Interview: Serge Riedener

Interview done by Ananya Jana

First of all, congratulations for your fantastic film “Awakening”. Recently it has won The Best Short Film award in Calcutta International Cult Film Festival. Let’s start with the questions so we can provide readers (and people who watched your film) with a bit more context.

1. What is your aim behind making films? How did you come up with the idea for your film Awakening?
Serge: My background is in advertising, and as a creative director, I would always have to tell a story in no more than 30 seconds. I’m not complaining, it was a great challenge and I had a lot of fun developing stories related to products I had to sell. But in truth, film was always my passion. This is the reason I sold my advertising company, hopped on a plane to New York City and attended the New York Film Academy. While I studied there, I was able to hone my skills and fully immerse myself in the art and craft of filmmaking. I was done telling stories in 30 seconds. I was determined to make a film in which I could delve deep into human nature. I want to create a work of art that will surprise and entertain my audience, and ultimately send them a message — not about a mere product, but about life itself. That is my aim behind making films. And I don’t deny that I also want to get rewarded for my work, such as winning at the Calcutta International Cult Film Festival, among others.

In terms of how I came up with the idea for Awakening, it stemmed from a quote I once heard: “It is the unexpected that changes lives.” Soon I got to know a fascinating woman from New York with Chinese roots, and the idea sprouted into a love story with an unexpected twist.

2. Tell us something about the shoot – more specifically, how did you prepare your actors?
Serge: The real challenge here was to find an actor who could at least pretend to speak perfect Cantonese. So we tested several actors’ Cantonese-speaking skills at the audition and chose the one who gave the best performance. Wei Xia Cheung helped me tremendously, not only with the translations but also with the coaching, since my Cantonese was quite basic too. When we did the table read, we went through the script with all the actors, but my lead actor Tim Shelburne got most of our attention. I first filmed Wei Xia; she read her lines slowly so that Tim could take note of the pronunciation. Then I had her act out her lines as she would in the film so that Tim could understand the tone in which things needed to be said. In the event that Tim’s Cantonese was too flawed to suit the film, we had a male Cantonese actor on reserve for dubbing. Fortunately, Tim did so well that even native Cantonese speakers were amazed by his mastery of the language.

3. Can you tell us about any funny anecdote regarding the actor or crew that you had worked with?
Serge: There were two things that almost gave me a heart attack. First, I got a text message from Tim late at night — just hours before the shoot — saying that he had just twisted his knee playing soccer and that he didn’t know how bad it was. I swear, I felt like the entire world just fell apart in a split second. I called him right away and then he told me that he was able to walk and work. But still I couldn’t sleep that night at all. The second thing happened the day we were shooting at the gallery. The actor playing the gallerist sent me a text message that he couldn’t make it on time. And this, of course, was just one hour before his scene was scheduled to be shot. We couldn’t wait for him, which left us with only one option: director cameo! I played his part myself…and let’s just say I definitely prefer to stay behind the camera.

4. The photography of the city and its bustling street scene is amazing. The choice, blend and mix of the music are appropriate and clear. Can you tell us your opinion on music as a strong substance to make a short story successful?
Serge: I strongly believe that sound and music – and not only for a short film but also for a feature – make a world of difference. You can undoubtedly ruin the entire film with the wrong selection. Music underlines the story, supporting it both emotionally and narratively and putting your audience in just the right mood. Your choice of music also enables you to find the right rhythm for the editing of the film, and to create a perfect blend of aural and visual expression. Simply put, music is like a love affair. It whisks you away to a different world, and your relationship with it can be enjoyed without necessarily being understood.

5. What’s your take on movie twists? You have a couple of them so if you can tell us your opinion on their importance? Do they have to be in every successful movie?
Serge: I do feel twists can help tremendously in keeping the audience engaged in your story. For one thing, they catch your audience by surprise and take them in directions they never expected. A lack of predictability is essential for a film because, no matter how great the acting/directing/cinematography/VFX/other is, audiences ultimately want to experience something new and bold.

6. In this film Dean suddenly encounters with an unknown Chinese guy/stranger. How do you develop your characters’ relationships?
Serge: At first my aim was to throw Dean into a new world he knew very little about, and then watch him slowly learn its cultural aspects and values and ultimately come out a better, wiser, more understanding man. This is his arc and this is his journey. Unfortunately, I had to take a bit of a short cut since the film’s running time became an issue. So I let them spend the whole night together, communicating entirely in Cantonese in order to build a rapport between each other that no one expected — until Dean was finally ready to encounter Bo again.

7. What is the best response to Awakening you have received till now? What’s the next project we can expect from you?
Serge: After having seen my film, Monika Weibel, the CEO of Frenetic Films in Zurich, Switzerland and a partner at Barry Films in Los Angeles, asked me what I was going to do next. I told her that I was working on my next short film. And that’s when she said: “Stop thinking about short films! Make a feature. If a good script lands on my desk, I’ll be sure to let you know about it.” That inspired me. Now I’m thinking of taking her advice and going ahead with a feature film. I’d love to shoot it in New York City, where I feel the artistic atmosphere helps me come up with my most inspired ideas, including a thriller I wrote a couple of months ago.

8. Awakening clearly indicates many promises, Serge. What differentiates your work from other filmmakers?
Serge: I actually don’t really compare my work to others. For one thing, I’ve seen countless inspiring films at festivals and in theatres around the world, even from students at the New York Film Academy. I stay focused on developing my skills until I achieve the maximum potential as a filmmaker. I love watching works from other directors, as I feel everyone has something to teach me and something that inspires me. But one thing I think enables me to stand out is my quick thinking and my ability to tell stories succinctly and precisely, which stems from my extensive background as a creative director in the fast-paced world of advertising.

Ananya Jana finished her master degree in Journalism and mass communication. She is the event coordinator. She loves to explore different genres of movie. She is a passionate writer and believes that real writing equals authentical writing without the veneer and excuses in order to reach the audience at a heart level. She believes that when she writes she comes alive and the energy zaps. Her passion for writing focuses on character-driven plotlines.