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Interview with Igor Neljak

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In the same day of our’ festival’s event, on 20th April 2024, we had such a nice conversation with the Croatian film-maker, who directed the short movie “Kiseru”

Kiseru shot by Igor Neljak, a Croatian film-maker based in Berlin, has so far been one of the short movies most appreciated by the audience of the Indiecinema Film Festival, third edition. But it also has another record: it was one of the first two films screened at the new festival’s Roman location: we mean the Bottega dell’Attore in Via dei Volsci 3, San Lorenzo.
Close to this event we managed to contact the author directly, who in addition to sending us a nice video message, stayed with us for a while to talk about his inspiration.

From the film school to Indiecinema Film Festival

In the three editions of indiecinema Film Festival we organized till now, some of the short movies and feature films in competition that we appreciated the most had a relationship with genres: horror, science fiction, even western. Considering the short film you shot, what is your relationship with the genre?

I’ve always felt very connected to the sci-fi genre. Growing up in the early 90’s, VHS cassettes, comics and books, most of whom were sci-fi, really shaped my childhood. And not only that, they also shaped my imagination. Sci-fi, as well as adventure and fantasy, can greatly contribute to instilling a sense of invigoration in young viewers. Of course I love cinema and all of its various forms, but sci-fi offers greater freedom to explore challenging ideas and out of the box thinking. Ideally, all genres should primarily serve as frameworks for further exploration.

Kiseru was born in a film school, right? And what was your budget?

During my Film Directing course at MET Film School Berlin I made a short exercise for one of the initial modules. Although it was shot with a mobile phone I loved the vibe and the feeling of the final edit and thought about evolving it to something more complex in the future. So I put it in the drawer and forgot about it. Few weeks before we were supposed to present some rough ideas for our graduation project to our mentors I was completely empty and without inspiration even after taking the project from the , drawer. Then Hannah Pearson came to the rescue (smiling, edit’r’s note). She is an amazing colleague and creative mind, and was actually in the same school with me finishing her MA in Screenwriting. I presented her with the rough ideas and the short exercise and she created an outline that was already speaking volumes. After that we bounced ideas back and forth until everything was fully developed. Not only did I learn a lot from her about developing a screenplay but I also learned the importance of working with a screenwriter. Even if you write your own stuff – work with the screenwriter! The overall budget was very modest, around 5000 Eur. But because the whole team put so much love and care into the project, it feels like much much more.

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Japanese style and elegant images

Katana. Bonsai. The strategical game called Go. Tea ceremony. We were very charmed by the numerous references to Japanese culture. So does it represent a strong and deep-rooted interest for you too?

Japanese culture has always fascinated me but I have never explored it in such depth as I did for this project. I felt that the idea behind the movie needed to root itself into Japanese culture for the message I wanted to convey would have the most impact. Also Japanese philosophy towards life is something that resonates with me.

What is also fascinating, about the short movie, is the attention to the image and the settings. How did you work on photography?

The photography process was super simple 🙂 It started with an 8 picture mood-board that I presented to Matija Petrović (DOP) and Mario Okun (Gaffer). Because I already worked with these 2 maestros all we needed was a few beers and that was it. They had the freedom to do whatever they wanted and it turned out amazing. The challenging part was location availability (bonsai garden, tea house etc.). Not only were the locations that could serve the story almost non-existent, but two weeks before the principal photography we experienced one of the biggest storms that hit Croatia in the last 20, 30 years. Almost all of our exterior locations were torn apart. So we needed to build a lot in the studio and adapt to the conditions outside. Fortunately everything fell into place.

Female charachters and Philosofical mood

Philosophical science fiction, humanist thinking, distinction between human and non-human seem to mix in your work. What can you tell us about these themes and upon the way you developed them in the movie?

The whole point of making films is to be able to give 100% of yourself into the process. And by implementing themes that are important to you will not only make it yours but will make it stand out from the crowd. The themes you mentioned are something that I have always been fascinated by and in this particular case I developed them through dialogue, colour, set design and the feel of the edit. They are definitely going to be the focus of my work in the future.

The performers of the short seem to release a certain magnetism, especially the two female protagonists. How did the casting happen?

Mar Brighenti Valtuena is a good friend from Berlin where she is currently studying acting. We already worked on a small project before and I knew from the start that she is the perfect choice for the part. Choosing our second actress would be much more difficult if it was not for Sanja Drakulić, casting director and CEO of Duart, a Croatian marketplace for A/V professionals. After I approached her with the finished script she immediately pointed me towards Annamaria Serda, a perfect fit for the role. Annamaria was already in a number of U.S films such as Mayhem (20th Century FOX) directed by Joe Lynch, Crawl (Paramount Pictures) and she has appeared in the popular CW fantasy adventure series The Outpost. Both Mar and Annamaria approached this task in a super professional manner and interestingly enough we never had any rehearsals. I wanted to give them full liberty in developing the characters as they see fit. So what we did is we had a long initial call about the characters traits and I gave them props they will be using to really get into that state of mind. So they made origami, practised tea ceremony, worked on mental focus and body movement etc. Then we came to the location and just started with our first take, and it just went naturally from there.

From Croatia to Germany

Moving from Croatia to Germany, what idea did you have of the cinematographic culture and the possibilities offered to indie movies, in the two countries?

Although I have been living in Germany for two years I still have a long way to go to fully understand the possibilities of the local film market. But it is big! Bundesregierung für Kultur und Medien is offering a plethora of support for film professionals in Germany and the film industry is strong because of the ongoing foreign and domestic productions. Also Berlin has an amazing art community with thousands of creative minds working on all levels imaginable, from pottery and drawing to new media and experimental art. The community is diverse and any filmmaker will have no problem finding collaborators that can support his/hers vision.. I am fortunate enough to have an amazing crew in Croatia but I don’t have a comment on local possibilities for indie filmmakers as Croatia film industry was never my focus.

Finally, are you already working on some new project?

From the beginning Hannah and I agreed that Kiseru is going to be a proof of concept for the feature version of the film, something we are currently working on. This feature version is still going to tackle some ideas but will be less philosophical and will have a mix of action and thriller to it. Because the ideas are universal we are currently looking for producers from China and Japan and would love to shoot the whole project there.

Picture of Stefano Coccia

Stefano Coccia