What It's Like to Shoot an Entire Feature-Length Film in One Take
We spoke to filmmaker Sebastian Schipper about his love letter to Berlin nightlife, <i>Victoria</i>, which was shot in one long take.
When you watch Victoria, the Berlin-set heist movie shot in a single breathtaking 134-minute take, you feel like you've experienced something IRL. Like you've actually gone to an underground club in Berlin, did a ton of coke under the strobe lights, and headed into the night with a bunch of shady-looking Germans. More than most films, you feel like you're there in the moment. It's visceral, immersive, exhilarating. And it's all because the director never yelled "cut."
"One city. One night. One take," says the film's tagline.
A bit of context: Victoria—the titular character—has moved to Berlin from her native Spain, where her dreams of being a concert pianist were short-lived; she wasn't good enough, apparently. Now she wants new experiences. Now she says yes to everything. But obviously that's not necessarily the best way to be when you're leaving a club at 4 AM and you're approached by a group of men who look like extras from La Haine. As events unfold in real time, Victoria suddenly finds herself tangled up in a heist that ends in one of those how-the-hell-did-the-night-end-here moments you might be familiar with. Except your "fucked up night in Berlin" story definitely isn't as extreme as her "fucked up night in Berlin" story.
I spoke to the film's director, Sebastian Schipper, about his love letter to Berlin nightlife and the high stakes of shooting an entire film in one long take.
VICE: When you wrote Victoria, did you know you wanted to shoot it this way, with the unbroken 134-minute take?
Sebastian Schipper: Yeah. I only wrote 12 pages. There was never a full script. There was no dialogue at all; we improvised the dialogue. We did rehearse and work on it a lot, but the rules as to how to shoot the scenes and the characters were established beforehand.
Shooting it that way must have meant you had to choreograph everything meticulously?
No, because if you choreograph it too strictly you create a kind of anxiety [on set]. I had to ask the actors not to perform. I told them, "I can only feel what you feel. If you don't feel it, I cannot feel it. If you just give me a great performance it will be totally flat for me." Because, within this format, you've gotta go. The beauty of this kind of project is that it pretends it walks and talks like it just happens right then.
How many takes did you do?
Three takes. If someone messed up we couldn't shoot it again right then because it would be daylight. We were shooting into the magic hour [sunrise]. After the third take—the last one—we wouldn't have had any more money. It was a super small project.
That's insanely high stakes. You'd be so pissed off if an actor screwed up in the last scene.
Yeah, I mean you can't think like that in the moment. Sometimes if you really want to care, you've gotta say, "I really don't give a fuck." And sometimes that's really the same thing. If things get too precious... it's almost like a relationship: if you want everything to always be great, you're eventually gonna kill that relationship. I'm a director. I want things to be great. But you've got to let things happen. Just like a vacation. The worst thing that happened on your vacation—like the ferry went away and you had to stay on this stupid island for two more days, or your bus got stuck in the sand at the end of nowhere—back home those were sometimes the best stories. You realize that was really a great moment, when things didn't work out, when your ego or your plan was broken and you could really experience something. That was sort of the plan with this project.
It basically goes against everything directors like Hitchcock do when they plan every single frame before shooting.
I never really got that Hitchcock idea: "I shoot the entire film in my head before I walk on set," or something. I'm never 100 percent sure how that's meant, because it's impossible. The film is made in the editing room. Which, in our case, meant the film was being made where we filmed it, which was also very crazy.
Did anything unexpectedly enter the frame that you decided to keep? Any happy accidents?
We got confused when we drove away from the bank towards the club. We got confused on our way there, which tremendously helped the scene because the chaos in the car is real at some level. But apart from that, Freddy [Frederick Lau] always put the beer on the goddam piano, which I hated—it's so ugly. I was like, "Freddy, please don't put the beer on the piano; if you put the beer on the piano please don't put the label facing the camera." And honestly, the beer in the middle of the fridge—the prepared non-alcoholic beer—he didn't take; he took the real beer. The boys took the real beer. They said, "It's one take, we might as well have a real beer."
A police car enters the frame at one point. Was that planned?
No. We were on unblocked streets, so the first cop car that comes through is ours, but there's another that comes through that wasn't ours. We were out in the wild. They didn't stop us, though, because [the production] didn't look that big.
For the cast, it must have been a lot like theater, in that they have to perform in real time and remember everything beforehand. How did they take to the challenge?
Remembering wasn't much of an issue, because they didn't learn lines. It was more that they had to be aware what the scene was about. We talked about what was really going on with the character. What's Victoria made of? What's important? And also [we said that], on a level, the actors would really own this. Because when you listen to music, or read a book, or watch a film, you feel if somebody is there that needs to tell you something, and not somebody that's there to sell a product. With our film, what you saw was [the result of two months' work], and by that time they really knew the characters—they were the characters.
I think there's a misconception that long takes—or, in your case, one long take—make for a slow film, but this is really pacy. How did you approach that?
There were some techniques. At one point they get on a bike to cover some ground. Then I put the big old American car there and they open the doors. Actually, it's me who's yelling from off camera: "Get away from my car, motherfuckers!" Because then they can run a bit and cover some ground. But most of all—and I know it sounds a little bit hippy—when they know who they are and what they're talking about, that's interesting. I always have a feeling when I watch a band: I don't want to ask myself why they're onstage. I wanna lose myself. Some people come onstage and it's almost like they need to tell you something. They have a presence. Sometimes it's anger, sometimes it's joy, but I would call it a smell in the air where it's interesting to watch them. And that's the kind of tension I wanted to create with the actors.
Victoria is a portrait of Berlin today. Did you see it as a love letter of sorts to the city's nightlife?
Yeah, I guess. Not so consciously, but I guess. I've been living there for 15 years now—crazy—and I love the place. It's more like a letter that turned into a love letter as I wrote it, but I didn't sit down and go, "Now I'm gonna write a love letter to Berlin."
What's your experience of Berlin nightlife?
In my early thirties, when I moved to Berlin, I did go out a lot; sometimes I do now, but I'm 47. But it's actually a good thing that I didn't sit down [at 47] and write the lines for my actors in their mid-twenties. That would always distort something. I would be the older guy remembering his wild days, and the memory is always distorting a little bit. That's something I really like about the film, because I have a feeling it talks about young people at eye level. I know I'm here to promote the film, but I'm also sure that, in ten years, 20 years, you can turn to this film and learn something about the youth culture of today.
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