We interviewed Stephan Littger, director of Her Composition at the Raindance Film Festival.
Do you think your German upbringing influenced the film in anyway?
I don’t know – you tell me?
I personally couldn’t see it –
I don’t know, because now I’ve lived more outside of Germany than inside. So it’s really interesting. I ask myself that everyday, like what are the different influences. And then in a city like New York, everybody is from everywhere else anyway. But, being in London – I lived in London for only half a year, ten years ago – and I don’t know the city at all. But then I go to different corners and I realise, oh that’s where I had an experienced – that definitely left a mark on me. So, yeah – I guess the older we get the more we become wherever we live, so there’s definitely German in there. But which part, I’m not so sure. Actually, my accent becomes more German as I get older which is scary. I was an exchange student in America so I wanted to speak very American, and then I studied here and I wanted to speak very British. Then I went back to America and I didn’t give a shit anymore. I heard myself on tape, and I realised shit I sound like a fucking… with a thick German accent. I need to work on that… I’m going to scare people. So yeah, I don’t know where I’m at right now with that. But you don’t look too scared so… We’re not doing too badly
We’ll see how we’re doing later
Yeah, wait until you hear what I’m going to say – where the idea for the movie came from! Did you stay for the Q&A yesterday?
Yeah, I did.
I thought it was a really nice touch, how the interviewer – she cried at the end of the movie. Like when she fetched me to come forward, she was like ‘I have to wipe away my tears’. That’s good when that happens, that’s a good sign. She didn’t tell me why she was crying… Maybe she was thinking what shite, I’ll never get that time back. No, but it happens sometimes. Sometimes they do cry, does that make sense? Why somebody would cry at the end of the movie?
I think so, yeah.
Other than out of pure sadness of having lost ninety minutes of their lives?
“then you see it and then you go, fuck this is really different”
Yeah, I think so. I thought it was really incredible because it had those comedic elements in it – which I thought were actually very very funny – but then it also had other parts that were all so brutally honest all the way through. But it wasn’t in a kind of negative way, you weren’t looking at the guys like this is so seedy, or gross – it was an interaction. I really enjoyed it, which is great because this is my first movie here so I’m glad.
Yeah first one, and the best of the festival right away!
No but, I just said this to you but I wrote the premise, I want that when people read the premise they go like, oh I’ve seen this before. A guy makes a movie about a pretty young woman prostituting herself. So this idea that when you read it you think like, this is something I’ve probably seen before and you go ‘uh’. But then you see it and then you go, fuck this is really different.
That’s what gets my controversial juices going, that’s the space where I want to operate in.
Especially for the first movement – it seems very, kind of, straightforward, you know where this is going. And then it just kind of –
Exactly. I think it’s very cheesy and then the format is all very – like her, you know. The movie has a bit of a stick up its ass in the beginning. And then it changes. Did you notice the ratio change?
Yeah, but you are actually in the majority. So you don’t have to feel guilty about it. But yesterday was, yeah. It’s interesting how it works. Maybe it’s a country thing, where people are more aware. But yeah. Maybe you just felt the atmosphere opening up. And maybe you just had the…
Yeah that’s true. I mean with the mind map turning into a map of New York, what gave you the idea to do that – I thought that was really kind of cool.
Well it’s kind of the, it would be kind of the… When I thought about making this movie I wanted to make a feminist movie, I wanted to make a – and ‘feminist’, you can use any word you like for it, you can say like ‘subversive’ movie that subverts the status quo by playing with the status quo. And if you like a movie, telling it through the eyes and body of a woman just comes in very handy. It could be anything, it could be – see if I told a movie through the body of a guy, it would be a very different movie. And, it’s also not a movie that would particularly attract me. And so telling her story was for me a way to play with the mainstream Hollywood structure, with the mainstream idea of… you have a structure, you have the protagonist who has it – what’s the typical thing? The protagonist has it all and then he loses it all, then he suffers and he has to find a new level, a new level of being. And so, I thought – well I’m going to use that status quo macho structure of a Hollywood film and use it for a character who is actually suffering from it who by appropriating that structure, that macho structure of this typical protagonist, manages to fuck the system basically. To screw the system and subvert it by appropriating it. So when she goes to the first client, and he tells her this really macho thing – yeah I pay you double if you cum, and she’s so oblivious, so innocent that she doesn’t – she’s like to where? Where? And it only works if its completely honest, like if she was joking it wouldn’t work. So through her innocence she can go to a level where she can start to be inspired and now visit those guys and this male gaze that might objectify her and turn her into an object – because she’s so innocent – goes right through her. It cannot harm her. She’s like a superhero where if I try to objectify you, it just goes right through you and you just use me and my vanity and my ridiculous sexuality or whatever, you go home and write about it. And that’s what happens to her unexpectedly after that first encounter, that’s why she goes back after having this really boring disappointing sex where you would expect this guy to know how to have good sex – his apartment, the way he looks, he’s a very charming guy, against expectation in a way. But then they have this really boring sex. And while she’s lying there she hears a pizzicato note, like, and she looks around while the guy’s still working (laughs) and there’s this fly on the wall and every time the fly moves she hears a note, and she goes home, writes it down and goes back just to hear how it continues. So yeah, she becomes this superhero that can use these guys for her composition, unexpectedly, and draws us in. Whether we want it or not, we become her co-conspirators because we create with her. So the hope was that I can really turn around, subvert the perspective of a three act structure, because I think it’s a really interesting question. When you look at Hollywood, there’s real sexism out there, there’s really a problem that female roles are, even if the protagonist is female, you could just as well take a man and replace it, so it is not really. I think storytelling suffers if you have that time of mainstream narrative and so her creation, her having to reinvent herself, became a necessity and I wanted to marry it with that very idea of: how can we rethink storytelling? So using the mainstream to come to a new place. I don’t know if that makes sense what I’m saying to you but that’s what I was trying to I guess I do. One aspect, one way to say it… does that make sense?
“leaving the grid is the first step towards a paradigm shift”
Yeah, that makes sense. With the music, was that always the focus, or when the idea started to come about, was the subverting of the story or the feminist aspect main aim, and the music was part of the story? Or was the music also a strong focus?
Well I always knew that I wanted to tell it through music. I mentioned yesterday it started in that yoga room, of wanting to tell the story of an impossible space, a paradoxical space like a yoga room. In a yoga space you do all these things you would only do in the privacy of your bedroom and not even by yourself, if you’re having sex and so you would expect it to be a very sexual space – but it’s not at all. It’s a very public space. It’s one of the few spaces where you would say it’s a female dominated space, and yet by saying that I’m already missing the point about yoga – because it’s not about domination, it’s about being in the space without being self-conscious. So that yoga space was a wonderful special metaphor where I realised that I wanted to tell the story in that space. And so that’s why the yoga ended up in there, even though it doesn’t have a direct link to the story. But I always felt that that’s where the story comes from. After that only did I come up with a protagonist – what would actually be a story inside that space. So I had the architecture in a way before I even had a purpose for that building. And I’m always attracted to this symbiosis between storytelling and then the bigger question is storytelling just a way of doing science. Of finding out knowledge, of explaining the world to us. And I would definitely say that science is a subsection, a very specialised narrow subsection, of storytelling and if you want to get to a new place in science you have to reinvent the paradigm of the dominant story. And scientific inventions never happen within the dominant paradigm, they always happen if somebody steps back – takes an artistic step back, takes a deep breath and is inspired, has an intuition of, I don’t know, what space about… Einstein wrote a beautiful paper about his intuitions and how they have nothing to do with analytical thinking, they’re purely artistic intuitions. And that was the foundation of the story. Like, how can I tell the story – and that’s the very reason that I want to tell the story – what is the essence of what I want the story to be in order to take us to a new place. And so making her an artist was the next choice, and then making it about music – because music is so incredibly cinematic – so she became a composer. A composer who leaves the staff, the grid of the traditional writing because that’s part of the status quo, that’s part of the patriarchy, status quo – whatever you want to call it. And patriarchy not because it’s male necessarily, just because you write within certain boundaries, and then at one point, the first thing she does – she leaves the boundaries when she comes back home. She’s just doodling. And so that’s the first step. That’s where the revolution happens there without anybody noticing, including her. But leaving the grid is the first step towards a paradigm shift. And so that’s what’s happening. She writes down, and so she leaves that which has confined her her whole life – which is having to please your teachers. You know if you want to be an actor, how do you succeed inside the system if you know the only way to leave a mark is if you leave, if people talk about you as someone who is not dependent on the system. Because otherwise you will always move within the mediocrity of the staff paper. But you know you cannot leave it completely because your privilege would get lost. Suddenly you wouldn’t have your history, your past, your rationality would serve no purpose and what’s the boundary then to insanity? And you know you cannot leave it completely, you will always need to stay in touch with it and yet you need to leave it so you play that ambiguous game of leaving it but not leaving it as to losing the link. And that’s really the tightrope that the whole movie is. And I can still not tell you whether she goes insane, or whether she creates something ingenious. I feel as director I should be the last one to know, to be honest. Because if I knew then I would probably be patronising my story. So I have to put myself into a position where the audience knows already the answers. Yesterday the people that asked questions know already the answers that I don’t have, that I mustn’t have I think. Otherwise I would just be a failed Christian – I already have the answer but I let you, the Socratic kind of, oh let’s let the subject find the answer but me thinking I already have it. But I think that’s lethal if you actually want to tell an honest narrative. Does that make sense? Yeah. Did you like the actress (Joslyn Jense)?
Yeah, I thought she played it absolutely incredibly. How did you find her?
Before I do auditions, you work with a casting director so they present you a list and you go via agents so the agents submit. And it’s a critical age for an actress in New York, because the script was actually more sexually explicit than the movie is. I took out a lot of it – just for purely narrative reasons. Because as you probably noticed all the sex in it is actually part of her composition. Which makes it weirdly asexual. You know in a movie that has less sex in it is maybe more sexual, and more gratuitous, in this movie its her. She appropriates it as her creation. And so I would say as the maybe, probably out of 200 actresses – so a third or a quarter would turn it down because of the explicit nature, because it’s a very crucial age where it’s an artistic choice you take as a young actress. And then I probably had coffee with 80? Because auditions are not actually that interesting. If you walk into a room, first I want to see you, and then I already know – in 90%, 95% – of the time whether you are interested for the role or not. I don’t need to know if you can learn a line. It’s artificial anyway in the first encounter. You’re going to be nervous, so I’m not going to get you as an actor anyway. I’m going to get a bad version of you. So, she walked in and I knew it would be – like as director you’re hoping for that the moment somebody walks in who’s right. Weirdly the power is all in the other person’s shoe, because all I’m hoping then is I’m hoping she won’t fuck it up, I’m hoping she won’t disappoint me. Because when she walked in I knew she should be the person. So she was that, and she was a brilliant actress – so it all worked out. Especially when you think that a lot of the times from her fucked up stage, to her anal stage in the beginning, there was sometimes only ten minutes in-between, like a costume change. But she completely became this alternative entity of herself.
Definitely. I think it would have been difficult if you had a lesser actress, because it’s quite a difficult story to tell because she is the subject and you’re viewing things through her. And she needs to be really good otherwise you don’t really believe it.
Do you know… But the casting director tried to push another actress on me, because she’s quite famous. But she would have been completely wrong for the role. Very different. But that’s what you’re up against if you have a casting director who doesn’t really care.
“the reason why it’s such a moving performance in my view is because he is not an actor”
Yeah. For you when it came to picking the actress it was quite important that – at the end of the day most of these people coming to you are going to be able to act – and it was quite important on from your perspective that they connected with the script and it was something that they gave a shit about almost?
But they don’t know the script when they come in, it’s almost important that they don’t know what they’re doing. So that you get the raw them. The raw version of them. Like if I was auditioning you, it would help me if you don’t know what we’re actually auditioning, or what I want from you. Because that way I experience you at your most vulnerable, in a way. But your most vulnerable is also your most secure in that you can just be that which you are. You have no choice. There was one non actor in the movie, can you identify who it was? Who was brilliant. No. It was one of my favourite performances. The bassoon player. He’s just a bassoon player. And the reason why it’s such a moving performance in my view is because he is not an actor. But the way you work with non-actors is completely different to the way you can work with – her. So to her I can say cry, so she cries. To him, if I say cry, he’s going to be atrociously bad on camera but he can still get to that point. But they’re coming there with a completely different psychology. And if he gets to that point, much like working with children, they’re brilliant. Because it has to be authentic. There’s no way of faking it for them. So yeah, she could walk into a composition class now and nobody would raise an eyebrow because she’s so authentic in that when she stands in front of that ensemble you don’t doubt for a second that she commands that group of people. I don’t think she can read notes in real like. I don’t know. I never want to know these things. I want to believe whatever they give to me.
Yesterday you mentioned in the Q&A that Black Swan was quite an influence for you – was that right from the beginning of it?
One of many. I still watch movies today and I realise that I stole something from that. Without me realising until I see them, and I say oh yes I was writing and I saw that movie at the time so I must have stolen it from there.
Is it one of those sort of things where it’s throughout the entire process from when you first put pen to paper to the editing room that you’re constantly using these influences, or does something influence you just in the script and then it’s forgotten?
I don’t have enough experience to say what – part of this, being relatively new to it, part of the excitement and anxiety is that I don’t know the process. Like now that I’m doing it again for my next movie, I feel how the fuck did I do it and how the fuck did it work and what is my style? You know like you figure out your style as you go along – like the master, he’s figuring it out as he’s saying it – did you hear that quote in The Master? Rings a bell. Like a religious leader, at one point somebody says – you do realise he figures it out as he says it? Well that’s definitely true about me, I’m not a writer, I’m more of a composer than a writer. I don’t sit down everyday and I write, I can’t – that doesn’t even make sense to me. I wouldn’t know what to write, because I know I wouldn’t use it anyway, so why write it? It’s like when I was at university and I could never do essay plans because I felt whatever I could write on an essay plan is already structurally me. So me writing it down would be an act of bad faith, and that’s the least – like whatever I should write down are things I cannot put in an essay plan because that’s the stuff I want to develop in my essay! The architecture that’s me is me, so I’m not going to forget it. And so, the way I wrote this and the way I’m writing now is actually – my writing is gathering ideas everyday and just sitting here, and if its an inspired moment I have awesome ideas…And I write it down and then in three months I write – like this script I wrote in three weeks. And it sounds impressive, but really it’s not because once you know what you’re writing, writing 90 script pages is really not that big of a deal. So I want to know the whole movie before I even start writing the first page of that movie. And the first draft, I added only one scene to the final movie – the gallery scene. Because I needed that, it’s a very important moment I feel. Also gave me an opportunity to use that actress, I don’t know if you recognised the actress?
I know her from Princess Diaries.
Have you seen Welcome to the Dollhouse? Heather Matarazzo – she’s very – great movie by the way, Welcome to the Dollhouse is a 90s comedy, one of the funniest comedies ever made. Todd Solondz? Weiner Dog, he has a movie about Weiner Dog – no?
We’ll have to have a look.
Yeah so the script came out the way it was, really from the first draft to the shooting – it wasn’t much different. And that’s how I feel – what was your question exactly, like you said like how –
The influences, were they constant?
Right, so yeah the influences all of that gathering. Like I feel like I think of writing like a bucket, like you fill a bucket of your story universe and when it overflows, it’s over determined. You just have to pick and chose – it’s obvious what choices you will take for the next scene and the next scene because in the bucket you have your world that’s already over defined. So you chose out of abundance and I feel the writing process – the cliché of the writing process – I have is the opposite, you massively try to pull something out of thin air, you put something in and then you get frustrated and write again. Like that’s the opposite of what I can make sense of. Like it’s an obvious choice. Like when you’re with a friend and you know the evening is going to be awesome because you’re never going to run out of fun stuff to do together, rather than the opposite if you’re like what are we going to talk about next? What’s then? That’s the kind of screenwriting I wouldn’t recommend. And so the influences are are in the bucket. And then I don’t realise it anymore, what it is.
And they just sort of find themselves in the film?
But I felt at the time – now I’ve moved on a little, just because time moved on – but Aronofsky was like, I was extremely close to as a whole structure of how Aronofsky is. Like Requiem for a Dream, and I just felt its an alternative version of how my mind works.
“the rapture is a very big theme in the south. People expect Jesus to come any day now. For real”
So you said you’re working on your next project – what is it going to be about?
It’s an adaptation of a young adult novel that I just optioned, popular young adult novel taking place in the bible belt of the southern states of the United States. It’s called the bible belt because it’s so highly Christian. These are all Trump country. I just had a scouting trip down there and of the white males about 90% there will vote for Trump, if you take out the minorities, blacks and women. And its crazy, it’s absolutely crazy. And of course living in New York, nobody would ever vote for Trump. To enter that mind-set, that aesthetic – and suddenly after two weeks you realise it’s crazy, it makes sense aesthetically why if you live in that world, people would vote Trump. Which again, rationally it’s completely crazy. It’s completely insane. And yet you enter their world. So the movie takes place there and it’s about an artist, a young artist, who visits this small bible belt town of Casper. So she still has this boarded up mansion there and she goes there to be inspired. And so she wants one month of sensory deprivation, and the town is very excited about her being there because she’s from the big city, and they bring her cake, and she just wants to be left alone. And the local pastor is already a little suspicious of this woman from the big town. And then she emerges after a month, this big picnic, and she has a big announcement that she saw Jesus on a chair. She presents the chair and the town – this God-fearing harmonic town – now starts to slowly fall apart over the next days and weeks as the chair becomes more and more a projectile of the town’s soul. The town is completely divided, the pastor thinks that she’s of the devil, other people think she is a messenger of Christ so they start to pray to the chair. Other people think she’s just a charlatan, or they don’t care. And the priest gradually loses power to the local drunk, who becomes the guardian of the chair and stops drinking, and he has a sick son who thinks it’s a sign from God. And he gets his act together and his life together and he starts to slowly take over the role of the pastor in the town, while the pastor loses his congregation. And it’s told from the eyes of a young girl – like twelve years old – who’s the daughter of the pastor, and she’s completely in love with this artist, she wants to be like her. She wants to be an artist herself, she wants to escape this little town. So she’s conflicted – and her father forbids her to even talk to that woman. But she sneaks up and gets an art lesson, the woman is this very inspiring presence. And we don’t know what her deal is. We do know she says that she doesn’t care about anything to do with the chair, she just cares about her art and people should leave her alone. So she lets the pastor take the chair and hide it in the church. But then the madman – the former madman – threatens him at gun point and says if you don’t give this chair back, I need it. And so – because after a few weeks the chair really transforms the town, the town did transform because people started to believe, they get their act together. One woman disappeared, so it might be the sign that the rapture is coming – the rapture is a very big theme in the south. People expect Jesus to come any day now. For real. Literally it’s such an experience to go there and to see what kind of reality these people live in. And then you can still have a beer with them and a regular conversation and you can forget that this is bat shit crazy, what type of reality they live in. And it’s segregated still also – it’s white black like it’s just the way it is there. So the madman ends up actually – we think he’s going to kill the pastor because he hides the chair, but he ends up killing himself because his son dies and his life has fallen apart again, he basically sacrifices himself for the good of the town because when the guy dies the town comes together over the funeral and the death of the guy served to reunite the town. This tragedy of him dying has brought the time back together and in a way he did what Jesus did – he died for the peace and the good, and the future of this peaceful little town called Casper. That’s why the movie is called Casper, U.S.A. So that’s 1971, fast forward eight years we’re now in Berlin. The artist has become a famous artist – we never quite understood what her deal was with the chair. We only knew that she was never really taken by the chair. She just said she had this experience. She gives a lecture about the art experiment that made her famous – which is Casper, U.S.A. So she documented the whole thing, taking pictures of people praying, having this real intimate moment with the chair Jesus – having these experiences and we realise that what we just saw was that art – I don’t even know if I can call it ‘experiment’ because it was real, it really happened. That became her piece. That very story. And it’s a full audience of twenty year old students fascinated to be able to listen to this lecture and we look in the audience and we see an eight year older girl – who is now a student, she made it out to the city, she’s now listening to her own story. It’s the story that she lived as a little girl. About the nature of sacrifice maybe? Like the way a town is held together by its central object – whether it’s a central belief, or how the chair became the town. Every single person in town projected whatever belief system they had into the chair and that’s why the chair became so powerful and that’s why the chair became real – the chair was real. And when the chair was removed and locked away by the pastor, the town did fall back into depression. Because now all the illusions were taken from them. So that’s what I’m working on.
Sounds fantastic, just best of luck with it. Is that going to be at Raindance at some point in the future?
If they want me back!
Image: Stephan Littger