The deep blue sea can be a symbol of both hope and tragedy, as evidenced by Swiss writer-director Marc Wilkins’ Bon Voyage, one of ten live action shorts in the running for the Oscar.

Produced by Joël Jent (Dschoint Ventschr Filmproduction), Bon Voyage follows a wealthy Swiss couple, Jonas (Stefan Gubser) and Silvia (Annelore Sorbach), as they sail across the Mediterranean sea. Their holiday, however, takes a dramatic turn when they encounter an overloaded Syrian refugee boat. A conflict immediately ensues between the Syrians, who see Jonas and Silvia’s yacht as way to Europe, and the sailing couple, who fear the consequences of assisting the refugees.

The 21-minute short has already been honoured with numerous accolades worldwide, including Best Narrative Short at the San Diego Film Festival and Best Live Action Short Over 15 Minutes at the Palm Springs International ShortFest.

Shot off the coast of Antalya, Turkey, Bon Voyage is one of most gripping cinematic experiences of the year and features some of the most haunting scenes set in the open sea; Wilkins, a celebrated commercial director, explores a deeply relevant issue in today’s world with nuance, compassion and sincerity.

Ahead of the Oscar nominations announcement, I spoke to Wilkins about the real-life inspiration behind his story, the challenges of shooting in the middle of the sea, and the importance of creating morally complex characters.


ScreenPicks: You have a background in directing commercials, music videos and short films. Who are the filmmakers that influence you in your work?

Wilkins: The first name which comes into my mind is Roman Polanski. I think Roman Polanski is my favourite filmmaker. I think early Wim Wenders, the German director. Paris, Texas, for example, is a film which had a very big influence on my life and on my work. Today, in a more mainstream world, I really like what Paul Greengrass is doing just from his storytelling technique. They are very different to each other — Polanski, Wenders and Greengrass — but this is where those three guys meet. This is the kind of cinema I want to make.

ScreenPicks: Many filmmakers find inspiration and ideas from their own lives. Just like the characters in this film, you’re also a sailor. Can you talk about what inspired the story and how much of it was borrowed from your own experiences?

Wilkins: Yeah, it’s utterly important for me to make stories which are coming from my heart. I don’t believe that I could tell a good story if I am not personally connected to the story. I am a passionate sailor. The only tattoo I have is an anchor on my ankle, not because it’s hip, because the ocean, sailing, traveling by wind, is, after filmmaking, my greatest passion. I was always attracted to the water, and for me, the water — a lake or an ocean — was a place of freedom, inspiration and beauty.

Six years ago, when me and some friends were preparing to cross the Atlantic, we were on the Canary Islands, in front of Africa, which belonged to Spain, so they’re actually a European territory. We were there to prepare a sailing yacht for this Atlantic crossing, and we were discussing how much wine do we need on this cruise and would ham get bad on this long cruise up shore. These were our kind of luxury problems, and this where I heard for the first time about refugees leaving the land in very tiny little fishing boats out into the Atlantic, to try to reach Gran Canaria, to reach Spanish or European territory. This felt so weird to me.

Maybe my normal life is too much in order, and this is why I’m seeking adventure and challenge, while other people do the same for opposite reasons. Their lives are reckoned and they’re forced to leave in tiny little boats, which are totally not seaworthy, to go out in sea and quite often die, starve to death, dehydrate, or just sink or get lost in the Atlantic Ocean. It really made me think: How can we, the privileged, wealthy world, be afraid of people who are so underprivileged?

So I wrote the first idea for the story down back then. I thought it was going to be a feature film, a long movie I’m going to shoot one day, but then the situation in Europe became more and more crazy. Thousands of people died in the Mediterranean sea. The Mediterranean sea is a holiday destination. It’s a paradise beach. But suddenly this holiday destination turned into a mass grave. Instead of worrying how we can help, how we can stop it, we started to discuss how we can make sure that they don’t reach our borders. This just created so much pain in my heart, in a way that I wanted to tell a story immediately.


ScreenPicks: Although you’re a sailor, it’s still a big risk to make a film out in the sea. What was the biggest challenge with shooting on boats and in the Mediterranean?

Wilkins: People really say that to shoot in the open water is the worst place for filmmakers because you cannot predict anything. It’s very dangerous and challenging, but it was very necessary, to really shoot at sea, not somewhere in a safe bay or some calm waters. I really want the audience in their theatre seat to experience the hostility and the brutality of the true open water. I think the way the waves look, and how the sun is reflected on the water, and the colour of the water, looks different if you’re out at sea. I got the support from my producer to do that, to make it possible to really go out into the open water every day.

The first day was the worst; most of the crew got really seasick, and we had people crying and vomiting. But everyone was so passionate about the story, and everyone in my crew wanted to tell the story, so people were really forcing themselves to get over their seasickness. After three days of shooting, we really became a little Navy SEAL team, and it went very well in the end. But the beginning was the very challenging for many different reasons: We had to adjust our shooting schedule to the weather, to the wind, to the height of the waves.

The night scenes — the discovery of the refugee boats, for example — the extras who were playing the refugees were all people who were familiar with the sea. They were all fishermen and divers, but somehow, being out there by this packed little fishing boat at night, they all panicked. I mean, our safety measures were amazing: We had three rescue Zodiacs, we had a team of rescue swimmers, and each of the extras was wearing a wetsuit under their costumes. Each of them had a little flashlight in their sleeves. In case they would fall in the water, they would have a light to signal where they are. And we had a water stunt coordinator really take care of this. 

You can imagine it would be the most terrible thing for a filmmaker to injure or lose someone on a film set. I think I was only able to shoot a third of the shots, and this real mutiny took place, because one of the extras spread a rumour that we really want to sink their ship and film how they’re fighting and struggling with their lives, which was, of course, not right. So I went on board of the refugee boat to prove that we are not gonna sink their boat. I got into a costume and to be part of the people on their boat, but it couldn’t really calm them down.

ScreenPicks: What I really appreciated is that none of the characters were painted with simple strokes. You understood each side’s needs and wants, even if how they approached things didn’t always seem morally right at the time. How important is it to show these complexities in the characters?

Wilkins: It was very important that there’s no black and white, that it’s not a moral film with a raised index finger, saying, “Hey, hey, hey.” It was very important for me that the audience is finding its own position in the story. My idea was that the audience were a kind of pendulum between being on the side of the scared Swiss sailors, then on the side of the refugees, and then taking sides with the sailors again. Is a very complex question: What do you do if you are on a boat? Doesn’t matter how great your yacht is, but if you’re confronted with a ship which has much more people than would actually fit onto your boat, which is tougher for some countries in Europe.


ScreenPicks: As you touched on earlier, the Mediterranean Sea represents different things for each of these people. For Jonas and Silvia, it’s their idea of paradise and their holiday destination. But for the refugees, it’s this dangerous zone that they’re willing to overcome in order to find freedom. What do you hope audiences take away from that contrast?

Wilkins: I want to make films which are questions. I don’t want to make films that are answers. I want to make films which are giving an exciting cinematic experience to the audience, films that are resonating in the people’s minds after they leave the cinema. I hope that people who see the film will think about their own privilege, their own position and question themselves: How would each of us do in a situation like this?

We were lucky that the film had quite a festival run, and I tried to go to as many as possible. It’s so important for me to feel the audience and to hear their feedback. It was really interesting that the audience were torn between the two positions. Some people even between Jonas and Silvia and the refugees’ position. This is exactly what I wanted. I wanted people to be torn and to find their own position.

ScreenPicks: In terms of the production aspect of it, you launched a Kickstarter campaign in November of 2015. Within a month you were able to raise over 50K. Would you consider using Kickstarter again for the future?

Wilkins: I think it’s very wonderful for a film to be crowdfunded, not just because it’s a nice way to raise the funds, but it’s just wonderful to create a big group of people behind a film, who are all passionate about the story, which a filmmaker wants to tell. This is still today very wonderful to see how, I think, 280 backers of Kickstarter are behind the story of Bon Voyage. I think it is a very wonderful tool to raise funds, but it’s a lot of work. [laughs] By far the biggest, the most massive crowdfunding platform, but it’s also the most difficult one to stick out, to get attention, because there are so many projects on it. I think Kickstarter is the most professional and the godfather of crowdfunding. I think in the future I may go to a smaller and more personal crowdfunding platform.

ScreenPicks: You’re not new to awards recognition. For instance, I just looked at your site, and at Cannes alone you’ve won a Golden Lion and you were also recognized as one of the top new directors. And now your film, Bon Voyage, is one of ten contenders for the Best Live Action Short Oscar. What does this achievement mean to you?

Wilkins: I hope that this recognition will help me move forward with my future projects. It’s a strange feeling. I’m really grateful, and really happy for two reasons: One is that I want this story to be heard; I want the big audience to think about the contrast between sailing yachts and refugee boats, and this shortlist raises much more attention towards Bon Voyage. And I’m very grateful for that, and I hope this will make even more people see the film. 

But the other thing is that I am just starting my career as a filmmaker. I did a lot of commercials for 17 years. I was directing commercials, and it was a beautiful time: I learned a lot. I saw the world. I was very privileged to do very interesting projects from Shanghai to Los Angeles, Buenos Aires to Moscow. But I was always dreaming of creating cinema. I’m preparing different stories, and I have a whole stack of prepared projects which I am burning to get into action.


All ten live action short finalists are listed below.

Bon Voyage, Marc Wilkins, director, and Joël Jent, producer (Dschoint Ventschr Filmproduction)

Ennemis Intérieurs, Sélim Azzazi, director (Qualia Films)

Graffiti, Lluís Quílez, director (Participant Media, Euphoria Productions and Ainur Films)

La Femme et le TGV, Timo von Gunten, director (arbel gmbh)

Nocturne in Black, Jimmy Keyrouz, director (Columbia University)

The Rifle, the Jackal, the Wolf and the Boy, Oualid Mouaness, director (Tricycle Logic)

Silent Nights, Aske Bang, director, and Kim Magnusson, producer (M & M Productions)

Sing (Mindenki), Kristof Deák, director (Meteor Filmstudio)

Timecode, Juanjo Giménez, director (Nadir Films)

The Way of Tea (Les Frémissements du Thé), Marc Fouchard, director, and Matthieu Devillers, producer (Existenz, BlackBox and P904)

The nominees for the 89th Academy Awards will be announced on Tuesday, January 14, 2017.

(All photos are courtesy of Dschoint Ventschr AG.)