We were delighted to speak to the brilliant and unassuming Austrian-Turkish director of KUMA (“Co-Wife”), about the great gamble of filmmaking, features vs. shorts and how cool it was working under Michael Haneke at Vienna Film Academy (who loves the rough cut of Dag’s upcoming crime drama).
Liam Jack: KUMA was your first feature film. Can you explain how you got into filmmaking initially?
Umut Dag: It was like everyone, I think – I grew up with TV and I loved watching movies. And as I was growing up, I would think to myself, “I could do this as well”. However, for me it was a very difficult start initially because I grew up in a working class district from an immigrant family. So to grow up and want to be a filmmaker in that environment was like growing up and wishing to be an astronaut. I thought only people who grow up in the film business can do this. When I was young I couldn’t even imagine how it works to be a filmmaker.
So it was a very long procedure, and I put in a lot of research. And after high school it was very obvious to me that I had to go into filmmaking, so I started out making really bad short movies. And then I applied for Vienna Film Academy when I was eighteen, but I didn’t have the experience. The professors would say; “You have to have read this book, you have to read that book, and you have to have life experience.” So I didn’t get in to film school the first time I tried, and instead I studied business first. At the same time, I worked as a production assistant in the film industry to gain experience – I was the guy who would make the coffees for the directors and actors.
After a few more years, I tried again to apply for the film academy and I was surprisingly successful so I did my short movies and I met my cowriter [Petra Ladiknigg]. She’s a scriptwriter and would develop stories, and then we developed KUMA together.
… I learnt about how to tell stories that have a quality in their honesty and their deepness.
LJ: What films did you watch as you were growing up?
UD: When I was younger we only had the Austrian broadcaster on TV, sort of like the BBC in the UK, and we had many Hollywood movies. But I also watched a lot of Turkish dramas, because they were the films that my parents watched. So it’s a mixture of influences, including Turkish dramas and Hollywood blockbusters and European arthouse cinema. Then at film school I learnt about how to tell stories in a way that they have a quality in their honesty and their deepness.
LJ: You studied under Michael Haneke at Vienna Film Academy. What was he like as a teacher?
UD: He is very precise and very detailed. He knows so much and he knows exactly what you have to do. If something doesn’t work perfectly – and it doesn’t matter if it is in the script phase or the editing phase or shooting phase – if he sees something, and it isn’t quite right, he knows very well how to fix it. He is like a craftsman. It’s very cool.
LJ: What sort of challenges did you come up against when filming a feature length film compared with your short films?
UD: I think it’s the pressure. Because in the film business there is a lot of competition, and a lot of people want to be filmmakers. And there is a lot of competition with other people who want to earn money from their films. And for that, you have to make a good movie, because everyone around you needs to know that you can be a successful director. You don’t have any other choice and have to succeed. Therefore it’s very hard and you can only try your best to make a film people will like.
After some level, after you’ve done all the work you can possibly do on it, it’s not in your hands anymore. It’s very hard to do that with a feature length film, because you’ve been working in it for two years, every day for 10-12 hours, 60-80 hours a week and you don’t want to let it go. But after some point, once it’s finished, you can’t do anything further and you have to leave it and hope it finds its audience. It’s like leaving your baby, and allowing it to stand on its own feet. And it doesn’t always happens in this industry. It’s like gambling at a casino.
LJ: And do you feel it’s paid off?
UD: I hope so. It’s very difficult to look objectively at your own movie. So it’s other people, the audiences at festivals, or in cinemas, they make the decision if it has done well or not.
… it was very important to see how and why mothers sacrifice themselves as human beings for their families.
LJ: Your parents are Turkish Kurds who moved to Austria. Did that background have an impact on the story and the screenplay of KUMA?
UD: Yes and no. Yes because I knew from my relatives, my mother, and my mother’s friends, how the mother in KUMA, Fatma (Nihal Koldas), could act as if she is sacrificing everything for her children and family. And this was one of the most interesting points of why I wanted to tell the story. Because for me, it was very important to see how and why mothers sacrifice themselves as human beings for their children and for their families. They are not reflecting on their own wishes, and their own needs, but just focusing on the family. And for me that was one of the most interesting points for why I wanted to tell the story.
LJ: When you’re casting for a film, what are you looking for in actors?
UM: It’s a naturalistic look that I look for. For me this is very important, this Austrian tradition in filmmaking, or the European tradition in filmmaking, to tell a story with human beings who are so natural in their acting that you can feel all their emotions by watching their eyes. You have to tell everything with your eyes. And this is very important. Even if I wanted to make a genre movie – a horror movie, or a comedy, or a thriller – you have to have actors who are naturalistic. Otherwise it wouldn’t work.
I’m not a teacher, I’m only a filmmaker and I don’t want to make moral judgements.
LJ: We’ve previously mentioned the mother character, Fatma. She could have been simply the villain figure in the film, but it’s more complex than that.
UM: That’s the key point. It would be too easy to draw a character in black and white. Or to tell the audience; “this is good, this is bad”. I’m not a teacher, I’m only a filmmaker and I don’t want to make moral judgements. The audience has to do it for themselves. Therefore it was very important for me for Fatma to be written strongly in the script so the audience can feel why she is doing what she is doing. And Nihal Koldas, who played her, gave this character a human soul.
LJ: In terms of multiculturalism and filmmaking, how do you think things have changed, especially Middle Eastern migrants to Europe? Are things getting better than your parent’s generation?
UM: I hope so. This is a very difficult question and I’m not sure if I can answer it, because it depends on circumstance. You can see people – second, third, fourth generation – who are much more integrated into a society as their family has been in a country for many years. But you have other families who are separating themselves much more. You have both – communities that integrate, and communities who keep separate. But both of those examples, for me, are not a problem. I think every culture’s diversity makes a society richer. To be honest, I’m not sure you have the right person to discuss that with in me. For me, I’m thinking with a no border, no nation mentality. Because it’s stupid to have a discussion, or to make wars because of nationals, or religions or cultural differences. Therefore I don’t understand much of the discussions. Personally I believe we should be able to live and do what they want as long as we don’t impede on other people’s freedom.
LJ: Talking culturally in terms of filmmaking, you said in an interview that Austria considered filmmaking more of a cultural importance; whereas Britain and Hollywood see things more commercially. Do you think this is detrimental to British and American filmmaking?
UD: Yes and no. Because even in the UK and Hollywood, you have many small, independent movies which are very “European”. And even in Europe, of course, you have people who are trying to make more mainstream movies, “blockbuster” movies to make money of them. But the difference is the way of financing. In Europe you are safer when it comes to money, as you can get money from funding from the government – you are not risking private money. Of course there’s still a risk for your reputation and for your production company if the movie fails, as you will struggle to find financing for your next movie and the next step in your career. But in terms of risking your own money, it doesn’t happen like in countries that finance films with private money.
However, it is two different systems, it seems. Because in Europe it is more of a cultural thing, because we trust in film as a cultural product, as something that is important for culture and society formation. In the UK and America it is also for cultural awareness, but it seems more profit driven as well.
LJ: Where did the funding for KUMA come from? And was it difficult to secure?
UD: Yes, it was difficult. It was funded from the government in Austria. In Austria you need three big funders – the broadcaster, the Austrian Film Institute, and the Film Fund from Vienna. And we got two of them. Sadly the Film Fund from Vienna didn’t want to give us money. However our producer, Michael Katz, who was the producer on THE WHITE RIBBON, loved the script so much he made sure that some of the profit from Haneke’s film went to fund ours.
LJ: You just finished your second film. Can you tell us a little about it?
UD: It’s called CRACKS IN CONCRETE. We are currently in post-production doing the sound editing and sound mixing. It’s a father/son story. The father has come out of prison after more than ten years, and is looking for his son, who is estranged. The son is taking drugs, doesn’t go to school, doesn’t have a job, and wants to make his name as a rapper. You basically have sex, drugs, and rap music. Something like that. But we wanted to concentrate on the emotions between the father and the son, but it’s also a crime drama. We will finish post production towards the end of this year. The initial reactions are good. Haneke loves the rough cut.