2017 was not the first visit Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska from the Nature Theater of Oklahoma had made to the festival steirischer herbst but this time, inspired by the genre of the Heimatfilm, equipped with two Super 8 cameras and accompanied by a group of non-professional actors and volunteer local helpers, they searched the forest and mountain landscape of Upper Styria for film motifs and vestiges of Elfriede Jelinek. Jelineks powerfully eloquent novel provided the literary basis for the film project DIE KINDER DER TOTEN, where the American performance artists stage a gruesomely eccentric march of the undead in silent film format.
Die Kinder der Toten is a very interesting hybrid project in which theatre, performance, literature and film merge into one another. Its
not your first project that combines performance and filmmaking. What does the medium film add to your work as performance
KELLY COPPER: Film has always been a big inspiration for us, and our connection to it is old and deep. We used to live pretty much next
door to Anthology Film Archives in New York, and saw everything from silent film through the 1960s avant garde works of Jack
Smith, Ken Jacobs, Andy Warhol, Tony Conrad, Jacques Rivette, etc
their work was a continuous reminder that you could
have poor means (broken cameras, stolen film, borrowed costumes, untrained actors
) and still set a high standard for
the work itself. What film allows us in particular as performing artists is a way of capturing and preserving accident, inspiration,
singular poetic gifts of nature, of chance in theater you always have to be able to repeat. Theater is about trying
to keep everything alive in the moment, but you must repeat it from night to night. Working with film has allowed us to capture
once in a lifetime, one moment in time those magic inspirational things that usually just happen in rehearsal when
youre working on a strictly theater piece when we record them on film or video, we can actually incorporate them
precisely into the work itself, and they become part of the content, which is very important to us.
In case of Die Kinder der Toten theres one additional layer literature with one of the major yet not very accessible novels by Nobel-prize
winner Elfriede Jelinek. Had you known her novels before? How was your encounter with this text? What was the first impression
the Die Kinder der Toten made on you?
KELLY COPPER: Of course we had read Elfriedes work before, for years, but always in translation. Were not that sophisticated
in our German language skills. And for this novel there is as yet no English translation available, so it must be said that
our access to it was special, selective mainly culled from other peoples accounts of their reading
plus we consulted a partial translation in progress of the first hundred or so pages that we had. It was an imperfect
access we had to the book itself. What was of primary interest to us was the relationship that that text had to the landscape.
We were invited to make a work in the Styrian countryside. We were looking for some text that had a relationship to
the region, and the novel Die Kinder der Toten is specifically, deeply grounded in this particular location. The natural world and the landscape is even, I would say, a
primary player in the novel having an almost antagonistic relationship to the humans. There are landslides, avalanches
torrential rains. You get that sense of menace, the menace of the natural world when you walk around the Schneealm,
theres so much beauty in the landscape, but there are also everywhere signs of natural disaster and death. Crosses
with little poems about how this or that person was killed in a flash of lightning. You hear about someone going out in the
snow and not returning. We felt immediately that it was the right choice, just due to the intimate relation with place. Heimat.
Another thing we have been interested in for this project is exploring specific film genres. We knew we were interested
in the Heimat film as a genre and the Jelinek text also suggested the zombie film. So we had two genres to play with.
In fact, Jelinek says that her novel was inspired by an American B horror film, Carnival of Souls by Herk Harvey, which is about this young woman, an organist in a church, who has died but who doesnt yet realize that
shes dead. The fact that the novel, too, was inspired by film also was attractive to us. If we could somehow
take this Austrian high literary novel inspired by American trash horror movie and bring it through our work in the Austrian
countryside back to its origin
that was the perfect invitation and perfect confluence of coincidences, for us.
The Children of the Dead was not your first performance within the festival steirischer herbst. How would you describe the particular challenge of
this project compared to your previous works?
KELLY COPPER: Everything we make is always, in a way, starting from beginning. We work out of our ignorance and incompetence in the given
set of circumstances we have to, by choice, deal with in each new project. We try to do something we dont know how to
do. So, though there are commonalities: for instance, No Dice, our first piece that was performed at steirischer herbst, was inspired by the films of Jacques Rivette (OUT:1 and Celine and Julie go Boating), so it has certainly a connection to film. Also it had some audience participation we made sandwiches for the audience,
and we had the performers speak directly to them, but it was a live performance FOR an audience. No matter how we tried to
involve the audience, and implicate them in the performance, they remained basically spectators, and for this project
Die Kinder der Toten we wanted the camera to be the spectator, and for our audience to be active participants in the work.
The idea being, that you cant truly experience a work of art unless you participate in its creation. Of course some
people still watched from the sidelines, but we our number one goal was really to invite and cajole them into participating
in making the piece, for the so-called audience to be our collaborator. That is probably its biggest difference from the earlier,
more conventional theater work; the fact that the audience was engaged in the performance directly.
How did you find access to text so that you could conceive a screenplay? What were the inspiring motifs, characters, atmospheres,
events you picked for you interpretation of the book?
KELLY COPPER: Well, as mentioned earlier we were limited to just whatever we could glean about the text from talking with people
who had read it. Also we watched Carnival of Souls and Erich von Stroheims Blind Husbands, and we visited and got to know, multiple times, in every season of the year, the location in which we would be working.
This project really developed over the course of two years worth of visits to Neuberg, Krampen, Kapellen, visiting specific
locations mentioned in the book, Totes Weib Wasserfall, Mariazell, the Mürz, the Schneealm
during one of our first visits
to Neuberg we were sitting outside a café when they brought the cows down from the summer pasture on the Schneealm. There
were cows and for some reason also motorbikes on the road that day, some kind of peculiar confluence of cows
and motorcycles. And we met some men who worked at one of the ski lodges in the mountains. We talked about the landscape,
we talked with the owner of the Gasthaus where we were staying, met the man who runs the local grocery
store who also is member of a club for people who collect vintage motorbikes and tractors
we really tried to discover
what was special about the region and its people, and what opportunities there were there for us to play
what are the
things which take place in each season, etc
and we wrote our own screenplay to best make use of all that the town and
its inhabitants had to offer. We wrote the cows into our script, we included the local grocery store
we wrote the food
we ate into the script, we wrote the Gasthaus into the script
some of these things are also in the Jelinek novel, some
are in the movie Carnival of Souls
and some are just our pure invention from what the place inspired. And then there is also the flip side the
story of what we wanted to film from the novel and could not like Mariazell. No one would let us shoot film anywhere
near that church! But the festival reached out to Stift Rein, another well-known church in the area, and so this is where
we set our church scene. There is also a group of characters from Syria who are in our screenplay but absent from Jelineks
novel. They, in part, were introduced because Syria was in the news every day while we were working on this and my
mother (who was going through treatment for cancer at the time) was constantly confusing Styria where we were
working with Syria she was concerned we were going into a war zone. And I think there is, in the end, some
connection there with Jelineks feeling for history and the victims of history that haunt a landscape. Buried history.
The stuff you dont want to deal with.
The novel is a massif of a text, that is biting, grotesque and witty, mercilessly going deep into the sore spots of Austrian
society. You have succeeded incredibly well in grasping the balance between the repulsive and the humorous, and also in capturing
with irony what Id consider as the deeply Austrian. How can one imagine your search for images?
KELLY COPPER: We always spend a lot of time in the place where we work. We get to know, as I said, the landscape and the people.
This for us was also one of the reasons for starting our work with film. When you just come to perform your little show somewhere
its maybe one week, you show up, you do your dance or your theater and you leave. We had been doing this for
years and it felt all very disconnected from place. We were performing mainly in Europe, we were away from our own home,
living mainly like transients, and we had a real desire to find a way to work deeply, locally, and take the time to make something
which would have meaning in the place where it was being made and performed, that our work would somehow be necessary and
relevant. So if we did that it makes me happy you say such a thing, that it feels deeply Austrian. But sometimes its
not on an intellectual level, but intuitive gut level subterranean and of course we asked Austrians, too, to
bring us their whatever they had in their closets that was meaningful to them
we asked to work in places which
were local and which had these pictures hanging on the walls, which had home made needlepoint and which basically contained
their own images. So there is that too. We had eyes to see what was in front of us every day while shooting, and used it.
The shooting took place in Upper Styria, a region where Elfriede Jelinek spent parts of her childhood and which serves as
the backdrop of the novel. How would you describe the landscape? How did you discover and choose the locations for the shooting?
KELLY COPPER: The landscape was super inspiring. In particular the Schneealm, which I loved so much its just so stark, so
vast, so brutal in its beauty. But also the forests and meadows and the Mürz... We were lucky over the 2 or so
years to see the locations in all the seasons. We were there for the first time just after a snowstorm when everything
was covered with white and ice. Actually, Elfriede Jelinek, for one of our first visits, gave us the key to her childhood
home. We hiked up in something like a half meter of snow to the cabin and looked around its tucked back
into the mountain, there are hunters blinds and trees... it was so special. Later in the year we came back and went
hiking up on the Schneealm and saw bighorn sheep and the cows grazing in the mountain pasture. We spent an afternoon
just sitting with the cows and watching them and listening to the sounds there. Both Pavol and I found it hugely inspiring.
And we had an amazing guide and help in our production manager, Jakob Schweighofer, who took us literally everywhere, who
made friends with the people whose help we needed to make the work who made a connection with mountain rescue and the
parks people so we could have the permission to film where we needed
he is the unsung hero of this project. He is from
steirischer herbst, knows the area well, and operates with such respect both for the artists and for the people who live and work there. Its
so important to have someone like him.
Its an amazing idea to conceive the adaptation of a literary work that conveys (among other things) the denial of and
the silence about the Austrian Nazi past as a silent movie. How did this idea come up?
KELLY COPPER: When we were first looking at the region, we were thinking that what we wanted to do was make a kind of heimatfilm.
This was a genre we were interested in, which also has this kind of idealized, romanticized version of the rural life
which in many ways, post-WW2, was also a negation of the war and the unseemly past and atrocities. When we were doing early
research, I remember Claus Philipp, who developed this project with us, showed us archival 8mm and 16mm films from the region,
which of course encompassed some of the time of the war, and you could see the swastikas flying near Mariazell, and soldiers
marching, and its very strange to see this same beautiful landscape, smiling people and these symbols of the
Nazis. And you realize, when youre watching the films sometimes a color film that its not so long
ago! Its not ancient history.
And still you had to write dialogues. How difficult was that given the fact that there are no dialogues in the novel?
KELLY COPPER: Well, it was not that difficult. The challenging thing was that, since we were shooting super 8 film on old cameras
we did not shoot any reference audio. The film is all silent. So we had actors speaking lines in German
and no way to know what was being said! When you get the footage back, you know what you shot, but its all silent
and I have to say that in the edit where I was working with all this silent material, reading lips in German
that was one of the most challenging aspects for me: to put the correct footage with the correct text. We tried
our best as we worked to document exactly which scenes we were shooting, but sometimes we had only a short time shooting
two cameras with cartridges of film that last only 3 minutes before they need reloading. Theres not much time out to
precisely mark which pages of text you just shot, so in the end it was a lot of lip reading
Why did you decide to shoot on Super-8. What did it mean in practical terms to shoot with a Super-8 camera, especially with
regards of the film material?
KELLY COPPER: First and foremost, weve always loved Super 8. In fact, I have about 700 reels that Ive collected over the years
of Super 8 and 8mm films, home movies, amateur porn, etc
that, when I first moved to NY, they would sell at flea markets
on the street. You could wander through flea markets and pick up boxes of other peoples home movies. No one wanted them.
And we bought an old projector for nothing and would take these boxes of movies home like they were treasure and spend the
nights watching them, wondering who they were, how their precious personal films ended up in a box in a flea market. I came
to the conclusion that most of the people who shot these films were dead had died and no one wanted or knew
what to do with these old films. They were full of ghosts. And so beautiful, most of them. 8mm film is also interesting,
because it was the first film format which was really available to the amateur. It was the peoples format. Cheap, easy
to shoot. And for the first time people could record their daily life and for the most part they filmed only what was
best and beautiful. I have boxes full of Easter dresses, parades, weddings, Christmas, vacations by the beach, road trips,
births, puppies, kittens
so its a nostalgic format in many respects. Similar to the heimatfilm. And a populist
format which is always our aspiration. We dont come to the work as experts, though we have been steeped
in film history and film love we are, in the end amateurs and you can feel this love of film and film texture
and film history I think in the work. As far as practically what it meant to shoot in Super 8: we were working with
two refurbished antique cameras. We tested them extensively before we left New York, and one of them was having a problem
with the lens
we thought we got it fixed, but, these things are never perfect. Its always whatever it is
they are not perfect machines. So one of the cameras in low light always had a kind of soft focus that we had to work
with and embrace. In addition, we had to shoot without any audio in camera. There is no reference audio, we just have
hours of silent film in the end, and we have to build the soundscape from the bottom up in post-production. To that
end, we were able to have an audio person working with us for some days, and he would go with a recorder and microphone and
capture all the local sounds which we wanted like the cows and the Schneealm and the trees. Im
very grateful for that.
The adaptation required a considerable number of participants and actors. You principally work with non-professional actors,
how did you find them? Did you take part in the casting process? Given the circumstances little time, little money,
limited film material how do you prepare your actors for the shoot to get them so quickly to the point?
KELLY COPPER: We went actually a year earlier in the autumn to meet people that steirischer herbst had found for us in the region (also in Graz and in Vienna, a few people
) who wanted to be involved on camera.
We knew we were looking for about 20 principals, and we had a chance to meet them and mainly to know what they wanted
from the experience, and to let them know that it would be a great deal of work, probably some of it outside, in rain, in
that the hours could be long. It was important to us that they understood it was not a professional
film world we were working in
there would be no catering, no trailers
if someone needs help holding a light or
putting on makeup, we dont want anyone involved who would say thats not my job. Its always communal
work. Its a utopia that we make for a period of a few weeks where everyone is a team building this thing together. We
asked the potential participants if they had any problem with doing different things that they might be asked to do. They
had no idea what we were making, so I think back to poor Greta Kostka, who played Karin Frenzels mother in the
film, a nice woman in her 60s, and we are asking her at first meeting: are you okay wrestling another woman? Is it okay
if you have to slap each other in the face with fish? She must have thought we were mad. But you quickly discern
who really wants this and who needs it. Pavol and I try to make only work that we need to do, and because we need to do it
we will do everything to make it happen. And thats what we need above all in the cast. That spirit of everyone
helping push the boulder up the hill. And we found that. The people we had for the main cast were without exception all wonderful,
generous and they stay connected by this experience, to us and to each other. We originally had a team of 4-5 makeup
people from a university I think. Those people were the only ones we didnt talk to, and they got in on the first
day, and it wasnt professional enough for them and they decided to back out. It says a lot about everyone who was left
that that night the team was watching youtube videos on how to do makeup, how to make someone look dead, etc
brains, and we took jello dessert that was from that evenings dinner and put it aside. The movie is a result of a group
of people working creatively together to solve problems. And the aesthetics is the result of doing the necessary work.
We cant hear peoples voices, when they are supposed to communicate. Even more important and multilayered is therefore
the sound design with noises, music and language. How was your collaboration with Wolfgang Mitterer? What did this soundscape
add to make your film a whole?
KELLY COPPER: Well, its actually a collaboration with more than just Wolfgang
Its also work we did with our sound designer
Matz Müller and Tobi, and the team at Sonnenstudio. We spent a week working with them on the audio. We had some meetings with
Wolfgang, as well, of course, as he was composing the score, but then it all really came together that week working on audio
in Berlin. We spoke to Matz about using foley sound and really building the audio up from scratch, knowing that anything was
possible but not everything should be done. Matz, for his part, didnt want to be too on the nose with the sounds,
so theres some interesting slide between what you see and what you hear. And then the music really added another layer
(and also, Wolfgangs music comes with its own kind of found sound, its own aesthetic) so putting the pieces
together and deciding which is on top at which time and when to pull back what to subtract at certain moments
really made magic, I think. Matz and Wolfgang have worked together before, so they gave each other total permission and freedom,
as well. Everyone just wanted to do the best work. We have never had a week in a good sound studio to play like that and stretch
ourselves and these guys really do know what they are doing, so that was brilliant.
The film opens with the noises and the picture of an analog film projection, and it closes in the same manner. You are taking
us, the viewers, into a film within a film
What were your thoughts behind this narrative framework?
KELLY COPPER: In our version of Die Kinder der Toten, film is a kind of character as well as the medium through which the dead come back to life. This is not in Jelineks
novel, but it is in our version. So film is a medium of transmission not only of story, but of spirit. Its
a direct link to the ghost world. To the past. And so the projector at the beginning is a kind of way of foregrounding that
idea, and film as not just a media, but a medium. Even if you look at the word for film screening or projection in French
its séance exactly the same word used for conjuring up the dead, which is what it must have
seemed like to people when they first beheld moving images made of light. Its magic.
Interview: Karin Schiefer