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"It was the most tragic production ever. Luckily our fighting spirit was unbreakable"

Owl Mountain is a historical drama about the challenges of young generation in post-war Lithuania. After a brief recovery from the war front line between the Soviets and Nazis, the story takes us to 1946-1953 when Lithuania is occupied by the Soviet regime. In this dark moment of the Lithuanian history, five young teenagers reveal their tough choices: either conform to the Soviet regime or face its mental and physical clench. In this story the main lead Tadas shows the price one has to pay for sacrifice of lost dreams and morality.

This feature film, written by Pranas Morkus and directed by Audrius Juzėnas, recently won Best Picture award at Festigious. Lead judge Nami Melumad described it as "an exceptional film. Owl Mountain is everything you can ask for in a period piece."

We asked director Audrius Juzėnas to join us for an interview, and met a talented filmmaker who never gives up on his childhood dream.

Photo by Lukas Juzenas

Tell us about your background. You studied a degree in Physics at the University of Vilnius but then studied Film Directing at the Lithuanian Academy of music (99'). Why did you change directions to this new career path? What made you passionate about film making, was this something you always wanted to pursue?

At school, I was successful in math, sports and literature. My parents were famous teachers, so grew up in the intellectual family, but I wasn’t a saint. I was attracted to the street life and my friends. I did not avoid street fights and was full of mischief. I knew the taste of punishment. My generation was growing up in Lithuania occupied by Soviets. Jews, Russians, Lithuanians we all were friends and we all were united by disrespect to the absurd Soviet regime. Due to my outburst, I had to change four schools…

After secondary school, I had two options either to enter the University or go to the Soviet Army. The service in the Soviet Army for youngsters was the same as to be sentenced for two years prison. So I have chosen the University and physics. Soon I became interested in cinema as art and it took a big part of my free time in my life. I have started secretly to write scripts, was drawing, photographing and reading a lot.

At the same time at the University I had to work on Russian military orders. For example, in the laboratory we were involved in creating an invisible military aircraft. We were experimenting with our own stealth technology. After graduation I was enforced to start working at military plant and did not like that. At that time Russian KGB ordered us young engineers and physics to make a secret listening - recording device to be able to follow telephone conversations. I was sabotaging my job as much as I could and was waiting for my best chance to change my physics profession. I was thinking about journalism or filmmaking. Recently the Soviet empire of evil came apart. And then I have turned to journalism. And quite soon I have chosen film directing studies at Lithuanian Music and Theatre Academy. At that time I adored FF. Coppola, C. Eastwood, S. Leone, A. Parker, F. Fellinni, A. Tarkovsky, I. Bergman, B. August, F. Truffaut, L. Mali, W. Wenders and many others. I admired their values and ideals reflected in the screen.

Photo by Lukas Juzenas

You then took on some internships in Poland, Denmark, and Germany. In what way do you feel these internships shaped you as a visual storyteller? Do you think these initial experiences in film productions contributed to your skills today?

During my cinema studies in Vilnius I had an internship in neighboring Poland at K. Zannusi and K. Kieslowski master class. Both they are masters of Polish and Europe cinematography. They are intellectuals looking for significance in human life and art. Later I had an internship in Denmark at the oldest film studio in Europe “Nordisk Films’ where I have been approaching the film producer’s profession. Recently with the support of Soros Foundation and European Film academy I had an internship in Berlin at Jan de Bont action film master class. All this was a substantial contribution to my professional development. Secrets of dramaturgy I have achieved when working with famous Israeli writer and dramatist Joshua Sobol on the script of the film Ghetto. The other knowledge I have gained when shooting the films. In every new film, I get something new from the cameraman, art director, costume designer, actors and from the rest of the creative crew.

Photo by Lukas Juzenas

Looking back, would you say formal education / hands-on training is essential to be able to make great movies like you do? Or maybe a combination of both?

Life experience and education is very important to every film director. All gained knowledge could be combined with your experience. Every film director has to develop his intuition, endurance, and concentration. The film director must accumulate knowledge and experience throughout all his life. The cinematography is changing and developing so fast, besides all that it’s aging with the change of generations.

When did you direct your first movie, and what was it about?

Ihave started as the most of all did, from short films. When shooting my first student film I could hardly manage with actors. Was trying to save the movie with editing. After finishing the film I even could not understand what that film was about… Thank God, one of the professors was excited and explained to the other tutors that my film is overtaking the time…Because it is about lesbian and homosexual love. In the post-Soviet Lithuania, this was new and extremely courageous. Would be interesting for me now to read that film script again… At that epoch when shooting the film the chemistry between actors failed… My second student film was different. First of all I worked a lot on the script where mystique and love story intertwined into a solid melodramatic genre. The film was made on the C. Fuantes short story “Aura” about madness and reincarnation. It was a risky conception and visually complicated. This time I knew what to demand from precisely selected actors, cameramen, art designers. I have got the lesson from my first film…Later this mystical drama has got the main prize in Moscow film festival “Debut”. It was screened in many festivals in Europe. This way I gained confidence in myself, have got a graduation diploma and profession. … and no guarantees for the future… Temporary I took a job as TV broadcasting director.

Photo by Lukas Juzenas

Who are some of your favorite filmmakers, what do you admire about their work? Do you feel their work influenced your writing/filmmaking style in any way?

I am still getting the biggest impression from C. Eastwood, A. Parker, R. Scott, Ch. Nolan, O.Stone. I was always waiting and still do that for their new films. I am stunned with their film stories, clear moral values, actor’s work, dramaturgy, music. What could be done better than films: “The Mystic River”, “Natural born killers” or “Angel's heart”? These are directors talented and courageous despite they are creating in Hollywood where producers do not want to risk but to earn profit…. They still continue to influence my values, film (cinema) perception, aesthetics and my taste. Most of their movies are not aging. I could mark Ch. Nolan, because he almost always surprises me. Of course, there are many good directors in Europe. But not necessarily their films get Oscar.

Owl Mountain - Trailer

How do you usually choose the projects you work on, and why did you decide to work on Pranas Morkus's screenplay Owl Mountain?

The life is contradictory. Sometimes I am caught by topic, sometimes by good literature or by unbelievable life story. Scriptwriter P. Morkus mostly is writing stories based on historical topics about the epoch of his youth. For me, that’s important because those stories are from the epoch of my parents either, a tragic epoch which I felt and partly knew as a child. P. Morkus is writing like about himself and for himself, like about Lithuania, but it also hits me, my intellect, my generation despite the big difference in our age. It’s interesting to work with him even though we had misunderstandings in the last film. He still not accepts how the last goodbye scene at “Own Mountain” was transformed by me into an erotic one at the cinema. In this way, I have opposed the freedom and love to the Soviet regime and fear of a bloody dictator. The life triumph against death, against red fascism... The scene is crushing! Just because of this scene the youth are not allowed to the film. It has got mark N-16.

Photo by Lukas Juzenas

You've already collaborated with Morkus on The Excursionist (Ekskursante) in 2013 - which won the Nika Award for Best Film of CIS and Baltic States and was nominated for the Lithuanian Film Awards 2014 - Best Director. By now, you probably know it takes a huge effort to make a great film. What, in your opinion, makes a good team? Do you have other crew members you've worked with for many years now?

The cast and crew are your army in the film. They need to trust you and you have to understand them. Film shooting is not an entertainment. For me it is a heavy, exhausting but interesting journey. This is the similar as to climb the mountains, where you could die without supporting crew. Without a supportive crew, you could burn money and yourself. Only my last film has brought me the crew I could go to the highest mountains. They are cameramen, art designer, composer, actors. Unfortunately, by now I did not meet serious and devoted to cinema producer. Most of them I was working with did not answer my expectations. It’s not easy to direct and produce your film at the same time. I do not get over these responsibilities, because it gives a good result. When working on a film I love my team, my actors and those who don’t disappoint you on the very heavy moments.

Photo by Lukas Juzenas

Making a period drama is an extremely difficult task, but this isn't your first time: You already directed Ghetto and as mentioned, The Excursionist, both historic films. What further research did you do about Lithuania post-WWII? What were some of the technical considerations you had in mind when approaching production?

Fights with Soviet Regime and occupants are in our nation’s blood. Almost all our families have suffered from Stalin regime. At the end of war (WWII) hundreds thousands of Lithuanians left the country afraid of Soviet repressions or took the arms and went to the forest to fight Stalin regime, or they were deported to Siberia like disloyal to occupants. So every Lithuanian knows his family’s tragic story. When making a film I try to dive into concrete epoch, into details of the facts and the motivation of film characters. I try to push into myself everything that concerns the film and then I know what to do and how to shoot the story. I note everything in my director’s script. After all, we get with the team and look for the best solution. Sometimes some ideas or historical reality is totally crazy and you have to refuse it because of the small Lithuanian production budget. Pity? A lot.

Photo by Lukas Juzenas

What were some of the major decisions you had to make with Raimundas Dičius (Art Direction), and Daiva Petrulyte (Custom Designer)? Did you use any cinematic references to communicate your vision?

If we work with the historical material, art designers first of all are working in archives, collecting everything that responds to the epoch in the film. Later they draw sketches and we decide together what fits the film and what is not. At that period we drive, discuss a lot looking for the best solution. On scout we check everything and if we have to reject ideas we start from the beginning. At the same time, we are planning computer graphics. Costumes for actors are made by professionals, but usually, we try to find the authentic ones. I have to interfere constantly, especially when the money and the artists’ fantasy vanish.

Photo by Lukas Juzenas

Titas Petrikis, the composer of the film, did an excellent job and won Best Score for his work. The score supports the film wonderfully. How did Petrikis come on board, and at what point of the production? Tell us about the scoring process. How did you work together to create such a strong marriage between the onscreen drama and the music? Did you use a temp track/ any references?

At the beginning, I was imposed by another very titled composer from the older generation, but he was the producer’s top contender. I met him, we talked a lot and seems we understood each other. He knew the topic, the script was acceptable, but during shooting film trailer I understood that he doesn’t look seriously at our mutual job. I was insisting him for discoveries, was sending him the best music samples, we were talking, but there was no understanding. His music was killing already shot and edited material. I asked some known composers to create small music samples for the film scenes’. Titas Petrikis has astonished us. His music perfectly fits the image. The producer did not want to change the composer, but I was fighting for Titas and we won. Titas has got the contract and started to work with me. We talked a lot about the historical background, the war, the after the war, the character’s choice to die, about the rhythm of scenes and music world tendency. We had to hurry, because of lack of time and approaching film premiere. What he was writing even in the hurry, matches very well with film style and scenes’ content. We have become a perfect team. We never argued. I was convinced that he is a great composer.

I was participating in the film music mastering and he was participating in the film soundtrack final mastering.I think we perfectly complemented each other.I still remember that the musical pieces I was trying of any other films did not fit to “Owl Mountain” rhythm and editing regardless who is the composer. Unless “Cranberries” song –“Zombie”.

Photo by Lukas Juzenas

What part of the production of Owl Mountain did you enjoy the most?

I enjoyed the script writing process. Many of my ideas have appeared in the film. I enjoyed discussions with scriptwriter but not all of my notes were acceptable for him. It was a great pleasure a casting with young actors. I have got chance to improve film dialogues in the script. But the main shooting was very hard and I even do not want to remember it now. We had to fight tooth and nail and it took us blood, sweat, and tears. By many reasons, it was the most tragic production that I ever saw. I had very strong doubts if this film will be finally finished. Luckily that our fighting spirit was unbroken. The crew trusted me and I trusted them. After such productions, I think who in general needs such a nightmare? It’s better to work as an auditor. On the other hand, films are my mountains and I could not live without them.

What’s the best film you’ve seen this year? Was there a certain scene that was memorable and stood out?

Difficult question. There are so many new films. Did not see “Sicario -2” yet. But among this year Oscar nominees the most interesting is “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing. Missouri”. The others more or less are just ordinary films. Genius films are a rare phenomenon in nowadays.

Photo by Lukas Juzenas

If you could direct your next movie about anything, with an unlimited budget, time and resources.... what would kind of film it would be?

I am dreaming for many years about space odyssey film by one talented French writer. His book “The Aliens From Nowhere” is an almost ready script. Take and shoot. This is a science fiction story about extraterrestrial civilizations, about our place of the Universe and mankind struggle for survival. Technically it is an expensive project, but it could compete with “Avatar”, “Alien”, “Terminator”. Funny? Lithuanian is dreaming about cosmic odyssey and star wars.

Do you have any upcoming projects you would like to share?

At the moment I am working on two projects. The first one tells about human trafficking in East Europe. The script based on Norwegian writer H. Wassmo novel. The film is about what is actually now. The second project is about a photographer during the war, who has coincidentally got photographers job in Einsatzkommando. He becomes witness and participant of Holocaust crimes. Both projects are substantial. Both of them speak about spiritual challenges, our morality, and justice. Working on these projects I feel myself the last idealist in my country. This is also a challenge in my life.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

I am happy that films are still surprising me and are as magic as in my childhood. There are the beginning and the end of everything that is most beautiful and ugliest in our lives.


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