Videothink met the accomplished film director Juerg Ebe, the man behind the films Handyman and Darling, lets get divorced, and asked him how to tell a good story and about the differences and similarities between sponsored and feature films.
The interview was conducted to coincide with the director’s current collaboration with Condor Films for a short feature commissioned by a globally active corporation.
»To be able to tell a good story you have to know what makes a good story« says Juerg Ebe
Videothink: Who is Juerg Ebe?
Juerg Ebe: I’ve been working in the film business in various roles for 35 years. I started as a unit manager and won my spurs with additional film and slide presentations. It was a very good foundation for making films later on. Afterwards I attended Columbia College in the USA where I gained BA in Film Production. On returning to Switzerland, I made commissioned films, TV productions and educational films. One thing led to another and at some point, I was lucky enough to end up in feature films.
What’s the difference between feature and sponsored films?
(Laughs) It’s quite simple really. The difference is in the length and the budget and thus the number of shooting days. In both cases, the available funds ultimately dictate the project so I don’t see any major differences and I enjoy making both genres. My job as a director is the same no matter whether the film in question is a feature film or a commissioned film.
Are there differences in the dramatisation?
It’s more difficult to tell a good story in a short space of time. Creating and shaping characters takes time, just as the audience needs time to build up an emotional connection with them. I would say that the available time is the main difference, particularly as it comes down to seconds in commercials. This means that the film has to be pithier and can’t go into so much depth, and that in turn presents the biggest dramatisation challenge for commissioned films.
Storytelling’ is all the rage at the moment. Can you say why?
To be honest, I’m not sure what this phrase, this ‘storytelling’, is all about. To me it just means giving an entertaining account of something and, of course, to do that – to tell a good story – you have to know what makes a good story.
So what makes a good story?
Good stories give the audience characters they can sympathise with as they develop. Then they want to know what happens to them next. For me, this is the best indicator of a strong story. Characters are a filmmaker’s essential elements and they are also the most difficult! It doesn’t matter if you’re directing a short or a long film, getting the audience to develop a deeply emotional interest in your characters is extremely challenging. Until you know how to do it, you need a lot of experience and have to make mistakes. Of course, all the characters in a film are also embedded in the bigger events and happenings in their surroundings, which have to be established and explained just as carefully and with just as much attention to detail.
Do you have a tip for anyone looking to commission a film?
(Thinks for a moment) Trust your director. The client or producer has chosen the director for the project for a good reason! When you accept a commission to direct a project, then you know what you have to do to make the film work. You also know what you shouldn’t do! It’s your job to know! It sounds strange for me to say this myself, but my films have always had the best response from the public when the client has said to me: “I trust you, just get on with it!”
If everyone tries to put their two cents in when it comes to creative decisions, then – worst-case scenario – you won’t have a film at the end; you’ll have a pizza!
Juerg Ebe, Director
If everyone tries to put their two cents in when it comes to creative decisions, then – worst-case scenario – you won’t have a film at the end; you’ll have a pizza at a children’s birthday party where the kids have mixed together all their favourite ingredients. The choice for each individual ingredient is understandable and explainable, but in the end, you just have a confusing mess. Take a Hawaii pizza for example… Then add chips, sushi, chocolate and applesauce with fondue cheese! Who wants to eat a pizza like that?
Feature film or sponsored film – which is more exciting?
I’m lucky enough to be able to say that I’ve had an awful lot of fun creating and implementing many commissioned films. An interesting topic, a great team and a fair client are the most important criteria for the fun factor. I’d never say that commissioned films aren’t fun to make. If the film was about a topic that I would reject for whatever reason, then I simply wouldn’t make myself available for the project. When it comes to feature films, I see it as a great privilege to have so much talent available to help me tell a story. However, it can also be a tremendous challenge. When you get to the location at the crack of dawn and find your 50-strong crew waiting with half a dozen actors, plus supporting actors and extras, and you know that today you have to turn seven pages of screenplay into film, it can be quite daunting. Every so often, you have to remind yourself that pressure is also a type of privilege, as you cannot take such large directing jobs for granted.
What has been your biggest challenge during a commissioned film?
The most interesting commissioned film that I’ve made up to now was for the army. The length of the film was strictly defined, but otherwise I was given free rein. The initial situation was extremely exciting – you have an entire universe to depict but only a few minutes of film in which to do it. Reducing everything to the bare bones was my key to writing the screenplay. As is so often the case, it wasn’t about what was shown in the film, but about what wasn’t shown. Cleverly told, a lot of the action takes place in the heads of the audience members. However, I was still quite nervous when I personally handed the script to the head of the army. The logistics for filming were also quite challenging – five real fighter jets were involved; two FA-18s, a Tiger and escort planes were all in the air with us and the camera. Air is a three-dimensional space, which means the staging is even harder than it is in water shoots and nobody recommends shooting on water! When I think back on it, that commissioned film came close to becoming a feature film. (Laughs). It was absolutely fascinating!
What has been your biggest challenge during a feature film?
A completed screenplay is like a suitcase packed for a trip to a place you’ve never been to before. You know that you’re going to be hit with ten million things that you know nothing about, and you’re going to have to deal with them as and when they come. A director invests at least 18 months of his life on a feature film no matter what becomes of the project. You start with a handful of people, you’re almost on your own, and then more and more people join in and eventually you have a whole army to command. Once the film is complete, the team gets smaller again until you’re almost on your own again as you were at the beginning. All the others who were involved have had months of proper sleep and have long since moved on to new projects. And the whole time you have lived and breathed one single story, every day, every hour, every minute and every second. It is insanely and emotionally intensive.
When you’re working on a commissioned film, you know that if you really knuckle down to it, the light at the end of the tunnel is not another train coming towards you, but daylight.
Juerg Ebe, Director
Quite simply, the challenge with feature films is their scope. There’s pressure on all sides, from the investor, the producer, the budget and the creativity; everything weighs down on you. The amount of pressure you experience when working on a commissioned film seems almost homoeopathic in comparison. You know that if you really knuckle down to it, the light at the end of the tunnel is not another train coming towards you, but daylight. I once filmed in an indoor stadium with 10,000 extras. When writing the screenplay we were convinced that this sort of scene wouldn’t work in Switzerland. But it did – in real life and with no digital technology or trickery in the editing phase. I knew that our shooting logistics were extremely clever, but I still didn’t sleep much the night before – just like the other 42 nights until the end of filming.
Can you tell us anything about your next film project?
Well, I don’t like to count my chickens before they’ve hatched, but I can tell you this much… My next film will probably be a large-budget Swiss feature film starring well-known comedians. Financing and set-up for such an undertaking requires time. Due to the complexities of feature film projects, unwelcome surprises and delays have to be expected. During these downtimes, directors keep busy with commissioned films. Whatever it is, film is film and it’s great fun!
Thank you, Juerg for the interview and keep up the good work! We wish you all the best for your next feature film projects!
Our Videothink interviews can do all but one thing: bore. In our interview section directors, creative heads, key people in the film world and other exponents of national and international moving image communication have their say. The articles so far, aside from Juerg Ebe, portray: Adrian Teijido (Director of Photography, about his work on Netflix’ Narcos), Wigald Boninghttps://videothink.info/about-creativity/, Jörg Buckmann, Patrick Merz, Movie Director Markus Welter and Kristian Widmer.