Born in the Franche-Comté region near Frances Eastern-Swiss border to a Swiss-German father and French mother, and now splitting her time between Brussels, Geneva and Paris, it seems ironic that Ursula Meier’s first feature film should be called Home. Yet it is exactly this cultural diversity that has given the young director such unique style and vision. With an insatiable appetite for experimentation and sharp eye for genre manipulation, it is no wonder she has amassed such a fan base on the festival circuit in recent years.
Her ambitious debut is a provocative and moving deconstruction of family life from a distinctly European perspective. Make no mistake, though; this is not a film for all the family. Nor though is it a case of beginner's luck. After carving an acclaimed career in documentary and short filmmaking, it is only right that Ursula Meier’s intuitive curiosity and passion have allowed her to make the jump to feature length film with such ease. We sat down with Meier recently to discuss her multicultural roots and her bold journey Home.
LWLies: How have your experiences in documentary cinema and television film influenced you as a filmmaker?
Meier: In TV it is very difficult to be free, but it was my experience making films for Arte that gave me the chance as a director. Without that experience I would not have been given the budget to make Home. For a first film it’s a big budget and a big cast and without my TV film maybe the production company would not have taken a risk and given me such freedom.
LWLies: With this freedom in mind how did you approach Home as your first theatrical feature film?
Meier: It was very different to filming for TV, which is more classical, but it was a great experience. It’s unusual though because we shot entirely on location, but within that the same place the house was changing all the time, so it was a unique experience. It was a very strange film to shoot.
LWLies: How easy was it to find the location? How much of what you see in Home was real and how much was constructed for the film?
Meier: We researched for the location all over Europe, but it was very difficult to find that stretch of highway and it would have been too expensive to build. The highway itself was very difficult to work with because as it was being built there were a lot of construction vehicles. But we found a spot in Bulgaria. It was ideal because it was so isolated and scenically beautiful, so we put the barriers down and built the house there. What you see in the film is actually there, but to get the right perspective sometimes we had to manipulate the camera, to give the illusion of a longer road.
Meier: Isabelle and Olivier were both very enthusiastic about the script, because it is unlike a normal script, with very little dialogue. I think cinematographcally it really appealed to Isabelle, whereas Olivier liked the idea of changing his usual appearance, of doing something different. I had to explain a lot and visualise the script with them.
LWLies: What inspired you to make Home?
Meier: My imagination. Like many people, one day I saw a house in the centre of France near to the highway with a family eating outside in the garden. You think, 'How can live like that?' But at the same time they looked happy. It’s really a mix between reality and my imagination. I wrote the script as an anti-road movie, as a metaphor for people who want to live outside the walls but at the same time need them. I see Home as an inverse; a road movie in reverse.
LWLies: How significant then is the idea, the metaphor, of building up and breaking down walls?
Meier: I shot the film with the highway as a frontier between the wall and the rest of the world. In this sense it was very important where I put my camera because you never really see what is beyond the road.
LWLies: In what ways does the film reflect your own hopes, your dreams and your fears?
Meier: I think a lot about family and how people want to be together, and when you ask people what is important they say 'family'. It frightens me that the last humility is family, something which is both so strong and so fragile. For me Home speaks about that.
LWLies: You’re French-Swiss, but you live mainly in Belgium. What does home mean to you?
Meier: My home is very diverse, I am German-Swiss but my mother is French and I went to film school in Brussels, so it’s a strange mix. I like to travel though; I can’t stay in the same place more than a week and I think Home represents me very well, it reflects my background. There are some surrealist Belgian touches, but it is also typically French and German. I like opposites though; contradiction. Home is a mix of a lot of things, so with the music for example there is heavy metal and jazz, Nina Simone, and Bach as well.
LWLies: Talking about the music and more specifically sound, could you discuss why sound is so integral to the film?
Meier: When I speak about the film first off, I speak about sound. When I wrote the film I listened to audio tracks of traffic, it was important that when writing each scene I felt what the characters would feel. I made sure the scenes with more dialogue were at night, if anything to give the audience a break from the noise.
LWLies: Do you seek solitude and tranquility in your own life?
Meier: Yes, I am very obsessed with sound. In my apartment I heard a sound that no one else seemed to be able to hear. I had to alert someone to it and then that was all they could hear as well.
LWLies: There are tones of environmentalism in the film, but also a resistance to change. Overall what message do you hope people will take from Home?
Meier: I want to resist the wall. You can’t live all your life outside of walls, but when the road comes and you are forced to live inside, it is often a struggle to change. Living inside the walls is difficult and hard and it’s not beautiful everyday, but in the end it is even harder to escape them.
LWLies: Is there anyone who inspires you as a filmmaker?
Meier: There are a lot of directors, I love Jane Campion and of course François Truffaut, but for me I am crazy about Hitchcock. When I wrote Home I was thinking about The Birds. The first car in Home is like Hitchcock’s first bird; to start with there is nothing strange, but soon you realise you are surrounded and that’s when it gets scary.
LWLies: What are you currently working on?
Meier: At the moment I am writing a film for Kacey Mott Klein, who plays Julien in Home. It is a film about children and youth. He has just finished playing a young Serge Gainsbourg in Serge Gainsbourg, vie héroïque so we hope to start filming as soon as he is done with that.