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Linklater’s Junior Year Abroad

by Jean-Christophe Castelli

In the chiaroscuro imagination of Hollywood, Vienna is a treacherous place for Americans, a city where the only thing blacker than the shadows are the intentions of those who operate under their cover. "Down I came to old Vienna, happy as a lark and without a dime" says Holly Martins at the beginning of The Third Man, but in the end, he leaves poorer in everything but heartbreak and disillusion.

Nowadays, Vienna is a far more welcoming place for impoverished Americans – of the filmmaking variety, at least.

Richard Linklater’sBefore Sunrise which shot in Vienna in the summer of 1994, is one of the latest examples of how American independent filmmakers have used European government regional subsidies, not only as a financial resource, but also as a powerful tool for forging productive working relationships with the local film community.


The story of two young people (played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) who meet on a train and spend the night wandering around Vienna, Before Sunrise went beyond using the city as a backdrop, incorporating it as a kind of third character; and the production itself became an unusually successful model of cross-cultural collaboration.

Before Sunrise had a long gestation, and Linklater’s two young lovers wandered through a number of cities before finally arriving in old Vienna. "I wanted a very old, very classical kind of feel," says Linklater. "In the U.S., I had thought about Philadelphia – a good walking city – or San Antonio, which is really old."

Eventually, Europe seemed the logical destination – and not just for the locations. "Part of the reason was to take advantage of the subsidies," says John Sloss, Linklater’s lawyer and the Executive Producer on Sunrise. "The terms for funding are very good from the financial point of view; they are not obtrusive in the filming, they leave you alone. Basically, it’s an interest-free loan, with no continued equity interest." That means filmmakers can get financial support without having to sell off a lot of territories. Moreover, the loan is repayable only when (and, most importantly, if) the producer’s own financial contribution has been refunded.

If this sounds too good to be true, there are a few catches: subsidies can be notoriously bureaucratic, and in any event, you still have to spend money to get money. Because the subsidy exists to attract capital to the local film industries, the funds require that you spend multiples of what you get in the host city – at least 150% of the grant in Hamburg, or North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) for example, and an average of 300% in Vienna.

Starting in Germany, the producers of Before Sunrise approached the Hamburg and NRW funds, but met with rejection from both. Anne Walker-McBay, Linklater’s long time producer, speculates that, based on the script (essentially an extended conversation between two characters), the film might have come across as "too European" for some, and therefore risky: "The state of subsidies is such that so few films make money, most of them lose money; so there’s attention going to balancing that situation, and funding films that make money back, and this tends to be films which might be more ‘American’."

Whether or not a film gets funding is often dependent on factors such as local cultural politics as well as budgets, which are always hard to predict. Ellen Winn, the Munich-based co-producer, advises filmmakers who apply to make sure "that the numbers are realistic, and that you already have some sort of financing going into it, like a distributor’s letter saying that they are supporting this film enough to release it."

Linklater came to Vienna with the advantage of a relatively high profile; while Slacker had gone straight to television in Germany, it had been theatrically released in Austria by Stadtkino, which eventually provided a letter of intent to distribute Before Sunrise. Moreover, Dazed and Confused was one of the big hits of the October, 1993 V’iennale. The attraction was intense and mutual. "We got off the plane and felt that not only could we do it here, we’d really like to do it here," says Walker-McBay.

One of the people they met there was Wolfgang Ainberger, Managing Director of the Vienna Film Financing Fund. A former television producer who was co-director of the V’iennale for three years, Ainberger is a strong admirer of American independent film. Once he became involved, Before Sunrise moved onto the fast track, with a quick turnaround from application to acceptance; Sloss, a veteran of the labyrinthine world of international co-production, praises the Vienna subsidy’s openness, organization and (comparative) lack of red tape: "It was more straightforward to complete the deal with the Vienna fund than to even apply for some of the other subsidies."

The Vienna Film Financing Fund, or WFF, was established in May 1992 as part of an effort to promote Vienna as a location and put the local film industry on the international map. Along with numerous Austrian films, WFF has already subsidized a small but eclectic group of American co-productions, ranging in budget and subject matter from Disney’s brat pack Three Musketeers and an upcoming Dolph Lundgren vehicle called Meltdown, to Jon Jost’s Albrecht’s Flügel, which the Austrian producer Michael Seeber describes as "a meditation on art and life and death." (At press time, Ainberger was also eagerly awaiting a rewrite of Abel Ferrara’s latest script for consideration.)

The main criterion for funding is economic – what the WFF rule book calls the "Vienna Effect," which sounds like the title of a Robert Ludlum novel but is in fact a loose set of requirements that the money be spent locally. With a budget of approximately $3 million, Before Sunrise spent $1.5 million in Vienna, which made it eligible for a $500,000 subsidy. Local expenses included film stock and processing from a local lab, a largely Austrian crew, the supporting cast, lighting equipment, cameras (the highly regarded Moviecam is an Austrian company), the support structure from the Austrian co-producer, and miscellaneous expenses like hotels and meals. The film was entirely shot and largely assembled in Vienna in July of 1993, with post-production back in Linklater’s home base of Austin.

Foreign producers must find an Austrian partner, who writes the contract and acts as the intermediary with WFF. WFF provides an accredited list of producers from which to choose, and, according to Ainberger, this is one of the most important decisions a filmmaker can make: "Make sure you have a very clear and exact partner in Vienna," he says, recommending a scouting trip of at least two weeks to find a compatible company. Before Sunrise used the services of Filmhaus Wien, a young company which specializes in commercial work and had the reputation of being, in Walker-McBay’s words, "not so old-school in their thinking. They worked with us for crew hiring, recommending people, and pulled in many favors." Filmhaus partner Gernot St. Schaffler, who now heads up his company’s L.A. office, saw his involvement with Before Sunrise in terms of long-range payback: "I wanted to prove that you can do feature films on a low budget in Vienna."

For Avi Levi, the production accountant on Before Sunrise, the benefits and costs of shooting in a place like Vienna must be carefully considered. "Vienna is an expensive place," he notes, singling out the benefits for cast and crew as "the most of any country I’ve ever shot in." On the other hand, "they use smaller crews than we do and the prices before the benefits are somewhat lower than here." While the costs might outweigh the benefits in a more complicated shoot involving stunts and special effects, with a relatively simple picture, it’s still worth it – provided the location is necessary to the story.

Before Sunrise’s integration of the city as a third character is precisely one of the factors that attracted the WFF to the project. WFF’s criteria also contain a cultural stipulation of "Vienna Relatedness," with preference given to films which promote the city as a recognizable location. According to Ainberger, "It is not necessary that Vienna is shown as Vienna – in Disney’s Three Musketeers, it was shown as France – but we like it."

Ironically, "Vienna Relatedness" eventually overtook financial necessity for the filmmakers as well. When Castle Rock Pictures picked up Before Sunrise as part of a first-look deal with Linklater in early 1994, there was no longer any need for a subsidy; in fact, as sole producer, Castle Rock was reluctant to get involved with an extra layer of bureaucracy. (A particular sticking point was the lien on all subsidized production, one of the normal requirements for funding, which was eventually dropped in the face of Castle Rock’s objections.) The filmmakers insisted on working through the WFF, however: "We wanted to make the production as local as possible," says Walker-McBay. "Getting the subsidy seemed like a good way to become politically connected; and you need as many friends as possible when you’re shooting on a low budget!"

These connections were particularly important when it came to lining up locations. Most European cities don’t have film commissions to coordinate things like in America; though Vienna has grown into one of the more film-friendly cities, "it’s not like L.A. where there is shooting on every corner," notes Schaffler. The city is divided into districts, and securing permissions often involved arguing with local representatives who were more concerned with appeasing constituents bothered by film crews than any long-term benefits. "Austrians are not as direct as we are," notes Walker-McBay. "We like ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ but they’ll go, ‘Isn’t this nice? You want to film here? No problem!’ – this is two months before; and then the day before, they tell us ‘you can shoot until 11,’ but our problem is that the sun goes down at 10 and we need six hours of night shooting. Then, at the last minute, they push it through."

As in all shoots using foreign crews, the filmmakers had to be aware of local working methods ahead of time and compensate accordingly. Linklater brought over his "core group from Slacker," including producer Walker-McBay, director of photography Lee Daniel, and an American first assistant director. ("They do more with location and set managers," says Walker-McBay. "Their A.D. has a more narrowly defined role than ours.") The rest of the crew was Viennese (though largely English-speaking), and the Americans found themselves adjusting very nicely to a rather more gemütlich feeling than is commonly found on American independent sets: "I like the European attitude," says Walker-McBay. "Most of the crew has a life beyond films – families to go home to, vacations to take – and it’s more relaxed."

Despite the shorter working hours, the Viennese crew were no slackers. Walker-McBay has nothing but praise for their technical expertise, and Linklater marvels at their dedication: "They’re not hellbent people like in the U.S. They have a real respect for the intentions of a movie," he says. "All they wanted was for me to make the best movie I could." The Austrians seem to have been similarly enriched by working with Linklater: "I’ve never seen anyone so concentrated and hard-working," says Schaffler. "He was in a good mood all the time, and made our life very easy." As John Sloss sums it up, "it went so well that we’d be tempting fate to even say what we should have done better."

Needless to say, the producers of Before Sunrise came away with very few of the war stories that would normally spice up, if not the actual shoot itself, then an article like this one. According to Linklater, several of the locations that he happened to like turned out to be the same ones Carol Reed used for The Third Man, but even these coincidences don’t provide much of a metaphor for the film: for unlike Holly Martins, Richard Linklater came home from Vienna a happy man.


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