Sitges 2017 Interview: HAGAZUSSA DP Mariel Baqueiro on Snow, Swamps and Magical Moments
A singluar work of visual story telling, almost dialouge free, Hagazussa: A Heathen's Curse is one of those movies that you are not entirely sure of what you just witnessed in terms of narrative structure and detail, but you know you watched something vibrantly clear in how it makes you feel.
Tone poem or slow burn are not adequte as descriptors, because it incites a visceral reaction. It shares as much of its DNA with Darren Aronofsky's mother! in terms of hysteria and paranoia, as it does in period authenticity with Robert Eggars' The Witch. All of these are quite specific films, dedicated to challenging their audience, singular in vision and often overwhelming in execution. The effect is that they scare many viewers off, but form instant cult classics for those who allow themselves to be enveloped in the experience.
When Screen Anarchy's Izzy Lee caught the film at Fantastic Fest she observed in her review:"The film is photographed beautifully [...] like an oil painting of the Dark Ages come to life. While many scenes are mortifying, there's much beauty to behold in these little deaths."
I agree wholeheartedly with this statement. So when I had the opportunity to sit down with the cinematographer, Mariel Baqueiro, to discuss some of the visual aspects of the film, it was an easy yes. Sitting in a shaded, leafy enclave in a garden on the hill above the port of Sitges, we discussed her work on the film, and some specific scenes from the film [So fair warning that there are *mild spoilers* Albeit in a film like this narrative details are often somewhat beside the point.] The conversation, below has been lightly edited for flow.
Kurt Halfyard: So this is an impressive first feature considering it is the graduate project for both you and director Lukas Feigelfeld. However, I see that you have done several things together, including a short film and medium length film in the prior. Were you involved in the process of making HAGAZUSSA from the beginning?
Mariel Baqueiro: Yes. When it was just a two-page draft. We started together [in DFFB - German Academy of Film and Television in Berlin] and since first year we were best of friends, getting along easily. We like the same subjects, and share musical tastes, so we got along very well. We started working together because it was easy.
We were the only ones who didn’t smoke in our class, so everybody else went to go smoke to start chatting. We were the in the other corner, so that also put us together. Lukas worked the script by himself, he is pretty much a control freak, and the only other person that he really asks questions and lets into collaboration is me, so far. He wants me to read the different drafts and discuss it a little bit. Some times he changes stuff, sometimes not.
In a movie like this, which is very much about the visuals, what was your storyboarding process?
We do more like a shooting list. We draw 'floor plans.' Even though we might not have our locations yet, we would do our wish location as 'floor plan.' For example, this site has a certain amount of trees, and this other site, it is road. So we put a little bit of our own limits on things, and together with this we do a very detailed shot-list.
Both of us are very bad at drawing. I would really love to be good at that, it would make everything so much easier for me, to be able to draw perspectives. But I can’t. So it is more like a written thing. With Hagazussa, somebody helped me, with all of what we wrote, we had someone do the drawings. It was handy for the entire team, particularly those who came on later. It is always easier if you see it.
It is a very bold thing to shoot on location in the snow. The opening shot in the film is quite extraordinary, and it lays down a kind of visual promise for the film. That it will be both beautiful, but quite lonely. There is something melancholy about a little girl pulling a sled through the snow by herself. Could you talk about the shot?
We had a few big overhead shots planned for the film, we were going to have several that echo that when Albrun [the little girl] is grown up. But that was budget. We called it the 'God’s Eye' shot. It is a very surrendering type of image. To look at someone from so high up, pulling the sled, there is a sacrificial feeling to it. I was happy to achieve it for that opening shot. We like it a lot.
Working together with the production design, everyone worked fairly smoothly together on all elements. It was very tight, we were just just a few. Eleven. We went to the Alps to shot the snowy parts, and we were more like a camping group than a film crew.
I don’t think anyone had filmed in the snow before. It was an bonding experience, sometimes the car wouldn’t go any further, and everyone was out pushing. Those kind of things immediately put you together. When we were shooting in the summer time, also in the Alps, we were all sleeping in one cabin, so also like high school camp.
The atmosphere was very friendly. Lukas made clear that he was completely trusting everyone for the work. Everyone did enough to earn that confidence. For me, every day knowing that these people are working on this project, it is not necessarily theirs, but in a way it is, but we were not paying anybody. Everyone was there because they wanted to, and they believed that we would have a nice product in the end. That was very gratifying.
There were insert shots of horses legs, for a scene following it with a dolly in the snow, I thought that would be very difficult to follow on tracks in the snow, but it wasn’t. It takes time.
There are a lot of objects, witchcraft totems of a sort, shown and lingered upon in the film, objects that are contextualized in the frame. But the film is ultimately focused on the humanity of Albrun when you shoot the characters, they are more isolated in close-up with the background out of focus. Can you talk about the balance of these two things?
Yes. The focus was always on the faces. The characters through their faces.
Did you have a sense, what the movie was going to sound like, and did that play a role in how the film was lensed?
I am a very very musical person. If I wasn’t be doing doing films, I would definitely be involved in something with music. Lukas is as well. He is more like the, ‘researcher of music.’ He knew from the beginning, if not who is going to do it, because that is difficult to guess, with money and everything, but he definitely knows how the film wants to sound. This has been with the first short film until this one. While we are going through the shot list, we are listening to the music he imagined would be in the film.
So, the music, the musical atmosphere, was also there from the beginning. One thing that I really respect about Lukas was that he liked this band this Greek duo, MMMD, and wrote to them to ask if they would do the score to the film. We sent them the winter scenes from the film, and cut a kind of teaser to show them in Greece. And they said yes. The same happened with the guy who designed the posters, he is a British designer, he does a lot of covers for Metal albums.
On one hand, the movie is, so to speak, ‘very Metal,’ on the other hand it is not at all - in that it is sensual and often desperately quiet and sad. For instance, the scene where Arbrun walks into the swamp, and the frogs scatter out of the way.
We shot that entirely with natural light. We only used lights in the inside of the cabin (And a tiny panel of LEDs for one exterior shot.) The rest was done naturally. I love to work with natural light. If I could only work with natural light, even with interiors, I would do so. I knew when the best window of light was there, but it was not always possible.
When we had the baby, and the young girl, that can be difficult with the timing. There were moments when we had to work with what was there. Lukas is very sensitive about the visual parts, however, so he knows it is not me being only stubborn when I want to wait for two hours. He gave that time, if we, production-wise, could do it. In that scene with the frogs we were very lucky, we never thought about the frogs (but of course, we were in a swamp!) and when they started jumping, that was one of the magic touches you sometimes get in a film.
Can you talk about the quite sensual sequence with Arbrun with the goat. It is rather risqué in its execution, and it is shot really up close.
That was something that we actually did not storyboard. We did not now exactly how the actress [Aleksandra Cwen] was going do it. We also did not know how the goat was going to react. So my thought was to be as near as I can, and I would just move along wherever she takes me. I think it worked fine.
The challenge for me was when I read it in the script, how it was going be. This triangle was going to be, between Lukas, Aleksandra and me in such a scene. I don’t know about confident or comfortable. Or with Lukas as a man and we both women. Technically-wise, it was very easy. I connect very well with Aleksandra, we respect each other quite a lot, and communicate very well. I have confidence to [literally] lean on her to get the shot, or even be sitting on her. That is very nice.
The difficult part was that she had to learn to milk the goat. That was not easy. We had the owner of the goat, and they were probably an hour rehearsing. We thought we might use other hands, as an insert, but then that would not have been organic at all. It was very nice that she achieved it.
So if that ended up being surprisingly easy technically, is there something that turned out to be difficult?
Mmm. Yea. The rape scene. It is shot from very far away, but also from above Arbrun where we see her lying down. It was not easy because we did not have all the means to make it a really secure overhead shot.
We were in the middle of the mountains and it was just about to storm. There was thunder and lightning and it was a little bit stressful. On paper that felt like it would be super easy, but wasn’t easy.
Is there another film or collaboration on the horizon?
Lukas has started writing something. A treatment. We are only at the very beginning. I hope we can continue to work together. Currently, I am preparing a film in Mexico which is supposed to shoot in February. It is completely different. I describe it as a trashy comedy - a road trip in the desert.
I have worked in documentaries in Mexico, as a camera assistant a lot. With some of those contacts, I am hoping to continue work also in Mexico as a DP, but I would not like to lose Berlin as a working environment.