Returning shortly after our conversation for About Two Girls, Amsterdam-based Director Ayla Spaans arrives with When We Were Strangers – a non-verbal, experimental narrative short about the growth and decay of a romantic relationship. We follow a young woman as she enters a house-party and immediately forms a palpable connection with a young man. Over the course of the evening, we travel across the house (and time) as we visit various stages of their relationship. It’s a wonderfully hypnotic story told through gestures rather than words, a classic example of show don’t tell. Spaans joins us today to discuss the genesis of this story and reveals why she recut the film for its online release.
When We Were Strangers feels like a really unique and experimental take on the arch of love between two people, how would you describe it to people?
When We Were Strangers is about a couple that falls in love during a house party and set off on an adventure. Each room in the house represents a different phase of their relationship and unexpectedly, the situation gets more and more confusing.
Where did this idea come to you?
I was working in advertising and I felt like making something abstract. Back then I experienced the slow decay of love in my relationship, which was the reason why I wrote a story about love. It’s about the light, beautiful and colourful beginning, in comparison to the unexpected, dark and ugly ending. As how it goes when you fall in love, it seems like all your senses are hyperactive. It’s like you can hear smells, taste colours and feel sound. When love ends, the opposite happens. You slowly feel more and more numb. In this experimental short senses are hyperactive but suddenly getting more numb. This is showcased through colour, sound and movement with a strong focus on art direction. Each room flows with these phases in the most abstract and open way, giving room for your own interpretation.
We recently featured your other short About Two Girls, but this is your first experimental narrative film, right? How did you find the whole process of funding and getting it off the ground?
It is my first short. To raise money I signed up for the competition De Ontmoeting. Vice picked out my plan and funded half the film. For the other half, I did a crowdfunding campaign. After achieving the crowdfunding, our Producer Ushani Karunadasa and I started with the production. We found a lovely team and met really inspiring people. I worked with people I really enjoy working with, it was a great team! Some were friends or colleagues and some I met during the process.
Everything came together very naturally. From connecting with different musicians, who came with the amazing original scores, to meeting the choreographer, who introduced me into a world full of inspiring dancers. My best friend Daylene Kroon did our art direction and our brains are very similar so that provided a positive and natural workflow. In each department there was a lot of love and effort. I’m really grateful for all the creatives who helped me create my first experimental short.
We decided to go with a set of Kowa Anamorphics. They distort quite a lot around the edges of the frame. Dreamy and distorted; just like how love can be.
Aesthetically it’s really brimming with atmosphere and mood, what was your approach to cinematography and developing the film visually?
The Director of Photography Rene Huawe was pretty much dancing with and around the actors, so we chose to shoot handheld with the Alexa Mini and keep the package small. For lenses, we decided to go with a set of Kowa Anamorphics. They distort quite a lot around the edges of the frame, especially on the 40mm. Dreamy and distorted; just like how love can be. We could often only light through the windows, from the ceiling and with some practicals. We ended up with a pretty small and basic lighting package, which saved us a lot of time on set as we were able to move quickly.
The location is really stunning, did you shoot it all there? How long were you in the various stages of production?
The pre-production was between a week and two weeks for most of the crew. We shot everything in two days at two different locations. We managed to film in a squatted monumental villa. This is where the first and last rooms of the house were shot. The rooms she enters at the beginning and at the end of the film. The rooms where the colours, shapes and music transformed from light to dark. The second day we shot in Production Designer Daylene Kroon’s warehouse. These are the rooms where the couple go upstairs for adventure. Daylene transformed her warehouse into a paradise full of fur, fluff, magical lights and roses.
After shooting, I started with the edit of the film myself. I had two weeks as there was a deadline for the Nederlands Film Festival. It was hard, as the film could not last longer than six and a half minutes, which was one of the rules to participate in the competition of De Ontmoeting. We had a lot of great long-takes that we had to cut. An editor from Vice helped me at the end so we could make some good decisions.
Right now, because of the circumstances, or because it just had to happen, a lot of people are experiencing the slow or fast decay of love.
That leads me onto my final question. Obviously, this version is a couple minutes longer than the one you initially submitted to festivals. What was your motivation for the re-edit? And looking back, how are you feeling about the film as a whole now?
The original idea was to make this film without spoken language. I thought that to speak the language of love, you don’t need any words. After the festival season I wanted to publish the film online and I realised it might be too abstract. Especially for the online world and for this strange period. Right now, because of the circumstances, or because it just had to happen, a lot of people are experiencing the slow or fast decay of love. And a lot of people are experiencing a break-up. I wrote a voice-over that gives the film more context. For me, the meaning of the end was most important. I wanted to tell all people with a broken or fixed heart; when you think you will never go through this again, you will soon realise, it could all start over.