There’s a real harrowing beauty to Lisette Donkersloot’s experimental dystopia short Lead Balloons. Following Abe, a lonesome perpetual coward who decides to end his life with the help of a suicide service, what starts off as an ominous excursion in a self-driving taxi slowly descends into a bleak and nightmarish purgatory populated by the hopeless. Donkersloot captures this through hues of muted colours and slow tracking camera movements which reflect the aura of pure despair embedded in this crafted version of existence. Joining us on DN today, we speak to the Amsterdam based director about crafting her sombre vision of hopelessness, the tumultuous multi-year path from music video to short film it underwent, and the technical challenges of shooting in Lodz, Poland.
A heads up, there are some NSFW images in here.
Lead Balloons is a pretty spectacular production. How much of a challenge was it to get the film off the ground?
The entire process of making this film from writing to release took me five years. I wrote it in 2016, originally as a music promo script of which the song was titled Lead Balloons. We couldn’t find all the finances to make it right away. So not until May 2018 did we managed to gather the money we needed, so that’s when we shot the film in Lodz, Poland with a spectacular local crew. Most parts of that city have been modernised/refurbished, apart from this one street that looked like it hadn’t been touched since the war. It was the perfect place for what I had in mind.
I looked at the tragedies of today’s world and asked myself what would that look like in a place without hope.
What happened that made you shift Lead Balloons from a music video into your own narrative piece?
After shooting we got into post which went pretty smoothly. But in July of 2018 it turned out the artist, for whom this film was supposed to be a music video for, had split from his management and label and was no longer going to release his music and therefore no music video. We then fell into a long drag of legal issues to get back the rights over the footage in order to release it as a short instead of a music video.
How long did that process of gaining back the control you needed take?
Unfortunately that took over another two years to get there, so it only got released a few weeks ago, but has been in the pipeline since 2016. So, it feels long overdue in a way. Also this film was edited by a very good friend of mine, Wouter van Luijn who tragically passed away July 2018, one week after we locked the edit. So that also caused a delay in finishing up the film as that was a big shock. It has made the film even dearer to me as it was one of the last films he made.
The paradoxicality of the title Lead Balloons to me literally feels like a symbol for hopelessness.
When the film shifted back into your control, did you thematically reframe what it was about or has that always remained the same for you through that tumultuous period of production?
The brief I gave myself when writing was to create a world/place without hope. The paradoxicality of the title Lead Balloons to me literally feels like a symbol for hopelessness. So that was my only keyword when writing and from there on the ideas and associations came automatically. I looked at the tragedies of today’s world and asked myself what would that look like in a place without hope.
To me, it totally felt like a character going through some form of final purgatory. Do you see it similarly?
The lead character voluntarily gets into a self-driving cab. No chauffeur whatsoever, driving him towards his final destination, death. Someone who never took responsibility for his own actions in life and therefore is unable to take responsibility when taking his own. To me, a world without hope is a world full of cowards. Obviously, the shopping cart with bitten apples refers to the story of Adam & Eve in which Eve took a bite from the apple in the garden of Eden which was the start of all doom. A story that underlines all flaws in mankind.
How did you look to reflect the theme of hopelessness visually with your cinematography?
To me, that happened very intuitively and automatically even. When we scouted the street I knew we had to shoot there. And when we placed the cast and props in that setting and I saw my ideas come to life it was just a matter of putting a camera on it and hopelessness was captured. Or at least that what it felt like to me.
What did your pre-production period look like in regards to planning for that shoot and storyboarding?
As I mentioned I wrote this film in 2016 and we shot it in 2018 so pre-production was stretched out massively in order to even get it made. In all honesty, pre-production is quite the blur in my mind. I know we needed three days to shoot, but I could only get two. So I mainly remember me telling myself “Let’s do this” and “Just keep going” all the time. We didn’t really storyboard. I had everything very clearly in my mind and talked about that a lot with the DoP Stephan Polman so we both saw the same images in our heads before shooting.
How challenging was production on that street in Lodz?
It was pretty challenging. That entire street was so dated that all the homes were no longer livable. And it had literally become a street for squatters and homeless people. We were told by line production it could be pretty dangerous as the people who ‘lived’ there could get quite unpredictable so we were obliged to have armed security on set at both ends of the street. But I’d say time or the lack of was the most challenging part. We only had two days to shoot everything.
What did you have to technically achieve to create a driverless car?
We had three ways of doing that. For the shots from inside the car looking forward we had this grip construction pushing the car forward. I, myself, actually sat crawled up at one point underneath the steering wheel to move that a little. For the shots where we were looking backwards, the grip construction had to go to the front in order to pull the car forward. And for the shots where we had to see the entire car we used a driver and removed him in post.
Unfortunately, the cooling system of the car exploded on the first day and it just wouldn’t drive anymore which really freaked me out as we really needed to get those driving shots. Luckily, on the second day, the amazing grip team managed to find an obscure method to get it going for 20 seconds at a time by pushing it forward with manpower and then it could drive itself for a few seconds. So we just had to go repeat that method basically to get all the shots we needed. Literally, during the last shot where the car drives off into the mist, the car broke down completely. It didn’t do anything anymore.
After the years spent putting Lead Balloons together, how are things looking for your next project?
I’m currently finishing up two music videos and in the middle of prepping two commercials. Hoping to make some personal work after the summer again.
Lead Balloons is one of the many great projects shared with the Directors Notes Programmers through our submissions process. If you’d like to join them submit your film.