Written and posted by Corey Howell
There are few things in life to which a person simply cannot say no. For many people, one of these things might be a paid trip to Europe. For film students, one of these things is certainly getting one-on-one experience working on a professional film set. And when you combine the two? That makes for one unbelievable opportunity.
This past year, three graduate students from Ohio University Film got such an opportunity when Distinguished Professor and Ohio Eminent Scholar in Film, Rajko Grlić, chose them from his class to accompany him to his home country of Croatia to shoot his latest feature film, The Croatian Constitution. After returning home, thesis M.F.A. students Hà Kin Vu, Luke Fisher and Wenting Deng sat down to talk with us about their experiences.
Even though this wasn’t his first trip to the Balkans, Fisher told us, “I had no idea what the film was about and everyone was speaking Croatian, Serbo-Croatian, or Bosnian-Croatian-Montenegrin-Serbian.” He joked, “I didn’t even know what to call the language without starting an international incident.”
Likewise, Deng remembered finding herself “in the way of the production and not knowing what to do until people were in action” — something she was not used to, priding herself on her abilities in the past to think ahead. But quickly things changed, and in no small part because of Grlić himself.
Deng recalled Grlić joking, “Are you guys making a movie here?” as the three students waited outside the filming location. The greeting was a surprise. All of them were imagining how busy and overwhelmed a director would be on a professional feature film set. But with a 40-year career and 10 feature films, Grlić has become a true master of his craft.
Fisher told us that, “On campus, Rajko was friendly but still maintained the air of a successful Eastern European filmmaker - strict and a little intimidating.” He expected the feeling to only be amplified on set. But, to his surprise he recalled, “Rajko was even more generous through the stress of production.” It was an attitude that carried across the entire crew.
“This must look like a student set,” Grlić said. It was an intimate crew for the director, the smallest he’s ever had - 40 or 50 as opposed to the over 200 crew members he had on his last set. But to Hà Kin, Wenting and Luke, it was perfect.
Whether it was a gaffer helping to lay track, the DP cleaning bits of the set, every crew member did whatever was necessary to make sure shooting was smooth and efficient. “It lacked all the bureaucracy and pressure I’ve seen in Hollywood,” Fisher said. “Everyone had a job to do and if it was done, they pitched in somewhere else.” But despite their hectic schedules, they also all found time to impart some on-set wisdom whenever possible.
Deng spent them most time with the director of photography and his camera assistant who mentored her and even allowed her to write the camera reports.
“I was able to learn the detailed camera setups for each take. I even played a game in my mind, trying to guess the lens and filter that was used before I was told by the assistant camera,” Deng said.
Fisher likened the camaraderie to that of soldiers (two of the men they worked with her ex-army) and said he even “came to relish the bad weather and complicated setups.”
Deng was also able to garner special insight and comfort from the Croatian director who grew up in ex-Yugoslavia.
Coming to Grlić’s set, Deng had experienced setbacks with her own film. “My thesis film production was shut down by the Chinese government due to political censorship,” she told us. “At a dinner, I got to talk to Rajko about it. As a film director who grew up in ex-Yugoslavia, he shared his experience with me and gave me suggestions on how to confront this kind of situation.”
The range of things learned by the group of thesis students was immense. Whether it was inventing a mix of German, English and Croatian to speak with someone on set, cutting raw onions, celebrating Croatian Independence Day, or meeting Senna - a former dance artist turned “mad-scientist” who works out of basement line with sarcophagi, hacks Chinese LEDs to make them even brighter and created a crystal powered fader and a robotic arm that memorizes your camera movements, the group had a blast on and off set. Deng joked that the most important thing she learned was that if the scene, shot and take numbers are ever identical on the clapboard, someone has to bring a bottle of liquor to the set and offer it to the crew. “It’s called ‘schnapps klappe’” she told us, “and it was refreshing to start the production day off with a shot of Jack Daniel’s.”
But putting aside all the fun had on and off set, what all three students told us was the most valuable thing to them was their time spent being mentored by Grlić.
Deng told us of the ease with which Grlić operated on set. “I was amazed how he would talk to us just like he was teaching a filmmaking class,” she said. “He’d ask me how I was doing and give me tips on how to talk to actors,” Fisher added. “One that stays with me is if you have any real direction or changes to make with an actor, do it in private. Egos shrink in isolation.”
For everyone involved, the trip to Zagreb was something they will never forget.
“There are so many things I learned,” Deng said. “Things that I’m glad to have learned when I’m still a student. Things I believe will save me in the professional world.”
“It was such a great experience in learning, gaining filming experience and discovering a new place, a new country, a new culture,” Vu added. “And being able to watch an experienced director like Rajko work on his film set inspired me so much to direct my own movies in the future rather than just being a cinematographer.”
Fisher concluded, “I will always be grateful for the opportunity Rajko gave me and the advice he shared.”