On a wet afternoon in London, Sebastian Schipper puts his feet up on a hotel table strewn with biscuit crumbs and defunct biros. On his face is the whacked-out, rapturous expression of a 47-year-old who in the last 17 years has made four films that didn’t ignite internationally — and now one that has. “So . . . it was 4am and we were gonna start shooting,” he’s saying, “and the cinematographer is warming up so he doesn’t pull a muscle, and what started out as a daydream of mine about robbing a bank — which I knew I’d never do — I kind of ended up doing anyway with this movie. But it was impossible, I was an idiot, we just got lucky . . . ’
This is a supremely Schipper-ish monologue. Like a diverted bus route, his conversation powers on past obvious pauses, as does his movie Victoria, which had more zest and electricity than anything else shown in last year’s London Film Festival. However, it was originally turned down by Toronto and Sundance because the organisers didn’t believe it could possibly have been made the way Schipper claimed: in one shot. No cutaways, no tricks. Just a single uninterrupted 138-minute take, the lone camera following a Spanish classical pianist (played by 31-year-old Laia Costa) on a lunatic night out with some genial ruffians she meets in a Berlin nightclub.
The film is exceptional. It is, I suggest to Schipper, perhaps the most pleasurable festival movie I can remember seeing, and he makes a face. “What the hell do you mean by ‘festival movie’?” That it provides that near-mythic thing, I clarify: a genuinely communal cinema experience. The couple of times I have seen Victoria, audiences sat forward in their seats, physically rooting for the characters to get away with their kisses and crimes, for the film to persist in its swooning, one-take rhythm.
“About doing it in a single shot,” Schipper explains, “I can always try and rationalise it but, to be honest, I just wanted to get away from being a good director.” Does he mean, away from being a conventional director? His debut film, Absolute Giganten (1999), had bouncing dexterity but 2009’s Sometime in August, inspired by Goethe, was definitively middlebrow. “No, I mean a good director. I wanted to stop reaching for an ‘A’. Filmmaking had got so tedious. Everybody creates something on a daily basis now — you post a picture, a quote. All these ‘special little moments’ and ‘life being precious’ and I was thinking: film can’t just be a big pile of that.” He half-sneers when he says “life being precious”, hands and head in constant motion, legs rattling the table, persuasive energy washing off him.
Schipper, who was born in Hanover, has worked as an actor for more than 20 years. When he was young, his mother was an organist (he says she named him after Bach), his father a minister. Performance, evangelising: you can see how he got away with simply insisting that his financiers handed over their “wild-card money”, which gave him just about enough cash to shoot the film three times. Each take was a real ask, logistically, because Victoria is no freewheeling meander. Much happens.
We start by following the unpredictable Costa out of a sweat-gleaming nightclub and down the dark Berlin streets, the nick of an impatient frown between her brows, looking for some fun, and into rough-friendly but eventually life-threatening company. Although the dialogue is improvised, the narrative is dense and organised, and the actors must keep moving, fighting and flirting, listening for cues, plot urgency never lost. After just a few rehearsals, the cast and crew gathered to film at 4.15am one summer morning and filming ended just over two hours later to coincide with an unforgiving Berlin dawn, clear as silver bromide, the faces on screen pitted with the effort of it all.
“The first time it went really good and was totally boring,” remembers Schipper. “Nobody messed up, but I said: ‘Come on guys, this is like a football game ending zero-zero. The second time they did it, it was brutal, insane chaos. But . . . the third take was good.”
Once they were off, the actors were in charge and there was only so much Schipper could do. Where was he when the filming was going on? “Sometimes running behind the camera,” he speed-answers, “sometimes in the back of the car, or not there at all. Sometimes I didn’t want the actors to see me, sometimes I did. I was like a coach on the sidelines.”
As the minutes ticked by during that third take, it must have been impossibly tense. In one scene, the windows of that car become almost ludicrously steamed up because of everybody crammed in. There are moments in Victoria when you see something in the faces of actors you rarely (if ever) see on screen: people so deep in play-acting, there is a sort of madness in their eyes. No, not madness. More the look of children immersed in role-play, in unfettered fantasy.
Films have been made in one take before, most prominently Mike Figgis’s Timecode (2000) — but they feel so effortful. And more often than not, movies that use long takes really only do so as a display of virtuosity, such as Gravity (2013), with its 17-minute opening shot, or the (superb) Dunkirk beach sequence in Atonement (2007). They can be dizzying moments, but what the shot does for the actual story is largely irrelevant, unless you’re Jean-Luc Godard with his tracking shot of a traffic jam in Weekend (1967), casting a lovely-ghastly Ballardian strangeness.
But because Victoria is all about tension and stumbling towards the fag-end of the night, towards the clamminess of a sleepless dawn, uniquely in this area of film, the mode of its making is the story. Something constructed to be wholly exhausting for everybody involved, even including the audience. “I want them to think: ‘Remember how young we were? How crazy we were?’”
At this point I don’t know if Schipper is referring to the actors being crazy, or him, or the audience. Either way, it is hard to imagine him now making a movie in the usual way, although he says that Hollywood is calling and there’s a book he might adapt.
What did everybody do after filming stopped? “Oh, it was 7am, and the others went on partying. But I went home and I was just lying there thinking: We did it. We did it.” I’ve met many directors, but none so euphoric.
‘Victoria’ is released in the UK on April 1