The Live of Others: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck interview
We caught up with Oscar-winning director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck when he was in London to talk about his superb debut feature film, The Lives Of Others. Set in Berlin in 1984, it details the secret and underhand actions taking place during the reign of the German Democratic Republic. von Donnersmarck gave us the low-down on living in a monastery, winning an Oscar and heeding the words of Kiefer Sutherland.
LOVEFiLM: Have you been surprised by the reception you've had to the film and the sheer mass of critical acclaim?
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck: I worked on the film for such a long time, over six years, that it seems to have happened so gradually. I could see from the script that it got strong reactions from the actors, and I thought well if I can get these actors on board then maybe I could make it work. When we were on set I thought this could really become something special and when I was editing my hopes were getting higher...
But of course there were set backs, no distributor wanted to take it on at first. They thought it was too intellectual and people wouldn't be interested in seeing such a film - but when I did eventually get a distributor they really believed in the film.
You know, the heat was turned up so gradually that it never felt like everything was going crazy. It's not as if this happened over night, it took a lot of years to get here. You know there's that saying, 'it takes ten years to become and overnight success', well in my case it took eleven.
LF: You not only directed the film but you wrote the script, how long did it take to write?
It took about 3 years. I had the idea in a flash - as it always happens with ideas - and I wrote it down in an evening, with the basic plot and story structure. And then I started researching and that took about a year and a half. I talked to a lot of people who had never spoken about these things before.
And then I called my father's brother who is the abbot of a monastery and I said to him ' I have to write my first draft, can you give me a monk's cell for a month?' and he said 'yeah sure'. So I went into the Vienna woods to this beautifully structured monastery, with my power book and there, in four weeks, wrote most of the first draft. I had to return to the modern-civilised world with about 20 or so pages left to write and that took me another one and half months or so [laughs], so you're ten times as effective in a monastery then you are outside…
LF: Where did the decision come from to focus on the GDR in 1984?
It wasn't really about the GDR so to speak. I had the idea of a man who changes because he listens in on people whose ideologies he disagrees with and how he changes through that, and how he starts to protect his enemy because he realises that they're not really the enemy. So I had that basic plot structure but I didn't know then that I wanted to set it in 1984, all those things only really emerged from the research. It was more an idea that choose my head rather then me choose an idea about making a film about the GDR.
LF: How does it feel to receive an Oscar for the film, has must have opened many doors for you?
Well of course, you're suddenly part of a very elite film club [laughs]. Everybody takes an Oscar seriously, perhaps of course Marlon Brando, it's quite an amazing group of people who choose the awards. I saw some lists - unofficially - but I think they're pretty accurate, of who is a member of the academy of motion picture and sciences and every single one of those names is known. To think that all these people would think that I made the best non-English language film it really is an honour, especially since there were a lot of films that I really liked this year. The whole event was so fun and glamorous! People always complain about the fact that the dresses are reported on too much, but everyone makes such an incredible effort - it's the ultimate fashion parade, and even that is a lot of fun! [laughs]
LF: Where's it sitting in your house, pride of place on the mantle piece?
Well, it has to be quite high-up as I have two small children and it wouldn't have a very long life span if I had it anywhere in their reach, so I have it on my bookshelves.
LF: What do you think it is, essentially, about the film that has struck a chord with so many people on such a global scale?
If I had to say one thing I would probably say good actors. I think performances can only be brave if the psychology behind it makes sense - that's the key.
Actually I was watching on youtube this morning, a show where Keifer Sutherland was being interviewed by David Letterman and he asked him if his father had ever given him any advice as actor. And he said, 'yes, my father gave me one piece of advice, that I'm spending all my life trying to heed. It was that to be truthful as an actor you have to really follow what you feel. So for example, in the script it says you're supposed to cry, but you don't feel like crying, then don't do it, play the scene the way that you feel.'
I think that a good script would somehow lead people in a certain way, that they would feel like crying when it said that they should be. So, I think the things we are talking about are interlinked; you shouldn't have to need to.
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