«I tried to remove everything that could create suspense artificially...

«I tried to remove everything that could create suspense artificially. My aim was to make an honest little film that showed how this incident would happen in real life.» An interview with Patrick Vollrath on his Cannes entry Everything Will Be Okay.
Ketchup Kid, one of your previous films, is about two boys who are hassled by other teenagers. Everything Will Be Okay is about a girl caught in the crossfire while her divorced parents play power games. Is the far from gentle world of childhood the place where you find source material for your film narratives?

PATRICK VOLLRATH: No, it just worked out that way by chance. With Ketchup Kid it was clear from the outset that we wanted to tell a story about our own childhood. The first idea for Everything Will Be Okay on the other hand, came from the media, where the subject was very big. As far as the story goes, I actually came across the material in a newspaper article. At the beginning of the research the character of the father was more of a central figure for me. But the child has to go through the biggest conflict, because she becomes a pawn in the game between the two parents. And I was also interested in the relationship between father and daughter. Naturally the media focusses on the most serious cases. When you do some detailed research into the subject, you see that these power games often begin with very little things, such as the child being brought back an hour later than had been agreed. In a minority of cases this then escalates to the point of a child being abducted. I was interested in finding out the motivation behind that. 

What kind of research did you do, when you were concentrating initially on the father?

PATRICK VOLLRATH: First I read a great deal about the subject. Then I began to talk to psychologists, and I spoke to people in the Vienna Women's House, to the association Fathers Without Rights, to a lawyer working with young people, to a police officer in the department responsible for such cases, and to a mother who had been through this experience; her child had been abducted by her ex-husband. The audition procedure also turned out to be an important source of information. We auditioned over 80 children, and of course some of them were from divorced parents and parents who had experienced situations like this. A lot of them had tried afterwards to get back together, but in most cases the experience had gone too deep. They had developed an absolute hatred for the former partner. I wanted to make that hatred tangible without turning the parents into evil characters. The challenge of working through this ambivalence appealed to me. After all, in the beginning the father treats his daughter very well. He might be acting from wounded pride and egotism, but from love as well. When I discussed the screenplay with Michael Haneke in the Film Academy, he said: "The father must believe he really loves his child." That was a fine sentence. Lea’s father forgets what really is good for the child and thinks he is the only one doing the right thing. We have to disapprove of his behaviour, but I have the feeling it's also possible to understand his actions to a certain extent.

You don't often see children in leading roles who are capable to this extent of expressing so much with their facial features, without dialogue. How did you prepare Julia Pointner for shooting the film?

PATRICK VOLLRATH: The first big difficulty was finding her. We had six days shooting and 13 days casting. I realised at the outset that the film could only succeed if I managed to find two exceptionally good actors. I felt reasonably confident about finding an established actor for the role of the father, although I was particularly lucky with Simon Schwarz. But for the child it was a completely different situation. I had decided that the child should be about eight years old, but I hadn't made up my mind whether it should be a boy or girl. In order to start shooting in April last year we started auditioning the previous November, and it was a very intense process. First of all I spent about 15 minutes on each child, and my main priority was to find out whether they would enjoy acting. That was particularly important for me. The thing you can't test in advance is somebody's stamina for six days shooting. It was important that the child would be able to act and surrendered himself to the situation without thinking too much about it.
There wasn't any written dialogue, but what was supposed to happen in each scene was very clearly stipulated. I told the two actors what their main aim was in the scene, and then we simply started work. It was important that the environment was as realistic as possible; Simon had quite a lot of freedom, and Julia had absolute freedom. There were only two rules for her: she wasn't allowed to look into the camera or slip out of character. When the camera was running she had to be Lea, not Julia. During the audition Simon had agreed to rehearse with the last two candidates for the part. Simon is a very open character, and Julia is a particularly lively child; they got on from the very beginning. Sometimes when you're making films you just have a huge slice of luck. So there weren't any rehearsals; after auditions we went straight into shooting. It was a huge advantage that Simon is such an experienced actor who never forgets where the camera is, which meant he always knew where he could move. Of course Julia would forget sometimes, but Simon kept that under control when necessary. Julia's strength was her incredible capacity for empathy, and during the shooting, the more she got into the part, the better she was.

Six days of shootings isn't much, particularly when you allow your actors so much freedom. What is it like on the set in practical terms when you are filming like this?

PATRICK VOLLRATH: We usually shoot six or seven takes. I tell the cameraman, Sebastian Thaler, that he should capture the situation. We film the first take without me making any comments, so the actors can explore the scene for themselves. Then we vary some minor details, add some things, leave some things out. That means that I have a great deal of freedom while I am editing. I never edit by concentrating on the transitions; instead, I make sure everything that isn't important for the scene is cut out. We use very long takes, sometimes up to 16 minutes. That means a great deal happens. In extreme situations it can usually be easier to act in this way. I'm not a big fan of dialogue, because I have the feeling there isn't an awful lot behind our conversations. The emotion tends to be underneath. So I try to tell the actors two or three things for each scene. They can find the sentences they use themselves. Which means Julia couldn't really do anything wrong. I do permit a great deal of freedom in my work. If you adopt this approach, it's absolutely crucial to find the right people in advance, and then you just trust them. I give the actors a massive amount of responsibility for the characters. They have to take the character and say: "Now this is mine".

Again and again you create situations where it could move in the direction of the thriller, but then the narrative shifts and becomes more interested in the feelings of the protagonists than creating suspense in the audience. Are you attempting to undermine genre conventions?

PATRICK VOLLRATH: No. I'm not really trying to undermine anything. While we were shooting, Simon Schwarz had the freedom to do whatever he wanted. I never stipulated exactly what they had to do, and if he had climbed out of the window we would have gone with him to film the scene that way. I tried to remove everything that could create suspense artificially. My aim was to make an honest little film that showed how this incident would happen in real life.

You give your actors a lot of freedom, and you film scenes like the sale of the car the way they actually took place. So what does the screenplay for a film of this sort look like?

PATRICK VOLLRATH: My screenplays are really treatments. It says what happens in the scenes, what the conflict in each scene is and what the two characters are each trying to achieve. There wasn't any dialogue in the screenplay of Everything Will Be Okay ; I wanted to allow this film to develop. If you use this mode of working you get a great deal from the actors. I have been involved with acting myself, and in my work as a director I want to take advantage of the power and creative energy that an actor can call upon when he is well-prepared. Especially since I don't think dialogue is so important. I don’t very often find it genuine. In bad film dialogue the people always say what they want, but in real life that happens very rarely between two people. It has to be a very intimate moment for that to happen. People don't often actually say what they are feeling in their hearts.

In comparison with Ketchup Kid, how do you see your artistic development in EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY?

PATRICK VOLLRATH: I think the dramatic and emotional elements were imposed from outside in Ketchup Kid. In Everything Will Be Okay it is the opposite: the dramatic element comes from inside. In fact Ketchup Kid worked quite well; it won prizes, and many people liked it a lot. But the challenge I set myself with Everything Will Be Okay was different; I wanted to attempt to reach a stage where the characters are really suffering, and the audience can feel that. This time I attempted to let go of the reins and give the actors a huge amount of freedom. I simply let them do what they wanted, and as a result a kind of documentary impression is created. I want to keep hold of that but then add something to it, in the sense of genre or action elements. I'd like to achieve a combination; a very realistic film that is also "filmic".

Interview: Karin Schiefer
April 2015

«There wasn't any dialogue in the screenplay of Everything Will Be Okay. I wanted to allow this film to develop.»