IF you are not familiar with the name Bernhard Wenger, then you surely will be in the coming years.
With over 70 international awards to his name and still in his mid-20s, Bernhard’s latest short film Excuse Me, I Am Looking For The Ping-Pong Room And My Girlfriend is another sign that the Austrian-born filmmaker is destined for great things. James Prestridge of Close-up Culture caught up with Bernhard to delve deeper into his exciting work.
Q: With a vacation setting and a relationship dispute leading to somewhat of a male crisis, your film conjured thoughts in my mind of Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure. What led you to this story?
A: THE story was inspired by a friend. He is a very passive guy and I thought it would be interesting to have that kind of person as the main character. It is unusual to have such a passive main character. Yet we all know someone who is like that, who is more driven by other people and does not really make his own decisions.
On the other side, I think wellness and spa holidays have something absurd and funny about them. You save a lot of money for a long time so that you can go on a spa holiday for a few days and then do nothing there.
Also when you sit in a sauna next to somebody you do not know at all, it is somewhat strange when you look at each other in the eyes and you are both naked. A lot of funny situations happened to me when I was on a spa holiday. I thought it would make a great setting for an absurd comedy.
Q: As Aron tries to find himself within the hotel, he ends up being distracted by a child playing ping-pong and a carefree older gentleman who spends his time on a pool inflatable. Tell us more about Aron’s character?
A: ALL of the supporting characters help Aron make his decisions or realise he has already made his decision. The older gentleman, for example, is some kind of father figure for him and can be seen as him in many years time. The older gentleman is on his own and seems very happy. Likewise, the small boy is left on his own by his mother who does not really care for him and he always plays ping-pong with Aron.
They can be seen as metaphors for the main character himself. All the others help him clear his mind.
Q: This is an impressive cast led by Rasmus Luthander. What did they bring to the project?
A: I went to Sweden – to Gothenburg and Stockholm – and met 15 actors and actresses.
For Aron, Rasmus was the one who understood the role the best.
I think that is one of the most important things in casting. The role of Aron is strange as it is that passive and some people I met during casting did not really get the role. But with Rasmus I had a feeling from the beginning that he really knew how Aron works and thinks. That in itself is a gift.
On set it was easy working with him. We talked a lot about the role on long skype sessions before shooting. He knew exactly what I wanted and so I could always rely on him.
Of course, Anna Åström, Elli Tringou and Carl Achleitner are all wonderful too. I think it is important you get the right cast. If you start questioning your choices then you cannot work freely. Most of the film was executed as scripted, but there is always room for the introduction of nuances on set. They happen if the casting was right and you have talented people on-board.
Q: You filmed most of the film at the Gradonna Mountain Resort in Austria – and you get the most out of the setting during the film. What was the shoot like and what did it mean for you to secure such a stunning location?
A: WE did a lot of research during the locating scouting and had a few potential spots in Austria. When we got to the Gradonna Mountain Resort it was clear for us that it would be the setting.
It is uncommon in Austria – and Europe in general – to have such a modern, huge setting in the middle of the mountains, in the middle of nowhere. It is important for the film that it is so close to nature. The hotel combines wood and glass. From the beginning you feel the nature and have the mountains on your mind. That is a very important topic in the film.
When we contacted the resort, they liked the script and agreed to work with us. They always close two months before summer to do renovations and preparations for the main season. During that time, we had eight days to shoot. It was a great location to work, shooting in a spa resort is a lot better than shooting in the desert!
I think the kind of mood it created also helped the whole team and cast to have a nice time during the shooting. I think you can sometimes see with a project if a team is working together happily or having really hard shooting days.
Q: I was also curious about the artwork in the resort that Aron takes notice of. Was that in the script?
A: WHEN we came to the resort we found these wood statues and concrete statues, like the one where the woman is standing on the man’s shoulders. I thought they fitted perfectly into the story so I adapted the script and wrote some scenes to include them.
The pictures on the wall were made by our art director Antonio Semeraro. He painted them to fit the mood.
We had to adapt a lot of things. We built the elevator walls to match Aron’s sweater. We also made some parts of the hotel smaller than it really is and we turned a massage room into the ping-pong room. Antonio, who also did the costumes for the film, did a great job with all of these things. I think the artwork is important for the film and gives it another layer.
Q: You have won more than 70 international awards and will surely receive many more for this film. How would you describe your approach to directing?
A: FOR me, it is 80 per cent about pre-production. Once a script is finished and we have all our locations, I go with my cinematographer Albin Wildner and we shoot the whole movie once. We act ourselves, play all the scenes and then we edit the whole movie once.
It is a very important process. We try everything before and get a picture of what we need. That way I do not need to talk much with Albin much during the actual shoot because we have already been through it.
It allows me to work more with the actors and to concentrate less on the cinematography. It gives me a lot freedom on set.
Q: If you could work with any actor of the moment, who would it be and why?
A: THAT is a very tough question. I would love to work with British or Irish actors such as Michael Fassbender, Jessica Barden and Craig Roberts. I think what makes a good actor is if they can feel the role completely and if they do the kind of prep you need for a role.
I am not a big fan of giving an actor a lot of info about a role. I give them a little and allow them to build their own story for the character.
Minimal acting is the best way. Even if you play comedy, you should not play comedy – you should take it serious. Comedy is very hard. If there is an actor who can play very precise comedy then he or she can also play drama as comedy is the hardest part of acting I think.
A good example is Elli Tringu, the Greek actress who plays Maya in Excuse Me. I saw her in the film Suntan that was running at Rotterdam film festival and I was stunned by her performance. It was such a minimal precise way of acting.
I wrote down Elli’s name as I always like to remember actors when I see them in good movies. It was a year or so later when I was casting and I remembered her name. I contacted her through the internet and sent her the script and her answer was that she loved the script and would like to take the role. Of course I was extremely happy and it was not that hard to arrange. We had a nice collaboration and it was great working with her.
When you see a good actress you should keep them in mind and maybe there is a way one day you will work together.
Q: This is your longest short film to date at 24 minutes. It feels as though it could be spring-boarded into a feature. Is a feature film on your horizon?
A: I LOVE working on short films – they are a small excerpt of life. But you can tell a very different story with feature film. It is so much bigger and you need to work more on character.
I am really looking forward to that as this summer I will start to work on my first feature-length script. I do not know where it will lead me yet – if it will be a treatment or a first draft. At this point, there is an idea of the story but nothing too precise yet. But a feature length film is definitely the next step.
Q: What is next for you and when will people get to see this incredible short film?
A: RIGHT now I am still travelling with the film and visiting a lot of festivals across the world.