Easily one of the most unique projects to screen at Fantastic Fest 2018, Tilman Singer’s Luz was created as a student project and has now evolved into something even greater than he could have ever imagined. Centered on a cab driver of the same name (played by the unforgettable Luana Velis), Luz evolves from a typical police interrogation into something that feels like if Brian De Palma in his early career tried to make Demons into a crime procedural.
While in Austin, Daily Dead had the opportunity to speak with Singer about the wild ride that Luz has taken over this year, playing a variety of festivals and recently being picked up for distribution here in the States by Screen Media. The up-and-coming filmmaker also chatted about the influences behind Luz, collaborating with Velis, and shooting the project on 16mm.
So great to talk with you today, Tilman. Can you start off discussing how this went from a a student project to playing in film festivals all over the world? And now you were just picked up for distribution, too. That has to feel pretty surreal.
Tilman Singer: It is so weird, right? I mean, "extraordinary" is, I think, the right word because I didn't know what kind of movie I would make. I just knew that I was gonna produce it with my core creative team, which is always the same composer [Simon Waskow], the same DP [director of photography, Paul Faltz], and the same production designer [Dario Mendez Acosta]. We were all studying at this art school together, which is not a film school, not an art school, but you can do everything there. You can study photography, you can do installation art, you can do film, you can do documentaries. You have to structure your studies yourself and you have to basically do three main projects and one of those projects will be your diploma project, and so I just knew I wanted to work with those guys and I wanted to do a little bit of a longer story.
So, I did a lot of research. I read a lot about the job of a police sketch artist, because I thought, "This would probably be an interesting motif for a film, giving somebody a face," but no really good story came of that, at least not a story that I felt like I could produce with almost no money.
But while doing research, I came across interrogation techniques and eventually hypnotism and hypnotherapy. I read books by and about Milton H. Erickson, who is the father of hypnotherapy. Also, I learned that still, or at least up to a few years ago, even in institutions like the FBI, they have a website for explaining their questioning techniques under hypnosis. So that's where the idea was born of that interrogation scene where somebody's being put under hypnosis, but the person that does the hypnosis actually wants to manipulate the person that is in the trance, because I thought that was a great tool for an evil force in the movie.
I didn't have any supernatural horror elements to this story at that point, but that came a little bit later. I wanted to do a movie about the here and now, so you see something happening, something real, something acted out, but you only hear what actually happened, which is something only a movie could do, and that was what really fascinated me. When I produced it, though, I felt very much alone. I didn't have any idea if somebody would actually care for it until the Berlin Film Festival invited us, which gave us a deadline to finish the project, and it took off from there. It’s been crazy.
Let’s talk about Luana for a moment, just because she’s astoundingly good in this and there's something about her, the way that she carries herself here, that feels so "filmic." Can you talk about working with her and exploring this character?
Tilman Singer: I was so lucky to find her. Luana and I, we met at a mini-artist residency in Italy where there were a bunch of artists there from Germany. We didn't really talk, we didn't really become friends while we were in this small village in Tuscany for two weeks. So, when I started to think about having to cast this role, I had the incredibly difficult challenge of finding an actress that has an authentic South American accent, that also can speak German really well, that is available in the middle of summer when there's the most film shoots going on, and also, for no money.
That was intense, but then my co-producer and production designer Dario [Mendez Acosta] remembered Luana from that residency and I called her up. I went to the city where she was acting in the theater, and we had an ice cream and kind of talked for three hours. That went super well, and I offered her the role on the spot because I knew she was a good actress and we had connected so well.
But then, when we shot the first scene, that's when I really noticed just how fantastic she was. She was so natural, and it just felt like watching magic whenever she was on the screen. There’s just something about her that I still cannot put my finger on what she does; she has this extra thing going that she never gave away when we're in rehearsal.
Sometimes, right before shooting, I would be like, “I don't know if this is going to work, because the energy is not right." But then, when we would actually shoot, that’s when she’d bring this energy, and she’d nail it on the first take. Most of the time, we only did a second take just because we were shooting on film and there might have been some dirt on the film or something like that. But I think because of her theater background she felt very natural in these moments that weren’t very natural, especially when she’s under hypnosis. She was fantastic. I enjoyed my time with her so much.
Before we go, you mentioned shooting this on film, which if somebody were to put this movie on the big screen, never told me anything about it, and said, "Oh, by the way this was released in 1981 or 1982," I would've completely believed them. It’s incredible. Did you feel like being able to shoot this on film added a lot to the aesthetic of Luz and capturing this story that feels like it’s right out of an entirely different era?
Tilman Singer: Well, I was lucky enough to have the chance, at some point in my studies, where a professor gave us a spool of 16mm film and a studio for a day, and we could do whatever we wanted. We shot a Western in an afternoon. But the whole process of shooting a film on film was so fulfilling, where you aren’t able to see what you just shot, which means you have to really trust your senses, and really connect to the camera and really look at the motive of the characters or the set you're shooting, instead of focusing on the immediate results. That was so fulfilling to me, where you send it off to a laboratory and get it back in two days and then you’re watching it with fresh eyes. That was amazing, and I never, ever want to shoot digitally again.
It’s just really natural to me to shoot on film, and I really need that kind of discipline to my approach, where you really have to have it all figured out when you start shooting. I am so glad I got to experience this way of making movies, because it’s how I want to do it from here on out. It definitely gave this movie a little bit of a retro flair, which really enhances that mood and atmosphere we were trying to build in all these shots. It’s been great to see people respond to that.
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