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VENICE 2022 International Film Critics’ Week

Alex Schaad • Director of Skin Deep

“The camera had to portray the inner life of the main character”


- VENICE 2022: In the German director’s feature debut, the protagonists literally put themselves in each other’s shoes

Alex Schaad • Director of Skin Deep
(© Olgavon Luckwald)

Skin Deep [+see also:
film review
interview: Alex Schaad
film profile
, the feature debut by German filmmaker Alex Schaad, has premiered in the International Film Critics’ Week at the Venice Film Festival. We talked to the director about the idea for the story, how he developed it and the film’s aesthetics.

Cineuropa: Skin Deep has something baroque about it right from the start: you can see it in the décor of the room, in the music and also a little bit in the names of the protagonists. What inspired you in that respect?
Alex Schaad:
It didn't happen entirely consciously. What was decisive was that we didn't want to make a classic science-fiction film in which, for example, we used special technology or which is set in the near future. We wanted the film to have something timeless about it. We wanted to give it the character of a modern fairy tale. But of course, the aesthetics were also influenced by the place where we shot.

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What was the motivation behind the film?
The starting point was to make a movie about relationships. But it was not supposed to be a romantic film, nor a kitschy, sickly sweet fairy tale. It was meant to be about real difficulties in a relationship. For example, one question was whether a relationship can exist when one part of it goes through a big transformation. Are we then still “us”, a “we”, or are we a new construct with new rules and a new distribution of power? Of course, we used this tool in the film as a means of teaching us empathy. You are in the unique position of being able to say, “Finally I understand, intrinsically and honestly, what and how you feel. Because I can be in your biochemical and hormonal system. And of course, if I looked different and was 20 cm taller, I would feel differently, as everything has an impact on how I feel.”

How did you develop the story?
We needed many attempts, and there were multiple versions of the script. Since there is no film similar to this one, we had no real references to draw inspiration from. We had to try to find out exactly what we were interested in and what could be portrayed at all. It was important for us to portray the dynamics of different couples. But that, in itself, was a long process involving a great deal of failure.

Were you also inspired by the theme of a religious community or sect?
When we were writing, we didn't think too much about what everything would look like. When I took over as director, it was then a matter of finding motifs for the film. These were the full-body baptism, the Gregorian chants, the ayahuasca ceremony, the occult and the sacred. We looked for certain motifs that were familiar, and then used the familiar to create a new world. But there wasn't much of that in the script.

It's not the first time that your brother Dimitrij Schaad has acted in your films and co-written the script. Could you describe the work you do together? Are there any fixed roles, for example?
We've been working together since I applied to film school. In everything we do, even each of us on our own, we exchange ideas because we know each other very well, and because we complement each other and have an honest interest in each other. Dimitrij is the one who writes. I am the first reader; we think together. At a certain point, I take over as director. But it also depends on the project and exactly what it looks like. We don't have any fixed roles. But on the shoot, where Dimitrij is an actor, we have a classic division with an artistic hierarchy. That's the most difficult tightrope act because we work at eye level, and then there are moments when I have to make decisions that can go against the script.

Can you tell us anything about the casting of the roles?
Actors Jonas Dassler and Mala Emde play the two main roles. Both of them were essential in terms of making the film possible. Jonas worked on the script very early on. They are both very good thesps from the new generation of German actors. Edgar Selge accepted very early on and believed in this script at a time when only a few people believed in it. I am very grateful for his trust in me. Only through that could it have come into existence at all. The film lives off the ensemble – all of the actors had a huge task, as they had to embody several characters. There wasn't much of the characters in the script; they came about through working with the actors.

What were the most important aspects for the visual concept?
The performance and the characters are the main focus. It would never have worked if there were an intrusive camera that demanded too much attention. We didn't want any visual gimmicks. The camera had to portray the inner life of the main character, Leyla. The moment she feels liberated, the camera is also more liberated; when she feels constrained, the camera is also more constricted, more static.

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