Martin Monk is a Berlin-based director and photographer.
His latest short film, Favoriten, screened at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. It tells the story of Sofia (played by Lia Wilfing), a young woman who finds herself on an unlikely road trip with a middle-aged stranger (Christian Dolezal).
Q: I understand the inspiration for this ‘Favoriten’ came from your own personal experiences of being uprooted. Can you tell us more about this and why it resulted in this story of an unlikely duo on a road trip?
A: The film tries to convey that sense of wanting to leave things behind, even if there’s only a very vague goal or target. Both characters in the film are more or less drifting, their motivation for leaving is not that they have a very strong goal they want to reach, but rather that they want to get away from their problems.
I think a road trip can create this atmosphere of being somewhere in-between. It’s a powerful metaphor for a way of feeling about life in general.
Q: Sofia’s problems are made clear to the audience, while there is more ambivalence and quiet to Michael’s story. How do you see both characters and the inner journeys they go on in this film?
A: In a short film, I felt it was important to have one of the characters be a clear central one, to give structure to the material. Sofia is the obvious choice here because she is in a more vulnerable situation, and hence we can perhaps have more empathy with her. It is her desire to leave home that creates the situation in the first place.
I thought it would be an interesting challenge to convey a second character that is thematically connected to that, but about whom there is more mystery. The viewer has to get to know Michael at the same time as Sofia.
Q: Do you see any of yourself in Sofia and Michael?
A: Yes, in both! They appear very different on the surface, but their inner life is not that dissimilar. I think simply by the law of attraction, any author always creates characters and situations that are emotionally meaningful to him or her. In that sense, all dramatic work is personal. That restlessness that the film deals with is definitely familiar to me personally.
Q: How was the shoot working with Lia Wilfing and Christian Dolezal? I imagine you spent a lot of time in the car together. What was the dynamic like between the three of you?
A: Yes, we were indeed spending a lot of time in the car, and that was really stressful. You need to trust the actors and let them go because you can’t micromanage the performance, by the simple logistics of shooting in a moving car. They both also improvised a lot, which was a lot of fun to watch, but which didn’t really end up in the film. That’s an interesting process.
The work with each was different, just by virtue of their experience levels. Lia is a complete newcomer, while Christian is an experienced actor that does a lot of theatre work as well. I did work more with each individually, rather than directing them as a pair, because it was important to keep a certain distance between them, because in the story, they are strangers.
Q: The settings of ‘Favoriten’ are truck stops and car interiors, but there is still a lot of clever and understatedly beautiful imagery. What was your approach to the visual style? Did you have any reference points/inspirations heading in?
A: We did extensive location tours and we were also inspired by other films of course, such as Andrea Arnold’s American Honey. But at the moment, I’m more interested in the way a scene will be edited, as well as the lighting.
Framing choices are largely dictated by the physical spaces, particularly in a car. So I’m more proud of the fact that some scenes work without a single cut than of any individual image. That to me is the real achievement of a great DoP like Johannes Hoess: to compliment the dramatic situation with the camera work; rather than just going for a beautiful image. And if you can do both, all the better.
Q: You studied history and philosophy before turning to filmmaking. Can you talk about your background and what sparked that decision to move into directing?
A: It was a slow and long process of discovery, of trial and error. I wasn’t happy with my career trajectory in my mid-twenties so I volunteered on film sets and immediately connected to the process. That was something I could see myself doing, as it combines so many of my interests. I never looked back after that. My studies definitely help me to have a sense of what came before, and of critical thinking and deep analysis.
Q: ‘Favoriten’ screened at Cannes. How did you find that experience and the reception to the film?
A: It was a great honour and the fulfilment of a personal dream! The film was and continues to be well received, but while in Cannes you find yourself in such a bubble that it almost doesn’t matter. The film is in Cannes and you just try and enjoy that. It’s not a time to be overtly critical of yourself. And I think the general quality of films there is so high that one should just enjoy this incredible privilege to be part of it.
Q: What is next for you?
A: Writing my first feature script, and getting that made. And at the same time, I need to shoot at least one more short film to complete my MA Directing degree. I’m only getting started, I guess!