An interview with Latvian film producer Alise Ģelze
Odrija Fišere 18/05/2016
Translated by Laima Ruduša
Alise Ģelze’s and her colleague Aija Bērziņa’s names have repeatedly appeared in the press in the last two months. In February, their produced film, Mellow Mud, (“Es esmu šeit”, directed by Renārs Vimba), received the Crystal Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival in its official competition presentation, section Generation 14plus, and was followed by a successful premiere in Latvia. Arterritory.com has invited Alise Ģelze for a chat. This is now the producer’s second film which she has taken to the Berlin Festival. In 2013, Jānis Nords’ feature film Mother, I Love You (“Mammu, es tevi mīlu”) was awarded the Grand Prix by an international jury in the Berlinale competition section Generation. It also received the Lielais Kristaps award for the best Latvian film of the year. Another of Alise Ģelze’s produced works, the Mārtiņš Grauds’ directed short-film “Lust Lust”, earned the main prize at the A Shaded View of Fashion FilmFestival, for films on fashion and style.
Having studied editing and film-making in Luxembourg and Iceland, Alise says that she works with motion film that is based on a good story: “I[…] always try to make films that I would gladly watch afterwards”. She admits that she is a perfectionist, and even though she trusts the director, she always wants to make sure that everything is done as intended. It is important for Alise that the director takes her opinion into account during the film’s production process, and anything that is unclear is discussed and debated. But the main thing in the initial decision-making process – to begin production work or not – is to determine whether she is on the same wavelength as the director: “when he articulates to me what good cinema is, then I understand it the same way”.
A scene from the film “Es esmu šeit” (Mellow Mud). Photo: Emīls Desatņikovs
You have secured a second success at the Berlin International Film Festival with a coming-of-age film. What benefited the script then? Do you have an already ascertained path in the field of coming-of-age films?
Not really. The script, as well as the idea to work with Renārs [Vimba] came to me via Gatis Šmits. He had read the idea draft: a family saga about a brother and a sister who live alone in the countryside. I was intrigued. My colleague Aija Bērziņa knew Renārs from somewhere else, and had also heard about his idea. When Renārs gave us the scriptment (a thorough script without dialogue) to read – it instantly felt like there was something there! You could feel the story pulling you in; you would think about it. The sketched-out dialogue felt very natural, and immediately made you think about the dramatic composition. Sometimes when you read a script, you don’t necessarily understand the connections between characters, or why they act a certain way, and the dialogue isn’t very successful; some basic issues take over your mind. Here, this wasn’t the case. Afterwards, of course, we went through a classical script development stage: first, an initial script version formed; then we participated in script development workshops where we took note of various suggestions from professionals. Later on we involved a script consultant as well. If the director writes the script himself, it’s hard; there is no dialogue. Therefore, we made this decision together. We had a great connection – he somehow naturally comprehended the script, and Renārs as a director, too. In Latvia there’s the assumption that one must fear the script consultant, as he might try and steer the story into some certain direction and according to correct drama composition. In our case, he was very open in relation to the fact that different countries have distinctive story-telling traditions. There needn’t be only one kind of rhythm, dialogue or dramatic escalation. Rather, he asked precise questions about characters where something wasn’t entirely clear. We polished the script up to a point – we understood that we could go no further, and that the next step of the script would be shaped in the film-making process. In that sense, it was a good schooling to all involved. But actually, it can evolve in many different ways – there have been times when a director comes with a ready script, or sometimes a script is rushed, and then it is rewritten on set – sometimes successfully, other times not. Each director works differently. For example, for the first time I just experienced that the script’s English version could subsequently be transferred into the film’s subtitles – the director had filmed precisely according to the script.
Dita Rietuma, Head of the Nacionālais kino centrs (National Film Centre of Latvia), Aija Bērziņa and Alise Ģelze, Producers of the film “Es esmu šeit” (Mellow Mud) Director Renārs Vimba, Dace Melbārde, the Minister for Culture at the Berlin Film Festival. Publicity photo
Did the script speak to you on a professional or personal level?
Personal. As a professional, you can judge whether there is potential or not. I always try to make films that I would gladly watch afterwards. There is no point in spending so much time on a film that I wouldn’t have any interest in watching afterwards. Of course, there are always doubts; you think – what if only I, or only the people involved, think that it will be a good film? When the filming is done, there is a kind of collapse – because you had envisioned something a certain way, but the director saw it differently; still, you have to accept it. Obviously, editing can also radically change things. That’s the next step: there are many discussions in which one thinks a certain way, and the other – differently, and we search for the golden midway.
Yet the most important thing for me at any initial decision-making period is to determine whether I am on the same wavelength as the director: when he articulates to me what good cinema is, then I understand it the same way. So that it doesn't turn out that we are on opposite ends, each trying to discuss our own thing, never meeting in the middle. There have been many situations where, initially, you think: “We’re talking about the same thing”, but then you start working and realize that, in fact, there is no meeting point.
What do you do in such cases?
Then I decline the project, and quite quickly. Such things are apparent quite early on. It doesn’t mean that the director or scriptwriter doesn’t go on to make a great film, just that we don’t agree. And if we don’t agree at the very beginning, then that’s a key signal that we won’t agree further along, when filming begins, and even more so when we try and finish the film. In some way, it’s a marriage of sorts – either we can stand it: we’ll argue, struggle, and then be happy; or we’ll argue, struggle, and in the end, have nothing to show for it. Hatred and love – all the time.
Renārs Vimba and Alise Ģelze on set during the filming of “Es esmu šeit” (Mellow Mud). Photo: Emīls Desatņikovs
How much do you interfere in the creative process?
It’s important for me that the director hears me out. I don’t consider the producer to be someone who only provides a platform on which a director can express himself as he wishes, with unlimited amplitude, and without consulting or listening to my – as an involved party’s – opinion. Clearly, I am not one of those people who say: “It’ll be like this, and if you don’t comply, our collaboration is over”. We must have a dialogue. For example, if I feel like something isn’t really working in the script, then I actually try and understand why the director thinks that it does. If he is able to rationally explain to me why something is significant for the character’s development, which I might not have initially seen, then I get it – “okay, you convinced me”. If he can’t convince me, then most likely we will argue some more – until we reach a compromise. But sometimes there are certain nuances in which you realize that you have to give way. Of course, it’s a risk. In any case, it’s been proven that if there are any unresolved questions at the beginning, they will return – and most likely, during editing, where it quite simply just gets cut and ultimately doesn’t stay in the film.
I am a perfectionist, I can’t trust anyone 100%. I trust the director, but I always have to make sure that 'everything is great, everything is happening; everything is all right'.
One film producer compared his work to a situation in which one must control several cats that are each running in their own direction. Namely, the producer is the one trying to steer everyone along the same road, so that they all head in the same direction.
Yes, but there is another aspect as well – it’s also dependent on the director. There are many kinds of directors, and the greatest fortune is to work with a director whose idea and vision captures that vast pack of cats and takes them all in the desired direction. One who can handle the large group of people involved; it might be hard, everyone might fuss, there might be multiple opinions, but nevertheless, they continue to follow in the direction that he has drawn up. There might be situations in which you, as a producer, have to help others see the director, as he mightn’t have the power to pull everyone along. But in my inner, deeper quintessence, I believe that the director is the one to direct the people. I will never be a producer who says, “Listen, I think this composer is good, or you should work with this film editor.” I can suggest something, however, I would feel safer in my own position if the director could compellingly make the end decisions. And just as I don’t interfere in the director’s work, I don’t like the director interfering in mine; cinema is actually a quite structured affair. For instance, there might be some situations on a film-set in Latvia where something overlaps, but outside of Latvia – when you're working on an international team – it is absolutely strictly defined who is even allowed to say what and where on set, and how they are to behave. The ideal combination – the ideal trio – is the operator, director and first assistant. They have to be above it all, and they’re not allowed to get into deeper relationships with the group, so as not to lose their vision and main goal. The moment this trio breaks up, the film material shatters. But it’s about chemistry – sometimes it clicks, other times it doesn’t.
Sometimes you become a 'psychotherapist' and attempt to understand why something happened a certain way – you try to resolve intrigues, change the atmosphere on set; you resolve inter-relational problems because everyone comes with their own ambitions. There are always constant bumps, and you have to try and balance everything, including on a psychological level.
Renārs Vimba, Director of “Es esmu šeit” (Mellow Mud) and Operator Arnars Torisons. Photo: Emīls Desjatņikovs
Which stage of the film-making process do you enjoy the most?
I like the post-production stage the most. It’s a magical moment when you’ve pulled off harder or easier filming – which, as a producer, you can’t influence much, and I don’t think you need to either, as it’s the director’s responsibility, after all. Then you get very involved in the editing. I am not afraid of watching the first edit, as well as all the rest, as it’s important for me to see what decisions the director has made – especially if we’re working together for the first time. Through that you understand where it will take you. Whether you’ve been right, and your trust in the director was justified; or not fully, and whether you will ever even work together again. It’s discerned precisely through the editing process because that is where the director must make many very difficult decisions. In any case, I have not experienced a director who has watched the filmed material and felt overly pleased. Usually the director is greatly disappointed – because imagining how something will look is one thing, and then seeing what has come of it all is something else; and then comes the point at which you really have to start working with the filmed material. I know it’s very hard for directors to receive the filmed material – to recognize what has taken place. For me, obviously, it seems more fun – you are closer to finishing, and to understanding whether it’s good or bad. Of course, you also have this immense curiosity; I often sneak a peak at the draft material. Also, if the director has some doubts, I take a look to see whether or not there really is any reason to worry.
Have you had any curious or funny incidents during the filming process? Maybe during your last film?
Nothing happened like that in Renārs’ film. Currently, with Jānis Nords, we’re filming “Ar putām uz lūpām” (With Foam on Our Lips) – a drama with thriller elements based on an American script. It’s a somewhat ambitious and powerful project. Aside from human actors, dogs play three of the roles. I think things might go quite curiously with them. I hope that Vilis Daudziņš, who plays the lead role, will survive… I think that he has had a somewhat harsh experience so far. I keep hearing from the set that the dogs have bitten him a little through his suit again… (Laughs).
I remember a situation with the very same Vilis Daudziņš on the film set for “Seržanta Lapiņa atgriešanās” (The Return of Sergeant Lapiņš). There’s that famous scene in which [Andris] Keišs pokes him in the bum with a candlestick. The make-up artist had forgotten to put padding there for that scene… The scene used in the film was the take in which it happened for real (laughs).
I think that this film-in-the-making will have a few interesting situations in relation to poor Vilis… I certainly wouldn’t want to be an actress. There was a scene planned for Jānis’ film in which the main character was supposed to drown in a freezing ice-hole; I would never sign up for something like that!
I was justabout to ask you whether you have ever thought about acting, or making a film as a director?
No! I believe that a director is a different kind of person. One must have some very precise personal characteristics to be a good director. First of all, you must be able to convince so many people to follow your idea. No other art form, I believe, involves such a vast group of people executing one person’s vision. And you must have the ability to isolate yourself completely – that is a mystery to me, still. Working on the film set, you actually have to already start editing in your mind: see how one episode will coincide with the next. Besides, throughout the whole film, you must be able to carry through a character’s development, as well as character relationships. Despite all of the hundreds of different details taking place on screen, you must have the ability to concentrate on the layers – the story, the dramatic composition, the relationships, for the characters not to be theatrical, for the dialogue to be natural and to also reference that same development of the story and characters. There are so many nuances! I don’t think I could ever concentrate so much! Moreover, the director’s personality must be rather egotistic. I am always concerned about a director if the group comments – “what fantastic filming, such a great atmosphere, everything is so positive, a wonderful director!” The director can’t be wonderful on set. I have never experienced the making of film in which the group hasn’t complained about the director’s attitude towards them. That’s normal; that’s how it should be. Because at the moment when the director is trying to please and praise everyone, in his deepest essence he is not attaining the maximum level of accomplishment on set that he could. I discovered that fact when I was filming ads at Angels [Film Angels Studio – ed. note]. When everything is great, well-filmed, and no hardships to speak of – the result is not as great. Good directors are good directors precisely because of their specific personality traits.
Having an attitude…
Yes; you can’t make a good film without that attitude. That’s my conclusion.
On set during the filming of “Es esmu šeit” (Mellow Mud). Photo: Emīls Desatņikovs
What three words would you say best describe the current state of the world of cinema?
The story, its originality – that’s the hardest part. I am fascinated when the story is very simple, but at the same time, original. Secondly: the actors that the director selects. Thirdly: the originality of the execution. I attend many festivals and watch many films. Sometimes I think – that's a good film, but something is missing. Every time you think something is missing, you come to realize that it’s the originality of execution. In that mass of films – which are currently made in just crazy quantities due to the fact that practically anyone can make a film now – for you to stand out and be special, you must be able to be original (and that is ridiculously hard!). I think – what could even be an original form of expression nowadays? Yet, there still are directors who you recognize after the first few minutes into the film. That is originality. I think that’s the greatest skill that one can’t learn – you either have it or you don’t. Maybe it’s a certain way in which you create the frame, or a certain type of rhythm, or a particular color scale, or a way in which you tell a story that marks your certain handwriting. There aren’t that many films that you remember in the end. I sometimes think – I see so many every year, but I only remember three or four. And why? Because there was something special that stayed in my mind. And, of course, the story.
What is your next great challenge?
This very project with Nords. We are planning it for the beginning of next year. The selling agent already has interest in the film, and he wants to see the materials – so that we can start thinking about which global festival to have our premiere in. The second challenge will be Juris Kursietis’ project “Oļeg”, in which everything takes place in Belgium. The main character is a non-resident who falls victim to the Polish meat mafia in Belgium. Clearly, we won’t be able to get out of actually filming in Belgium, which will be a great challenge.
But do you also have a great, noble aim?
Obviously, every director wants to make it to Cannes. It is certainly the aim of the producer because sadly, nowadays that doesn’t happen just like that – you can’t just make a good film and take it to Cannes. There is a sizable lobby, and a lot of work precisely for the producer – you have to be sure if it's worth moving this project in that direction or not. It’s all a scheme, how to do it. And it’s a challenge. Cannes has very few films selected for showing, so the Festival raises one to a new level; and directors, too – having your film shown at Cannes can present completely different opportunities. So far, only one Latvian, Laila Pakalniece, has been there with a feature film – “Kurpe” (Shoe). It’s not that easy. You have to know with whom and where to speak, whom to give your materials to, and who can lobby for you. That would be the next step of sorts, one that I’d like to try.