Katharina Wyss is a Swiss screenwriter and film director. Her feature film debut Sarah Plays A Werewolf premiered at Venice's Settimana della Critica, Zurich, São Paulo, Seville, Film Comment Selects - Lincoln Center, Taipei; Saarbrücken, where it won Best Actress; Khanty-Mansiysk, where it won Best Film; and Achtung Berlin, where it won Best Director.
In an exclusive interview for Filmatique, Katharina Wyss discusses cultivating inner worlds, privilege and manipulation in Swiss society, an artistic approach to film funding and her next project.
FILMATIQUE: Sarah Plays A Werewolf portrays the coming-of-age of Sarah, a troubled 17-year old girl who discovers a rare freedom within her high school drama class. What makes Sarah's journey so convincing is not only the specificity of the film's circumstances, but also a remarkably raw performance by Loane Balthasar. Can you discuss the casting process for the film— how did you ultimately come to work with Balthasar and how would you describe your collaboration in bringing this character to life?
KATHARINA WYSS: I started casting teenagers in Fribourg, the city where we shot the film, very early on during the scriptwriting. It was research but also a way to already build a network of teenagers around the project. I got to know more and more of them during the whole process. For the role of Sarah and all the other teenage characters, we did hundreds of castings in theater classes and schools in the mostly western, French-speaking part of Switzerland.
I always wanted to discover an actress for the part of Sarah. So when we met Loane Balthasar in a film-acting course for teenagers in Lausanne, and having seen many other non-professional actors of that age, I understood pretty quickly that she was quite extraordinary. But she was extraordinary in a very raw way, so it was frightening too and I took many steps to find out if going into the character of Sarah was something she could handle.
In terms of acting she was an extremely quick learner. The evolution between our first encounter and the last scene we shot was amazing. We had one year and a half to get to know Sarah together and I had the feeling that it was important to work on Sarah's inner world. Her inner monologues, memories, secrets she never tells anybody during the film, but that she is thinking about herself.
One of the things we did was spend some time alone in Fribourg with a small camera. Loane and I went to certain spots in the city and I'd tell her to improvise a discussion between Sarah and her brother, for example. I was filming her while she spoke to these imaginary people. On one hand we gave her experiences in the city— memories that would make the city hers somehow and, when we were shooting, would be things she had already lived that nobody knew about. On the other hand, during these improvisations, she freely expressed feelings towards characters in the film without them being there, which then also gave her a lot of prior experiences when she acted the scenes with these characters in which, most of the time, she wouldn't tell them what she really felt.
I guess what I tried to do to help Loane was create settings for her to collect experiences for the inner world of Sarah. The rest she did by herself. I told her early on that her relationship with the character of Sarah would be hers alone, that I didn't need or want to know about it— that it was somehow important to me that she'd know more about Sarah than I did. And being who she is, Loane took this freedom very seriously, and during shooting we didn't need many words. For me it really felt like a very strong artistic collaboration. And my job then was mostly to help and protect her on that journey.
FLMTQ: Privilege plays a contradictory role in Sarah's life. She grows up in a well-to-do family in Switzerland, one of the richest countries on earth. Yet this privilege brings her no comfort; if anything, it only serves to further alienate her. Can you discuss how you sought to explore the topic of privilege within Swiss culture through the eyes of this young girl?
KW: What interested me here is how Sarah— being a teenage girl and not seeing the big picture regarding where and how she grows up— is hit by this society in a way she cannot understand. At that point of her life she is in no position to sort out, for good, what is the matter with her and what is the matter with the people and the society that surround her.
On the other hand, the reactions of the other characters toward Sarah are generally as if to say: look around you, everything is fine, everybody else is doing just fine, so if you have a problem, you must be the problem.
There is a high suicide rate in Switzerland, and people sometimes talk about it without intending to be harmful at all. What strikes me in the above is the underlying pressure that suggests if people are that complicated and create such a mess in an otherwise very well-functioning and orderly world, maybe it would be better for them and those around them if they would just disappear.
This mode of thought represents a way to get rid of a problem that is much easier than actually trying to find out what is hurting a person so much that she can't just be a nice girl and enjoy the privileges of an orderly world like everybody else. In the film, the character of the father is the strongest voice, representing this pressure or manipulation to keep people from getting to the bottom of the violence that did and does happen in Switzerland as in any other country in the world.
So these things one hears again and again— you are a teenager, so you are out of your mind; you are a woman, so you are oversensitive and hysterical; and so on— are a way of constantly being told that one's feelings don't count. That they are not real, that you have too much imagination, that you are very special and hyper-sensitive and maybe an artist, to put it in a positive way, or simply, that you are crazy.
And so, yes, I think it's a very understandable reaction at that point to act like Sarah: you are telling me I am crazy, so okay, look at me, I am going to show you what crazy is.
FLMTQ: Sarah Plays A Werewolf is a very subjective film insofar as it sticks largely to Sarah's perspective, eliding any empirical evidence of an outside world that would challenge her increasingly rigid point of view. Of course, this is very similar to how girls Sarah's age think, which makes them increasingly vulnerable. What techniques, cinematic or otherwise, did you use to get inside the character's head, to enrich the subjective nature of Sarah's experience for the audience?
KW: Yes, the idea was that at that age, you are very much stuck in the present, in the situation you arrived at through other people's choices— your parents' choice of where to live, how to live; the school's choice of how to learn, what to learn— and you are just starting to build your own world, to make your own choices and to discover other ways of thinking and living. Of discovering who you are and how maybe your ideas and desires might be in opposition to or different from those of many people who surround you— and that you might actually find allies in your way of thinking who will give you strength and make you less vulnerable.
So it was very important for me to portray an adolescent "stuck in the present," who does not yet know or see that things might be balanced differently somewhere else. It is a place where somebody's opinion might hurt you very much in that moment, because your world is so small, while later in life you wouldn't care about these things because at that point you would've made choices about whose opinion you care about and whose opinion you don't care about at all.
To get into that particular state of mind, I collaborated with one of the teenagers I met during the scriptwriting. We'd go through the script together and he'd tell me about how he would feel being Sarah, about his own experience being in a theatre class, how he saw others in the group and how he felt about them, and how he felt about school, about living with his parents and so on. It was a very particular exchange, involving a lot of trust, that helped get into Sarah's head.
A next step— after I'd started to work with my co-writer Josa Sesink— was to ask Josa to write inner monologues for all the scenes, because I still felt like we were looking at Sarah from the outside too much. Arthur Schnitzler's books Fräulein Else and Leutnant Gustl were an inspiration for me very early on; there was this question I always had of how can you create a cinematographic way of inner monologue? Maybe it's not so obvious at first glance from how the film is made, but for me it is an outside space and a mind space at the same time. So even if the camera perspectives are mostly not overtly subjective, I always had a feeling about the film that maybe everything is just in Sarah's mind. Maybe she's the boss of what we get to see about her and what not. So that's why I use this word "mind space" a lot.
Film after all is carefully designed thinking— meaning feeling too, they belong together for me— process in action, guiding, asking, producing, inviting a thinking/feeling-process into the mind of the viewer. As a viewer I am attracted to films that give me that kind of space for my thinking/feeling and I am mostly bored by films that don't really give me that kind of space and somehow could exist just the same without me entering in a thinking process with them.
FLMTQ: Sarah Plays A Werewolf is a bold and distinctive first feature. In your view, what have been the advantages of working within the Swiss production system? What challenges have you faced as a first-time director and how did you overcome them?
KW: From what I have experienced so far, the funding system in Switzerland is actually pretty great, with strong support for debut features, and also much more independent from TV and the industry than in other countries, like Germany for instance— so it feels more like a genuinely artistic approach to film funding, which I think state-funded film funding should be about.
Juries composed of other Swiss filmmakers decide which project will get funded. And for me it does feel like there is quite a lot of diversity and boldness in these decisions. I am thinking about directors of my generation I know personally, like Ramon Zürcher or Cyril Schäublin, who also have their very own filmmaking universe and language, and who studied in Germany with me but get much stronger financial support in Switzerland than in Germany.
SWISS FILMS is doing a great job getting these films out into the world. Actually, sometimes it feels like that is working better than bringing the films to the people in Switzerland. Films are made by people for people, but most people don't even get the chance to know about the films we get to see in international festivals around the world, because we travel there and they dot. So sometimes talking to non-filmmaking people makes one feel like they are kept in total ignorance about the amazing diversity and productivity that's going on worldwide in cinema. They get to know about a very small part of it.
The challenges, of course, involved finding out what I need for my particular process of filmmaking, in writing, casting, rehearsing, production and so on. I guess once you've got more experience, you can say more easily what you need and then find solutions on how to make that possible within the production. There was a lot of trial and error and letting myself get talked into things that weren't right and having to find a way out of it to do it the way I wanted. A lot of energy that I will be able to save during the making of the next film, hopefully, by knowing better what works for me and what doesn't.