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1000 Smiles Per Hour

About this film

1000 Smiles Per Hour. 1000 Smiles on a stage in front of an audience that uses you as a mirror, as a chance to look at themselves, into themselves. Into their deepest desires and fears. Into their humanity. But what about yourself? Who are you? You walk the streets towards a destination we do not know. You meet a woman whose relationship to you is unclear. You remain a ghost, who needs to wash off make-up, a mask, a second personality which you squeeze yourself into for a couple of hours every day. You're the one who smiles for us, who shows us who we are and who disappears in the shadow of ourselves.

Nadin Mai (tao films)

Interview with the Director
I would like to begin with an almost standard question, Fabian. How did you conceive of the film? What inspired you to make 1000 Smiles Per Hour?

The beginning for this film was the idea to produce a short film in preparation for a feature film we are developing at the moment. It’s called „Vibilia Armata“. The idea was to give the first script draft to Anne-Kathrin Heier, a fantastic German writer and long-time collaborator, let her pick a minor character and develop a short film around this character. She picked „Esth“ and started to write some fragments and short stories. It was really interesting to see how a character, which I had conceived for the feature, developed an independent life. Anne and me met regularly, looked at all the fragments she wrote, talked about them and eventually Anne wrote the script, which is quite different to the actual film now. The script was much much more extensive and more complex. We shot almost the entire script but edited out a lot in the end.

Our inspirations are quite various. There is the concept of the feature „Vibilia Armata“ that already has a lot of influences, materials, inspirations attached to it. To name the most important, I would say it’s identity theories, Judith Butler’s idea of perfomativity. For the short, Anne and I talked a lot about outsiders and clowns. This idea that a clown has a relational identity – being laughed at in the circus and becoming a horror figure outside of it - has been with me for quite some time. Do you know the clown-works by Roni Horn? I can’t say exactly how, but they were definitely an inspiration for the short. „Esth“ was conceived as a kind of street artist or clown from the beginning and we kept that. I remember a key question Anne had while working on the film: What is the place of outsiders? If an outsider is only defined by not being part of something, what is s/he part of? Where is their place? And what if this place – almost like a non-place – is much more fluid, individual, less normative? In the end, these questions are not in the foreground, I guess, but they where for sure key questions while writing. I am not sure how important all this is in the end. I kind of hope, it isn’t. It’s definitely not my intention to make an intellectual piece. I couldn’t, even if I tried. I’m not a classical academic or an intellectual; whatever that means anyway. I’m involved in film, and how I practice that is something else, more like backstage at a circus… Maybe that’s why we „gave“ Esth the profession of some sort of clown too...

Another really big influence was the actual shooting location, a small town in the Kent/UK, Margate. It’s like a two way street: We looked for a town like that and then when we settled on Margate there was so much more than we were looking for, of course. Anne became a little obsessed with it at one point, researching all these little bits of its history connected to pleasure and amusement. We visited the town some months before shooting, staying in this brutalism high-rise where the last scene is set in. We had all these images of the town and when we went there, it was like visiting a surreal town. We knew almost every street from images and then seeing it all in real was really strange. I think, because we didn’t go there before, it was a little bit like visiting the character’s home, like you would go to the hometown of a friend you met somewhere else and who told you a lot about their home already.

I think there are many very valid answers as to how this film came to be by all the crew and cast members, and they have a huge role in it. So their inspirations should be listed here as well in order to get the complete picture, I guess. But what I can say about my position is that I wanted to make a really simple film about an encounter between two humans, two outsiders with poorly negotiated contracts with society. It’s sadness, melancholy, tenderness, maybe even love, which is in the heart of the project. It’s intimate – yet the unseen, unspoken relations of the protagonists to a greater structure, like society etc. is somehow present and palpable. I can’t say if that’s what the film is „about“ in the end, but whilst making the film I felt like that’s what it’s about, at least to me.

Especially in the first part of the film, I was reminded of Béla Tarr’s use of sound as an independent storyteller. In The Man from London, for example, there is a scene in which there is a constant ticking that comes from nowhere. The sound doesn’t have a source, but it creates a feeling of anxiety in some ways. I felt this while watching your film, too. The background sound is is not easy to decipher. I couldn’t tell you what it is, but I know and felt that it arrested my senses. Can you tell me a little bit about how you conceived of the soundtrack and what role sound generally plays in your films?

I am very glad it had this effect on you – what you describe is definitely something I am trying to achieve with sound. Sound has always been very important to me, sometimes even more than the image. Kristof Gerega, who was the sound recordist, picked up a lot of sound bits in Margate, where we shot. These field recordings are mixed with the score that Victor Tricard composed. It’s quite minimal. There is just a really low bass track and this beat, that changes minimally throughout the film. The beat has something organic to it but also something almost industrial, like a far away harbour.

The sound design was quite extensive, not only in the first part but it is definitely more in the foreground there. I wanted to do a 5.1 surround mix form the beginning and the re-recoding mixer Kai Holzkämper and I spent quite some time on the mix. In the end, we had like 50 tracks of sound sometimes. The idea was that sounds are present all of a sudden and you don’t know where they came from, when they began. On the other hand, we didn’t want to have it sound super unnatural, more like if you would sit down in this place and be really really quite, just listening. If you ever do that, sounds start appearing from everywhere. That can be scary too. I think, we were chasing this sensation.

The general role of sound in my films? It has a big role. It’s so physical for me, sound. With good field recordings and sounds you can give the image so much depth, I feel, like a body. It’s really about physicality. I love doing sound design. I’m usually quite involved in that process, even more then in the editing – not because I am great at it, just because I really like it. It’s much more free than an image too, at least in the editing stage. Mixing is definitely my favourite activity. I mean, not doing it myself (I can’t), but sitting there, listening along. It’s usually the first time I manage to get some distance from the image as well.

At the beginning, I wasn’t sure what to think of the title. I couldn’t imagine what the film would be about, but the film quickly establishes this in a quite sophisticated manner. The voiceover plays a particularly poignant role. On a very crude level, I saw a discrepancy between the higher, faster and more entertaining world of the circus and the images you actually show to us. It felt almost as though the film was a way to decompress. It was an attempt to breathe after an evening pretending to be happy for an audience.

We had a couple of working titles before settling on „1000 Smiles Per Hour“. This line came from a poster in Margate, an advertising for a pleasure ground called Dreamland. We even shot a scene where Elliott, who plays Esth in the film, walks past such a poster but it wasn’t used in the end. So the words have been a part of the film before becoming the title in the end. I can highly relate to what you said about the title and its potential meaning, so there is nothing really to add. I like it, because it dangles in a void or vacuum, I feel. That’s my reason.

How did you decide about the film’s aesthetics? Was it clear from the beginning that the film would be contemplative?

In every step of production you add a little piece to what becomes the film. Sometimes that’s taking something away too. In the beginning, we worked with images, film clips and stuff we liked, of course. First, it was Anne and myself, and then with the fantastic cinematographer Smina Bluth. She definitely has a huge role in the film. Usually we manipulate found footage and images first to get a feel for a potential tone.

Again, going to the town was key, testing some technical possibilities. Smina was looking for a specific look and found it by using lenses from the 70’s on a modern digital camera. Her ability to be with the protagonists is really amazing, this intimate atmosphere she can create from behind the camera, it’s really special, it’s intuition mainly, I think. Black & white was the decision from the beginning, scope as an aspect ration as well. Both felt good in connection to the locations, this harsh architecture, all this concrete.

The influence of Elliott, who plays Esth, was huge too. He isn’t a professional actor/actress but very aware of physical representation, agency, identity politics, so there was some abstract talking about the script with them, but when we shot, it was very intuitive, no meta-level. Elliott told me many times, what felt right to him, and this had a great impact on the filming and thus the look. Antonella Sarubbi, who edited the film, contributed to it immensely as well. She is very aware of little things, of rhythm but she never forgets the people in the image. They are never utilised for an „amazing cut“ or something. I don’t really know in what way the film is contemplative, but I wouldn’t argue against it for sure. What I can say is that to us the film always has been about small things, small gestures, a brief look, a slight turn of the head, and so on. These small things take time, both to establish in the rhythm of a scene and as well for the viewer to see it, to be awake enough for it. At least that’s what I believe. It’s not about making a „slow“ film per se, it’s more about the content and what it needs, and if it is about little, fragile things, you have to be careful because I believe it is much more exhausting, both shooting such things and as well looking at them.

Another aspect is that I tend to take away the usual „plot points“ for some reason. Mostly they are there in the script, but we end up either not shooting them or editing them out. For example, we don’t see how Esth and Mar met initially. I sometimes feel like it’s an too intimate moment and belongs to the two characters only. Not having these plot points – and, if it works, not needing them – shifts the perception to other things. But again, I don’t know if that is what makes it contemplative or not. Maybe it does.

The film felt much longer than 15 minutes. There was a feeling of drainage and emptiness apparent that seemed to have stretched the temporal experience of the film.

That is a very interesting reaction. The film is made from five shots only. The action itself is quite minimal and the last eight minutes is just one long plan-sequence. But this is just a technicality and some dramaturgy maybe. Despite understanding the importance of those things as tools, I don’t believe that you can rely on these tools too much. It’s too crafty and there is not enough life in there, at least for me. To me, our film is really about this one moment, when the two protagonists share this moment in the bathroom. But in order to really show this moment, we understood that we needed all the things before and after. Maybe because that’s how life works, all these sequences of little things lead to something extraordinary. It takes time and then this moment is quickly passed and then you have to deal with that. We wanted to show all these things, not just what would be „important“ in the sense of a plot point or something. Most of the films we see today don’t do that. They cut out what’s not needed to reach the next plot point. So I would rather say, our „normal“ temporal experience while watching a film is conditioned to be much different than it is in reality. There is some sense of tragedy in 1000 Smiles, or melancholy, or emptiness and I believe it is strongly connected to the use of time, or the style of (not) editing.

I can’t say how it is achieved exactly, or by what means, but I feel like using long takes and especially plan sequences like the last shot of the film, it creates this interesting moment on set. Everybody involved has to function quite precisely. I mean, it was a tiny apartment and six people following two characters around. There are lot of mirroring windows and small rooms. But all this allowed us to develop a rhythm, like a dance. The result is that everybody in front and behind the camera becomes very engaged. There is a plan and then nobody has to follow leads anymore, it opens up this space for emotions.

The film has travelled the world, which is well deserved. Whats next for you and Schuldenberg Films?

Yes, it’s been treated really kindly. We are premiering a two channel version of the film in an opera in Cologne in May. It’s a really interesting version of the film, I think. We edited it at the same time but never had a chance to show it so far. It’ll be the first time the film is shown in Germany in any version, so that’s cool too.

Then, we are still working on Vibilia Armata, my second feature. I am mainly working with Sophie Ahrens, a fantastic producer, who is also part of Schuldenberg Films and 1000 Smiles. It’s quite an ambitious project, I guess. As I said, it’s connected to 1000 Smiles, but it’s different too. At this very moment, we just cut „Esth“, the character from the short, out. They might come back, but for now. He is out. We’re still writing and starting to finance now. If we get lucky, we can shoot within the next two or three years. In the meantime, I am trying to get a short done this year still. A different thing really, about three young girls in a rural area in Germany, a quite cruel coming-of-age story, about them having to grow up too quickly. Sounds quite classical, but let’s see. I’m sure we’ll find a good approach – if we can get the cash together.

We set up Schuldenberg Films to produce for others, too. We have some really interesting films by great filmmakers in development, some docs, some shorts and some fiction features – many of them are international co-productions, which is nice. Some are quite experimental, e.g. for artists, others are a little bit more classical. It’s slow, tough, we are a young company, but we are trying to be kind and work hard and then hopefully wonderful things will happen.

Thank you very much for this interview.