Q: Your film Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse looks incredible. How long have you had this story in your mind?
A: I WAS living with the idea of confronting my issues and fascination for witches and Austrian folklore for years.
There was always the feeling that the topic was not properly portrayed in previous films – and I had an urge to bring my personal view to life.
Q: You were a photographer and the film has a striking visual style. Rainer Sarnet recently spoke to us about photographer Johannes Pääsuke inspiring his work on November. Did you have any inspirations for the visual style of the film?
A: THE aesthetics came early in developing the idea for the project. I started out working with visual moods, certain feelings and nightmares, to find out where I wanted to go.
I worked closely with my Director of Photography Mariel Baqueiro on developing a certain style. Every shot was storyboarded and we tried to keep close to the original thought while shooting.
Of course I get inspired by a lot of different things. It is hard to pin it down though. Inspiration can lie in paintings, nature, folklore of the Alps, but also in certain memories I gathered as a child – being scared in the dark woods or listening to fairy tales about witches that take you away in the snowy woods of the mountains.
Besides that, I have great admiration for directors such as Andrei Tarkovsky, Andrzej Zulawski and Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau. They all definitely influenced my style.
Q: Speaking of Tarkovsky, the BFI’s Michael Blyth wrote that your film owes almost as much to him as it does to horror. Why were you attracted to this approach and why do you feel it is successful?
A: MY first approach was to create a film that put the viewer in a certain hypnotic, dream-like state and by that offering a view into the mind of a delusional person.
To do so, it was clear to me we had to push for a certain style in pace, rhythm and storytelling. A lot of dialogue seemed unnecessary.
The idea was for the audience to let themselves fall into the mood of the story, rather than to explain certain states of mind via dialogue. I know that it does not make the film easier to digest, but I am sure that in the end it will have a deeper effect
A lot of people are telling me that even though it did make a certain effect while watching, the movie stayed in their subconscious and kept on re-occurring for a long time.
Q: With this minimalist dialogue, does it change the way you approach the script and casting?
A: IN the process of writing the script for the film, I worked visually and atmospherically. The dialogue came late and only where it was needed.
The main character, Albrun, lives a secluded and lonely life. She barely speaks, has nobody to interact with except her animals and the nature surrounding her.
Actress Aleksandra Cwen developed a good understanding for this. I think she understood the inner thoughts of Albrun even more than me.
We created Albrun’s character with long talks and exercises – such as sending her at night through the woods to be alone, only surrounded by nature and the night.
I worked with Aleksandra on a previous project and was happy to work with her again. Her background is theatre in Poland where she is from.
Q: Why did you chose the 15th century Alps as a setting?
A: I GREW up in Austria and my mother and a part of my family originates from this area in the Alps. Spending time there as a kid was influential.
It is a part of the world that still holds onto a lot of traditions and where you can find a lot of folkloric practice – the Krampus, for example. A lot of the movie has to do with the experiences and memories I gathered in this part of Austria.
The 15th century was a time where beliefs in witches and magic were still strong in the mind of ordinary people. It was the ‘Christianisation’ of Europe – a breeding ground for the hateful prosecution of women and people with older beliefs such as paganism.
For me it was also important to set the film in a time where even the main character would not be able to understand the difference between mental delusion, real magic and demons. I do not think there is a real difference when it comes to the experiences of people who suffer from hallucinations. The fear is just as real.
Q: What inspired you to tell the story from a female perspective and where did the difficulties lie in that?
A: WHEN it comes to the topic of witches, I think it is crucial to try to understand what happened to women in those times.
A horrifying wave of prosecution led by the Catholic Church swept over the continent and allowed people to murder innocent women by the thousands.
It was a climate of fear and mistrust.
The evil witch, as we know from fairy tales and myths, is obviously a female character. For me to understand the fear I had as a kid, I found that it must lie in a fear of losing your own mother. If a mother, the one safe and friendly place, turns evil, you are deprived of all your safety.
So when young Albrun experiences the trauma caused by her mother, she is left with exactly this scar.
To push it even further for the story of Hagazussa, I was interested in what it would do to her, being a mother herself years later – and trying to deal with the fear and temptation to turn into her own mother.
All the external factors, like the church and the town folk, finally lead her to succumb to her fear and fall into darkness.
I was happy to work with a lot of interesting women on this film. A good part of the team were women – director of photography Mariel Baqueiro, who was part of the script development and of course the actresses. I think this was crucial to create an understanding of Albrun’s personal suffering.
Q: What type of atmosphere did you try to create on set?
A: BELIEVE it or believe it not, we actually had a warm and friendly atmosphere on set.
The shoot was split into a couple of blocks. For one block we spent two and a half weeks all together in a farm house on the mountain, rarely going down into the valley. This experience created a strong bond which really helped to conquer the nature of the mountain
When it came to the actual shooting I often like to rehearse with the actress alone. We get quiet, roll ourselves down to the pace of the movie and develop the scene. Sometimes there is some music, sometimes we light a candle, it depends.
Q: What were the biggest challenges and pleasures of making this feature length film?
A: THE big challenge was working with animals and in nature. The mountain weather can be merciless. Once we got surprised by a hail-storm on the peak of the mountain. That was not easy.
I also have to say that financing a film like this was nigh impossible. We got support from the film academy and other supporters, but trying to get funding in Europe for a genre film – and an unconventional one at that – was impossible.
The biggest pleasure was to be able to make the film in the end. We had a great team that really stood behind it, which made the production possible. I tried not to make too many compromises when it came to the way I told this story, which seems to have worked out.
I am grateful for that.
Q: What inspired you to become a director?
A: COMING from a background of photography, I had the visual background, but never felt like I was really able to tell a story. At least not in the depth that I wanted to.
Sound and music also became more important to my work. I think from early on I was interested in dreams and memories. Film seemed the best way of replicating these experiences.
Q: What are your ambitions as a storyteller?
A: I LIKE to offer the viewer something that is personal to me and then see what it does to them.
If there is something that scares me, I like to put my finger on it and stir it up until it becomes my own. Afterwards I maybe am able to show somebody else what I found. Maybe they find something else in it for them.
There is a certain curiosity in finding these things out and telling them. The only language I can do that with is film.
Q: Lastly, do you have any upcoming projects you can tell us about?
A: I AM currently writing a new script. It is still at an early stage.
The topic differs a lot from Hagazussa, but I am sure the style will be going in a similar direction. It all evolves around the experience, fear and attraction of violence in the current political climate in Europe – told through a close look at the main protagonists and their issues.