VIFF 2019 Interview – ROMANTICA.COM director Shay Fellner

“ROMANTICA.COM for me is a requiem for the innocence era. In this constant acceleration we live in, when all our wishes are just a button-press away, the options are endless and everything has a substitute, why should we fight to maintain any relationship when we can just replace it with a newer version? This is the breaking point of an intergenerational Tennis match between a grandfather and a grandson, of which it’s result is preknown. Boris is an elderly immigrant who insists on nursing his dementic wife by himself. He has to defend their fragile stable bubble from the constant attempts of Max, their teenage grandson who lives with them. To send him on a date with another woman. Max’s victory will send both of the heros on a journey in the world of the other, away from their comfort zone, to discover what love means. The inspiration for this story comes mainly from the way my grandfather used to nurse my grandmother by himself in her last years. I was astonished by his devotion and care he showed towards her and I kept asking myself if I would ever be able to love like this, if my partner would lose every bit of her beauty and her personality and everything that will remain of her is a mere shell of herself.” Director Shay Fellner on ROMANTICA.COM which screens at the 2019 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival. 

Congratulations on your film playing and welcome to VIFF! Is your first time here and are you planning to attend your screenings?

Thank you! I’m super excited about the world premiere in VIFF next week! First time ever on a big screen in front of non-family-or-friends audience; I feel very grateful and honored that our film was chosen to be part of ‘Modern tales in a conflicted world’ program, but unfortunately I won’t manage to be in the screenings myself.

So how did you get into this business? Talk to me a bit about how you got your start and what you have worked on in the past.

To be honest, I was never too interested in filmmaking or films in general before my cinema studies. Nature and ‘real life’ were way more fascinating to me, and I spent most of my 20’s as a sort of a vagabond- wandering with the flow between random adventures, hitchhiking, growing a beard you know, cooking by the fire every evening and sleeping under the stars for most of my nights. Yeah, I guess you could call it being a lazy hippie… But it was amazing! I was completely in love with life and thought I have figured out the trick… The road provided me with everything I could ask for, and as far as I am concerned,  I could keep on going like this forever. At some point though, this feeling of unfulfillment started to bother me and I began craving for a self definition and for something to donate back to society. I felt that I want to tell something to the world and download to reality all those stories, lessons and understandings that were accumulating over the years. Filmmaking seemed like the perfect way to do it. Couple of years of ‘sleeping over it’ later, around the age of 30, I stored my backpack in the attic and swapped it for a pencil case. 

After my studies I worked in most jobs filmmaking has to offer,  from being a production assistant in a dodgy production, which up to this day never paid me, to the director of video clips of some of my favourite artists. In the last couple of years I was the video director and editor of an animal rights association called ‘Sentient’. Now I’m on the road again, growing back my beard.

How did this project come together for you? Give me a rundown from the preparation, to shooting, to post-production to now!

You would laugh, but the whole thing started from a lame joke… It was just before my final year in film school. Mara, my girlfriend at the time, was reading a book in a hut we were staying in, and because I didn’t have a book, I tried to turn off the light using only my foot… Again, I’m not especially proud of it, but my second or third kick hit right in the center of that light switch to Mara’s dissatisfaction. My next thought was ‘how cool would it be to start a movie by presenting the characters this way, when everytime the light switches off, the opening titles will be shown’. I believe muses come in random shapes, colors and times, but once I fall in love with one, I should follow her, ridiculous and strange as it might be.

This is the closest experience I  ever had to an unplanned pregnancy. From the moment the two main characters were conceived, I felt as if I have zero control over the development of the plot, and they do whatever they want basically. My main job during the scriptwriting was simply to hold the pencil from falling. 

During this time, I started to collect the crew, which was mainly made of students from the year below, trying to make them believe in the script as I do. The strategy to engage them to this mission was making crew meetings once every two weeks, sometimes consulting production issues with each other, sometimes just drinking a beer together.

The next challenge was to find people and places in the physical world that would look exactly as I had imagined them in the script. Without exaggerating, I think Meidan Danino, the executive producer, and me, saw about 50 different apartments until we found the one.

I think that letting go of parts of the completed script is one of the hardest steps when changing the scriptwriter’s hat with the director’s one, but it’s also one of the most rewarding ones. The combination of genes of both the writer’s imagination and the reality ones, creates a much more complex and interesting result than the script itself. And that is true also when mixing it with the imagination of the other crew members.

The month before the shooting days was nothing less than amazing. There was a feeling in the air that we are doing something big together. All the crew joined to turn the students apartment we started with, to an old russian couple’s house. Irif Reznik, the Art Director, was conducting this operation, convincing stores from the region to donated us furnitures for free.

From the five days of the shooting I remember very little. I think I had an adrenaline rush or something. We were shooting many hours a day, due to production limitations, but every night when the actors went home, we were sitting and discussing about the day in order not to keep anything in the stomach for the next day.

When we finally arrive to the editing room, I wanted to die. Everything seemed so cheesy and unreliable to me, now that the adrenaline rush was over. It took another couple of years before I started to like this child again, and even feel grateful for kicking this light switch from the first place.

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you? How much coffee are we talking about here?

I love coffee! But seriously, I think the acceptance of the fact that this is a profession of lunatics, helps. It’s abit like asking parents what keeps them going.

What was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

This whole project has been like a crazy emotional roller coaster from the start, which is hard to point at one specific challenge. But one moment that I especially remember, was in the last day of the shootings, when we were shooting the last scene. There was an atmosphere of holiness in the air. I was so intimidated by shooting this scene that I was insisting about every shot until I was completely satisfied. The thing is that it already  became really late, and Meidan started to give me signs that we need to drive the actors home. We were shooting from the morning that day, and half of the crew started falling asleep on the set. Everybody wanted to go home, except of Maor Goldenber, the assistant director and Tomer rotem the D.O.P that wanted to keep on going until we would get the perfect take. I got one last chance from meidan at around 3 am. This take was incredible, as if there were no lights and cables around, no camera man and no boom man. It was only Boris feeling guilty for betraying Sveta, trying to apologize with a spoon of her favorite ice cream, singing to her their old song. I remember all the sleeping people waking up to watch this, and watching this magical moment in silence together, few of them were shedding tears and when I finally said ‘cut’ everybody clapped.

I’m about to get technical, but I would love to know about the visual design of the movie; what camera did you film with, your relationship to the director of photography and how the movie was photographed.

Tomer Rotem, the director of photography, was the most devoted and serious member of the crew. We had dozens of meetings, going on location tours and imagining the shots together. We wrote a ‘subtext’ script, of everything happening offscreen, between the scenes, in order to better understand the on screen shots. Both of us agreed on the aesthetics of the film and thought it should mainly be shot in static shots in the house, in order to emphasize it’s stuckness and stability, and naturally move to hand held shots when Boris goes on the bus, together with his excitement and the exit of his comfort zone. it was important for us not to force any ‘cool’ shot over the script, but rather let the script instruct us to the most fitting shot. Tomer put a special focus on the texture of the shot and finding the right tapet for the walls was another saga. Later on, Tomer and Stav Nathan, the gaffer, wrote the floorplan for each shot which was very efficient in the days of shooting. The film was shot with Canon C100 with an external recorder.

After the film screens at Vancouver, where is the film going to show next? Theatrical, online, more festivals?

If you missed the premiere in Vancouver like me, you can catch it up in Haifa’s film festival, two weeks later. The film was completed only this year so the plan is to try and travel with it between film festivals for another year or so, before we upload it to the web, and start waiting for ‘likes’.

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?

Get a real job! No, just kidding, it’s the most amazing present you can give to yourself and to the world. How many other professions do you know, where you get to express yourself in so many levels, conscious and unconscious, in front of an audience that genuinely listens? And it never gets boring, for every time you find yourself in a new dream. The only thing, as I’ve mentioned before, being crazy passionate about your project can help.

And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen?

The first film that comes to my mind is FIGHT CLUB.

For this and more movies playing at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, point your browser to www.viff.org

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