Everything Will Be Okay – Interview with Film Director Patrick Vollrath

patrick vollrath
PictureIt’s 9am on a Monday and I’m just getting my day started. I’ve been up for an hour,
eaten some breakfast, and ensured that my webcam and audio recorder are fully functional. I jump on Skype and ring up Patrick Vollrath, the thirty-year-old Austrian filmmaker whose latest short film Everything Will Be Okay has been making its way around the world this last year, to see if he’s available for a quick chat. His emotional
story about a divorced father who picks up his eight-year-old daughter on a day just like any other but which turns out to be the beginning of a fateful journey has been making waves for the recent film school graduate, and rightfully so.

It’s 6pm in Austria and Patrick’s busy day is probably close to winding down, but after a minute or two of ringing I’m forced to give up on the call. Maybe the young director is too busy organizing the multiple awards he’s picked up from the 60 plus festivals his film has shown in, finding space on his shelves for the likes of the Audience Award from the Milan Film Festival in Italy. Maybe he has a corner set for the Best Medium Length Film awards he nabbed at the Huesca International Film Festival in Spain, and both the Max Ophüls Film Festival and First Steps Awards in Germany. Perhaps there’s a section on the mantle for the Best International Film award from the Portobello Film Festival in London alongside those for Best Actress and Best Film from the Manchester International Film Festival. Not to mention a cozy corner to place the Student Academy Award for Foreign Film he received this past September, and a good deal more.

After a few moments, I’m receiving a call from Patrick and we’re soon introducing ourselves and chatting about each of our days beginning and ending.

So how’s life treating you so far? It seems like it’s been pretty good to you lately.
It has been good. The whole year has been exciting after the premiere and all the festivals.

It sounds like it’s been a busy year. You just finished school recently too?
Yeah, I finished in March, (the film’s been) almost finished since January.

Starting basic, what lead you on your path to being a filmmaker? What was the deciding factor?
You know when I was like 13 I watched Titanic (he laughs) and after that I wanted to become an actor. Then I started like theater and stuff. Parallel to that I bought my first camera which was a 16(mm), and then I went into the woods and made my first film and I discovered how to edit on my PC and then, yeah. Then started out and then I finished school. Everybody asks you, your parents ask you what you want to do and I was like, “Oh I want to do something with film”. And then I looked it up, how can you do it, then applied for film school and applied for some other stuff. I didn’t get into film school first, I started working for three years in the film business after school and then I applied again for film school and then I got in. And then I was like, “yeah that’s what I want to do then”.

Were your parents supportive of that decision?
They were all the time behind me, there was like no moment when they were like, “you should do something else.” Of course, if you want to do that then just do it. They were always supporting, always, yeah, never ever disappointed in my choices. In the end it kind of paid off.

It seems like it. When it comes to films are there certain qualities you’re attracted to that you try to put into your own films?
Yeah, in a way when I started I was like everybody, you know? You watch your favorite films and try to do the same kind of, I guess when Tarantino came out with his films there were so many cool gangster kind of rip off movies especially from kids and students and, you know. But during film school I realized what I wanted to do and what I wanted to put into films and I came back to realism and emotional stories and to discover, to see some truth in front of the camera. That’s what I wanted to do and what I want to do and what I’m trying to accomplish with film.

Is that what you think makes you stand out among the rest? You seem to have a good track record with awards and prizes and people seem to be attracted to your work.
I don’t know what it is. There was this moment when I didn’t want to…you know when you start you always compare your films to other people and you compare and say, “Aw why didn’t I get picked to go to Cannes? I want to go there.” For this film, I was really, “I don’t care for film festivals or prizes,” and so on. I was really like, I wanted to make an honest short and an honest story and that’s what I wanted to do. It’s interesting how it worked out.

Where did this story come from?
At first it was based off a newspaper article that was placed in Austria and then I started to read that and thought, “Oh that’s interesting, that could be an interesting film,” and I started researching and I started writing a few things and I wasn’t very happy with that and then dug deeper and deeper into research and talked to a lot of people and I got to know someone who was in that kind of situation and I talked to her for a long time and after that I thought it was pretty clear what film I wanted to make. I built up a structure that supports (the story) and in the end that’s what came out. And after that I wrote something and that’s basically what it is now.

Did you approach this specific production any different from previous ones?
Oh no. You know the only thing is I didn’t really care what people (thought), if this film could be successful, I was really not interested in that, in the moment. I just wanted to tell a story and I wanted to make it an emotional piece. Like I wanted to be touched by myself, by the actors in front of the camera. It was like a goal for me to achieve. I guess when you’re in film school and you make a film it was a little bit like that. You have to learn to go where you can fail and where it’s not safe. To go where it’s very, where it could hurt someone. That was very important for me to go there and not be holding back.

Was that an important lesson you learned on this particular project?
Yes, a very important lesson. Of course you always, when you have to get up and do an important scene for the film and you don’t know whether it will be good you always shit your pants and then you have to do it. And sometimes you shoot the easy way, “Oh we can do it like this,” and sometimes you have to do it how it’s best for the film. That was something I learned from this film, from the final moments of film school, was to first trust in yourself…and then about not holding back. To be honest and try to tell an honest story.

I think that’s what I’m most attracted in when I watch films. Seeing something that wasn’t necessarily made for particular people but something the filmmaker wants to show and tell for themselves.
Yeah, and always when I build up the structure I would of course…see the view of the audience and how quickly they would go with the characters and all that stuff but in the end I think you have to make a good mixture. I guess specifically for this film I feel a little bit in the audience for some people it’s too rough, “I don’t want to see this,” and other people are saying, “Oh wow that’s pretty strong,” and you know, I couldn’t make a film that both of these people would say, “Oh this is amazing.”

I think you’ve made something that means something when you can divide audience’s thoughts and feelings.
I hope so.

What was the process like casting for the two leads?
First I started out thinking it wouldn’t be that hard to get a good male actor, they’re already out there you just have to ask all of them. I thought it would be pretty hard to get someone around 8 years old to be emotional and convincing in front of the camera so I put all the focus on her for a long casting process. I was pretty aware it would be a long process and in the end it was like half a year we looked for her. And in the end it was, we found her a couple weeks before we started shooting, or when we decided she was two or three in the final round and I decided. I was aware she could be good, you know, make it good, but I didn’t know, I was surprised on some takes how good she was. It was surprising for me too. Like I didn’t realize what’s happening in front of the camera right now. She just, I think that’s with great actors, you can start directing them, but the magic comes when the camera is rolling and you don’t have like any influence anymore and sometimes it just happens. Same with, I dunno, Brando and you know, the director can say something, but sometimes it’s just like, “Woah, what’s happening here?” I was really lucky with that I guess.

You’ve worked with a few young actors, this time with particularly marvelous results, have you found there’s a specific way that works well with directing them?
You know it’s all about, at first I didn’t write so many lines. So she didn’t, she couldn’t (do) anything wrong in front of the camera. She didn’t have lines so we talked about the scene and what’s happening and what she wanted to accomplish in the scene. And the other side is she didn’t play a role she played herself in an extreme situation. I was aware that this would help someone to be convincing and truthful in front of the camera. And then we tried to create realistic scenes like…okay I tell my camera man we shoot inside so I want to do 360 degrees so hide your lamps. I dunno where, but we need to be totally free. If I want to go right we go right if I want to go left we move camera left. So just the camera man, sound guy, and a camera assistant (are in the room) so when things are happening and people are knocking outside on the door (and coming into the room) you feel pretty in the scene. I like that, and actors like that too, not just to play on some marks and have the right look. It’s like total freedom with long shots, long takes that get over 15 minutes in some situations and they had the time and freedom. That was very important. And I didn’t write any lines that they had to say. I told them, “I don’t care what you say it’s just important you get this and this.” That was for me how we worked on this film.

I understand you were taught in a class by Michael Haneke. Are there any specifics lessons that you learned from him that you’ve put towards your own work?
He always said first: more than half of a good film is first a good screenplay and second good casting. And especially with this film I took the screenplay part and casting part very seriously. I wouldn’t have started shooting without being, thinking I have the right casting choices. You never know when you start shooting, but I spent a lot of time on that, for every role. For the new husband of the mother, for all the people at the airport. I like to work with real people so all the airport people are just real people doing their jobs, this kind of stuff. These are two big things especially for this film that I learned and took in.

Other than that were there any particular things you learned during this film that you’ll keep in mind for future projects?
This kind of style we did, how to accomplish realism, I kind of learned from this film. All the films before were a shooting board and we storyboarded and this kind of stuff. (This time) giving ourselves and especially the actors total freedom to take it in a totally different direction in the end working with that like, “In the scene before you did something (and) I really liked that so this next scene I want to keep that so we can’t do (the scene) exactly as I wrote it, we have to change that.” This was something I wanted to try and tried a little before but not totally in this style. This is something I want to keep up. Even in the next film it’s something I want to do, I will do. Even if it’s a different story, it would be very interesting to have it in this kind of story because it’s more action based, more thriller. To have this kind of acting that would be very interesting.

I think anything you have like that helps the audience get more involved in the characters and in the case of a thriller more engrossed and on the edge of their seats.
I hope so, I think so. Especially with this it’ll just be in one room and to do it like this and (have) very long takes even if I just cut 3 minutes out of it I guess it will get the actor more exhausted and very more real in front of the camera. You do an hour take and after this one hour have this one minute you take out. (He laughs) I guess I learned when I was in acting school for a couple months I loved that about theater, to do two hours nonstop acting and not always, “Okay this is your framing and you have to look from right to left.” You get so deep into that, especially when you are a method actor and you want to do this kind of stuff. I guess it’s something very interesting.

I think it’s worked very well in this instance. Is there anything specifically that’s allowed you to keep doing what you do as a filmmaker? A lot of people make their first film and then there’s a significant drop-off for those who never make a second. You seem to be chugging along.
I don’t know. This time it was funny because when I was writing the screenplay or the treatment for the next project of course you hit dark places (and) you think it’s shit what you’re writing and then I got an invitation to a festival and then you get motivated again and say, “Oh nice nice, I have to go out.” And that was, the whole year was kind of like that and that’s of course pretty cool. I dunno how next year will (be) when I write something and you don’t get this push, this motivational push. But I guess it’s different in the US than in Austria because when you make this kind of film and you have a little bit (of) success on your short film it makes the next easier to finance because people think, “Oh this is someone new, we have to give them a chance.” So with the first feature film it’s interesting that it helps a lot to go through the next financing steps because the people know your name and your work and you say, “Okay I want to do the same kind of style with this story,” and they can really imagine what it will come out kind of. So that helps. I dunno what it’s like for a second project or third project but I’m trying to work on like four things at the same time. That’s what I learned from people, especially when they go over from Europe to the US, not just (to) focus on one thing that maybe won’t get financed. I dunno, I’m pretty motivated right now, I dunno how it’ll be in a year.

So you are working on a feature?
Yeah, I guess it’s time. Like, after I did this short film the next step must be a feature film. Another short would be interesting, but the ideas I have right now are not for shorts, more for features. So it’s logical to make this sort of step.

I know a lot of filmmakers who do well with a short film and say, “Well I know how to do a short film and I’m not ready for a feature so let’s do another short,” instead of jumping forward and going for it.
Like I said you always have to take the risk. Of course, I can fail with a feature and people will say, “Okay that was an interesting short film you did, but this feature was crap,” but now the chance is there and I have to grab it.

You can’t become a better filmmaker if you don’t go for those chances.
Yeah, and the thing is maybe the next short would suck too. (He laughs) You don’t know. Better suck with a feature than with a short, then they can say, “Okay he did a feature and he can hold a budget, at least he can do that, it won’t be a good film, but he can hold a budget and make it on time. So let’s give him TV, something.” After another short they won’t know that.

Well I really enjoyed the film. I watched it with my girlfriend and we were like the people you described earlier. She thought it was too much and I was totally engrossed in it, and it gave us something to talk about after.
I feel it in every audience that there are always people giving very high numbers and others giving it a 1 or 2 because it’s like that. A little bit like, “I dunno if I can,” they don’t want to see, not everyone wants to see this kind of realism or this kind of stuff. I was aware and I wanted to show it.

It’s not only just that, technically the production is beautiful too. The cinematography is shot well, it’s pieced together well, it moves at a great pace. And it’s a subtle film to start. You kind of figure out what the guy is doing and eventually you’re just slightly ahead of the daughter, waiting for her to realize what’s going on. What’s going to happen when she realizes what’s wrong? Then you’re just in for the ride. And we never know specific details either. We don’t know what Michael’s relationship is with his wife, what lead him to this moment, but ultimately it doesn’t really matter, it’s not what the story’s about.
Yeah that’s right and it’s nice that you say that because it’s everything we talked about before the film, of course, it’s all the things, should I tell more about the divorce (or) explain more and in the end the drafts of the screenplay and the treatment I cut it all out. I wanted to just be ‘in the moment’. Like when he picks her up what would they talk about? They are not explaining to you what’s happened, they are talking about the day and random things. He has a plan and he has to put on his mask and say, “This is a normal day, I have to be in a good mood and have to convince people that everything is okay.”

I found there were a lot of great subtleties throughout, like when Michael picks Lea up he and his wife don’t even seem to register one another.
Yeah, they hate each other and they don’t even talk.

And I think the first bit I really like is in the cab when Lea asks, “Where are we going? We’re not allowed to leave town.” You start to see that obviously things are not good with Michael and whatever’s happened with his divorce and marriage. You wonder if he’s in his right mind, does he have a right to do this? And as an audience we can’t make that decision because we don’t know the finer details so we’re just seeing a man who’s desperate to keep the last thing he has in his life.
That’s why all the steps of the drafts of the screenplay were important, so we know the backstory and we know what all happened before and what the rules are. It’s nice that it all came along. People watch close and sharp and we wanted to put it all in and not mess or point at it.

I think that just means you have faith in your audience. You’re a filmmaker who says, “You know what? We’re going to put it there and I believe the audience is competent enough to put it together.”
Oh yeah. Some people, especially like TV stations think their audiences are stupid. Or big budget films think that too. I think for some people, of course, it fits (he laughs), and if you have to meet millions and millions of people it fits. But I knew this wasn’t going to be a blockbuster film so I could trust the people who will watch it. And that was something I took from Haneke too. Don’t put things obvious in the frame.