We talk to director Sebastian Schipper about his film Victoria, a bank robbery set in one city, in one night, in one take
“One city. One night. One take.” If the high-concept tagline for acclaimed new German thriller Victoria is quick and punchy, then all the greater to contrast the extended, torturous logistics of shooting a 138-minute film in one continuous shot. Yet that’s the feat director Sebastian Schipper’s team have dazzled audiences with since the film debuted last year – and no wonder.
There’s the narrative suspense in which the eponymous young Spanish music student (luminous Laia Costa) gets unwittingly co-opted by charming German rogues into robbing a bank; and the breathless meta-tension induced watching these crazy filmmakers (take a bow, cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen) attempt the seemingly impossible.
Schipper, a livewire forty-seven-year-old actor and director, talks a great game too, echoing Francis Coppola on Apocalypse Now (“it’s not about a bank robbery. It is bank robbery.”) but he’s understandably high on the rush of, like the robbery, getting away with something he frankly had no business pulling off.
As a fan of long takes, this is the ultimate. The only similar film I know is Russian Ark.
Sebastian Schipper: That’s similar to mine?
Yes, it’s filmed in one take like Victoria, in St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum...
Sebastian Schipper: Dude, Russian Ark is beautiful in its artfulness, but if you think going to a museum and robbing a bank is similar...
Which long takes inspire you? Movies, TV, music videos?
Sebastian Schipper: There was a really impressive music site, La Blogotheque, where they filmed bands performing in one take and gave you a feel of being with that band. There’s an Arcade Fire clip when they perform a song in the elevator and the drummer holds a small journal, and for the beat he just rips off a page. There’s also a Sigur Ros performance playing “Spillum Endalass” in a Paris brasserie. There’s a piano, nobody knows them, the waiters just carry on! It’s really quite touching.
How about films?
Sebastian Schipper: The long shot in Y Tu Mamá También, when they go to this little Mexican restaurant...
...and she walks to the jukebox and dances?
Sebastian Schipper: Yes! That’s probably my favourite – because it’s so gentle, so effortless. I don’t want a one-shot to look like Las Vegas! I want it to look like I was there.
Sure. Many long takes are so carefully composed, they can end up feeling almost mechanical.
Sebastian Schipper: Exactly. I fucking love the first True Detective season. The only thing I don’t like is the 10-minute one-take! You can totally tell that they were choreographing it: ‘And then you go over here. Then we pan there. Then you move in...’
So Victoria was much looser?
Sebastian Schipper: We didn’t choreograph it. We just jumped in. If you tick off boxes, it gets a little vain. Of course, you can say that to us too: ‘You motherfuckers, two hours, fourteen minutes?’ But I think on our project, there’s crazy written all over it. Other people might just think it’s messy. But I love messy.
What came first, the idea for a heist film, or the idea of shooting it in one take?
Sebastian Schipper: I just had an idea of something I wanted to do but I hadn’t seen, like a chef who wants to create something not on the menu. Do I like Ocean’s Eleven? Yes. That’s the big juicy burger that you’ve just gotta have once in a while. Do I like Heat? Hell, yeah, that’s a big steak. I want my heist in the heist section of the menu that’s not there yet.
But would you have made this story without the one-take idea?
Sebastian Schipper: No.
Some might say, it’s the story that has to be worth telling. Then how you tell it – edited, jump cuts, whatever – is secondary.
Sebastian Schipper: Our Plan B was to throw together a crazy jump cut version, but Plan B never worked. I looked at a version and it was horrible. [laughs] I didn’t want to do anything precious. I don’t want great lines, I don’t want great shots, I want it – almost like the Brave New World quote I never get right, “I don’t want comfort. I want poetry, I want sin…” I’m not a big punk guy, but I also like the attitude of, “Let’s fuckin’ rock!”
“I need your passion. I don’t give a fuck about your ‘performance’. You gotta give me the core of something. I can only feel what you feel” – Sebastian Schipper
You shot three takes and the film is take 3. Did takes 1 and 2 work?
Sebastain Schipper: Technically, yes. But with either of those being the [finished] film, we would not be sitting here.
Sebastian Schipper: Yeah, probably. But I don’t want to point the finger.
Your lead actress, Laia Costa, does an amazing job.
Sebastian Schipper: Without her… she has to look younger than the boys; she has to look like she comes from a [music] conservatory and has to have the strength to excel within the night and all that has to be believable. She was 29 when we shot. You cannot film this film with an actress who’s 23. It’s impossible.
When the shoot is happening, what are you actually doing?
Sebastian Schipper: Going crazy.
But are you beside the camera...or a monitor, co-ordinating through an earpiece?
Sebastian Schipper: I’m behind the camera as much as possible but there was no monitor, so I didn’t see much. I was looking what they were doing, does it feel good. There wasn’t much I could do. Directing this film had a lot to do, I guess, with coaching [sports]. The moment the game starts [snaps fingers], they’ve just got to play the game.
That’s a huge leap of faith. Stanley Kubrick would not have made a film this way…
Sebastian Schipper: For sure! I have to do my work beforehand, making sure they know what’s up and what’s at stake. I told them, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. I need your passion. I don’t give a fuck about your “performance”. You gotta give me the core of something. I can only feel what you feel.