Sonja Heiss • Director
Hotel Very Welcome
by Bénédicte Prot
Born in 1976, Sonja Heiss studied at the HFF Film School of Munich before acquiring experience in advertising. Her first feature Hotel Very Welcome won the "Dialogue en perspective" prize at this year’s Berlinale. Heiss kindly answers Cineuropa's questions, a few days before the screening of the film at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival.
Cineuropa: Your first film is, in all respects, a true initiation journey. What made you start on such an audacious project for your debut feature?
Sonja Heiss: Backpacking for years through Asia, we came to wonder what it meant to travel. Travelling is at the same time a search, a potentially comic journey and an often desperate attempt to try to be happy far away from home.
It was interesting to investigate the ways in which different characters are influenced by foreign surroundings, how they struggle with their emotions, and to what extent cultures can really exchange.
Loss and being lost was also a theme for me. Travelling can feel lonely, so there are many moments in which the journey becomes a voyage of self-discovery.
One further aspect was the potential for comedy. I wanted to portray travel realistically (by concentrating on small catastrophes, absurdities, and misunderstandings) and with self-irony. This demystifies the image of backpackers as great adventurers.
Writing the script must have been a long work in process. Can you describe it? Is it important to you to also write your films?
When we started our journey we had a script of about 30 pages and more scenes and ideas in mind. The characters and their conflicts were already fully developed, but on location in Asia, we found out that many things wouldn't work, many (good or bad) unexpected things kept happening and we did not know the supporting cast, so we had to keep on writing during the entire journey, partly in collaboration with the actors.
Very little dialogue was written; the actors had to improvise a lot to attain extremely realistic acting. With such a hybrid form, spontaneity is an important tool. For dialogue-scenes I gave them a certain amount of material to include that the others did not always know. We tried to achieve a good balance of fiction and reality.
So far I am happy writing all my films; thus, they mirror exactly my views, but would enjoy directing a film written by someone else. I'm curious about new approaches.
What did you learn from this first experience in directing a feature film?
I had made other films before, but a feature length film is something totally different. I learned a lot about how complex it is to use humour, about dramaturgy and my own patience. Making such a film was totally new for me – no one could give me advice in advance and there wasn't a pre-existing film I could study – so I learned a lot while shooting, but also during the editing. First I thought the film would go against "classic" dramaturgic forms, but I found out that it needed just that. We struggled to get the subtle jokes right during the editing; sometimes when you change one scene, everything changes, like in a domino effect.
How would you define the orientations behind your work in general?
I can’t really speak about orientations, so far it has been quite personal, but I can say it is always strongly reality-oriented and not conservative at all.
How do you feel about being selected by Variety for Karlovy Vary?
It is a great compliment to be one of only ten. I am all the more pleased that I consider my film international. I heard many positive things about Karlovy Vary so I am looking forward to being part of it.
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