Monday, September 26, 2011

URBAN EXPLORER (2011)—The Evening Class Interview With Director Andy Fetscher & Writer / Producer Oliver Thau

Andy Fetscher's German thriller Urban Explorer (2011) [official site] boasted its North American premiere at the 15th edition of Montreal's Fantasia Film Festival, where festival publicist Jean Grégoire arranged for me to meet with Fetscher and his writer-producer Oliver Thau at The Irish Embassy Pub. As Urban Explorer advances to its U.S. premiere at Austin's Fantastic Fest, now seemed a perfect opportunity to transcribe the Fantasia conversation.

Eljan Tomek writes in his mini biography for IMDb: "Andy Fetscher is a German-Romanian director, writer and cinematographer. In his teenage years he shot his first movies as PR stunts for a satirical magazine that he published with friends, though they were censored for containing graphic violence, sex, and crude language. At the age of 19 he worked as a freelance photographer and journalist for a picture agency in Germany. From 2001 to 2007 he studied cinematography and directing at the Ludwigsburg Film Academy, where he began to make a name for himself with a number of short movies such as
Peste la Bucharesti (2004) and Kingdom of the Youth (2005). In most of his pictures, in addition to directing, Andy has taken on multiple production roles including camera work, editing, and sound design. He graduated film school with his first full length horror feature Bucharest Flesh which has been invited to numerous festivals, including Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival and Germany's highly acclaimed Hofer Filmtage. The Berlin-style horror thriller Urban Explorer is his first co-production with America."

My Fantasia experience of
Urban Explorer was heightened for being in the company of Variety film critic Robert Koehler. This afforded the chance to gain a firsthand sense of Koehler's critical practice and how he times his films and notates impressions. His subsequent review for Variety proved favorable: "Fetscher avoids the temptation to push the situation into an exercise in torture porn—an option he easily could have gone for—while nevertheless ratcheting up the horror. Indeed, his one-man-band combination of direction, lensing and editing proves crucial, displaying a balance of craft and patience in building layers of suspense under a horrific setting that goes beyond any urban explorer's worst nightmare."

At, Scott Weinberg gave high marks to Urban Explorer's "intangible components like tone, style, and intensity" but expressed irritation with what he perceived to be a lazy script that failed to flesh out its characterizations.

Myself, I found
Urban Explorer a satisfying thriller. Grating, tense, nailbiting, Urban Explorer skillfully employs Berlin's underground tunnels to achieve a claustrophobic mise en scène. The central villainy of Klaus Stiglmeier is a horror to behold.

[This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary.]

* * *

Michael Guillén: Andy, Urban Explorer is your second feature?

Andy Fetscher: It's my first movie after film school where my graduate thesis film was a long-feature horror movie Bucharest Flesh. My professors and the headmaster of the school were against it, but even so I did it, which earned me some enemies. On the other hand it gave me the chance to meet Oliver Thau and the others who produced
Urban Explorer, which has helped me get my foot in the door of genre movies.

Guillén: You've always wanted to make genre films?

Fetscher: Not exactly. I have two selves living within my chest that I've tried to combine in my films.
Urban Explorer is a genre piece with a commercial approach, of course; but, if you watch my student film Bucharest Flesh, it's more an arthouse horror love fairy tale; but, the bottom line is to entertain audiences and I love creeping out audiences with horror. Once you combine horror with arthouse elements or explore political issues the film achieves a higher level.

Guillén: What some call "elevated genre"?

Fetscher: Yes, I'm interested in both.

Guillén: Oliver, where arthouse cinema might receive some government backing as an effort to promote a national cinema, would the same financial backing be available for genre? Within Germany, specifically, are there national subsidies for genre filmmaking?

Oliver Thau: Absolutely not. For art house, yes, but for genre, no. Definitely we get no funding in Germany if we want to make this kind of movie, unless you cast one of the two best-known German actors and they have powerful connections. Otherwise you get no support if you're a genre filmmaker. Since we knew that, we didn't even try to get money through those channels, which involves investing a lot of time filling out paper work, often for nothing. We decided to look elsewhere for funding.

Guillén: What motivated you and your production company Papermoon Film to become involved in producing Urban Explorer in the first place?

Thau: We wanted to make a genre film and were talking to talent and Andy came recommended to us through the head of his school. I watched
Bucharest Flesh and then Andy and I met to talk about what we could possibly do. The idea for Urban Explorer developed from scratch. But Papermoon Film doesn't only produce genre films. We produce other kinds of films. We don't want to be put into a box as a production company who only makes genre films. We like to make them because—as we said earlier—they're commercial; but, we like making other films as well, and if those films receive national funding, we'll take the funding.

Fetscher: Within Germany there are certain filmic approaches or narrative plots that nearly guarantee you will receive government money.

Guillén: Which is what interests me. What kinds of films would Germany be willing to subsidize in order to internationally promote a national image of Germany? What is the "master plot" in Germany these days?

Fetscher: It's difficult to answer your question without a sense of irony because, of course, some of the movies that get funded by the government are great movies. They're usually post-WWII dramas or at least serious dramas.

Thau: Yes, serious. Usually, your main character is revealed to have cancer, loses his family, and loses his job.

Fetscher: Or you have little African children seeking orientation within Germany and looking for a family. It's easy to get money for a story like that. Papermoon Film and myself are both interested in a lot of different kinds of stories but we don't want to fall into that pattern. We basically want to make good pictures and if we can get government subsidies for that, good; but, it's not the main reason we make movies.

Thau: Though it's difficult otherwise to make movies in Germany. You have to keep in mind that 90% of German films are government-supported movies and they don't have to care if a movie is commercial or not. If it's well-received, okay. If it's not well-received, you don't lose anything as a filmmaker because the money for the film has come from the government. We, on the other hand, vie for private equity. We have to take care that the film will do well commercially because, otherwise, it becomes our problem and we won't be able to make movies again.

Guillén: So, again, this is where genre necessarily comes into play in insuring that a film reaches past its national boundaries to achieve an international reception since the tropes of genre traffic well and communicate globally.

Thau: Absolutely.

Fetscher: That makes me think of something funny. I know arthouse directors who feel offended or insulted if you really understand their movies. They want their films to be so arthouse that you cannot decipher the films.

Guillén: They want them to be impenetrable?

Fetscher: Yes.

Guillén: And isn't that silly? [Laughs.]

Fetscher: It's so much silly, yeah.

Guillén: So how do you Oliver, as the producer, convince international investors to take a chance with genre?

Thau: First, we talk with national companies: DVD companies for example who have specific markets that support this kind of genre film. A film gets attached in advance to a DVD company, which is what happened with Andy's first film
Bucharest Flesh and that company also wanted to be involved with Urban Explorer but they ran out of money so we lost their financing and had to turn elsewhere. Having been a buyer for a distribution company, I said, "Let's go international." The whole structure of Urban Explorer was intentionally international. The approach was international. We had an international team. We wanted to shoot in English. We didn't want to shoot in German, which would limit the possibility of selling the film world-wide. Then we went to people we knew in Los Angeles to help us seek out the right partner to solicit international funding. For Urban Explorer, the money came from outside into Germany.

Guillén: Speaking of distribution, I'm aware you have distribution in Germany this Fall. But do you have U.S. distribution yet? Urban Explorer seems a perfect candidate for Lionsgate. Have you approached them?

Thau: That's not our job. From the beginning the film was in the hands of a world sales company. That was a requirement for us. We needed someone to sell the picture. So they're in talks with a couple of companies but we don't make these decisions. I know they've sold the film to Anchor Bay in Britain and to the biggest distribution firm in Germany.

Fetscher: We wanted to wait to premiere at Fantasia because, in my opinion, it is the most important genre festival in North America. Genre comes from America in a way so we wanted to wait for this festival and then find the right distribution partner for the U.S.

Guillén: Let's speak about your Fantasia experience. How did you find your Fantasia premiere and your audience? You admitted when you took the stage to address your audience that you were trembling?

Fetscher: I'm always trembling! That lies in the nature of directing. When you show movies to a public, you have to tremble in a way. It's moreorless normal. But I loved showing
Urban Explorer at Fantasia because their audience doesn't conceal their emotions. They shout and applaud if they like something. Their enthusiasm added a special flair to our premiere and provided me a special experience because, of course, I love watching the audience watching my movie.

Guillén: Let's discuss your sound design. The dripping of the water and the scraping of metal on concrete effectively rattled my nerves and added incredible intensity to the film.

Fetscher: I'm really into sound. Some people don't believe it because I'm doing the cinematography as well, but sound is as important to me as the visuals. I've done the sound design for all my films, except for
Bucharest Flesh where I hired someone professional. With Urban Explorer I started working on the sound design from the first day I began editing. I love it. I love creating an atmosphere with a small cluster of sounds and getting to the right emotion by leaving behind every unnecessary sound. For the sound at the end of the film, we had a great team from Germany who helped with the mixing, and I had a wonderful supervising sound editor Nigel Holland, and a great foley artist Joo Fürst. I had so much fun working with them on the sound and on the music as well because in horror films sound design and music meld together. The film's composer Steven Schwalbe is a good friend of mine. I tend to work with him and will work with him on my next project as well.

Guillén: As the cinematographer, did you use synchronized sound or was sound added in post-production, or a combination of both?

Fetscher: Most of the sound design is post-production. Some of it is on set.

Guillén: For me non-synchronic sound is an art house touch.

Fetscher: That might be true, yes, because in a way you use sound to make a film more unrealistic, weird or film-like.

Guillén: I presume you filmed in HD?

Fetscher: Yes.

Guillén: So, again, I presume you had a small crew? How many people worked with you on set, that is to say in these confined off-limit environments?

Fetscher: We had a crew of about five to eight people. The environments were tiny and sometimes we had to literally run away from authorities or policemen so the smaller the team was, the easier it was to get away.

Guillén: During your Q&A, you talked about being arrested. Can you repeat that story?

Fetscher: I badly needed a P.O.V. shot from down on the subway tracks with the train approaching, but we didn't have the allowance on this particular day to shoot on the subway tracks so I snuck down with my assistant director Peter Fuchs. It was okay at first because nobody saw us, not even the passengers on the platform, but then we had a flashlight to light the scene and the flashlight beam dazzled the engine driver who stopped the subway car in the middle of the tunnel. We tried to hide. We heard the police on the platform so we couldn't go back that way. We thought about running all the way through the tunnel to the next station but that would have cost us too much time so we tried our luck with the platform but the police caught us. They arrested us and my assistant director and I had to spend one night in custody so we lost one day of shooting.

Guillén: Will there not be any legal repercussions with German authorities identifying locations deemed off-limits that you used guerrilla-style in your film?

Fetscher: Maybe in Germany but hopefully not here. [Laughs.] The beginning of the movie is about finding the "Fahrerbunker", which still exists but is sealed off now. Some of the paintings in the film are real. When I go back to Germany, some people might point at me. Making a movie, especially a genre movie that's about entertaining people, or a movie like this one that is specifically about Nazi sites from WWII—something Germans don't like to talk about—involved bribing hands to gain access. In those instances where the authorities charged too much, we shot guerrilla-style at night.

Guillén: You've indicated you're not a professional urban explorer, but you're obviously into urban exploring? Just as you said that—after watching Wake In Fright—you'll never let someone buy you a beer again, you can imagine that I will never go urban exploring after watching Urban Explorer. You realize this? You're not worried that your film will piss off these sport extremists?

Fetscher: I don't think so. After seeing Bucharest Flesh, a lot of people among my festival audiences told me they never wanted to go to Romania—which is where I come from and where Bucharest Flesh takes place—but that was not my intention. I had wanted to show the beauty of Romania and this time I wanted to show the beauty of urban exploration and I think you can see it, past all the dark details in the narrative. If you go urban exploring beneath Berlin you'll see bats clinging to the high ceilings, underground lakes and flooded tunnels, and it's all really beautiful. The rot can be beautiful. That's something I think urban explorers generally appreciate. We collaborated with some urban explorers. They saw parts of the movie and I believe they appreciated it. In a way it's romantic.

Guillén: There's a romantic truth to urban decay, yes. It's a reminder of the organic momentums inherent in urban design. Cities, histories, rise and fall and—wandering among the detritus of a previous incarnation of a city—the urban explorer is reminded that even cities are vulnerable and fragile. Did you encounter any actual urban explorers while you were filming?

Fetscher: No. We met a lot of homeless people. One of them had an air pistol and tried to shoot my assistant director. One night we bumped into an underground latex fetish party. I wasn't prepared for that and didn't know what it was. We found these professionally-installed electric cables running through the tunnels, which we thought was strange but we followed them because we thought we might be able to use them, and suddenly we came into a huge hall that was filled with these fetishists. We had this moment of dead silence where we were staring at them and they were staring at us. They weren't really happy to see us down there. There was a fire breather among them who tried to burn my camera assistant and my camera. I stood in front of my camera assistant to stop him, which was dangerous. But then Klaus showed up as Armin the villain and that same day he had stolen an electric power drill from the art department. He went up to the fire breather and threatened to drill him in the head. The fire breather ran away. So, in that case, Armin saved our lives.

Guillén: [Laughs.] Let's talk about your choice to have a multi-ethnic cast. Again, I presume this was part of the strategy to reach an international audience?

Fetscher: Of course. I liked the fact that so many different cultures were combined in one group of tourists, that they came from so many different countries. Having different languages on set gave me a particular thrill as a director working with the actors.

Guillén: Which leads me to a theme I've been investigating in genre: its transnational appeal.

Fetscher: The code of fear is not limited to any one culture; it's multicultural. You know how in Japanese horror they're into the long dark hair of women in a weird way? Maybe we don't exactly understand it but it's still creepy to us as well.

Guillén: Your decision to make the Nazi horror a real horror—in contrast to a supernatural horror of ghostly supermen coming back to harm people—was a wise, effective choice.

Fetscher: When people were talking about
The Descent, they would agree it was a great horror film but some people expressed disappointment. They would have preferred if Neil Marshall had left out the crawlers, these metaphysical creatures, and stayed grounded in reality. For me this was important to stay close to reality and have the darkness of the villain be cynical.

Guillén: You've certainly created an iconic villain in Armin (Klaus Stiglmeier). For me he was a blend between Lee Marvin after way too many drinks and Klaus Kinski. How did you find him?

Fetscher: Actually, Klaus Stiglmeier has been working as a hard-core on-stage comedian in Bavaria for a long time now. In the '80s he used to play a role in a series called
Paternostra From Sacramento where he was a priest who would insult his congregation with lacivious language. Not only was he a priest but he was a part-time ski instructor. One of his well-known quotes from that show is: "Some men are polygamous. Some men are monogamous. I'm a ski instructor."

Guillén: [Chuckles.] His turn as Armin is going to be great international exposure for him. I'm not sure if he would consider this lucky or not, but he could probably be cast in this kind of role for the rest of his career.

Fetscher: The character of Armin is like Freddy Krueger for me and I truly hope that Klaus gains what he deserves for this performance. A lot of German actors didn't dare to play the role but Klaus was eager to do it.

Guillén: His teeth—which Mitch Davis described as "40-foot wide teeth"—will go down in infamy. I understand he actually bit a make-up assistant during the shoot?

Fetscher: It was a very long day for Klaus Stiglmeier who is actually very much like his character in the film. He spent time in the early '80s fighting Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan, which made it even more intense to work with him. It's where he learned the mujahideen practices of torture, including the "shirt" torture performed on the character of Denis. You wouldn't dare ask him any questions about that experience.

As for the story about his biting the make-up girl, she was from Western Germany and had never experienced the East-West Germany problem so she was joking about it and Klaus warned her not to joke about the army. She persisted and he bit her. The make-up department was quite angry with me. I didn't see him biting her but I could see the bite marks. We wanted to make him look nicer but we couldn't afford it and—after this incident—there was no make-up on him.

Guillén: Let's talk about the lesbian flourish.

Fetscher: [Laughs.] That had to do with giving the audience what the audience wants, which is a good thing on the one hand but on the other hand I feel that the beginning of the movie is very much about distracting the audience by certain possibilities of danger: by referencing the Nazis, and the zombie legends, the guys with the dogs, and by positioning this love story between two girls where you're not really sure how it's going to end. They kiss in front of a sinister Nazi mural in the bunker. It's pretty much about distracting the audience.

Guillén: An elegant foreshadowing that worked for me was the earrings you had them wear. The Korean girl was wearing dangly ones and the French girl was wearing these blue-green earrings. I don't know why but as I was watching the movie I thought, "Those earrings are going to be important. I'm going to pay attention to those earrings." Sure enough, when the earring shows up on the floor, it signals a significant ellipse in the narrative.

Fetscher: Very good! You are a pro!

Guillén: All in all, I very much enjoyed your entire cast. First of all I appreciated that I didn't recognize any of them. I often feel it's a danger to cast well-known actors because they pull me out of the situation. Nick Eversman was perfectly sympathetic as the young male lead Denis.

Thau: He's becoming well-known in Europe.

Guillén: Is he? That's understandable: he has a natural presence on film.

Fetscher: Nick is currently in a TV movie called Missing, which was filmed in Prague and is already receiving much attention. Nick is going to be
someone soon. That's, of course, good for us.

Guillén: So when you're casting these young actors, what is it? What is the quality you're looking for to represent the young teenagers that you hope audiences will relate to?

Fetscher: In a way I have to fall in love with all of them.

Guillén: That's what it is, isn't it? The audience has to fall in love with them and care about them so that—when you torture them the way you do—the audience feels for them.

Fetscher: For me as a director it's very important to be sure that there's a similar language, even though I have difficulty with English at times. There needs to be a similar language for my actors on set. With
Urban Explorer, there was immediately a good language for me with Nathalie Kelley, Nick Eversman, the French actress Catherine de Léan....

Guillén: Who I fell in love with instantly, by the way, I hope you use her again in one of your movies.

Fetscher: ...and Brenda Koo. Early on in the casting I told them, "This shoot is going to be a nightmare for all of you. There won't be any toilet facilities around, no wardrobe rooms, no bathrobes, no warm or clean water. You're going to actually have to go down into these places and it's not going to be funny." This young cast were the ones who said, "Yes, let's go on the ride!" So I was sure they were the right ones.

Guillén: It did, indeed, sound like a nightmarish shoot for all parties concerned, even yourself. During the Q&A, Montreal actress Catherine de Léan confirmed the eels in the water were real and that they bit. Could you repeat your story about what it was like shooting in the water?

Fetscher: We had at least five actors in the water so we had to use waders. We had five new waders for the actors and one secondhand pair for me. It turned out my waders were full of holes so that after a minute in the water they became full of water. I couldn't move to get out of the water. My crew had to use knives and scissors to cut me out of the waders and the water gushed out like blood. It was very funny. Everyone laughed, right?

Guillén: I've been taught that any good genre film relies on a certain amount of thievery. You've already admitted that Urban Explorer has borrowed elements from Neil Marshall's The Descent, or at least that audiences perceive that. I perceived it in the sequence where Lucia (Nathalie Kelley) is crawling up through that tiny space to the surface. Was that a direct borrowing?

Fetscher: Yes.

Guillén: Did other films come to mind as you were crafting your own?

Fetscher: I don't think you can avoid being influenced by all the movies you've seen during your childhood, especially horror movies because they're about fear, which the brain captures. A good horror movie never lets you go. These strong images, especially the ones you see as a young child, stick with you. I remember being six years old and being forced by my brother to watch the movie
Alien. In the scene where the android is being destroyed with the fire extinguisher and his white blood is spraying out, a switch toggled in my brain. The fear, which remained fear, turned into fascination as well and I remember taking the remote and watching that scene over and over again in slow-mo. My brother, who was watching me do this, became frightened by my behavior. [Laughs.] You can never let a moment like that go. It follows you. I'm not sure if you can see any semblance of Alien in Urban Explorer—I wouldn't have been able to control that—but, of course, what I've seen in my past is there. Then again, almost every horror movie is about people descending into darkness. The descent is always there but I wouldn't be able to tell you which specific movies are there because I became interested in making movies from watching arthouse movies from Russia, which weren't really horror movies. They were difficult to understand.

Guillén: Can you speak then to what it is about fear or terror that is beautiful?

Fetscher: Whenever I'm asked that, I quote the ancient Greeks and their theory of catharsis. Fear and compassion clean your soul, especially for young people going to the cinema and watching horror movies. I love to watch them watching the movies. With love couples, the girl is squeezing the arm of her boyfriend and he is jerking out of his seat. It's like a roller coaster for them. After they leave the cinema, they feel shaken but they feel better, they feel cleaned. Horror movies help you better appreciate the value of life.

10/03/11 UPDATE: Urban Explorer will have its West Coast premiere at Hollywood's Screamfest on Tuesday, October 18th at 10:00PM, Chinese 6 Theater–Level 3, Hollywood & Highland, 6801 Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood, CA 90028.

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