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Corina Schwingruber Ilić and Nikola Ilić: Masters of Tragicomedy

Corina Schwingruber Ilić and Nikola Ilić: Masters of Tragicomedy

On a cold morning during the winter break, we spoke to Nikola and Corina who were in their home in Serbia. While their Serbian home is being renovated and little baby Cléo is gabbling along on their lap, we talk about the work of the vibrant, successful, makers. The filmmaking couple speaks openly about the process of making films such as ’All Inclusive’, ’Rakijada’, ’Baggern’ and ’Kod Ćoška’ but also about the ones we can expect in the future.

1. Corina Schwingruber Ilić ; 2. Nikola Ilić

Working together: from a romantic encounter to total horror

 You would think two filmmakers would have met on set, during film school or through mutual colleagues. None of the above is the case. ‘We met in a bar in Belgrade, fourteen years ago. Very old school. Back then, I worked in an old bookshop and Corina was doing an exchange as a fine arts student.’ Corina laughs ‘I did a course on media, so I used to say that I was probably the only one in Belgrade with a camera. We then came to speak about making a film.’ Nikola soon brought up an idea: ‘In Serbia, seeing a chimney cleaner brings luck. I thought about making a film that showed chimney cleaners all around the world, brought together with shots from the city rooftops. I still think that’s a nice idea, but we never worked that one out.’

Since their first encounter, the two speak about their ideas every day. Working together, on the other hand, wasn’t an immediate success. And we’ve put that mildly. ‘Making our first film ‘Kod Ćoška’ (‘Down at the Corner’) was total horror. We did co-cinematography and co-directing. That resulted in big fights. To save the film and our relationship, we decided to film at different times: one person in the morning, the other in the afternoon. At the end of the process, we were afraid the result wouldn’t work out. It was in any case clear we would never do it this way again. Nevertheless, the film was shown at several festivals, also at Go Short.’

After ‘Kod Ćoška’, both of the filmmakers got a residency in Egypt to make separate films. ‘Everything was planned very well, but everything was chaotic and it was dangerous to film’, says Corina. ‘We figured it would be better to make another film together. Nikola filmed outside, while I could edit inside. Those clear working positions turned out to be a blessing. It worked. We still maintain these roles.

Tragicomedy and the support of a composer-friend

When you’ve seen different films by Nikola and Corina, you start to notice they make their audience laugh at every screening. How would they describe their style? ‘Tragicomedy,’ Nikola says, without a doubt. Corina adds: ‘We like to show topics in an approachable way and make sure viewers still have a bit of fun watching it. The music helps with that, it plays a big role.’ Most of the music has been done by Heidi Happy, Corina’s best friend. ‘She’s a musician and a very fast composer. During the edit, we tell her what we’re looking for, for example, a bit of heavy metal, a piece with tango style and a bit of opera. She starts to compose something and we put it in the edit. We discuss it with her, she makes changes and so it goes for- and backwards between editing and composing. In the end, she goes to the studio where she plays the music with the specific musicians.’

Another thing recurring in most of their films is the fixed camera angle. The wide-angled shots can sometimes turn into whole scenes. ’This creates an atmospheric touch that maybe defines our style. Though I also think, that we’re evolving and trying new things with every new movie. But the tragicomedy remains,’ concludes Nikola.

Gender in (making) films  

The fact that most of the films are about men is a coincidence. ‘We look for interesting stories, not for a specific gender. Our next film has female characters and that’s also a coincidence.’ How did Corina make a film like ‘Baggern’ (‘Tons of Passion’) about construction workers in a male environment as a female? ‘I found that pretty easy. I try not to use my gender as an advantage, but I have the feeling it naturally helped while making this film. The men in such an environment probably talk more openly about their feelings towards machines to a woman, rather than a man. They take the time to explain things, which works on camera. ‘Baggern’ would certainly have been different when Nikola would have directed it.’

Text continues under the film stills.

1. All Inclusive; 2. Baggern; 3. Just Another Day; 4. Kod Ćoška

Ten ideas per day

The makers look for pretty stories, but where do they find them? ‘Nikola has ten ideas a day, just as I do. He only talks about it a bit more, haha! We walk around town with open eyes and see possible movies every day.’ Unfortunately, you can’t work out ten ideas a day. ‘We develop the ideas that survive in our heads for months or years. With ‘All Inclusive’, for example, it took me five years to develop the plan once it popped up in my head. I needed that time to figure out which form it would be.’

Once they start making the film, they search for a budget. ‘That takes time. Sometimes we start filming before we have the money, but you have to be selective about that. Our observational way of making documentaries requires time and patience.’ Nikola states that he couldn’t make a film in any other way. ‘We both like to choose stories that are close to us and just observe them. We don’t stage anything. The films are born in postproduction.’

Future films

Right now, the two are working on several documentary projects. The biggest project is a film that wasn’t even supposed to be one in the beginning. It’s their first feature, about Nikola’s mother. ‘When his mother got cancer eight years ago, she liked to be filmed. Nikola hung out with her and they made it their personal project. Suddenly, she got better and they kept filming.’ ‘Soon we realized that this filming had the potential for a ’real film,’ says Nikola. ‘It’s about global issues; the responsibility you take for your own life and your parents, making decisions and migration. Now we’ve finished filming, we realize it’s also about loneliness. She feels lonely, and she shares that feeling with lots of people.’ ‘My three women and I’ (working title) is planned to be out in autumn 2020.

Beautiful failures and challenges

Corina and Nikola are working hard on their successful portfolio. It may seem as if they don’t make mistakes, but that can’t be true, right? Corina laughs: ‘My biggest failure was the day I forgot to switch on my sound. I was working as a camerawoman for another filmmaker and that mistake, of course, felt really awful. Since then, I always check my sound a lot.’ During the years she got more confident, but in the beginning, she could feel nervous when she directed or filmed.  ‘In the early years, I never switched off my camera. I was afraid I wouldn’t have enough material. Later on, I learned that there will always be another scene and stressing about that isn’t very useful. It’s better to focus on the camera work when the camera is running.’

Nikola also still learns every day. ‘Before I became a filmmaker, I did a lot of photography. Therefore, I tend to move my camera immediately when I see something on the other side of the space. That’s the way you work as a photographer, but it makes no sense when making a film. I keep learning I need to take it easy.’ Both of them claim their biggest challenge now is time. As observational filmmakers, we need to be patient and we can easily lose a few useless days in which nothing good happens. That’s more difficult nowadays, time is more scarce.’

Interview: Wieneke van Koppen