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INTERVIEW – A SERBIAN FILM
Friday 26th November 2010, 1315
Srdjan Spasojevic – Director
Nikola Pantelic – Producer
Interviewers: James Mudge (beyondhollywood.com), Becky Reed (screengeek.co.uk), Adam Boult (screenjabber.com)
Conversation took place the day after a special screening of the BBFC approved UK release version of A Serbian Film at the Prince Charles Cinema in London. After being withdrawn from FrightFest earlier in the year, the version finally approved by the BBFC had required 49 cuts totalling 4 minutes and 12 seconds. The film has now been granted an 18 certificate in this form, and is being released by Revolver Entertainment.
Becky Reed: Could you first tell us a bit about your background in film making, and if you could tell us what the Serbian industry is like as well?
Srdjan Spasojevic: Concerning my background there is nothing interesting, because this is my first film, my first work, I never did anything before this, no commercials, no video spots, absolutely my first work.
Becky Reed: So you’re not part of any Serbian film community?
Srdjan Spasojevic: I know some people who are from the movie business, but not that much really.
Adam Boult: How did you come to make this film?
Srdjan Spasojevic: Well, I studied movie directing, I started in 1997 or something like that, finished in 2001. After that, I was working on one script that we never shot. 5 years ago we started with this one. I think we had a short synopsis around 5 years ago, and after that 1 and half years working on the script with the script writer we finished and started preparing.
James Mudge: Do you think that A Serbian Film, along with others like Life and Death of a Porno Gang and Tears for Sale, which I believe has the same screenwriter as A Serbian Film, are the start of a new wave of genre cinema from Serbia?
Srdjan Spasojevic: Lots of people ask that question, and lots of people in Serbia think there is a new wave, but unfortunately I don’t think so, Serbia is not that much of a fertile ground for free cinema, so those films are maybe just kind of accidents, and made by people who had a strong idea, and a strong belief that they could pull something like that off. I’m not sure that in the near future we will see something similar, but of course if there is a chance for this to become kind of a new wave in Serbia that would be really great. But in Serbia you cannot get your film financed unless you are financed by state funds and government, or some European funds, and they are always looking for the same, same stories, films for some European festivals, and there are politics, a new European movie order, by European film funds, and this is the only way you can finance your film in Serbia, and the rest of Eastern Europe of course.
Becky Reed: It’s an incredible, fantastic looking film, the production levels are really high. Could you have done it on the sort of amount they would have given you?
Srdjan Spasojevic: Well actually, this film cost less than average than an average film in Serbia. It was just about getting to gather together a good crew, to know what you want to do and everything else comes into place. Movies in Serbia and that region are spending a lot of money almost for nothing.
Adam Boult: Could I ask you what film makers you have been influenced by?
Srdjan Spasojevic: Mostly American film makers from the 1970s like Friedkin, Cronenberg, Carpenter, Peckinpah and even Walter Hill, lots of those guys.
Adam Boult: Do you think that shows up in your film?
Srdjan Spasojevic: I think so, because this film is kind of a mixture about our feelings towards our region and the world in general, and of course with a movie style that I would like to see or made, so I think there is a influence from those guys of course, in story structure, in a thriller way, an action way.
James Mudge: Tying in with that, do you think that the film has a similar feel to 1970s American film making in the post-Vietnam era?
Srdjan Spasojevic: Yes, our screenwriter Alexander likes to say that this is our own post-Vietnam syndrome, because it is a film about feelings that we have after the last few decades of war in our region, a political and moral nightmare. So, it is in a way our own post-Vietnam syndrome.
Adam Boult: Was that high on your mind when making the film?
Srdjan Spasojevic: Absolutely not, because we only wanted to express our feelings in the most direct and honest way possible, so we really never thought about any of those things, we didn’t make many analysings during the making of the film, because I’m not much of a theory guy, I don’t analyse in that way, I just approach the film very instinctively and honestly, and maybe that’s one of the reasons why this film is so hard and powerful for some people.
Becky Reed: Could you tell us a bit about the special effects team that you had on the film? They are obviously very convincing, where did you find the team?
Nikola Pantelic: I had been working with those guys on some short films, some student films from college. They did a great job here, Miroslav Lakobrija was the leader of that team and he always does something, he always has a film, even if it’s a short film or feature, I think, and he likes those kinds of honest approaches, meaning that he could invent any kind of thing, and make anything look real.
Becky Reed: What was his biggest challenge?
Nikola Pantelic: In this film, probably cutting the head off the girl, because in some shots in the film we used a complete body, a doll of the whole body of the girl, so that was pretty challenging.
James Mudge: Following on from that, am I right that there are no computer effects in the film at all?
Nikola Pantelic: No, none at all
James Mudge: Was that a deliberate decision, given that so many horror films today, you can really see the obvious CGI blood and effects?
Srdjan Spasojevic: Yes, I think that the mechanical effects are more real than computer effects. And of course, in Serbia we do not have the opportunity to use the best computer effects, so we had to go with puppet dolls and mechanical effects
James Mudge: Looks so much better than the computer effects than you see in most other films!
Srdjan Spasojevic: Yes, we were really satisfied how it went.
Adam Boult: What do you think of the film’s reception so far?
Srdjan Spasojevic: Well, the film was shown only in festivals all around the world, and that kind of audience is in a way trained for films like this one, of course lots of different reactions, some people didn’t like the film, lots of people liked it. So, I think the reception is pretty good, as we tried to tell a universal story, though only set in Serbia. I think that almost every audience could relate to this film, and that there is no need for any previous knowledge of Serbia, so I think that the film is understood in a good way and of course there is no film that is made for everyone, so different kinds of reactions are always best.
Adam Boult: With the title A Serbian Film it sounds like it is geared very much towards a Serbian audience. Was that always the intention of the screenwriter?
Srdjan Spasojevic: Well, we thought about a title for a long time, and this one was the first one that appeared and it stays till the end because it was the most exact title, absolutely, because it is saying about Serbian product in general and Serbian movie industry especially.
Becky Reed: How do you feel do you think about the fact that the infamous scenes have been taken of context in the media, and that people are talking about these scenes but not the film and what it means?
Srdjan Spasojevic: There is lots of talking about those scenes, lots of people talking about them considering them just as shock, and some people understood what they are all about. Of course, all this film is a giant metaphor about our feelings, our lives in the last few decades in our region, but unfortunately there will always be people who will consider those scenes and look at them out of context.
Nikola Pantelic: Yes, but we always knew that they would.
Srdjan Spasojevic: Of course, yes.
Nikola Pantelic: Cannot avoid it. Reactions are always….its not about that. Reviews are made, and a lot of comments, its good that it’s not all about that. Some people will see that it’s not all about that.
James Mudge: It’s very clear that it’s a very multi-layered film, as well as a metaphor it has politics and themes….
Srdjan Spasojevic: Absolutely, I’m very surprised all the time that some critics are analysing the film, saying things that I had never thought about. There are lots of levels.
James Mudge: Do you think on any level it works almost as a comedy? It’s so extreme, and ramps it up to a point, since it’s a metaphor, and you’re not saying that this is life in Serbia?
Srdjan Spasojevic: I cannot consider it of course as a comedy, but there is a humour in some parts of the film, because it’s kind of our way of dealing with things which we are facing, tough things and tough situations, but you have to save your sense of humour to watch all these things objectively.
Adam Boult: There is quite a strong theme of exploitation in the film, various characters being exploited. Some of the more pornographic parts of the film, there is a case to be made that your female actors are being exploited. Do you think that is a fair accusation?
Srdjan Spasojevic: Well, as I said, the whole film is a giant metaphor, and especially concerning the pornography, we treat the pornography as our own lives, so the major metaphorical step was to treat pornography as real life, because for the last few decades in Serbia we brought ourselves to the point where we really experienced our lives as pure exploitation. Through any kind of job you can have in the name of feeding your family you end up being viciously exploited by your employers or rulers of your destiny, or any kind of corrupt authority. So, that was of course done on purpose, so we could show, in a way, our way of life.
Adam Boult: So as film makers are you not passing it on by exploiting the people you are employing?
Srdjan Spasojevic: Well, you can always call shooting a film exploitation, because you are having your actors and actresses and you have to tell them what to do, so if that is exploitation, then ok, yes, we are exploiting them.
Becky Reed: Would you say that it expresses your views, the fact that you used porn? Does it express your views on exploitation in porn? Would you like people to see it not necessarily for a metaphor for Serbia, but people perhaps in porn itself?
Srdjan Spasojevic: Well, as I said, its not just about Serbia, its about the whole world, we think it’s too sugar coated in political correctness, but actually very rotten under they façade, and the way that this film was made is in a way our resistance to all those censorships and fascism of political correctness that are suffocating any free thinking or art that there is today.
James Mudge: In terms of modern genre film making, recently from Europe there has been a lot more extreme films like Martyrs and Inside, even through to more mainstream stuff like Antichrist. I was wondering do you think those films prepared the way for A Serbian Film coming? Was there any influence?
Srdjan Spasojevic: I like those films very much, they are very great and I really like watching them when they appeared. But A Serbian Film didn’t need any preparation or anything that should happen in the movie world so that we could have an easier way to shoot it. A Serbian Film would be shot anyway.
James Mudge: Do you feel it has more in common with these films than American, Hostel style torture porn?
Srdjan Spasojevic: Those movies you mentioned are I think much closer to A Serbian Film and I like them more than the other ones.
Adam Boult: Have the cuts that the BBFC have taken from the film affected how the audience is going to view it?
Srdjan Spasojevic: That’s a tough question because I will always have a different opinion on that question than the audience will. Unfortunately that’s the rules of the game and the crazy world we live in. I’m certain that I’m not happy about those cuts, I never watched the entire film in this new version, I only saw on DVD those scenes which were cut, and its….I don’t know, I’m not happy about that version, but as I understood last night, people who saw the uncut and cut versions said that its still working, but the bad thing is that this version is made only by removing some shots, and the rest was just put together, just for the new version to be better, some re-editing was needed, maybe some additional takes to be put back in the gaps where things were taken. It loses something, but it’s like a bumpy road.
Becky Reed: Did you not have the chance to oversee the edit before it happened, and didn’t get any say in how it was edited?
Srdjan Spasojevic: I didn’t want to be involved, they asked me of course, if I wanted to be involved and make those cuts, so didn’t want to.
Nikola Pantelic: No, we just decided….
Srdjan Spasojevic: Yeah, we decided, and sent some materials they asked for that they could use. We weren’t involved in making this version
James Mudge: I guess the main thing is that people get to see the film in one form or another. If people see the cut version…
Srdjan Spasojevic: Yes, of course. The other thing that could happen is for us to be so stubborn and then no-one will see it, so it’s ok.
James Mudge: People will always be able to find the uncut version even if they import it from a different country, so its not that big an issue probably, like back in the UK video nasties period 20 years ago when you just traded tapes of films or got them elsewhere, like Cannibal Holocaust. I guess for most horror or genre fans it’s not that big a deal, and this gives you the chance to see the film in a good quality print on the big screen, and then if you want you can go home and watch your uncut DVD imported from wherever.
Adam Boult: Do you think the shocking elements of the film are going to help it find an audience and was that intentional?
Srdjan Spasojevic: As I said many times, if you can trust me of course, there was no plan to make any kind of shock or controversy or to break any records, just an honest desire to make the most honest and direct film that we can. Maybe that kind of honest approach resulted in such a tough film.
Becky Reed: What was the most emotional scene for the cast and crew to shoot?
Srdjan Spasojevic: Well, there were not too many emotions on the set because we were always travelling and having technical issues, so there were not that many scenes we could feel during shootings the emotions that the film would produce. Maybe the scenes with the mother and kid together crying, or when….those kind of scenes, you could feel something, something tough, but all other scenes, we were mainly just struggling with technical things and technical problems.
Becky Reed: How was it working with the child actors? How did you discuss the film with the parents or guardians of the child actors?
Srdjan Spasojevic: First, the important thing was that their parents were satisfied with the script, and they understood the idea and they wanted to be involved with it. They were always present during shooting, and we had a director working with the kids. The young boy was 8 at the time, something like that, so he of course couldn’t understand everything that is happening in the film, so the director and his parents, always, and the whole crew always played it as kind of a game for him, and the films that he did in the film in his shots, it was always a game for him. The young girl is my cousin, and I think she was 11 or 12 at that time, and she understood, I explained to her something about the film, that she was part of an evil group that would do bad things to the main character. She understood that completely, but of course she never participated in shooting all the violent and nudity scenes, we were always shooting the children separately, and added that stuff later.
James Mudge: What has the critical reaction been like back in Serbia?
Srdjan Spasojevic: That was really schizophrenic, again, lots of people liking and hating it. But we had lots of problems. We wanted to put the film in theatres back in February, and of course we couldn’t find a distributor, and even worse we couldn’t find any theatre willing to screen this film. Only after all the festivals, good reviews and some awards they were kind of softened and accepted to screen the film in late September.
James Mudge: As serious film makers, you’ve done a film like this which for better or worse, people are going to talk about it for its content, where are you going to go with your next film? You’re not going to try and top it?
Srdjan Spasojevic: Of course, as I said about the approach for this one, I never made any plans about any kind of shock or controversy or anything special that this film should achieve, so I will have the same approach with the next film. The only thing I can say and guarantee is that it is going to be with the same energy….and I hope with much less problems than A Serbian Film.
Adam Boult: Who should come and see the film?
Srdjan Spasojevic: Everyone
Adam Boult: Children?
Srdjan Spasojevic: Above 18, yes.
Becky Reed: You’ve expressed so much anger in one film, what themes would you want to put in your future films? Is there still a lot of anger that you’d like to explore?
Srdjan Spasojevic: I think that it will be angry in the next one, yes.
James Mudge: We’ve talked about some of your past influences, but are there any film makers today that you consider contemporaries, or works that you enjoy?
Srdjan Spasojevic: Lots of fantastic directors and movie makers and great films today. I’m not that good at remembering the names, but let’s mention some of them, for example, Takashi Miike, the French directors of the new horror wave, Martyrs, of course Gaspar Noe, lots of great directors today.
Adam Boult: The pacing of the film reminds me of Audition, I thought I could see a bit of Miike influence?
Srdjan Spasojevic: Yes, but the pace was intentionally made in that way to show our way of dealing with problems, not acknowledging them on time, and when we acknowledge problems and can see the problems it is too late and everything is going downhill from that point. The main character is trying to solve problems that is already solved a few days ago. That’s our political way, we are always trying to solve problems solved years ago, still living in the past.
Nikola Pantelic: At least 3 days late!
Adam Boult: It’s a very pessimistic film, are you a very pessimistic person, pessimistic about Serbia?
Srdjan Spasojevic: Not pessimistic, maybe just objective and real.
Becky Reed: To talk a bit about your cast, I believe that your leading man was someone that you wanted, your first choice?
Srdjan Spasojevic: Yes, almost our whole crew was first choice, and we were very lucky that they wanted to participate in this one, and the main character and the main villain, Vukmir, played by Sergej Trifunovic, played in lots of Hollywood films, with Danny Glover and Nicholas Cage, and lots of movies in Europe, so they are very big stars in Serbia, and that’s one of the strange things for a Serbian audience, to see them in those kind of scenes.
Becky Reed: And what were you looking for in the character of Milos, what did you want him to embody, and for the actor to bring to the role?
Srdjan Spasojevic: He’s a fantastic actor, and was more than good enough. He’s really a fantastic actor.
Becky Reed: In the press notes, you made a remark that was interesting, that you found no nobility in the idea of a victim, and that you didn’t find the idea of being a victim being heroic? The ending is very bleak, no happy ending?
Srdjan Spasojevic: Well, it’s not a film about chuck Norris, so there are no heroes in this story in that way. In a way you can consider if this one was a film with sending chuck Norris to Serbia, he would die. There is 2 years ago, a mineral stone found in Serbia, and it was 95% similar to kryptonite, from the movie about Superman. So, even Superman cannot survive in Serbia. That’s a scientific fact, I really think it was 95%. The only difference was a grey colour, the missing 5% would give you the green colour. But Superman would die anyway.
Thanks to Revolver Entertainment and Lisa Richards from The Associates.