“This film rocked my world.” So said Berlinale 2015 jury president Darren Aronofsky as he awarded cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen an Outstanding Artistic Contribution Silver Bear for his work on Victoria.
Actor-turned-director Sebastian Schipper’s 134-minute film follows its eponymous heroine (played by the bravura Spanish actress Laia Costa) in one continuous shot as she dances in a subterranean techno club, meets a rowdy gang of charming thugs led by the earnest Sonne (Frederick Lau), flirts on a high-rise rooftop, does the bidding of a vicious gangster, drives a getaway van for bank robbers, and evades a police manhunt. All told, Victoria traverses 22 Berlin locations and crosses paths with 150 extras in the wee hours before dawn.
We’ll repeat that—one continuous shot, with no CGI trickery. We convinced Schipper to spill his secret recipe, which included months of planning, six assistant directors, a trio of sound units, and one gigantic leap of faith.
Jeff Meyers, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): I really want to get a sense of how you put this thing together. Did the script come first, or the idea of shooting something in one continuous shot?
Sebastian Schipper (SS): It cannot really be divided. The initial idea was to shoot the bank robbery in one take. Actually, I got that very first idea for this during my fifth year of working on a paranoia-thriller script with Tom Tykwer, director of Run Lola Run, that I would never finish. I continued not to get anywhere with it. You know, you start off wanting to be a filmmaker and a couple of years later you are sitting at this goddamn desk with these notes. You have to write a draft and then another one and another one. It’s just so far away from what you ever imagined. You’re like, “Yeah, I’m a filmmaker, this is my job and I’m blessed and I should be thankful,” but it really can become so tedious. You can’t even hate anyone. You just think, “I’m not good enough.”
I had a dream of robbing a bank, and of course I knew I wouldn’t do it, but I thought, “Wow, what if I did?” I thought, “Obviously, I’m not going to do that. No, I’m a filmmaker—I can make a film about a bank robbery!” Even that thought underwhelmed me, because it would’ve taken me another year of writing, and then the execution. That sparked my eventual idea: to do a very boring, very ordinary bank robbery, and not make it an experience.
MM: Talk about the idea to have it all be one take.
SS: The one-take movie, on the map of filmmaking, is like an island where some people say they have been to, but you never know if they really have. Have they really walked around that island? Have they explored it?
We really couldn’t talk to anyone about our 22-location bank robbery film. So we were on our own. When you are on your own, you have got to make your own rules and that is a scary thing. It is also a very liberating thing, because you’re also free of thoughts of, “Oh we’ve got to do it better than that film.”
MM: Laia Costa was saying that you rehearsed for about two months.
SS: We spent time on it for two months. Here’s the thing, I don’t cast many actors—I invite one actor and I work with them. I tell them, “I want you to be the guy or the girl”, and if that doesn’t work, I invite somebody else. I think the first guy I got was Freddy, who plays Sonne, and then I cast Laia Costa. I was shooting at a hotel in Barcelona, and she lived there, so we flew Freddy in, and for a couple of hours I had them improvise on a scene in my hotel room. I would think of a scene that involved everyone who was already cast. Being an actor myself, I know most movie actors don’t like to rehearse. I want my film to have a feeling of being cooked fresh, right there at your table.
MM: Was the script defined? Were they prepared for it the way they might prepare for theater, or was there going to be a certain amount of improvisation?
SS: Yes, the latter. They were given a script that was 12 pages, and I think some of them, like Boxer [Franz Rogowski], never read those 12 pages, which was absolutely OK with me. The script was not a huge thing that they learned by heart and then executed. It was an improvisation that expressed a certain kind of limitation that does not exist. For example, in free jazz a “limit” does not exist. Anybody who knows anything about jazz knows that it is probably the most intellectual kind of music that can be played. It’s an act of concentration that you have to listen to a lot. The idea was to do something different, and the DNA of this film is different from most films.
MM: I’m interested in the kind of situation you have, where everybody understands the restraints they are working under within this improvisational atmosphere. You know you can’t make a six hour movie, yet you want it to be a continuous shot, so how do you keep the trains on time?
SS: I once had an editor who always said, “If you make a film, you have to watch it a lot. First thing every day, we are going to watch this film. For a week.” As a filmmaker, you try to get out of that, because it can get kind of boring. But before he pushed the button, he always said, “OK, entertain me, motherfucker!” If it’s entertaining, it’s good.
So with Victoria I was like, “If it’s entertaining for six hours, then it will be six hours long.” But the story was not made for six hours. You have to shape it to the right length. I realized I wanted it to be under two hours, or around that.
MM: Is that something you figured out during the rehearsal process?
SS: On the first night of rehearsal, we shot these 10-minute takes. We filmed her on the dance floor all night, until the scene where they steal the beer and are heading out to the street. And this was shot under real conditions—all the extras, everything. After we filmed each take, I put the camera down, and told them what I liked, what I didn’t like, and said, “Let’s do it again.” Sometimes I had to watch the footage; sometimes I just knew by walking behind the camera: “Guys, you’ve got to be more charming; you’ve got to be more friendly; you can’t be so drunk; you’ve got to be more drunk. Let’s do it again.” So, we did that all night. That is what we did throughout the process, until the very end.
My first AD and my second AD were just great. With Sturla, the cinematographer, the key idea for what he was doing was war photography. I always wanted the perspective of a war photographer, who couldn’t anticipate or know what would happen next. It was a guy who follows a girl and he can’t believe what is happening and he just keeps on rolling because he is just filming this girl, dancing.
It became more and more obvious that the actors could perform, but they had to learn was to not be afraid, and at the same time, stay focused. For example, everybody was afraid to fuck it up during the first take, so nobody took a risk and everybody performed really well, but it was really boring. It was probably what soccer is like for most Americans. Since we’re all soccer people over here in Europe, I told them, “Guys, let’s lose 0-7, but let’s not play it this way.” You’ve got to take risks. You can’t be afraid of mistakes. Then we shot the second take and everything went out of control. They thought they had to invent every scene, and it was horrible.
After these 10-minute slices, we had already filmed the entire film. So, I told everybody, “If [the single-take idea] does not work, we do a jump-cut version. This is just for shits and giggles. This is just for a shot in the dark. We already have the film. We’ve got it, it’s wonderful. A jump-cut, super-crazy super heist,” which was a lie. I said this to empower them, make their fears go away, and get them to focus. But I knew 48 hours before we did the final take that we only had the money to do this one last take, and that we didn’t have anything yet.
MM: The one real-time take, which is essentially the movie, you just did that once?
SS: No, we did it three times.
MM: So you have three versions of this movie in real time?
MM: You had three sets of sound people leapfrogging over each other, from location to location, and you had 22 locations. What did you shoot on?
SS: We had a very small budget and shot on the Canon C300. We had to buy one and it looks beautiful and I’m a little bit cocky about that.
MM: And what was your crew size?
SS: I think we were around 30 people on set, and the special force police. It was a pretty good crowd. We probably looked like a film student crew and at moments not even that. There are many moments when the streets are not blocked. In the scene where they’re escaping from the bank, they actually drive through traffic. I made it a part of the story that they have to obey traffic laws, stop at red lights, and abide by the book. My cinematographer was on his knees and unsecured in the car while filming. If the cops had seen him at the wrong time it could have been the end of the film. Actually, in the scene when Blinker [Burak Yigit] gets his panic attack, there is nobody there except the actors, the cinematographer, and me.
MM: Were you using the in-camera microphone for that?
SS: No, they were all mic’d. We drove with our car and had three sound units in alternating locations. The guy would boom one scene and move on to the next location when possible. We did some rehearsing, and there was always the microphone in the picture at some point. I had an intensive talk with my sound guy and said, “You cannot boom this, because there will be microphones in the picture the way it is set up.” But the sound team just continued to do it anyways, which was terrifying for me as a director because I could not micromanage.
MM: Right, you didn’t have a controlled set.
SS: If one drop of rain had fallen onto the lens, what were we going to do? Let it evaporate? At the same time it was huge, amazing, and breathtaking. The most wonderful thing that can happen to you is if everyone has full responsibility. A friend of mine is a specialist in teaching companies how to work with a flat hierarchy. The example she uses is that of a nuclear plant. People who work in these plants cannot just do what they are told—they must have a level of responsibility because they cannot wait for their boss. My movie was the same way, and everyone had responsibilities on set. Everybody knew what they were doing, and everybody was wide-awake and super-proud. I know you have probably been on sets with a lot of standing around and waiting and donut-eating, and you can’t blame people a lot of times.
I produced Victoria myself and I think that was the only way to do this film. There is a very natural division between a producer and a director and I think that’s very functional and good, but that gap does not exist for Victoria. There are so many aspects of this film where a professional producer would have said, “This is not possible.” But then the budget becomes big, it becomes a number in your head, in your heart, in your soul, in your balls, whatever—it’s all over your system, doing something to everybody, and it can be very destructive. We were paying people half of what they would get normally but they were all gung-ho for this project.