top of page

"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?