Interview sur


“A film industry has emerged of which Luxembourg should be proud”

Jean-Claude Schlim, Photo: Andrés Lejona

Par Duncan Roberts, publié le 30.04.2010


What sparked your desire to work in the film industry? “I had always been interested in film, but it was really triggered by my friend Pol Crucht en. We went to study at the ESEC (Ecole Supérieure d’Etudes Cinématographiques) in Paris. We basically spent two years attending classes and going to the movies every day, visiting the Paris Cinémathèque. I also wrote as a film critic for Télécran, Tageblatt and RTL but also for Film Illustrierte, which at the time was the second largest specialist cinema magazine in Germany. We were preparing for an impossible career in the movie industry. We planned to stay in Paris and even did a short movie together, Somewhere in Europe. But a year after graduating I received a phone call from the recently created CNA (Centre National de l’Audiovisuel) offering me an annual scholarship. The timing was perfect, so I returned to Luxembourg even though I had never intended to come back here. During my year at the CNA the new audiovisual law was created, so once again I found myself in the right place at the right time – there were very few local film professionals, so I soon started working on the first international productions to be made here. What did those early years involve? “I was hired as a location manager, which is quite a high position but really requires a local person even though I didn’t really have the technical knowledge and experience. But I was surrounded by helpful experts from abroad. The films were actually quite complicated and prestigious location movies such as Jewels (Delux Productions), an American TV series. They required locations in ministries and castles and embassies – as the industry was really new at the time we were able to shoot in locations that we would find difficult to use again. A lot of people who are now in high positions in the industry started as local technicians at the same time.Was there a feeling that this would be the beginning of a real industry? Or was there some scepticism? “First of all there was a certain ambiguity because the production companies didn’t really exist. For instance, when I worked on Warburg (a film written by Jacques Attali), samsa film was a one-office structure. Jewels was an outrageously huge production with 300 crew and I was being asked to find 15 additional make-up artists for the next day – I told them I would be lucky to find one. So the productions were fully professional and on a big scale, but there was a lack of professional skills on the Luxembourg side. We really did our best, and that is how most people learned their trade. But there was also concern among the technicians and we staged a protest march because we thought the tax shelter law, which was a temporary scheme, was going to be abandoned. I remember placards saying ‘Mediaport – Gone With The Wind’.So Luxembourg film makers were able to learn from these visiting productions? “Yes, I was really lucky that I worked with some of the most experienced production people. And that is how you really learn, by having them guide you. And they fully understood because they considered working in Luxembourg just like working in Romania or Uzbekistan – they did not really have high expectations. They just wanted to find local people who could speak the language, get them to find locations and a few drivers. But later we had to fight against these low expectations as we gained more and more experience, especially when it came to American productions that were bringing hundreds of people over when we already had experienced people here who could do the job. That was a real problem for the following ten years. Nowadays that is not really a factor, because of course bringing external people over is also an economic factor. They have to be housed and so forth, and that becomes expensive.

Were you never tempted to work abroad? “I did a couple of productions abroad at the start of my career, and I now regret not maintaining those contacts. But it was a choice I made because there was so much happening in Luxembourg and I had found my niche. Indeed, I am proud of the fact that I managed to retain independent status throughout my career, yet still worked for nearly all of the local production companies. In a production position like mine your strength lies in your local knowledge of technicians, locations and what authorisations are required. Even at that time it was important to have political contacts, because major problems can arise that require the intervention of an administration and I was able to get in touch with the right people quite easily.

Indeed, at that time the authorities, to a great extent, understood the political will to develop a film industry. The Ville de Luxembourg, for instance, has been very flexible and helpful to production companies since the beginning. While the Americans were attracted to Luxembourg initially, isn’t it true that most co-productions are now with European companies? “Without wanting to say anything negative about the government at the time, they dreamed of promoting films in America. It was the politicians who really pushed for the trans-Atlantic collaborations, whereas those in the field were always warning that as a small country we should be wary of projecting a negative image. For example, if big American producers were to ask why it was not possible to get three helicopters for tomorrow morning and we reply that ‘well we are in Luxembourg’, they would counter with the fact that we have a film industry and that was what was expected. Then we would have to tell them that actually the industry was not yet fully established.

But then the rules were changed and suddenly everything, or a significant portion of a film, had to be shot in a studio. That was the era when Delux and Carousel were making their big sci-fi and period movies on purpose-built sets. The problem was that if you had two major American productions at the same time, there simply weren’t enough people to work on them. So we had to recruit crew from Cologne, Brussels and elsewhere.Then they really started to listen to the producers and field people and the European side of things evolved. And now we can fully cover three or four smaller productions with local crew simultaneously. How has recruiting changed over the years? “At the beginning it was kind of easy to get into the industry. People learned quickly as well, because instead of starting on a short movie they soon found themselves on fairly big feature film productions. But many of the early recruits were people who sort of slipped into the job by knowing someone in the industry. Many of them were previously unemployed or were in other professions and were not really interested in film primarily. But many are still working in the industry because they were good at their job. A production requires certain skill sets such as carpenters or painters or seamstresses. They can then go on to become good at adapting their talent to the requirements of the film industry.

On the other hand, several people from those early times found alternative work because the major problem at that time was that whenever there was a gap, it was fairly difficult to survive without money. That changed when a consultative commission, of which I was part, convinced the ministry of culture that those working in the industry should be eligible for unemployment pay between productions. As founder and long-term president of the original film technicians’ association (ATAC), that was a cause in which I invested a lot of time and energy. I am delighted that technicians today still benefit from our engagement at the time.Nowadays there are many more people who start their career on a more conventional path. They are interested in film to begin with, then attend film school or find a position as a trainee on a few short films and they proceed from there. That is much healthier; it is how it should be. I mean, I was never a trainee on a movie; I was a production manager within two years of starting my career.Nevertheless, the industry here is very close knit so it is easy to make progress... “Well yes. First of all it is still very easy to find an apprenticeship – whereas in France, for example, you can only dream of getting an unpaid job on a Luc Besson movie. And if you are really good, within two or three films you can get a fully paid job here in Luxembourg.

Also, more young Luxembourgers are attending film schools. A career in the film industry is now a much safer choice, so parents are more likely to encourage their children. During my time, parents would say ‘OK, and what are you going to do after you graduate?’ Local youngsters have also been seeking information and advice, asking what they should study and what opportunities may be available later. They are much more likely to be in touch with people inside the industry here while still doing their studies. What is the current reputation of Luxembourg’s film industry abroad? “From the feedback I have received I would say it is very good. The proof is that several producers or directors have returned to Luxembourg to make a second or third film. One of our strengths is that we had a different way of learning because we worked on American, French, German and Belgian productions. We took the best from all these and we have developed a very cosmopolitan core of technicians who can speak several languages and are flexible in their approach to work. That is something very particular to Luxembourg. And we have worked on some big productions, so we can be proud that we have gathered so much experience in such a short time. So we no longer really have to promote the industry itself. Above and beyond the tax certificate scheme, the relationship between European film funds is also working very well and the industry has a very solid reputation.Is enough being done to promote Luxembourg films? “Let me first say that we have a very good funding system in place. But I personally think that we need to go beyond that. Whether that is the bilateral co-production agreements with other countries, which the Film Fund Luxembourg is actively working on, or whether it is active consulting, I am not sure.

At the moment the situation is that you get the money to make your film but there is a lack of promotion of Luxembourg films abroad. Sadly that is left in the hands of the producers and distributors. But they forget that most European productions are almost completely financed through funds and pre-sale schemes. So much energy is put into making the movies, but the producers could almost leave the finished film in a drawer, because it has already been financed. When Americans produce a movie, they have to recoup their money. So they are forced to put the same energy into the distribution and promotion of their films as they do into the production itself.

So more active involvement is required by the Film Fund or other institutions in the near future. In the last few years we have made several films that could be shown abroad. Other countries make the effort to promote films – just look at Unifrance, which does nothing but promote French films and is doing the job of a distributor. It is a tricky business that requires a lot of money, which most producers don’t have so their film simply ends up in a distributor’s catalogue and no real effort is made.If we really want an active Luxembourg cinema, we have to think beyond simple production. We should be showing our films abroad, even if we have to pay for screenings. It is an opportunity to showcase Luxembourg. I mean, that is why they sent the Gëlle Fra to Shanghai.The Film Fund dreams of a Luxembourg film being screened at a big festival, but they need to ask why Luxembourg films are not being released abroad. It is not because the films are bad, but because no money, no time, no energy, no knowledge is invested in to releasing the films. You need persistence to obtain a release.You are from an ‘older’ generation, but you are also a first-time director. Does that give you particular insight into the promising young talents emerging in the local industry? “Very strangely I hated that ‘creative triggering’ that was done at film school, even though I was very good at it. It was just not my cup of tea. Even for my own film (House of Boys) I had to do it because I imposed it on myself. I really don’t know how artists function, how they find inspiration.

When I received the ‘Chevalier de l’Ordre du Mérite’ in 2002 from the Grand Duke for my contribution to the film industry I thought: ‘oh, now I have to do something.’ So making House of Boys was more like a duty, a responsibility.

But with that experience under my belt, I feel I can now relate to first-time directors like Max Jacoby (whose first feature film, Dust, was released last year) or Beryl Koltz (currently working on her debut feature). There were, or still are, a lot of expectations because of the success of their short movies (Jacoby’s Butterflies and Koltz’s Starfly shared the best short film prize in 2005). The kind of money involved may not be much compared to some movies, but on a local economic level it is still a lot.  But we should agree to view these new feature films simply for what they are. They may not make the breakthrough at Cannes or Berlin, but they are much, much better than the films being made here 20 years ago.So the political decision to diversify into the film industry all those years ago has been vindicated? “Yes, the positive side is that 20 years ago the situation appeared to be unreal and, in my opinion, lots of people rightly questioned the tax certificate scheme at the time. But from that a film industry has emerged that is young, positive, well-functioning, highly promising. It is one of which Luxembourg should be proud.”


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