Spotlight: An Interview with Julie Deffet and Esther Sophia Artner ("Fire in Water")

LAFA Best Picture winner (January 2020), Fire in Water, is a powerful short film about a couple in their 60s, Sofia and Olivier, who are enjoying their regular vacation, the routine of daily life has become second nature. She takes care of him and the house, he is rarely present physically but also mentally and emotionally . When Olivier is denied the career promotion he worked for his whole life, he wakes up, he sees Sofia and decides to change his attitude towards her. Destabilized by his sudden change of attitudes, Sofia experiences the space to face her struggle, the loss of her purpose and she finally breaks through the delusions of their relationship and by her path by frantically painting the villa’s walls red.

We invited the directors, Esther Artner and Julie Deffet, to join us for an interview. Here's their story.

Before we dive into the film, please tell us a bit about yourselves. What inspired you to become visual storytellers, and how has the road been so far, and what were some of the memorable moments of your career so far?

E: I have been intrigued by storytelling through different mediums since I was very young. Starting with putting up plays for family and friends it has just evolved with more tools.

I feel that if stories are told intimate and personal give us the chance to look at ourselves and also perhaps people we usually were to judge with more compassion and understanding and so they built bridges and have the power to unite us as humans.

Memorable moments were for sure working on this piece, but also performing in “Last Life: A Shakespeare Play” at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

J: I grew up going to the movie theatre at least once a week and I fell in love with cinema. The most influential directors for me, and the ones that made me want to make films are Robert Altman, John Cassavestes but also the british directors Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. When I moved to New York I studied at The New School and I was lucky enough to find some great mentors there who helped me start working in the industry. I would say that the most memorable moment of my career so far, aside from directing Fire in Water, was working on the feature film “The Drummer '' alongside director Eric Werthman and actor Danny Glover. I was both an associate producer and the script supervisor on set. It was very inspiring and such a growing experience working so closely with the director Eric but also with the producers, DP, AD etc. It was a position that forced me to understand each department and communicate with them on a daily basis.

Julie, you have extensive experience working in tv-land (for Vice News Tonight and After Forever). How did you get involved with these productions, and what were your main takeaways from these experiences?

I worked for Vice media for the french version of their News show, “Vice News Tonight”. Of course being from a french speaking country got me inside the door but I worked for Vice almost 2 years and it was a great experience working with a very established media company. Concerning “After Forever”, the great producer Allison Vanore contacted me, I met her when I worked on a feature right after college and I learned so much with her, it was a great experience working for a successful show, I had a great time with the cast and crew and I’m very grateful to be part of the “After Forever” family.

Esther, do you feel your experience as an actress helps you when approaching the director’s chair? In what ways?

For sure. I feel my late acting coach Elizabeth Kemp has influenced my work a lot. She gave me a language that I use now and helped me to develop my own ‘lense’ so to say. Also my work in shamanism gives me the capacity to hold space for depth. However it was great to work alongside Julie who has different experience and so we could complement each other.

Let’s discuss Fire in Water, one of the most impressive pieces we’ve seen here at LAFA, and the Best Picture winner for January 2020. How did you initially come up with the idea and why did you decide to explore the concept of an ill relationship?

E: I did work revolving my own lineage and felt that this story needs to be told. I was excited to share it with Julie and she was immediately connected to the story. We started developing it further and she introduced me via skype to the incredible actor Didier Flammand and Madeleine Assas. For us all it seemed like a great match and we kept weaving it to what it is now.

J: Yes Esther shared the story with me and I instantly connected with it. We knew it was a story we wanted to tell and that a lot of people would connect to it, no matter where they are from or their background. It felt like a universal story.

Could you talk about your collaboration writing and directing together, what was your creative process like?

E: We met at another film set and it was a friendship crush right away, so there was already a lot of trust and sort of understanding of each other before starting this process.

As for the writing and producing, we would meet and speak about ideas,details, dreams, inspirations and funny enough had a very similar taste and usually agreed. If we did not agree that was also ok and I think that helped a lot.

As for directing there was also a very natural flow and support of each other to serve the bigger picture, literally.

J: I couldn't agree more. We are like sisters and it was important to both of us to keep the best interest of the film and each other’s best interest at heart, always. We have different skills and sensibilities and they happen to be very compatible.

What were the first steps in bringing this project to life, in terms of production?

E: Speaking to the actors, gathering the team, and finding our wonderful DP Valentina Caniglia.

J: I believe that the first thing we did was interviewing DPs and we instantly fell in creative love with Valentina when we met her, she also connected to the story and gave us some great suggestion that we ended up adding to the script.

How did you go about casting and what was it like to work with Oscar-nominated actor, Didier Flamand, and the incredible Madeleine Assas, who gave a stellar performance?

J: I saw both of them in my former professor and now friend’s film Vladan Nikolic and I thought they would be perfect for the part. Even though they are both well known professional actors in France they agreed to work with us which was amazing. Working with both of them was such an honor, they were just as committed as we were to make the best film possible. For me, as someone who knew more about the technical aspect of filmmaking I learned a lot watching Madeleine and Didier’s process but also watching Esther directing them, she was able to really connect with them and get them in the right mindset for each scene.

Every little detail is well-thought-of: the right lighting, the right camera angle, with the right musical tone and of course, the perfect expression from the actors. Clearly, the departments had excellent direction from you. In your opinion, what are the important qualities of a film director?

E: We were working very closely with our DP Valentina Cangiglia, even sharing dreams, paintings to really create the depth of this story.

J: I think Esther and I really knew what we wanted and tried to be as clear and direct as possible about it to the whole team. But also we were very lucky to work with a team that was very professional and knew what they needed to do without needing that much direction.

The film flows perfectly, but I bet it wasn’t a smooth sail the entire time. Did you encounter any difficulties or challenges along the way?

E: Finding a female editor was a challenge but luckily enough we found Matthew, who turned out to work so beautifully and supportive.

Also we were lucky to have had the support of an Austrian production company, however getting the equipment there was a challenge. In general assembling a team of so many different places from this earth was tricky.

J: Our team was speaking so many different languages but it turned out to be an advantage. The camera department was talking in Italian, the actors and sound guy in French and the production team mostly in German, it actually worked out for the best as we were less distracted by conversations from the other departments and of course English was our commun language.

Can you take us through your editing process with editor Matthew Charof, and your scoring process with composer Trevor De Nógla?

E: With Trevor it was very strange, Julie and I were trying to find the right music and tone and were not set on anything yet and he just wrote us during we had these discussions on fb. We did not know each other. He shared his music and so I shared our movie and he asked if he could come up with something. WOW, he did!

J: And we contacted Matt after working on the cut ourselves and feeling like it wasn’t quite there. He brought a new perspective to the story, something we didn't expect and after sitting down for a few editing sessions, he got the film to a place we were very happy with. He is now a friend and collaborator.

As young and promising directors, what advice can you give to directors in general, who aspire to work on films and television?

E: Stay committed to telling the stories that move you and bring love to the details.

J: It’s a cliche but: just do it. The hard part is to make it happen, you need to truly want to tell that story more than anything else.

What are your next projects?

E: My next role is Lise Meitner, an Austrian physicist which I am very excited about but also we are co- creating another film, it will be a feature!

And we are even also working on a feature this early summer together with the wonderful director Vladan Nicolvic.

J: I am one of the producers for a feature film this summer and I started pre production on a TV show pilot I wrote with my partner. Esther and I also started talking about a feature film collaboration.

Is there anything you wish to add or someone you wish to thank?

The whole team, we really did this altogether. There was so much love, dedication and support from each and every one!

Yes we are so grateful for the team that was 90% women by the way. Also many people helped us along the way, friends and family, it was truly a collaborative process and we are very grateful for all the support we got.

Where can our readers follow your work?

Estrellasophiaart estherartner.com

Judeffet on instagram and deffetfilms.com

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