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Feature, Interview

"The desire for happiness is omnipresent and so intense" Interview with Jessica Hausner

Interview with Jessica Hausner on LITTLE JOE

Ms Hausner, what made you choose a plant breeder to be in the centre of your story?

My main concern right from the beginning was that the lead role would be a female scientist. I’m interested in the role that scientists play in our society today. I think they are becoming increasingly more important, because we tend to believe more and more what scientists say. And also, I had that FRANKENSTEIN idea and the story is kind of a variation of that. But the special thing about it is that she creates two monsters at the same time, of which one is her own child. And slowly but surely, she loses control of both of those monsters.

A song in your film is called «Happiness Business». Is the search for happiness what drives our contemporary world and moves it forward?

I think so. The desire for happiness is omnipresent and so intense. It’s recognisable even in in every small talk convention. Even if someone just asks you, how you are, no one dares to say: “Bad, actually.” Instead, everyone immediately says, “Fine. I’m fine. I’m so successful. Everything is so wonderful.” That becomes a threat to me, because it’s unnatural. My husband, who is a musician, wrote this song for me. I asked him to compose a cheerful song, a song that makes you happy. Then he came up with the idea for «Happiness Business». I first thought maybe it’s too obvious, but then I realized that it might not be such a bad thing to give that little message at the end of the film. One the one hand, the desire for happiness is a general feeling that is deeply rooted in all of us. It has always been there. But maybe it’s because our desire has been commercialised, that the pressure to try to be happy has increased as well. And that’s the danger.

How important was the music in your film to you in general?

The music has a bit of a character of its own. Music does what it wants, but I like that. I prefer it if the music plays like a counterpart and, thereby, adds a very odd feeling to some of the scenes. The composer, Teiji Ito, was also the composer for the films of Maya Deren. And her films are a big inspiration for me. Maya Deren is an experimental filmmaker who was best known for her surreal avant-garde films of the 40s and 50s. And in her films, she creates those soul rooms, I don’t know how else to describe it. They’re settings, rooms, perspectives that make you feel uncanny. It’s uncomfortable although there is actually no reason for it. It’s very strange, like in a dream.

Trying to pin down the genre LITTLE JOE is most closely related to, one probably first thinks of Science Fiction. Would you agree?

My films often operate in direct contradiction to conventional genre descriptions, because I always try to make them as realistic as possible. In this case, I tried to find a possible scientific theory. Therefore, there was a neurologist in our team, a plant genetic scientist and also a scientist who does human genetics. And together we tried to find that bridge, we tried to find a logical explanation for how a plant can enter the human body. In the end, one of the scientists came up with the idea that a virus of a plant could mutate into a human pathogenic virus, like in a horror film.

And that really is possible?

Yes, it is. It’s a theory that works, so it is possible. But like in all of my films, not only reality is possible, miracle also happen. You can’t count on anything. Maybe it is not very likely. However, I was specifically looking for a theory that makes you think, “Is it real? Should I believe it, or not?”

Did you have any cinematic references in mind, like INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS for example?

I think it’s more that films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers are those genre classics I tried to undermine in LITTLE JOE. The film plays with the genre, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is a genre film in itself. You have to understand the irony of it to really enjoy the film. Because if you expect a bunch of zombies to suddenly come around the corner, you’ll be disappointed. The humor in the film is actually incredibly important. That’s why we designed the plant to look slightly ridiculous, so that, as an audience, you understand right from the beginning that this film is also making fun of it. There is the fine irony in it. Recently, someone called the film a horror comedy, and maybe that’s coming closest to the truth.

Do you think genre descriptions in general are a little old fashioned?

Yes, I think nowadays it’s not really adequate any more to tell stories or to make films that are so clear and obvious, that can be put in a specific drawer straight away and that give you all the answers in the end, so that you can go home and be happy. I perceive the reality that surrounds me as extremely split. There are so many different truths, so many aspects and you have so much information about everything. And I think genre films tend to solve all the problems in the end, whereas I try to convey this state of disturbance in my films, that originates, if there is always more than one answer to a question.

In my opinion, some science is already quite totalitarian.

Are you someone who is into flowers or gardening? Have you got a green thumb?

Not at all. I know nothing about plants. Now I know a little more, but I knew absolutely nothing when we started the film.

How important was the design of the plant for you? It has a very peculiar look.

The plant was a tool to convey the story. It is sort of a symbol. And I wanted it to have that iconic character. In the beginning, I didn’t necessarily think of a plant in that that classical sense. For example, I thought maybe it could be an apple without stones, something that is created through gene technology. But then food is a thing. It is complicated, because you have to eat it willingly, to provoke a change. A plant that just emits its scent made more sense to me in relation to the story, so I chose a plant. It works on a more general level as well. Like it could also be a fairytale. Then, it would maybe not be a plant and a genetic technician but a witch, and the witch creates a red flower that makes you happy. That fairytale undertone was also important to me

Not only the aesthetics of the flower but those of film in itself are very unusual and unconventional, and remarkably timeless.

The timelessness of it was something that was close to my heart, something that I was looking for. And that’s sometimes not easy to create, just think about the costumes. Because you have to find a costume design that is not specifically pitched to one certain period of time or a certain decade. The costume designer is my sister, Tanja Hausner. We worked together on all of my films. She had an interesting way of approaching this because she chooses very bright and very specific colours, which helps to lead the audience away from the question of year and social background and whatever. It also gives the film a more a surrealist touch.

You’ve mentioned the hegemony of science in our society. Does gene manipulation creates a threat, leading to a totalitarian regime?

This is the political part of the question. In my opinion, some of this science is already quite totalitarian. I have the impression that science has replaced what religion used to be. In the past, religion gave answers and priests taught us Good and Evil. Today, scientists have taken on this role of having information about everything. But one can’t trust them either, because one says this and the other says that, and then somebody else says something completely different again. Because neither do they know everything. And it's important to understand that, because we already believe too much in science.

The scientific team in your movie tries to control the growth of plant with might and main. How much of a control freak are you in terms of your film?

The female character in the story reminds me of myself. She says it herself in the first session with her psychiatrist: “I can’t control everything, can I?” And that’s her dilemma, because that’s wat she wants, to control everything, but she can’t.

And that’s you?

Yes, absolutely.

I need personalities who fight back

How does that work in the way you direct your actors?

There is a very clear concept for the movements of the actors. It’s like a ballet. When we rehearse the scenes, we sort of stage them one by one. I tell the actor who goes where and when and how, and at what point the sentence are to be said. At the same time, the cinematographer rehearses his camera movement around the movement of the actors. And then we repeat each scene 20 or 30 times and, of course this is not comfortable for actors. I think Ben Whishaw liked it, but a lot of actors don’t enjoy this kind intensity. Because having to repeat yourself 30 times is pretty awful and not many can cope with that. That why I specifically look for actors for my films who are able to do that and who stay alive although I try to control them as best I can. I need personalities who fight back. For example, Emily, at some point, she just ignored me. That was very good because that’s how she kept her personality alive, and that’s the main thing. That’s what I rely on. Because if my desire to control would be perfect and domineering everything, the film would be very boring. So, I need actors who go against that.

You take quite a long time in between your projects. Why is that?
It just takes quite a while to collect the information I need. I do an awful lot of research. I read, I talk to people, I conduct interviews. I try to tell a story that is set in a very precise world. This time it was science, next time it will be schools. And I need that time to really build up the setting and also to build the storyline as accurate as possible. I always start with only one page of the story but that takes me a year to find that page, to really know very well, what is my story, to be sure that’s what I want to say. After that, it’s goes quicker.

How much of a workaholic are you? Is that also something you share with Alice, your lead character in the film?

Yes. I think so. To make a film is hard work and I can’t stop thinking about it just because it’s 8pm. It’s always in the back of my mind, whatever I do.

People still like to compare your work with that of Michael Haneke. How do feel about this?

I have to say, I’ve had a little bit enough of it. Don’t get me wrong, I very much appreciate his work, absolutely. I think he’s a great filmmaker. But I also think that, over the years, I have become a filmmaker in my own right. And therefore, it’s not so pleasant for me anymore to be constantly compared with him. I hope this will change soon and people start seeing me for who I am, and for my films. I really hope so.

Interview by Pamela Jahn