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Maya Vitkova, Producer On The Move 2014
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Setting, after 14 years, the highest standards for participation on its activities, the European Film Promotion and its annual initiative, Producers on the Move, are aiming to create a tightly focused working environment involving project pitching, one to one meetings as well as extensive promotion of the producers via profiles in the international trade papers. EFP selects one producer per country laying the ground for his or her potentials to be recognized. Chosen by Bulgarian Film Center for this year’s Producers on the Move at Cannes IFF, Maya Vitkova, before being established as one of the most promising Balkan producer and director, has worked as an assistant and casting director. In 2009 she founds Viktoria Films, producing two shorts and her debut feature, Viktoria. She is currently working on her second feature, Gin Air, a road movie partly shot in Brazil. Let’s see what she answered to altcine’s questions.

World premiere at Sundance, participation in major film festivals... does Viktoria΄s victory make the producers on the move networking platform even more promising?

Sundance was a blast…  I think it’s great to have the opportunity to be part of the Producers on the move, while being - as a friend of mine called it – “a director on the move”. When pitching projects, before Viktoria has been released, I’ve always encountered fear in our potential partners, that I combined the two positions – a director and a producer. I think nobody, apart from my closest collaborators, believed I would manage to do it, bearing in mind the difficulties of the film –a historic piece with kid actors, CGI, archives, etc. But the urge to tell that story in the most appropriate way (or the way I imagined things to happen in prep, on set and throughout the complex post-production), gave me strength. People often say that directors get lucky with their first films, with help from above, but the second is the one to show if they’ll manage to survive this tough business. Producers on the move is surely a great start for my second feature film project Gin Air. 

Maya Vitkova

How is it to be both the director and producer at the same time? Did you have to compromise sometimes?

I compromised a lot, but only with myself – my time, my ability to rest and relax, and the stress management - that has been a taboo while doing VIKTORIA. I haven’t slept properly ever since, not exaggerating at all, not complaining either, but trying to answer as honest as possible. With my work, I haven’t compromised a bit. I’ve found it amazing to be able, as a director, to get as much as possible from the producer in order to realize the film artistically. It sounds funny, even schizophrenic when talking about you as of two different persons; it is not like this actually. The director is leading in me. For example the finale of the film hasn’t been scripted and budgeted, but when finishing the rough cut, I had this idea and it was expensive to make it happen at the beginning of a long and costly postproduction. This is why I invested my own money for shooting the extra ending of the film. I was sure it was right from many perspectives - from an emotional point of view, due to the higher production value, but mainly, as a great ending for the character’s journey and the start of a new life. I’m sure we did the right thing. On the other hand, there was probably the most complicated and expensive scene in the film, that took us a month to prepare – building a set, CGI, props, etc, but we’ve cut it on the editing – it finally didn’t work for the film. The producer in me was fed up, but still thinking about it, as a producer you are the first one to advice the director to get rid of unnecessary material that slows down the film. There were moments while shooting when between different scenes I was on the phone, I had only a few lunch breaks, but it worked. I’m glad to be both the director and the producer, but I’m definitely revising my time and stress management. 

Tell us a few words about your company Viktoria films? You describe it as a company focused on producing independent films with specific style. What do you have in mind when you think of a “specific style”?

I truly enjoy having this company; I also love the name Viktoria Films, our office and my work. It was a good decision to start the company at the beginning of 2009 and be able to immediately begin a project – Stanka Goes Home. Our first short has been a road movie indoors and it was an experiment – to tell a moving, emotional story in real time, with no help of close-ups, camera movement, music and everything the cinema benefits from – but as an observation. They wrote about it as “a story of an old lady, who stands in front of an elevator, which is out of order. Nine floors by foot, the story shows with each angle that this staircase is an existential challenge and the climb-up a metaphor. Facing this, the spectator might feel a phantom pain in his joints - the film presents the age in such a tantalizing way." Viktoria also carries specific style – it is based on a true story and while the film is realistic (with magical realism involved), it is still very emotional. This is what John Nein (senior programmer, Sundance Film Festival) has wrote about it: “Told in three parts and spanning several decades, Viktoria is both intimate and epic, unfolding a mother-daughter story while also working as a wry, philosophical fable with broad historical scope. Maya Vitkova employs a storytelling style that is dramatically compelling, visually inventive, and full of playful figurative devices, metaphors, and ironies. At the same time, Viktoria finds its emotion and lyricism in its characters’ need to give and receive love.” This is a specific style I guess (smiling).

Despite problems you faced in the search of funding your film, Viktoria was finally financially supported by the Bulgarian National Film Center, Vienna Film Fund and the MEDIA programme. How did a young, debut-feature, director manage to secure such support?

When I started working on the project I was a writer and director of Viktoria. There was another producer attached, but we split due to irreconcilable differences. By that point his company had secured the financing (I was doing the project dossiers for all the applications, together with my late friend Margarita Radeva), apart from the co-producer’s share, which I secured after obtaining the rights over my story (from Anca Puiu at Mandragora). Otherwise I’d been applying for production support for my short films, but got only small – the first one (80 festivals, 10 awards), was partly financed by me, party by the National Culture Fund, the second one (50 festivals, 7 awards) by Emil Vitkov. Both received 35mm print production support from the Bulgarian National Film Center after A-festival selections. I am looking forward to the new film, very curious about its path.

We can see from European Funding Programmes such as Eurimage that there΄s a lack in Bulgarian-Romanian co-productions. You, however, apart from producer Anca Puiu, have also collaborated with Romanian director Radu Jude, who was the writer and co-writer for your shorts Stanka Goes Home and My Tired Father respectively. How did that collaboration started and what have you gained from it?

There are in fact Bulgarian-Romanian co-productions since last year, now it started happening. But I think Viktoria was among the first one. I’ve met Radu Jude at a film festival, where we started an argument on realistic cinema. I was not interested in doing realistic films, I wanted to make what later tuned into Viktoria – magical realism. But he was insisting that realistic cinema is much better than everything else and after the long argument, he wrote the script of my first short Stanka Goes Home and sent it as a provocation to me. I’m grateful, as this short film was a step to making my first feature. It’s like Picasso (really don’t think I’m Picasso in cinema, don’t get me wrong, just trying to give a reasonable example that people know of in order to explain the situation) who has started with academic drawing and then went “mad” (and famous too). This is what this collaboration is for me – an academic beginning. The famous part, I don’t believe in it.

Viktoria by Maya Vitkova

Is it easy for Bulgarian films to find co-productions?

Depends on the project, it also depends on the aims the producers have. There are now a certain number of Bulgarian films that have been co-produced. The Bulgarian cinema in general is not very popular; it stands far away from our neighbors from Romania in relation to success stories for sure. Nevertheless Bulgarian projects are occasionally presented (pitched) at the Balkan Fund, Connecting Cottbus, the Berlinale Talent Project Market, etc. I don’t have a clear view of how many of them have found co-producers, but the number of Bulgarian production companies acting as minor co-producers to other projects from the region and outside the Balkans is increasing. Which is definitely good news. The next step is to have more informal and artistic contribution to those films, the same goes to the Bulgarian films in co-production. The co-production is more time consuming and definitely requires a good preparation in order to be executed in the best possible way. I think that the Bulgarian films will more often enter co-productions in the near future.

And what about foreign films? Does Bulgaria attract international producers to invest in it? 

If does, on a smaller scale – very often Germany (the German funds have been a long-time reliable partner to Bulgarian films in co-production), a few times Sweden, more often Macedonia (the Macedonian Film Center lately has been a steady support for Bulgarian films) and others. But “to invest” is not the right word, in my opinion. One should be aware that what’s secured from the co-producer needs to be spend (to a different ((more often exceeding)) percentage) in the co-production country. So investing is both way – on one hand in the film, but also in the co-producers company through that film. But if you are asking of someone who wanted to or invested in a Bulgarian film with no support from the National Film Center, I know of only one case, the film is currently in post-production and has been backed-up by France. Clearly this will be a French film shot in Bulgaria by a Bulgarian director.  

Let΄s talk about another emerging issue. Distribution. We΄ve seen many good and awarded films failing to reach the theaters outside their country. Why do you think that happens and what΄s the case of Viktoria concerning international distribution?

It happens because of the market needs. Art house cinema is very often a boutique product. There are authors, which films have gained recognition and have reached wider audience, but the majority gets it only if they (we) are extremely lucky. Viktoria has premiered on 19 January (world premiere at Sundance) and it has been four months ever since. The film has been shown at 6 festivals and received two awards. Viktoria will be sold by the newly formed Viktoria World Sales and Distribution (owned by Emil Vitkov and I). There were great world sales companies who offered selling the film, but we’ve decided to do it on our own. Viktoria is an uncommon film – a 155-minute one is a risk, but I believe it can attract audience. I will let you know how it went, but we need more time. Last note: the market would never make me do what only the market wants and needs. I respect the audience, it is the God of cinema, but one can win the audience by two ways – by making an honest film, or by making a chewing gum for the eye. I’d go for the honest one.

Viktoria by Maya Vitkova

Tell us a few things about the story of your second feature Gin Air, which is partly shot in Brazil. Should we wait for another international co-production? 

We are co-producring with Mandragora (Romania) again after Viktoria, but we’d need two more co-producers onboard for that film. Gin Air was inspired by two years of writing, a trip to Brazil, a book, a film, a bottle of gin and a subject that moves me – how do we come into being. I’ve spent two years of writing at home (while developing Viktoria) and there was a point when I wanted to be someone else – the exile of consciousness, the burden of complete silence, the uniformity of the working space, the illusive torment of life bypassing you… At a certain point, I began asking myself how a voluntary prisoner binges on life after liberation. That was the starting point of Gin Air… I started dreaming of Brazil in the late 80s, (funnily) after seeing Gilliam’s homonymous film. Everyone who saw it knows that it has nothing to do with the actual country, although there’s an allusion to its capital Brasilia. But the film conceived a dream I was lucky to give birth to. The moment I set foot in Brazil, I realized why Gilliam’s film carries such a title - this place is a utopia, i.e. one cannot consider it to be realistically possible. That gave substance to Gin Air… Years ago, I gave Joyce’s Ulysses as a birthday present to my brother. I hadn’t read it by the time, but Leopold Bloom’s story seemed to be a profound choice. My brother wasn’t particularly fond of it, so the book went to his mother-in-law. When I was finally up to reading it, Ulysses was supporting an old couch in another relative’s house. Joyce’s book was the catalyst for Gin Air… I hadn’t tried alcohol until I was 20. I had never tried gin until I got robbed in Brazil and ended up at the Amsterdam airport without a penny where a barman offered me a free drink. Gin became a symbol of relief and gave a finale to Gin Air

Viktoria was an almost 10-years project. What about Gin Air? How long did you have the idea on mind?

Viktoria has been a 9-years project from the first idea to the world premiere of the film. Gin Air is much “younger”. The project is currently in development – third draft treatment and first draft of the script. We started with the development applications two months ago and planning the second trip to Brazil, if everything goes as planned. There’s research to be done and all the needed steps to the realization of the film.

After Viktoria΄s success is it easier to secure funding for Gin Air? 

I don’t know, I can answer by the end of the year. It will surely help, as people already know that we can make a film and this film can potentially find its place by premiering at one of the most important film festivals in the world. Gin Air is a complex film, such as Viktoria, luckily very different at the same time, but I am looking forward to making it. The financing is of great importance, but I’d like to keep what worked for me while doing Viktoria – no hustle, no power struggles (talking of co-producers), no noise, relevantly small crew, great professionals. I like the family type of work, where I can direct while wearing my pajamas. 

In your opinion, how essential are co-productions, especially for Balkan countries, regarding the film industry and the people in it?

They are essential. That could definitely bring a wider audience, a bigger market to those films. The Balkans have a relevantly small market and united, we are stronger. I am not saying it as if we needed to fight someone or something; it’s just a matter of presence and recognition for those films. Once related, you have better chances, saying it with regards to everything in life.

A wish for the future of Bulgarian cinema or the Balkan one?

To be a world cinema. 

  Anca Puiu
  Maya Vitkova
  Radu Jude
  Bulgarian National Film Center
  Mandragora Movies
  Macedonian Film Fund
  Viktoria Films
  National Fund Culture - Bulgaria
  Berlinale Talents Official Website
  Connecting Cottbus Official Website
  European Fund For The Balkans Official Website
  Sundance Institute Official Website
  Cannes Film Festival Official Website
  Producers on the Move Official Website
  European Film Promotion Official Website
  altcine Explore movies by Country People To read
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