A Conversation with Vinko Brešan: No Aesthetics without Ethics

By Aida Vidan and Gordana P. Crnković

© Aida Vidan and Gordana P. Crnković, 2011


bresanThe cinema of Croatian director Vinko Brešan (b. 1964) has the unique ability to garner large domestic audiences on one hand while experimenting with and exploring the formal potentials of the medium on the other. Aesthetically consummate and ethically pertinent, his dynamic films have communicated well internationally and have won prestigious awards (e.g., at the Berlin Film Festival) as well. Son of prominent Croatian playwright Ivo Brešan, Vinko Brešan comes from the city of Šibenik on the Adriatic Coast. He studied comparative literature and philosophy at the University of Zagreb’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences (Filozofski fakultet), and earned a degree in film and TV directing at the University of Zagreb’s Academy of Dramatic Art.  Brešan started his film career by making documentary films, some of which received the Oktavijan award, the highest Croatian award for documentaries (Lunch Together [Zajednički ručak] and The Corridor [Hodnik] in the mid-1990s, for more on them see Diana Nenadić’s chapter in this issue). He also worked on documentaries later on in his career, most notably in directing the influential 154 minute-long documentary Radio 101 Independence Day [Dan nezavisnosti radija 101, 2007].

It is Brešan’s first feature film, however, that made him a household name and placed him firmly in the group of the most prominent and interesting film directors of new Croatian cinema. The Mediterranean setting, color, and temper, familiar to Brešan from his home locale, find their parodied rendering in his 1996 comedy, How the War Started on My Island (Kako je počeo rat na mom otoku), which revisits the beginning of the Homeland War in a way that had until then seemed impossible, or was even deemed, officially or not, politically suspect—that is, with humor and laughter. This comedy proved to be an enormous success with domestic audiences, and is still the top-watched domestic film in Croatia since independence. His second feature, Marshal Tito’s Spirit (Maršal, 1999), was, like his first, based on a screenplay written by the director in collaboration with his father, Ivo Brešan. The film is built on a fantastic premise of the appearance of the ghost of long-time president of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito, on one of the Croatian islands. A pleasure to watch, this lively and intelligent comedy combines a fast-paced suspenseful story, marked by a hilarious grotesque twist, with amusing but cutting political and social commentary. Marshal Tito’s Spirit was also a hit with domestic audiences, becoming the third most-watched film in the country since its independence. Brešan’s third feature, Witnesses(Svjedoci, 2003), is a drama revolving around difficult ethical choices to be made by Croats regarding Serb civilians in Croatia during the Homeland War. The film is characterized by both its involvement with an issue crucial for the Croatian community, and by its elaborate non-linear directing and editing. Sandra Botica Brešan (Vinko Brešan’s wife), who edited this masterfully as she did Brešan’s other films and has herself won the highest Croatian award for editing, the Golden Arena for editing, at Pula Film Festival in 2008, is to be credited for much of this and Brešan’s other achievements in film. Witnesses won a score of international awards, and is one of the most aesthetically and ethically successful films made in Croatia in the contemporary period. Brešan’s most recent feature to date, Will Not End Here(Nije kraj, 2008), again challenged some firmly entrenched taboos of new Croatian society, revolving around an unlikely love story between a Croatian Serb woman and a Croatian man who are both—in their different but existentially related ways—involved in and permanently affected by the recent war in Croatia.[1]

The following interview was conducted in June 2010 at the Zagreb-Film building, where Mr. Brešan proved a lively, engaging, and generous interlocutor.

How did you become attracted to directing?

war on my island— My father is dramatist and screenwriter Ivo Brešan. The first script he wrote was an adaptation of his own drama Acting Hamlet in the Village of Mrduša Donja [Predstava Hamleta u selu Mrduša Donja]. This film was on the official program of the Berlin Film Festival at some point in the 1970s and generally won all kinds of awards. It was directed by Krsto Papić. I was eleven at the time of the shooting and my father invited me to come to the set one day. This was probably the most boring day in my entire life! The only person who has fun at a shooting is the director, I thought. So I was not at all impressed.

Later on, however, a series of Papić’s documentaries was shown on TV and I was a bit older by then, perhaps thirteen or fourteen. Since I knew the director, I wanted to see the films and I really enjoyed them. So I decided I would like to make documentaries. That was my primary motivation when I entered the Academy of Dramatic Art [University of Zagreb]. I made quite a few documentaries, some of which had a significant success. One of my student films, Our Stock Market [Naša burza], was even entered in a professional competition of short film at Oberhausen which was the most important festival for this genre at the time. In 1994 and 1995 I received the highest recognition in Croatia, the Oktavijan award, for documentaries Lunch Together [Zajednički ručak] and The Corridor [Hodnik].

war on my islandI started working on a feature, in fact, because of the impossibility of solving certain problems in the documentary. There was a war in Croatia, as you know, from 1990 to 1995, and there were many protests in front of military barracks. I was in Šibenik at the time and witnessed many bizarre situations. You could really see how humor was clashing with tragedy—these were fantastic scenes! Unfortunately, I had no camera to record any of it. In 1995, when I got my chance to shoot, there were no protests. Reconstructing all of it through someone’s narrative simply did not have the same energy. So I decided to make a feature and spoke with my father, Ivo Brešan, who is a seasoned screenwriter, and together with him I wrote How the War Started on My Island—and that’s how I entered feature film.

Do most of your films start with an idea and then you approach someone to write the script, or do you rework an existing novel as in the case of your last film Will Not End Here [Nije Kraj, 2008]based on a play by Mate Matišić?

— One reads literary things, of course, but I generally have a need to tell a particular type of a story first, and then I immerse myself in literature, seeking the right kind of material. Literature helps me tell the story in the best possible way. For instance, this was the case with How the War Started on My Island and Marshal Tito’s Spirit [Maršal, 1999]. The latter got going from a joke. A friend of mine came and said, “You know, two fishermen in Novi say they have seen the ghost of Josip Broz Tito.” We were sitting in a bar and it just occurred to me that this was a great premise for a film. So, little by little, we built a comedy around this joke.

witnessesThe same goes for Witnesses [Svjedoci, 2003]—I really felt the need to make a film that speaks about a different aspect of the war. Mind you, this was in 2002, when the topic of war crimes by Croatian soldiers could not be read about in the newspapers. The situation is now different. But, back then, there was a change on the political scene in Croatia, Tuđman had died recently and the Social Democrats came to power, only to be disappointing in a way. The new government simply did not address the burning issues in society and I felt the need to say something about this. My wife spoke of the novel by Jurica Pavičić, Alabaster Sheep [Ovce od gipsa], and I recognized in it what I wanted to focus on in the film. Now, Pavičić’s novel is broader in scope and I tried to refract the story through a family drama so that it has a firmer structure. The emotions are also more dense given that this is simply the nature of film. The same thing happened with Will Not End Here. When I initially spoke with Mate Matišić, I told him that first and foremost I wanted to make a love story based on his play Woman without a Body [Žena bez tijela]. But this play is not a melodrama, it is not dealing with love at all. The author established a relation between a young man and a prostitute whom the man wants to help, but there is no love story. So the playwright and I started reading the play in a different way because I really wanted to have a narrative in which the solution for the hatred between two nations would precisely lie in love.

—  Were you surprised by the tremendous success of your first feature, How the War Started on My Island? Also, do the critics and the filmgoers agree in evaluation of your films or are there discrepancies?

— I would lie if I said I was completely taken aback. The final number did surprise me, but throughout the whole process of making this film I said that I had an enormous need to establish communication with the audiences. Let’s face it: film is an art in which the audience is a part of its definition. The audience was of utmost importance to me at that particular moment. The final number was about 350, 000 people, which is 8% of Croatia’s population! Imagine if an American film were seen by 8% of that country’s population! I know, it’s a different frame of reference, but again, the only film that did better at the box office in Croatia over the last twelve years was Titanic. In terms of reviews, well, each review, good or bad, is the opinion of one person. I have seen one Hollywood critic say for one of my films that it is “a masterpiece of narration.” Of course, I was happy as a kid when I read that, but ultimately this is the view of one individual and nothing more. Someone else will say for the same film that it’s totally chaotic and incomprehensible—that too is the view of one person. There is always some sort of balance with my films, and at the end of the day I am happy overall with their reception.

marshal tito's spiritIn terms of the audience, as I said, communication with them was essential, especially regarding How the War Started on My Island and Marshal. The question of genre is relevant here as well, because these two films are comedies and as such are more appealing to audiences. On account of the political situation, however, things stopped being funny for me personally. During the time of Franjo Tuđman, who was a very serious person and nearly impossible to get a laugh out of, things were funny. He perceived culture as a mortally serious business so I took pleasure in being a court jester, in carnevalizing life under such circumstances. But later on, things changed. It is only now, while working on my current script, that I am turning again to the genre of comedy. In my first two films it was the audience who mattered, in my next film, Witnesses, strong emotion was what I was going after. I also started exploring a particular form and this specific form is quite unusual for Balkan film in general and is not frequent in world film either. The film is an hour and a half long and every half hour it starts anew. The perspective shifts just a little bit each time and this was very demanding. But I had a need for this kind of exploration.

 We have already touched on our next question which is about humor in Croatian film. How the War Started on My Island is already perceived as a hallmark film not only in terms of its popularity but also for its humor. How do you see Croatian comedies in relation to this genre in the region? For instance, Serbian cinema is known for its “black wave” and darkly colored humor, while Croatian cinema is celebrated more for its cerebral achievements. Where do you see your work in this dichotomy?

will not end here— I am Mediterranean, from the city of Šibenik. This is a place where humor is simply a part of life. A person with no sense of humor will not feel comfortable in Šibenik, and may even suffer there. People there love humor, even if it’s sometimes harsh, so this is somehow a part of my Weltanschauung, of my perception of life, it’s a part of me. I lived there as a young man and this perspective cannot simply disappear. Frankly, it’s harder for me to work on a serious scene such as, say, in Witnesses, knowing that I have no right to joke around. The theme does not allow me to have an ironic relation to reality. For such a theme I have to strip myself naked, in a sense, and stay naked with the rest of the [characters] in the problem that is being dealt with. In humor, you have distance, you have removed yourself a bit, and you look at the world from an ironic angle—sometimes with love, sometimes without it, but that is yet another question. When it comes to humor, it’s all in the timing. It takes a cool hand to hit on the right timing and make things funny.

I often see how certain things could be rendered both seriously and comically but I have other reasons that direct me in my choices. Why do I say this? Because humor is a part of me and I have a need for the jester, the comic dialogue, that is the way I actually think. When both Marshal and Will Not End Here, which also has comical parts, were shown in Karlovy Vary, it was interesting for me to make a comparison with Czech humor. The Czech audience recognized the humor in my films, and Slavic humor at that, but also identified it as different from their own because it’s harsher.

 To continue in the same direction—you have mentioned carnevalization. Some of the critics even mention your films as structurally related to commedia dell’ arte. We even have our local prototypes of comical characters coming all the way back from the Croatian Renaissance, which also stems from the Dalmatian, Mediterranean milieu. Do you relate to this background at all?

will not end here—  I don’t dare make such comparisons! In terms of my generation, we somehow grew up on a Monty-Python diet of humor, which is the absurdist type of comedy. In film I don’t really go in that direction, their form was entirely different, but I am related to it. I do seek absurdist situations and then, of course, I have to bring the viewer through the narrative to recognize the situation as absurd, but the absurdity is there. So my characters may be related to Croatian Renaissance prototypes at the level of narrative or fabula, but the humor itself is of different nature.

How is it to keep the business within the family, so to say? You have had your father, Ivo Brešan, as a principal collaborator on some of your scripts, and your wife, Sandra Botica Brešan, as editor, but these family relations also seem to, in a way, extend to the entire team which seems to remain consistent from one film to the other. This is interesting because it creates an opus that has not only a recognizable directorial imprint, but also a tangible style coming from the other artists who participate in the project.

—  This does not happen automatically or by chance. As a film director you always want to make the best film in the world. If that is not your starting point, you’re a fool. This is a kind of business in which it’s not wise to make compromises. I’ve had the luck to have a father who is an established dramatist, but I would wish to work with him even if he weren’t my father; I have the luck to have a wife who is an outstanding editor, but I would continue working with her even if we were to separate in our private life. Furthermore, Mate Matišić, a good friend of mine, has also worked as a scriptwriter with me, including the latest project to be called The Priest’s Children [Svećenikova djeca], a comedy dealing with the [Catholic] church’s stance towards sexuality. I have surrounded myself with people of talent and that is not by chance. I really do think that my wife is about ninety percent of my talent—no irony here. My father is eight percent, Mate [Matišić] another few percent, and so forth. Mine is one tiny bit. This is nothing strange: I bring my life into my films, I work with individuals whose talents I appreciate in general. They share with me certain views, so it is indeed not surprising that I want to work with them on a continuous basis. On the other hand, we do not have identical tastes. The tastes of my father are not identical to mine. The same goes for my wife, who actually does not like comedies at all! And it is good that it is so, we need differences as well.

witnesses—  As you are aware, the topic of war has been preoccupying many Croatian directors in recent years, to the degree that we can speak of generational differences in the perception of the war, especially when it comes to the so called Young Croatian Film. You have also contributed to the pool of war films yourself, with your war trilogy that exploits different genres.

—  You have now said something that is making me pause for a second: you’ve mentioned a war trilogy. I guess you have in mind How the War Started on My Island, Witnesses, and Will Not End Here. I have actually never thought of these films as a trilogy, but now that you mention it, it is indeed intriguing that one film is a comedy, one is a drama/thriller, and the last one a romantic comedy with elements of tragedy. It’s a vast jump in terms of the genre and I made this jump completely unintentionally. I really had no grand plan, it just happened that way. My next film takes place again on an island, so, perhaps, there will be an island trilogy as well!

With regard to the war, the fact that I examine the last war through three different genres says that within myself I have different perspectives on the war. The war started when I was twenty-seven and lasted for four years. These are mature years when you can think about a problem in depth, but you are still young enough to have a defense mechanism that shields you against the evils that surround you. Maybe one day I will tackle war topics again, but I am pretty sure that for a while I would like to explore other things.

 In some of your films there are layers that can be directly associated with older Yugoslav—and also Serbian—authors such as Aleksandar Petrović and Slobodan Šijan, especially the function of Roma characters in their films. Even in your last film you use a Roma character in a comic manner, and he actually carries and organizes the narrative both as a character and a voice over.

tito's spirit—  Of course, Saša [Aleksandar] Petrović and his film It Rains in My Village (Biće skoro propast sveta, 1968) begins with three Romas singing the following lines: “The end of the world is coming, let it come, there’s nothing to lose” [Biće skoro propast sveta, nek’ propadne nije šteta]. I can’t think of a better opening for a film than these lines—in the first twenty seconds you learn everything about the director’s world view, it’s ingenious. So, of course, nothing is by chance. I like Petrović. And Šijan. For instance, in Marshal, one of the characters is called Miško and when he can no longer run, someone else tells him “Drive on, Miško“ (“Vozi Miško“). Šijan is definitively a part of the humor of the absurd, the surrealist type of humor which was a part of my growing up as well. He himself is under the influence of Monty Python, etc., etc. We grew, so to say, out of the same overcoat. I’ve never been shy in recognizing Šijan’s influence; on the contrary. His films make me feel good.

 In conjunction with Marshal: it’s a great film for watching but it also gives much substance for thinking, in particular regarding its historical aspect. You have a specific relation to history—in a very accessible, comical, but at the same time clever way you tell your viewers that our history is like the museum shown in your film, in which all the pictures are crooked or turned upside down, everything is chaotic and we haven’t really figured out how to organize this or what has been happening. This is particularly palpable when you show Tito’s figure. You use archival shots, speeches…

—  Marshal is a film which looks at our current attitude toward historical figures. I joked around and showed the development of communism retroactivelyI started with the period of transition and went backwards to the socialist revolution. This dramaturgical playfulness was very entertaining for me. I like history, at one point I even wanted to study it [at the University], so I feel a connection to historical themes. Now, the film was made in 1999. Our vision of history in that moment was like the ultimate circus and that was incredibly funny. So I tried to convey on film my perception of the way we relate to history and turn it into a comedy of the absurd.

 What were some of the formal challenges you faced or created for yourself in your films? For instance, the narrative structure of Witnesses is quite complex and it is not presented in the same way in Jurica Pavičić’s novel [Alabaster Sheep/Ovce od gipsa] on which the film is based. The novel is linear and chronological, so what was the reason for the departure? We have of course seen this type of approach, although rarely, in some other foreign films, but there it does not often have the ethical dimension it has in your film.

witnesses—  The motivation was indeed very simple: it was the question of truth and what the truth is. In the three stories that make up the film, I give pieces of the truth. It is possible to grasp the truth only at the end when all the puzzle pieces fall into place. This is my general stance towards the problemit’s necessary to perceive the whole truth, the guilt, the relationsin order to dissect our emotional response to it. This kind of thinking guided me in choosing that particular form. I wanted the viewer to develop his emotions and to have to flip them over and over again from one story to the next. In the first story, to remind you, I give indications that there was a witness to a war crime and that the witness was killed. In the second story I give indications that the witness is a girl and that she was killed. In the third story we learn that the relations between people are far more complex than one would think and that a brother may pull a gun on a brother. Thus I spin the viewer’s emotions, trying to pull him into the story precisely through this type of structure. I wouldn’t have been able to convey all of this through a different form. I was aware that if I told the story in a linear way, I would not succeed in triggering the catharsis in the viewer nor would I have been able to flip his emotions so suddenly and cause surprise.

The former evokes laughter and is generally received well, but after the screening of the latter, it is not unusual to have five minutes of silence before any reactions. The audiences, including student viewers, seem to pause upon watching this film and ask “What just happened here?” And then there is a realization that, when we need to explain why events took the course they did, it comes down to an individual and his conscience and actions. We are constantly told that an event happens because some other event triggers it, because of these or those circumstances that justify certain actions. This film puts forth the question of individual responsibility. What is your take on this reading of the film?

—  There is no aesthetics without ethics. I have never seen a piece of art which is strong aesthetically without containing an ethical component. Ethics is a constituent part of art and if it is not a part of artistic striving, then the piece is definitively not going to become art.

To come back again to your war trilogy, it appears that you force the viewer to examine him/herself. You toss him from one corner to another, be it comically, or through a thriller-like uncertainty, or through the emotional charge of a romantic narrative, making him constantly question his views and check the other side of the coin.

war on my island— In my films I always pose questions that I ask of myself. I make the viewer examine his position inasmuch as I ask myself to do the same. This is the only path that can lead us to answers or potential answers. Of course, here we come back again to the ethical component. For me it is essential, but at the same time I don’t set out to make a film by thinking how to convey this or that ethical dimension. I’ve never worked that way. The script either contains this dimension or it doesn’t, there’s no help there. If you as a spectator recognize it in my film, this will make me enormously happy.

In some systems or situations, as we know, too much re-examining is not a desirable quality. This was the case with some of your films, and they ended up caught in the arena of political discourse.

— Yes—and let them be a part of political discourse! I am from Croatia, which is a part of the Balkans. The key question in this part of the world is the question of individual freedom. Regardless of what your profession is. Every time I am about to make a film, I have to ask myself: how free am I going to be? Will I be free within the already established frameworks or will I try to push the line of freedom by some ten centimeters? Or maybe a meter, or two? But I tend to think, let’s push it at least for a bit. Whoever works in film and has managed to push the line of freedom, be it political, artistic, or some other type of freedom, does good things. I always have the need to push this line, although, of course, I can’t tell how much I have really succeeded. Now, whoever has this kind of need has to accept the fact that pushing the limits creates resistance on the other side. This is natural. I no longer get upset about this. Perhaps when I was younger, I would have gotten worked up, but now I am aware of these social moments. This is, after all, my decision. The point is that you push the limits, then there is a fuss over it, but it has happened and there is no going back. That is a good thing all around.

Since you are involved with some of the important film institutions in Croatia, we would like to touch on the technical question of distribution. Is there any hope that it may become easier to obtain Croatian titles, especially abroad, although even at home it is tricky if not impossible to get hold of some of the older films?

— A Portuguese poet once said that his native Portuguese language is a tomb for thoughts given that, in his view, nobody really cares to hear what is said in his language. And we are talking about Portuguese which is used by 230 million people! What should I say, I who speak Croatian! The problem here is that we make films in Croatian and, if it does not happen that a film makes it into important festivals such as Berlin where my film Witnesses was on the official programand is, as a result, available abroadthat film will not have a place for itself on the international scene. Simply put, an enormous quantity of films is made every year and the decision of what to buy and show is a delicate one for distributors. They, of course, do the simplest and easiest thing: they go to Cannes, to Berlin, to Venice, and that’s more or less that. This is not a problem unique to Croatia, but is true of world film in general. Of course, there are smaller film industries that we hear about, but it’s not an easy game and they need extraordinary films with generally recognizable human issues to make it.

Has an idea of making a film in English ever intrigued you?

war on my island—  I have had some interesting exchanges in the US. The idea was to have a remake of Witnesses done, but it would have been a story about the American-Iraqi war. In terms of the narrative, it’s plausible: two soldiers come back from the war for a friend’s funeral, they kill an American of Arabic background, etc. etc. so it’s doable. The problem was that in that moment the Americans could not see their soldiers as bad guys. This could still be seen from the situation with the relatively recent releases: The Hurt Locker [by Kathryn Bigelow] and Brian De Palma’s Redacted. De Palma’s film has disappeared, while Bigelow’s has all the Academy awards of the universe. De Palma asks some very serious and interesting questions and at the emotional level it is similar to Witnesses.

 Our next question concerns the attitude that the domestic audience has towards domestic films, which is not always positive or full of interest. With your How the War Started on My Island, you turned that attitude on its head, at least for a while.

— Well, film is primarily entertainment. You pay your ticket and you don’t want someone to beat your kidneys with an iron stick. People for the most part do not yearn for this kind of experience. Comedy is different and you have a different chance there. The three most watched domestic films of all times in Croatia are comedies [How the War Started on My Island, What Is a Man Without a Moustache, and Marshal]. Of course, you cannot build a serious film industry only on comedy; you need other topics, you need playing with the form, and so on. What Croatian cinema really needs is to have a domestic hit every two years which the general audience will recognize as its own, and that is not happening.

 But on the other hand, the last twenty years in Croatian film have brought about a big change at the aesthetic level, and the domestic film industry is beginning to show characteristics that set it apart.

—  I would agree and I personally like what I see in domestic film more and more. There are interesting authors and interesting films. It’s just that we need to do more to both bring the domestic viewer to the movie theaters and to make it to the important festivals. There are political factors as well, this region is becoming less interesting politically and filmmakers here have to start exploring new topics.

 Production questions loom large over the Croatian film industry. How do you address this problem? How do you produce your films?

will not end here—  Well, let’s take a specific example, my last film Will Not End Here. The funding came from the film fund of the Republic of Croatia, the city of Zagreb, Croatian Radiotelevision, the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Serbia (it was a Croatian-Serbian co-production), the city of Belgrade, Eurimages, and several sponsors who all contributed fairly modest amounts. The film ended up costing 1.5 million Euros, which is a typical budget for the region, while in other, western parts of Europe budgets tend to go to 7-9 million Euros because the costs are greater. If making a film here costs 1.4 million Euros, in Holland, for instance, it would cost 7 million Euros. So we do as best as we can.

 How much influence does a European producer have on the actual film?

—  That really depends on the producer. But, in general, in Europe the producer does not have the final cut. That is likely the biggest difference between how American and European movies are made. In Europe the final cut is the director’s. It is the director who raises funds based on his name, on the script, and on the concept of the entire project. So it is logical that final decisions tend to be in the hands of the director. Now, of course, there are diverse producers and some exert a greater, some a lesser influence. I did my last three films, and probably will do the current one, with Interfilm and producer Ivan Maloča. He is a person who likes film very much and, consequently, his production remarks are often also relevant in terms of dramaturgy.

 The question of your favorite directors is inevitable. Who do you look up to?

—  In Croatia definitively Krsto Papić. In the region, as I mentioned earlier, Saša Petrović, Slobodan Šijan, Žika Pavlović, and then even more broadly, Fellini as a Mediterranean kindred spirit. Definitively Coppola and his Godfather. This is just to scratch the surface, it’d be hard to mention all the favorites here.

 Could you describe your method of work, literally, the “hands-on process?” For instance, we know that Polanski is obsessive in terms of managing details. At the other end of the spectrum we have Mike Leigh who gives his actors a character and simply tells them to live with the character for a while and figure it out. What is your style? How do you come up with the openings such as in Witnesses where the first shot lasts for a full six minutes?

witnesses—  Well, I am not a great supporter of exhibitionism which is in the nature of long shots such as the one you mention from Witnesses. I prefer when the director is a bit more hidden. But we had a different problem in that particular film. It takes place mostly in dark interiors, through close-ups, and closed situations. I had to somehow open up the film so that the viewer feels a certain amount of energyand a long shot like that does bring exactly thatthe camera goes from the square through a window inside a house, pans over the dead body, goes out through the other window, you have an atmosphere of wind, empty streets, three conspicuous characters, and so on, and you know immediately [as a viewer] that there will be some hustle there. On the other hand, I needed that shot for the formal reasons as well, so that I could point that this was going to be a story that will follow different people through whom we would get a complex structure. Such types of shots are prohibitively expensive in the production sense and demanding of the crew, but we really needed it here. I was aware that I had to open the film with a tense scene which would continue growing in order for the viewer to be able to sustain all the anxiety, silences, and questions that ensue. So this opening shot is the initial push to the viewer, so to say, something that draws him deeply into the story. But this is an exception; generally I tend to remain more hidden as a director.

To answer your question in full, I need to add that I usually have lengthy discussions with my collaborators on the film. We discuss all the details, each shot, lights, sets, and so on, since all needs to be in the function of our ultimate goal. But I am not a person who micromanages, my experience simply tells me that if I have creative people on the set and if I start limiting their creativity with my demands, I will reduce their contribution to the scope of my creativity. As a result, the film will be whatever my creativity has produced and not a sum of the combined creativity of all the people who have worked on the film. This also concerns the actors. Naturally, I choose outstanding artists and then we discuss the character type, the emotions s/he has to generate and in which moment, but I do this for a few days and later on there is generally not much need to intervene. The actor ultimately ends up knowing more about a given character than I do. You essentially set the foundations and watch the whole thing build, hoping that ultimately things will continue standing upright and function. This aspect, for me, is what brings the greatest satisfaction in directing.

Introduction by Gordana P. Crnković; interview translated by Aida Vidan


1] A review of Brešan’s war trilogy is included in this issue; for a more extensive earlier discussion of his cinema see Gordana P. Crnković’s “The Battle for Croatia: Three Films by Vinko Brešan,” in Democratic Transition in Croatia: Value Transformation, Education & Media, eds. Sabrina P. Ramet and Davorka Matić (Texas A & M University Press: College Station, 2007).