Interview: Down With Film Talks To Independent Film-maker and “Menschen” Director Sarah Lofti
One of our most anticipated films of 2013 is the independently made “Menschen”, which is being directed by the immensely talented Sarah Lofti. Sarah took time out of her busy schedule to answer some of our questions about not just Menschen but also the process of an independent film-maker
Down With Film) Going way back to the beginning, what is it exactly that inspired you to become a film maker?
Sarah Lofti) Movies were my main source of play and entertainment as a kid. I was awestruck, I’d always ask my mom how the filmmakers did this or that and all she would tell me was that it was a “camera trick”. That answer was never good enough for me, so once I got investigating I never wanted to stop.
DWF) Is the Second World War a subject you’re particularly passionate about?
SL) The men and women from WWII are often referred to as “the greatest generation” and not without reason in my opinion. It’s hard to explain but when I look at that period there is such a dire feeling that the world might truly end. Such high stakes make for a timeless type of compelling entertainment.
DWF) What were the influences behind the story of Menschen
SL) I had worked very closely with a group of WWII re-enactors that represented the Wehrmacht impression on my prior film The Last Bogatyr in 2009. They turned me on to many memoirs from that perspective that I knew I wanted to return to the era. Our executive producer Robert Dassanowsky has been a long time mentor to me and some of his family’s experiences from wartime Austria influenced some of the narrative of Menschen here and there. WWII is affluent in movie adaptations so I wanted to challenge myself to find a subject that had not been directly touched on. It took me some time but I realized the answer was staring me in the face. Having a brother and sister with Down Syndrome has given me a huge sensitivity to disability. When I went to do my research on what the disability community faced during World War II I stumbled upon Action T-4. The Nazi’s created Action T-4 to target disabled children and adults and implemented the program in all their occupied territories. The victims had families who were caught up serving the Wehrmacht and that’s the story that would become Menschen.
DWF) – How difficult was it for you to write the script, especially tackling some of the themes that you incorporate in the film
SL) Menschen was challenging to write because it is a fiction. It was a plausible fiction from the historical experts who were consulting me as I was formulating the story. It was more challenging when the time came to translate it into German with the Austrian vernacular, because I am not fluent with the German language. I was very lucky to have native speakers working with me to convey the same meaning and still have the lines read as elevated dialogue in the German language.
DWF) How long did it take you to write Menschen and was there any changes on set whilst you where filming?
SL) I had the concept for Menschen in my head for about two and half years before I ever finished a complete draft. It was one of those projects where it needed to really ripen until the time was right to make it. The doors really opened in 2012 and over three months I went from an incomplete script with a plotted outline to a completed draft.
There are always challenges shooting any film. A good filmmaker prepares for everything that could possibly go wrong so when the one thing that you didn’t foresee comes up you can deal with that because you’ve already prepared for all the other would-be disasters. Our first and last days of shooting were our most ambitious: large set pieces, action to choreograph with extras to direct and arrange. The more people on set the more complicated it is to direct. With Menschen the film is an ensemble drama, there is always the action in the foreground that I scripted but there is also a lot of background action to coordinate as well.
DWF) Was it difficult to acquire the funds to make Menschen? And what was the time-scale for completing the script to getting the film in the can?
SL) Menschen is not your typical independent short film. We were very ambitious in the time parameters that we wanted to get the film completed. At the beginning of 2012, the script solidified and casting began. We moved quickly into production over 12 days of shooting from May to June, making every dollar count. We had an accelerated crowd-funding campaign for our production budget and even with fiscal sponsorship from the non-profit Fractured Atlas we were really pressed to raise the funds we needed. Fortunately for the film, the track record of many of those involved and the appeal of the story itself took Menschen very far. It was a film that stood out for it’s story and one my whole community really got behind. By the end of the summer we had the film edited and at the beginning of October the film was completed with an original score and sound design. Several filmmaker peers of mine have commented on how efficient our team has been in cranking out Menschen. We’ve finished a 28-minute war film in just under 9 months.
DWF) Is there a particular part of the film-making process that you love the most? Is there one part that you absolutely hate?
SL) Most of the time I’d say I look forward to production the most. As a writer-director words really cannot do justice the feeling you get when you see your vision fulfilled. Directing talent and camera is a choreography I live for. Normally I would say the moment production ends and there is nothing more to shoot there is a little part of me that dreads getting through post-production because it is going to be the moment of truth whether you got everything you needed. But with Menschen I was really taken a back by how the film really met my hopes. I remember seeing Menschen for the first time with sound and music and being moved to tears just to see it come together after all our work on it. A film belongs to everyone involved, all the people who gave their artistry and craft to Menschen really make the film what it is…and that is something I will always take with me.
DWF) How did you go about directing the action sequences in Menschen?
SL) Action is best plotted out on paper in my approach. For the bombing of the convoy I sketeched out blocking charts with each and every actor and vehicle and where they would scramble to. I storyboarded it as best I could with my DP and then on the day of the shoot I had my ADs and a great big megaphone to call the shots for me. All the pyrotechnics around that scene were included on my chart and were planned with the professionals around the location long before we got there.
DWF) Looking back on Menschen now is there anything you’d want to go back and change in either the production or the film itself?
SL) Perhaps I would have taken my time or started earlier, lol.
DWF) With ‘Menschen’, what kind of reaction are you hoping to get from the audience?
SL) I hope audiences will look beyond the production value and be moved by the sincere story that is at its core. I hope it will change their perspective, I hope it will make them think. I hope it will spur people to support more independent film.
DWF) What’s the future for Menschen?
SL) Well the short film is already on it’s way to festivals we’ve submitted to a third of the festivals we’ve targeted here in the US, Europe and Eurasia. We anticipate the film running the festival circuit through the end of 2013. I always saw Menschen as a feature, there is so much more of the story to tell. My hope is that the short film we have completed now will open the door for me to bring the feature film into production in the coming years…I have already begun writing the feature.
DWF) Any advice for any independent film makers looking to get started in the business?
SL) Everyone has to find their own path. And the only way you can make it is to be true to your own vision. Tell stories that come from your heart that you are passionate about. Support the filmmakers in your community and take each and every opportunity you have to learn. Being a filmmaker for me means being a perpetual learner, there is always something to be gained from a filmmaking experience however hard or rewarding it may seem to you at the time. I think the secret is to never give up and stay humble however successful the world judges you to be.
DWF) What about yourself, what does the future hold for Sarah Lotfi?
SL) Well thanks to Menschen, I have at last found a filmmaking partner I want to collaborate with for the rest of my life. My producer Anastasia M. Cummings found her way to Menschen and through the production she has become more than a team player she became my best friend. Anastasia’s vast experience on an international level has really pushed me to another plane, and earned her an incredible reputation for professionalism. As a female filmmaker it is perhaps even harder to pave your way in the industry. When I work with Anastasia, her experience and insight are not only invaluable they are empowering. We are definitely going to continue our professional partnership on future projects. I am no fortune teller I will take the future as it comes.
DWF) Finally, you’re stuck on a desert island what three films would you choose to have with you to watch?
SL) Only 3! I cannot narrow it down to three, this is world cinema we’re talking about.
Thanks again to Sarah for taking the time out to answer our questions
Support Menschen by checking out the websites for the film and it’s production here;
More information can also be found at their website at http://www.menschenthemovie.com/.
Find Menschen on Facebook www.facebook.com/menschenmovie
The film’s creators have also started a line of memorabilia products on CafePress, which can be purchased for prices between $6.49 and $49.99. See memorabilia products at http://www.cafepress.com/menschenmovie.
If that isn’t enough we’ve also got a behind the scenes video covering the production design on Menschen. Check it out below