OSCAR Shorts Special: Nils Keller On Almost Home

Director Nils Keller joins us on Close-Up Culture for an in-depth chat about his OSCAR-shortlisted short film, Almost Home.

Having lived on a spaceship with his mother for two years, Jacobs dream of returning home is finally about to come true. But as they close in on Earth, they receive word of a great danger that could put the teenager in mortal peril. And with the uncertainty of his return, an even bigger question arises whether the boy is mature enough to make life changing decisions by himself.

Almost Home is described as a coming-of-age story in a science fiction setting. Can you tell us where the idea for the story came from?

The idea for Almost Home was inspired by a newspaper article I read in March 2020 about a cruise ship’s odyssey due to rising Covid 19 fears. What really shook me was the mention of people who, after being trapped aboard their floating steel prison for weeks and despite the prospect of finally being able to leave, questioned whether it was safer to stay. Absurd at first glance, I immediately wondered what this might say about our lifelong and very personal struggle to draw a line between safety and freedom.

When I started writing the first one-pager for Almost Home that same day, I knew I wanted to delve into the feelings connected to this question and dramatize them in order to engage with a broader audience. Not to talk about the pandemic or any pandemic in the first place, but to think about how we grapple with social conflict and life-changing decisions. I think even as adults we are sometimes torn between eagerness to take control and wishing someone else does it. The idea of using certain elements of the article and transforming it into a more universal short film story that departs from Covid reality and takes the form of a character-driven coming-of-age drama set in space, evolved over the next few days.

The story focuses on 17-year old Jakob, who has lived with his mother in the confines of a small spaceship for two years. His dream of returning home to Earth is about to come true – until they hear word of a virus on Earth that could potentially be lethal to Jakob. Was it your intention to take the Covid 19 pandemic and give it a futuristic sci-fi twist?

It may sound paradoxical, but the main reason for setting this story in a futuristic and isolated narrative space was to distance it as much as possible from Covid 19. I wanted to focus on our characters, their dramatic conflict and the bigger implications of life. That’s what made this story so urgent for me to tell. In this regard, the genre and setting of Almost Home primarily provide a dramaturgical canvas that I felt suited the purpose. The spaceship becomes this really confined cinematic stage to think about what it means to be dependent – on your parents or other people who force life choices on us – and how hard it can be to break away from them. It’s this very physical yet metaphorical expression of not being able to run or hide from conflict. And how it feels to be cut off from life, having to make decisions, with consequences you can’t possibly foretell. 

I think that it’s one of cinema’s magical powers, that narrative distance can pave the way to talk about essential issues in our lives that would otherwise be buried under too many specific circumstances – or too hurtful to address. However, in order to forge a meaningful connection with the audience, I think there have to be signifiers that relate to our lived experiences. Like specific coming-of-age situations. Or like Covid 19. The pandemic might be one of those rare, once-in-a-lifetime events where everyone in our complex and diverse world has a shared yet personal understanding of the same thing. About what it means to lose freedom, to fear for loved ones, to make sacrifices. As a director who wants to tell stories that appeal to a global audience, I don’t want to exploit this trauma but aim to reference it. The point is not to provide answers, but to ask questions with enough space to be filled with unique experiences everyone living in very different social circumstances has.

And were you ever worried that post-Covid audiences might wish to forget all about viruses?

I hope Almost Home is not seen primarily as a film about the right and wrong ways to deal with viruses. In the narrative, it was important to move those questions out of focus pretty quickly and think more about who gets to make life-changing decisions and why. It’s about the right to think and decide for yourself. It’s about Nico’s struggle to accept her son Jakob’s burning desire for freedom and autonomy as a teenager. But also about Jakob’s confusion towards carrying real responsibility for the first time in their life. The theme of growing up is really to be the dominant one here and I hope and believe, that for most in the audience the coming-of-age drama at the centre of our story can feel relevant, regardless of Covid.

There’s an additional conundrum for Jakob, as we learn that he was confined to a wheelchair during his previous life on earth – but here in the zero-gravity atmosphere of space he’s been able to move freely. So in some ways, the confines of space were actually liberating for Jakob?

Yes, exactly. The idea was to bring hope and optimism to this otherwise incredibly lonely environment and also to create a much more complex teenage character. The reason Jakob went into space with his mother in the first place was the promise that his deteriorating health would be halted and reversed, granting him a much broader, less painful outlook on life upon his return. The ability to move freely in space serves as a metaphor for how Jakob perceives his future life on Earth. It is an encouraging experience that has already made him grow in many ways, also in hurtful ones. Imagine how much he has suffered emotionally being locked in that spaceship for two years of his teenage life and how great his urge is to free himself from this confinement and his mother’s rule. 

The brutal twist is that life on Earth has taken an unexpected turn due to the appearance of the virus, which proves to be particularly dangerous for Jacob. One can understand how hard it is for a teenager with this backstory not to lose all hope or blindly go berserk. He has already shown incredible resilience and knows what it means to sacrifice and suffer. And he knows quite a bit about the downsides of safety being traded for freedom.

Can you tell us how you managed to achieve the zero-gravity sequences?

It was a variety of techniques that we used, some rather improvised. For the few full-body shots in zero gravity, we used wires attached to harnesses that the actors wore under their spacesuits. These wires were connected to a truss system that ran several feet above the spaceship construction and was pulled through the narrow corridors of our set by a rigging team. To use this technique, the spaceship had to be built in such a way that the ceilings could be dismantled. Another challenge was that we had to retouch the wires and bulging parts of the spacesuits frame by frame in post-production. Overall, it’s a fairly complex and time-consuming technique that enormously limits the actors’ ability to act. So, we tried to use it only where it was necessary to create the right immersion and suspension of disbelief. 

However, for most of the zero gravity sequences, especially the more complex acting scenes, we used a technique to fake it. It gave the actors an enormous amount of leeway and fun. To do this, they had trained to mimic the typical movements in zero gravity, pushing off walls and making wobbly gestures. We supported the immersion with our remote-controlled camera rig, which picked up their movements and floated around with them, further distorting the sense of space. For some scenes, we supported the actors by giving them so-called “Swopper” chairs to sit on, that bend in various directions through spring and thus helped them shift their body centre in otherwise impossible directions. It was really a lot of fun to work that way and sometimes we had to keep the actors from going bananas.

Can you tell us a bit about the process of casting, particularly the mother Nico (Susanne Wolff) and son Jakob (Jeremias Meyer)?

Susanne Wolff

Susanne Wolff, who plays Jakob’s mother Nico, is a well-established actress in Germany, known for her work in theatre, film and television. For example, she did films with German filmmaker and Oscar winner Volker Schlöndorff. The most interesting reference however was her role in the film STYX, for which she received the GERMAN FILM AWARD. In it, she plays a woman who sails alone across the Atlantic until her tiny ship collides with a refugee boat and an escalating, morally ambiguous conflict ensues. For our role of Nico, I was looking for a complex and tough character who was able to play with rigour, but who also has these emotional breaking points.

It’s important to note that in our film, Nico is not only a mother who cares for her son, but also a scientist who is used to travelling for long periods of time without seeing anyone, and a very hands-on person who can physically and mentally operate the spaceship under life-threatening conditions. Very different from a teenager with lofty dreams, and emotional and social aspirations. For me, this different outlook on life was the basis for the conflict between the two. Since we felt Susanne was the perfect fit for the role, there was no audition with her, but a long letter of admiration. We then had a very long phone conversation in which I expressed my appreciation for working with her. I am very happy that she joined our project.

Jeremias Meyer

For the role of Jakob, our aim was to find a young actor who could display extreme resilience but also vulnerability, enthusiasm and despair, thoughtfulness and emotionality. Jeremias Meyer was recommended to me by a German actress who is a friend of mine and Georg Nikolaus, the cinematographer. She saw him in a theatre class and insisted that we meet him. We did an audition together where I not only asked him to play one of the most intense scenes in the script but also to think about the right approach to the physical aspects of his role. For example, the disability, which we later talked about a lot with a rheumatologist and other medical experts. Jeremias is one of those great actors who are open to radically trying things and reflecting on experiences. 

And he was always asking for impulses to get things right and develop a deeper understanding of his character inside this unique situation of being trapped in space. One day he locked himself in a room to learn how to mimic zero gravity, then sent me fun videos to give him feedback on. You could really see the progress between Take 1 and 36. We were lucky enough to meet Jeremias just before his recent big career moves as an aspiring actor, working as a lead in big-budget projects for Prime Video.

Stephan Kampwirth

Stephan Kampwirth, who plays Jakob’s father and is only present through a hologram, is a well-known actor in Germany who stars in the Netflix series Dark. I was looking for a character who, unlike Nico, is more of an emotional and warm person. His presence, his view of the situation and his influence on Jakob had to be strongly felt, even though he is not physically present. He mirrors Jakob’s enthusiasm and his love of life, standing up for the fact that you can’t make all decisions based solely on safety concerns and abstract numbers. He also stands up for Jakob’s right to empowerment and self-determination even though he himself doesn’t fully live up to it by sparing his son the full truth about the situation. 

Overall, I’m very grateful to our actors for their trust and commitment to this no-budget project, that involved so many young filmmakers. Through their artistic love and work in preparing and playing their characters, they managed to fill this distant and abstract environment with life.

Almost Home was awarded a Student Academy Award in 2022, and is now shortlisted for the 95th Academy Awards, in the “Live Action Short Film” category. What are the blessings and the challenges of having a film that’s a potential Oscar contender?

I consider this exclusively an absolute honour and blessing. It is an incredible feeling to know that so many experienced professionals have seen the film and identified with it. To say that this is a dream would be a great understatement. Of course, we continue to dream and work that reach the nominations. In the meantime, the attention helps us to show this project that so many have put so much love into the world. And of course, we’re working to use this great opportunity to attract partners for our next projects. In many instances together with Jonas Lembeck who produced Almost Home with his company Le Hof Media and with whom I’m currently developing several international projects. Additional help comes from our new international management Echo Lake Entertainment

As we are receiving such great feedback regarding the concept and execution of our short, our intention is to let the coming projects also play with the different genres – including sci-fi, horror, gangster comedy and a dystopian thriller. And again, we want to use worldbuilding and a cinematic canvas as the backdrop for an intense character-driven drama and bigger questions about life. One development here is an advanced concept for Almost Home – The Feature working with some of the short’s core themes but also infusing fresh blood into the story.

Finally, what do you hope audiences take away from watching Almost Home?

My greatest wish is that it conveys something about the power of human relationships. The need and blessing to trust and believe in each other, even in difficult times. Also, the necessity of sometimes going into conflict and sorting out our relationships. Yet above all, I think this film stands for the unpredictability of everyone’s life path, which rarely goes as planned.

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