Interview: Timo von Gunten Talks About ‘La Femme et le TGV’
An Oscar could soon be in the future for 27-year-old Timo von Gunten. La Femme et le TGV, which he wrote, edited and directed, is one of this year’s finalists for Best Live Action Short.
The 30-minute film stars Jane Birkin as a woman who lives a quiet but joyful life in a two-story home situated by the train tracks. With only a pet bird as her companion, and her son gone from the nest, Elise Lafontaine continues her family’s tradition of gleefully greeting the express train that passes her house on mornings and evenings. One day, however, something changes her routine. A gift is waiting in her garden. It is a letter of appreciation from the train’s conductor. And thus begins a romantic new correspondence between two unlikely pen pals.
Timo, who has earned Audiences Awards from festivals in Sapporo, Indiana and Zurich, excels in a heartwarming little tale about a woman who finds delight in the simple things in life. And in the leading role of Elise Lafontaine, her first in three years, Birkin brings an endearing charm on screen that will touch audiences as equally as it has for the passengers of the TGV.
Ahead of the much-anticipated nominations announcement, I had the chance to talk to the Swiss filmmaker about directing a ’60s icon, the challenges of shooting in an active train station, and finding the beauty in all things old-fashioned.
ScreenPicks: One of the interesting things I found while reading your website is that you never went to film school. It’s such a debatable topic, but many filmmakers have proven that you don’t need that path to be successful, and you’re certainly one of them. What was your way of learning about filmmaking?
Timo: It started very early just with a miniDV camera of my parents. I just started shooting around, documenting trips. But when the cinematic impact came in, it was a few years later when I discovered editing. And so I got this editing software for a PC. I started realizing what impact editing has and what it can bring to narration. That’s really when I started going into fictional storytelling. It was about 13 years I did my first short film; it got a third prize at a small film festival in Switzerland, and that really helped to keep me going.
ScreenPicks: This film was inspired by the true story of a woman from Bern named Sonja Schmid. Can you talk about her story, and why it inspired you?
Timo: She lives in this isolated house next to the train tracks. Trains are passing by every day, and she just started this habit with her son, with her kids, waving at these trains. What inspired me was the longing for something unreachable, the issue of generations being stuck in one place, time flying by so quickly and the modern age going by so fast. Even though I’m still quite young, I was fascinated by this issue of an elderly woman and because I think we’re all in the same boat. It affects all of us — how technology changes, and how you sometimes become lonely. I think solitude is one of the topics many of my films entail. After reading that article, I was like, “I really have to make a short film about this. This could be great.”
ScreenPicks: Were there any films or filmmakers that specifically inspired this short?
Timo: A huge inspiration for me has been Amélie for many, many years. I guess you can kind of see that in le TGV a little bit, that it’s an inspiration. However, like the style of TGV, it’s a little bit like a fairy tale and so are many of my short films. I keep drifting off towards fairy tales. So yeah, I mean, on one hand, of course, I have my Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Wes Anderson, which I love, but then again I try to put on my own stamp as a director.
ScreenPicks: You join a list of legendary directors, such as Antonioni, Godard and Richard Lester, who have gotten to direct Jane Birkin. How did you get this iconic star to join the film?
Timo: First of all, I had to write a screenplay that was emotional, touching. I have a very good friend, a casting director and acting coach in London, who helped me to pass on the script to Jane’s agent. What I didn’t know, of course, and I was quite lucky — I have to admit that — the topic of solitude resonates so much with her. She just fell in love with the story. She called me up and said wants to do it. However, the funny thing was, first she said, “I want to do it, but I can’t because I’m not supposed to ride bicycles anymore.” And as you know, the film has loads of biking scenes.
So first I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to lose Jane because of that. We chose a 20-year-old stunt double to do the bike scenes, and then she got convinced that she can do it without that. Working with Jane was quite an extraordinary experience because she has this inner beauty still kept alive. She’s quite fragile but very, very truthful. That’s what’s really great about her.
ScreenPicks: Every film naturally comes with its challenges. What was your biggest challenge when making this film, and how were you able to overcome it?
Timo: All films, I guess, the biggest challenge is time, getting all that material into the few days. For this 30-minute film, we only had seven days to shoot. I think that was definitely one of the biggest challenges, but in terms of shooting, I think it was the TGV trains because we shot with real trains. They weren’t organized for the shooting; we just had to wait till they arrived. We were not even allowed to cross the train tracks, so we had to plan it really well.
The one day we had of shooting in front of the house of Elise Lafontaine, we had to get prepared with all the cameras, of all the different angles, because I knew we only had two trains a day and these two trains had to be enough for all the films passing the little house throughout the film. So I think that was one of the biggest and also a kind of dangerous challenges. With these high-speed trains, and the crew all around them, you have to create that security, that no accident occurs.
Also, one of the trickiest train scenes is at the train station, at the end, with all the commuters and the station, because, as before, with the train tracks, they couldn’t shut down the station. We were shooting in the middle of a running station still. We got a TGV there, and what was quite funny, I said, “Action!” and the TGV left. I said, “Cut!” and the TGV came back just for us. So we had this 30-minute time slot we could use the TGV. That was super stressful and very tricky.
ScreenPicks: As you mentioned earlier, you wanted to highlight this disconnect between the older generation and the current generation. So although the Internet is our major source of communication in today’s world, what I found interesting was that Elise still prefers to communicate by writing letters on her typewriter. It certainly has a romanticism and novelty to it that I don’t think emails can really achieve. What appeals you to this more old-fashioned style of communication?
Timo: I just think it’s kind of romantic in a way and filmic as well. It has so much heart in it. It’s sexier for a film to have a typewriter and see the actual letters with ink on that paper. It just feels so much natural and heartfelt to me than a digital stream. Things I don’t know, that aren’t common to me in every day life, are just so much more exciting. So my next film will also be in the past and not today. Maybe this shines through with me personally not having a smart phone. I’ve endured for now, and hopefully will for the years to come. Besides, it’s the most beautiful thing not to receive emails and notifications all the time.
With all the emails we write every day, I’m not sure how much more we actually do achieve. If you look at other generations, they did amazing things and they didn’t have email and the modern technology. If you think of what this technology brings us, which is absolutely amazing, we should all be kind of geniuses at what we do. But I feel like we haven’t really become much better. It’s just this huge density of information that you’re even trying to keep off, to concentrate on what you really want to do.
ScreenPicks: You also explore themes of longing for something beyond our reach, failing to appreciate what we have, and finding romance in unexpected times and places. Having screened the film in many festivals now, what have audiences resonated with the most?
Timo: I think it’s trying to reach out for something that’s unreachable, then in the end, you realize that a similar thing you’re looking for is right in front of you. It’s also a story of adaption in a way. The elderly woman adapting herself for a modern world and letting that love in but from somewhere else. Also, the younger generation accepting her again. I think this is really the touching topic that resonates within the audiences around the world because that feeling of solitude, and that longing for something, exists in all countries. It’s not really a topic of just Switzerland. Basically, everybody can identify him or herself with these themes.
ScreenPicks: Along with surpassing over 100 eligible films, your film is one of only two shorts from Switzerland that are in the running for the Best Live Action Short Oscar. What does this achievement mean to you?
Timo: It makes me and my entire crew very proud, and it’s kind of scary to suddenly be in these ranks of filmmakers. I feel very fortunate and happy, and let’s see where that journey continues to.
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 BMC Films.)
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