The trojan horse

Franka Potente on making her directorial début with Home

by Paul Risker

Home Photo: courtesy of Strike Media

German actress Franka Potente makes her feature directorial début with Home, the story of Marvin (Jake McLaughlin), a 40-year-old felon who returns to his Californian home town after serving his sentence for murder. Receiving a cold reception from the community, he's forced to confront his past as he tries to reconnect with his mother Bernadette (Kathy Bates).

In conversation with Eye For Film, Potente discussed the casual metaphor of filmmaking as war, being deprived creative milestones by the pandemic, and how cinema like life is a trojan horse.

Paul Risker: Filmmakers have often compared the filmmaking process to having a child, that you eventually send out into the world once they’ve grown up. How do you compare and contrast the creation of the character as a performer, to your experience as a writer and director?

Jake McLaughlin in Home
Jake McLaughlin in Home Photo: courtesy of Strike Media

Franka Potente: Well, to stay with your suggested metaphor, (I’m making this up as we go), being an actor is like you're that part of the one night stand that leaves the semen so to speak. The director is the one having a difficult pregnancy and carrying full term. I don't even know if that's cool to say, but directing and writing, this whole process in the case of Home, was four years of my life.

As an actor you're hired and you're given this little area to garden. To do the whole thing, that's like owning the land. What the person who has the little garden doesn't know is that people trample all over your land, there's a drought, or there's a fire, and so it felt like war in the best of the worst sense.

I went to work in a track suit everyday because I physically felt I had to be ready for everything. I had to be able to jump, climb and karate chop my way through the day. It sounds awful, but I did this with joy. As a director you have to love challenges, and you have to love the stressful decisions that you have one second to make.

PR: It’s true that a storyteller must be willing to fight for their work. In the end, their the one charged with the task of speaking up for the idea. This expression of it being like war however, is often casually used.

FP: … I don't want it to be a battle every day. There are times when people agree with you, and there are all sorts of things that are brought to you. Sometimes they're disguised as something positive, but what it really is, is someone's trying to tell you that they now have less money, and so you have to change something about your story. So yes, you have to fight for your ideas and you have to keep the reins at all times.

Kathy Bates in Home
Kathy Bates in Home Photo: courtesy of Strike Media

Again this was my first time as a director - an independent, lower budget experience. I'm sure there are places where the grass is a little greener, and I hope to get there.

Our story thank God was small enough that I could make decisions and changes that didn't mess with its core. I always tried to protect this and stay loyal to the story I wanted to tell, that I thought was important for the actors.

… There are many things you're choosing not to battle because there's nothing you can do. When I say it feels like war, it's my little imagination of how a soldier feels in a metaphoric way. It's having to deal with all of these spontaneous things that are thrown at you, and your decision as this huge impact on the outcome, which is scary as hell, but also fun. You're right that it's used very casually – “it felt like war.” My God, we're artists. We get paid to do our hobbies, so maybe tone it down a bit [laughs].

PR: There’s the idea that there are three versions of a film – the film that is written, the film that is shot, and the film that is edited. Interviewing filmmaker Pablo Larraín, he spoke of how you discover the film in the final cut. Would you agree that filmmaking is a process of discovery?

FP: I’d compare the process to farming. You plant the seed, you water it and then you harvest. It felt seamless because often when you're planning a sequence or a scene, you have to think about the editing and what you need. I'm very realistic and I love planning, which is budget friendly. I plan with my DP and I’d say, “I already know it's not going to make the cut.” Having said that, there are a lot of things that didn't make it into the film, that were great scenes. Sometimes you have to shoot something in order to get somewhere. It's like a bridge that you then take out, but you needed it to walk across. I love editing - it's like you've compiled this pile of fun, great and colourful things, like a puzzle, and now you have to put it altogether.

Home Photo: courtesy of Strike Media

PR: Has it always been a drive to write and direct, to expand your creative voice and expression? Having now taken this step, do you now feel more complete?

FP: Some days and not others. I don't know exactly what it means. It's satisfying, but for instance my movie was finished when the pandemic started, so I've been robbed of a couple of those aspects of completion. Art and writing is nothing without an audience. It’s what I make it for, I don't just make it for myself. Sure I love the experience and I feel the meaning of that. To be depleted of a live audience and cinematic experience in a theatre is argh, I have to pull my head out of my ass about that a little bit. I can't be so precious about it, I have to be, 'Okay, this is just how it is. It’s not just me, it's other colleagues too.’

… I loved the experience and I can't wait to direct again. I’ve written other scripts, but at the same time I'm an actor, a mother, and I love travelling. There are so many things I love to do. If for whatever reason I couldn't do this, I'd take that energy and try to do something else. I love it and I hope that's not going to happen, but I try not to be precious about it and I try to have fun.

It's comparable to when I got my first tattoo many years ago. I overthought it, and looked at everything and the meaning - totally ridiculous. By the way, that tattoo has now been removed. When I get a tattoo now, and this is my personal opinion, I'm looking more for what's fun. I understand it as one little detail that completes one aspect of me, but it has to do with where you are in your life with different things, and what else is occupying your mind. I've so many, but unfortunately I don't get paid for all of them [laughs].

Home Photo: courtesy of Strike Media

PR: Home is about forgiveness, justice, and our tendency for impulsive responses, an echo of our increasingly adversarial society. You’re not heavy handed in presenting these themes and ideas, instead you trust the audience to engage with and develop them.

FP: When you make a personal or subjective film, you can't help but make it for yourself, and that’s how I like to watch movies. If something is shoved down my throat, I feel a little insulted because I could have figured that out for myself. If the audience are given a chance to discover and peel away the layers of the characters and meaning, and give themselves a chance to watch it personally, as if the film were manufactured just for them, then the take away will be bigger and it will last longer.

On the surface this film is about a man who has killed someone, yet it’s about so many other things. It's like a trojan horse so to speak. You can choose to see the horse, or see what's inside. I personally like stories like that, and if we're honest, our day-to-day experience with people is more complicated now.

If you go to a dinner and you don't know anyone, until people have had a good amount of alcohol, they pretend to be this and that – this is your trojan horse. It's little moments that are fun because they're revealing. They tell us so much more, and then we putting together our own view of what happened, or who the person is. Humans can't stop doing that, and I do it all day long.

Home Photo: courtesy of Strike Media

PR: In that sense, Home is a familiar story. One reason the same stories are told again and again is to help each generation deal with those cyclic themes that confront each generation.

FP: It's the same story you repeat. We can't reinvent the wheel, but it can be a different colour, size or speed.

PR: Before to after, has the process of making Home changed you as a person?

FP: It's a lot of different experiences in a short period of time. The question is more, if anyone who is working on the film with me, who is experiencing similar things in the same density, or even an higher density changing just as much or less? It's a very complex question.

The biggest change for me is that I feel like I did it - I walked through fire, and that's the war thing again. So there's a lot of stuff I could do, that I'm maybe less afraid of.

I asked for very little because it was important to me that I was a compliant team player creatively, but I can maybe take a little more freedom to be less like that sometimes. It'll be curious to see what happens, but overall it's just the experience of, ‘Okay, I did that.’

I'm 47-years-old now and even though it was hard, it wasn't like Fitzcarraldo pulling the boat across the mountain, but it felt similar at times. So it's not the biggest achievement of my life, but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I'd love to repeat it and that's a good feeling. You don't get to say that everyday.

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