Émile V. Schlesser
Originally published during 15th ÉCU Film Festival 2020
Max, a young man with Down syndrome, stakes on a superhero identity to muster the courage to profess his love to a childhood friend. Showing up uninvited at her farewell party, he soon finds himself involved in a test of courage which goes horribly wrong.
Hi Emile thank you for talking to TNC, how are you handling the lockdown?
Dare I say it? I know it's bad, but - I'm really enjoying this! Even though it's a huge hindrance in so many ways. I'm worried about the fate of cinema, and all the possible consequences that we cannot foresee right now. Clearly, this is going to drastically reshape our society and alter the way we make and experience films. It's scary but fascinating. On a daily basis, the fact to be closed off with all this time on my hands, feels liberating.
As a filmmaker is this experience providing you with some creative inspiration?
Plenty! It forces me to put all this free time to good, creative use. It gets me imagining and thinking a lot. In fact, I often happen to have these similar mini-melt-downs on a small, personal level. It helps to re-assess my life's path, and to see the bigger picture in general. But it always yields new and better ideas. No matter how shitty it feels in the moment, it always ends up being positive and cathartic. I can only recommend having a proper crisis from time to time. It helps. Right now the entire world is having a depression. We should make it worth the suffering.
You initially came from an art background what made you want to make the move into film?
Actually, that is not entirely true. It's always been both. From the very beginning I had this passion for cinema as well as a crazy love for art and music. Yes, I studied art not film - but only because, after applying to film schools and art academies simultaneously, the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf was the first to accept me. I always wanted to be both, even if this has given me a hard time in the past. For a long while I felt pushed to decide between the two, which made me quite miserable. I believed I could only do one thing right. People in the art world laughed at me for wanting to make movies; yet the film industry didn't see me as one of them because I was a painter. Not belonging anywhere drove me nuts. Eventually, it occurred to me how narrow-minded this actually is. I then saw it as an asset, with the different fields informing each other in interesting ways. And it's nothing new, my heroes from the renaissance have done it before. That moment was such a liberation. I just needed to embed it into a coherent and holistic form. And more time. Everything takes twice as long, but there's still only 24 hours in a day. So I sleep much less now.
How much does your art and multimedia background help your film projects?
It's vice versa in so many ways. First of all, it feels good to constantly be changing hats, so it never gets boring. Secondly, it teaches me to think outside the box. Things I learn doing one task can improve another in a completely different field. It trains me to find creative approaches for any given problem.
Your film Superhero has been selected for the 2020 ÉCU Film Festival in Paris, what has it meant to you to be part of this unique film festival for independent filmmakers?
I was so psyched when we got the news! Especially since it was the very first reaction we got from a festival. After almost two years of blood, toil, tears and sweat, it is such an honour to see your work acknowledged by a festival of this caliber and reputation. And the fact that we're in the company of like-minded independent filmmakers means a lot to me. I can't wait for audiences to see the film. Shame it won't be in a theatre though.
"But it's so beautiful, when after a long day of watching zombie films, you step outside and find yourself in a very similar scenario. The lines between reality and fiction start to blur."
How did you go about casting Superhero?
We had very limited resources, so at first my producer understandably wanted the film to be shot in Luxembourgish with local actors, for budgetary and logistic reasons. But I insisted on casting an actor with Down syndrome in the lead, and since we couldn't find anybody with acting experience in Luxembourg, I began searching in Germany. Changing the film's language also gave me the opportunity to try and reach out to actors I've admired for a long time, and who would be perfect for these roles - Maria Dragus and Jannik Schümann - two of the most interesting young talents in Germany. My producer thought I was crazy to contact such accomplished actors for such a small project... but one can always ask. We gave it a shot and sent the script to their agents. And a week later, against all expectations, I got a call from Jannik, telling me how much he liked it and that he wanted to be part of it. This was such a blessing. From there on, many elements just miraculously fell into place. Coincidentally, a day after our phone call, Jannik ran into Maria Dragus and her agent at a party in Berlin. Turns out they have been waiting for a chance to work together, so Jannik convinced her to come aboard. These things don't usually happen in real life. So grateful. I owe a lot to Jannik.
Superhero features the debut of newcomer Nico Randel, how did you go about casting Nico in the lead?
Finding Nico was an absolute blessing. I insisted on casting an actor with the same genetic characteristic as the protagonist. I never would have condoned casting a 'normal' actor posing as a character with disability. You just can't do that, the days of Leo as Arnie Grape are long gone. And what Nico brought to this project exceeded my expectations by far. I discovered Nico after a long and arduous search online and many phone calls. I found his website and saw that he not only had a bit of acting experience (mainly on stage) but that he's also a very versatile artist: he paints, draws, exhibits his work and even directed a few stage plays. So I immediately felt this kinship between us. I reached out to his parents, who are also his managers, I met them in Cologne and we clicked right away. I completely fell in love with his earnestness, pureness, humour, courage and enthusiasm. And considering he's extremely afraid of heights, the man's fearless. He really elevated the whole thing.
What inspired you to make a film that would feature, for the first time, a superhero with Down Syndrome?
I didn't consciously set out to make a film 'about' Down syndrome, or even a character with this genetic trait for that matter. In fact, the first drafts of the script introduced Max as merely socially challenged.
The reason it later evolved into a character with Down syndrome is because, while rewriting the script, I remembered a childhood friend who had trisomy, and who was always treated differently from the other kids. It then occurred to me that this story is essentially about masks - the person we all wear in our lives and socio-environment, to conform and behind which we hide our vulnerable selves. What characterizes people with Down syndrome is that they do not possess such a social mask. Their behaviour, words and actions are earnest and unfiltered. So in a way, the only character who's wearing an actual mask in the film, is the only one who ironically doesn't wear a mask. I also liked the idea that a superhero, who is more than a mere human, would consequently need to possess a surplus of chromosomes in comparison. 47 instead of 46, in the case of Down syndrome. It made complete sense and added an immense richness.
Can you tell me a little bit about Superhero, how did this film come about?
It was one of those things that seem like they autonomously materialize themselves. We got lucky on so many occasions during this project, that it felt like life wanted us to do this right, or something. Uncanny coincidences with unexpectedly positive consequences, and even some major set-backs that in the end turned out to be a huge gain. We got all the right people for cast and crew, and the team was unanimously psyched about this project.
The basic story elements I had simmering in my head for six or seven years before I even started to put it on paper. In its core it's pretty autobiographical and it deals with issues that bugged me for a long time. So while in Cannes in 2018, I handed the finished script to my producer - who also happens to be my best friend - Fabien Colas, and we immediately decided to do it. After luckily being granted financing through two institutions in Luxembourg, the first thing we did was ask Australian-American cinematographer Joel Froome to be my DP. And despite our expectations and living on the other side of the globe - again - he agreed. He and Fabien had my back all the way. Since this is arguably my first real production as writer-director shooting my own material, I was pretty nervous at first. But after take one I felt so at ease, like I've never done anything else in my life.
As a writer/director are you open to changes or suggestions when you start shooting or do you like to stick to what has been written?
It's vital to master every aspect of your film, to virtually see, hear and feel the final result from beginning to end. Therefore you have to prepare meticulously and know exactly why every detail is important, since everything accumulates to the big picture you want to paint. I prep like a mad man, mood boards, videos, references, character and costume drawings, and I storyboard the entire film myself. I even spent a long time looking for the right scent for the film. I wanted to smell a specific perfume during production that could reconnect me to the initial spark. I also chose a fragrance for each of the main characters, which helped me to see them as living people. I love that part of filmmaking.
Once you completely internalized and incubated it all, you loosen up on set. Yes, I am absolutely open to ideas and suggestions, no matter where they come from - as long as you listen and think and assess and don't lose sight of the big picture. As director you'd be stupid not to take on a good idea, because at the end of the day you'll get all the credit anyway.
What was the most challenging scene for you to film?
The very first and the very last scene we shot - but for very different reasons. The first one being logistically the easiest (the love letter scene) but which was paramount to get right in tone and performance, since it's the heart of the story. There was no time to rehearse, so it took us many takes to hit that note just perfectly. I think some of us already lost their nerve right then and there, on the first set up.
The last scene we shot was the ending. The special effects, the crane, the crowd, the dolly tracks, everything was logistically cumbersome and we had to be done by sunrise. But the best part is that the caterer screwed up that night, so we lost a couple of hours before we could even begin. By the time we got to the important stuff, we had to rush it so bad that we were forced reduce the shot list to the bare necessities, and could do only one take for each shot. Compromising like mad - the side of filmmaking I really loath. But we did it. We literally wrapped 20 seconds before the sun came up.
Honourable mention: the underwater scene. Never underestimate underwater shoots!
Since making Superhero what would you say has been the biggest lesson you've learned as a director?
Before Superhero I always needed everybody on the production to be my friend. But that can't always be the case. If it works, great. It's beautiful and helpful and creates a positive atmosphere on set. But it can also go wrong, conjure hard feelings, and hinder one's ability to confront. Sometimes you have to fight for your vision, and might have to break some eggs in the process. I learned that not everybody feels the same way about professional relationships and my ideal work climate on set. If we do become friends and can function as a family, all the better. If not, we still want to make a great film together. It's a luxury.
What has been the best piece of advice you were given when you started out?
A few years ago, I had the fortune of meeting Jan Harlan - Kubrick's long time producer and close collaborator - with whom I chatted for hours. The conversation was filled with golden nuggets I really took to heart. I think what clung to me most at the time is not to be afraid to: a) surround yourself with the very best people you can find, who are masters of their craft and believe in you and your vision; and b) to take the time to really do it right, not to rattle it off but to give the project as much time it needs to flourish.
Do you have any tips or advice to offer fellow filmmakers?
Come super prepared. Be the one who works the hardest. Lead with unbridled, contagious enthusiasm. Be natural. Don't fake authority - if you're nervous and insecure, it's okay to admit it. Don't be afraid of your actors. Speak your mind as soon as you have doubts. Never lose the initial spark that made you fall in love with the project.
And get enough sleep.
What are you currently working on?
At the moment, we're securing the finances for my new short film this year, which means a lot of waiting for answers. So in the meantime, I completely immerse myself in the history of the zombie genre - for obvious reasons, admittedly. There's a story bubbling out of me, possibly triggered by my sister giving birth to a baby during these apocalyptic times. I'm still not sure where this is going. But it's so beautiful, when after a long day of watching zombie films, you step outside and find yourself in a very similar scenario. The lines between reality and fiction start to blur. I love that.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from Superhero?
I find this a rather tough question to answer. I wouldn't want to impose anything on the audience. People take away what they will from Superhero. I think there's enough to inspire thought and discussion. At the very least I hope that it's 12 minutes well spent and not easily forgotten...