Whistler Film Festival 2018 Filmmaker Interview: Kristina Wagenbauer, director of SASHINKA

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First-time feature director Kristina Wagenbauer’s Sashinka is a family drama that revolves around tensions between mother and daughter. Talented young musician Sasha’s life and burgeoning career are completely disrupted when her mother, an attractive yet shockingly adolescent and alcoholic Russian emigre, shows upon her doorstep, desperate for a place to stay. The scene is set for their emotionally fraught confrontation that is the film’s affecting climax. Sashinka was nominated for the EDA Award for Best Female-Directed Feature at Whistler Film Festival 2018.

Jennifer Merin: Please tell us what your film is about.

Kristina Wagenbauer: Sasha is a 22 years old musician preparing the most important concert of her career. The night before the big show her mother, Elena, an eccentric, colourful and invasive character arrives on her doorstep like a hurricane without warning. Sasha must find a way to survive the following 24 hours, confronting both the volatile woman and the past that Sasha had worked so hard to leave behind her.

My film is about a complicated, yet universal mother-daughter relationship and the emotional recovery that comes out of it. Elena’s problems carry over into her daughter’s life which harms the balance and makes them both self-destructive. How can a young woman build her own future if her maternal model doesn’t fit in society? Sasha needs to understand and accept her mother’s pain in order to move forward with her own life.

Natalia Dontcheva and Carla Turcotte in Sashinka

JM: How is your film stylistically distinctive?

KW: Sashinka is a very low budget film, 250’000 CAD$, founded by the “Talent to watch” Telefilm Canada Program. I had to be creative to make the best that I could with these low resources. Authenticity was the main goal of our stylistic approach.

For the look we went for a handheld camera that was very close to the characters. The Director of Photography, Marie Davignon, merged herself to the actresses and the camera almost became one of the characters. I would like to point out that Marie Davignon accepted the challenge of being all by herself in the camera and lighting department, which makes her work incredible when you look at the images. In order to achieve our aesthetic, we used fast old lenses and we mostly lit with natural light and practical lamps, shaping the light with gels, bounces and flags. To make this one-woman show possible, Marie insisted on the importance of locations and schedule. Which is why we put a lot of efforts in finding locations where light would be suitable for our needs. Marie also helped building a very precise schedule, that was following the sun path.

Second point I would like to evoke as far as the style is the acting.

Because we couldn’t afford a casting director, finding the perfect match for Elena and Sasha was a huge challenge. The actress who was to play Sasha needed to be able to sing and play piano and Elena needed to be Russian. On top of that, I wanted them to look alike.
For the role of Sasha, we found Carla Turcotte who touched us right away with her fragile sensitivity, her natural acting ability and her beautiful musical capabilities. Finding Elena in Montreal was very hard and we had to go to Paris, where there was more chance to find an Eastern-European Francophone. We got very lucky when we found Natalia Dontcheva.
We did the final audition of the pair by skype and despite the distance, their chemistry was incredible and we knew right away that we had found our dream pair.

In order to create a real connection between the actresses, we started rehearsing four months before the shoot and we did loads of improvisation. The two actresses also spent a lot of time together and did some mother-daughter activities.
We worked a lot on the dialogues during the rehearsal period, but for the shoot they were fixed, mostly because Elena had to learn to speak in Canadian French with a Russian accent.

And the last point I’d like to make about style, is the music. I have always been passionate about musicians and even though I am not one of them, I tend to make films about them.

Composer Jean-Sebastien Williams was there from the beginning of pre-production and he was able to create a unique musical universe for the film. He wrote all the music for Sasha and the other musicians in the film, as well as the score. For me, the music is a whole character who is able to shine some light in the most dramatic moments. To be consistent in my authenticity quest, all the music is in this film was recorded live on set.

JM: How and why did you encounter and commit to the subject/theme of your film and the main characters in it?

KW: The idea for my film was born the day my mother came from her hometown in Switzerland all the way to Montreal to stay with me for a month. She is a very “different” and “colourful” person whom I have a love/hate relationship with. During that month together, I realized that her unique way of getting into crazy and absurd situations, are an inexhaustible source of inspiration for a character in a film which has so much tragic-comic potential.

The goal was not to write an autobiographic story, so Marie-Genevieve Simard (my cowriter) and I started from my personal stories as a launch pad, but created the characters ‘Sasha’ and ‘Elena’ from scratch in a purely fictional script.

JM: What did you learn about the subject/theme from making the film?

KW: One of the biggest things that I learned is actually very personal. Before making this film I thought that my mother was just a difficult character, but while making it I realized that she has an actual mental disorder.

While making the film, people from the crew started questioning me about what type of mental disorder my mother could have and I used to reply “she’s not sick, she’s just like that” But going forward with the writing and pre-production, I realized that my mother might have some bigger issues. The script went in that direction and Sasha makes the same kind of realizations in the film, that I made in making it. In the film we don’t give any diagnose and we leave the mental health question deliberately open. Strangely enough, my mother got officially diagnosed at the same time that we did our home premiere.

JM: What did you learn about filmmaking from making the film?

KW: This was my first feature film after many short films. The whole time, I couldn’t wrap my head around how much longer and how different the long format is from the short. Everything takes just so much more time. Even in the distribution process you can wait months before something begins to happen. I just feel like the most important lesson I learned is “patience”.

Another thing I learned is the conversation and communication that we can have with the actors. Before doing this film actors were some kind of mystic creature to me, but now I feel that I understand them a lot more and all the amazing things I can do in collaborating with them.

JM: What were your biggest challenges in making the film?

KW: The budget was indeed a huge challenge. I was used to make low budget shorts, and when you make a short, it’s kind of easy to find high profile professionals with tons of experience who come and help out for one or two days. But here it was very hard to convince crew members to commit for so many days and tough conditions. I feel like I was extremely lucky because the crew members, even if it was their first feature film, were extremely committed and passionate and they used this opportunity to learn and to make the best film possible. And it worked because everybody now is working in the industry and profits from the experience they had on Sashinka. We all learned a lot and grew together and I find that this was a great accomplishment and that this should be the point in making such low budget films.

Another challenge was the fact that when I was shooting I had a 18 months old son and when I was in post I was pregnant with my second child, a baby daughter who was born a year ago. I did the release, the festivals and promotion caring her with me everywhere. I think that this was a challenge but also a gift. Having my kids at the same time that I made my first feature film made me much more focussed and determined and I really think that the film is so good thanks to them.

JM: Do you think that being female gave you a distinct perspective and/or way of handling the filmmaking process?

KW: I never thought about it before last year, I always considered myself as a filmmaker and not a female filmmaker. The media attention to the cause made me take interest in it and I found out all sorts of very interesting things that I didn’t know about myself and my approach as a female director.

I always took my interest in strong and authentic female characters for granted and I see now that it is distinct to have such in-perfect and realistically human women on screen if we are looking at Stats.
Roles like Sasha and Elena are rare and the actresses manifested their huge recognition to the roles I gave them as they are not very used to get this kind of roles.

On a less positive note in being a female filmmaker, this is my first feature film and it’s a micro-budget, which according to Stats it’s unfortunately a norm. And this definitely tints my filmmaking approach because I am constantly adapting my directing choices to the resources I actually have. I wish for the future to have access to bigger budgets and have my filmmaking be less uncompromised.

JM: What are your plans for the future?

KW: I am working on three feature films, all in different stages of development. Two of them I am writing myself.
I also have two web series in development and I am taking more and more interest in directing dramatic TV series.

JM: Who are the Filmmakers whose work has inspired/influenced your own?

Among Others, Andrea Arnold, Maren Ade, Maiwenn, Dardenne Brothers, Darren Aronofski, Derek Cianfrance, Vittorio De Sica, Michael Haneke.

JM: What advice do you have for other female Filmmakers who are trying to make their way through a still male-dominated industry?
Make babies ! 😛

Be very specific and consistant with your goals. If your goal is to make a first short film, try to find ways to make it no matter what. If your goal is to make your first feature film, try to put all of your energy on that. It’s very easy to keep doing other “easier” stuff and loose track. Always think long-term. And also… be yourself. Don’t try to be like anybody else. Be you. Be unique. Put that uniqueness in your film so that it stands out from the mass.

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