“It Doesn’t Make Sense to Explain Anything”: Angela Schanelec on I Was at Home, But… and Robert Bresson
The first time I saw Angela Schanelec speak, there was nothing for her to smile about: at a cartoonishly hostile Q&A for 2016’s The Dreamed Path, she fielded questions like “Was this supposed to take place in an alternate universe where emotions don’t exist?” and admirably didn’t yield an inch. Returning to TIFF, Schanelec was onhand not just for Q&As for her latest, I Was at Home, But… but to introduce a 35mm rep screening of Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket—one of the foundational works from a director whose influence on, and importance for, Schanelec’s work is immediately apparent. Both when I interviewed her and during her subsequent intro, a grin as wide but much more sincere than the Cheshire Cat’s appeared as she warmed to her subject. If we’re supposed to believe that art can still have some kind of transformative effect—measured not in knee-jerk responses or clearly defined polemical goals, but something stranger and less quantifiable, something that can transcend the hollowed-out, verbally exhausted and often rotely/cynically invoked idea of “transformative art”—it’s hard not to be inspired by someone for whom it’s clearly so important and warming, and the effect is very hypnotic.
Starring Marin Eggert as a professor two years out from the death of her theater director husband, I Was at Home, But… (which I wrote about here) places the protagonist in multiple stress positions. The most extended recurring sequence involves buying a bicycle from a man (Phil Hayes) who speaks through a mechanical larynx (the correct term I found by googling “voicebox,” a more intuitive but inaccurate label); the vehicle subsequently turns out to be faulty, necessitating negotiations about a refund or repairs he croaks responses to. She loses her cool then, just as she does in a 13-minute or so monologue delivered to a director (Dane Komljen) whose work she finds faulty on the basis of its juxtaposition of actorly artifice and really terminally ill patients. In a flashback, Eggert’s seen dancing alongside her children in front of her dying husband in a moment where there are literally no words, only awkward motions. The importance of the gesture over deliberate inflection and screen acting, and its relationship to Bresson, was where I started while speaking with Schanelec at this year’s TIFF before her first Q&A; the film screens next week at NYFF before opening via Cinema Guild next year.
Filmmaker: When the publicist set this up, she said I could interview you about your new movie, or that we could talk about Pickpocket. I thought, “That’s an interesting idea.” Why Pickpocket above every other Bresson?
Schanelec: This was the first one that came in my mind. I could have said any other one also. It’s one of the most obvious ones.
Filmmaker: It’s the first one I saw. Do you remember how old you were when you saw your first Bresson?
Schanelec: The first film I saw was L’Argent. This was in the ’90s. No, it was in the ’80s!
Filmmaker: Did you see it when it came out?
Filmmaker: Did you know about his reputation going in?
Schanelec: No, at that time this film was seen in cinemas. It was not history, it was distributed. I did not know anything.
Filmmaker: Were you in the habit of going to see a lot of things at the time?
Schanelec: No, at that time I did not make films. I was at the theater, working as an actress. I saw this film and found out that this [was] something I [had] never seen before—which I never lost, in a way. It was a film, but much more than a film.
Filmmaker: As an actress, was it shocking to see that kind of performance onscreen?
Schanelec: As an actress, it was really interesting, because I asked myself many things about acting which I couldn’t find out although I was working continuously onstage for years. I was standing onstage and did not know how to get rid of my thoughts, and my thoughts [hindered] my playing—a very strange experience. Now there was suddenly the chance to see a face, and to hear a word, and to see a movement—not to see what the actor or director wants to tell us, just to see what happens. And, not because of a decision, but unconsciously.
Filmmaker: Did seeing the film change the way you performed?
Schanelec: No. It changed [in that] I stopped.
Filmmaker: So, it caused a kind of crisis?
Schanelec: Yeah. But I’d already lost interest in what I did when I saw the film. I was not enthusiastic about my work. There were moments where I thought what I did made sense, but there were many moments where I asked what I was doing here. So, I started to think about other ways to show what can happen, to be concentrated completely on what happens, to show nothing else. It was not so much later when I stopped acting.
Filmmaker: Bresson can be really dangerous for filmmakers, because he’s such a strong voice that there’s a worry about being too influenced by him in a way that’s too visible. Did that cause you any anxiety when you started to make your own work?
Schanelec: No, not at all, because what I saw was much more about questions than answers. When I went to film school, I forgot about Bresson. I didn’t go to make films like Bresson did. Seeing L’Argent was just one point which influenced this change in my wish [about] what I do. I started to write, I thought about what a camera can frame, what is natural light, I wrote dialogues, and nothing of this was directly influenced. And then, after many, many years, in a way, I came to the wish to shoot a hand, a foot, but then it was my wish. I discovered it by myself. I mean, for sure it was clear that Bresson did that. I never saw reason to hide my interest—interest is a weak word, in a way—but also I was not afraid at all, because I came to that point, to shoot images which remind people of Bresson, but I didn’t care. But this was 15 years later.
Filmmaker: There’s many different kinds of performances in I Was at Home, But… When you work with an actor on a gesture, like them taking off their shoes or whatever, do you just have them do it until they’re unconsciously expressive? Do you explain any of this to them?
Schanelec: No, it doesn’t make sense to explain anything, because an actor is not able to let himself go because I ask him. The way to come to the point that something happens to the actor—if it’s a child, adult, professional, non-professional, it doesn’t matter—what I want is that the gesture makes something. When I say, “You move your hand from there to there,” he’s doing it, and he doesn’t know why he’s doing it. It’s just because I told him. Whether he’s able to fulfill that I try to find out before, in casting. When I read these descriptions of how Bresson worked with the actors, that he said, “Say without expression”—to be honest I can hardly imagine how that works. It’s not important for me how he did it. I think I do something different but probably with the same aim.
Filmmaker: In the screenplays, what does that kind of action look like? Do you describe the gestures?
Schanelec: Yes, only [gestures]. Now I’ve come to the point where a screenplay, every line is one shot. I write down what you see without emotion. That is very central for me: to find out what I want to show and what I want to do. So they are often very short, shorter than normal scripts, because there is no description of what a scene is, what a scene means. But for me, it’s a way to find out, to be as sure as possible what I want to do. Also writing a script is mostly about imagining as exactly as possible what shall happen. You cannot be sure, but I’m quite sure what I want to shoot works.
Filmmaker: When you’re auditioning actors, what do you do?
Schanelec: I take a text from the script and give it to the one I want to cast. I let them read it, or I say it and he repeats it if it’s a child. For example, with the Shakespeare texts, I read it and then they repeated it, so I can hear what they do. I don’t explain, and also with adults I don’t explain, because it doesn’t help.
Filmmaker: Is it the same on set? You don’t explain there either?
Schanelec: Yes, I don’t explain. But in the casting I find out with whom it’s possible and with whom not. When I worked as an actress, it was normal that the director explained. But already at that time, I asked myself what our conversation brings, because it just fills your mind with aims which you want to do—you have a plan then. When I started to make films for sure in the first years I explained, because I was used to explanations in the work between director and actor. But that was always so helpless and senseless! I don’t believe in this. I stopped step by step.
Filmmaker: It seems like you have an affinity for people performing songs. There’s “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” which they sing at the beginning of The Dreamed Path, and the hospital dance sequence in this. Is there something about somebody responding to, or performing, music that helps get to the unconscious?
Schanelec: Sure, it does. If there is music and I make the actors dance to the music, it’s difficult for them to hide. They are not dancers, so you can see how their bodies move, and they start to get vulnerable. And when they sing, you hear their voice differently. Not when you have a professional singer, maybe, but there are also professional singers who kept, through their profession, a very personal voice. In The Dreamed Path, [the protagonist, played by Thorbjörn Björnsson] a singer, but it’s his voice, he kept it. I can recognize him when he sings.
Filmmaker: Do you know how many times you shot the dance in the hospital?
Schanelec: Maybe three or four times.
Filmmaker: Is that generally your preference?
Schanelec: Yes, and some things I do only one or two times. The dance was rehearsed a lot, they had to learn. It was choreographed by a dancer.
Filmmaker: I was going to ask about the long speech on the street. The idea of her delivering such a long speech goes against the performances of the rest of the film. But she’s articulating something important to you, even though she admits she hasn’t seen the whole film that she’s talking about, and it’s a centerpiece in some ways.
Schanelec: Yes, it’s true. But for me it was interesting to have the possibility to say something. It’s interesting, in my eyes, what she’s saying, but at the same moment it’s clear that if I [thought] that, I could not work. The most important thing, for me, was, I wanted to see her in another moment where she cannot control herself. I was not so interested—OK, I’m interested in what she says, but the important thing is that she cannot stop herself. In another way, the same thing happened when the children did Hamlet. When I give her a text like that, she just follows the text. It’s not possible to direct that, because it was 13 minutes or whatever. I cannot fill her brain with, “At minute two, the sentence should be like that,” the only way is to let herself go. That’s what she did, so it worked automatically.
For sure, she’s an actress. I don’t think this is possible to do with a non-professional. Maybe it is, but then I have to do casting with a thousand people. Anyway, something happens to her in that scene. When she starts, she is concentrated only on the first step, and the first sentence, but then it’s everything in the moment. She listens to him, he listens to her. I worked a lot on that dialogue—on every point, comma, whatever. She reads it, learns it, understands it without interpretation. I moved with the camera and the street wasn’t blocked [off]. It was on a Sunday. It wouldn’t have been possible on a weekday. Even though the shops are closed, the urbanity of the place is present. There are some people, but less. The whole team moved with the actors. I’m very used to shooting on unblocked streets. I’m also interested in normal people, and I don’t like to work with extras.
Filmmaker: Where did you find the gentleman who sells her the bicycle?
Schanelec: He’s an English actor who played the father in The Dreamed Path. I did not find a German actor. It was very difficult—actually, it was not difficult, because he’s extremely good as an actor, but [also] as a person. He’s a good person (laughs), a good being. I didn’t want to have the cliche of a poor, old, half-sick person, so that he speaks through that thing [the mechanical layrnx] was my chance to use an actor who doesn’t speak German. Because then he just learned to speak through that thing, and because it’s so mechanical we didn’t hear any accent.
Filmmaker: Would you still have used that thing if you could have found a German actor? Because also that’s funny.
Schanelec: No, no, that was written in the script. I couldn’t find anyone. I don’t know, this character, for me, is really important, because he’s so patient and calm and good. I really like him as a character. I don’t know why I couldn’t find [a German actor]. Maybe that’s my problem with the German…nationality.
Filmmaker: Could you expand on that?
Schanelec: How can I explain this? A German actor is a German actor. Being a German actor is influenced by what an actor in Germany does. That means: in Germany you have a theater landscape, theaters which receive a lot of money. So, that is very developed. At the same time, in Germany there are not many interesting films made. If actors [of] that age work, they have a lot of experience, either in theater or doing bad movies and television. Both are probably a problem. An English actor is something very different, because English theater’s different, and also in England other films are made. [There is] another tradition. Also, what is strange with German actors, they often see a job less as handwork, as something you learn and then you do it. It’s more an artistic ability, where you create a feeling and express it, and this is also sometimes a problem for me. Because I’m not interested in the ability of the actor to express something. I’m interested in the human being (laughs), and if the actor sees, more or less, his profession as changing himself, it’s less helpful for me.
Filmmaker: Because you don’t want them to actually change themselves.
Schanelec: No. I’m interested in what they are. For sure, you can find professionals like Marin who stay themselves.