Road-Tripping: Director Sebastian Schipper on Why Shooting Roads Chronologically Was His Film’s Best Path Forward

Rarely is a film shot chronologically. But then Roads is a unique feature. Inspired by children’s literary classic Where The Wild Things Are, it is a poignant yet playful story of two likable lads who form a firm friendship as they take a jaunt through Europe in a dodgy RV. Starring two shining lights yet to transform into supernovas, Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk) and Stéphane Bak (Elle), Roads is an adventure in mischief and mayhem via the modality of youthful masculinity.

Director Sebastian Schipper, who co-wrote the screenplay, took his influence from his favorite childhood story. He said: “I love it, it’s such a cool book. And I guess now, when I’m asked ‘How did you find inspiration for Roads?’ I’ll say, ‘Where The Wild Things Are.’ It’s about loneliness, about craziness, about how you feel lonely and crazy but that can be a good thing.”

The story sees two lost teens join forces in North Africa and take a road trip in a stolen motorhome, encountering refugees, poverty and their own issues along the way. Fionn plays Gyllen, a cheeky British runaway who takes his stepdad’s RV during a family holiday in Morocco. Planning to visit his estranged father in France, he picks up Stéphane’s William, a resolute boy from the Congo who is searching for his brother across Europe’s borders.

This is Sebastian’s English-language feature debut and his first since Victoria, the now legendary film shot in a single take over more than two hours about a Spanish girl who befriends a group of boys in Berlin and gets involved in a bank robbery.

An actor who appeared in German time-twisting tale Run Lola Run, Sebastian believes all films should be made sequentially.

He said: “It was all shot in total chronological order starting with crazy Morocco then we went to crazy Spain, then to crazy France, and then finally I could go home to Germany. I think shooting chronologically is a good thing for everything—it’s a good thing for directors, it’s a good thing for movies.

“It helped me tremendously because while we shot I wrote with my co-author and I changed scenes. There’s a scene where they’re in their sleeping bags and they’re talking about their lives. I realized while filming this was way too early in the story. They can’t crunch these hard facts now. They’ve got to talk about football and some other stuff, they’ve got to be 18 here and then later on there’s a good spot to come back to that. That’s just one example of where it really helps you.”

He added: “Also because they become friends within the film of course it helps—it’s trust and I think that’s maybe the biggest thing that creates these intrinsic things that you feel. They had to become good friends. We did hang out, not every night, but along with the crew and everybody it was a very romantic way to shoot a film – at least for me.”

Fionn wholeheartedly agrees.

He said: “The whole cast and crew definitely became like a little nomadic tribe. Everyone sort of went everywhere together and we got comfortable enough with each other, which is really important for every film but especially with this film. You could pick anyone from the main crew that went to every country and hang out with them.

“I felt very safe and comfortable around these people which makes it so much easier when you come to do particularly heartfelt scenes that you really have to dig deep for. You’re obviously going to do a better job if you feel supported and comfortable enough with all the people.”

Prior to filming, Sebastian and Stéphane—who was once considered ‘the youngest comedian in France’—visited Morocco to meet refugees. Stéphane’s character was very much informed by this experience.

He said: “I had to do some research on my Congolese roots and I worked with a dialect coach to get rid of my French accent and develop a Congolese accent. I also watched documentaries about the migrant crisis and I went to Calais [on France’s northern coast] and Morocco prior to shooting to meet people who are like on the run from their country trying to reach France and trying to reach Europe.”

Sebastian took Stéphane to a Spanish enclave in Morocco that is a temporary home to many refugees.

He said: “Stéphane and I, along with our Moroccan guide, drove into the bush and met a group of I would say kids—I think their leader, so to speak, was 22 or 23 and it was a pretty profound experience and also strange being a privileged Westerner.

“I would say it was one of the top things that happened during the making of this film because we said, ‘OK, we’re going to be back here in two hours,’ and then we drove to town and bought all kinds of stuff that might be useful to them. Of course it was a tiny thing that we were doing but it was a connection. I had a feeling there was a moment of connection with this group that was meaningful.”

That’s when Stéphane’s character “clicked” with him.

He said: “We knew that this movie had a purpose from that moment I would say.”

The pair found that the ‘refugee crisis’ is not all the doom and gloom often presented in the media.

Sebastian said: “We drew the entire costume for William from meeting them and once you’ve seen this kind of group you knew you had to do them right. It wasn’t just Stéphane and I thinking about the part, we had a very precise reference point.”

He continued: “I have to admit sometimes I have a feeling that films where the refugee or migration crisis or situation comes up, whether they’re arthouse or indie or not, sometimes I have a feeling that it’s being dealt with like a ‘zombie apocalypse’. It’s like there’s a lot of refugees but it’s always ‘The Refugees’ and whether you love ‘The Refugees’ or are against them or want to keep them out it’s always this almost anonymous, faceless, voiceless group and that is something that we drew a lot from meeting these boys.

“They are in a situation that is unimaginable for us but there were a lot of smiles and they were very warm, it was a very warm moment to meet them. Stéphane and I reminded each other of that throughout the film. William is not afraid to smile or have a good time or crack a joke because he’s William, he’s not just a stand-in for a horrible situation.”

Fionn didn’t join the two on their pre-shoot Morocco trip because his character is “sort of naive” to it all.

He said: “For me it worked perfectly that as we went along the journey I met more refugees and we went to more places which is exactly the story—meeting people and going to different places that you weren’t aware of before.”

Fionn found working in a community kitchen in Calais, France towards the end of filming to be challenging.

He said: “It was really upsetting. I feel it’s like these big events like the refugees crisis and all these other things that happen become almost like a fashion statement and they’re popular for a time to talk about, and then they’re not. And currently it seems like people have sort of stopped talking about it a little bit. But the reality is there’s still thousands of displaced refugees in Calais.”

He continued: “We were there after the kind of ‘crisis’, technically, and there were so many refugees living next to a road, this kind of thing. The ones who have been lucky enough to get community housing, like 10 to a room kind of thing, it’s like these crazy dire circumstances they’re in.”

He added: “I’m really proud that we did the film, I’m really proud to be a part of it. I think it’s something we need to keep in people’s minds.”

During filming, the two leads faced something similar to what their characters experience on screen.

Sebastian said: “If you don’t mind me mentioning it Stéphane, in Morocco the people from West Africa have a hard time because they’re being identified immediately as being refugees or migrants and I think you had some situations where they didn’t let you into a restaurant or something?”

Stéphane replied: “Yeah, big time. They called me bad names in the street, they wouldn’t let me in some restaurants in Morocco too. That was hard. But it was really interesting for me, for the building of the character actually.”

Fionn added: “That happened when I was with you and I was so impressed by your discipline and obviously it shows my privilege and naivety that I got so annoyed and the person it was directed at—Stéphane—was totally chill about it. It’s exactly like in the film.”

Fionn and Stéphane took turns driving the RV through Morocco, Spain and France while Sebastian and his crew huddled in the back shooting footage of their trip. Surprisingly, Fionn only passed his driving test during pre-production.

He joked: “I think if we talk about this too much Sebastian’s going to have a panic attack.

“I read the script, finished reading it and before doing anything else, before calling my agent and talking to her about it, I went online and I booked my provisional driving license because I didn’t even have a provisional—I used my passport to get into places as ID.

“So I went online, booked that, and I just kept quiet throughout the audition process that I couldn’t drive. I was like, ‘If I get it then we can think about it then.’ And then I did get it and had the most stressful three months of my life trying to learn to drive.”

But the ‘worst’ was yet to come.

Fionn said: “A lot of the time when you drive in a film it’s done on the back of a truck. But on this film we actually drove loads so I still talk about that because it was so stressful.

“In order to drive the RV there was a camera scaffolded to the outside which obscured your vision. There was a load of crew allegedly illegally in this RV ducking behind stuff—there must have been like eight people in there or more. And it’s a terrible car, it cut out all the time.

“So we’re driving and doing all these scenes where it’s not just as simple as driving—Sebastian’s in the back lying down with a monitor so he’s out of vision from the camera going, ‘OK Fionn, look at Stéphane, look towards him,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, I am driving!’

“I had to throw these glances while looking at the road, drive while eating and at one point he was like, ‘Fionn, Stéphane’s going to untangle his headphones – you take the steering wheel.’ I was so keen, I was down to do all of this and in fear of my life. It was a happy medium between the two where I was like, ‘This is terrifying, this is amazing, this is terrifying, this is amazing.’”

He continued: “There’s a scene with the cruise control where we were driving on the motorway and you could only pull in to a lay-by every hour and a half. So we pull into one as we’re about to shoot this scene in the script that’s like, ‘They put on cruise control and change seats.’ Sebastian was like, ‘OK let’s do it, let’s go get it done.’ And I was really scared so I just went, ‘Can we maybe just practice it in the car park?’ And he went, ‘Oh yeah, of course.’

“And we didn’t even practice in the car park—Kenneth, the grip, a super great down-to-earth guy, came up to me and went, ‘Fionn, err, what’s going on? What are you going to do?’ And I said, ‘We’re going to change seats and use the cruise control.’ And he went, ‘NO. Sebastian!’”

Fionn also broke the RV—the only one they had for filming—during an initial practice run.

He said: “This RV is genuinely like one of two that exists. It’s such a specific model you can’t buy parts for it.

“So we were practicing, before we started filming, in Morocco. We were doing crazy stuff that day. There was this grid with metal poles sticking out of the ground—I don’t know what it was. There was like 10 foot in between each pole and it was in a grid formation. Andre, who was in charge of the vehicle, had to check himself that the RV even fitted through the gap. It only just fitted. And they got us to serpentine snake in and out of the thing, like driving in and out of these poles. So we did that, we both did it once fine.

“Did it a second time – he [Stéphane] killed it, I did it a second time and did it fine til the last one, we were relaxing into it and I just missed this pole. This vent that jutted out of the side of the RV just clipped the pole. And because the RV was made of like polystyrene basically it ripped the whole back of the RV, exposing all the batteries, the wires, everything. There’s actually video footage of it and you hear me go, ‘Oh!’ And there’s a massive crash. We got out and honestly my stomach fell out, I was terrified.”

Stéphane said: “And I was dying, I was just laughing my ass off.”

Fionn replied: “You were laughing and I was like, ‘Stop laughing at me, it’s not funny!’ And you were like, ‘I’m sorry man but it is.’”

He added: “It was a proper baptism of fire driving-wise for me. I haven’t driven since. I am terrified. No I have actually, that’s a lie, I have driven.” MM

Roads had its world premiere at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.

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