Over the last few years, I’ve come to admire actress Teresa Palmer’s body of work, as she’s consistently taken on intriguing projects like Knight of Cups (with Terrence Malick), Warm Bodies, and last year’s Lights Out (as I entered the interview, she mentioned that work on a script for the sequel is currently underway). Her latest project, Cate Shortland’s Berlin Syndrome, recently premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and follows her character, Clare, after she finds herself being subtly abducted following a night of passion with Andi (Max Riemelt), a teacher who wants to keep her tucked away from the world forever after their romp.
In Park City, Daily Dead had the opportunity to speak with both Palmer and Riemelt about their experiences working on Berlin Syndrome, their collaborative relationship together and with director Shortland, and the complicated connection their characters share in the film.
Great to speak with you both, and congrats on the film. What you guys managed to create in this movie is just wonderful. We’ve seen a lot of movies with this idea of somebody being abducted, but it's always very entrenched in this big violent act. This story really creeps up on you. Going into this, was that something you guys recognized as well?
Max Riemelt: It was, but you also never know what is going to come out in the editing. What is not shown is sometimes even more important. That's the lesson I learned yesterday while watching the movie at the premiere. It is in a way unconventional that you don't see sometimes the horror in the face or that certain stuff when it comes to these kinds of movies. It allows the audience to get to think for themselves, especially as you’re digging through all the details Cate put into this movie.
Teresa Palmer: There’s so much attention to detail.
Max Riemelt: Yeah, but also there’s the perspective of Clare, and that is subjective. All of this is from out of her eyes, out of her perspective, and that's what I liked the most. To get to feel how Clare sees the world and how she could feel, might feel. You don't get the whole information. You get to think for yourself what it might feel like to be in this terrible situation like Clare, and how you might deal with it.
Max, your character is very complicated, obviously. There are some very deeply disturbing things that happen with him, but yet, there are still these moments of kindness and he’s very charismatic, too. You can see why Clare initially wouldn't even recognize what’s happening to her because of his likeability.
Max Riemelt: Yeah, he's a regular human being, very complex. He’s not a stereotype at all, and I appreciated that.
Teresa Palmer: Things in this movie are not so black and white, just being a story about the captor and the captive. Life is not black and white. It's many shades of colors. That's the same as human beings. One of my favorite scenes, I actually only just picked it up the second time I watched it, was when we're in the forest and it's snowing and he has such empathy for that little boy who hurts his leg.
In a different movie, the captor wouldn't care about someone else. In fact, he'd be irritated that someone would take his attention away from the job that he's currently doing. You see him care about this little boy's well-being. He's not just an evil person. He's a human being with layers and complexity. That's why you understand why she falls for him in this weird way.
I'd love to talk a little bit about Clare in terms of the evolution that we see. Did Cate let you guys infuse some of your own selves or your perspectives into these characters, too?
Teresa Palmer: She definitely gave us freedom to put our own stuff in there.
Max Riemelt: Her style is so different. She doesn't only give you directions, she would also ask you questions as we were shooting.
Teresa Palmer: That's right.
Max Riemelt: She’d ask the most random questions. They don't even have to do with the scene itself. It's more like they make you think. That's what you see on screen, that these characters are really thinking about something. You don't know what it is, but you definitely have a feeling that there's a process and that there is something going on. You just don't know what lens they are using, how close they are all the time. It's not important.
It's more about being in the moment and listening carefully to each other. We also had this choreographer that worked with us, and it was all about finding each other, sensing each other. You have this feeling of chemistry—there is something in between that you can't fake or stage. It's something that you create with listening and thinking.
When you’re on a set like this, where you’re so contained in this one environment, does that heighten your performances when you're making something this intimate?
Teresa Palmer: Yeah, I think so. It meant that there was an intimacy between us where I really understood him and he really understood me. For me, there are a lot of scenes where I'm naked in this movie. I had to feel like I could really trust him and that he could really trust me.
There was this unspoken connection between us, which made the work feel real, and that chemistry was very organic, because it was just us in an apartment. Not just our connection, too, but also with Cate and the rest of the crew. We really did become a family. I know so many people say that, but when you're dealing with a subject matter like this and some of the things we have to go and explore, as well as where we have to go as performers, you need to feel safe with each other and we did.
There was the scene where I was rapping and going crazy, and we really went there and went to town. I had to be really uninhibited in those moments and, if I didn't have the trust and the comfort with the crew, I don't think I could have gone there. But I had this crew who were cheering us on, and really they just created these walls around us where it felt very insular, and it allowed us to bring out the performances that we needed to.
Speaking to that intimacy, do you feel that having that female perspective from your director helped in this instance, too?
Teresa Palmer: Oh, yeah. I always was looking to Cate for her perspective or how she saw the scene. She was very helpful to me because I had to strip away a lot of my own personality to portray this woman because we're just completely different individuals. I had to be so much more of an observer and get into the skin and get beneath what it means to be someone who's very introverted. The only way she can find confidence is behind the lens of a camera.
I'm such an open book and very confident. It was really challenging for me to portray this other kind of woman. Just hearing Cate's stories and her perspective and people she knows like this, that was so helpful to me. I love working with female directors. I love her as a storyteller. She tells beautiful stories and she's not afraid to celebrate and to highlight a woman's sexuality too, which is really important to be celebrated and embraced.
In reference to that, a lot of these movies end up vilifying a female character for wanting to sleep with a guy, where it makes a moral judgment against her when, you know, that’s just life. This story never once tries to shame Clare for her decision and I appreciated that.
Max Riemelt: That's all Cate. She doesn't think that she knows any better than the characters on the screen. She doesn't want to be arrogant in that way. She's still so curious about everything, so interested. She just wants to learn about people, about their perspectives, about their lives. She's really just very curious, and you can only get that kind of a perspective as a director when you're being honest and are honestly interested in the real complexities of our lives as human beings.
In case you missed them, check out Heather's review of Berlin Syndrome, click here to see when and where the film is playing at Sundance, and stay tuned to Daily Dead for more live coverage from the festival.