At a Cannes Film Festival full of directors with lengthy track records, few people could have guessed that the biggest sensation would be caused by a 39-year-old German woman who’d only directed two previous features, neither of which made it to Cannes.
But Maren Ade became the toast of Cannes when her very funny and very moving family story “Toni Erdmann” first screened on Friday night. Not only did it set a new high score in the Screen International “critics jury,” which polls film critics from around the world, but it was quickly snapped up by Sony Pictures Classics, the gold standard when it comes to prepping foreign-language films for the U.S. market (and the Oscar race).
“Toni Erdmann” is the story of an elderly man who worries that his grown daughter has become so corporate and driven that she’s lost her sense of humor; he adopts the alter ego of a slovenly free spirit named Toni Erdmann, disrupting his daughter’s life in an attempt to get her to loosen up. The blend of comedy and drama works extraordinarily well, and the film’s daunting 2 hour and 42 minute running time flies by.
TheWrap caught up with Erdmann in the midst of the Cannes madness, with the soft-spoken director trying gamely to answer questions even though her voice had been reduced to a hoarse whisper in a few short days of festival frenzy.
TheWrap: What kind of expectations did you have coming into the festival?
Maren Ade: I really didn’t expect that so many people would like it. [With] my previous two films, maybe a bit more people liked them than didn’t like them, but there were always people who said, “I don’t like those films.”
With this one, I was expecting people to say, “No, it’s too long, I don’t like that woman … ” I was expecting many more critics.
So this must have been a crazy last couple of days.
Yeah. On last Monday I was still doing the [movie’s sound] mix, and on Tuesday I was seeing the final version, and on Wednesday I went shopping to buy a dress. I bought a suit. And then I came here and showed the film.
So it was really, really crazy, and very, very nice.
Where did the idea for “Toni Erdmann” come from?
I was interested in doing something about family topics, about roles that everybody plays. This father and daughter have assigned roles, in a way, and I had the idea that this father would have to turn into another character in order to meet her new, as a stranger, with the hope to provoke something. What he does comes out of desperation.
Two scenes in particular have been bringing the house down at Cannes, one being a very long brunch scene in which Sandra Hüller [playing Ines] is completely nude. Was it tough to get her to agree to that?
I think Sandra was more nervous about the businesswoman. She found it much harder to play. She already had [nude] experience — she made a film “The Brownian Movement,” which was at the Berlinale, and there were a lot of naked and sex scenes in it. So I think that was OK for her. Being this businesswoman was something she was more afraid of.
You mention “naked and sex scenes,” and this is definitely a naked scene. We tend to assume that if there’s nudity on screen, it must be about sex — but here, that’s not the case at all.
It is not a sex scene. Yeah. Nothing to do with sex, that is not the point at all.
The other scene that kills is when she sings a hugely dramatic version of the Whitney Houston song “The Greatest Love of All” at an Orthodox gathering where they’re painting eggs in Bucharest. Why that song, and how did that approach come about?
I knew the father wants to have his little daughter back singing the song, like she did when she was a child. And first she refuses to sing the song. We tried it in the way of her singing more “la la la,” but then I said, “No, you have to really perform it, and use the song to say ‘f–k you’ to your father. Go in with that, and then see what the song makes with you.”
And so Sandra did that. She said, “OK, I’ll do this one time,” and it’s really really good that she did that.
What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
I think it was making sure that the comedy always comes out of the characters, and never out of my hands. It’s always that the father is funny, the father is joking because he wants something. It’s not just a joke made by the film or the filmmaker. It was a very thin line I had to walk on, and it was really hard to find.
When did you set your sights on getting into Cannes?
In November, I became a mother for the second time. And because of that, I wanted everybody involved in the project to sit together and to really be very honest about if there’s a chance. Because Berlinale was too close — if they think there was really a chance for Cannes, I would have to work so much and so directly after birth that I wanted to know it was possible.
We decided we would try to get it ready for Cannes. I’m very very happy that I did it now, but while doing it, I would never want to do it again. I did the whole post production after the editing together with my son there, and always with the grandmother around.
Actually, that was the biggest challenge. Family life made it difficult.
Did you try to get the movie shorter than two hours and 42 minutes?
Yeah, also that. I took a long time trying that. And almost six weeks after I had the feeling it was finished, the discussion about the length came up and up and up. And I said, “OK, I have to be 100 percent sure. Let me try everything.”
I took out lots of things, but I put everything back, except maybe 10 seconds. Because when I took things out, the film felt longer. It was strange sometimes. I have to make excuses for the length, but it really lost when you made it shorter.