Interview with director Urban Zorko

Urban Zorko is a filmmaker and writer born in 1983 in Ljubljana (Slovenia). In 2012 he was awarded a master in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory at the Faculty of Arts in Ljubljana. He works both in fiction and documentary  and is the founding member of EnaBanda production company which specializes in film and theater and has, eight years in existence, made a mark on the national scene and international festival circuit. His short film Manhole won the prize for best short in 2016 Mumbai Short Film Festival. In 2019 he created an omnibus Short Deeds (31’), which went on to international sales and wrote and directed Concrete Dreams (51), a highly praised documentary on life-dreams that stay with us unfinished, through a particular subject: concrete boats.

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

To me, filmmaking is one of many facets of storytelling. And I’m deeply curious about stories in general, written, painted, drawn … But I was especially drawn to books and films since I can remember – I probably felt the first strong wish to pursue film when I saw The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in Ljubljana’s charming moldy Cinematheque somewhere in early high-school.

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

After more than a century of film we can safely say that a fearsome company of successful filmmakers didn’t attend such institutes. Think Sergio Leone, Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, Paul Thomas Anderson … So that dilemma has long been answered. But not going there doesn’t mean that a film-maker can ignore the obligation to hone his/her skill, to tirelessly explore all possible knowledge in narrative and other fields. I think a filmmaker studies by observing life, reading and watching, learning from others, being infernally curious. And knowing other arts. I don’t think there’s any way around that.Also, what is a successful filmmaker? Somebody that successfully tells a story? Is a good artist? Good money-maker? Famous? Let’s leave this for another conversation.

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

To me, film is essentially a team-endeavor. Finding right collaborators is a fundamental director’s mission and in my case also a big motivator. So, learning how to motivate the team, how to express and articulate in front of others and how to motivate the wider public (the one that essentially funds your films) is a skill that got me both started and keep going. But I’m still learning, and it wasn’t always easy. In all things creative I’m essentially shy and reserved. To think that you can make it as a lone-wolf is wanting to be a general without an army. Sometimes you can be, but I don’t find it preferable or fun to be alone on the battlefield. If that is the wish, It’s probably wiser to write.

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

In the case of Short Deeds, the lesson was to let go. An essential part of the project was attracting different screenwriters, directors and other creative collaborators and while I tried to micromanage in the beginning, to keep the projects different enough (but still a part of one entity) I learned to let go somewhere in the middle and just let people do their work. It’s a thing of trust and beauty, to rely on dreams, talent and work of others – and they did a great job.

  • 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?

The very birth of this project was wanting to make an omnibus out of rules and restrictions: action in a stopped-over car, a break-up, two to three actors, a surprising twist to the story, three pages of script, etc etc … Many of those rules were already taking into account spartan conditions that we would face and turned them into a game. So that playfulness resolved many things. But what still surprised us was the sheer size of the crew – more than 50 people involved in what is essentially a short film! I navigated it by overseeing the content … but I also think the element of healthy competition between different DOP’s, directors and other creatives helped – it was not directly encouraged, but it did spontaneously happen.

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

I designed the basic rules and the concept of this story-world, chose the screenwriters and the stories. But the hardest decision was thinking about which co-directors to invite. In needed not only to trust their ability, but somehow predict that they’re going to leave their mark and make a different enough film to ensure a vivid experience.

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

I found them through previous projects, networking and asking around. I think consciously working towards aligning your creative goals forms the basis of a cohesive team. It encourages creative debate, towards a common, exciting goal. And I like to be playful, drink beers with my colleagues and talk about absurd stuff. Then at other times I try the unknown. I go for different collaborators, just to explore outside of my established frame. A side effect (but a planned one) of Short Deeds was indeed for all of us to find potential new collaborators in an experimental and non-fatal environment of short form. And I found many people that I’d like to collaborate with again. With some I already did!

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

I think it’s beneficial for the film-maker to pick the mind of the audience, if not for real, for fun. We are simple creatures of habit and we (sometimes unfortunately) tend to enjoy stories that we already know. We’re like Romans, wanting to see the same tales of woe and heroism in the Colosseum. So the question that interests me as a filmmaker is: “what role does the expectation of the audience play in how my film will come across”? If you’re a film-maker from Afghanistan and want to make a middle class love story, you might have problems getting it across, because it’s somehow not related to war – and international audience, let’s face it, expects that from you. Every place has a certain expected ‘brand’ of stories attached to it. Fundamentally I find that disturbing – it’s a result of geopolitical conditions, prevalent media portrayals, ignorance and simply human nature. So you should know these things, because expectations form a part of your story. But then you can still decide how to follow them or even to play against them, give the audience something better than what they wanted. But if you fail, they’ll hate you 😀 Or you can be straightforward rebellious and intentionally neglect these expectations that essentially reflect prejudice and stereotype. I think we should rebel against such prejudices, but be smart about it. Using genre is another way of using audience’s expectations and tweaking it. Practically speaking I think it’s worth worrying about audience’s expectations in the rough cut. It’s essential to test the film in test screenings, to see if the audience actually sees the story I wanted to tell – and if not, is it for the good of the story or not? So I have time to adjust it. And even before that, how people react when I tell them the idea of the story …

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

Festivals have played a role, but a lot of my stuff was also shown by the national broadcaster, cinema network, etc. So I can’t speak at length: only that I think they’re a great way to showcase your film. To enjoy something different as an audience and to learn how to promote your work through different workshops. These proved to be great networking tools on international levels. Finally, any festival is a potential window to different stories. It promotes film culture and drinks, and I like both.

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

I think it is ignorant to neglect what came before. Film is at its core a piece of language, so it’s good you know what was being said just before you entered the conversation. You don’t want to come naked to a violin concert. Or maybe you do, but in that case you especially shouldn’t be surprised about it. Knowing what came before doesn’t limit you from being rebellious, unorthodox or avant-garde, if you decide so. I think a story always reflects changing times, techniques and socio-political realities: so if you want to create something that seems authentic now, it means you have to look for fresh ways to tell it, because the world is not exactly the same as it was yesterday and straight out repetition is always anachronous. I think an established way to actually use the best of both worlds, the good old and the fresh new is to use a genre: which is essentially a pre-established frame of expectation. And fill it with a different stuffing. That adds depth, cohesion and density (not to mention time-economy) to your story. Just think of David Lynch and small town melodrama done differently (Twin Peaks)…  In Short Deeds the enticing bait of genre lied the stopped cars. Some screenwriters took the opportunity, some less so.