A Cannes Director Explains Why You Shouldn't Be 'Focused' on Set
'The Load,' Ognjen Glavonić's austere Cannes premiere, is a tense thriller without the action sequences.
Ognjen Glavonić was a teenager when NATO bombed Yugoslavia in 1999. The airstrike campaign went on for so long that it became a grisly part of everyday life. In fact, for many who survived the Balkan wars of the 1990s, the somber reality of war was quotidian—the explosions, the omnipresent scent of danger, the small, desperate acts of survival. It is here that Glavonić situates his narrative feature debut, about a seemingly innocuous act of survival that winds up implicating a civilian in a war crime.
The Load is a day in the life of truck driver Vlada (Leon Lucev), who undertakes a dangerous journey from Kosovo to Belgrade transporting unknown, top-secret cargo. His instructions: drive, don't stop until you've arrived, don't attract attention, and absolutely do not unlock the back of the truck. It's clear Vlada is uncomfortable taking the job, but the paycheck is his only hope of feeding his family.
The minimalist film relies on atmosphere to communicate its weighty subject matter, a war crime that remains taboo to talk about in Serbia to this day. Foregrounding Kosovo's bleak and austere landscape, the cinematography feels almost haunted—the camera often picks up to follow characters in the periphery of the story, and lingers on empty places and things. In the end, when we find out what Vlada's truck is carrying, the film's heavy silence—and the tension and anxiety it creates—speaks volumes.
No Film School caught up with Glavonić in advance of his film's theatrical premiere to discuss why he stripped away almost all of his film's dialogue, the biggest fallacy film school teaches students about being on set, and more.
No Film School: I read that it took up to eight years to make the film. Can you take me through the process?
Ognjen Glavonić: I got the idea for the film around nine years ago. That was when I first I heard about the crime. I read two articles about the case. One was about the driver of a freezer truck during the [Yugoslav Wars]. I realized that I was just now hearing about something that happened 10 years ago. I had to learn more about the case. I started asking my parents, my friends, and my professors. Nobody knew anything. The silence made me want to make a feature.
The thing is, we were not that experienced in filmmaking. My producers and I had never made a feature-length film. All of our short films and documentaries were made with no money. Even though I had learned how to make films guerrilla-style and with low budgets, I knew this movie would need to be different. It's a period piece and a road movie, which means there's going to be a lot of organization and a lot more money involved. And, of course, it's a war film. Even though the war is not that [visible], you still have to create the atmosphere—some pyrotechnics, some special effects.
The system in my country is that basically we have a ministry of culture that operates film funding, the Serbian Film Center. They have open calls for funding once a year. A commission decides on the film [to be funded], and usually, only one first-time filmmaker gets a chance.
For six years, we were denied support. In Europe, most films are produced in this way: you get the money in your country and then you co-produce it with two or three other European countries. But in order to co-produce, you have to have 30 or 40% from your own country first. We didn't have that. So that's why it took so long.
"In order to create tension in a sequence, you don't have to move the camera. You don't have to have 10 shots."
NFS: Do you think there was resistance in Serbia to the subject matter of a war crime?
Glavonić: Yeah. It's difficult. We were touching on something that is sacred in my country: nationalism. And for me, this film was my way of trying to fight this nationalistic logic. You make a lot of enemies when you want to speak about something that people don't want spoken about. Everybody here pretends that [this crime] didn't happen.
So, I don't have proof of censorship within the commission. I don't have proof of not getting money because of [the subject matter]. It's just a feeling I have.
In the end, over seven years, both the film and I changed in good ways. If I had made this film five years ago, it would have been completely different. So it wasn't a tragedy for me [that it took so long]. And in the meantime, I made some documentaries with no money.
NFS: One of the documentaries was about this crime, right?
Glavonić: Yeah. It's called Depth Two and it grew out of the research that I was doing for The Load. After two or three years of realizing we don't have any money, I thought maybe the fiction film would never be made. But I had so much research material about the crime. I thought I could make the documentary with no money and use it to location scout for the fiction film, even though I didn't know if it would happen or not.
"I didn't want to treat the movie like a rollercoaster ride. You didn't come to this for a moral lesson."
It helped the fiction film very much, actually. Depth Two premiered in Berlin and raised expectations for my next film, and I happened to have a next film when anybody asked! Also, I worked with the same crew for the documentary as the fiction film—the same DOP, the same sound designer, the same producer, the same editor. So in a way, it was preparation for The Load.
NFS: Given that The Load is your first narrative feature, it's impressive you created such strong mise-en-scene with little dialogue. A lot of the film depends on its atmosphere.
Glavonić: I relied on the audience connecting things and creating their own stories. Whenever I start working on a film, I think about what will remain after you see the film. As a filmmaker, if I manage to somehow make you interested or curious enough that you can create meaning on your own, I think it will stay with you much longer.
When I started working on the script seven years ago, it was very narrative. Everything was in the dialogue—all the meaning, all the relationships, all the details. Then, I just started cutting it out. The only information I kept in the dialogue was stuff that I couldn't show you.
I never wanted the film to be a history lesson. I was always more interested in creating something that's ambiguous—something that is not just given to you.
NFS: I completely agree with you about audience engagement. You want to trust that the audience can put the pieces together.
Glavonić: It is about trust. It is about treating the audience with some kind of respect—your intelligence, your emotions, your imagination, your curiosity, your participation, your willingness to take some time to see something. I didn't want to treat the movie like a rollercoaster ride. You didn't come to this for a moral lesson. Art, in general, is about suggestion.
NFS: The cinematography was extremely evocative without being showy. Can you tell me a bit about the process of visualizing the film, given that you stripped away so much information from the dialogue?
Glavonić: In the visual treatment, the main rule was that whenever the main character is inside of the truck, the camera is inside, too. We never shoot him through the window, even if some of those shots could be attractive. When you have a truck going through a beautiful landscape, you have an opportunity to put the camera wherever you want for these beautiful montage sequences, like in most road movies. But it was so important to me that the camera matched the character's feelings. And he is feeling isolation and claustrophobia. Inside the truck, he's kind of in a cocoon. He sees the world through only these windows and distant sounds.
"It was so important to me that the camera matched the character's feelings."
In order to create tension in a sequence, you don't have to move the camera. You don't have to have 10 shots. I wanted us to be with the main character in real-time, walking in his shoes. You know as much as he knows. You see what he sees.
NFS: I thought it was brilliant the way that you painted a backdrop of war without explicitly bringing us into the action.
Glavonić: You see the war on the faces of the characters. We didn't have real bombs or real blood or slaughter. You can sense that from the world in which our characters live and you can see it through their behavior. And, of course, the sounds.
I was a kid during the war. I have memories and emotions from that time. I remember the sounds of the bombing. I remember the dreams and the fears in the air. These feelings stay with you. You feel trapped. You don't have the power to keep yourself safe. I tried to put these into the film.
NFS: The camera movements were almost ghostly. I appreciated going on a journey with each shot and not knowing where it was going to end up, or what was motivating it. Sometimes you follow fringe characters into their lives, and we leave the main character for a moment. And sometimes the camera just does its own thing for no apparent reason.
Glavonić: Well, the story is kind of about ghosts. He's transporting the ghosts of history in his truck. So that influences the camera movements. Also, the film is about the silence surrounding the crimes. It has to have this emptiness, slow panning, etc.
I have to admit that I didn't have a shot list at the beginning of the film. I had one for the first few days on set with the 15 shots I wanted to make that day. But we shot only for four and a half weeks, and in the first two days, I realized that I couldn't shoot 15 shots a day. I could only shoot five. This lack of time influenced the way the film looks and feels because more and more each day, I realized, "Okay, I can't do 10 shots, but let's do these 10 shots in two or three shots instead."
I wanted to shoot at locations that are very open, mostly exteriors. Even when we're in interiors, you see the exterior. You have this feeling that something is looming outside. I wanted my locations to influence me on set.
"In film school, they teach you that you have to be focused on every detail. I think the idea is not to be focused, but to be present."
The idea of lingering off-camera on one thing and then slowly moving to another—that was created on set. It happened by observing and by being present. That's something that I learned on my documentaries. In film school, they teach you that you have to be focused on every detail. I think the idea is not to be focused, but to be present. When you're present in your scene, you see and hear and feel many different things that can correspond with your ideas. You just have to let them in into the film.
NFS: And if you focus too much, then you're not present. The opposite effect happens.
Glavonić: If you focus too much, you're just filming something that is dead: the script.
Many people think making a movie is like building a building. You have a map, you build. But I think the way I work is more like fishing. You wait. It's there. You just have to let it in.