Toni Erdmann: Conversation With Maren Ade

© Iris-Janke

To celebrate its release in the UK this Friday, the second in our Toni Erdmann “double bill” of interviews is the conversation we had with its director Maren Ade during the London Film Festival, where the film was chosen as the gala for the Laugh strand and became one of the most talked-about titles of the programme.

One of our favourites of the year, Toni Erdmann is up for eight Rober Awards. Among them, Ade herself for best director and original screenplay.

Radiating with good humour but joking about feeling confused with so many interviews, the chatty German director talked about her writing process; the way she works with actors; her production company and the current state of the film industry.

(By Roberto González)

Congratulations on your film. First, what was the driving force to focus it in the relationship between daughter and father? Was that always the key aspect or was it something you wanted to play with?

Yes. It really started with the combination of these two. A father who’s this prankster, someone who has this repertoire of humour, who has a daughter he has lost, in a way, to a globalised world, but also because she became an adult. I had a little plot in mind. It wasn’t too complicated. Just the visit of a father to his daughter that at a certain point changes into him getting to know her better.

I was interested in these family structures for a long time, because a family is sometimes something hard to escape, in which everybody has achieved a certain role over the years, whether liking it or not. It’s something very heavy because you can change so much in your life, but not where you come from. I thought that would be a good theme to start from. Or it could be a good adventure for two people who actually should know each other very well to start a game in which they meet again as strangers.

There was also a lot of research involved. The whole business world and how it works, which is something I knew nothing about. Several things coming into it. It was a long process.

The father/daughter relationship is actually quite rare in cinema, unless we talk about something like ‘Taken’.

Yes, for me it’s so normal to talk about father and daughter. Father and son, I know nothing about. That’s maybe because there are not enough women…but you are right. I also tried to find films which dealt with this subject.

But even Toni Erdmann comes to the rescue, even if he does it in a different way than an action hero.

Yes. He’s an action hero, or he tries to be, but she doesn’t want to get rescued. Do you think that’s rare? Or you think usually the father rescues the daughter?

I guess the question is why do you think it’s so rare? But it indeed falls in the same old trope of father rescuing daughter.

Yes, I find that also funny. Or perhaps funny is not the right word. I mean, it’s mostly sad that Winfried feels he should do something, but hasn’t got the weapons anymore, so he doesn’t know how to approach his daughter. He just has the feeling that he’s kind of lost her. For me, nothing special has happened in the past between them. There hasn’t been a big drama. It’s just the relationship felt a bit asleep. But the rescuing thing…yes. He’s also annoying for her. She knows he wants something from her. He’s maybe not so happy about her corporate lifestyle. Also, his daughter feels that’s something that if she was a son, it would be different. Maybe Winfried wouldn’t have the need to rescue him.

How do you work on the relationship between the two actors?

I rehearse a lot. I think it’s very important that the two actors meet a lot before shooting, so we all get to know each other. For such a realistic film you work with what they are, so you need to know them well, to know when they are acting. Also, they need to have a connection. In the end it’s not important what they are thinking or feeling, because I work pretty much on each scene and not on where things come from, so they need to have a relationship before.

We spent time reading the script. We made a lot of the castings for the other roles together. And for those ones, I always write new scenes because I don’t want to use the real script. It’s like a side work that won’t be in the film but serves as a rehearsal. They also work on improvising the script. They read it, but then we put it away. I try not to work too much on the dialogues beforehand. I leave that open for the shooting day. And (at that moment) they prepare themselves. It also pleases them to learn only then the text and not preparing it or be emotionally ready with anticipation.

We also met a lot of business people. We went to many of their presentations so she (Sandra Hüller) could observe their body language. That’s something she wanted to do and was very necessary.

RA: Why do you reckon this film crosses German borders so well? French audiences wouldn’t naturally identify with German consultants in Romania and then it has been so well received there, and internationally. Why do you reckon it is so universal?

I’m surprised too. I mean, it’s a special type of father and daughter, but still there’s this very universal family subject. Also, the business world, this economy thing is something universal. It exists everywhere. I’m surprised that it works for so many nationalities. I always try to leave something open for the viewer to walk around for himself in a film. For me it’s more about raising a question than giving an answer. I think out of every perspective and the result that I want is that there’s enough space for everybody to make the film their own. Or at least I hope for that.

RA: I’m very interested in your writing process. You wrote a fantastic script and particularly with comedy getting the timing right it’s very difficult. There are various aspects I would like to know how you dealt with. First is the tone, the sense of humour, those quirky, corny jokes meeting very scathing views about society. And then, the pacing. How did you introduce all the gags in the script? Particularly at the end, it seems like every five minutes you get an even more hilarious surprise than the former one. How was the process of putting them altogether?

Yes, it was good. I just went through the script because I had to reconstruct it a bit. I was writing during the shooting. Small things, I didn’t change much, but i went through it almost three years ago. (The final version) is really close to the film. Jokes like the naked party for example. I put it in the script but when reading it I wasn’t sure whether it would work. It felt strange. Suddenly she’s doing this naked party and it feels like you are in another movie; that you have actually left the main plot completely. And this nakedness is something you have to see. The effect is so much stronger when you see it than when you read it. This was something that I became more convinced about in the rehearsals. A naked rehearsal that we taped to see if that would made sense.

With the character of Toni, I was very careful about how to shape it. When I was writing it, I was always saying to myself “OK, now you can write on everything you want. Think of the most crazy things and stupid dialogues.” (I allowed myself) to go over the top as much as I liked and afterwards I became my own “art police.” I went through it and gave it the right tone suited to the role. I always had to find that thing with which you can still see Winfried. That’s what makes it emotional or risky, the fact that he’s like a real person who’s trying to act or to play someone else. I was always trying not to make it too inventive, as did the actors afterwards. The actors never wanted to be funny. The fun comes from something happening to the characters or when they start something and cannot stop it. It’s a mixture of writing with being precise about the intention the characters have, about what they need. Why is he making a joke? Why is she getting undress for? Without that, I would have lost the psychological development. You would have stopped identifying with them.

A lot of things that are funny later on the film are actually some of the character’s most desperate moments. While working on it, we talked a lot about the desperation and I thought this could become hilarious in the end, but at that point it was not important to think about them in terms of being funny. That would have killed it. If the boss standing naked at the door would have had in mind that it was funny…That thought was completely forbidden. Sometimes it felt much more dramatic on shooting days than what it was in the end.

Regarding the naked scene, it makes sense in the whole movie because of the themes of intimacy versus globalization. You have been able to bring back a sense of the character’s childhood into them, through gestures or small rituals. Is that something you were trying to do?

Yes. I tried to do that…that’s the thing with parents. The father is coming, but he hasn’t built a relationship with his daughter as an adult, so all their childhood rituals are still there. He calls her “Spaghetti”… They cannot escape this because that’s the last time they were connected. In both sides there’s a longing for that but (their relationship) it’s a sinking island, so they have to find a new way.

With the actors we didn’t discuss that so much. For Peter (Simonischek), we talked about how it was. It was clear for us they had a good relationship, especially when she was a child. That he was somehow her hero. We needed something that was lost because there’s a lot of pain involved when something is gone. At the same time, she’s longing for a more adult relationship with him. She doesn’t want to be “small” as she once was.

I would like to ask about the scene when Sandra Hüller sings Whitney’s song in front of everybody at a party. Did you think there was a line you might overstep or just thought, “Go for it”?

We taped eight very boring versions of the singing, because I wanted Sandra to sing but she wasn’t sure about it. She thought it was not right to give away too much and I agreed, particularly because the naked party, which means an opening of something, was coming afterwards. Such a big scene singing the song could have killed the vibe. It could be perceived as the end of the film. But then, I decided we would try it that way. One of the versions of the song was a Las Vegas-like parody. I reminded her of this version and asked her to repeat all the aggression it entailed. She was feeling aggressive anyway because she had to do it once and again and got really bored.

With singing it was difficult. When you go over dialogues you can be very precise but with singing a song you are more like a football coach. You can’t just say two things and then the actor has to go through them. Finally, Sandra gave a very strong rendition and it was a very nice moment during the shooting. But I still had doubts, even when I knew she gave the best of herself. The make-up artist was crying and all. Yet I needed something in between, not so big, to make sure the scene would work. I had to go there and ask her if she could do it again but not so intensely. Moments like this are very dark for a director, because everybody hates you then, and you hate yourself.

I think the most devastating part of the movie is when Winfried asks his daughter “Are you human?” And I would like you to comment on the fact that it seems that a woman needs to be tougher to succeed in this kind of environment -and I guess there’s a similar attitude in filmmaking. As a female director do you think you need to be more removed and less humane?

It depends which type of film you do. It’s a leading position you have. Filmmaking can also be cruel because the whole film is sometimes put very high over the individuals working on it. So it can become very inhumane in very different ways. There are a lot of things involved (in business) similar to filmmaking, I found. But when Winfried asks that, it means just some sort of stupid joke. Also it’s an annoying question because it’s too simple to ask. He should know her better. That’s the type of criticism he suppresses. It comes out in stupid approaches like that. He’s not really honest with his opinions as a father, should have been more open with her.

You are also the producer of the film. As well as directing, writing, etc..How did you manage?

I am one of the them. And it’s good to be all of it together. I didn’t do the daily work of a producer, it wouldn’t have been possible while directing. There were two other producers. When I step too much on the production side, there’s no more director. So I have to stay on my position and fight for things, especially during the shooting period. I actually studied production when I was at film school. And then I changed halfway through my studies because I wanted to become a director. I’m very happy that I have that knowledge and a sense for it, otherwise I would not be now the producer of a film that is finally so successful. It would be a pain not to be able to participate.

RA: Carrying on the production side of things, you took five months to go to Romania and shoot locations, then a year to shoot and six months to edit. It took a long time! Is that one of the reasons why you created your own production company – to maintain the freedom and independence when you shoot- so no one can rush you?

It was even longer! It was a year editing, but doesn’t matter.

Yeah, we also work with other directors, not producers, but we keep that spirit in our company. We want to make the best films. With a film you don’t have so many chances. At least, If you want to make one every four, even every seven years. You need to really invest into them. We found out that films just get better the longer you work on them. It’s that simple. It’s a luxury, but we invested in that time. Even in my former film there were also many shooting days and a lot of footage. Not so much on the technical side, which I tried to keep simple.

The way you spend your money it’s a very creative process. It always means something for the story, for the film in the end. That’s why it all belongs together for me. It’s too expensive to not think about it.

RA: A double question comes to mind. I’ve seen that among other projects you have co-produced many of Miguel Gomes’ films. I wanted to know how that collaboration came to fruition. Did he have any input on Toni Erdmann or any of your other works as a director? The second one, is you have got direct knowledge about the current state of cinema and the difficulties producers and directors face. What’s your opinion about the situation of cinema in Germany and the whole of Europe at the moment?

About Miguel, when he was touring ‘Our Beloved Month Of August’ (2008) we met at a festival. We were both with our respective producers and found out that our two companies shared similar ideas. There was a retrospective of all his work and it was really a big thing for me to discover what he did because he’s very free on everything he does. Free and radical. There’s this realism on one side, but there’s a lot of emotion too. We met once and I gave him (the script of) Toni Erdmann. He really liked it and we talked about the film, but he hasn’t seen it yet. So there’s still a risk he might not like the film that I like a lot. We will see!

And about European Cinema, it is so different in every country. I think still in Germany we are in a privileged position because we have good funding. Yet there’s not enough. Everybody is looking at France where people have another education for cinema and goes to see a certain type of film that in Germany would be more complicated to get an audience for. Toni Erdmann was released successfully. I have the feeling that once the films are in the cinema, the public will like them, but it’s just complicated to get them there.

Your film’s sense of humour has an “extraterrestrial” element to it. Do you think comedy feels a bit alien among the current film offering where genre films prevail over anything else?

Comedy is not an easy genre. For me pure comedy, meaning that I want to make an audience laugh is not that important…It’s more that I had this character, Winfried, playing comedy for his daughter and doing it out of desperation. Toni opened the door for comedy, but it came more from the drama side of things. However, I would not say I’m pretty sure I won’t do another comedy next.

The masturbation scene feels like they are playing a kind of fiction as well. He is masturbating like he had seen a lot of films…

Everybody is playing a role. That’s also a problem for Ines. She has a lot of roles. Even being a daughter or a girlfriend is a role. The consultants are playing their role in the way they would like to see themselves. This is a topic that interested me in general. That sex scene for me is also the discussion they had about humour in a way. Is the first Toni Erdmann moment and Ines’ father was very courageous, so that inspires her on a complete different occasion. She’s trying that out just to step aside and see what happens when she does something different of what she’d normally do.

Tony Erdmann is released in the UK on Friday the 3rd of February.

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