An Interview with Ivan Marković

This year’s Berlinale was a busy one for Ivan Marković, as it meant the premiere of two films for which he played a crucial role: From Tomorrow on, I Will and Ich war zuhause, aber (I Was at Home, But). The former is a mix of documentary and fiction shot in Beijing and co-directed by Marković which played in the Forum section, home to ‘young’ films which sometimes lean and other times dive into the visual language of the avant-garde. The latter – on which Markovic acted as cinematographer – marked a high profile jump into well-deserved recognition from a larger audience for German director Angela Schanelec, as it premiered in the Competition category.

Maximilien Luc Proctor: So you went to the UdK (Berlin University of the Arts)?

Ivan Marković: Yes. The idea to study at UDK came actually after deciding to move to Berlin. As I’m from Serbia, which is not in the EU, the visa question was lingering in the air, so I started considering studying here. Then I found out that Thomas Arslan teaches at UdK, and I like his films, so it was the perfect choice.

Were you first doing some freelance work here?

Yes. I graduated from Film academy in Belgrade in 2012, a very classical film school. Then I worked quite a lot; primarilly in Serbia and Montenegro, but also abroad, mostly in China.

How did you end up in China?

It happened through my acquaintance with Linfeng Wu, whom I met through a student film festival in Munich in 2011. We started shooting a documentary together in 2014, a very ambitious project: we were supposed to shoot in three periods throughout the year, but we only shot for three months in the summer and had no budget to continue, so the project essentially failed. Two years later we co-directed a short film White Bird which was in Berlinale Shorts, and then, last year, we shot From Tomorrow On, I Will. At the same time I kept working with I directors from the Balkans, among them was Mate Ugrin, a student of HFBK with whom I worked on his graduation film, “Meanwhile.” He was a student of Angela Schanelec at the time,  so it was through his film that she and I got in contact and then decided to work together.

You also direct, right?

Yes, most recently I co-directed From Tomorrow on, I Will with Linfeng Wu, a docu-fiction shot in Beijing, which played in this years Berlinale Forum. We were shocked to find out our film was selected for the Forum, as we had only finished shooting in October 2018. The cut we sent for the selection was still rough, there was no grading whatsoever, and no sound design. When I got the news, there was a ton of work to do which seemed almost impossible at the time. Especially since we had a mini-budget of under twenty thousand euro, which meant that I had to do a lot of things alone.

How did you manage to raise the money?

I applied for the Robert Bosch Stiftung – Grenzgänger project development support, which I received the second time I applied. I also received KKWV funding from the UdK. After it worked with these two fundings, Wu managed to get some money in China. So there was no proper film funding, but a combination of various smaller research or project grants or investments.

When you started shooting with Angela, what were some of the things you talked about before you actually started working together?

Before we met, I of course knew her work, and based on the stuff I did that she saw, she had a sense about my way of working as well. Once we started meeting about the film, we mentioned the films that we like and some general impressions about the film and the script, overall we felt that we think about films and images in a similar way. It soon became clear that the film would be composed of mostly static, clear and decided images, like tableaux or portraits. We spent a lot of time looking for locations, and then started to do castings together, so it was a process where we were able to gradually consider various elements of the film. Angela put in an immense effort to find the children for the film, each child in the classroom was singularly cast.

Wow. Individually?

Yes, street casted or through visits of schools, not through agents. The process of casting was largely related to performance of the Shakespeare texts, that the children perform in the classroom scenes. There was a focus towards diction, clarity, rhythm, posture. And like with the visuals, there was, despite such attention to detail, still a sense of simplicity which was important to maintain. I was there just to shoot it, but it was very significant for me. The same goes for the locations: we didn’t want to have things which were too special, too distracting. Instead we looked for places which were common and open, in a way. We were considering the space, light, colors, materials, and what kind of movement or presence would they allow for the actors. But as carefully as we looked for places, it was important that they were not a distraction but rather a stage.

Interesting you say stage,because of the anti-theatricality of it. The performances of those kids are really something. Can I ask what kind of camera you shot on?

We were shooting on a RED. We were thinking, struggling – quite a lot – because we wanted to shoot on film, but the budget didn’t allow it in the end.

Have you worked with film before?

Only during my studies in Belgrade, we got to shoot a bit on 16mm. Shooting this film on celluloid would have been a challenge, but one that I would have gladly accepted.

Did you have to do a lot of takes of this long, single shot on the dolly of the conversation on the street?

Not too many. The actors rehearsed beforehand and then it was technically rehearsed. I think we had a total of seven takes.

The other actor in that scene is a Serbian director [Dane Komljen]?

Yeah, he’s a director that I’ve worked with; his first feature All the Cities of the North was also my first feature as a DP [director of photography].

Maren Eggert and Dane Komljen in I Was at Home, But…

Is that also how you guys ended up shooting a little bit in Croatia?

Dane is from Bosnia, and the film he and I did together was shot in Montenegro. So the idea of shooting in Croatia had nothing to do with that. It came through looking for a certain kind of landscape that we eventually found there, after a lot of consideration.

Were those locations that you knew beforehand?

Both Angela and I thought of Croatia, and I thought that the region of Istria could have the kind of landscape we were looking for: dry and wild, with a lot of stones in the ground. Mate Ugrin, a director I’ve mentioned earlier, is from the region, so he was our guide there. After the location scouting, the decision to shoot there felt very organic.

Is there anything noteworthy to say about working with the animals?

The donkey, unlike the others, was very easy to work with.

The panning with the animal movement in the opening is incredible. Was that a struggle at all to capture?

I think it was the least of our struggles in that moment, since the struggle was making the rabbits run, making them run the right direction. We knew where we wanted, what time of day we wanted, and then it was just up to the rabbit to run, which was surprisingly more difficult than we expected.

I Was at Home, But…

Were there any specific directors or influences you guys talked about together beforehand? If not, who are some of your biggest influences?

In terms of Angela’s film, we didn’t speak much about influences. It was clear that our taste in cinema matches, but we rarely spoke in terms of direct references or comparisons. I don’t think it’s the way either of us thinks. Of course, there are a lot of artists that influence me in my work, but they are very different and spread apart. There are some obvious ones like Tsai-Ming Liang, Apitchatpong Weerasethakul, Chantal Akermann and Bresson.

How important is time for you when filming? When working as director, would you say youre mostly working from intuition, deciding when to cut? I’m curious in particular about when you’re working with a shot of inanimate objects or background people.

Time always plays an important role, starting with time needed for thinking, preparing, and seeing things during preparation. The intuition comes together with the focus on the things I feel interested in. In From Tomorrow on, I Will, showing the changes of the city is as important as following the characters. And it takes some time for the audience to consider the materials, repetitions, to notice what’s drawn on the billboards and what things are made of. Elements that are not obvious at first glance. So giving time to such images allows a mental space to reflect on things. In the end, the only meter I can rely on is myself, for how long I want to see these images.

From Tomorrow On, I Will feels mostly documentary, but I guess a lot of the stuff with the main actor is staged fiction. For example, how did you find his apartment? Did you know people actually living in that kind of situation there?

When I was in Beijing for the first time, in 2014, Wu and I visited an underground apartment by accident. We found an online ad of someone selling used light equipment, relatively close to where he used to live. This was an area in the Fifth Ring of Beijing, which was the edge of the city at the time, but has grown so much since. We entered the space which was actually a bomb shelter – having grown up in Belgrade, I knew what a bomb shelter looks like.  What I found interesting, in a way touching, was that this was not a temporary thing, this was home for some people, that they were making an effort to make it a home: they have their furniture there, they make sure the place is clean, paint these very old and wet walls. People live there out of necessity, because they cannot afford to live in a better place inside the city, and affordable housing would be hours away from their daily work. I was really struck by this image, of living under the city, and wanted to do something with it. Wu explained to me the background of the tenants: they are mostly migrant workers who come from the rural areas of China to the big cities; migrants within their own country. They are working mostly as hand-labourers or in different services, like cooks, security guards, drivers, or other kind of low-income work. They leave their families behind, often even children, and move to big cities hoping to provide a better future for them.

So this was the first thing: this underground space, people living under the city, also quite literally working for the city and being subordinated to the city. I knew I wanted to do something with that space, and then this character came up in my thoughts. Someone who compares himself with everyone, feels inadequate with the outside world, wants to become a different version of himself. I started writing, with Wu and with Tanja Šljivar, a playwright that I studied in Belgrade with.

Linfeng Wu & Ivan Marković at Berlinale 2019

There was a script and we were sure that we wanted to do it on real locations and with non-actors, with the people who belong to this milieu, the people who know what it feels like to live in such a place or a similar place. Then the biggest task in pre-production and preparations was finding the right people, which was extremely hard and often completely discouraging. In the end we had luck to find someone incredibly interesting and also very smart. We worked with our main actor a lot, we did a lot of rehearsals, and he understood very quickly what we wanted: what kind of focus, on the speech, on the text, on the gaze, on the body tension, on the stillness, and this kind of tension which comes from stillness. We were talking with him in the same way that we would to each other, he really understood what we wanted even though he had never shot a film before and probably never thought he would shoot a film. It was important to have this kind of eye-level approach with someone whom you shoot, especially for a film like this. In that way, the film does combine documentary and fiction elements. The main narrative line and what happens with the character is fiction, but we were trying to shoot on locations which were as real as possible. There are also some purely documentary scenes, but the main structure is scripted and we were sticking to it, even with most of the dialogues.

How did you come up with the title?

The English title is the first line of a Chinese poem. The Chinese title is the last line of the same poem.

Wow.

The poem is called – a translation of the Chinese title – “Warm Spring Flowers.”  It is a very ironic title, by a famous Chinese poet who is kind of declaring his love for life but also in a way you can feel that he is saying goodbye to life. He is painting a picture of this life he wants, and it is clear that he cannot have it. It was Wu’s idea to choose this title. This poet killed himself sometime after writing the poem. What I like about it is that “From tomorrow on, I will” sounds like a promise you know that you cannot keep. It’s something we say to ourselves and it doesn’t ever come true. It’s also ambiguous. The future of those migrant workers living in those spaces is ambiguous.

There is a beautiful shot in the park where hes just lying down, and the light changes completely, so much in such a short span

It’s real.

I assumed it was real, but were you planning for that? Or did you just get really lucky?

In the last part of the film, the main character enters this park, like a forest, and it’s getting darker and darker. Originally the shot was supposed dark, but then we saw how the light was changing that day and we decided to try to use that. So we fixated on this idea, we shot for two afternoons, did many takes and this one was the best by far. The actor was sitting on the bench, and we were looking at the sun through a cell phone, to see when the cloud was coming to make the timing work, and we would yell to him to slowly lie down. He did and this happened.

So a combination of luck and deliberate action.

Like everything with this film. It was a hard shoot, we had two car crashes, kept getting kicked from locations because we didn’t have permissions or money for them. Beijing is very expensive and hard for us to shoot in, especially since Wu actually doesn’t live in Beijing anymore, he moved further away.

Like in a suburb or another city?

It’s officially another city, even though everybody who lives in this city travels to Beijing every day. It’s called Yanjiao, it’s in the northeast of Beijing. We were traveling everyday to Beijing, for two hours. If there is a traffic jam then it’s worse.

How long was the shoot?

A total of two weeks.

Were you also DP?

Yeah.

What did you shoot it on?

Also the RED. I think the two films look really different.

Yeah they really do, do you want to talk a bit about that?

They are different films. For me, they are not so dissimilar I heard comments saying “oh but this doesn’t look like the same person shot it.”

Which is a great compliment.

I found it nice because usually people would tell me that most of the features I shot so far look kind of similar. I didn’t feel that way at all. These are different films, showing very different situations. Their view on things is also different. I feel very strongly about both, but they are very different.

They are tonally consistent, at least. I feel like thats kind of a confusion of tonal consistency for being the same.

Yeah. I think for the Chinese film – it’s shorter to call it that way – we were looking for things which are very intense, artificial, for things where you can really feel how the city and person are separated, and how one doesn’t belong in his surrounding. Meanwhile for Angela’s film we were not looking to accentuate things in such a way. The places and people and situations were just given, they were not meant to have these contrasts within them which are working in a superficial way, and the Chinese film is very much based on surfaces; surfaces of the city, surfaces of the places they live, kind of contrasting these surfaces, so I think in that sense the visual approach is very different.

In Angelas film, was everything aside from the shots in Croatia shot in Berlin?

Yeah. Also I relate Berlin a lot to this film now, because I got to know the city though the process of making the film.

How long have you been in Berlin?

Almost four years now. But we started with the preparations relatively soon after I moved here.

I Was at Home, But…

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