Oscilloscope's 'November,' from Estonian director Rainer Sarnet, is a beguiling beauty shot like a strange dream on a menagerie of cameras.
Few films offer the experience of being swept into a folktale. Like the tides of a strange dream, November pulls you into its beguiling world: an impoverished town in 19th-century Estonia, where peasants make deals with the devil to survive the cold winter, werewolves roam, the ghosts of dead neighbors pop in for dinner, and goblins made of iron rods stumble drunkenly in the night. Director Rainer Sarnet adapted the film from Andrus Kivirahk’s novel, Rehepapp, bringing to life Pagan lore with black humor and a special reverence for the beauty in squalor.
In one surreal scene, reminiscent of the opening of Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries, an empty horse and buggy carts a body. In another, supernatural servants called Kratts, made from animal skulls and rusty rakes and knives, threaten to kill their masters if they are not put to work. At the heart of it all is Liina (Rest Lest), an idealistic young farmer who yearns for a local boy's (Jorgen Liik) affection; alas, he is, in turn, captivated by the arrival of a German baroness (Jette Loona Hermanis), whose existence seems unmarked by hardship, despite the fact that she sleepwalks on the roof of her castle—often nearly plunging to her death.
Much of the Estonian film's appeal is owing to its transfixing cinematography, shot by Mart Taniel in black and white and infrared on a menagerie of different cameras, lenses, and formats, both film and digital. High-contrast lighting makes even the human townsfolk look like specters in a dark, hostile world. Every frame of November stands alone as a haunting photograph, a reminder of a not long ago humanity riddled with superstition, the plague, and a more recognizable affliction: greed.
"I wrote the script like visual poetry."
No Film School caught up with Sarnet and Taniel at Tribeca 2017 to discuss how they brought this singular vision to life using creative lighting techniques, custom-modified cameras, non-actors, practical effects, and a miracle or two.
No Film School: How did you decide to adapt fairy tales for the screen?
Rainer Sarnet: When I read the book, Rehepapp, for the first time, I immediately realized that I wanted to make a film about it. It's a deconstruction of Estonian fairy tales. The writer, by Andrus Kivirähk, points out that the main motive in Estonian fairytales is greed. All activities and characters are based on the greed. For example, how the fox steals milk or the fox cheats the wolf. That was the main idea.
I wanted to put this pragmatic peasant story into a magical, spiritual world. The peasants are using the spiritual world for their own benefit. For me, it was a challenge to put together these controversial things and show the dark side of human nature.
"Shooting black and white gives you some extra freedom to let your fantasy fly."
NFS: This by far the most stunning film I've seen at Tribeca this year. How did you conceive of the visuals?
Sarnet: The visual inspiration came from photos. I found a photographer, Johannes Pääsuke, who took pictures of Estonian peasants in the 19th century. It was like an anthropological overview—how they lived, what they looked like. It was a very strange world. They lived in small houses with animals. They wore strange clothes. Of course, it was a very ugly world. So I took inspiration from the black and white photos.
I wrote the script like visual poetry. I put the story into the pictures. I didn't want to create long shots with psychological turning points; I prefer short, metaphorical shots, like photographs.
NFS: Did you have any visual references?
Sarnet: Chinese ghost stories and Dead Man (1995) by Jim Jarmusch.
NFS: Mart, what was the biggest challenge in terms of bringing Rainer's vision to life?
Taniel: The film was supposed to be a fantasy, but with a touch of reality. It was most challenging to find the balance between the imaginable characters, such as Kratts [mythological farmer's helpers], magical animals like werewolves and a goat and a pig as the plague, and actors so all of them would fit into their natural environment. I guess depicting this "natural" environment was a challenge.
On the other hand, it was like an open door for me as cinematographer. I could imagine so many different ways to expose a character. And there are many very different ones in this film. Also, with black and white, the abstraction level gives you some extra freedom to let your fantasy fly. It becomes a frame where you can compose many different styles, yet maintain a feeling of a whole.
Sarnet: We used very different cameras. For example, the infrared camera, which makes green turn to white, because we filmed in summer, but it looks like winter. Sometimes we shot with film; other times, we didn't. We mixed very different techniques.
NFS: Can you talk about each different camera and lens package? Why did you make these particular choices?
Taniel: Our main camera was RED Epic with Zeiss Ultra Prime lenses. I have used that lens for many of my films, shooting both digital and film. I chose that camera partly because of its resolution—up to 6K at that time, for the post-production VFX shots—and partly because of the light weight for gimbal and handheld shots.
"I didn't want the acting to be too nuanced, too advanced, or too full of psychology."
A few scenes were shot with the ARRI Alexa. That camera delivers the best skin tones, to my eye, but as we shot black and white, the aspects above overruled that advantage. Our B camera was RED Scarlet with an Angenieux Optimo 24-290mm zoom. The zoom was very useful shooting the running wolves. You had to be quick, 'cause even though we had specially trained wolves and other animals, they still wouldn't move or act at your command.
I had my Sony A7S with a second-hand Canon FD prime lens with me all the time, and I did one shot with my 4K Sony cell phone because the landscape on a foggy morning on the way to the location through the van window was perfect. Later on, I figured it was perfect as a background for a flying cow shot on the green screen.
For infrared shots, I used a modified RED Epic. Additionally, I used different gimbals (a custom-built DJI Ronin and a tiny Nebula 4000 for my Sony A7s), a dolly, and a camera crane.
NFS: What were the challenges associated with shooting so many different formats?
Taniel: Usually, the use of different cameras gets difficult with matching the colors and skin tones. For black and white, it is a bit easier, and that's why I could use so many different formats. But you have to work more in the color correction. In that case, the variety of different cameras and shooting styles was more of an artistic choice. You have to do lots of tests.
NFS: Do you have any tips for shooting infrared?
Taniel: I first bought a little Sony NEX camera and had it modified in Germany for infrared for testing. For me, a sunny and bright summer day works the best. The idea was to depict an icy and wintery feeling, so as infrared "sees" green as white, I needed a lot of green tree leaves. We had to find a river with lots of trees on each side, and the leaves had to get direct light from the sun. That gives you quite an explicit timeframe. You have to be ready to shoot, and only testing can guarantee that you will be.
"I took a little inspiration from M.C. Escher’s painting 'Three Worlds' and used the so-called double exposure style."
NFS: Rainier, some of your actors feel like they were pulled straight from folklore itself. How did you work with them to bring them into this surreal space?
Sarnet: I used non-professional actors. It was part of its conception because it's a folk tale. I wanted the common people acting in this film because they have rustic faces and there is a certain shyness and clumsiness to them. I prefer that real touch.
NFS: How did you find them?
Sarnet: Casting sent the photos and I chose from the pictures. Then we started to rehearse together. The main characters are professional actors. I put the non-professional and professional actors together. They both enjoyed this way of working.
But it was difficult working with the non-actors. For example, the witch actor lives almost the same life as the witch [she plays] in our film. She lives alone in the forest. It was her first time on a movie set. She came on and she immediately started to read her text. Some of the actors were old. They didn't understand what they had to do. With non-actors, it's not acting; it's kind of helpless thing, but I prefer it. I didn't want the acting to be too nuanced, too advanced, or too full of psychology.
NFS: What were some of the biggest challenges either of you had to face on set?
Sarnet: We used a lot of animals. And we shot the Kratts with puppets. We directed them like in the marionette theater, with rope and sticks. I didn't want to use 3D animation; I wanted the Kratts made with bones, bricks, and other peasant tools. I wanted the movement to be a little bit clumsy.
Taniel: There was no cheating in shooting the Kratts. We wanted to get the feeling of gravity and some sort of weird kinetics. All the Kratts were actually built life-size since they had to interact with real people or animals. We used all sorts of strings and levers to move them around the set, and that was a challenge because of the size and weight. A lot of different rails and string systems had to be built in order to get those monsters moving or flying. They were built mostly out of iron and some literally had feet of flat iron. Later on, the shots were cleaned in post-production, but all the movements remained natural.
"Candles burn out quite fast. That’s when the fast-speed lenses become especially handy."
Also, when it comes to shooting wild animals, you will face a whole palette of problems. They won't step into a mark, and if they do decide to step at all, they will do it at their own time. Usually, they do it once or twice; after that, they need a break. Even though they were trained for a year, you will find out that wild animals can't be controlled like you imagined when you were storyboarding shots. So, lots of fun and tension! But big kudos to the animal trainers from Hungary.
Another hard scene to shoot was the emerging of the spirits at the cemetery in the night. That was mainly because we shot it in an old manor park which is under protection. No vehicles are allowed to drive there. There was literally one spot to set up big lights and they had to be soft. The terrain on that only spot was inaccessible for a huge crane, so I couldn’t get the lights as high as I would have wanted. The gaffer had to invent a hybrid rig to achieve what I was asking, and it didn’t cover nearly everything I was hoping. This limited camera angles quite a lot.
Taniel: Additionally, there is a lot of natural candlelight in the movie, and the candles burn out quite fast. That’s when the fast-speed lenses become especially handy. Of course, it was barely within exposure.
NFS: In many scenes, the lighting is dramatic. I was especially impressed with your ability to light enormous outdoor sets. Can you tell me about how you lit some scenes, such as the one that takes place at night on the rooftop of the baroness' mansion?
Taniel: We ended up shooting that scene over two different days. On the first day, there was a clear sky and the shots didn’t turn out that well. The next day, there was a bit of fog, well-shaped clouds and the moonlight from the right angle. I only had to add some backlight and it all rendered out well. The hard part is, of course, being at the right spot at the right time.
There is a scene where one of the main characters, Liina, turns into a werewolf. Of course, these things are supposed to happen in the night. There was no way to get big lights to the location, so I decided to shoot it during a bright, sunny day. Basically, there isn't so much difference between the sun and moonlight except that the sky looks a little different. So I had to find camera angles to avoid the sky. Later on, you can work on brightness and contrast, so it gives a nice moonlight feeling. I even shot straight to the sun with a closed aperture and it looks as if you are looking at the moon. That, of course, is not so much as a challenge to light. But it requires some creativity.
NFS: Rainer, what did you learn about directing from having to navigate this complex project?
Sarnet: To be strong. And to trust. Trust the actors; trust even the weather. In one place in the script, I wrote about how the peasants are dancing and the snow falls. The snow came exactly in this moment when we were filming this scene. It was a miracle. On film sets, we're always waiting for a miracle.
NFS: You mentioned special effects earlier. I know you used practical effects for the Kratts, but how did you shoot the other VFX?
Taniel: There is a shot where I wanted to combine two worlds: fancy Italian characters riding a gondola on a beautiful lake with a castle and white, icy trees in the background, and when the camera tilts down towards the surface of the water, we see the peasants standing underwater on the bottom of the lake watching the riders above them. I took a little inspiration from M.C. Escher’s painting "Three Worlds" and used the so-called double exposure style. I had a programmable camera head set to a fixed speed. The shot with the gondola was done in the summer (infrared) and the other in the winter with the same lens and same pre-programmed tilting speed. Finally, the two shots were superimposed, and it gave a very nice effect.
NFS: The music was very affecting, in keeping with the tone of the visuals and the story. Who composed the score?
Sarnet: I found a great composer from Poland, Michal Jacaszek. He's a Catholic. When he read the book for the first time, he said, "It's too much for me...It's too fake because people are laying on the Bible." But, we edited, he decided [to do it]. I found his music on YouTube. It was very beautiful. I listened to his music a lot during shooting to keep the right mindset and the right tempo during directing. It's very dark and beautiful.
NFS: What are some ways that you think the soul of your film speaks to modern times?
Sarnet: We are all living in the same very practical, greedy world. Especially in America. We have to find some way to survive this pragmatic world—to find something beautiful, a kind of hope. A dark beauty.