Karl Markovics Interview

Breathing is the distinguished directorial debut from Karl Markovics, a man more famous for his work in front of the camera rather than behind. The Austrian born actor took time out of his busy schedule to talk to Soundbite Culture about his new direction, his most famous acting role and what lies next in store for him.

Soundbite Culture: What made you want to write about a character who has to come to terms with his part in someone’s death?

Karl Markovics: All my stories I ever developed until now deal with empathy and trying to communicate with another person, either by language or with gestures. Giving him or her the respect that you acknowledge their presence on earth. I think Breathing has much to do with that, because my lead character develops the capability to find words for what has happened to him. In a way, he learns to speak for a second time; he learns to put his thoughts and his memories into words, to express them.

SC: How did you go about creating the environment for Breathing?

KM: When I write a scene I first have to almost exactly visualise where the scene happens; the surrounding environment, the things in the room, how the room smells, how it sounds. Is it a big room, is it a small room? This is from my work as an actor, I have to know who I am, where I am and what is going on.

I try to get this perfect in my head. If I have this then the people in the scene come to life and they act in a more or less believable way. And as soon as I believe them, I write it down. So they make a sort of audition for me in my head. Sometimes I say, “No, I don’t believe this, what you offer me is really poor.” And sometimes I say, “Wow!”

I have to know my characters as well as possible, and if I can really see them, hear them and listen to them, then they come to life.

SC: The swimming pool images in particular are gorgeous, what inspired these?

KM: I saw it clearly when I first made up the pool scenes. The idea came from research in the original youth detention centre where I discovered that they had a swimming pool, these scenes weren’t in the script. I had had the idea of running in the yard, but when I saw the pool I took it for my script.

Water became a new element for the story, and I set these three scenes at the beginning, middle and the end; to see Roman’s situation in relation to the others, the rest of the characters, and the outside world.

Soon after I had this idea I knew what these scenes should look like, especially the last one, where the others get into contact with him again.

And it became even more clear when talking to my DP [Director of Photography]. We worked for five weeks before we started shooting. We met every day and spoke about every single scene and every single shot. That was when we developed the look of the film and this image, with just the legs and Roman lying on the bottom of the pool.

SC: You obviously had a very close relationship with your Director of Photography Martin Gschlacht. I suppose this reinforces what a collaboration the process of directing is.

KM: Yes, definitely, with every single department. Costume, lighting and of course make-up. In the case of all the corpses we had to create they were “extras” of course. Directing is really the most wonderful job one can imagine, to work with so many creative people to invent a small world which works, which we try to make as perfect as possible. To make other people believe in this world, our world.

And of course it’s all made up, it’s all invented. Because if you look ten inches to the right or left you see a prop or a microphone and so on. It’s fascinating making movies.

SC: I’ve read that the lead character of Roman didn’t even feature in your original story for Breathing?

KM: No, there was just an idea about the general situation where I would set the story. I wanted to make an “everyday life” story, a socially realistic story about workers in a mortuary… which was no story actually, just an idea. And then Roman appeared.

SC: And with mortuary workers dealing with death in a matter-of-fact way?

KM: Right, and dealing with death not in a metaphysical or religious way, but in a very practical way. When you are dead there is a corpse and you have to do something with it, you cannot just leave it there. It’s a job.

SC: And then the character of Roman appeared.

KM: Right, and I didn’t know what to do with this young guy. What does he want? He didn’t tell me anything, that was the problem. He was this taciturn character, standing around looking. I saw that he needs something, he wants something, but he doesn’t tell me anything; just as he is when we see him for the first time in the movie. We ask ourselves “What’s going on?”, and he says “Mmm… yeah”. That’s all.

SC: The bare minimum.

KM: Yeah.

SC: Did you have a picture of Thomas Schubert in your head when you were developing this idea of Roman?

KM: No, I had a very clear picture while I was writing, which was completely different to what Thomas looks like. But I didn’t mind when I saw Thomas acting. It was completely obvious that he would play the role and now I can not imagine anyone else. When writing I need a very clear image of everything, but I can change it when there are practical needs; when it’s obvious that I should adjust it.

SC: And casting an untrained actor, you were sure about that?

KM: Yes, I knew that he had to be eighteen. I knew that I would not find an actor with experience who is eighteen. You would just find a beginner from an acting school or something like that. And I thought, “Well, before I look there, I shall just look everywhere. In the street, go to schools, and just look for guys who would like to play in a movie.”

I was hoping to find a guy who maybe has never thought about becoming an actor, but deep inside him there is something he would never have told, even to his best friend. A hidden secret perhaps even from himself, that he wouldn’t dare to say, “I would love to be on stage or a movie star, but I don’t dare because maybe everyone would laugh.”

And Thomas was the one. He told me he had never thought to become an actor, but I was sure that deep inside there was something there that not even he was aware of.

SC: It’s astonishing because he is utterly believable, there isn’t a trace of acting.

KM: Right, and this is very special because to have the courage to do it like he does you have to be very self-assured. And what of course was very flattering for me was that he trusted me absolutely. I knew that I could have demanded everything from him, and he would have done it. He trusted that I would not demand anything that would hurt him or be bad for him. He had enormous confidence in me, and I had it in him. This was the basis for our work.

SC: I cannot finish without talking about your leading role in The Counterfeiters. Did you have any sense of the impact this film might make when you were shooting it?

KM: It was completely clear for all of us that we were working on something very special, so it was no real surprise. Often you just do your job, but not in this case. It was something really very special, every single person felt it and you don’t have that so often. But on the other hand we weren’t thinking about it while working, because work was the gift itself. We were experiencing “success” every day.

SC: So, what’s next for you?

KM: At the moment I am working on my next script. I hope to finish it this year. And maybe next year I would love to start shooting it.

Interview by Malcolm Newton

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