Animal Portraiture: An Interview with The Strange Little Cat Director Ramon Zürcher
For this correspondent’s money, the film to beat so far in 2014 is Swiss filmmaker Ramon Zürcher’s The Strange Little Cat (Das merkwürdige Kätzchen), a dazzlingly low-key schematic diagram of a single day’s ebb and flow in a German apartment. Zürcher cracks the space open like a dollhouse, but his exacting frames don’t create drama; rather, each individual component — a kettle, a ball, a clock, the nominal tabby, a regularly screaming child or any of the extended family members shuffling in and out of Zürcher’s rooms — invites the viewer’s attention as they often repeatedly intersect. Between narrative scenes, Zürcher stops for montages of these momentarily highlighted objects strung together, giving props as much narrative presence as the people they share space with.
The film’s strength is in its rigor, its ability to distill moments in what appears to be real time and harness their underlying tensions without pausing, slowing down or speeding up: for Zürcher, it seems, space and time create their own dramas. This assemblage – referred to in the film’s promotional materials as a “group portrait” – is a treasury of ineffable life fragments, certain to linger in memory long after they’ve mutated into something else.
That said, Zürcher kind of makes it look like he just plopped down a camera and let it roll. Bedevilingly young, soft-spoken and curious-eyed behind wireframe glasses, he asked to start our discussion with an elaboration on the difference between the film’s German and English titles.
Zürcher: So, first I want to explain that “merkwürdige” is a word in other senses than “strange”.
Filmmaker: It’s not just “weird.”
Zürcher: No. One aspect of it is weird, or strange, but to be concrete with the word’s roots, it is really two words. Together it means, a thing that compels your eye, to draw you in. Before writing the treatment, before collecting the actions, the characters, there was already the idea of the cat. During the writing it was very free, not always knowing which direction the film would go. Without the idea of having a public, you would write, write, write, and during the process, materials, ideas, things arrive. Then I wrote sentences about the cat, and I really liked very much the title, and so very early the project’s name became Das merkwürdige Kätzchen – the strange little cat.
Filmmaker: It’s a pretty short, lean film, structured over the course of a single day. Did you find yourself wanting to give more of the screenplay’s time or energy to a particular time of day or moment?
Zürcher: During the scriptwriting, I had the architecture, the geography of the apartment and the outside in mind, and then also the timetable. I knew from the beginning that it starts in the morning, ends in the evening. I wrote a timetable, like, that it starts around 10 or 11 AM, ends around 7 or 8 PM, and it’s the start of autumn, so I would know when it would become dark, how the leaves of the trees are, things like that. I knew there would be moments when we would leave the apartment, but the monumental pieces, or the bigger parts, in real-time storytelling — those were in the kitchen and the other rooms.
Filmmaker: Even when the kids go outside, the camera stays on them, it doesn’t show you any extra outside space. You stay with them. One of the things I never see in American movies that you did, it seems like you’ll shoot a conversation and hold the camera on one person the whole time, never showing the other person. Someone opens a door and enters a room, and you’ll hear it but the camera doesn’t move.
Zürcher: From the beginning there was an obsession, kind of, with the static camera. A moving camera often has the illusion of authenticity or naturalism. I was interested in speaking of a kind of everyday life. Everyday life with a handheld moving camera would make it more real, give it a certain documentary aspect, but I was interested in building and constructing this everyday universe as an artificial model, and to use the static camera and move with the mise-en-scene.
Filmmaker: But the movement is within the frame. It’s not the frame itself.
Zürcher: Yes, and then we knew we would like to have a very economical use of editing. In theater, of course, you have mise-en-scene and choreography, but our interest was, how to model that mise-en-scene in the right moments, so you see the right face of the right character, their movements, and then you might see the back of the head of the other person. In choreography there is a kind of invisible editing. Often the human condition of the film speaks through this editing to loneliness, to solitude in groups, in families, and often when you make those…. gegenschuss? (indicating two points of view)
Filmmaker: Reverse shots?
Zürcher: Yes! When you make shot/reverse shots, which is normal in classic cinema, then the characters are linked. We rather wanted to separate them, sometimes have those shots with a space that separate the whole family from each other. I think the camera is the most important thing for the film to build the vision of the world, of the human condition, which are so important to define.
Filmmaker: With this system in mind, when you’re constructing the screenplay, how do you make sure it’s not depressing? It felt sad and lonely to me sometimes, but not sour. Did you have a more opinionated first draft?
Zürcher: I think the script first was much bigger, the atmosphere and the quality of the emotions, the degree of depressing and funny, the degree between those two emotions was (see-saw motion) a little bit like this. We never chose a genre. It was always like that: some scenes were playful, other moments were rather dramatic. We’d rather have the freedom or liberty or the open space to create a universe which can go in different directions, not a slave to a genre. Anything could happen because there’s not a story being told where this, this and that have to happen. Different atmospheres and moods can happen but it needs to have a certain unity. Atmosphere, portrait, ambience — but it’s not an anti-film. There’s little hidden stories under the surface. Not the most important things, they are just there.
Filmmaker: It’s a quiet film, but also very confident. You didn’t seem to be nervous about the lack of story, as it were. Do you think your next film will be more genre-bound?
Zürcher: Because a genre is always a model of constructing a universe with rules, and then things are happening concerning those rules, it’s a clear communication with the audience, the spectator. There are those rules and everybody knows them and wants to see that. I would maybe be interested in constructing a genre film where certain things can be destroyed. Because a genre is a world, it would be interesting to make a kind of irritation, a sort of confusion, that’s breaking the confidence between the audience and the film. Which only works if you construct a genre first.
I’m not angry at the classical cinema. I don’t have an ideology, just interests, certain fascinations. I love classical films very much; as an audience, I am very, very open. But as a maker, when I have to write, I really need to have a deep interest to spend much time with it. Between experimental and classical, alternative and new forms, having certain question marks during the making of it — does that work, or doesn’t it? — and then in the process, just figuring out and approving if it works.
Filmmaker: What are your thoughts on repetition? One of your characters is this little girl who yells as a way of getting attention — she yells when the coffee is ready, etc. For me, it was cute the first time but it seemed reintroduced again and again because it was irritating.
Zürcher: Repetition was a strategy from the beginning, during the script, because we built it rather like music, less like a film. The only piece of music plays four or five times, a rather light punctuation, to mark separate pieces and also to involve the audience in a certain way, both intellectually and emotionally. When it’s too intellectual the stomach and the heart cry out; if it’s just for the heart, then, then the head needs something. There were many other things repeated: the screaming, portraits of objects in the apartment, certain sentences. Maybe these are ways to make it feel consistent.
Filmmaker: It felt consistent to me; if you spend the whole day in your home cooking or whatever, you might hear something in the morning, and not think about it until you hear it again in the afternoon.
Zürcher: To me it was like a construction model to play with — we had elements we could put into play, like animals, objects, characters, sentences. They become protagonists too.
Filmmaker: Like the cat, or the oranges, or the ball the kids are playing with. Did you shoot anything you didn’t use?
Zürcher: Because of the real-time structure of the film, we didn’t have editing possibilities to change this, so we were in a prison of time and space. We really had to follow that linearity. The only thing we could make was at the start and the end of each shot, to try and make it more condensed, more compact. So the rough cut was about 110 minutes.
Filmmaker: Wow. [The film runs 72 minutes with credits.]
Zürcher: There was no shot we put away. It was just in condensing it from the beginning, and then cutting some elements down. Also, some items we shot onscreen became then offscreen, just because it’s so difficult for a film which doesn’t really have a plot, that the interest of the audience stays from beginning to end. It’s important that they don’t fall asleep or go out. We storyboarded from the beginning to the end, and I think every shot is very close to the way we had it drawn. There were things that didn’t work, but most of it was written before. Things like the animals, the little daughter, things that deal with life, more vivid things full of energy — we would do something like improvisation. Otherwise, it was a controlled system.
Filmmaker: Normally when somebody puts this much planning into a film, whatever the end result, it’s really rare that it’ll feel smooth or spontaneous. It doesn’t feel like every moment of The Strange Little Cat is orchestrated, but you’re telling me they are.
Zürcher: Maybe we’re a little bit obsessed. This strategy of automatic writing, it’s not controlled by thinking or conceiving, but straight intuition. Then comes a period of molding and sculpting intuitively gained material, and control starts there. In conceiving the film, and then also in shooting, we actually are controlling, are not really into this spontaneity of discovering something that hasn’t been conceived. I think the very beginning is the place where control isn’t welcome.
One thing I’d like to add: because of that control-freak aspect of us, it’s maybe important to have scenes, actions, moments where a certain kind of improvisation or something uncontrolled can happen, like the cat, or Clara. They cannot be controlled. Because of that nature, it’s important to put those elements, which can give more life to your controlled universe. It’s important that you can’t control everything.
Filmmaker: How do you attract an actor to your film, given that you’d spend, say, 30 minutes at a time shooting them as they cut vegetables? Are these non-actors?
Zürcher: The adults are actually theater actors, most of them, and the children had experience with the camera, mostly publicity, commercials. I have never seen those commercials.
Filmmaker: Were they easy to direct? In American film school, there’s a rule: no kids, no animals.
Zürcher: It’s also in Germany. (Laughter) In Germany the children are just allowed to be on set for like five hours, but during these hours you’re only allowed to work with them three hours. After half an hour of shooting, you have to break for a quarter-hour. There’s many rules to protect the children when they act for you.
Filmmaker: How many days were you shooting?
Zürcher: 33. It was 29 in the apartment, and then maybe two on the street outside, and another two in a studio, to shoot extra shots. For example, the details, the paintings.
Filmmaker: That’s remarkable. But not 33 full days, because you have to get a certain type of daylight.
Zürcher: No, sometimes just five hours. Sometimes we just made a sound recording, because we didn’t want to make it in a studio; we wanted to record sounds directly in the apartment, one microphone to take it directly and one in the other rooms, for perspective. So when the camera’s in the kitchen and sounds are far away, we didn’t have to make those digitally. As little manipulation as necessary, to keep it very simple and old-school. So we could build the space of the room in sound.
Filmmaker: Did you know it was going to be that many days of shooting ahead of time? Was it 29 or 33 days in a row?
Zürcher: It was carefully scheduled. We knew it was going to be these 33 days, no surprises or added days. But nobody is being paid, so it wasn’t like a catastrophe to have so many days. We really had the luxury to wait for hours, for example, until the cat or the dog do what they are supposed to do.
It’s not much, 33 days for 72 minutes. One shot was about six minutes long, but now in the film it’s only two or three, but the choreography was sometimes so time-consuming. That’s why it was also important for us that people aren’t already, at the beginning, burn tout. So it’s healthy for the mind and the body, nobody comes too close to burnt out.
Filmmaker: Did you show the earlier cut to anybody, the long one? Tell me about the reactions.
Zürcher: The first screenings were for cast and crew, and they knew what they were expecting. During the festival circuit, of course, there have been times where people really denied it, thought they lost time from watching it.
Filmmaker: Really. Someone said that to you?
Zürcher: A waste of time. (shrugs) Yeah. But I think reactions are always very interesting. Indifference, that is terrible. Also, the critiques, in Germany, they were very very good or they were extremely bad. Some gave us four or five stars; some gave us one. Never in the middle – accepting it or denying it.
Filmmaker: Are you starting work on another film?
Zürcher: Of course.