Laughing With Pain: Director Maren Ade and Sandra Hüller on Their Hilarious Father-Daughter Dramedy Toni Erdmann

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Fake teeth, a raggedy wig, and the playful love of a father that knows no boundaries make the title character in Maren Ade’s irreverent and unassumingly heartfelt new feature, who’s as charming as he is frustrating.

Sweeping the world since its Cannes debut, Toni Erdmann is a rare creation that debunks the myth of the inaccessible and pretentious “art house film,” and delivers uncomfortable, laugh-out-loud moments while grounding them in the sadness that comes from miscommunication between parents and children. Ines, played with awkward brilliance by Sandra Hüller, is a driven businesswoman on the brink of career advancement as a consultant for a Romanian company, but, thinking that she has lost touch with her sense of humor, her father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek) decides to disrupt her professional life as a fictional funnyman—Toni Erdmann. What ensues is a series of hilarious mishaps that, regardless of its extensive running time, amount to one of the most humanely written and precisely performed films of the year. Ade’s Oscar-contender in the Best Foreign Language Film category defies traditional genre classification and enters the pantheon of international films that satisfy an uncompromising artistic vision without losing universal appeal.

During their globe-trekking tour sharing the film with audiences, MovieMaker had the pleasure of speaking with director Maren Ade and star Sandra Hüller about shooting key sequences in this acclaimed dramedy.

Toni Erdmann writer-director Maren Ade. Photo by Iris Janke, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Was the screenplay always over 160 pages or did that length develop over time? How long was the screenplay when you started shooting?

Maren Ade (MA): It was actually like 135 pages when we started, but I think I cheated a bit with the font. I don’t want to know how long it is if you put in a normal layout [laughs]. It was always long, but the script always worked. We didn’t feel the length. You always take the time of your script before you start shooting, there were different measures, and they were always around 130 or 140 minutes, and it got longer. I’m proud that it’s so long. It worked for me when editing and I didn’t want to throw away things. I like long films. I can sit in the cinema for a while.

MM: At first when you are sitting in front of the blank page how does the process start? How does a story like Toni Erdmann come into mind?

MA: There is always an initial period where I write down everything that comes into my mind or that I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I also have notes and little notebooks I make, so I go through them and sometimes I put some of things into a role. I always try to have two phases in the screenwriting process. One where I work more emotionally and intuitively and where I don’t censor myself there is to art police allowed then. Then there is this more rational phase when I go through things and work more on the dramaturgy. I analyze what I wrote, especially later when we get closer to a full script.

MM: Sandra, when you first read the screenplay how did you discover Ines? What was her main struggle from your perspective?

Sandra Hüller (SH): To be honest at first I didn’t get it. She was so strange to me, unlike any character that I’ve never read before. I also can’t say that I really liked her. I felt that we would have to fight with each other really hard to get close. We did. The closer I got to her the more I liked her because she is really straightforward, she doesn’t compromise with anything, she is not sentimental, she has a great sense of humor if it’s necessary and if not she just puts it away. I really liked the way she is fighting for the things that she wants to have or wants to do.

MM: Is writing humor more difficult than dramatic moments? Did you go into this thinking of it as a comedy?

MA: It was fun writing humor, but for me it’s always important that it happens in a certain context and it’s not pure comedy—that’s something I’m not interested in. It was what came out of the story, but the story is a drama. For me the foundation of the film is a drama.

SH: We never considered it a comedy. We had a lot of fun rehearsing the Toni scenes, but at the same time it was always totally cleat that these people are struggling with their lives and with each other. It’s so much about the things that they cannot do, about failure, and about embarrassment. That’s what we were focusing on, the things that don’t work and the things they don’t get but want so bad. It can be funny. That’s one really old rule of humor, “When somebody falls, another is laughing.” We never tried to be funny.

MM: How did you end up with 100 hours of footage, which is something people talked about in regards to the film?

MA: It happened very easily because I had 50 shooting days and it just meant shooting two hours per day. That’s not so much. There is a lot of repetition. It’s not a lot of take from different angles, actually sometimes it was only three perspectives: shot, reverse shot, and two-shot. I always let it roll for very long. I always want the actors to be in the rhythm of the whole scene, I always let it roll long so that they really com from somewhere although I may know that it’s now more about the ending, what I said to the actors has now more to do with the ending the scene I always let them play the whole scene.

MM: Does that bring surprises on set? Is it exciting to lose control?

MA: Yeah for sure, and also sometimes I allow them to change the dialogue that I wrote a bit or invite them to invent something. Sometimes if I realize that what they are inventing is too much then I start controlling again [laughs].

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