«We created an effect that was half realistic and half fantastic.»

Real and imaginary worlds, as well as the present and the past, are interwoven in Virgil Widrich's Night of a 1000 Hours, creating a technically very ambitious, cheerfully nostalgic thriller about the return of the dead and ideas which refuse to die.
In Night of a 1000 Hours several generations of a family return from the dead and meet during the course of one night. A short film you made prior to this was entitled back track. Whether it's movement forwards or backwards in time, or the compression of time itself, playing with the concept of time and defying its linearity is one of the constant factors in your work. What appeals to you about questioning our usual perception of time?
VIRGIL WIDRICH: My films are often about playing with time, but also about playing with identity. In Copy Shop somebody loses his identity and no longer knows who he is. In Fast Film the hero consists of many different heroes combined together. In Night of a 1000 Hours we see a hero whose memories of his family actually come to life. Stories about grandparents or great-grandparents, which you can usually only play out in your mind, are transformed in this film into flesh and blood characters. I was also interested in the possibility of reverse time travel in Night of a 1000 Hours. Instead of us travelling into the past, the past comes to us and transforms the present into the past.
Technology and imagination are always on an equal footing in your work. Could they be regarded as the twin forces that drive the narrative in your films?
VIRGIL WIDRICH: Somebody once said that the cinema divided at a very early stage into the cinema of the Lumière Brothers and the cinema of Georges Méliès, and we are all children of either one or the other. One branch of cinema documents what happens while the other creates fantastic worlds. Actually the two approaches exist in parallel, and these days there are many filmmakers who can't be categorized so easily into one of the two worlds. But if I had to decide I would definitely opt for the world of Georges Méliès. If you take a diversion into the abstract you can find more original ways to make aspects of our reality visible than by using the direct approach. Cinema is a visual art form. And I'm interested in films that are convincing in their visual ambitions.

 The members of the family who come together in Night of a 1000 Hours look the way they did at the time of their deaths. Some of them died younger than others, which makes it quite complicated at times to work out the sequence of generations within the narrative. The screenplay performs a fine balancing act between cheerful confusion and the necessity for clarity. What challenges did you face during the writing phase?
VIRGIL WIDRICH: Right at the beginning there was the biblical image of Judgment Day, when the dead rise up and are judged by God. I am less interested in what a possible God would do with people than in what happens between people. If everybody appeared at the same time there would definitely be a need to talk things through – assuming they were able to communicate with one another at all. And then from this idea I focused on the approach of facilitating a meeting of all the generations within one family. Concentrating on one family was one of the cornerstones our story was based on, and the other was the idea of having it all take place in one building. Writing the screenplay was a very long process. My main problem was that the basic idea contained endless possibilities. This screenplay universe expanded exponentially and reached over 1000 pages of text at the climax, but then it collapsed back down to 100 pages. I was very much helped in this process of compression, in order to remain within a 90-minute narrative framework, by the work of Jean-Claude Carrière as dramaturgical consultant. The more abstract, the crazier an idea, the more important clear structure is.
One character from the past, an active member of a student fraternity, becomes an antagonist in the present to the leading character, Philip, and in this way the film achieves a political relevance – in the light of current movements in Austria and throughout Europe – which may not have originally been intended.
VIRGIL WIDRICH: The return of the dead also represents the concept that some ideas simply refuse to die. Essentially the whole world is at present in the grip of the past, dominated by parties, whether in government or in opposition, which want to turn back the wheel of time and reintroduce the same old values that have had catastrophic results in the past. Our film also shows that people in all eras who look to the past – modern student fraternities, former Nazis, convinced monarchists, etc – are capable of cooperating very efficiently in order to achieve their common aim of abolishing freedom and thus achieving power and wealth.
How were the cast assembled for this ensemble film? I'm thinking particularly of the protagonists Laurence Rupp and Amira Casar?
VIRGIL WIDRICH: In terms of financing, the project had to go through an extremely long obstacle race, both in the development and the production stages. Lisa Oláh has built up a reputation over many years of finding and casting young talent. The big question was who would play our hero, Philip. We must have looked at about 40 candidates. Laurence Rupp turned out to be the ideal actor, because on the one hand he conveys the youthful, naive attitude we wanted, while at the same time he's already enough of a professional to cope wonderfully with the long shooting period required for a full-length film. I met Amira Casar in Paris in 2010. The question facing us in this case was whether we could find an international star who could make a film in German. I wanted to cast someone with a face and manner which would be surprising and wouldn't immediately trigger associations with other popular productions. It was important for me to find a meteorite that appeared from nowhere and fell out of time. That's why I felt it would be extremely interesting to have somebody from another language background. Amira Casar is known for her extraordinary vocal talent, which may well be rooted in her musical skills. The first time we met she was able to repeat whole sentences in a strong Viennese accent. And not just mechanically, but with feeling and emotion. Incredible. We worked together very intensively on her voice. We looked for role models from the appropriate period and came across interviews with Paula Wessely where she talked about personal matters, not in a theatrical voice at all. In addition to the language factor we were also looking for a woman we could imagine Renate (Amira Casar's character in the film) admiring. Renate asserted herself as a business woman in a man's world and managed the company much better than her husband. And then we came across Hedy Lamarr, who also provided the model for Renate's hairstyle. With Amira Casar and the other leading characters there were only a few lines of dialogue which had to be dubbed later.
How did the half real, half virtual protagonist – the house – come into being?
VIRGIL WIDRICH: The house is one of the leading characters in the film, and Christina Schaffer, our production designer from Luxembourg, got to grips immediately with the crucial question: "Who would the architect of this house have been?" We didn't want to resort to Jugendstil clichés, and we weren’t willing to assume that the Ullich family back in those days would have been open to the new Secession movement. We discovered Oskar Marmorek, who designed the Rüdigerhof in Vienna, among other buildings, and represented this transitional phase. Christina studied his architectural designs and drew the plans for our film house by hand in original style. The house was intended to be both the company headquarters and the home of the family. In the end the building contained no fewer than 25 sets; the individual rooms were all color-coded, with the green breakfast room, a white drawing room and a black one…
In order to create those 25 sets you developed an extremely interesting approach for this film. How would you describe that?
VIRGIL WIDRICH: When you have a film which takes place exclusively in one building, there are various options. One is to film at original locations. But real locations would have contradicted the idea of a fantasy film. Another option would have been to construct everything in a studio, but that wouldn't have been financially viable. A third option is to work partly or exclusively with green screen. This solution would also have been very expensive, and it's not really satisfying for the actors. Finally there’s a fourth option, inspired by my musical play for the theatre New Angels and also by working on my last short film, back track, which is to use back projections. This means constructing the house digitally and then projecting it on the set and working with tableaux which are partly real and partly virtual. If you plan this in appropriate geometric fashion you can come up with an image in advance for each set and shot which is properly prepared and lit. The procedure has the advantage that you can show more than you would be able to by using a conventional approach.
Presumably the cameraman, Christian Berger, played a crucial role here as well?
VIRGIL WIDRICH: We started working on the project two and a half years before shooting began. Christian Berger has extremely progressive ideas and is always looking to the future. Thanks to his experience, he very quickly appreciated the challenges we would face, particularly relating to the lighting. We had to find a way to light the real set but without hitting the screen either directly or indirectly. That meant exhaustive tests, especially with combining real objects and the projected set, because we wanted to be able to decide for ourselves whether and at what point the transition between the real and the projected images would be apparent. In a sense our aim was to bring the back projection into the foreground, so we could create an effect that was half realistic and half fantastic.
If constructing the set in that way permitted less improvisation, even more work must have been necessary in the preparatory stages…
VIRGIL WIDRICH: The research was absolutely endless, because we needed iconic images which audiences could immediately classify according to period. With the help of a computer program I drew up a family tree containing 400 members of the family. All of them, even if they were just extras or weren't even visible at any point, had a name and dates of birth and death, so we could also work out the style of clothing they would have worn when they died. The 120 extras all had ID numbers, and each of them was told exactly where to stand and when. That's not the usual way with extras. When it came to props, we collected truckloads of items, from light switches and radiators to pieces of furniture. Every shot was calculated geometrically and planned with distances and focal length, otherwise we would never have managed the whole thing – after all, neither the house nor the sets were physically present. In this way we created a prototype which makes it possible to treat a single set like a painting and create innumerable scenes inside it.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
September 2016

Translation: Charles Osborne
«My main problem was that the basic idea contained endless possibilities. This screenplay universe expanded exponentially and reached over 1000 pages of text at the climax.»