Swedish director Csaba Bene Perlenberg touched down in Auckland yesterday, en route to present his feature Bitch at the Arohanui Film Festival. SCREENZ caught up with the only slightly jet-lagged director a few hours after he landed in Auckland.
Perlenberg had 20 short films under his belt (he graciously suggests only four or five are “professional”) before he decided to take a break from filmmaking in 2011. “I experimented a lot. You have to be able to tell a short story well before you can tell a long one,” he said. The experimentation paid off, as the last few shorts he made before his break (The Walk, 21, 87 and Straw) picked up awards at a number of festivals.Three years ago, after a couple of filmmaking-free years, Perlenberg found himself approaching the ripe old age of 30 and wondering whether he wanted to reach 40 without having made a feature.
First world problems are a bugger, so Perlenberg put some effort into solving his. How would he find a way back into filmmaking after taking a few years off, how could he design a project that he’d be able to sustain financially and which would enable him to collaborate with the people he wanted to work with?
The answers took a little while to come, but Perlenberg settled on a plan to make an episodic story, with an over-arching narrative frame. He reckoned such a structure would allow him to attract some well-known actors to the project. They’d only be required for a day or two, and might do it as a favour.
I told him we called it “mates’ rates” here, which he liked.
Perlenberg was in India in 2013, while he was refining his ideas. “They have a lot of stray dogs,” he noted. “A lot. Everywhere.”
That triggered some thoughts: what would happen if I tried to tell the story from a dog’s POV? Is it manageable? Would it be interesting?
Bitch came together fairly quickly after that, starting its shoot in India around six months later, in April 2014. “It was very on-the-fly,” Perlenberg said. “Kind of now or never.”
Over four blocks of a few days each, from India to Sweden, Perlenberg shot Bitch in six months. “It wasn’t zero budget, but it was low-budget,” he said. “We had to shoot around people’s schedules, which is not unusual.”
One upside to the process was that the story was shot almost sequentially, with just the framing device being shot at the end.
“It gave the whole thing an organic feel. The story was self-contained so there weren’t many continuity challenges anyway,” Perlenberg explained. “We did a continuous rough cut as we shot. We had to reshoot one scene in India for technical reasons, but apart from that we avoided any more problems. We have several long-duration shots in the film, and did a lot of different takes of them.”
Given that the film is shot from a dog’s POV, a back-breaking position to keep a camera for any length of time, let alone a whole story, what was it shot with? “Our doggy-rig was a Panasonic Lumix 2. We had a hacked version which gave us some unfiltered options. We also tested a Blackmagic, but the Lumix gave me what I wanted.”
DoP Chris Maris designed the special rig for the Lumix. ”We called it The Doggycam 2000,” Perlenberg said, “and Chris designed it in a way which made it fully operable and moveable as a dog would move. And lightweight.
“If I’d been patient, we could have waited a few weeks to start shooting and had a Lumix 4, but I didn’t want to wait.”
One of the joys of guerilla filmmaking is being able to make quick decision. Perlenberg said, “For better or worse I own the film completely, so I don’t always have to take notice of other people’s notes and anxieties.”
The rough cut was done in Vegas, and then Perlenberg started over with Final Cut Pro for the final version. “It’s still the best option for guerilla filmmaking,” he said.
“We had a big push on the sound from March this year and I finished it on the third of June. We had the cast and crew screening on the fourth.” Families, friends and sponsors were also at the screening. “That’s your one safe screening.”
What’s changed since then?
“Nothing,” Perlenberg said. He’s serious about that, happy to let the film be what it will. “You can hurt your film if you overwork it. You have to know when to say ‘I can’t add any more to this’ and stop before you end up taking things away.”
The film had its world premiere at the Cape Verde IFF, just off the west coast of Africa, earlier in October. Now it’s in New Zealand. Not unlike Ivan Barge’s Madam Black, it’s racking up the air miles quickly. How was the premiere?
“I wasn’t there,” Perlenberg said. “So this is graduation day, the first real test for the film. I’m really excited to see how an audience that doesn’t know me interacts with it. And terrified.”
So, what now? Perlenberg’s working on another feature idea, not yet at script stage. After the Arohanui Film Festival, he’s looking forward to visiting Wellington. He enjoys the way changes of environment spark new ideas and new ways of looking at things he’s already working on.
Is he up for another feature? “I wouldn’t necessarily want to make another low budget one like this,” he said. “It’s good to really think about if it’s what you want to keep doing.”
Apart from the limitations a small budget imposes, Perlenberg’s keen to keep exploring new ideas, not to repeat ideas and ways of working, which can happen with very tight budgets. He doesn’t want his work to become stale. There is an NZFC equivalent in Sweden, the Swedish Film Insitute, and a growing number of Scandinavian or Nordic co-production titles, but not much in the way of incentives in Sweden to make the local industry very interesting to private investors.
He’ll make his way back to Sweden from Wellington via New York. A writer for Swedish newspapers by day job, he’ll be in New York during the US election, so there’s possibly a faint chance he’ll find some interesting material there.
Bitch has its southern hemisphere premiere tomorrow (Saturday 29 October) at the Arohanui Film Festival.