Natalia Ryumina chats with the writer and director about past, future and process.
The 67th Berlinale greeted its guests with cold weather yet very warm European hospitality. After ten days of red carpet premieres, press screenings and hundreds of other events, the good-byes felt even warmer for the Brits – they were not coming home alone, but in a company of a beautiful Crystal Bear, the award for the best film in the Generation 14+ section, won by the feature Butterfly Kisses.
In the aftermath of the festival, I met with its director, Rafael Kapelinski, to discuss the journey he and the production team had to take, which lead them to such significant win.
So, Rafael, how did it all begin?
I’ve known Merlin Merton, the producer of the film for about five years. I used to teach at the National Youth Academy, and he was participating in one of the courses that I led as a film tutor. Then after the course was over we stayed in touch, and about two years later Merlin got back to me and said that him and his business partner, Greer Ellison, were developing a project,which they initially were thinking about directing on their own. But then they saw some of my shorts. The one they mentioned in particular was Emily Cries, the short film I shot in 2006, and he said they really liked its style, the way it looked and asked me if I would be interested in reading this screenplay they had. I said, why not.
And what was it that made you want to do this project in the first place?
I read the script and there was something very interesting about it, there was a sense of something very genuine, personal, something very intimate, but at the same time quite gutsy. And I like that. Of course, the script needed a lot of development, but it was clear there was a lot of potential there to make something very daring, very different. That really attracted me to the project.
We developed the script over the next eighteen months and in the process we did go down a couple of blind alleys. We quickly realised we needed a different way of attaching the theme. That was not really coming up for quite a while, and I think we had to do a lot of obvious kind of things before we stumbled upon something that we believed had a potential of turning Butterfly Kisses into what it is now. And I think the crucial point that we discovered for ourselves was to stick with the theme but not to try to answer the question Why. I decided that it would be much more promising to assume a very observational viewpoint on one hand, but at the same time to introduce a narrator, who actually tells the story about Jake the protagonist. It’s a very literary kind of device, but we thought it was interesting. And I think it works in the film extremely well. So that’s how we stumbled up on each other and how we took the film to the stage of getting it ready for production, for the principal photography.
And the team itself? What made you want to become a part of it?
I felt like both Greer and Merlin were very determined to make this film. And I think on a certain level it made all the difference for me, because that’s how I like to operate. I don’t believe in half measures, I don’t believe in just talking, I do believe that the only way to make a film is to immerse yourself one hundred percent in it and to dedicate one hundred percent of your resources and your time into the process of making it. There’s just no other way.
What about the challenges you had to face?
Every film should pose a certain challenge. Just like what Billy Wilder said – every film poses a problem that needs to be overcome. Sometimes you manage to overcome the problem and sometimes you don’t, and you never make the film. So the stakes are quite high. And I thought, the combination of a very tough theme in the centre of the film, plus the production limitations – we ended up making it on a very very tight budget – I just felt there was something very exciting and very honest about the whole thing. So you adapt the story, you adapt the material that you’ve got for the resources in place – that’s the only way to make something work.
I think a lot of directors run away from projects because they say: this film is huge, but we only have a million pounds in place. I do believe that it’s a very clear sign that a director is just running away from it, that they actually deep down don’t want to make a film. Because every story you deal with, any story that you want to tell could be cut down, it can be calibrated to the size of the budget in place – any story, I’m absolutely convinced of it. So in our case, although we did have very limited resources, I knew that we had the determination to make the size of the story to fit within the budget we got. It really happens I think, a lot of filmmakers, the fundamental mistakes they make, there is a discord, the story and the budget are not in sync, they have an argument with each other, they quarrel with each other, they just don’t work as a unity. We were all determined to avoid that kind of situation. We wanted to make a small film but an honest film and at the same time, the kind of film that wasn’t going to suffer on the back of small budget. And in the process of it we never ran out of money, I always felt that I could request anything within reason. I couldn’t request a helicopter, because it would cost too much, but again, within the size of the story I could request anything and that would be delivered – quickly without any long explanations.
So how did you adapt the story within certain parameters that are reasonable?
Very early on we looked at the script critically, trying to decide if that was contained enough. It wasn’t, so we had to modify it. We decided to keep most of the action to a single housing estate in the south of London. The entire finished film really takes place in two tower blocks, four flats and two streets. That’s the setup. So we didn’t need to worry about locations or moving locations. The early decision to keep the thing contained within one district just allowed us to focus on the film, which left us a lot of time for creative decisions.
And also, you know, the entire visual shape of the film. We were thinking about actually making the film look quite big in the beginning. Simply because we didn’t want it to look like a lot of kitchen sink kind council estate English films, but then we very quickly realised we didn’t have the resources to shoot it in one of the panoramic formats, so we decided to go the other way, to keep it small and modest. That’s why the idea of shooting in black and white came in.
I was going to ask about that too – why black and white?
It just seemed appropriate. It is a very modest film, black and white in a way stands for modesty. But also, the main difficulty involving shooting in English flats is that the rooms are quite small, especially in tower blocks, and you have very limited space to make things work, to stage a scene and block it. So we were thinking of ways of trying to shoot our actors against white walls, which would have been insufferable, unwatchable. So in any space where we shot, we’d stage things very close to the camera, we would move the camera as little as possible, but not less than we should. And that’s how the whole visual shape of the film came into being.
How did you approach the casting process?
When you’re shooting a teenage film you always wonder how you’re going to cast it. Are you going to go for semi-professional actors who are aged sixteen-seventeen, actors who do have a bit of experience, or do you just go for fresh faces? And the initial decision was to go for fresh faces. But then as we were casting – we organised a very extensive casting process, we saw about five hundred young actors from the entire country, after a couple of auditions I thought it would be very risky to work with absolute beginners, simply because we knew we were going to have a very limited number of shooting dates. I felt like I wasn’t going to be able to have enough time to work with the complete beginners and to train them up to what we were expecting from them acting wise. We would have needed a month long workshop to take a bunch of beginners and move them up to the level that we wanted them to be.
That’s when Theo Stevenson came into place, and also Rosie Day, who started from the young age. She is a very, very experienced actress. And then out of the three principal characters, we filled the two roles with relatively inexperienced young actors. So it was a good combination of experience and something new, fresh. And it stirred things up a little bit and made it much more interesting. And I think that kind of approach worked very well, because when you look at Theo, the experienced actor, versus the other two, you don’t really feel much of a difference, you don’t feel much if a gap – they do operate on the same level, which is very important.
The film has a rather unusual soundtrack…
Of course, the organ music. It was very difficult to convince anyone that you should have it in your film, because it’s just so old fashioned and it’s given rise to so many religious connotations. That is not sexy today.
And yet we did it. Took a little bit of convincing, but also purely logistically you can create a demo tape in some sort of temp track, electronically, but it was very clear to us,once we decided on our leading instrument, that we would want to record the soundtrack on a real organ. That costs money. And it’s not easy to find an available analogue organ. So that posed additional complications, but we stuck to our vision and I think it served the film extremely well. But those were very big difficult decisions and I think, in retrospect to our credit, we did stick to our intuition. We heard a lot of voices, third party voices, telling us that we were committing an act of utter stupidity by going about making this film this way and by making those decisions as well.
And the music is definitely a statement. There are lots of scenes in the film, especially in the first half of it, which are quite rough and quite… I’m not to say repulsive, and I think the organ music stands in a very nice juxtaposition to the action. So on one hand there’s three boys lost in the world if porn and sex, but at the same time there’s this music, which, I think, is quite a nice idea as a juxtaposition. And also, when you are making a film and the film is tough to watch, you’d want your film to have, as I would call it, a redeeming feature, something that would stand in opposition to the rest of it. Plus it’s quite simple, which is always good. It’s not one of those soundtracks where there are hundreds of instruments, that’s what everybody’s doing. All we have in the score is single organ playing, a single motif, and there’s no cheating to it. And that’s something that people, subconsciously or consciously do appreciate.
Let’s talk about the Berlinale. Was Butterfly Kisses aimed particularly at this festival?
No. We tried to get the film ready for Cannes, but we didn’t manage to. I did a Cinéfondation residence back in 2009, so I did have a natural connection to the Cannes Film Festival. Unfortunately, the film wasn’t finished, so there was no way for us to show it there. Then once we’d finished the film, in the beginning of June last year, we sent it out to a few festivals and quite a few expressed interest. And there was one American festival in particular that wanted it really badly, they were gunning for it as much as they could, but then Berlin came along and we had to say no to the Americans. I wasn’t quite sure if it was a good idea for us to wait almost half a year to show the film, I think once you finish something you want to show it as quickly as possible, so waiting six months appeared a little bit overwhelming.
But it proved to be worth it?
I think it was exactly the right decision, that Berlinale was probably the best festival where we could premiere it. I think, in the end we made the best possible decision. And again, we were probably a bit lucky as well, because Berlinale programmers really fell in love with the film, and we could tell that they really wanted it. Actually, ours was probably the very first film they accepted in our section this year, so that made us think that they really wanted it bad. And that is something that always inspires the filmmaker, he always reacts to it. When somebody wants your film badly, your heart melts.
Did you expect to win?
No, but we did know we had something interesting, something very different. However, Generation 14+ is a very competitive section, and there were some pretty good films in it. Films with bigger budgets, bigger stars, bigger everything. So as a filmmaker you wonder. I think all festivals have all sorts of agendas, and those agendas are colliding with each other at the same time. Awarding the best films is definitely one of their agendas, but there are other things that they have to be mindful of. Of course, the jury is independent, so if you win its not just nice to be appreciated, it’s also a tremendous validation of everybody’s work on the film. It’s a group of people working on the film, it’s not just me, it’s not just the producers – to be awarded it always validates all the effort put into your film and that’s absolutely fantastic!
So what’s next?
Well, first of all, I need to get some sleep. And then, I’ve been working on two other projects. One is called Budapest Diaries, which is a very personal account of a trip that I took with my mom to Budapest when I was ten. And the other project is called Cranleigh Gardens, and it’s set entirely in London. They are two very different films, one is very intimate, very slow, black and white, I would say very poetic and very atmospheric, the second one very contrasting, it’s going to be shot in colour, it’s much bigger as a concept, and it really tells the story about the dark underbelly of London, about the sacrifices one has to make to make it in a city like London and that can also be defined in many different ways. Because for some people to make it in London is to make a lot of money, that’s probably how most people think about it, but that’s not everything, that’s not necessarily so. These are two very different projects, let’s just see how the funding works out, that is to drive a lot of decisions. Unfortunately, or fortunately you still can’t make films without money. That’s the way it is.
And Butterfly Kisses?
We’ve already received a couple of invitations from the big festivals. Personally I would live the film to travel as much as possible, I’d like as many people as possible to see what we’ve come up with.
Thank you, Rafael! Once again, congratulations on your Berlinale win and the best of luck to you with your new projects, and to Butterfly Kisses with its further journey!