The Interview

Interviews with famous people in grand hotels can often feel overwhelming. There’s the hushed, busy, overworked PR telling you where to sit. There’s the long, nervous wait before the interview actually starts. And there’s the awkwardness of actually encountering this notable personality for the first time while (sometimes) having to stick to a list of pre-approved questions. Björn Swoboda and Eike Frederik Schulz’ The Interview – commissioned to create a branded film for Retterspitz’s first ever perfume Juniper – captures this feeling of anticipation well; utilising long zooms to convey the alienation of journalist Isabelle (played by Aggy K. Adams), wandering through the halls of Milan’s Westin Palace to interview a perfumer. Using the olfactory allure of the scent as a starting point, they allow its seduction to take over, creating a porous, satisfying tumble down the rabbit hole of erotic attraction. Directors Swoboda and Schulz join us today alongside Writer and Executive Producer Lorenzo Musiu to talk about working with Retterspitz’, creating 3D outlines of their space in Unreal and the importance of casting the perfect lead.

Start by explaining to me how you got in touch with Retterspitz and how Nowness got involved.

Lorenzo Musiu: It was the end of 2021, we were in Nuremberg attending the big launch of Juniper, the first-ever Retterspitz eau de perfume in over 120 years of history. We created the first campaign for them. It was already the boldest content they’ve promoted so far; we were all very excited. The day after the event we sat down with Markus Valet (one of the two MDs) and started dreaming about the possibility of creating a super special branded entertainment piece that would work super well with Nowness. The idea was to create a 10 minute film or a series of short stories. It would not be a classical ad at all. Markus loved it. We moved on to drafting a first campaign concept. It was the beginning of a one year long process.

Björn Swoboda: What made this project unique was that there was no existing creative concept, so we had to come up with everything from scratch.

I knew we wanted to capture a 90s thriller aesthetic for this film. We felt it was the pinnacle of analogue cinema.

What’s it like thinking about a cinematic universe for a perfume? Were you inspired in particular by the scent itself? What kind of brief did the brand have for you?

BS: Since the entire campaign idea was created by ourselves we very much had to start from the very beginning. In our previous film, we depicted the scent of the perfume through fabric floating in the wind. Now, we needed to create a character and personality for Juniper. We asked ourselves questions like, “What kind of person or being embodies this fragrance?” and “Who comes to mind when we smell this new scent?” Once we defined the character, the rest of the story started to slowly develop.

The Interview

This is a sequel of sorts to I Am Juniper, what was it like trying to create a continuation?

BS: It’s great to hear that the two projects seem to be connected. While The Interview was set up as a branded entertainment short, I Am Juniper is more of a classical fashion film. However, in terms of styling, locations, actors, shooting style, look and overall production value, it was clear that they were going to be on the same level, if not even higher. We wanted to maintain the surrealistic and magical element that was present in I Am Juniper. Having done that project before was definitely helpful because it created a base level to build upon and develop further.

LM: Markus Valet is one-of-a-kind Managing Director. He is a visionary and given the success of chapter one, it became very clear very soon that an even bolder chapter two was needed. This time we decided to go full on movie-making style.

We wanted our characters to feel out of place, like they didn’t belong in the opulent and stuffy setting.

I loved the hotel itself. I’m interested to learn about how you found the right location. What were you looking for in terms of setting?

BS: From the get-go, our Director of Photography Marco De Pasquale and I knew we wanted to capture a 90s thriller aesthetic for this film. We felt it was the pinnacle of analogue cinema. On top of that, we wanted our characters to feel out of place, like they didn’t belong in the opulent and stuffy setting, like modern travellers passing through a space from the past. I wanted the room to be intimidating and evoke a sense of discomfort. When we decided to shoot in Milan, the Westin Palace and its presidential suite seemed like the perfect fit for our vision. Personally, I loved the conference room — stepping into that space was like stepping into a time machine.

Image credit Anastasia Kovalchuk

Eike Frederik Schulz: Starting from the elevator as the central motif we quickly figured out our setting would have to be a hotel. What it does to the story is that it serves as a neutral, sort of un-owned, place. None of the characters really belong there. At the same time we wanted our setting to fit our product and client — something classy, valuable and charming.

As for the suite itself, it needed to answer both our demands in regard to aesthetics but also layout; since the position of Isabelle, how and where she enters the room, where she moves throughout the scene(s) and where she ends up, needed to be considered. And while you might imagine five-star-hotel suites as this hidden wonderland of never-ending opportunities they turn out more narrow than you would think.

As someone who interviews people all the time, I could certainly relate to the idea of having to stick by the pre-approved questions, before trying to make something more interesting out of an interview. What struck you about this conceit?

EFS: We liked the idea very much of creating an initial setup that is maximally charged and then placing our character in it. Isabelle is by herself and assigned to do this apparently high-profile interview. An agent is involved and there are co-workers and time slots and so forth. It’s always fun to put a corset of rules onto a character and then watch them unfold or try to navigate within it. In our case we thought it was great that Isabelle is being explicitly told she’s not allowed to leave the marked road and then the first thing she has to do is to break the rules and improvise. Further on, this sort of pleases a longing that we as the audience have for characters — we want them to dare, intrude and explore and we want them to be rewarded for it. In our film Isabelle is rewarded by a play partner. Together they can go to places. We felt like this was a nice analogy for the relation to a scent.

I’m very interested in how you thought about the two halves of the film, the pre-dream sequence, and the post-dream sequence. Let’s start with the first half. I noticed a keen use of the space of the hotel, starting with the slow zooms of our protagonist, as well as camera pans that seem to follow her eye. Did you think about how you wanted to use the space that you have? What kind of camera equipment did you use?

BS: Our main stylistic reference was 90s Hollywood cinema. A very high production quality, very intentional camerawork, but no digital visual effects. We only had 45 minutes to scout the two hotel rooms, so we quickly decided on the one that felt right and took lots of pictures and measurements. Then, we rebuilt the room as a 3D model in Unreal and went through the script sentence by sentence to figure out how to enhance the storyline with camera movements. This gave us a very detailed shot-list and instruction manual, which was essential since we only had two days to shoot the entire film.

To capture the shots, we used a dolly on rails with an attached mini jib and shot the entire hotel room scene from that setup. We used the classical Cooke S4 in the hotel and old S2 in the dream sequence to get some more distortion and flares. Lighting was also a big consideration, and we aimed to light the scene as naturally as possible without relying on any ‘effect’ lights.

We rebuilt the room as a 3D model in Unreal and went through the script sentence by sentence to figure out how to enhance the storyline with camera movements.

EFS: Overall we imagined the film to be kind of staid so our approach to the shot-list was pretty classical. For the first part we needed to position Isabelle as a foreign body in the hotel. She slowly gets accustomed to the place and the situation. Congruently to this development, we close in on her, both emotionally and visually.

BS: The second task for the cinematography in the hotel suite was simply to keep it interesting since Isabelle is — for the most part — speaking to a door which is not exactly the most rewarding dialogue partner visually. Same goes for the acting. Accordingly, Aggy had to carry more weight since this approach is obviously demanding for an actor. There is pretty much no way to hide. It’s Aggy all the way through and she did great.

Agreed! Aggy K. Adams does a brilliant job of embodying this woman seemingly seduced by the effects of this mysterious interviewee, and of course, the perfume. Walk me through the casting process.

LM: In the process of looking for the protagonist I stumbled upon something that my good friend DP JP Garcia posted on IG. It was a movie scene or a BTS pic from a set together with this stunningly beautiful yet complex and deep actress. I got an intro from JP and proposed Aggy to the guys. We got in touch with agencies in London and New York. Aggy was just amazing!

BS: The first thing we did was nail down every detail we could about our main character. Where was she in life? How much did she know about the world? Was she bold or more reserved? It was a lot of work, but by the end of the writing process we had a really clear picture of who she was. We had her perform a part of the script. As soon as we saw her on the screen, we knew she was perfect for the part. There was an instant connection and we were completely sold!

The dream sequence itself seems to let loose from the buttoned-up atmosphere that proceeded it. What was it like creating that? Were there any special effects needed?

LM: We were a bit hesitant at the beginning of writing the elevator. We didn’t want to create a fashion movie copycat kind of scene here. We wanted the elevator to be elegant and awkward at the same time. We were thinking of something a little more toned down, we felt that this part would have made or broken the film. We soon realised that we needed to go a bit crazy instead and started giving more importance to a recurring element in the film: the light.

The elevator in the end functioned as a sort of space shuttle between two worlds.

BS: How do you use light to give motion to the elevator? What was the magic going to look like? And especially how was this ever going to be affordable? Once we had the idea of a folding elevator the fun started though and the amazing team in Milan created a bigger version of the original elevator in the hotel. The elevator in the end functioned as a sort of space shuttle between two worlds (the stiff hotel room and unlimited space). So we still used the same camera set as in the hotel room and swapped over to a more manoeuvrable Steadicam the moment the elevator left Earth.

EFS: For the dream sequence, it was most important to us to channel all instruments at hand into something that stays ambiguous for as long as possible. It had to have something alluring and attractive obviously, but we also wanted it to feel perilous. And it needed to have at least some dramaturgic element to it. That’s why we created short, almost faulty loops in which Isabelle gets thrown back to the opening of the walls over and over again until she lets go ultimately. In a way this reflects the sometimes burdensome nature of erotic dreams quite well, because, weirdly enough, they never seem to be much about the act itself, but about the road that leads to it, the surroundings and mostly, unfortunately, the hindrance.

The sultry score and the needle drop help to highlight this feeling. What was it like working on that?

BS: I have a background as a music producer myself so I get very excited about music composition. When Sizzer got on board they presented us with this amazing cello track that perfectly highlighted the mystery and magic we wanted to show. The hardest probably was to find the right feeling for the printer scene. Sizzer did a brilliant job at creating this very intense percussion part but it definitely wasn’t easy to create such a drastic change in the score and still make it sound like one connected piece.

What are you working on next?

BS: Eike and Lorenzo have already dived headfirst into their work on a television series, while I’m still in the thick of shooting a feature documentary that I started last summer. But rest assured, the next narrative piece is definitely on its way.

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