06  July  2017

Cowboys, ghosts and aliens

During our anniversary festival, European Film College Star Alumni, former student Nicolas Steiner screened his highly praised documentary ‘Above and Below’. In this interview he talks about deciding to make a film in the Californian desert and about how patience is the key behind a good documentary.

A girl who dreams of being part of the first team moving to Mars. A couple living in a tunnel in Las Vegas. A man, surviving alone in the desert. Those are the four main characters in former student Nicolas Steiner’s captivating documentary, ‘Above and Below’, about Americans living at the edge of society.

‘Above and Below’ was screened during European Film College’s anniversary festival, Star Alumni. In connection with the screening we talked to Nicolas Steiner about making the film, and of course also about being a student at the European Film College back in 2004-05.

How did you get the idea to make 'Above and Below'?

I started the idea when I was studying a year in San Francisco. I really wanted to do something in the desert, because on the one hand it’s such a contrast to me as a ‘mountain guy’; I grew up in the Swiss Alps. And on the other hand it’s based on the same archaic principles: It’s quite raw, it’s hard to survive. And so that’s where I started off; I was sure that I wanted to make a movie in the desert.

And when researching about the desert, I came across three words, often mentioned in photography books, in history books and literary books about the desert: cowboys, ghosts and aliens. And I kind of limited it down to those three words. So my aim was to go into the desert and look for cowboys, ghosts and aliens. In a way, I was trying to look a little bit into the future, the present and the past. That concept didn’t become the full line of the story, because of course the people themselves and their stories became the main heroes of the film. But still, that’s where I started off.

And how did you find the people in the film?

Well, how I found the different people was quite a different approach from person to person. Some of them were the more classical documentary approach, where you just have to call around and talk to people. I was at the Mars landing at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where I met people at that station. Then in Vegas, I was just overwhelmed with all my senses. When I went there the first time I saw a guy coming out of a tunnel with a chessboard and I started to play chess with him. So I started to get to know the people down there and spent a lot of time there. I think it’s all about patience and spending time getting to know the places and the people in your film, as much time as you can. And then of course you can also come across ‘the documentary presents’, which happened with Dave, the cowboy. You’re just driving around the desert as long as you can, and you know that you’re looking for a cowboy, and you know that one day you will find one. And that’s pretty much what happened. He had a drum set, and I’m a drummer. He offered me coffee and that was my first jam session in the desert, and it became very clear that he had to be in the film. That’s the short version, but of course it takes time, it took me about 4-5 years from the first ideas on paper to the finished film.

What did your stay at the European Film College mean to you and your career in film?

It was a really important step for me, because not only was it the first time that I moved away from home, away from my parents and my family, quite far away, and it was 13 years ago, so I didn’t have a cell phone, I didn’t have a computer, so I was really far gone, and I had to grow up really fast. Also with the language it was great for me to talk a little bit ‘dansk’ and also learn a lot of English. Film wise it was great, because I did two films; one was a 12 minute documentary that also became an application for me to a German film school, where I applied and got in 1½ years after the EFC. And so I applied with a film that I actually shot at the EFC. It was also important to me, because it gave me the freedom to try myself out, to explore the fields that I didn’t know anything about before.

In your opinion, what is it that makes European Film College so special?

I think it’s so special because you’re so secluded in Ebeltoft, and that makes it incredibly…somehow raw, but in a beautiful way. I also think that the great thing about it is that it’s so international, that there are students from all over the planet. And then the different classes that you can take, for me that was quite special. I think while I was there 13 years ago, it was sort of the post wave of the dogma movement and some other interesting movements, so it was a really good space for me to be in at that time. Oh, and I will never forget, I ate so many potatoes in one year, I loved them! And I still love them. I got really attached to potatoes at the EFC!