Filmsparks — 50 Years DFFB: Jes­si­ca Haus­ner — Speech at DFFB

Dear grad­u­ates, I would like to start by say­ing that I nev­er com­plet­ed my stud­ies. In fact, the time I spent study­ing was­n’t even very hap­py. But despite all that, I became a film­mak­er and, today, I would like to explain how that came to be.

It start­ed when I applied to the direc­tor pro­gramme at Fil­makademie Wien (Film Acad­e­my Vien­na), but I was encour­aged to join the edi­tor pro­gramme due to my appear­ance and due to my sex, which made them think edit­ing was a bet­ter fit for me. And so I joined the edi­tor and direc­tor pro­grammes, and was bad in both. I think a lot has changed since then, even in Vien­na. But back then, I found myself in an envi­ron­ment that was full of non-artis­tic teach­ers and tech­ni­cians, who were gen­er­al­ly con­vinced that a young woman could not han­dle the job. I should add, how­ev­er, that I was fresh out of school at St. Ursu­la and 19 years old when I joined the Fil­makademie. My face turned red when­ev­er I had to say some­thing out loud, and even I had the feel­ing that I did­n’t belong there. In addi­tion, my pro­fes­sor of film direct­ing told me that it would be bet­ter to get mar­ried than to end up like all the unsuc­cess­ful film direct­ing stu­dents who nev­er became prop­er direc­tors. I should also men­tion, that back in the mid 1990s, there was­n’t much hap­pen­ing in the film sec­tor in Vien­na. Most went to tele­vi­sion. So why should I of all peo­ple be able make it? The odds were real­ly stacked against me.

Back then, my main prob­lem was that I could­n’t accept the tasks that were giv­en to us as stu­dents. No mat­ter how hard I tried, I could­n’t see any sense in film­ing a chase scene and a work­place sce­nario. When­ev­er there is a chase scene in a film, I always think of some­thing else because they sel­dom inter­est me and I nev­er know who is chas­ing who. I have a bad sense of direc­tion. When­ev­er I go to the restroom at a restau­rant, I usu­al­ly can’t find my way back. I’ll end up in the kitchen or leave the restau­rant through the emer­gency exit.

The films we analysed were Amer­i­can genre films, all filmed by men. I could­n’t relate. I loved films that were mys­te­ri­ous and sur­re­al. Maya Deren, for exam­ple, or Buñuel. And I was inter­est­ed in style and aes­thet­ics. In cin­e­mat­ic lan­guage. But I was appar­ent­ly look­ing for a lan­guage that was not spo­ken or taught at the film acad­e­my. We were sup­posed to learn the so-called rules first – before we were allowed to break them. It’s an idea that I still find ridicu­lous, because who is it that defines the rules? Syd Field? Why him? Because we grew up with these films? Who says that cin­e­mat­ic lan­guage can’t be total­ly dif­fer­ent? Maya Deren, of course, was only dealt with mar­gin­al­ly in an option­al class. But those were the only films through which I was able to under­stand how edit­ing works.

Any­way, nobody paid much atten­tion to my chase scene, and after my prac­tice films, it was rec­om­mend that I drop out of the acad­e­my. I had already failed the edit­ing pro­gramme, because I did­n’t edit my projects the way I was sup­posed to.

My high­est or low­est point was in the sem­i­nar for voice record­ing. We were asked to dub a bad love scene in the style of a tele­vi­sion show from the 1980s. I was total­ly out of my ele­ment. I did­n’t know what to say to the voice actors. I was­n’t able to take it seri­ous­ly, and so I could­n’t think of one sin­gle direc­tion to give them. The voice-dub­bing direc­tor who led the sem­i­nar gave every­one some feed­back at the end to let them know what they did well and what they did poor­ly. In the end, he said that only one stu­dent failed com­plete­ly – and he point­ed to me. I can admit that this was a low point for me. I did­n’t grad­u­ate in film direc­tion and had to repeat a semes­ter. Just think about it: I want­ed to be famous and make great films, but I was­n’t even good enough to com­plete my stud­ies in film! And so I repeat­ed a semes­ter, shot a film twice, and dur­ing this whole, unbe­liev­ably depress­ing sce­nario, some­thing became slow­ly clear: I had to get out of there. Then my pro­fes­sor of film direct­ing died, which set me free for a time and I took a leave of absence. I was scared that noth­ing would become of me. That the oth­ers could make films, but I could­n’t. I flew from Vien­na to Berlin, worked as a trainee in a film, and worked on a screen­play in the evenings. When I got back to Vien­na, I showed my new pro­fes­sor the script and he said that the most impor­tant thing was that I liked it, and that I had to know the sto­ry that I want­ed to tell, but I had to know it exact­ly and to make it hap­pen exact­ly as I want­ed, with­out let­ting any­body influ­ence me.

That struck me to the core. No one had ever said some­thing like that to me before. It was always about ful­fill­ing a cer­tain task, or to suit someone’s par­tic­u­lar taste. And sud­den­ly some­body was telling me that I should do exact­ly what I intend­ed to do. That and only that. The script’s title was Flo­ra and it became a 20-minute film, and I was hap­py while I was shoot­ing it. I could feel that I was able to realise my vision. My pre­vi­ous weak­ness­es (real­i­sa­tion, spa­tial ori­en­ta­tion) sud­den­ly became my strengths, because I chose a scenic real­i­sa­tion that worked with­out any spa­tial ori­en­ta­tion. And that’s how I con­tin­ued to do it as a film­mak­er. I use my inabil­i­ty as an asset: since I don’t have good spa­tial ori­en­ta­tion, my scenic real­i­sa­tion must work emo­tion­al­ly. The peo­ple and their feel­ings are focus points with­in a space, the inter­nal dra­matur­gy is my ori­en­ta­tion sys­tem and film edit­ing is a won­der­ful means to con­nect places and times that could have nev­er been con­nect­ed, because they belong togeth­er emo­tion­al­ly. Like in Maya Deren’s films.

There is also my inabil­i­ty to cre­ate excite­ment through speed. Today, I cre­ate excite­ment through a threat that I let devel­op with­in the head of the view­er by means of a strange idea that takes time to devel­op its full effect.

After my expe­ri­ence with the voice actors, I worked for a while with ama­teurs, in order to dis­cov­er for myself what I want­ed to say to actors,  what was real for me, what felt real and what style of act­ing I would choose. And sud­den­ly it was clear to me that it was a good thing that I could­n’t do what oth­ers could do. It forced me to find my own way of mak­ing films. I had to dis­cov­er every­thing for myself.

I learned styl­is­ti­cal­ly from the ama­teurs and now I work with pro­fes­sion­al actors, but I still act as if they were ama­teurs. I don’t give up on cast­ing until I have found the per­son who embod­ies the role, who fits per­fect­ly, who nat­u­ral­ly acts exact­ly as need­ed for the role. I treat actors like ama­teurs. And when an actor asks for the back­sto­ry, I delay the dis­cus­sion until the clap­per­board strikes and we’re shoot­ing.

So what I’m try­ing to tell you is that I was­n’t able to do what was expect­ed of me, but that led me to do some­thing dif­fer­ent­ly and the audi­ence liked it. And I would also say that if I had done things accord­ing to expec­ta­tion, it would’ve been bad. That was con­firmed already at the begin­ning of my stud­ies.

Today, this all sounds like a good sto­ry, like the ugly duck­ing that final­ly finds his swan fam­i­ly. But back when I was in this hope­less sit­u­a­tion, I had no way of know­ing that every­thing would work out in the end – there is no way of know­ing what the future may bring. But look­ing back, I can say that it was nec­es­sary for me to fail at fol­low­ing all these sup­posed rules. It was nec­es­sary to fail at film direct­ing in order to under­stand that I could­n’t do it the way any­one want­ed me to. Not because I did­n’t want to, but because I could­n’t!

I would like to add anoth­er chap­ter to my sto­ry. So I was able to shoot my short film Flo­ra. I was hap­py, but I had already been sin­gled out as a los­er at the film acad­e­my. The film had to first gain recog­ni­tion else­where – Flo­ra won some prizes at inter­na­tion­al film fes­ti­vals – and then peo­ple start­ed treat­ing me with more respect. I lat­er shot a film for my grad­u­a­tion, and it was also suc­cess­ful at fes­ti­vals. This helped me get financ­ing for my first fea­ture film: Love­ly Rita. And so I seemed to be on my way. I had sur­vived the film acad­e­my and become a film­mak­er.

Then I shot a film called Hotel: the idea was to shoot a genre film that went against the genre. It is a mys­tery thriller that nev­er resolves the mys­tery, and a hor­ror film with­out a mon­ster. When the film was fin­ished, pub­lic opin­ion was split. Some were aggres­sive and annoyed. Users left com­ments on the film’s web­site like; “it’s like jaws with­out the shark,” or “I want my mon­ey back.” Glob­al sales were dis­ap­point­ing and I had to deal with a lot of crit­i­cism.

And I was dis­ap­point­ed, because it seemed as if the film had­n’t been under­stood. But the only rea­son to make the film was that there was no mon­ster! I was – and still am – con­vinced that the idea was good, but maybe my real­i­sa­tion of the idea was­n’t good enough. But now, 15 years lat­er, I’m going to try to make anoth­er film that breaks the rules of its genre. The view­ers’ expec­ta­tions will not be ful­filled, so that the film takes an unex­pect­ed turn.

What’s inter­est­ing is that most peo­ple who read the script will make rec­om­men­da­tions that would make the film con­form to the expec­ta­tions of its genre. And they make these rec­om­men­da­tions think­ing that they are their own good ideas. Of course, it makes things eas­i­er when some­thing has already been stamped as “good” by the gen­er­al pub­lic. Most peo­ple don’t realise that they just want to see some­thing that they’ve already seen before, and that’s the way things should be! But I want to take the risk of not ful­fill­ing view­er expec­ta­tions: to do some­thing where you are not sure whether it will work or the audi­ence will like it. Only lat­er can you look back and say if it was worth the risk. But in the cur­rent moment, you can nev­er know for sure if some­thing will work.

My expe­ri­ence at the film acad­e­my showed me that if I fol­low my own plan, the indi­vid­ual pieces will come togeth­er in the future and form some­thing that I can­not yet see. Some­thing that seems wrong can turn out to be cor­rect, true or good in the future. These are all very rel­a­tive terms that are defined by the times.

I can only pur­sue things that inter­est me per­son­al­ly. It is the only way to cre­ate some­thing that will also inter­est oth­ers, or that oth­ers will find good and excit­ing.

While I was study­ing, I could­n’t fol­low the so-called rules of good film­mak­ing. And I feel that it is my duty, now, to tell you that you won’t be able to do it either. You should­n’t be able to do it. Because no mat­ter what hap­pens, you will only do a good job if you are doing what you tru­ly love and if you are ful­ly con­vinced of what you are doing. Try­ing to be like some­one else is a recipe for fail­ure. Because you’re only doing some­thing that some­one has already done! You will only find suc­cess by doing some­thing very per­son­al that you want to do and love very much. That is why I want to ask you to do some­thing: keep look­ing. Don’t repeat some­thing just because it worked well in the past. Redis­cov­er film­mak­ing on your own terms and rein­vent the wheel. You – and all of us – will be amazed at what you can achieve, and you will look back and say that it was obvi­ous that things would work out the way they did. But now, at this moment in your life, I hope that you will have the courage, and not accept what oth­er peo­ple are say­ing. Every day, you should con­sid­er the pos­si­bil­i­ty that every­one else is wrong.

Jes­si­ca Haus­ner made this speech on 10 June 2017 at the DFFB diplo­ma cer­e­mo­ny at Wed­dinger City Kino. Thanks to: Ben Gib­son.