Interview with director Stefan Koutzev

  • Was there a particular event or time that you recognized that filmmaking is your way of telling stories?

I realized early on in my life that I want to be closer with the mystery of cinema. Back then, I didn’t know what it practically meant to create a film and I also didn’t want to make them at first. I was just very attracted to the imaginary process cinema generates in a me, the continuing film that happens in one’s mind as you watch the screen always stayed. Later of course there where particular events that lead me to find out where I could be in the midst of my inspirations for cinema and how to make own films.

  • Do you think it is essential to go to a film institute in order to become a successful filmmaker?

No, definitely not! In fact, a lot of “successful” filmmakers didn’t. But it can help for sure to create a community and uplift your projects in a practical sense. It helps having a lot of similar minded and talented people around you can bond with and work. It’s great to work practically and learn from that. But no school teaches your own unique artistry.

  • Is it harder to get started or to keep going? What was the particular thing that you had to conquer to do either?

I found that starting was very difficult for me. When I grew up, filmmaking seemed so incredibly far away and this abstract, complex thing I would never know how to handle. Slowly, I engaged into certain aspect
of film like literature or photography, then wriRng, making music and later acting, too. Of course, my inspiration came also form watching a lot of films. At one point, I went to the 8 1/2 months film course in Denmark to get started practically which patched my way. I wish I had started much earlier and explored making films on my own, but I felt too unconfident for this in the beginning.

  • What was the most important lesson you had to learn that has had a positive effect on your film? How did that lesson happen?

I never worked with teenagers before, but I craved for it for quite some time. It needed organisation gathering the number of kids for the film. I was very nervous at first, because I felt much more responsibility towards them as with “actors” who more or less know what to expect when committing to a shoot. I had this fear of not only failing as a director which is normal, but to fail pedagogically and personally. I had this worry that I wouldn’t be able to communicate with kids. What if a scene just
doesn’t work out? What if I can’t pull it off making it interesting for them to play? But then the complete opposite turned out. Every child on the film, specially Janek the main actor, was incredibly open and coming towards me and the crew. They where able to play a scene, where very easy to work with, brought themselves into the creative process and where very natural in front of the camera. It entirely took away all my worries on the matter of working with child actors and encouraged me doing it more than ever.

  • What were the production realities from casting through editing that you had to accommodate? How did you navigate those compromises or surprises and still end up with a cohesive film?

We shot the film two days right before Christmas which I will never do again, because nobody is interested in making a film at that time. Luckily I had a great and helpful crew that made it possible to realize the film. I had no producer, so I spend weeks finding school kids in local schools, getting in contact with their parents and the schools for possible locations, and everything else. Janek, the main character, was easy to find, because he has a student side job at my mothers pizzeria. They both had already some
kind of dynamic and knew each other. It made it also simple to cast both of them out of practical reasons and because I really liked Janek for the role. The film was a very small production without any production
company behind. Whatever tasks or work came up, I did myself with the four others of the film crew. Because of that and limited time and crew, there were moments of sloppiness and the feeling The film could be better if I took care on organizing it better.

  • What was the hardest artistic choice you made in the making of the film, at any stage in production?

The title was very hard to choose for me.

  • You are a collaborator. How have you discovered members of your team and how do you keep the relationship with them strong?

For the crew, I knew only Tina Daurova (sound) at the beginning who I worked with several times before and know from film school. She got me in touch with Patrick Gregg, the cinematographer of the film, Sagar Dame, Assistant Camera and Iris Birke who was the assistant director. They all where students at FAMU in Prague at that time. I’m very thankful they helped and trusted me shooting this film in two stressful days just before Christmas, even without really knowing who I was. We kind of got to know
each other through the shoot and hopefully will work soon again.

  • What do audiences want? And is it the filmmaker’s role to worry about that?

I don’t think a filmmaker has to worry about that. The audience maybe wants many different things which cannot be sum up into one desire, but, in my opinion, the audience shouldn’t want anything at all. This would only lead to standardized expectations and a programmed way of thinking and seeing films. This deliberately doesn’t mean, that a filmmaker should not respect her or his audience! Of course, film goers want to be touched, exhilarated and taken away, maybe also educated; this is
obvious as water is wet and the sun is hot! But I believe, the moment you think about the audience too much it’s over for ones own honest creative
process . As storytellers, we take an audience through an experience. I believe this is only truly possible, if the audience “hears” your true voice, only then someone will follow you deeply. This element is probably why one started making a film or any other art in the first place and it shouldn’t be corrupted and exploited. The audience will immediately sense cliches, the lack of truth and corruption on the screen. For me, when I see a film, it is this connection of being aware of the filmmakers “voice” and
becoming convinced to open up and seeing the world through new eyes. It is not about wanting.

  • What role have film festivals played in your life so far? Why are they necessary? How do you get the most out of them?

I’m still in the beginning of my film career, but I think you always get something out of film festivals. If it’s not always contacts, because you don’t feel ready yet to actually use these contacts in a way of working together, you still meet a lot of people and become aware of the world of filmmaking. That was my case in the past. And if not that, then you will always have the possibility to watch a lot of new good films and learn from them. I’ve been to several film festivals, mostly as an audience member, because I like
watching films. Once I had the possibility of being part of the Talents Programm at RIFF which was very educating and some contacts helped me find work as well. Being shown at a festival and invited gave me
a feedback of my work and realize myself as a filmmaker in a broader sense. I think they are necessary to get out and encounter your film with new audiences.

  • Do you believe that a filmmaker should be original and fresh or he/she should stick to classic but safe cinema style?

I don’t believe any of the two and I don’t think filmmakers should think that way. There’s no formula! A filmmaker can only come to terms of his own experience or vision and how he or her manages to put
this on the screen. The rest is secondary to me. What counts is the personal artistic essence, the feeling that remains after you strip down a film from all his plots, stories and technical aspects. Of course style helps to convey this and style inspires me as well, but it’s not crucial. There’s no “safe cinema style” that would matter for me, neither “original and fresh” films can be truthfully important when they only settle to appear this way. For me, it is about capturing soul and not creating style. We have to take care and be
aware to not end up with dead images and never-ending repetition of fake perfection.