“We Don’t Want Them to Be Brilliant, We Want Them to Be as They Are”: Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel on Mister Universo
You wouldn’t typically catch me recommending a movie on the basis of its crowd-pleasingness or heart-warmingness, dead or alive. But we’re living in warped times, and it’s a travesty that Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel’s crowd-pleasing, heart-warming not-quite-documentary feature Mister Universo — which I caught by happenstance at last year’s Festival International du Film de Marrakech — didn’t have the good fortune of securing a US distribution deal after playing festivals around the world last year.
The movie stars Tairo Caroli, a 19-year-old lion tamer from a real-life traveling circus in Italy, as himself. Among his few prized possessions is an iron horseshoe which, the movie would have us believe, was hand-bent by veteran muscleman Arthur Robin — the first black Mister Universe, way back in 1957 — when Tairo and his brothers saw him as kids. After the amulet is stolen, Tairo goes on a miniature road trip – egged on by his superstitious acrobat girlfriend Wendy (who also plays herself) — that expands the film’s frame to introduce his extended family, animal-handler compatriots and fellow bullshitters.
Covi and Frimmel have made their name on the festival circuitslowly but surely, with each new film taking what it needs from both narrative fiction and fly-on-the-wall verite traditions. Both Universo and 2009’s La Pivellina serve depictions of the same itinerant performer community, into whose lives the filmmakers introduced fictive elements at the intersection of melodrama and sociology. Covi and Frimmel’s works are low-key and anti-miserablist affair, defining their own dramatic stakes in the act of collaboration — which could explain the muted response that usually greets them on films (tending towards indifferent on the trade rag circuit, quietly approving on the arthouse/festival.) Hopefully that changes with Mister Universo’s week-long run at Anthology Film Archives; I had the pleasure of meeting with the filmmakers a few days into their NYC residency.
Filmmaker: So uh… what have you been up to?
TC: Just walking around, every day. What interests us most is the neighborhoods: seeing how people live, walking around, going to every Museum we can, and we’ve already seen a lot. And, wow — Manhattan changed a lot since we first came in 2001.
Filmmaker: Manhattan in the last 15 years… a story of capital.
TC: Yes, exactly. In Europe you can always afford to survive — okay, maybe not in Paris or in London, but in Vienna, the costs of living are low enough you can manage it even if you aren’t successful for a year. In Manhattan it would be completely impossible; I miss very much the feeling of freedom that you can also hang out for a month, thinking about or writing a project, and you can pay your rent too. We lived three years in Rome and in Paris. But he’s from Vienna, and for me Vienna is the only city where I could survive as an artist. Having free time, also, because you cannot always be productive — you also need time to read one or ten books, to get your ideas fixed! This is very important, I think.
Filmmaker: Tell me about your process. These movies take, what, two or three years from start to finish?
RF: Someone once compared us with a babushka: take one story out, and there’s another inside. You’re shooting one movie, you’ve already met some people, you get some ideas to make another movie; as soon as it’s finished, you already have the idea for the next. But, since we’re just working as a duo, it takes time: the writing, the financing. It’s a very floating process, I would say — the idea is already there during the shooting.
TC: We’re now working with people we have known for ten years, an actress we’ve known very long. We need to know these people very very well before we decide to make a movie — our scripts are based on our actors so it’s completely different from a normal fiction movie. We first know our actors and we pass time with them, we travel with them, how they smoke, how they speak, how they are with the close-up, and then we write a script for them… and we put everything we saw and we learned into the script. It’s completely the other way around from casting — we already know our actors and provide the roles for them.
RF: After the movie is finished, there is a process — we travel to festivals, we have some time free from the pressure to make a new thing. The idea is there, but before starting, we can say, “Okay, we can now spend one month in New York.” This is our freedom, in a way.
Filmmaker: Was Mister Universo shot on Super 16mm?
TC: Yes. We’re very fond of Super 16, this is our fifth movie shot on it. Since we bought a camera from the ’70s, secondhand, it’s very easy for us to…
RF: But it’s getting harder and harder to find the laboratories, the technicians — it’s getting more expensive. It’s not so easy to shoot on super 16 but we really believe it’s another media from digital.
Filmmaker: Who does what when the cameras are rolling? How do you work as a team?
TC: When we shoot in Italy, I’m the one who speaks to people, I’m the one preparing the scenes. Because I have the script in mind, I’m preparing a lot more than Rainer, who is preparing the camera, the light, the film itself…
RF: We never shoot with artificial light, so I have to change the stock. We have no assistants.
TC: He prepares the image, I prepare the actors, we shoot, and then we talk about it all together — if we like it or not, what we are deciding, what was good and what was bad..
RF: I’m the one who says “Another one! Another one!”
TC: But now we are shooting a movie in Vienna, with very old criminals — he is the one who knows them very well, so he’s the person they talk to, I am more in the background. This changed very much the dynamic, because they wouldn’t take me seriously, because I’m a woman.
RF: Technically, she’s doing the sound and I’m doing the camera. Together, sometimes her more, sometimes me more, preparing the scene.
TC: I like very much to prepare the fiction scenes, he prefers the stuff like when in The Shine Of Day we go to a bar and talk to the people who are just sitting there. He prefers that documentary stuff; I am always a little ashamed.
RF: For me this is something that maybe embodies our filmmaking: we have a fictional idea, and we go into a bar, and we really need people who fit into this story, who can testify to the childhood of Walter, the uncle. He was beaten by this one teacher and it was a really big problem for him — still, today. So we need people to talk about the same teacher and share this moment — it’s very psychological, in a way. So it’s a mixture of psychology, sociology, and fiction. This is what I like the most.
TC: And then afterwards, what he’s doing is the production, writing more — and I am editing, first alone, then together with him, and he’s taking care of the postproduction.
Filmmaker: Most of the scenes have one or two camera setups, and they play long. Tell me about your directions — you’re asking people to start over again, like it’s a dramatic scene? Break it down for me, please.
TC: What we say to our actors, they know the script more or less and then we say: “Tomorrow we are shooting. When are you free? Four? Okay, meet you at such-and-such a place, with these clothes and that clothes.” When they are in the place, we prepare the scene with them, not before. We don’t want them to have a night to think about what they are saying or how they are behaving. Because that would give them too much time to be brilliant, and we don’t want them to be brilliant, we want them to be as they are. It’s very nice to be better on film than you are, but in fact it’s not what we are looking for when working on a scene. Afterwards, we are saying: “this part was good, this part not so good,” and we are doing it for the third or fourth time, and we are changing the objective to get closer to the possibility of editing. We are always looking to have one scene without having to edit anything — this would be our dream. But it doesn’t work out.
Filmmaker: You get close.
RF: I like very much to get close.
Filmmaker: You’re constructing the drama, then walking it back to documentary.
RF: We really need to work on the dialogue, sometimes. Sometimes they are pure documentary, so we only need to shoot it once — but if they are important for the story, or if there’s some sentence that needs to be there for the story, then we really work hard on it. And they’re not professional actors — this makes them professionals, because they need to have the same reaction in order for the audience to think it’s natural or improvised. The reality of it is hard work.
Filmmaker: I’ve described this film as a moving portrait — but the story does have a beginning, middle and end. How did your photography background influence your approach?
RF: We wanted to bring a more moving image to our photography, so we started in documentary. Then we felt, maybe we want to influence the story a little more, so we came to fiction. Just yesterday we were looking at Irving Penn portraits, and it’s so impressive for me — I think this is something that maybe just a simple photograph can tell much more than a movie that doesn’t work.
TC: But the fact is, we meet very special people who we like very much, and filmmaking is a chance to give other people, living other places, to meet these people too. We’ve known Arthur Robin for 20 years; he’s a fantastic personality for us, so now we can show him to other people, also. It’s very simple.
RF: The world has changed so much in the last few years — now everyone is sharing everything with everyone at every second. This is so superficial. For me it changes the role of photography completely. Photography is completely dead. If you look at the first daguerrotypes, no one has reached the level of quality or intensity. The form has gotten less impressive, somehow. In a way it’s hard for us, now, to see that the interests are so different, from people. In a way it seems one is just interested in himself — it’s a very narcissistic society.
TC: For you. (Laughter) We both studied photography, we both passed five to ten years just in the darkroom — so really, this was our world.
Filmmaker: Some critiques suggest that not enough happens in either La Pivellina or Mister Universo – to me this passage of time is key, but because your collaborators are living in abject poverty, that could make the movie unpleasant for people. Both the girl in Pivellina and the bent horseshoe are your own additions, correct?
TC: Well, Arthur Robin really bent the irons his whole life, and when we met him he was still working in the circus and he bent one, then gave it to us. We’ve had the iron for twenty years; even if Tairo never had one, never met Mister Universo, we made this our fictive element, to give him an iron he would lose, to go on this trip looking for Arthur Robin. We lost him from our side and we couldn’t find anything on the internet!
RF: And this is the same as La Pivellina — this was the fictive item, the story.
TC: To be able to show the place from our point of view, and also to work against the cliche that circus people, or Roma people, are stealing children.
Filmmaker: The circus performers are part-Roma, part-Italian?
TC: They are coming from Roma (sic), but they are making money to change the image of Roma people in Europe. It really happens in Italy that people are stealing, of course, so they don’t want to be compared with them — if it happened then nobody would come and see their spectacle, or they would fear them. So they are really attentive to that.
RF: They’re also traveling people, and sometimes the families mix with Roma families. For example, the real father of the actress in La Pivellina, the two-year-old, was Roma.
Filmmaker: It occurs to me that a 90 minute movie can lead someone to feel like they’ve mastered a subject, much like a still photograph. Have you ever been accused of exploitation?
TC: When we make a movie about people we like, we give them a lot, we show them from a positive point of view. And when the movie is finished, they are just unbelievably proud — I saw it with Tairo, I saw it with Arthur Robin and his wife. And even though we are smaller-budget, we also pay them when we can, so it’s not like they’re doing this for us for free.
RF: I think the audience can feel that we are not exploiting them. In Austria there are other movies where you can maybe feel it — if you do not really know what the filmmaker is doing, or people are laughing to feel much better than the people onscreen.
TC: It must work out, because we have never read or heard this criticism.
Filmmaker: Mister Universo never even acknowledges the political dimension of these people’s lives, but you can feel Eurozone tensions the whole time: the itinerant nature of the performers, the expense of everything. How do you embody that reality without making it explicit?
RF: I think you can read it as a very political movie, between the lines. If you follow the social conditions of Italy over the last few years, it’s really hard for people to survive there — it’s a real struggle to live for many people there. You can feel that somehow when you watch the movie.
TC: Maybe for us the most important message is that you can be poor without losing your dignity. And people can support each other even with nothing.
Filmmaker: Even when they’re arguing, saying terrible things about each other, it’s clearly a real community.
TC: This is Italian. We passed two months with them, doing research, and they were telling each other mean things — the kind of thing where, if someone said it to me, I wouldn’t speak with him for five months! But they fall back in love again in a few minutes. Five minutes afterwards, they forget it completely.
RF: They’re on the margins of society, they know they need each other.
Filmmaker: So when you’re introducing the fictive element, how do you broach it with your participants? What if Tairo never wanted to go on a road trip to meet Arthur Robin?
TC: Well, he’s still a young boy; he wants to be interested, he wants to shoot guns and to be a hero. Our heroes are very human and very much from everyday life. He likes very much to work with us; in fact, when we made La Pivellina he was 14, and we promised him we would make another movie with him when he’s 18. So we don’t have to ask his parents, et cetera. We kept this promise and he absolutely wanted to work another time with us. For Arthur Robin it was very important to know the story, because he never accepted offers to do movies — never. And he said, also, that it was risky — that if we made a movie at his age, showing him as a poor old man at the end of his life, sitting around with nothing to do, that it would be a pity for him. So for him it was really important to know us, and the story, very very well. And he said that very often, people come to the park looking for him, to get him to sign an amulet or something like that.
Filmmaker: Tairo never saw him as a child.
TC: This is very important, what I want to tell you: we are shooting chronologically, because it’s important for the protagonist that they get emotion with their personality, and they cannot do this if we’re shooting the end before. At the beginning of the film, Tairo even told us: “I’m not so interested in Arthur Robin; who is this Arthur Robin? He’s an old man, old people don’t interest me,” and so on. We began to shoot and everyone was talking about Arthur Robin. After we shot for a few weeks, Tairo was becoming very anxious to meet Arthur Robin — he went to his mother, his uncle, his brother, and everyone knew him. In the end he was so anxious; so when he meets Arthur for the first time, this is documentary. This is what we use to capture emotions that are really real. Tairo’s first time also in the trailer, or the mobile home with Arthur Robin. Tairo fell completely in love with him and forgot that he never had an amulet in the first place. We never had to tell him: “this is where you become happy.”
Filmmaker: It’s very common for critics to say something blurs the line between fiction and documentary. And yet that’s your entire artistic project.
TC: What we like in moviemaking is this: not that we can do our written ideas 100% but rather, to be open for the things that will happen on set. Normally when you improvise like this, the things are astonishing, sentences you could never think up on your own. This is the point, this is why we do this filmmaker. When we are editing, and we have scenes which we preferred perfectly — the performers did it exactly how we wanted, everything we imagined — we see them five times and then get completely bored. Something we couldn’t predict, lines which are brilliant – like when Tairo meets Arthur Robin and he says to him, “You’re older than half a century” — this is so funny, and so special.
RF: We could never work with a big team. We’re walking through Manhattan and we’re seeing these big sets — forty people for one shot! It’s not the way of filmmaking that we wanted. In our hearts, we are street photographers, so this influences us a lot: Weegee, being alone, staying very flexible. We have the minimum team required for a film.
TC: With documentary, you can be very alone in the shooting.
Filmmaker: How do you decide when something is too much? Does it hit you while you’re shooting, or is it an after-the-fact phenomenon?
TC: Sometimes we’re in love with scenes we’ve written and we manage to do great. We can’t see that it’s too much. At the end we always need good friends who are editors or filmmakers to look at the movie, we’re too far into it writing, shooting, editing, so we can’t step back. You know how Tairo is having a lot of bad luck on the trip to find Arthur Robin? We wrote a story where he was sleeping and he was robbed. We found two robbers the day before, such great types, and we didn’t tell them anything except: “Rob him like you would do this.” They did it in such a great way, we were so much in love…
RF: So unlucky.
TC: Everyone told us it was too much, it pulled them out of the film. These are things we don’t see, we need help.
RF: And then we get the help, we’re still unlucky because we take it.
Filmmaker: That’s a huge risk, right? This way of making movies — it sounds like a map, but without routes.
TC: But that’s why we do it just the two of us, with a very very small budget: the funding is there for non-commercial, experimental documentary films.
RF: I would say it’s always risky, though. Our way is not so risky, because our budgets are smaller!
TC: But personally, for us… We got a call today from the lab, about sixteen rolls of material…
RF: Two hours. It’s a lot of material.
TC: For us it was half of our film, and they just called telling us that something happened to the negatives. For us, this is why nobody is shooting on film — but that means they’re developing once a month, and then something happens. Ten years ago it was every day!
Filmmaker: So you’re gonna have to go back and redo it?
RF: You can’t redo it, it’s an interview with an 85-year-old person.
TC: Well, we hope he’s still alive when we go back to Europe.
RF: You can never redo an interview — I mean, you redo it but it’s always different.
Filmmaker: Damn. These moments aren’t enough to make you go digital?
RF: Sometimes, yes.
TC: We will have to, someday.
Filmmaker: And I thought Hollywood directors were keeping film alive.
RF: Even when they shot Valkyrie, that movie about Hitler with Tom Cruise, in Germany, the most important scene was ruined in the laboratory, and they had to redo it – 350,000 Euros for one scene, I think. Which is the double of our entire budget! (laughs)