André Schneider on A Second Chance
by Kilian Melloy, EDGE on the net, 31 May, 2012
André Schneider’s background as a standup comedian has prepared him well for writing and starring in comedies like Alex & Leo, but he’s also made dramatic films — as well as films that fall in between genres, such as the thriller/dark comedy The Man in the Cellar, his first directorial effort, from 2008.
Schneider’s polymath skills extend to fluency in several languages, as EDGE discovered while conducting an email interview with the filmmaker about his second directorial effort, the gay romance drama A Second Chance.
“I was conceived, born, bred, and raised here in Germany,” Schneider told EDGE. “My parents did not speak any foreign languages except ‘Plattdeutsch,’ which is somewhat a language of its own, but still some sort of German.”
Schneider’s multilingual talents have gone to good use on A Second Chance, now hitting the film festival circuit, which is mostly in French. Moreover, Schneider has written and produced two English language films: Half Past Ten (2008), and the short film Deed Poll (2004).
EDGE asked the 34-year-old Schneider, who is fluent in four languages, about his multilingual skills.
“When I was 13, my parents sent me to school in Christchurch, Dorset, England, to improve my English,” Schneider recounted. “From then on, I took some time in England, Ireland, and later the US every year.” Schneider added that he has “lived in Folkestone, London, Clonmel, Ireland, and Iowa,” and that he had “learned French and Spanish at school and improved it later ‘on my own.’
“Now I’m fluent in these four languages and studied Ancient Indian Languages at the Freie Universität in Berlin, too: Hindi, Sanskrit, and Pakrit, but I don’t remember that much.”
Schneider has been making films for years, but he might be best known on this side of the Atlantic for his gay comedy Alex & Leo, which he wrote and assistant directed. The film also starred himself as Alex, and adult film actor Marcel Schlutt as Leo. That film also included a character named Tobi, played by Udo Lutz, and a (straight) female character named Steffi Graf (Sascia Haj).
“The Tobi character was always my favorite one,” added the filmmaker, speaking of the role played with brilliant comic panache by Udo Lutz. “He’s so colorful, witty and bitchy, but also a sensitive, loyal friend. I wrote Alex & Leo for Udo Lutz, Sascia Haj, and Barbara Kowa and focused my attention mainly on their characters. The love story was only of secondary interest to me.”
Schneider added, “Udo is very much like Tobi in real life; he actually had to play it a bit down when we shot Alex and Leo, the filmmaker recounted. “He’s marvelously gifted. His sense of humor is so unique! If you’re invited for tea at his place, it’s always like a big one-man cabaret show. I’ve never known anyone this incisively funny in my life.”
‘A Second Chance’
“I’ll be one of this year’s guests of honor,” Schneider noted. “The only German among the French,” added the filmmaker, mischievously.
In A Second Chance, Schneider is one of two lead characters, and has much more screen time, along with Laurent Delpit, his co-star. Schneider mused on the theme of wearing multiple hats in the filmmaking process.
“Out of the five leads in Alex & Leo, Alex [Schneider’s character] was the least interesting one. He and I really didn’t have much in common. But we needed a contrast: Tobi, Steffi and Kerstin were all somewhat crazy, and Leo’s going through a rather big transition [in the course of the film]. Alex had to be a little more down to earth to balance the whole thing out. So I knew it was vital to the film to portray him a little, well, let’s say ‘not-so-interesting.’ But I didn’t like that part too much. I would have loved to deliver some laughs, be a bit more light and fun.”
Telling His Stories
As André in A Second Chance, Schneider carries half the burden in terms of dramatic weight. But Schneider intimated that he didn’t find the load too much to bear at all.
“Being a writer-actor-director comes very naturally to me,” Schneider said. “Basically, I refer to myself as being a storyteller. Whether I tell a story through my writing, my acting, my music, or my movie making, is secondary.
“Normally, I ‘just’ write, produce, and act and leave the directing to someone else,” Schneider went on to say. “For A Second Chance, I took the director’s seat for the first time since 2006. It was a wonderful experience: I was the one in charge, I was responsible.”
With so many responsibilities already on his plate, the prospect of making a film in a foreign language might have been daunting to some; not to Schneider, however, who tackled A Second Chance without worrying about it being in French, with smatterings of German and English thrown in for good measure. (Indeed, during the filmmaking process, Schneider kept maintained dual blogs about the process, writing one of them in English.)
“I’ve always wanted to tell a love story between two countries, and I’ve always been drawn to France,” Schneider recounted. “So it came quite naturally. I’d already made films in German, English, and Spanish, and by the end of 2011, the time was right for this little film. It’s just a small little romance, almost a meditation. I’m very happy that we’re close to giving birth now. It’s been nine months of hard, demanding work.”
Love and Loss and Love
A Second Chance revolves around two former lovers, André and Laurent, who were together for a decade but have who have been separated for three years at the start of the film. When Laurent decides to pay his ex a visit, both men are hoping to rekindle some part of their connection.
“We’ve all been through something, whether it’s a death or something else; you get that phone call, and all of a sudden, life has changed,” noted Schneider. “A Second Chance starts with a phone call: André receives, for the first time after their separation three years ago, a phone call from his ex-partner Laurent, who tells him he wants to visit him in Berlin. Cautiously, André awaits the arrival of Laurent, with whom he’d lived for ten years in Paris.
“The strains had been too many and had lasted for too long, and they were never really able to communicate in a proper way. In one scene, André says to Laurent, ‘I want to talk and not just speak!’” Schneider recounted. “André felt that Laurent didn’t take the relationship serious enough, and Laurent didn’t understand André’s need to discuss everything to the detail. They have quite different backgrounds: the somewhat ‘light’ French mentality is, in many respects, rather different from the ‘heavy’ German way of thinking.
“Also, André had put a lot on his shoulders to maintain this relationship: He moved to France, left his friends and family behind, learned his partner’s language, built up a new life in Paris. In return, Laurent didn’t bother to learn German, for instance, so André could never introduce him to his parents. This is just one example, but it tells a whole lot about the nature of their relationship.
“On the other hand, there’s an incredibly powerful connection — they have the same sense of humor, they both enjoy the arts and good food, and even after all these years, there’s still a strong sexual attraction that never ceased to amaze them both.”
And sex, while not the main event, is present in A Second Chance, first as an undercurrent of desire and then as a means of completing a new connection. That’s something the film establishes from the beginning, noted Schneider: “As soon as both hang up they already kind of know what’s going to happen. When they finally see each other, they discover that their feelings for each other are still very strong, despite of the many things that once lead to their painful break-up. For the first time ever, they really communicate, and after a long weekend together, they decide to grant their relationship a second chance.
“I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of telling a love story not only between two cities but two countries, two languages, two cultures,” the filmmaker added. “How do two people with entirely different backgrounds build bridges? How do they keep their love alive? It certainly takes a lot of courage and commitment.”
A Second Chance makes use of documentary-style interludes, with the characters addressing the camera directly and talking about their perspectives. “I thought it was a simple and elegant way to introduce Laurent and André,” Schneider explained. “Their body language gives away quite a lot, don’t you think? And it reveals a lot about their different perceptions of the relationship: Laurent thinks they’d been together ‘for seven years, maybe longer,’ whereas André knows the exact date when they met. Laurent says that they weren’t monogamous and he’s ‘sure that André knew,’ and André doesn’t talk about this subject at all. In the time of reality shows on TV, I thought it was a technique that a lot of people are used to by now.”
The tension and anticipation build as the two characters dance around one another, both wanting the same thing but neither certain about how, or whether, to make a move. They’re in a courtship phase all over again, but with the added wrinkle of already having had a long-term relationship.
“After a break of several months, or even years, it takes quite some effort and generosity, really, to get things going again,” Schneider opined. “When both agree that their bond is strong enough and their love is worth working for — I don’t like the term ‘fighting’ in this context–then it’s definitely possible.”
Another interesting technique Schneider chose to use was to set the sex scenes (and a brief fantasy sequence) in an environment devoid of anything except the actors: No furniture, propos, or even set is visible. The action takes place before a black background, focusing and intensifying the erotic connection.
“I wanted to show that space and time didn’t matter to Laurent and André in this moment,” Schneider said. “No outside world, just their bodies and souls reconnecting.”
Even so, these moments of rarefied connection are sex scenes, and to film sex scenes, Schneider told EDGE, requires one thing above all else.
“Trust!” Schneider exclaimed. “Trust in your partner, in your director of photography, in the lighting, in the make-up. Forgetting that there are people, most of them almost complete strangers, standing all around you and not forgetting that you’re doing ‘it’ for the camera. In many aspects, a sex scene is like a dance scene, it’s choreography: One, two, turn your head to the left, four, five, turn your partner around.
“In A Second Chance, I didn’t want a sex scene,” Schneider added, “I wanted a love scene. They’re not having sex, they’re making love. It’s a big difference. We only had a very small team, which made us feel very comfortable, and we never shot below the belly button.”
Given that the main characters share the first names of the actors portraying them, the viewer might wonder how autobiographical the film is. The answer? Not at all… or, at least, no more so than usual for Schneider.
“Doing my stand-up act as a comedian has always been cathartic for me, that’s true,” the writer-director acknowledged. “I once said that all my writings are kind of autobiographical, and maybe, in a way, they really are, but when I develop a film script, I usually don’t take ‘real’ stories from my own life. Some dialogue, some scenes, may have actually happened, yes, but I’m not really interested in exhibiting my life in that manner.
“A Second Chance is not an autobiographical movie at all,” Schneider added. “It was just a story that provoked my interest. Laurent and I have known each other for many years, but there was never anything but friendship between us. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have done this movie with him.”
The two male leads don’t have to carry the film for its entire running length; there are a couple of scenes with a third character, a female neighbor, who pops up to inject a very different sort of energy into the film.
“Now, that is a true story that’s happened to me; even the dialogue is taken word by word from real encounters with my upstairs neighbor in Berlin,” Schneider revealed. “I always wanted to have that in a movie because it’s so crazy and funny — you can’t make this kind of stuff up. Life itself is the best joke. Hanna Schwab, who played this neighbor, was simply wonderful. We laughed so hard when we edited her scenes.”
And speaking of editing, EDGE interjected, did Schneider find it to be true, as some filmmakers have said, that a movie truly finds its shape, and sometimes its character, in the editing suite, rather than in the scripting or filming stages?
“In the case of A Second Chance, I knew beforehand what the movie would be like,” Schneider reckoned. “It was quite different when we made The Man in the Cellar a couple of years ago. Throughout filming, we all thought we would make a thriller, and in the editing room we discovered that it was more of a black comedy. We didn’t really notice that before.
“In the editing you set the pace of a movie, and pace is everything,” Schneider added. “Watching an editor creating a real movie out of the many pieces of the puzzle never ceases to fascinate me.”
A Second Chance runs about 50 minutes, which is around half the length of a typical feature but considerably longer than short films tend to be. “It will probably be harder to find a distributor,” Schneider noted, “but on the other hand I don’t really care. It’s a good movie, that’s all that matters to me, and I rather watch an interesting piece of film of 50 minutes than watching a boring one that lasts 100 minutes or more. Many festivals are now open to mid-length movies, so A Second Chance will find its audience.”
Having made both comedies and dramas, Schneider offered EDGE his personal conclusion about which is harder to write and direct.
“Comedy, for me, is easier to write. I’d been a stand-up comic for many, many years, so writing comedy comes very natural to me. I am very good when it comes to writing punch lines and funny dialogue.
“Comedy is harder to act or direct, though,” Schneider added. “Writing drama is more of a challenge, but I like a good challenge. I love character development, creating the psyche of a person, and then watching it brought to life by an actor or actress. That’s an uplifting feeling. I still dream of conceiving a real profound psychological thriller.”
Having two films in festivals at the same time might be cause enough for some filmmakers to take a break, but Schneider is forging ahead full steam, he told EDGE.
“We’re preparing two movies. My next film will be in English again,” Schneider revealed. “It’ll be a gay romantic thriller set in Switzerland titled The Most Tender Game. The second one will be a droll sex comedy that we’ll shoot in Berlin next year.”