Thursday, 10 February 2011

MODRA: It's All In the Family for Director, Ingrid Veninger

"It's Slovakia, asshole!" 17 year old Lina yells from her window at her departing ex-boyfriend, Tyler (who has confused Slovakia with Slovenia). So begins the Canadian teen flick with a difference called MODRA by writer, director, producer, Ingrid Veninger. Veninger is best known for her role as producer of the multiple-Genie Award noniminated, NURSE.FIGHTER.BOY by Charles Officer. I had a chance to interview Veninger about the film in which Lina, having been dumped by Tyler, impulsively asks a boy (Leco) from her school to accompany her on her vacation to Slovakia, where she will be reunited with family she hasn't seen since she was a child. Below is my interview with Veninger about this very personal film.

donna g: One of the things I admire about MODRA is the independent spirit behind it: your spirit. You wrote, directed, and produced a very personal film and then braved the waters to get the film seen. Once you knew that the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) had selected MODRA, how did you go about “selling” this Canadian film set in Slovakia distributors?

Ingrid Veninger: I took it one step at a time. If the reviews were bad – a sale would be unlikely anyway. So, I waited. When the reviews were good and we sold-out our screenings – I knew I had a chance at securing distribution. I had some interesting offers and meetings, which was fun. I was certain about two things: 1) I wanted a fair advance per territory. 2) I wanted to retain some rights. Hussain Amarshi from Mongrel Media came to see MODRA and we made a deal within 24 hours, for Canada. I am keeping US and foreign rights, for now.

donna g: Your daughter, Hallie Switzer stars in the film with Alexander Gammel. Hallie has to spend most of her screen time with whoever was cast in the role of Leco. How was Alexander cast? Did you hold auditions to see who had the best on screen chemistry with Hallie? Did she have casting approval for the role of Leco?

Ingrid Veninger: I did not audition anyone besides Alexander Gammal. A mutual friend, Alexandra Rockingham, asked me to meet with him as a favor, because he was looking to ‘get into acting’. I liked his combination of intensity and vulnerability. The role of ‘Leco’ didn’t actually exist in the script yet. I asked him to audition and then I did a screen test with Alexander and Hallie – there was chemistry. I remember having many conversations with Hallie about whether to cast him or not… she believed he could do it and that encouraged me to trust my gut. So, I offered him the part and started re-writing to custom make the script for the two of them.

donna g: How did Hallie feel about her on screen intimacy with Alexander given that you, her director, is also her mother and the soundman is her father (John Switzer)?

Ingrid Veninger: This is what Hallie says: It wasn’t always easy. Imagine being directed by your Mom. On the one hand, I trust her and she knows me well, but on the other hand it was hard. And, yes, my Dad was on set too recording all the sound. At first I thought, how am I supposed to act in this movie with both of my parents standing 4ft. away from me at all times? In the end, there wasn’t a lot of time to feel awkward or self-conscious because the days were busy and I just really wanted to do a good job.

donna g: The dialogue flows so naturally in the film. For example, Leco admits to Lina, “I like you, but I don’t know what to do.” Did you spend a lot of time with 17 year olds to get it just right? Did Hallie and Alexander improvise any of the dialogue?

Ingrid Veninger: After writing the full 90-page script, I rehearsed with Alexander and Hallie every weekend for three months. Well, I live with Hallie so her teenage voice was very familiar to me, but it took me a while to find the right tone for Alexander’s character. If any dialogue felt false in the rehearsals, I cut it, and re-wrote. During the shooting, things changed again. Some of the scenes that felt real during our rehearsals, rang false on location. So, sometimes I re-wrote scenes from scratch, or we would work through the dialogue on set together, or I would prompt them in different ways to create an unexpected moment. There were a few improvised lines that made the final cut of the film, but 90% of the dialogue was ultimately scripted.

donna g: I fell in love with the beautiful village of Modra, and really appreciated that most of the movie is set outdoors. How did you deal with the challenges of exterior shooting? By the way, thank you for the umbrella scenes—so romantic.

Ingrid Veninger: I’m glad you liked the umbrellas – that was an emotional day. We shot the montage sequence on my birthday, in Bratislava, where I was born. It was a bit surreal for me. Shooting exterior with the sun as our key light was definitely a challenge. The sun was always moving, which was tricky for continuous shooting. There was only one location in Modra, where we could shoot any night exteriors – that’s it – one option. But overall, we were extremely lucky, we had amazing co-operation on the weather front. With inconsistent weather, our shoot could have been a real disaster.

donna g: The word modra means “blue”: a beautiful colour that you capture so well on film, but the work also means “sad”. Could you touch on the political situation that is talked about in the film? The reason why your mother and so many other families left Slovakia.

Ingrid Veninger: My father was a political prisoner for 5 years in former Czechoslovakia, with many poets and artists and philosophers. In the first phase of the Russian invasion on August 21st, 1968, approximately 6000 tanks, 1500 aircraft and 200,000 soldiers simultaneously crossed the Polish, Hungarian, and East German borders into Czechoslovakia. Up to 600,000 troops eventually occupied Czechoslovakia, and the remaining Soviet soldiers did not depart the country until 1991. If my parents didn’t leave on August 21, 1968, my father would have ended up back in jail. I was 2-years-old when my parents left everything known and familiar behind. Their courage has inspired me my whole life.

donna g: I also fell in love with your 96 year old great aunt, Jozefa: her babushka, her wrinkled face, and her beautiful eyes behind her glasses present such a such a comforting image that I wanted to step into the movie and hug her. Could you describe the process of working with her?

Ingrid Veninger: Teta Josefa is my grandfather’s sister – my great aunt. Before shooting, I would explain the scene to her in Slovak – the actions. We always shot the rehearsals with her. I would prompt from off-camera i.e. “Ask Lina how old she is”, etc. Teta Josefa was amazing. Sometimes she would get concerned about my husband, John Switzer, having to hold the boom above his head for so long. Sometimes she got emotional repeating the entrances and exits, the hello and goodbye moments. But, she was a pro. And after the shoot, we would drink and laugh and eat and she would share the most incredible stories.

donna g: Your film has the perfect ending to this story of 17 year olds navigating the emotions of romantic relationships and pending adulthood. Did you waffle about how to end the film, or was this clear from its onset?

Ingrid Veninger: I had a different ending in the original script, but I scrapped it after the first week of shooting because I didn’t believe it anymore. Truthfully, I didn’t know what the ending would be. Everyday I would try to visualize, but nothing clear came up. I just had to trust that I would figure it out. On the last day, in the morning, I wrote the merry-go-round scene and I knew it was right.

donna g: Your family has traveled to Canada to attend the festivals where MODRA has screened. How many of them came? How did your Aunt Elena, who teaches English in the film, react to being in Canada? I bet she has lots to share with her students back in Slovakia.

Ingrid Veninger: Our world premiere at TIFF was unbelievable! I invited my entire Slovak family to come to Toronto, but only four of them could make it: My Aunt Marta and my three cousins. We had a Slovak posse – it was brilliant. Then, we had our International premiere at the Bratislava Film Festival in November. My mother, me, and Hallie – three generations of women. It was an emotional journey. I had never been ‘back home’ with my mother and she reunited with her brothers for the first time in fifteen years. Coming up: April 2011 is a screening in the village of Modra. We will show the film with Slovak sub-titles in the very cinema where my grandmother worked concessions as a young girl. And in Toronto, we are screening at The Royal where Hallie works concessions now. This whole experience has come full circle.

Ingrid's family pose for pictures in traditional costumes outside the Hyatt Regency Hotel during TIFF 2010.

MODRA (director, cast in attendance for Q & A after each screening)
February 11th - 17th
Royal Cinema
608 College Street

View Schedule and Trailer:

Photo Credits: (Top) Director, Ingrid Veninger at the CFC's Black History Month Event: An Evening with Spike Lee. Snapped by donna g; Film stills by Ian Anderson, courtesy of Mongrel Media; (Bottom) Veninger family photo courtesy of Ingrid Veninger.

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