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CIFF 2014 – Interview with ZURICH director Frederik Steiner & actor Liv Lisa Fries

October 12, 2014

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On the first Saturday of the Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF), I was fortunate enough to meet two kind, generous and talented individuals who were in town from Germany to promote their movie “Zurich”. I met director Frederik Steiner and his lead actor Liv Lisa Fries in the lobby of the JW Marriott and after introductions were made I was immediately struck by their friendliness. They stated how thankful they were for my write-up of their film and I must say – seeing a wonderful film and then a week later being told from the director and actor that they’re grateful for my favorable review of their film was pretty surreal. It doesn’t happen often. It’s actually never happened to me before, but I would wish the experience on any hard-working film critic.

“Zurich” is the story about Lea, a terminally ill young woman who invites her sister, mother and grandmother to Zurich to celebrate her 23rd birthday. It’s a surprise for the three of them, but the bigger surprise comes when Lea tells them she has come to the city to schedule her death, end her suffering and let her family live. Obviously this decision is greatly concerning for her family and although the film deals with some delicate subject matter that can resonate with anyone who has a family (so: everyone), Steiner balances it all with measured levity that doesn’t distract from the emotions presented. The film is perfectly cast throughout, but without a doubt, Liv Lisa Fries is the standout and the highlight of the movie. Her commitment is obvious, disappearing into the role of Lena, conveying the character’s independence and vulnerability effortlessly. “Zurich” could’ve been a sappy and manipulative tearjearker, but Steiner and company trust us their audience and allow the actors to arrive at their emotions honestly and naturally.

Needless to say, I was excited to talk to Steiner and Fries about the film, the characters, what some of their favorite films have been from this year. The interview started out with a technical snag – because embarrassment and humility always helps – resulting in the first few minutes being lost. But directors and actors are used to multiple takes, right? Steiner and Fries were gracious and accommodating and the rest of the interview went along smoothly. Without further ado, we pick up after the hiccup….

 

 

DJF: …Alright, let’s try this again. Sorry about that.

Steiner: So, should I begin right from the start?

DJF: Just talk about how you were standing near the exit at the screening last night….

Steiner: So, there were all those people shaking our hands after the screening. And for both Liv and I, it was the first time, since a couple of months, that we’ve the movie together from beginning to end. So, it was very intense…just, to cut it short. I feel it went well, the screening and I’m very glad that people liked the movie and were open to the ideas and the character, because that’s the most important thing for me. What I wished the film to achieve was that, ideally, it might – without sounding corny – I wished that the film in some way could open people’s hearts, in a way that they could open up a bit and talk about things they might not have talked about before.

That’s the position I found myself in when I started tackling this subject, because I’m a very fearful person, I’d say, and this film gave me the possibility to – well, as I said yesterday, to approach those fears in tiny little steps and, they’re not gone and they’ll probably never be gone, but it’s a way of dealing with them and it’s definitely a better way than hiding them under the carpet.

DJF: Right. So, in a way the film was a form of catharsis for you?

Steiner: Well, ideally so. Of course.

Fries: I think, what we also mentioned yesterday, when we spoke about ‘how was the screening, what was really remarkable was that….almost at every, let’s say, joke or something, that people really laughed…

Steiner: That’s true.

Fries: ….and that was really amazing. I haven’t had this experience in Germany. So, really with everything, with every little joke. Sometimes it’s a hard scene or emotional and you’re not sure about “can I laugh? can I not?”, but they (the audience) just done it and it’s really great, even till the end.

 

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DJF: Well, that’s one of the things I appreciated about the film too. It injects humor under natural circumstances. It’s not humor for humor sake. It’s either out of awkwardness or just how life happens. So, I thought it added to the honest and natural approach of the film. It’s a film that kinda needs that levity though. I was wondering, on the set, speaking of levity, was anything done to bring levity, because of the heavy subject matter?

Fries: You mean, how we behaved on the set or in the movie?

DJF: Not necessarily in the movie, but mostly off camera, because it’s such an emotional subject.

Fries: Actually, for me, I was really concentrated and serious. But at the same time, I felt that I was….silly than usually. So, as a balance or something, I don’t know. Yeah, I was more silly. (laughs) I was silly and serious.

Steiner: We didn’t have a lot of time to shoot the movie. We had a very tight schedule and a very tight budget. So, there wasn’t actually much, we were shooting all the time. But, in between that, we were joking all the time. Mostly because, well, in this movie, most every scene is dealing with matters of life and death. Literally. (Fries laughs)

So, we would joke each morning when we saw each other, for the first time, “So, what are we going to do? Oh, that’s the day where I’m having this talk with my mother and trying to convince her that I don’t have any chances left and we’re shooting how I’m dying…”

DJF: No problem (all laugh)

Fries: (laughs) Yeah, no problem. Let’s do it.

Steiner: ….”and today, I’m meeting with the physician?” All right. (laughs)

Fries: Yeah and it was, really, I mean….for example, one of the more emotional scenes was really hard in a way, because you have to repeat it. You have to repeat your fucking death! ….and you have to look to your mother and grandmother and your sister…and it was really emotional for all of us. The DP behind the camera was crying. So, for me, I see them crying about me because I’m going to die. That’s one of the things that’s so weird. And having to just repeat it again, well then I had to cry, out of role, because it’s so, so much pressure. I really felt like I have to feel this, not just the family, but me too. I am the one who goes through this. So, it was really heavy.

And we shoot, I don’t know. It was right at the beginning. It was….

Steiner: ….on the tenth day….

Fries: Tenth day, yeah.

DJF: And you still had a lot more filming to do, right?

Fries: Yes.

DJF: It wasn’t in the order of the story.

Steiner: No. Not at all. We thought about this briefly. And there was just no way to do it in order. No. No chance.

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DJF: Well, that brings a question to mind, then. So, if you had that heavy emotional scene to deal with on the tenth day, was everything a little easier after that?

Fries: No, actually not. It doesn’t matter on which day you’re going to shoot. It doesn’t matter. It’s heavy. No, it wasn’t easier afterward. It’s really like Frederik already mentioned, in every scene there is something out life and death. Every scene, everything is important because it’s the last two days of her life.

So, when I watched it yesterday again, it was like, it reminds me what we were talking about, what we were trying to reach – in every second, she is really in the conversation. She’s really searching and trying to convince, it’s a strange word to use, but it is some kind of convincing. But, everything counts, every fucking little word.

We also talked about this yesterday, for me, I can’t just play. There’s no….no sense of, “can you give me the water?” just….there’s nothing. There’s always this weight or this thing on your shoulders. So, I it’s not like….

DJF: ….it’s always kinda there looming, like the elephant in the room.

Fries: Right. And at the same time, her character is really bright and she’s not depressive or something. So, it’s not like I’m crying all the time. She is bright in a way and she loves life. She just don’t love her disease and her suffering.

DJF: It’s great that you say that, because that’s one element that I was surprised by. The character you play, she’s independent and, you know, somewhat positive about life, but she’s kinda done. She’s tired of living like this. And she wasn’t necessarily insensitive to her loved ones. Because, you know, a lot of people will see this as a selfish act.

In fact, here in the States there are certain people who are terminally ill that are making the news because they’ve chosen the date they are going to die. It didn’t really occur to me that this was actually happening a lot.

Did either one of you find that, going into it, you kinda had to be mindful how you were communicating this decision or what is it all in the book, was it all in the script?

Steiner: We definitely all dealt with this topic. I mean, I’ve talked about this a lot with the screenwriter. We were both – the idea, right from the start – this is the story of this young woman, who had a lot of heart, a lot of humor, in the way she dealt with life. I mean, this young woman, is really bursting with joy for life. That was there, right from the start. So, we were very clear. We were working a lot to make sure she didn’t ever appear like she seemed cynical. That was most important, because she was the person we need to identify with as an audience.

DJF: Right.

Fries: What’s that – cynical? Oh yeah.

Steiner: Cynical….Zynisch.

Um, she needs – she desperately needs to reach out to her loved ones, because she knows what she’s planning to do, is in a way, an act of free will. It’s a very tough decision that she’s made. And she knows she might be – there will be diverse reactions to it. Her only chance is, well, as I said, to reach out to her loved ones. In the end, that’s what I found out in talking with people – that even if it hurts you, as a mother, as a sister, um, to finally see that it can be an act of extreme love. It’s humanity.

To say, even if I’m not feeling right about it myself. If it’s the way you want to do it, I won’t oppose you. I’m there for you. So, that’s why I feel like this movie is basically a love story, of a family. Of course, it’s also a story about assisted suicide, but much more than that, it’s also about, to me, it’s a love story about a family.

 

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DJF: Yeah, it definitely, that aspect is also what resonated with me. I usually sit all the way back in the theater, up against the way. And I was glad I did in at this screening, because I definitely got choked up, starting crying – because, I’m a parent and – and especially that conversation your character has with your mother, where she asks, “What am I supposed to do?” and you replied, “Live”

Fries: ….yeah, “Go and live”.

DJF: Right. And I…I just resonated with that. Especially when the backstory was shone, where we see old videos or photos of the two of them. This woman spent over twenty years taking care of her daughter – and what else does she know? So, yeah, that really touched me. And of course the chemistry between Lena Stolze was fantastic. What was it like working with her?

Fries: It was great, actually. We had a casting call for the mother and I was playing with all of them and for me it was like….the moment she came in, for me, it was her.

DJF: Wow.

Fries: For me it was her, because I….(she motions to Steiner) how you say Gansehaut? (touching her forearm)

Steiner: Goosebumps.

Fries: I get goosebumps talking about it, because I was saying to Frederik, I felt like afterward, I had to meet her again. Just for tea or something. Nothing special to talk about. I just wanted to see her. And what was important for me, was that she was the only one – and there were great actresses in Germany, so there were like, I don’t know, four or five – that we saw and they were all great….

Steiner: ….they were all great.

Fries: ….that we tested and some were too young and….

Steiner: ….it was especially about the chemistry.

Fries: Yeah. And she was the only one who came to me and asked me something and I was like – “If I’m going to a casting and my daughter is already settled and I’m going to be the mother, of course I would talk to her.” That’s what I would do. And everybody was like, they’re doing their job and they were really great – but she was the one who came to me. And that felt so, it just felt great and I just wanted to add, because Frederik was saying that it’s something about love, about a love relationship – and I agree, because I’m thinking about what love really means in relationships and I think it’s something about release, as well, in a way.

Steiner:….about letting go?

Fries: Yeah. About letting go. Exactly.

DJF: Right.

Fries: And, I think, of course, that’s huge. That’s just another level, another step, to let somebody go. And I’m not sure if I would be able to behave like that, but I think it’s really something about, for her, for the mother – actually, it’s for everybody, to let go, in a way.

Steiner: Yes, of course. Um, I just, I really want to give Lena Stolze, the mother, huge credit, because she – well, for everyone involved in this movie, it had to be a very personal story. You had to make it personal, because you couldn’t delve deep into the story without facing your own fears, without thinking what would this feel like.

Lena Stolze, she is a mother. She’s a mother of three. She was so brave. I could hardly imagine a harder thing than for a parent than losing your own children. To commit to this reality as an actor, to deal with that on a daily basis during shooting, required so much courage. I mean, for everyone, for Liv, I could hardly praise her enough, for Lena, she moves me a lot in this movie. I think she succeeds in portraying the mother – she only wants to be close to her child. In a physical way, right to the end. She needs to be close to her child and that’s her ultimate truth. That’s what she finds out – “I just want to be close to you.” There we are again with the love story.

DJF: I like the fact that, you’ve established that she’s been this protective, maybe not overprotective mother, all these years. I like how you communicate that by your character’s lack of including her right away – it’s just texts – and you’re very hesitant to let her know what you’re doing. Because, she’d be in Zurich like that.

Steiner/Fries: Yeah.

DJF: You get the idea that she would be like….WHAT?!? (both laugh)

Steiner: She would beam herself to Zurich.

DJF: Right. She would be there instantly.

So, I think it’s so great to see a script that’s not batting you over the head with emotion or assaulting us with exposition. What is shown, here – and not in so many words – but moreso in your character’s action, her hesitancy to include your family, tells viewers what we need to know about the relationships.

I felt the first half of the film, we were really connecting with you and then we slowly get to know the family. How long did it take for those family scenes to come together?

Fries: Well, when we shoot it, it’s just scheduled by what location is available. I really prepared this role for such a long time. For me, it was just – and we also just had a little rehearsal, before the shooting….

Steiner: Two or three days.

Fries: Right. Two or three days. But actually, it was like – it’s so well cast – I looked to Sophie, who played my sister, we had done some fun exercises toward the end, but it was like – it’s there. So, the energy was there and it was the same with Lena. It was the same with Bibian, who played the dying nurse. It was the same with her and with the grandmother. So, everything felt like we all could really be family. It was the same even Max, who played Moritz.

It was really not difficult to connect or create something. I knew my character so well, because it was like I mentioned, I prepared it so long. Frederik and me were, in the end, very clear about it. For me, it was really a long process. I knew about this project two years before shooting and then I experienced the whole script development, how it’s changed and I would go through all this process.

I had some periods where, it was really hard for me, where I was like, “What?”

So, really, at the beginning, when I first read the script, for example, I knew it was so hard, but when I was in front of the camera, I knew there was a responsibility to portray this disease. And it always felt like and it still feels like, not preparing it like this and not believing – I really feel you have to believe in the disease. If you’re not, you can’t go with her decisions. It’s such a big decision to say that somebody wants to die. You really have to believe that she’s really suffering.

So, I know where I was standing and Frederik and me were in the know. I could just talk every time to him and even with the others, it wasn’t really hard. I know where they stand and I know where I stand. There wasn’t any fights or anything.

DJF: There was a great synchronicity.

Fries: Yeah.

Steiner: Well, I can only agree. First of all, we – as Liv just said – we cast her early on, she was the first person we cast. We knew right from the start that we needed a strong, powerful Lea that the audience would be able to connect with. So, we met, Liv and I, we met about two years before shooting started. Without doing any other casting, two days later I called her and said, “It would be a privilege if you are willing to play that part.”

Lea was out sun and the rest of the family was the planets revolving around her. That’s how we looked at it. So, we really took a lot of care during casting that the chemistry worked. We had Liv always present when we did the casting for the sister, for the mother and the grandmother.

Then I have to just give huge credit to the actors, to all of them Because they opened themselves up to this, “What if? What if I was to have my sister say to me, I’m going to die and I want to eat cake with you before that on the lake – would you be willing to go along with that?” That’s the basic question in order to personalize this. And they were all able to do that in just a spectacular way. As a director, I just tried to be there for them, to be available, to protect them. That, I felt was my job. And to make sure that there was always an atmosphere of openness and warmth on set. To keep away the tight schedule and all that create a safe haven.

It’s such a strong story and that carried us, each and every one of us. And the team also. I don’t know what we would’ve done without that strong story. If we could’ve do it. This may really sound strange, but it was, well, just as I said, we didn’t have a lot of money. Just two days before shooting started, we still didn’t know if we were going to be able to do it, because there was still money missing. We had a lot of trouble finding the location for the hotel. It was really tough, from a practical stand point. But then, when the shooting started, I mean, there was so many times the DOP and I (we are friends, we’ve known each other for years and years. but that’s the first feature film we’ve done together), we were so – when we were watching the dailies – there were plenty of times when we were crying silently. It’s was really an extraordinary project to watch.

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DJF: After viewing it, I spent the rest of the day just walking around the city just taking it all in. I wanted to go home and hug my daughter and my wife….

Fries: Yeah.

DJF: But, I appreciated that it wasn’t, I don’t consider it a downer of a film. It was more life-affirming than anything and it reminded me that we should not take for granted the family and friends around you. It actually made me reevaluate that.

So, I guess I’m curious, because after seeing this film, I want to see more of your work, both of you – what’s next?

Steiner: Do you want to start? (motioning to Fries)

Fries: I’m just in preparation now actually. Um, I’m going to do a Nazi satire….

DJF: Oh, a comedy! (all laugh)

Fries: Yeah, it is. I’m going to play a pregnant woman, in the 9th month, with big belly. (laughs) And it’s actually from, here at the festival, the director has one movie, “Stations of the Cross”, it’s that director.

DJF: Oh, great. I’ve heard good things about that film.

Fries: Yeah, I’ve known him for a long time and this is the first time we’ll be working together and I’m really looking forward to it. That’s going to be from next week Friday through the beginning of December.

DJF: So, shooting has started?

Fries: Yeah.

DJF: And you, Frederik?

Steiner: I have several projects I’m working on. One that is farthest developed is a story I’ve written four years ago, that I’m taking out of the drawer again. It’s a tender father/son story about a young man who doesn’t quite know what to do with his life and he’s quite desperate. It turns out that the father himself – it’s again a family story, but it’s not dealing with matters of life and death, but more about finding your place in life. Finding out what you need to do to achieve some level of happiness. It’s again about being true to yourself. In that way, there’s some continuity.

But, I’m also working on some sort of genre piece, a political thriller. But none of these projects is set – I hope to be shooting them by next year.

DJF: Now, is “Zurich” getting a U.S. release?

Steiner: Yes. Yes, definitely. It will open on March 6th at the Angelika Film Center in New York and it will open in Chicago as well. Huge credit and huge thanks to our distributer, Jeff Lipsky, who is so passionate about this movie.

DJF: Well, I hope to write a longer review then.

Steiner: Please do.

DJF: Yeah, I definitely want to promote it. I feel it’s one of the things I look for in coming to the festival, is being introduced to new talent that I’ve never scene before as well as a new director and new situations and maybe a challenging subject matter. That’s definitely “Zurich” for me.

Steiner/Fries: Thank you very much.

 

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DJF: Finally, I’d like to ask. Out of the movies you’ve seen this year, is there any one that you would recommend to me?

Fries: I think I would say “La Vie d’Adèle”….“Blue is the Warmest Color”

DJF: Yes, I have seen that one. I liked it. Did that recently come out in Germany?

Steinier: Yeah. This year it was here.

Fries: Was it this year?

DJF: Because it came out last year, for us.

Fries: It was last year. I was in Israel when I saw it….

Steiner: Yes, but in Germany, it was shown this February.

DJF: Oh, okay.

Fries: Really?

Steiner: Yes. I’m sure, because we met with Jeff in December….

Fries: Yeah and we haven’t seen….

Steiner: Yeah, you saw it in Israel in January.

Fries: Ah, that was it. (laughs) Thanks.

Steiner: I’m there for you.

DJF: Well, I’m with you. That was a good film.

Steiner: I agree. I could only add that on my list.

Fries: I would also say “Nymphomaniac, Vol. 1”….

DJF: The whole thing?

Fries: No. Just “Vol. 1”. I like the first one.

DJF: I like the first one better.

Fries: Yeah. Me too. It was really great.

DJF: I like this Polish film called “Ida”. It’s black and white.

Steiner: Yeah, I’ve seen it, actually!

Fries: I’ve seen it too!

DJF: A powerful film.

Steiner: Yes.

Fries: It’s amazing.

Steiner: I’ve seen it at the festival. It’s fantastic.

DJF: That’s another one where I found myself discovering and asking, “Who is this actress? Who is this filmmaker?” So, that was a good one.

Any other films that come to mind?

Steiner: I’m thinking about it. I can only list off films of known directors. I mean, that’s nothing to discover.

DJF: Well, that’s okay.

Steiner: I just loved, I know Liv really wouldn’t agree, but I really loved “Her”.

DJF: Okay, I liked that too.

Steiner: That was a very realistic way to portray our near future.

DJF: I was just going to say, that will likely happen.

Steiner: Sadly, yes. I loved “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Fries: Yeah, me too.

DJF: It was fantastic.

Steiner: Rarely have I seen a movie – I mean, I went to see it twice….

Fries: Really? Great.

Steiner: Yeah, because I really fell in love with Ralph Fiennes. I mean, this movie was done with such delicacy, so much warmth….

DJF: There’s so much going on.

Steiner: So much detail in it. You can see how, well Wes Anderson, but also how everyone was involved. And It’s really a work of love.

DJF: It really is.

Steiner: And that’s what I’m looking for. It inspired me so much and I said, “keep on working, because it’s worth it”. A good movie can give you so much.

Fries: Yeah.

DJF: And its one of those films where you can tell the actors and, of course Wes Anderson, was having fun.

Steiner: Oh yeah.

Fries: Yes.

DJF: ….and that’s always good to see. But, I appreciate your time, you guys. It’s been great to meet you and I thank you for your time.

Steiner: Thank you.

Fries: Yes, thank you.

 

 

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