Short Film "Father" - The Film, Thanks to its Universal Language, is the Best Bearer of Higher Ideas

Lights Film School recently had the opportunity to interview Writer / Director Lukas Hanulak regarding his film “OTEC” (Father). His 40 minute short film as well as our interview can be found below.

Hello Lukas and thank you for creating and sharing your film “OTEC” (Father) with us. The first thing that strikes me is that you don’t have any other videos on your Vimeo or IMDB page. Most filmmakers experience a sort of gradient of professionalism in their work. They start off by doing some satisfactory work before moving on to doing more precise work. But for a first film you’re out of the gates really strong. If this is your starting point I’m incredibly curious to know what your end point is. Was it really important for you to do a strong first film? How did you practice to get yourself to this level of cinematic precision and understanding?

I started to study film studies in 2005 – at first I studied documentary directing at the Academy of Arts in Banská Bystrica, Slovakia. Later, I transferred to the Film and Television Faculty at the Academy of Performing Arts Bratislava, Slovakia. The film “Father” is actually my graduate project, which I ended my studies with in summer 2009. The time spent at school was the best time of my life. I met a lot of people there who have influenced me and still have an influence on me – amongst others my former teachers, Slovak directors, Stanislav Párnický and Martin Šulík and the Czech dramaturge Jan Gogola. Their patience and humour taught me not to take everything too seriously, to rather objectively observe life from a distance as beautiful as it is. Their approach was in accordance with my character which is rather introvert and spiritual. These people are one or two generations older than me and therefore their experience is very valuable.

Slovakia lies in the heart of Europe. However, our history has been influenced by the ideology of the former eastern bloc. We, as the Slavs, are a thoughtful nation who can give a lot to the present world. We actually are a kind of a link between the western and eastern ideology, in spite of the fact that we ourselves have our own problems (not surprisingly) connected with human greed and egoism.

Until the fall of socialism, the censorship was trying to limit the influence of the western culture, which meant that our cinematography has been labelled as eastern European cinematography. However, this isolation meant the exact opposite. Film directors such as Tarkovsky, Kieslowski, Wajda and others became respected and valued filmmakers throughout the whole world. Their films were not made to earn money, as it is today, but they were and still are valuable works of art. The film, thanks to its universal language, is the best bearer of higher ideas – it lets life, however cruel it might be, to stand out and gives hope to people in this way – hope for a better world. This is what I value the most about films and I would like to contribute to this through my work. Whether it is my first or my last work of art, it has to have a common aim – to celebrate life with all its inevitable contradictions. However, my film “father” who has had the biggest influence on me and thanks to whom I have decided to study film studies, paradoxically does not come from a country from the former eastern bloc. It is Terrence Malick who I hope to meet one day.

You shot this film on the RED ONE camera. Why did you make this choice?

My original intention was to shoot the film Father on film material – with a 16mm camera. In 2008, shortly before the shooting itself, I got into contact with the camera RED ONE. Considering our low budget (30,000 EUR) and the shooting style (together with the director of photography, Ivo Miko, we did not use the story-board and to a great extent we let ourselves be influenced by the surroundings and situations resulting from it) we finally decided to use digital shooting in 4k quality with 35mm lenses. The film material would cost us much more and therefore our choice was clearly rational. The FilmPark company, who we rented the camera from, became a co-producer and so we paid only for one day instead of for 14 shooting days for renting the camera. Therefore I would like to address my special thanks to them, because they clearly did not do so out of economical reasons.

You’ve created a beautiful opening shot. What did you use to stabilize the camera for this shot?

The introductory take is quiet simple. We used a classic, approximately 10-metre dolly on which the camera was at a 90-degree upward position. The night changing into the morning was finished by postproduction. We neither had time nor money for other technologies. We have put a lot of effort into postproduction. Before the shooting, we spoke to the advertisement postproduction studio Framehouse, which did a very good job for a symbolic fee; if they had charged us a standard fee, our whole budget would not be sufficient. Today I can say that we were lucky to work with unselfish people who had decided to help us. This film therefore is dedicated to them as well.

Your shot around 2:40 (above – mother in boat) is very atmospheric and well lit. Are you using only natural light for these shots? Did you plan on having the subtle fog in the background? It seems like such a beautiful and rare environmental moment (the backlight, the stillness of the water, the fog etc) that it seems like you must have planned this shot around these specific conditions. Did you need to wait for the right day to shoot this scene? Same with the shot at 10:52 (above – lake) and 34:45 (above – walking through fog). Was this fog real?

Concerning the atmospheric conditions and weather, we were extremely lucky. Neither could we afford to postpone the shooting, nor to wait for ideal conditions. The film was shot mostly at the end of August and the beginning of September at a sea near Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. We used mainly natural light for the day exterior shots. The mild fog surrounding the boat was natural; we shot the scene with the mother and little Adam early in the morning when a mild mist was floating over the sea. This as a result makes a magical impression and emphasizes the retrospective sequences of the father and the adult Adam. The next scene with the sea and the rising sun had to be finished in postproduction because the sun was hidden by clouds the day when we planned to shoot it. The result looks natural which, of course, I am satisfied with. The scene in which we see the father walk with his dead wife surrounded by fog was for a change a trick realized on the set. We used a sulphur powder which when burning and under fair weather conditions creates a feeling for a while that one is in a magical forest. By this I wanted to emphasize the transcendental, higher reality in which the character of the father found himself at the end of the film. He was with his wife in his memories and dreams all the time. He has never left her.

You walk a very fine line as a filmmaker having some of your shots meticulously well designed and romanticized with perfectly executed compositions, movement, lighting and styling. Yet, other shots are much more naturalistic. For example, your opening sequence is very photographic. A large part of your efforts went into the framing and choreography of that shot, then once inside the fathers house you seem a little more “loose” with your compositions. How much of your film is actually designed though? For example the shot at 31:20 (above). Were the curtains, chair and the rest of the furniture already there or did you conceptualize all of this and work with a designer to create this world?

The world we created was not complicated. This applies to costumes and the production design itself. The house in which we shot was completely empty, so we had to furnish it completely. We had to repair the electricity, install lights, put curtains on the windows etc. My main condition was to use natural materials and old rustic style furniture. I wanted to have the impression that the character of the mother furnished the cottage with all the details and little things that only women can make up. That is why the interiors were furnished by women, who had not had much experience with film, but they had sense and big imagination – and that was enough for me. I applied the same principle on the costume. We used mostly our own clothes or clothes borrowed from friends.

The biggest problem for us was the boat. We were trying to get a wooden boat for several weeks; we did not have money for a new one, so we went to fishing settlements and tried to persuade the local fishermen to lend us one. Finally we found a fisherman who sold us two old boats for chicken feed (150 EUR). But here’s the rub: One of the boats had a hole and could be used only for scenes on the lakefront. The other boat…had a hole too. That happened two days before the beginning of the shooting. Finally we managed to repair it somehow. However, the boat was floating only for about 20 minutes then it would go down. Water was getting in it the whole time. I could not sleep at night because of it. We had to risk it and shoot despite all the potential risks. Fortunately, nothing bad happened to anybody.

I noticed at the end of your film you included the line “dedicated to my father”. I’m assuming this story is something that you hold very dear to your heart. As filmmakers we’re always putting parts of ourselves into our stories, but often filmmakers try to hide or at least disguise their own involvement in their stories. You explicitly state at the end of your film that this is a story that has relevance in your family. “Father” really moved me. In fact there was a moment just before the the climax that brought me to tears. I can’t help but feel that there is a strong current of honesty running through this film. Without asking you to share your personal history, can you tell us a little bit more about what made you want to tell such a personal story?

I grew up in a beautiful but poor region in the north of Slovakia. The most important thing for both of my parents was to support the family and survive another month. When one is alone and is not responsible for anybody else it is easy. But when one has two little children, the responsibility is incomparable. My brother and I got the best upbringing we could get. We had just a little but nevertheless we had so much. Our father has brought us up to be honest and responsible and our mother taught us about feelings and love. Both of them dedicated their whole lives to their children. That is the biggest sacrifice one can do – to give up your life for someone else. To dedicate a film to someone is nothing compared to it. It does not cost anything. But I have to admit that the biggest motivation to finish the film after 3 years of shooting was the idea of how my father would read the subtitle “dedicated to my father” at the end of the film. And it happened. It is called being overwhelmed by being overwhelmed. But now I have to dedicate a film to my mother to keep balance :).

How long did it take you to write the script?

The writing of the script, or better said of some versions of the script, lasted more than two years. I have torn it into pieces several times because it always seemed stupid to me after some time. Finally I have managed to write the final version thanks to my pedagogues. The film has been cut totally different as it was written because it simply would not work as it should. This is the hardest part in the work of an artist – to leave your old idea, which is strongly anchored in your head and let a new one form.

The shooting itself lasted for one year. Because of the finances we had to divide the shooting into four sections. We managed to shoot most of the film in summer; we shot the summer interiors of the cottage in fall, the final part of the film in winter and then the summer interiors of the apartment in spring. We cut the film in about ten days in my friend´s small apartment; the sound postproduction together with the recording of the sound was finished in about two weeks. The hardest thing was to get money for the final trick postproduction which we needed 1,000 EUR for. The bank was not willing to give any loan, as I was a student and I had already owed money to my friends. Most of the millionaires and businessmen who we met have sent us away with a smile on their faces or they did not even pick up the phone. After several months of desperate searching we have found Mr Kováčik, owner of a big production company, who has paid for the postproduction. After three years the film was finally finished. However, we were paying back the debts which we had after this film for another year. Since then I have been claiming that persistence and patience are the most important characteristics of a filmmaker.

How big of a part did wardrobe play in your film?

The costume designer Katka Žgančíkova and I were trying to show the life of the main characters as realistically as possible. Although we focused on the characters which had been defined even before the shooting, we adapted to the typology and nature of the actors. But as I have already mentioned, the world we had created was not complicated. It is based on what life has offered us.

I love the shot at 11:39 (above). I notice you like being high with your camera. Can you explain that decision? Also that shot was one long take! What rig did you have your camera on?

First and foremost, the film is a visual experience for me. I love silent films which are able to tell a story without using a dialog. When watching a film as a viewer I like to put the film as a unit together and surmise more than is said – according to Tarkovsky – it is the only way which in the process of the perception of a film puts the viewer on the same level as the artists. I do not like when the viewer is treated as if he was stupid and when every little thing is explained to him, otherwise he would not understand the film. Other examples are the mise-en-scene or long scenes, which the viewer subconsciously studies and reveals important information for him. In this case I wanted to tell something more about the surroundings through this whole scene, but also about the characters and their relationship. It does not only seem real, it is also a challenge for the actors who have to focus not only on the acting but also on the movement of the camera. And this is not easy. The scene was shot with an about 8 meters long Jimmy Jib.

The location at 12:00 (above) is very iconic. When I think about your film these trees come to mind. Can you tell us a little about your location scouting philosophy? How do you look at space?

Our task was to find a beautiful cottage at a lake. It was not easy because most of the cottages we had found were not suitable. Besides, none of them were close to the lake. In the end, the surrounding of the forest and the beach with the roots of the trees persuaded me. When we had found it, I knew this was the right place. We managed to find the owner of the cottage and agree on a low rent. During the shooting most of the crew slept in the interiors of the cottage, some on beds, others in sleeping bags on the floor or in tents outside. I slept in the bed of little Adam where one could neither lie nor sleep properly. Besides, the whole cast and crew sat at the fireplace at night after the shooting, we had something to eat and drink and talked for a few hours. It was pleasant but unfortunately sometimes also painful in the morning. All the other locations were in Bratislava which is very suitable for shooting a film. We chose visually interesting locations but in the end the price we had to pay, was the most important criterion. But we were lucky and did not have to pay for most of the locations. This is the proof that still there are people whose only and foremost motivation is not money and this makes me happy because this is how it is supposed to be.

“Father” Is a very thinly scripted story. How did you communicate with the actors or other crew who may have a difficult time envisioning the narrative thrust of the story? You use silence a lot and that can be difficult for some people (both in front and behind the camera) to interpret. How did you effectively communicate the arc of these scenes with your cast and crew? It’s so well put together that I can see all of the different elements working together making the same narrative point (everything from movement, performance, lighting, design, atmosphere, sound etc). Therefore I know there was no confusion about what the point of each scene was and how it fit into the larger context of your story. I’m just curious to know if you found it challenging communicating these points?

The script was originally much denser as it can be seen in the end result. In the final cut about a third of the dialogue and several beautiful takes were eliminated – it was hard for me to say goodbye to most of them. In the process of cutting one sometimes has the feeling as if one would be killing his own child. Suddenly, one has to get rid of situations and scenes which one likes just because they slow the development of the story or reveal too much. I talked to the actors (who were also working for free) about the story and my idea of it several times. And because hardly anyone had known me as a student, a good script was the only thing I could offer at that time.

The acting is incredible. I was never pulled out of the believability of your story for even a second. I was totally captivated the entire time. Can you tell us a little bit about your philosophy in regards to working with actors? What do you look for in a performance?

Eighty percent of a good acting performance is about the right casting. When you manage to suitably cast a character, which you have invented or copied from life, you have managed the hardest part. The rest is only about communication and the humanity of all the participants.

Thanks to TV series, which I do for a living, I know a lot of (not only) Slovak well-known and beginning actors. However, I like to work with those who put their hearts in their work. What I appreciate about people is when their job is their hobby. I am motivated by the idea that I rehearse with an actor who gives me suggestions and thereby co-creates the character. Every director needs to co-create the character no matter how conceited he is and denies it. More than eighty percent of the communication in the life is nonverbal and this is also what acting is about. The film is able to reveal even the smallest emotional glimpse with a detailed take. This demands big emotional (and intellectual) self-control from the actor. This is why I do not like working with shallow people – if we are not able to connect on the emotional level, further cooperation is not possible.

We applied the same principle in the film Father. Together with the actors we talked abut the characters, who is who and why it is so. We talked about the fictive past of the characters, about the motivation which led them do what they did but also about feelings which the viewer should feel in the end. We soon find out, with the help of our instinct, whether the actor thinks about the character correctly and whether he acts naturally. There are no instructions. If you are not satisfied with the process of rehearsing, a cruel and merciless exchange is necessary, of course only if it is possible. There is much more than only one´s good reputation or a long-lasting friendship with the actor that is at risk.  Your film project, which you dedicate several years of your life, is at risk. A wrong cast or bad acting can spoil every even a genially constructed story. Neither can a good actor save a bad story. It is about the balance, which is necessary and there is nothing worse than a tormented actor or an unsatisfied director.

Do you give the actors room to improvise or are you pretty strict about sticking to the script?

I take the script only as a helping scheme. Nevertheless, I do not like schematism as such. I like freedom, which has to be based on the openness towards unexpected events. In the case of a low-budget production you have to improvise partially, otherwise you will not be satisfied. And this is what I do not like. The script is only one step of the film development and what is the most important fact, it is not the last step. The final version of the film will always be the last step. It is not important whether you stick to the script exactly. I perceive it only as a useful guide how to proceed in the development of the story. However, there are certain rules which should not be changed for the sake of dramaturgical logics. It is the same when working with actors. If an actor shows me with his improvisation something better than I wanted, I would be insane not to accept it. Rehearsal before shooting has its advantages – work is then more comfortable and time and energy is saved. This is also about repressing one’s own personality, which always thinks that nobody else is better. But reality is different. In real life, one has to step back only for the sake of the thing.

Your choreography of movement matched the energy of your scenes perfectly. Everything integrates really well together. I can tell you had a sense of how you wanted to edit this together before you even started editing. For instance, 16:56 to 17:08 – The movement is in this scene is subtle, slow and follows the energy of the story. Or for example your water shot at 18:01 that merges into the fish tank scene at 18:10 which then transforms into a restaurant scene at 18:19. This is a really smooth transition into two totally different environments. In fact the editing of the entire film is incredibly well done. Do you consider yourself a good choreographer of energy?

One of the best aspects of the film is its atmosphere. From this point of view I perceive the film as a musical symphony which has been formed rationally, but has a clearly emotional experience. When I needed to reach a certain emotional state of a particular scene when writing the director script, I was listening to music with a similar atmosphere during the writing. Music is a proof of the existence of a higher reality, its vibrations can get a person into various emotional states. When connected with picture and symbolic speech, the film creates a specific atmosphere – for me, a film is dead and not interesting if it does not have this atmosphere. The viewer has to be absorbed by the fictive reality of the film during the first 10 minutes. When this happens, the story which is revealed on the screen becomes his only reality. Then it is possible to talk about a good atmosphere. It can be reached by various means; each one is based on the sense of aesthetics of that particular director and the director of photography. My aesthetic taste was inspired by filmmakers such as Terrence Malick or Andrej Tarkovsky. I like when the camera is in motion and reveals the story to the audience gradually and without unnecessary dialogue with the help of symbols and situations which the viewer can read subconsciously until the last catharsis.

Film, in the first place, has to show a believable life also with its archetypal essence – so that everyone who watches the film could find a piece of himself in it. Besides, nowadays we will not invent better stories than people did in the past. The Bible, Greek, Egyptian and Indian myths have told everything about the humans. There is nothing better. Human deeds and sins repeat constantly. Is there any more “serious” murder than the murder committed by Cain? In the end it is about one´s vision of the world which is unique in its subjectivity – and that is what one can offer to the others. Who is not able to accept it, is not able to give it to others and that is all.

Looking back, if you could do anything differently what would it be? What is the single most important lesson you learnt while you shot this film that you’ll carry forward to your next project?

One of the most important things I have learned when filming Father is that one has to be patient. It is not possible to accelerate the natural pace of things, not even when you want it too much – that is when you cause distress and you are unhappy. One has to be patient and determined. Besides, film production is a collective work – one has to work and get along with a big number of different (and also problematic) people. That is why it is important to learn to listen to people and try to get into and understand their inner personality. This applies not only to film production.

What project are you working on next?

My next film is the film called Piargy: Antichrist Reborn. It is a poetical story from the beginning of the 20th century with a mysterious, even a frightening atmosphere and it is something between a drama, romance and horror film. Due to its outer plot line it resembles faith or a metaphorical picture of the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah about the destruction of sinners by a natural catastrophe. Instead of a huge stone city there is a small out-of-the-way mountain settlement. Instead of sulphur and fire, a destructive avalanche comes. Collective guilt and the following punishment express the idea of a total disruption of the society. The story is a reflexion about human suffering and its meaning. It is trying to answer three basic questions about life: What is suffering? Why is it in the world? And what attitude should one have towards it? The most important mission of the film is to emphasize the fact that the meaning of human life is not material happiness and welfare but the growth of soul and unselfish love. The project is in the phase of development and financing – its premiere should take place at the end of 2014. I am also preparing a short unnamed low-budget project from the surrounding of the Chinese community in Slovakia to fill the years of waiting and I would like to distribute this project through the internet.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and ideas with the Lights Film School blog readers. We all truly appreciate your insight. Best of luck!


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