Dead Europe, based on the acclaimed novel is a gritty yet beautiful Australian drama that looks at the ugliest of human nature whilst focusing on family, responsibility and regret. Chris Elena got the chance to chat with Tony Krawitz, the director of Dead Europe about adapting the dense and difficult novel into a film (of only 82 minutes), the challenges he dealt with as a director and how he hopes the audience to respond to the film, especially those who were familiar with Christos Tsiolkas’s novel. Interview after the jump.
C: How was it directing the actors considering the lead (Ewen Leslie) is so grounded yet a majority of the background characters are so erratic and emotionally open. Was there a challenge in differentiating characters and performances compared to the protagonist?
T: Well that’s one of the things that made me want to make the film, seeing [the protagonist] this rational yet atheist guy who comes from a really strong Greek Orthodox family. He thinks he has none of that in him but for the first time in his life he’s put under extreme pressure, especially by his family’s past.
C: And he just lets it out at a point, he let’s his devastation be known
T: Yeah, much like the other characters and that’s what I love about the film. Being the director, the authenticity of the performances was really something I wanted to get right, and the world around him just to seem as real as possible. It was a challenge for me not being Greek [with some of the characters mannerisms and performances] to try to get that right. All the actors playing Greeks with the exception of Ewen, are actually Greek, so it was a matter of speaking to them.
One of the things I love when traveling is only knowing how to speak English whilst the people you’re with are speaking in their own language [Which in the film’s case is Greek]. I love when that happens in life and I wanted to emphasize that and make that feel as real as possible, especially through the eyes of Issac [the protagonist]. So it was all about rehearsals and speaking with them in getting those performances right and authentic.
C: Now, were you with the writer [Louise Fox] when she was developing the script or did you simply receive the script once it was written and then accept the project?
T: No, I was on board already, [producer] Emile Sherman and I were the first two on board; he approached me about the book and I had read it and loved it. So we basically then looked for a writer. Louise Fox who wrote it, I had known for ages and she’s a great writer. So it was the three of us, then Liz Watts came on board as producer and that was that.
It was kind of interesting, when we met with Christos earlier on and the book [and film] deals with anti-Semitism we found it funny that three Jews were making the adaptation (laughs). So that was a funny twist of fate.
But how it worked was, Louise and I would have really intense conversations, trying to work out what to do and then Emile would come in and we’d tell him and then Liz later on and then Lou would go away and write. She’d then come back and we’d go through the same process again. We’d spend a week or two in between drafts so it certainly was a collaborative process.
C: People who have read the book despite whether they love it or not always mention how the characters are difficult ones in the sense that you’d never want to meet them in real life nor do you even like them at all. As someone who hasn’t read the book, I wanted to ask, how was it translating those characters from book to screen and maintaining their personalities? And of course, was any of it altered so audience members like myself who haven’t read the novel and were somewhat unfamiliar with the story could be more emotionally invested in these characters when watching the film?
T: I think though that’s how people read books and what they want out of books. I mean, I don’t feel like characters need to be likable or that they need to take us on this three act journey. What I want out of cinema and in art in general is to be really moved and learn something new or different about life. I thought the book was, well… real! It was as if it was a primal scream of anger from Christos going ‘Why is the world so fucked up?’ There are cultures and events that are extreme in the book, but I think they’re extreme because he [Christos] is so committed to human rights that he’s kind of looking at the dark side of the coin and going ‘Why are people doing these things to each other?’
These are difficult questions and I can understand why people were turned off by the book – it is ugly and provocative but I still think it’s one of the bravest pieces of narrative fiction written in years. A lot of people have told us that we do keep the spirit of the book, which I honestly think we did.
C: When you read the novel and being a writer yourself (Having written the screenplay to his last film Jewboy) was there ever a point where you wanted to write your own draft of the screenplay to Dead Europe?
T: Well, the last script I had written [Jewboy] was an idea that I had originally and I wouldn’t have been able to collaborate with another writer, I would’ve been bossing them around and such since I had it all mapped out as it was.
Dead Europe however is such a challenging and difficult book that it proved great to collaborate with other creative forces and wrestle with the material. Having Lou on board, she could come up with ideas and write things I never could, so I think it was the right decision.
C: Going back to your directing of the film, a lot of Australian films, especially dramas have that shaky, desaturated look. It’s essentially really ugly and unnatural which usually matches the material. You didn’t do that with Dead Europe. It could just be my perception, but you seemed to shoot the ugliest of situations in the most endearing of ways with beautifully shot sequences of unspeakable acts. Why this approach?
T: It was two things; one is, we wanted to get, well, we shot a lot of this like a documentary, shooting whilst protests in Athens are taking place and dealing with real people. So we were putting the actors into real situations, so we went hand-held and that helped, but we never wanted it to be or feel shaky. But the further we went in, we started using tripods and tracks and such. So it kind of became more cinematic and classic, the uglier things got. It kind of goes against emotionally what you’d think in hopes that it’d unsettle people more.
Also, just with the shots, Issac, the protagonist, being a photographer was kind of interesting to me. As a photographer you’re an outsider and you’re able to pretend you’re not there, just capturing stuff. It’s almost like you’re stealing bits of life; and as filmmakers we’re like that ourselves. So in the way the shooting style was, especially since we were following Issac and it’s from his point of view, it was as if it was through Issac’s camera.
C: And just lastly as I have been asked to ask you from those who love the book, for such a dense story, why an 82 minute running time? Which might just be one of the shortest running times for any film released this year.
T: Ha! Well, the plan from the get go was to make an around 90 minute film as so we could tell the more important aspects of the story and not get bogged down by anything else. There are story developments from the book missing in the film but I still think the film tells the story and considering how rough it all is, keeping it shorter and more concise gets the story across easier.
Dead Europe is in limited release around Australia from today (Thursday 15 November) and An Online Universe has 10 Double Passes to give away to see the film (both Sam and myself can safely say the film is definitely worth your time – read Sam’s review here)
All you have to do is be one of the first 10 people to leave a comment on this interview saying “I want Dead Europe tickets”. Easy! Note: open to Australian residents only