a shooting set. The guys were so fucking crazy. It was a great time, it was my first three months living in Berlin, so I was discovering the city, too. And now I’m feeling like, the thing I’ve learned is you have to really put your soul in the projects you are doing to make them really good, like crazy. For that reason, it was easy. It was just having fun and enjoying the things. Everyone on set was worried about the story and the film and the characters, so that was easy for that reason.
SS: A big part of Laia’s talent is to shut off any possibility of anxiety.
That’s like Victoria, too, right? She plunges in headfirst. Are you crazy?
LC: No! Victoria has a background, a very specific one. [Note: She’s a virtuosic pianist who just got kicked out of a conservatory for not being good enough.] That’s what makes her like she is. I’m not. In real life, if I met these guys and they said, “Hey do you want a beer?” I would say, “No! Thank you!”
SS: Victoria is a megalomaniac. The piece she plays on the piano, the “Mephisto Waltz,” it’s supposed to be unplayable. I had a critic in Germany that said, “This is unplayable. It’s a bad idea to have her play this.” I said, “Think about it. That’s who she is. She’s not going through this night because it comes from the outside; it comes from the inside. This night is tapping into her something that has been there before but so far has been taken by the piano. And now this megalomaniac approach to life is ready. It’s off the chain.” That’s why she’s the perfect character for this film. This film is off the chain, not just in expression but off the chain that is normally hooked around the neck of a film. It was beautiful but it was also scary. The chain is also security.
I think what goes for Laia, and I say this only half-joking, is that in another life she could have become an astronaut. Because what they need is grace under pressure. I could totally see her going to space on a crazy mission and coming back and saying, “Oh, it was easy.” But that it was easy for her is her very talent.
LC: And because of the team, too. Everyone!
SS: But that’s just what the astronaut everyone admires would say: “Because of my great team.”
How do you top this, Sebastian?
LC: I’m talking to him [about doing] another one-take movie, but he’s not really...
SS: …Reacting. I would never do it again. It’s a brainless idea. It’s completely brainless.
But you pulled it off.
SS: We were so innocent. We were so innocent about the whole thing. Now we’re not anymore. I got a rush of anxiety in the midst of it. It was like robbing a bank. And I felt like, “Fuck, what have I gotten everyone into? This is going to be so embarrassing. This is impossible. What were you thinking?” You climb a mountain and you look back down and you go, “We could have died!” But when you see the mountain from below you go, “We’re gonna go up there.” I’m not going to go up there again. I did go up there and I let other people maybe now try it. The last 48 hours before the last one-take, I was in agony. I was overwhelmed and at the same time when someone asked me, “What was your favorite moment of shooting this film?” it was those 48 hours. Just before we went into this last one-take, everybody was like [inhales/exhales]. It was great.
Victoria is in select theaters today.