Gustav Deutsch is key figure in contemporary Austrian avant-garde cinema, and has established himself as one of the greatest practitioners of experimental found-footage filmmaking. In such acclaimed works as the feature-length World Mirror Cinema (2005) and his multi-part Film ist. series (1998-2009), Deutsch and his partner in life and art Hanna Schimek have mined the world’s film archives to create visually and rhythmically masterful collages showcasing the astounding beauty and mind-boggling range of moving images created since the advent of the cinema.
Deutsch has worked almost exclusively in this mode since 1990, but with his new project, Shirley – Visions of Reality, his preoccupation with ‘found’ material and his fascination with the history and phenomenology of image-making takes a distinctly new form. A quasi-narrative film inspired by Edward Hopper, it tells the story of a young woman’s experiences in mid-century America by means of a succession of precise, painstaking reconstructions of particular Hopper paintings, created by means of specially fabricated sets and props. The result is a unique work, uncannily poised on the brink between two-dimensionality and three-dimensionality that draws a link between multiple forms of popular visual art: painting, cinema, and the pre-cinematographic forms that historically bridged both mediums.
In your found footage series Film ist. you examine the nature of montage and cutting. However, in your current feature film Shirley your “found object” is Edward Hopper. What fascination does he hold for you?
There are two things about Hopper that fascinated me, which weren’t clear to me at the beginning: firstly, as an avid cinema-goer he was strongly influenced by film. He clearly references film noir by the way he uses lighting and frames his subjects, and he also had a strong influence on filmmakers through his paintings. When Alfred Hitchcock shot Psycho, he was clearly guided by Hopper’s House by the Railroad. Even today, filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders refer to him. Secondly, Hopper is considered a realist painter, which is not something I found to be true upon closer analysis of his paintings. Hopper does not portray reality but stages it. The staging and assembling of reality is also the nature of film.
You have not only stepped away from found footage material to painting, you have also moved from essayist, experimental works to fictional narration. What brought you to fiction?
There were the paintings. Albeit, just the paintings and not the context.
In my previous work, I established a connection between the images of diverse films. Through montage, I managed to create meaning contexts by attempting to unearth something that was not the original intention of the filmmakers.
I wanted to narrate new stories, and this is also true for Shirley – Visions of Reality. I tell “other” stories with Hopper’s pictures as well. By means of a character, which for Edward Hopper is usually a woman, I intended to narrate thirty years of American history, the same time period that coincides with the creation of the pictures: through the reflection of this woman and through her eyes. That way, I can introduce elements that are not shown in the pictures. What is fascinating about Hopper is that his protagonists experience or observe something that they do not share with us, because it is not depicted. Many of the pictured women look out of the window, observe something, react to something and we do not know what it is, and this is of course something I can invent. I can introduce it through sound or the woman’s inner monologue.
What did the screenplay for this film look like?
In my oeuvre, I am again and again concerned with the reflection of the history of cinema and film. The tableau vivant is a precursor of cinematography. It was a popular social past time to re-enact famous paintings, and film in its early stages also assumed this form of entertainment. My main idea was to “vivify” the pictures. I wanted to imagine what happened shortly before and after the moment that remains frozen in Hopper’s painting. At the beginning my thoughts turned to the sequence of moves the woman would do – does she sit down or enter the room? Very early on, my idea was to work with a dancer, rather than an actress, because this work is much more about gestures and movements. Only later did I start contemplating her character. What is her profession? What are her interests? I started to think out thirty years of this woman’s life. I was merely interested in these thirty years of her professional and private life, not her earlier experiences. The professions of my protagonists – there is also a principal male character – should reflect the theme: the discussion, reflection and staging of reality. This is why my protagonist is an actress and her life partner a photojournalist.
But this woman is not only an actress concerned with getting parts, in these thirty years she is also politically minded and involved?
I wanted a strong female character, who acts uncompromisingly, and who takes an approach supported by the idea that one is not born into a given destiny but that life can be created as it unfolds, even in these times, and as a woman. Regarding her profession, it was important to me that she would achieve this not on her own but within a group. In theatre, back then, there was the Group Theatre, inspired by Konstantin Stanislavski, who also developed “method acting”. These methods require the actors to live together in closely- knit communities, rather than only meet up on stage and during rehearsals.
My protagonist also takes this approach and for a time does not live with her partner but with the group. Her partner supports her fully, his job as a photojournalist enables him to be more compromising, he has a steady income and, during the time when she is unemployed and the Group Theatre dissolves, he is able to take her in. Among the 13 Hopper paintings, there are a few that didn’t allow me to define Shirley as an actress – she then works as a secretary at her partner’s newspaper or as an usherette at the cinema. Her periods of unemployment coincide with the Depression of the 1930s, the crisis of which saw her out of work as an actress, but her political convictions also stopped her from pursuing certain trends followed by her Group Theatre colleagues, such as going to Hollywood.
How did you find your actress Stephanie Cumming?
For a while now she has worked as a dancer and choreographer with the Company Liquid Loft here in Vienna. But I also noticed her when I saw Mara Mattuschka’s films, which emerged on the basis of dance pieces choreographed by Chris Haring and Stephanie. Stephanie caught my eye not only as a dancer, but also as an actress. She is very active in Mara’s projects, sometimes also androgynous, while in my film she portrays a feminine, calm and reserved character. To my delight Stephanie said yes without hesitation.
You are known for your meticulous and precise work method. With your rigorous standards, how did you approach such elements as color, light and space? What strategies did you use?
Let’s start with color, since painting is our starting point here. In 2005 I began to work on the project with Hanna Schimek, my companion in life and art.
We both have our own projects, sometimes we work together on projects. In this case, I have asked her to be the artist, not just for everything that needs to be done painting wise, but also for the design of the overall color scheme and to help me pursue the question of why Hopper’s colors have such a fascinating effect. On a trip to the US, we went to the museums with the original paintings, from which we were able to determine the colors by using color charts. With the help of Hanna’s color guide, we then worked on the set. She determined the colors, which changed with the light, and when we watched the digitally shot images on screen, they had changed again. We were constantly discussing colors and color charts and this went on throughout the color correction and color grading processes. I wanted to transfer that which defines Hopper’s work, this fascinating play of cold and warm, light and shadow, onto the big screen.
Surely the transformation of space from painting to film was also a challenge for you as an architect?
Space is a play with the possible. In Office at Night, for example, Hopper uses an angle, which approximates that of a CCTV camera. In order to recreate what he painted, we had to tilt all the furniture to such an extent that the tilt left everything flying off the table. Of course, Hopper’s preoccupation with spaces was of great interest to me as an architect: How is it possible to recreate these rooms three dimensionally? I had to build several models in order to even come close.
Did many of Hopper’s subversive spatial arrangements only become apparent during the building phase?
Yes. The dimensions he worked with are unbelievable. Often his beds are three meters long. Then there are armchairs so narrow that it is almost impossible to sit in them. It was important to consider which elements were to be played on, what targets were viable. Things that are not used can be built so they look like they function but don’t. And everything is anamorphic, no furniture is placed at a right angle, no space is orthogonal.
What was the challenge regarding the lighting?
Lighting plays a major part, not unlike the characters, requiring as much attention as the mise-en-scène of actors or the color design of the set. The lighting design took up as much time as the shoot, about one to one and a half days. Jerzy Palacz, the cinematographer, and Dominik Danner, the gaffer, worked on the realization of Hopper’s world of light and shadows, ever since we shot the teaser. They were also obsessive in their endeavor to recreate the painted light in Hopper’s pictures as accurately as possible. With some pictures we were stretching the limits of possibility and we were frequently faced with questions such as: What should or shouldn’t we allow? Will our protagonist throw a shadow if she stands in front of the window or not? How can we make it look real, even if it is not in the Hopper painting? Evidently, our work has to be credible in a cinematic sense as well, like a Hopper painting has to work as a painting.
Are there only long shots in the film?
No. At least one moment in each episode is an exact match of the Hopper painting. We were not allowed to move the camera position, not even by three centimeters, because otherwise things would have looked out of place. But we were able to zoom in and out, change the shot size, and as far as possible, even pan. Despite his limited scope for maneuver, Jerzy Palacz got the most out of what was available…
… thus pushing cinema to its limits?
We were limited. We could neither walk around with a hand-held camera, nor do a shot reverse shot. We were always in the position of the spectator. It is very much like Hopper to assume a voyeuristic and observant position.
In all departments of this project, it wasn’t about taking liberties but putting time into detail and working with what is available. The challenge is of course to avoid boredom and create suspense in a subtle way. How this works, we can judge now, after watching 90 minutes on the big screen.