Talent on the Croisette
Given that Michel Schöpping had previously sound-mixed five films for Ukrainian Sergei Loznitsa, Including My Joy and A Gentle Creature, the director offered few specific stipulations about his sound requirements for Donbass, not that he had much time to offer them. The film picture-locked three weeks before the Cannes world premiere and the mix was completed in the nick of time – the day before the film’s Cannes rehearsal.
“We could only make this possible because of the films we had made together in the past. Without knowing Sergei’s film language, it would have been impossible,” comments Schöpping of the inherent sense of trust and understanding between the pair, adding that it didn’t seem that way at first. “The first film we worked on together was the most difficult because he had to get used to me and I had to get used to his cinematic language. I started doing the mix and he was really shocked with what I did, and I was shocked by his reaction. But now we are very used to each other.” The film, which opened Un Certain Regard and is co-produced by Graniet Film and Wild at Art, is a black comedy that depicts a conflict in the Ukrainian town of Donbass between the regular local army and a Russian-backed separatist militia.
“There are only thirteen scenes so Sergei provided a lot of space - my contribution was in creating depth and layers within the mix,” says Schöpping. “At the front there is an event happening [in the visuals] and in the background all kinds of other things are happening [in the sound] which create more layers in the experience, so nothing is one dimensional. Every scene has several dimensions which work partly or to a greater extent within the subconscious of the audience.”
So, was Schöpping happy with the result? “No, I must be honest, and Sergei will be honest as well. We know that we had this time schedule. I said beforehand ‘ok, I will work on this so we have a screenable, clear, layered first version for Cannes’. But after Cannes we will recap, go back to the studio and make corrections, and get it right to meet our personal goals for a good film.”
The film was mixed at Amsterdam-based Warnier Posta, as was the Belgian Girl, directed by debutant Lukas Dhont. The sound mix for the story, that of a 15-year-old girl born in a boy’s body ready to risk everything to pursue her dream of becoming a ballerina, was completed by Erik Griekspoor. At what point was he aware of the quality and complexity of the film he was working on? “When you see the offline edit first time, that is the best impression you have, that is when you know if it gets to you or not. And this film did,” stresses Griekspoor. “We visited Alain Dessauvage in Belgium when he was editing and he had done about 90% and I thought, ‘wow, this is almost done’. The length was good, it was really tight and the story really worked. So, I was, like, I must not ruin this. We have to look at what are the good things now, add the layers we want and not change it completely with sound.”
But the process of getting the sound right was painstaking nevertheless, especially for the dance sequences. “That is where the action and the heart of the film is. So we worked with a Foley artist who tried to record Foley for the dancing which was ok, but Maria (Kramer, Griekspoor’s assistant) recorded a group of dancers on a real dancing stage, and when we heard that it was so much better. “ Adds Griekspoor’s colleague Christan Muiser: “We also used a very experienced ballerina who danced the scene again just for the audio. It was like dubbing, but she was dubbing with feet. It was amazing.” Resumes Griekspoor: “It was one whole day of recording with this dancer, and at the end there was blood on her feet, but she managed to do everything we needed. We recorded the group separately with a surround microphone and we also had the great (original) recording of the dancing, and of course we had all the dialogues from the set recording, so we had really a lot of options, and of course the music.”
“But still we didn't want to go too far from how the offline edit sounded,” he adds. “So it was really a fine balance. That’s where we really made the difference I think. There were technical challenges to overcome but there was also the challenge to leave as much of it alone as possible.
Acting coach Elisabeth Hesemans (pictured above, middle) was drafted into the co-production of the Kenya-set lesbian drama Rafiki by Reinier Selen of Rinkel Film, initially to conduct a seven-day acting workshop with the cast. “They wanted to search for real people in the casting, especially for the tomboy Kena (Samantha Mugatsia), but she had never acted before, and the others had limited experience,” stresses Hesemans. “Part of the [preparatory] exercise entailed me asking them to tell a really sad story from their lives,” she continues. “Everybody did this to each other, then another person told that story to the group, and everybody was crying. I do that to get everybody to trust each other. I think it is very important to do this within a group who will be acting with each other. These exercises are a little but like therapy but you get to the real emotions, and then I think you make a film with real emotion.” Hesemans cites the example of Sheila Munyifa who plays Ziki, the other key protagonist. “Sheila told us about her mother, father and sister who were all dying, and how she felt alone. I felt that she always laughed on the outside but never laughed from the inside. She was in shock when I told her this. She is one of the many actors who acted ‘outside’ in the beginning, but who made a beautiful growth in her acting.”
Director Wanuri Kahiu observed Hesemans at work and was so impressed that she asked her to continue her work during the shoot. “We did a lot of improvisation and Wanuri thought it was very interesting. The scenes may have turned out different to how they were written but they were more real and authentic. Otherwise the actors were just playing the lines, and she didn't want that. I taught the actors to understand the subtext because it is important to not only know what they are saying but why they are saying it. I had such a good time with them and I was very happy to go back." On set Hesemans did relaxation exercises with Samantha and went through the scenes with the actors before the shoot to discuss and their emotional responses to the situations. “And for the really emotional scenes we did exercises beforehand to get in the right mood,” she adds.
“I am proud to have worked with the African people and that they asked me to come, and especially proud of the girls, what they show us and how they reveal their true feelings - when they were crying it was real crying - and I am very proud that they trusted in me on the set,” she concludes.
Photo (c) Big World Cinema. Rafiki, actresses Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva with Dutch acting coach Elisabeth Hesemans