In order to muster to the courage to confess his lifelong love Max, a young man with Down syndrome, takes up the mantle of his heroes, the ones born in grand comic book mythology. Émile V. Schlesser’s debut narrative film Superhero is about the masks we all do and don’t wear. It’s about the protection of vulnerability in order to get by in a world which we feel is destined to expose us for who we truly are. Ambitious in its themes, Schlesser’s film is equally ambitious in its production value for a debut short, requiring plenty of crane shots and underwater camerawork. DN queried Schlesser about the actualisation of his grand ideas, his impressively in-depth pre-production period, and working with newcomer Nico Randel to create his heroic performance.

Where did Superhero begin for you?

The basic story elements I had simmering in my head for six or seven years before I even started to put it on paper. At its core it’s very personal, almost autobiographical at times. It deals with issues that bugged me for a long time. If I think back to the time I was growing up, trying to define the person that I would want to become… I think of all the friends I fell out of touch with since. I think of the people I fell in love with, which 99% of the time wasn’t reciprocated. I think of the superhero comics I kept drawing throughout all my school years, missing out on classes but creating my own Marvel universe in the process.

Drawing on that idea, I think, for me, it’s very much a film about the masks we all wear. What drew you to tackle this subject matter on film and what have you learnt in doing so?

For a very long time I’ve been fascinated with how one person can be perceived entirely differently depending on who they are with and what the situation is. I became almost obsessed with C.G. Jung’s theories on the Persona, and how every one of us is more than just one person, almost a myriad of illusions in a way. Although this might seem like a lie or fake, it is vital for social structures to function on an everyday level.

The only character who’s wearing an actual mask in the film is the only one who ironically doesn’t wear a mask.

I didn’t set out to make a film about masks, not even Down Syndrome for that matter. But as I reflected on what it’s all about during the re-write process, I remembered a childhood friend who had trisomy and was always treated differently from the other kids. It then occurred to me that this story is essentially about masks – the persona we all wear in our lives and socio-environment, to conform and behind which we hide our vulnerable selves. What characterises people with Down syndrome is that they do not possess such a social mask. Their behaviour, words and actions are earnest and unfiltered. So in a way, the only character who’s wearing an actual mask in the film is the only one who ironically doesn’t wear a mask.

How did you find balancing the multiple roles of writer/director/editor/composer on this?

To me, that’s not an issue at all. It’s all filmmaking and I don’t discern at all between those different roles. That’s the way we started out making movies when we were young, and you learn so much about the craft doing it all yourself in the beginning. To me that’s actually the only way to work, being involved in practically every aspect of the production. I know it will get increasingly complicated maintaining this the bigger the project, but I hope I can keep on wearing all those hats in the future.

I read that you had quite an extensive preparation period, what specific aspects of Superhero did you want to get squared away ahead of time?

I consider this to be my very first actual production, so the initial reason to prepare it meticulously was probably out of anxiety and lack of self-confidence. But I found that this is the way I want to create films in the future. As I am not that great with words, yet everything in directing is about clear and concise communication, I found that actually drawing it and explaining my vision through visuals is the method that works for me.

I prep like a mad man, mood boards, videos, references, character and costume drawings, and I storyboard the entire film myself. I even spent a long time looking for the right scent for the film. I wanted to smell a specific perfume during production that could reconnect me to the initial spark. I also chose a fragrance for each main character, which helped me see them as living people. I love that part of filmmaking when everything is still possible before reality forces you to make one compromise after another.

How challenging was it to film the pool scene? How much planning went into that section of the shoot?

Very challenging! And not enough planning, to be honest. I underestimated the underwater shoot, I think we all did, despite having been warned. We shot it in France in an old Olympic-sized indoor pool, which we had to darken with black covers underwater. We spent an entire night, like seven to eight hours, in the water – and in the case of Cinematographer Joel Froome, literally on the ground of the pool. That alone was exhausting as hell. Add an underwater camera case with a leak, and an actor with Down syndrome who could barely swim, yet still wanted to do it himself, and you can imagine the fun we had. That was one well deserved wrap-beer in the morning.

What did you shoot on and how long was production from start to finish?

We shot the film on an Arri Alexa Mini, with two different kinds of lenses, sphericals as well as anamorphics. We wanted the last part of the story – when we start drifting away from reality towards the fantastical realm – to have a decisively different look. So it begins with handheld camera and spherical lenses with medium range focal lengths, and ends with very controlled dolly shots, anamorphics and much wider lenses.

I’m curious to know what Joel specifically brought to the visuals? Despite that nighttime setting, the film contains a really strong sense of colour.

Joel is a tremendous guy and a force to be reckoned with when it comes to creating stunning imagery. This was our first chance to work together and we had a beautiful relationship collaborating on this project. He was so into the story, so involved with immense passion and eager to bring his A-game. It’s priceless to have a great collaborator by your side with whom you bond and who helps you keep the eye on the big picture, especially when the going gets tough, which happens all the time on a shoot. We had the same vision and eventually achieved exactly what we intended.

The film had to walk the line between realism and fantasy, therefore expressing this border visually, it had to be not too dream-like, nor too naturalistic.

We were striving for a colourful look that would fit the playful and innocent view that Max’s character would have of this world, while at the same time giving it a dangerous lure. He’s a bit like Alice in Wonderland coming to this party. So the film had to walk the line between realism and fantasy, therefore expressing this border visually, it had to be not too dream-like, nor too naturalistic. For the ending though, we wanted to deviate from the look we set up and went all 80s Hollywood, acknowledging the Superhero-movies of that era and honouring some of our favourite films. Joel’s work really elevated the entire film and is a decisive element of why I think the result works.

Speaking of Max, what was it liking working with Nico to create him?

Finding Nico was an absolute blessing. I insisted on casting an actor with the same genetic characteristic as the protagonist. I never would have condoned casting an actor posing as a character with a disability. And what he brought to the project exceeded my expectations by far. He was just so honest, and although I had to initially work around his tendency to overact a little, due to his experience on the theatre stage, by the end I sometimes couldn’t tell whether he was acting or actually just plainly being himself in front of the camera. Of course that’s what you want as a director, so I just let him fly. I completely fell in love with his earnestness, humour, courage and enthusiasm. And considering he’s extremely afraid of heights, the man’s fearless!

Similarly, what was it like casting and working with an actor of Maria Drăguș’ calibre?

Maria is a terrific actress and I’m so grateful she joined the project. She elevated the entire film to a whole other level. She found the perfect balance between warmth and distance towards Nico’s Max, and the two just worked brilliantly together. She has a lot of experience, which becomes clear the moment she comes to the set. She had her breakthrough in Michael Haneke’s White Ribbon when she was still very young. I have to say I owe a lot to Jannik Schümann without whom Maria most probably wouldn’t have joined the project. It was Jannik who came on board first and being motivated for this little film, he did his best to convince Maria to join the party as well. I think they both had a great time shooting this film.

How did your process differ in a narrative short like Superhero than in your other work in the music video and visual art formats? Looking ahead, where do you see your interests lying?

From the very beginning, I had this passion for cinema as well as a crazy love for art and music. Yes, I studied art not film but only because, after applying to film schools and art academies simultaneously, the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf was the first to accept me. Today I really see it as an asset, with the different fields informing each other in interesting ways, creating artworks and filmmaking, which is in itself already a myriad of different skills.

Things I learn doing one task can improve another in a completely different field.

It’s vice versa in so many ways. First of all, it feels good to constantly be changing hats, so it never gets boring. Secondly, it teaches me to think outside the box. Things I learn doing one task can improve another in a completely different field. It trains me to find creative approaches for any given problem. But I can see filmmaking gradually taking the biggest chunk of my time and attention right now.

What are you working on next?

I just released a new short film called Vis-a-Vis which tackles the subject of the pandemic and its social repercussions. I think it could be something that many people might connect with, and my intention is to try and offer some sense of solidarity to people who might be going through hardship in this crisis. After that, I’ll have to edit my next short film we recently shot – while writing a limited series for German TV.

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