Last spring, award winning commercial director Marcel Langenegger’s Hollywood directorial debut was released. Deception, a psychological thriller, stars Hugh Jackman, Ewan Mcgregor and Michelle Williams. Dealing with big name stars, fluctuating budgets and the whims of studio executives, the first time director was beset with all kinds of obstacles. Nevertheless Marcel Langenegger lives to tell…

Your background is in commercials, essentially a short format, which means you have to compress a lot into a minute (or less). How was it to shoot a feature film?

I found it liberating on a feature to actually have that time and not have to worry about it having to be over in a minute or a few seconds. It’s a very different approach. In a commercial you have to get to the core of something right away. In film, at some point the scene boils down to a short format and you have to find the theme of the moment—and the essence of that is very reduced—the climax of a scene is a few seconds long…

Were you always going to be a filmmaker?

I started out in commercials for financial reasons. I couldn’t afford to not make money, so I started with music videos, which is a fast entry because there are a lot of bands out there who have no money but need the same kind of exposure you do. And from there you get into commercials which is a very respected field in America—and very competitive. Commercials are a great learning experience. You learn very fast, you are all over the world, have it all done in two days, live and work in other cultures, try to capture something through images, tell a story — it’s very intense and exciting. It was a very good training ground.

“Wants & Needs”

Who has influenced you the most as a filmmaker?

Sergio Leone. Growing up in rural Switzerland (sort of the alpine suburbs) I watched all these westerns and action movies. I saw this Sergio Leone film Once Upon a Time in the West and then the The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, and it spoke to me in a different way.  There was a language here that was unusual; the images, the concepts were very radical. Clint Eastwood became my hero, much more than Tarzan.  We just thought he was so cool. In my late teens I somehow ended up watching the long version of Once Upon a Time in America (which wasn’t well received in America at all).  It was something like four or five hours long, and I was just blown away. I thought to myself “This is Art!”  It had this amazing Moriccone score, incredible handling of time, tension — all these art forms flowing into one.  Then I realized there is such a thing as directing.

The other influence was (Frederico) Fellini, because he created this wonderful escapist cinema. Growing up in the countryside you kind of dream of an escape into another world—Fellini was perfect for that. It was like entering a dream. Later on I was drawn to people like David Lynch. When you watch his films, it’s like you enter another universe close to your own, yet very different, magical to watch, and the idea that I too would be creating this sort of magic was so farfetched. I enjoyed cinema very much, but I had very humble thoughts about it. I actually thought it wasn’t possible with my background. Only later when I moved to America and started doing commercials, I met other directors who were like me and I started to see the potential.

How successful do you think you were in bringing your own “world” to Deceptions?

In retrospect this film was a huge lesson. As a first time director, I somehow managed to be involved in a film with a major studio and major stars and in the end I realized I had very little control. I had freedom in many ways like casting development, and when we got the green light I had a hundred ideas about how to improve the script and all these ideas actually got me in.  And Hugh Jackman fell in love with the project and thought “God, this is great! If we rewrite this we’ll have a wonderful film!”

So I got attached, started out location scouting.  Then Hugh Jackman took on another role (as a replacement for Russell Crowe in another film) which meant he had to be in Australia, and the film fell apart.  Fox dropped it.  (They weren’t that into in the first place, it wasn’t their “sort of movie”.)  Hugh Jackman wasn’t available for the next four years… and that was it.

I was heartbroken, this would have been the fifth time I had lost a film, and never really this close; just some terrible circumstances which happen in this very tricky business. However, I did stay in touch with Hugh Jackman and two months later I got a call from him.  His project in Australia had been moved by a month, and would I still be interested to do the film? We would keep the same stars, but we would also need to raise the money since it was no longer a studio film. I would also have to shoot all his parts in the first three or four weeks.  I said “Yes!”

Unfortunately, all those hundreds of ideas I had to make the script better, hadn’t actually really been written. We had less than five weeks prep time and the writer, who ended up fighting with the producers over his fee, dropped out. By then we had to start shooting with the old script, which I always thought was flawed. It had a lot of missing plot points, but the machine was rolling.  I had all these conceptual ideas, but no time to implement them because we had become an independent movie, and when you’re so tight on money, you cannot really afford to shoot outside the written page, because everyone goes with what’s on that page. In a few scenes, I introduced some of my themes and basically improvised, but while shooting we couldn’t really go over budget.

In the end we finished the film and the studio took it and changed it and cut it the way they wanted it.  I had a very different ending in mind.  The studio actually CGI’ed Michelle Williams in the last scene to give it a happy ending. My hands were completely tied. And that is a very frustrating experience.

Scenes from Deception featuring Hugh Jackman, Ewan Mcgregor and Michelle WIlliams

But isn’t this is a common experience in Hollywood?

Very common if you make a film on this level, with big stars and a relatively large budget. This was $29 million and if you have three big stars, they eat up a lot of that money upfront already. Then when you become an independent film, you have to buy the project from the studio and you have much less control. Oftentimes, if you do a small independent film, you actually have much more control as a director. It’s a healthier and more fulfilling way of working than what I had to go through. I was caught up in the machine. As a first time director, you have all the power on the set.  No one tells you how to shoot or direct the actors, but you don’t have final cut. You basically have a lot of things you can’t do and you just have to accept that reluctantly.

It’s just the way it is: filming is expensive. Film financing is private in America half the time, and who ever gives the money has the power. The financiers and producers tend to make the decisions based on statistics like this percent of the audience is female, so they need a happy end.  So you have to have a happy end.

It’s a dance with the devil, isn’t it? But hey, you’re directing another one…

Everyone said to me, “This is a stepping stone.  You made a big Hollywood feature.  You did it, and even though it’s not entirely you, you’ve proven a lot…” I showed this version of the film to other producers who had approached me about another project (they wanted to see this film first), and they said to me “we can see your handwriting; we can see your talent; we can see the flawed script and what you tried to do with it…”

So they actually completely understood.

So what’s the new project?

I got attached to two things, actually.  One of them is an adaptation of a true WWII story (Brothers In Arms). The producers said to me “This is a WWII film and all WWII films look the same, is there a way to do something different?”

And I explained “They’re doing black and white because the newsreels at the time were black and white and this inspired the look of these films.  But color film was around and there were a few people doing color documentaries during WWII”. I did some research and found some amazing color photos from the period to show them. It feels old, but yet very modern, not quite kodachrome; certain colors are really strong and some are faded. You see a similar kind of look in music videos–but it’s not going to be a blue caste, it’s yellow because the movie takes place in springtime at the end of the war. We’re shooting tests with old cameras and old film stock and this will provide our palette to reproduce the same feel in 35 mm or 16mm—or digitally.

We actually lost five months with the writer’s strike–I wasn’t even allowed to have coffee with the writer!

What’s the second project?

The second film is very small personal father/son drama. It’s further down the line. The good thing is that these two very wonderful projects came to me in spite of Deceptions, which wasn’t really my vision.

I am no longer a first time director — it’s a whole different game.  Now there is time for writing and development. I wouldn’t do another film in Hollywood where my wings are so clipped.

Are you attracted to a certain kind of script?

I’ll deal with any genre as long as the story is interesting.  I’m naturally attracted to dramas, though in Hollywood as a first timer, especially coming from commercials, you get a lot of B-movie and horror movie offers. I kept turning them down though after a while I started thinking “Well maybe I should do this; maybe I could find a way to make it a bit different.”

Would you go to Switzerland to make a film?

A European film would be wonderful. I prefer shooting commercials in Europe because you have creative control and you cut the spot yourself, which is why European ads are so much better. In America, the agency hires you to direct it—and then they get the footage and they cut it and do whatever they want with it. And what you see on the television set is not really your commercial. Of course, it’s great to sit in a helicopter and chase a car down the street.  With European commercials the budgets are smaller.

Chanel No. 5 Commercial

In Europe, film is financed by the government and cultural funds.  It’s more an art form there.  Even if a bank finances a film, they step away from the plate and give it over to the director. Their interest is not in making money, but more that they are helping to create culture.  Being patrons of the arts gives them good PR.

I’d love to come back and work in Switzerland.  It’s much nicer than just visiting, because then you’re just a tourist.  But being there and shooting stuff, working with people, you feel very much at home.