Andreas Horvath • Director of Lillian
"‘We want to see what happens on the road,’ we said. Potential backers just shook their heads"
by Jan Lumholdt
- CANNES 2019: We sat down with Austrian documentarian Andreas Horvath to unpick his fifth feature-length work, Lillian
Acclaimed Austrian documentary filmmaker Andreas Horvath (This Ain’t No Heartland, Earth’s Golden Playground) is no stranger to North America’s backwoods. For his fifth feature-length work, Lillian [+see also:
interview: Andreas Horvath
film profile], screening in the Directors’ Fortnight of the Cannes Film Festival, he yet again embarks on the journey, specifically following in the footsteps of an Eastern European woman who travelled from New York to Russia – on foot.
Cineuropa: Lillian is dedicated to one Lillian Alling – “who disappeared while attempting to walk from New York to Russia”. How long has she been on your mind?
Andreas Horvath: For 15 years. I met this writer who had just come back from Alaska, who told me the story of this woman. I couldn’t sleep that night. I immediately started seeing images in my mind, close to my own portraits of North America from films and photo books. I knew the areas and the regions she went through and sensed a fantastic film. I started looking for financing. In 2009, I got a Canadian connection that fell through, and then an Austrian company that sent me to Alaska. This resulted in another film, Earth's Golden Playground, about gold miners in Dawson City in Yukon, but Lillian was still unmade. Then Ulrich Seidl picked it up. And here we are now – in Cannes, of all places.
And how did you find your protagonist?
Through great desperation and by looking at 700 candidates. We did not want an actress. We placed ads in papers looking for adventurous women. Then I met Patrycja Planik through mutual friends – she is also a photographer and works with visual arts. She had exactly that special something: she was determined, decisive and vulnerable. Lillian is looking for something and we don’t know what, and Patrycja conveys this mystery perfectly.
The real Lillian embarked on her journey in the mid-1920s. You have decided to move her to a contemporary setting. Why?
I wanted universal, “symbolic” imagery. We went to the places just as they are today. We also, to enhance the documentary feel, did not have a script. We had some loose ideas but no structured notes. We had one storyboard in the whole film.
Wasn’t that quite hazardous?
Very. And that’s why it was very hard to finance. We had at least one total pitching disaster – at Visions du Réel in Nyon, Switzerland. They were given no idea of what this film would be like. “We want to see what happens on the road,” we said. Potential backers just shook their heads.
How long did the shoot take?
We were in the USA for nine months, travelling all the way from New York to Alaska. We then went back home for some editing and then back again for more material. We filmed chronologically, apart from the Bering Strait scenes, which I shot at the very beginning. We were at most five in the team, including Patrycja, who came up with many great ideas.
Are all the characters we meet just themselves, as in ordinary people you met along the way?
Yes, with two exceptions: the porn guy at the beginning and a crazy redneck who is not really crazy. The rest were happy to participate and cooperate. Americans are wonderful that way – more so than Europeans, I’ve noticed.
Can you tell us more about Ulrich Seidl’s involvement? He is quite a personality himself. Did he influence the look of the film in any way?
Well, some of his films, like Dog Days, have just got under my skin and stayed there. Perhaps that can be seen in my own work… But we met, and he just said, “I can see that you know what you want – and I will make it happen.” And he did. We had very little contact and were not in touch even once during the shoot: no phone, no email; just his generosity. I don’t even know if he likes the film. But he believed in a guy who was headed for the wilderness with an unknown non-actress in order to shoot for one year without a script. That’s quite a risk. And he took it.
Lillian has been categorised as your first fiction feature after a number of documentaries. Do you have any thoughts on this new moniker?
I’m even eligible for the Caméra d’Or at this year’s Cannes, somewhat to my surprise. It’s hard for me to say. Did I suddenly become a fiction filmmaker? Creatively, I feel I’m at a crossroads right now, with no idea where to go next. I don’t personally see this as a fiction project, but rather, as a perfect mixture of fiction and reality. Lillian would never have looked like it does without embracing the documentary aspect of it all.
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