Paradise: Love plays at the festival this weekend. Paradise: Faith and Paradise: Hope will premiere soon.
Film Watch: How did you choose this title for the trilogy?
Seidl: Paradise is the promise of a state of permanent happiness (a word that for many conjures up the desire for sun, sea, freedom, love and sex), as well as a commonly abused concept in the tourism industry. The title thus represents all three of the film’s stories, because in them, three women set out to fulfill their unfulfilled dreams and longings.
Watch: Why three films involving three women?
Seidl: Despite what people may think, I’m a director who makes films about women. The film grew out of several different starting points. For example, I’ve long been interested in making a film about fifty-something women. And also, my wife Veronika Franz and I once wrote a film about mass tourism that consisted of six different threads. Each dealt with tourists (from the West) and their kind of vacation in the so-called Third World. The theme of sex tourism came up repeatedly in them. We developed that into the story of a family: two sisters and a daughter. Three women, looking for a man, who don’t correspond to standard ideals of beauty, and who—to cite Houellebecq or Jelinek—have low market value. So they look for sexual fulfillment, and also love, elsewhere; in this case, with black men in Africa.
Watch: What’s behind your “exploding” the stories?
Seidl: We don’t write traditional scripts. Individual scenes are described precisely, but the separate threads are recounted like in a short story, and not interwoven. That only happens at the editing table. It’s the result of my working method, the basic principle of which is that you don’t simply execute the approved script, but rather take into account what’s happened in pre-production and also what’s come out during filming. Similarly, as far as possible you shoot chronologically and make sure that the working method remains open to new directions and ideas. Plus, with every film I always try to set myself new challenges, and on Paradise my secret ambition was to film the stories in such a way that, if necessary, they could exist on their own. I spent a year and a half in the editing room on countless rough cuts, trying to interconnect the three stories. And at some points that worked quite well. Still, none of the various versions worked as a single film—a 5 1/2-hour colossus. Instead of being mutually enriching, they actually weakened each other. And finally we came to the conclusion that the best solution artistically was not one, but three separate films. But it wasn’t an easy process.
Watch: A sex holiday in Kenya, a radical Catholic mission of conversion in Vienna, a diet camp for adolescents … Why these three “stations?”
Seidl: All three women fall in love, experience love and, along the way, disappointment. For the daughter at the diet camp (where overweight teens spend their vacations), this is the first love of her life, with all its absolutes. For her mother, who travels to Kenya to find love—or sex—it’s a conscious choice after years of being disappointed. And her sister, who loves no one but Jesus, and who has thus found a spiritual, wholly cerebral sexual love, goes even further: What you can’t find on earth, you long for in heaven, the promised paradise.
Watch: Especially in the case of the Kenya film, the “plot” developed in a very free and improvised manner. How do you write something like that?
Seidl: That’s not how it happened. At the outset the Kenya thread was the longest and most precisely developed story in the script. We’d spent two years traveling to Kenya for research. But as with all my films, these concrete preparations were a catalyst for change—and with this particular episode, the changes were more radical than usual. At first we intended to show a woman who already had a relationship with someone in Kenya and who was going back there for a second time. But with the decision to cast Margarethe Tiesel in the lead, and after the local rehearsals I did with the beach boys during pre-production, I realized it would be more interesting to portray a white woman who for the first time comes to Africa and for the first time has contact with black men. On top of that, I had narrowed the final choice for the African male lead down to two candidates, and I didn‘t know which one to choose. It was a very delicate question because the scenes had to be authentic both emotionally and physically. So I started to shoot with both these leads and used what went on each day on set to hone and plan the next shooting day. That said, we kept a lot of the original script.
Watch: You always work with a mix of professional and non-professional actors. In this case, are the Kenyan beach boys the non-professionals? How did you meet them? Was it hard to get them to appear on camera?
Seidl: First of all, it wasn’t at all hard to meet them. Just the opposite. It’s impossible not to meet beach boys the second you step on the beach in Kenya. You’re immediately surrounded and besieged, in every language. The trick was more of finding the right ones for the film and earning their trust. That took some time. In Kenya, like it or not, everything is a question of money. As a white European in Kenya, you’re seen by the locals as someone with money, and that‘s how you‘re treated.
Watch: What did that mean concretely?
Seidl: For example, just to get a beach boy to show up at a certain place (for an audition) costs money. When it’s a question of money, the Kenyans are incredibly inventive. We would deem as lies the pretexts they use to demand money from us, but I’ve learned to see it simply as being very imaginative. A Kenyan beach boy finds it totally normal to try to convince you within a few days that a family member is sick, another has been bitten by a snake, a brother has malaria, his grandmother has died.
Watch: What were you looking for when choosing your leading actresses, especially in the case of Paradise: Love?
Seidl: From the beginning I knew I wanted to work with a professional actor for the main role. But the job description was extremely demanding. A woman over 50 who doesn’t correspond to the usual Western beauty ideals, in that she’s overweight, for example. As usual with my method, she had to possess the ability to improvise scenes and to appear authentic on camera. And then there was the greatest difficulty: She had to shoot nude sex scenes, fall for these young black men. We searched for almost a year—Margarethe Tiesel was a stroke of luck.
Watch: Corporality and beauty: What do they mean to you?
Seidl: Corporality always plays an important role in my films. I love filming close to the skin, showing people in their unenhanced physicality, without makeup. For me it’s precisely in the unbeautified that you find something like beauty.
Watch: Each of the three films has its own aesthetic and narrative approach. Could you explain how that developed?
Seidl: My filmic transposition, that is, how and with which images something is related, is determined as much by the physical setting, the locations, as by what, and under which conditions, is to be recounted. The atmosphere in which each story takes place also plays an important role. Kenya, for instance, which is noisy and which, with its ocean, palm trees and beaches, conveys a superficial sense of exotic freedom. Prior to filming I’d researched different places around the world—the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic—where you also find Sugar Mama tourism. In the end I chose Africa because I was interested in the charged social situations, the wounds from its European colonial past. Africa cast its spell over me: by its diversity and contradictions, horrors and beauty, poverty and wealth from tourism (which is itself nothing more than an updated colonialism). I find the continent endlessly inspiring—visually too.
Austria/France/Germany, 2012, 120m
Director: Ulrich Seidl
Writer: Seidl, Veronika Franz
Starring: Margarete Tiesel, Peter Kazungu and Inge Maux
The Seidl Method
1. Shoot fiction films in a documentary setting, so that unexpected moments of reality can meld with the fiction.
2. There is no script in the traditional sense. The script consists of very precisely described scenes—but no dialog. During shooting the script is continually modified and rewritten. Seidl: “I see the filmmaking as a process oriented by what has preceded. In that way the material we’ve shot always determines the further development of the story.”
3. The cast consists of actors and non-actors. During casting equal consideration is given to professionals and non-professionals. Ideally the audience should not be able to say with certainty which roles are played by actors and which by non-actors.
4. The actors have no script on set.
5. Scenes and dialog are improvised with the actors.
6. The film is shot chronologically, making it possible to continually adapt and develop scenes and dramatic threads. The ending is left open.
7. The film is shot in original locations.
8. Music is present only when it is an integral component of a scene.
9. The open working method also applies to editing. Rushes are evaluated and discarded at the editing table. The film is rewritten at the editing table. Several extended phases of editing are needed to identify what is and isn’t possible for the film. In this way, to take the example of the Paradise trilogy, what had been planned as a single film became three separate films, each of which stands on its own but all of which can also be viewed together as a trilogy.
10. In addition to the fiction scenes, so-called “Seidl tableaux” are filmed—precisely composed shots of people looking into the camera. The Seidl tableau, which was born in the director’s first short, One Forty (1980), has become a trademark of Austrian film and is now used by other documentary and fiction film directors. On each of his films Seidl shoots numerous tableaux, even though they may not make it into the final cut. “At some point I’ll make a tableaux-film with all the unused tableaux-scenes that were shot over the years in all of my films,” he says.