Title image by Martijn de Vos
Dutch filmmaker Zara Dwinger’s latest short film, Yulia & Juliet, follows the love story between two teenage girls in a youth detention centre.
Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge caught up with Zara to chat about the film, doomed love stories, pink hair, and much more.
Q: We recently saw what a fascinating setting the youth detention centre can be in Darko Stante’s ‘Consequences’. What drew you to this setting for ‘Yulia & Juliet’?
A: I saw a really good documentary about a place like this in Holland. The film really focused on the kids, and not so much on the system or what they were in for. The characters were all so different, but all really endearing. That’s what really got me interested in this setting.
After that, I did a lot more research on these places. I have a thing for troubled teenagers, and of course this is the place where a lot of them have to live together. After meeting with scriptwriter Jolein Laarman, we also got fascinated by the more symbolic meaning of the place. The feelings of loneliness and isolation translated quite beautifully to this setting where the feeling becomes reality.
Q: ‘Yulia & Juliet’ continues your trend of exploring with the intense feelings of youth. What interests you about these youthful perspectives?
A: I think that first of all it’s a personal thing. I can really relate to these kinds of stories because, although I haven’t been a teenager for a while now, this period was the most horrible, beautiful, confusing period of my life. It really left a mark on me. I think the saying ‘write about what you know’ isn’t necessarily true, but maybe you could say ‘write about what you feel’. The core feeling of your story should live in yourself as well, I think. At least that’s what works for me.
What I also love about making these stories about young people is that your characters can go through a real rollercoaster and act in grotesque ways, but it’s still totally believable. The teenage protagonist can go through a lot and actually change, even in a short. This is quite hopeful, and actually quite true for real life as well.
Q: Could you relate to this story of doomed love from your own youth?
A: Not in the way Yulia and Juliet experience it. A lot of my love during my teenager years was kind of doomed, but only because I didn’t have the guts to talk to them or because they didn’t like me as I was a skinny kid with braces. Not quite as poetic.
I can relate though to finding someone around that age when you feel really hopeless and alone, and having the feeling of being saved by the love for each other, and holding on a little bit to tight.
Q: The film is loosely based on Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Did you draw much from Shakespeare in this short film?
A: We actually created the outline for the script before the connection to Shakespeare’s famous love story. It was only when we were talking about this tragic love between two young teenagers that we suddenly made the connection. We then saw it as something that could help us make the story even more strong by subtly taking some ideas from the original.
The most direct inspiration we got was for the ending. We were struggling with this for a while, I think because we loved the girls too much, so we didn’t want to hurt them. But then suddenly it clicked: if we’re doing this nod to Shakespeare, we really have to go for it.
Q: Sara Luna Zoric and Dylan Jongejans were found through digital casting on social media. Can you tell us about that process and how they stood out?
A: Casting director Bobbie Koek was also doing this for another series about teenagers. I liked her approach and decided to work with her. I don’t know exactly how she found every single one of them to be honest.
We saw a lot of inexperienced girls who were surprisingly great. We also saw a few really good experienced young actresses because we were thinking of mixing it up. In the end, I decided to go with two girls with a little bit to no experience. Sara Luna Zoric starred in a feature indie film some months before the casting while Dylan Jongejans had never acted before in her life.
What stood out in both was their raw vulnerability with a tough edge. Dylan was this natural dreamer with a really strong presence and Sara Luna was an energetic, natural born rebel. Their contrasting personalities worked really well on screen. We saw this already when we put them together in casting. The fact that they were new to acting I saw as a good challenge.
Q: What were Sara and Dylan like to work with, particularly given the intimacy of their roles?
A: They were great! I really put most of the preparation time in bonding with them. I knew that if us three had a good vibe and could trust each other, this would help tremendously in the scenes to come. We hung out, and talked everything through a bunch of times. They knew they could trust me and there wouldn’t be any surprises.
On set, directing them went really smoothly because of the groundwork. I always like to be so prepared that I can actually try to let go all of that on set and still be able to crack a joke.
Q: One of the common themes in ‘Yulia & Juliet’ and ‘Liv’ is pink hair. Is there a reason behind that?
A: It’s definitely becoming a thing… I’m not totally sure why, haha. Dyed hair for me is the embodiment of teenage rebelliousness. Practically, it’s a really easy thing to change in the appearance of your actress, but it instantly tells a lot about her character.
I used to hate pink because I always thought it was too girly, but I have embraced the colour in the last few years. Now I am proud that it is linked to being a girl. And in the context of rebellious hair, I like that it kind of says: “F you, I am a girl. Problem?”
Q: Can you tell us about your background and what led you to filmmaking?
A: When I was a teenager I always knew I wanted to be an artist, but I didn’t really know what kind of artist. I loved drawing, photographing and acting. When I was 15, my parents decided to buy hundreds of second-hand, quality films on DVD. This really helped me to discover and love cinema at an early age. I became a film nerd.
But I didn’t even know how to start making a film of my own. I was too afraid. So after high school I tried a lot of different stuff: traveling, acting, studying Cultural Anthropology, and working for an online cultural magazine in the video department. When working for the latter I was surrounded by all these amazingly creative people, and after a while I realised I didn’t necessarily have less potential. I was one of them.
Around that time I quit my studies and grew the balls to apply for film school. As soon as I started working on my first script for the application, I knew: finally, this is it.
Q: What filmmakers of the moment excite and inspire you?
A: To name a few: Andrea Arnold, Alfonso Cuarón, Yorgos Lanthimos, Barry Jenkins, Xavier Dolan, Sean Baker. I think with all of them because they have amazing styles, but also because they were able to capture something amazing and beautiful and tragic about being human in at least one film.
Q: What are your hopes and ambitions for the future?
A: For the near future, it is to make another short film and to also make a feature film – hopefully sometime in the next three years.
For the far future, I hope to make a big international film someday. Not necessarily in Hollywood, but somewhere that has a bit more reach than the tiny Netherlands. In the end, I’d just love to have the opportunity to make films that cause at least a bunch of people to laugh, cry or think about when they were young themselves.