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Love between cultures and conventions: There is no straight path for Marie Theres and Fa. A heartfelt and clever romantic comedy about two middle aged women who refuse to be pushed to the sideline of life.

Hi Kat, great to talk with you. Have you been to BFI Flare before?


No. It was a funny thing. I've always wanted to screen at the festival. When I was in London as a teenager, I was like, One day I’m going to be at the BFI, and now that day has come. So one thing off the bucket list.

Any pressure with this being your world premiere at BFI Flare? 


Very much so. It’s fun to finally get to talk about the movie. I've been living with it so long, so it's nice to transition from sharing your film within a close circle to presenting it to a wider audience can be both exhilarating and nerve-wracking. Particularly at a festival like BFI Flare, which celebrates LGBTQ+ cinema and community. It is incredibly meaningful to share this work with an audience that resonates so closely with the film's themes. 


Embracing the feedback and engagement from this broader audience can be a powerful and affirming experience. Plus, some of the actors haven't seen the film, and they're going to see it for the first time on Friday. 


Did you always know that your debut feature-length narrative film would be a romantic comedy? 


Absolutely not. I thought if I was going to do my debut feature, it was going to be some sort of drama. I didn't think it was going to be a comedy about two women in their fifties, and I had many other ideas before. But I was working on something else, and then the pandemic hit, and I kind of got stuck in Austria. And I was also inadvertently left by my girlfriend. So I was isolating alone. It was pretty bleak. And I didn’t really feel the idea of working on a drama; it’s not like I need more drama in my life at that moment. And I think other people felt the same, so I thought I'd rather bring joy to this world and make a comedy. I had no idea I was going to be very good at it, but I wanted to try my hand. 


How much of your own experience made its way into the script? 


I mean, obviously, I'm not 50 yet. Proschat Madani, who plays Fa, has been my best friend for 25 years, and we talked about doing a project together. She and I had talked about the basic outline of the film or the character that I would want to base on her. And then a lot of her family story and what I've learned about her and her family, which I have been very close to over the past 25 years, made their way into the film and definitely influenced the whole Persian side of the movie—that family dynamic and cultural aspect.


I think my experiences made it into the film by way of how LGBTQ relationships and people are viewed in Austria. I’ve lived in New York for 20 years, and I came out in New York it was very accepting. It’s a very open place because New York is New York, and basically anything goes; you can't ever be crazy enough. It takes a lot to be crazy in New York. I go to a party, and there's everyone and everything from a lot of different backgrounds. But when I was stuck in Vienna during the pandemic, I realised that that's not the case there, and there's no representation in mainstream media of LGBTQ relationships.


So that was really the impetus. And then what flowed into the film were the reactions I had from, let's say, friends that I've had since my childhood who knew I was out. But when I was living in New York and only in Austria part of the time, I didn't realise what kind of misconceptions they sometimes had or that they struggled with aspects of LGBTQ life because they never asked questions. And people seemed sort of curious about what they would call an alternative lifestyle, and I've never experienced that in 20 years. In New York, the most interesting thing about me is that I'm from Austria. And in Austria, the most interesting thing about me was my sexuality, which I found strange. 


Do you think that there are still so many places where the LGBTQ community isn’t perceived as being normal?


I think certain countries, yes, like in the rural community. There are areas in the US that are very conservative that are maybe more exposed to it now through films, Netflix, and whatever else. But that's still an ingrained fear. There would be parts of the US where I wouldn't go holding hands with my girlfriend. I think in Austria it's a lack of representation. I mean, it's changed. When I first came out with my girlfriend and we would walk down the streets of Vienna holding hands, people would regularly turn their heads. There was a poor old lady on a bike who was so distracted by us holding hands that she almost drove into a light post. It's a little different now; it’s more common. So it has changed, but it's still not where it should be. In 2024, I will say that acceptance is still not there, and sometimes it is.


It's ignorance and just not knowing enough people, and sometimes it is hate or whatever else you want to call it—intolerance, homophobia, all that stuff. So I do think there's still room for development. Austria or parts of Germany, and I'm sure Switzerland and other places should be further along than they are.

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"I think that's definitely something that I've spoken to a couple of the directors in the past, and that's definitely been something that a lot of newer directors don't really have any experience in any of the different departments."

And how much did going to the School of Visual Arts in New York prepare you for this filmmaking journey that you've been on? 


It's a long way to go now. But the good thing about the School of Visual Arts was that it was very practical. So it was very hands-on. We all had to make films every semester, and we had to kind of crew them for our friends and colleagues. So what it enabled me to do was work on a lot of the set and learn a lot of the technical skills that allowed me to have a job right out of college because nobody's going to hire me as a director right out of college.


That's what we all dream of. But it just doesn't happen. So I started working as a camera assistant, and then I became an AD. And I did that for years. And sometimes I did sound, and sometimes I did set design. So in that respect, I gained a lot of experience. That experience of having been in so many departments is important as a director because then you know what your crew needs and you know how to form a shooting schedule that is conducive to everybody's work and not just whatever you think we need to do that day or what the producer needs to do to save money.


More directors should have that experience because when you work with a crew, you know what they're doing and their needs, which means you have a happier crew. A happier crew makes a happier set, which makes it easier for films. I think that's definitely something that I've spoken to a couple of the directors in the past, and that's definitely been something that a lot of newer directors don't really have any experience in any of the different departments.

How much did your past film experiences help prepare you for making What A Feeling?


All narrative directors should deal with documentaries because, with documentaries, you don't have as much control. You start with an idea for a film, and then basically life or whatever unfolds over the years you’re shooting, and the core of the documentary changes because you learn more, the life of your protagonist changes, or the political situation changes.


Usually it turns into something else, and it develops into something else. What you learn, especially in the editing room, when you have your material, is storytelling that you don't control because the footage informs you and you have to shape it into the film that you want to make. So I think it's a good experience, and it allows you to observe, right?


As the director of a narrative film, you always have the impetus to tell everybody what to do. And sometimes you don't take the moment to observe what may naturally occur in a situation, because that's not what narrative directors do. But if you're a documentary director, you have the patience, and then sometimes, when you strike gold, extra things happen that you couldn't have written, but your actors deliver because you let the camera or scene run for a couple of extra seconds or minutes if you want to torture them. Over time, what you develop is patience as a documentary director, which is very helpful. 


Did that happen on What a Feeling? 


Yeah, we got some extra little moments when they stayed in character; we got some little nuggets that were useful in the editing room to build the character and to tell the story.


When you're working on a narrative script, how close do you like to keep to it? Did you allow yourself a lot of flexibility? 


The benefit of being the writer is that I have the power to say, Stick to it or don't, because it really is my story. I gave them a lot of leeway because there were certain dialogue scenes or moments where I was like, ‘That needs to be said the way it's written here because I spent a long time or a lot of thought into the rhythm of the language here, and that matters to me.’ In other instances, when somebody came up with a better line or idea, I was certainly open to them suggesting it.


I'm not very rigorous, so you don’t need to say every word that's on that page. I said, ‘If you come up with something better that I like better, that informs the character better, or that fits the situation, let's hear it, and then I'll say yes or no.’ But with certain aspects, I was like, ‘This needs to be said the way it was written.’

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And what would you say has been the most surprising thing you've taken from this experience as you start to move into making more feature-length narrative films? 


The post-production aspect was surprising. The shooting wasn't that much because I've spent so much time in my life on sets. It just reiterated my theories about what I thought, how a set should be run, what the feeling of a set should be, or my hopes for it. I think in post-production, I didn’t anticipate that the editing process wouldn't be very pleasant. There is post-production in documentaries, but it is not as intricate as it is for a feature film, like ADR (additional dialogue recording), the music, the sound mix, and the different layers of background noises or follies. You have a limited amount of that in documentary, and you have way more of that in narrative.


What more can be done to continue to give more women filmmakers a platform and the opportunity to tell their stories?


I think the minute you have a female producer, a female director, or a head of department, you are automatically going to get more women. But in our case, we had 70% women on set. I did choose a male DOP, but that was because I have great chemistry with him; I don't need to communicate much with him to get the images that I think the film needs and that I want.


So that was the reason, because this is my first narrative feature, which has a limited budget, so I need to work with someone who understands me 100%. And I don't have to start this relationship from scratch. However, most of the other heads were women because it was important to me to have more women than men to give them the opportunity. I think what needs to be done, because I see that a lot, not only in my own life but also with other people, is that we cannot exclude women just because they're a mother or their parent.


And in that, we need to make it more conducive for them to work. There are many options to do that. The hours can be very long, and one way to combat that is by cutting the hours down, which is hard because if you cut down the hours, you need more shooting days. If there is more shooting, you need more money. But I think there's great models for that in the US, where you have childcare on set; for example, in a socially democratic country like Austria, where you do have childcare opportunities, I think that is not a crazy idea.


I had a friend who started a company in the US, I think it was called Moms in Film, that provided trailers with childcare on set, and I think that's something I definitely want to try to get done here in Austria so that women who have children don't have to constantly worry. So I think that's what we kind of need to address.


Was there any one particular film or theatre show that started the fire in you to become a filmmaker? 


Absolutely. It was the 1993 version of Much Ado About Nothing by Kenneth Branagh. 


Really? What was it about this film that connected with you?


I loved it. I was 13. I'm horribly dyslexic, and I had a hard time reading. I wasn't reading much, but I was always a film buff, and I saw the trailer for the film on TV, and somehow, all these quibbles between the actors in a Shakespeare somehow attracted me. And I went to the movies with my mom. I remember that moment where Emma Thompson's in the tree and then and then these horses running with this amazing music. It had me, and I think I saw that film ten times in the movie theatre. And don't ask me how many more times it came out on VHS; there was something about it. I think now that I think about it, it has a lot of drama, but there's a lot of comedy. And obviously, there's the aspect of Shakespeare that has this amazing language, artistic humour, rhythm, and tone.


I think what made Kenneth Branagh's film so special is that he made Shakespeare accessible to people who really didn't care that much about Shakespeare or thought Shakespeare was too highbrow for them to grasp or get emotionally invested in.


My final question, what do you hope your audiences who see this film will take away from it? 


I hope they walk out happy and dancing. When I wrote this, it was the pandemic, and the world was bleak. Now the world is also complicated and bleak, and I think we're all struggling in a post-pandemic world and a world that changes every day with horrible news all the time. There's nothing wrong with taking 110 minutes, enjoying yourself, laughing, and then hopefully walking out in a better mood, a little happy and dancing, and then facing whatever life throws at you again, but you skip 110 minutes, following these two ladies while they fall in love.

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