Following our recent interview with Lillian lead actress Patrycja Płanik, Close-up Culture are proud to welcome director Andreas Horvath onto the site to give further insight into the film.
Horvarth is an Austrian born photographer and filmmaker. His work includes the photography book Heartlands: Sketches of Rural America and the widely acclaimed documentary Helmut Berger, Actor.
Lillian is his first narrative feature. Loosely based on the true story of Lillian Alling, it tells the story of an emigrant in New York who decides to walk back to her home in Russia.
Q: You are familiar with America, the people and the landscape through your work on the photography book ‘Heartlands: Sketches of Rural America’ and the documentary ‘This Ain’t No Heartland’. What is your relationship to America? What is your perception of it as a subject of your work?
A: In 1984 I was sent to the US for a year as a high school student. I was sixteen and really wanted to go, but my images of the US were shaped by movies mostly. I remember my disappointment when I was dropped in a town of 6,000 people in the middle of endless cornfields. This was in Iowa, 30 miles west of the Mississippi, and even though Chicago was just 180 miles to the east, my host parents had no intention of taking me there. If I’m not mistaken, they had never even been there themselves. Chicago might as well have been on a different planet.
It is this kind of insularity that I find astonishing but also fascinating. Despite all cultural differences though, most people are genuinely friendly and helpful. Since my high school year I have come back to rural America many times. I have very good friends there.
While in Europe history and culture is omnipresent, in rural America there seems to be a lack of it. But it’s a mistake to think this way. There is a lot of history. You just need to look harder. You come to a small village which seems to offer nothing, but the longer you stay and the deeper you dig, the more stories come up.
Q: The film loosely brings the story of Lillian Alling into a modern American context. Can you talk about drawing inspiration from that incredible true story, but also how you wanted ‘Lillian’ to depart from it?
A: When I first heard her story one rainy night in Toronto in the fall of 2004, I was instantly touched by the eerie beauty and the raw force of this tale. But I was never really interested in explaining the mystery, in filling the gaps (or recreating the 1920s).
To me Lillian’s story is universal and deeply symbolic. With a premise as unique and unreal as this, what more do you need to make a film?
Q: Why did you chose Patrycja for this dialogue-less role? And how did the two of you prepare for the shoot?
A: Her appearance can be very ambiguous which is what I was looking for. I think if you walk from NY to the Bering Strait you have to be both, fragile and strong. The fragility motivates you to walk away: there is something in your past or in your character which causes you to leave and you need to be receptive to this motive. But to actually accomplish this undertaking you need to have endurance and be determined. Lillian lives in her own world. She is very resolute, almost stubborn, but also vulnerable. Patrycja personifies these qualities.
What is equally important: as a non-actress Patrycja did not approach her role with a set of trained methods and skills. Her access to Lillian was very straightforward and intuitive. She was not so much portraying Lillian as directly impersonating her.
I think it was less a question of preparing for the shoot, but remaining open for it, letting it happen, allowing the process to effect and change you. From the very beginning Patrycja identified very much with Lillian (which is another reason why she got the part). She was willing to take the risk and see what the whole experience would do with her. This openness was also true for how we let the story evolve. Apart from knowing that we wanted Lillian’s story to end somewhere in the Yukon or Alaska and that her fate should remain unclear we did not know anything when we set out.
Q: This must have been quite the journey for you both. How did you evolve – individually and as collaborators – over the nine month shoot?
A: I think we started out as kindred spirits, but towards the end we really were a good team. We needed less and less verbal communication. Often we would just look at each other and know exactly what the other one was thinking.
Q: I imagine lack of dialogue places extra emphasis on the music and the visual style. How did you approach those two elements of the story?
A: I wanted to reduce the film to the essential theme of a woman walking across North America. In this scenario the vast continent becomes the veritable antagonist. This way I thought it might be possible to retain the almost mythical quality of the original story. I wanted the viewer to never forget the satellite perspective.
The visuals attempt to enhance this concept. I felt that the main activity — walking — had to be visualised in all its different aspects. We had four cameras always ready: a handheld camera, a setup with a tripod, a camera mounted to a gimbal for tracking shots and a drone for aerial perspectives. We would arrive at a new location and I would spontaneously decide which camera setup to use. I was hoping that the images alone would give you a good idea of how the geography and the physicality of the continent change.
In a typical Brueghel painting you have the bird’s-eye view and the closer you get the more details and episodes emerge. I wanted the camera in Lillian to imitate a viewer stepping closer to and away from a Brueghel painting, alternately discovering micro- and macrocosms. Sometimes the camera lingers with people and we overhear a silly small talk in a random bar, the kind of timeless conversation that will always be had in these places, but then we’re back outside, catch up with Lillian and see her in relation to the vast desert of the Badlands. Like the fall of Icarus in Brueghel’s painting Lillian’s true story unfolds completely unnoticed by anybody. The title of the painting is Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. With Lillian I was striving for a similar relativisation with regard to the eponymous main character.
The music likewise juxtaposes Lillian with the overwhelming antagonist. Lillian’s themes are more lyrical and fragile while the themes representing the continent are lusher and more brooding in instrumentation. I felt that certain conquests on Lillian’s way needed special musical emphasis: like her arrival at the Great Lakes or the continental divide or her crossing of the Mississippi, the Missouri or the Yukon, after all the three largest streams in North America.
Q: You worked without a script. How did you cope with the freedom and pressure that comes with that level of improvisation? Why were you willing to take this ‘gamble’?
A: Since we were constantly moving forward, we never knew what still lay ahead of us. It was difficult to remain open to new developments, while at the same time never loosing sight of the developing fictional storyline.
But, despite these hazards, I really wanted the story to evolve during the shoot and not at my writing desk at home. When you sit down and start brainstorming ideas about Lilian, jot down possible explanations or reasons for her journey, you immediately come up with a contrived background story involving a family, a lover, a child or whatever. I wanted the film to be free of prefabricated sentimentality, kitsch or cliché as much as possible.
Q: You’ve juggled multiple roles (directing, editing, cinematography, music) on your previous projects. Was this experience a different – perhaps more demanding – challenge given its scale and that it is a narrative feature?
A: The team was very small, often it was only Patrycja and me. Many times we would just “steal the shots“, rather than block roads or employ additional unit managers. The sheriff who apprehends Lillian in the film is a real sheriff and was simultaneously dealing with the traffic we obstructed. So the feeling of “drive-by-shooting“ a film which I am used to from my documentaries was also prevalent here.
On the other hand, sure, it’s been 15 years since I first heard Lillian’s story. I have never had so much time to mull over a film. We started shooting in 2015. Four years later here we are. So the time frame from pre to post-production was also very generous.
Q: I’m guessing you could probably write a book on the experience of making this film. What do you think will be your standout memory from making ‘Lillian’?
A: I guess the standout memory – if I had to pinpoint one – would not be connected to a specific location or situation, but rather the feeling of civilization thinning out the further west and north you get.
Q: What is next for you? Do you want to make more narrative films?
A: Lillian was a very special project in so many ways. The way it was conceived and conducted. It’s not a documentary, but not quite a classical narrative film either. I’m not sure where to go from here.
The last films I made were just a continuous succession of overlapping projects. I could not even attend the world premiere of my previous film Helmut Berger, Actor in Venice, because I was already shooting Lillian at the Bering Strait. I think I need time to reflect.