MovieMaker’s series “Foreign Contenders” will feature interviews with the heavyweight helmers behind their respective countries’ entries for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Each week, we’ll explore the subjects, issues and modes and means of production that have placed moviemakers’ foreign features in the running for international Oscar gold. The Academy releases their shortlist in December and will announce the eventual nominees in January. This year, a record 85 films have been submitted.
Prolific and memorable like few other international actors, Rade Šerbedžija has made his mark in the American film industry working with directors such as Stanley Kubrick, Guy Ritchie and Christopher Nolan, playing small roles in major studio productions. The immensely talented Šerbedžija has carved out a career that started out in the former Yugoslavia, a now-dismantled republic from which Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia and several other nations emerged. Although he was born in what today is considered Croatia, the actor’s connection to Macedonia is indelible.
In 1995, Šerbedžija starred in the Academy Award-nominated film Before the Rain, which represented Macedonia in the Best Foreign Language category. Today, over two decades later, his first film as a director, The Liberation of Skopje, is Macedonia’s entry in this year’s race. (It would be the country’s second nomination.) Set during World War II, the film is co-directed by Danilo Šerbedžija—Rade’s son and a prominent figure in the Croatian film industry—and centers on a young boy caught up in the horrors of war as his mother is forced to establish a strange relationship with a Nazi officer.
Šerbedžija also stars in the film as Gjorgjija, a Macedonian man who is involved with the resistance despite the harsh consequences of that choice. In this traditionally executed war drama, the actor-turned-director honors both the country that has shaped his career and a role he has repeatedly played on stage. MovieMaker had the pleasure of talking with Šerbedžija during his most recent visit to Los Angeles, both to promote the film and catch up with a long list of famous friends that have been part of his journey in Hollywood.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): You have worked with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars in your extensive career as an actor, yet you are making your debut as a director with The Liberation of Skopje. What was it about this story that pushed you to make that jump into the director’s chair?
Rade Šerbedžija (RS): As an actor, I used to direct a lot of things for theater. I’ve directed more than 15 theatrical productions, but this was the first time I directed a film and wrote a script. I wrote the script based on a beautiful play. We had a fantastic theater production in the beginning of the 1980s—with this production of The Liberation of Skopje, we won awards in America in 1982. We won an award for Best Production of the year, off-Broadway. We had a very successful theatrical tour with this play in the main cities of America, over two months, and we had a very big success in Australia. I won an award as Best Actor. All of these things were guarantees to me that this would make an interesting script. But the main reason that I picked it was that the main character of this story is a nine-year-old boy, who is watching all of these terrible things that happened in World War II; what happened with his family, with his neighbors, and the bombings, and he has a mother who is in a strange relationship with a young German officer. He grew up in such a terrible world, and I thought that these days, we are witnesses to all of these terrible wars in our world, and somehow we forget that young children are afraid. You can’t imagine how that feels, to be in the middle of a war and have that be the first experience of your life, all that violence. That was the main reason why I did this film.
MM: Your son Danillo is the co-director and your daughter Lucija is an actress in the film. Did it make it easier or more difficult to work alongside your children in this project?
RS: Both of them are very famous and talented artists in Croatia. My daughter is really one of the most famous young actresses in Croatia—so it’s not nepotism. I asked my son Danillo to help, because he’s a professional director. Also, I play one of the main characters in the story, and it was too difficult for me to handle it all.
MM: The acting aspect of the project came much more easily to you, I suppose?
RS: I’ve made more than 170 films, so I have a lot of experience, so it wasn’t too difficult for me to do this.
MM: In terms of working with actors, did you feel that your vast experience on set as a performer helped you to work with your fellow cast members in this film?
RS: Yes, I have this experience from the theater. Also, I work a lot at a professional academy, so I know this kind of business. My son knows a lot about the camera. He has real film experience as a director.
MM: The story is about Macedonia during the war, but you are from Croatia. While the countries are similar culturally, do you personally feel a connection to the Macedonian fight for freedom during this time?
RS: Macedonia and Croatia were part of the country we called Yugoslavia, and I was born in that country. I’ve worked in Macedonia: I played the main part in this famous Macedonian film Before the Rain, directed by Milcho Manchevski and we had big success with this film around the world. I’m very close to Macedonia culture. It was also one of the reasons I made this film in Macedonia. I love the music. I’m also a musician—I have recorded more than eight or nine albums, and I give concerts in Europe. I love Macedonian music; it’s some of the most beautiful music in the world.
MM: Macedonia is a small country with limited film production. How difficult was it to get such a large project off the ground there?
RS: It was a really big production for a small country like Macedonia, but we had a lot of support from the Ministry of Culture, and we received enough money to make this film. We got the highest amount, around $300,000, which is a big amount. We got the best reviews for our script, which helped. It was difficult, but in Macedonia, they have very rich and bombastic films, and there are a lot of fantastic people who make films, so it’s wasn’t that difficult, actually.
MM: Is directing something you would like to continue exploring or was this a especial occurrence?
RS: I have no plans to direct another film because it’s not my first calling. I’m still acting. I finished a film called The Promise that Terry George directed, with Christian Bale. It’s a beautiful film. It’s based on a true story from 1915, during the First World War, when the Turkish military killed thousands of innocent Armenian people. I played an Armenian mayor who took his whole village and moved them to the top of the mountain to escape from this genocide. What was interesting was that, when we were shooting this film in Austria last October, the same thing happened in another war-torn country and it was in the all major newspapers: a mayor of a small city took the entire town to the mountains to save them. It took place 100 years after the events we were recreating.
MM: What keeps you going after so many years in the industry, working in Hollywood and working back in Europe?
RD: That’s a good question! Right now, I’m living in Rijeka, on the Adriatic Sea. I lived in Los Angeles, and in London before that—I actually lived 18 years outside of my own country, working in the film business in many international projects. When I moved back to my country I founded the Academy for Dramatic Arts at the Rijeka University, and I’m running this academy as a professor. I’ve got wonderful young students, and it makes me so happy, I love doing this. Also, with my wife—who is a theater director, and directed Euripides’ Medea in Los Angeles with Annette Bening—we are running a theater on the beautiful island of Brijuni in the Adriatic Sea. We’ve been running a theater festival for 16 years. I’ve been playing King Lear for 16 years, every summer. Lots of my friends have come to visit, like Vanessa Redgrave and Lynn Redgrave. Ralph Fiennes came to visit last year. I enjoy it so much, working on our theater, which is becoming more and more known to the world. And I’m still working in films. I still have the energy to work, because I love to do this.
Tech Box (by Co-Director Danilo Serbedzija)
Danilo Šerbedžija (DS): We used two Alexa cameras. Since we had a lot of scenes and settings, we decided to shoot most of the scenes with two cameras. One camera always was the main one and the other usually captured some detail or followed the main actor in the scene. We did this not only to save time but also because we wanted to capture actors in their first takes. I think most of the time actors give their best in the first few takes.
We didn’t shoot on the film because of budget and because we could shoot much faster this way. In perfect world, with two more weeks of shooting and a much bigger budget, I would for sure shoot on film.
Color grading was done by MyTherapy in London. We chose one scene from all different situations—exterior daytime, exterior nighttime, interior daytime, exterior daytime—and once we decided on the look for those situations, we started to grade other scenes depending on their location. We wanted a realistic look with a little bit of warmth. The only one that is much different from the other scenes is the dream sequence, where we added some not-so-realistic colors to differ them from other situations.
Even though there is one main location, the Potevski house, we had many other locations all over Macedonia. We shot in three different cities since it was not possible to shoot everything in Skopje—because Skopje’s old town is full of new buildings built after a big earthquake in the ’60s. The main street and Potevski house were actually shot in the town of Bitola, a small town in south Macedonia. The opening scene was shot in Veles. MM