Published Jan 24, 2013With Houston, Bastian Günther, who most might know from working with Christian Petzold (Barbara), has crafted a powerful and visionary work. Blending the realities of alcohol addiction with our isolating, modern corporate lifestyle, where success, in its most superficial terms, is paramount, he has made a thoughtful, universally identifiable work that challenges audiences to question what they accept as normal. And while doing so, he has utilized memorable, stunning imagery and a restrained, stoic aesthetic where every shot seems vital to the overall narrative. Though just starting out in his career with Houston, which makes its premiere at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, Günther is sure to turn heads and become a household name soon enough.
So, we'll start broad: What inspired you to make Houston?
BG: Um, different things. First, i wanted to make a film about an addict. My dad is a recovering alcoholic. I didn't want to make a typical drama about alcoholism; I wanted to make a film that puts it in a bigger picture context about how we live today. The character of Clemens combines two systems: One is alcohol addiction and the other is the economy and how we live. We support this economic system every day in how we live, so made sense to put these two things together.
How did this project come together?
BG: It was complicated. The main reason is that it takes place in two different continents. Organizing and financing was difficult, since there was no film funding in the U.S., and it was an independent film, which left all of the funding to come from Germany. The film was given 1.7 million Euros overall, but we were only able to take over 650K to the U.S. because of funding specificities for shooting outside of the country. With this budget, we had 20 shooting days in Houston on 35 mm. Fortunately, we had great actors that were okay with being paid less than usual. As for the shooting schedule, we shot the American part in Fall 2011 and the German part in Spring of 2012. The result was two different pre-productions and shooting productions. Between these, I was already editing the American part when we started to shoot the German segment.
Since the German portion of the film actually took place before the American segment, was there anything unusual about filming things in reverse?
BG: It was helpful to shoot the second part of the film first because in the German part Clemens knew how dark his character was and how low his character could get. This actually helped him play the quiet, subtextual aspect of his character during the early portion of the film in Germany.
How was the casting handled?
BG: When I finished the script and thought, "who could do this?" I immediately thought of Ulrich (Tukur) because he could do it well and he's the most popular German and international actor. This is a very different film from the work he does normally. In Germany, he's typically in the blockbuster films. On the other side, he's worked with (Costa) Gavras and (Steven) Soderbergh, so he has the international and art house component. I thought it was fascinating to see him in a totally different film. I could just imagine him carrying it on his shoulders, which is necessary because this character is in every scene. When we sent it to his agent, we heard pretty quickly that he was very interested, which was surprising. Most of his scripts are likely trashed by his agent before they even get to him, so my hopes weren't that high. But, he was interested, so we went out for dinner in Hamburg and it was clear that we had the same vision and idea for the character.
Why set it in Houston?
BG: My wife is American. When I first started thinking about where he needs to travel in the United States, I realized it had to relate to the existing economic system. So I asked my wife what would be a good business city; an economic city that would influence the character. She said either Atlanta or Houston. So, four years ago, when I did some location scouting in Houston, I thought it looked right. They have no zoning, so it looks crazy, which was ideal for my vision. It's also a place where a lot of big corporations operate, which is a big factor.
Did the use of an American petroleum CEO have anything to do with environmental or geopolitical issues?
BG: I just picked an energy company because you never can hold them responsible for anything. They get away with everything because they're difficult to reach. Clemens is trying to hunt down the CEO of this company, but since everything is so secure and shielded, leaving normal people unable to access it, he keeps banging against the wall.
Failure seems to be a theme running throughout Houston. Are you remarking on this as a culturally specific feeling, or is it more a universal human truth you're looking at?
BG: I think it starts out with something specific, but in the bigger picture it is about humans and how we live. You can apply the story of the film and apply it to different fields. So much of our personal happiness is dependent on how we succeed in business and how people see us I hope that people see that our way of life very often is about success.
The aesthetic of the film involves a lot of high rises and interchangeable offices. How does this reflect the themes of the film?
BG: They isolate us within our modern way of life, creating a disconnect. We live in hotels where everybody is isolated. When I look at these new developments where people live, I notice that isolation is key. We communicate on cell phones but not face to face. And as an addict, you live in your own cocoon and aren't available mentally. The addiction is metaphor and a symbol for modern life and its alienating forces.
Can you talk about the relationship between Clemens and Robert?
I see Robert as a soul-mate, or maybe even a mirror, for Clemens. He is lonely and isolated. Robert Wagner is already a few steps ahead of Clemens in this cycle and tries to help him by making contacts and efforts to reach the CEO. These suggestions are more selfish than really helpful, since he's trying to protract their reason for connection. If Clemens looked more closely at Robert, he would be able to see him as a warning for himself in paying attention to his sadness. In one scene, where Robert apologizes for talking Clemens to a strip club, he briefly opens up, mentioning that he is divorced and unhappy. Otherwise, he's quite closed about who he is. This is a moment where Clemens could see himself taking the wrong path, or interpret this man as a representation of himself in the future. In another scene, we shot on both characters with the exact same background, to mirror the aesthetic and the characters to drive this idea home.
What do you hope people take from this movie?
What I like about the film is that it's really open. It's not didactic or manipulative. It makes a statement overall but I hope people will walk out of the theatre with an individual interpretation, thinking about it, their lives and our way of living. The film won't change anything, but it might help people think about their life.
To read our review of Houston, click here.