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Emily Atef interview

We grabbed some time with Emily Atef, director of 3 DAYS IN QUIBERON, to ask her about the process of making the film, her experience of working in TV and the ongoing challenges of balancing all the aspects of a busy life.

Romy Schneider is a beloved figure – did you have any concerns in portraying her, or any guiding principles that helped your process in creating this story for the big screen? 

A lot of people had more concerns than me that I was starting this project! But how I came to make this film is that the French producer Denis Poncet called me and asked if I was interested, he has unfortunately passed since then. Of course I knew of Romy Schneider, I was brought up in France, where she’s a huge, huge, still now, beloved actress and star. An icon. But I’d never heard of these days in Quiberon, in this kind of a rehab spa, where she met these journalists from the Stern and gave her interview, which would be her last German interview. I’d never heard about that, and I’d never seen the pictures of Robert Lebeck and they were quite famous those pictures. And when I saw them I was struck by them. They were so documentary-like his photos usually, and the pictures of Romy Schneider during these three days were not pictures of a star or of an icon. They were pictures of a woman, a woman like me, pretty much my age and like the women around me. A woman without make-up, without filters, totally raw. A woman in the midst of an existential crisis – in that place, in that spa in Quiberon, to rest and who cannot manage through being in a deep depression.

So that’s what touched me really; the woman and the crisis she was in, and her wanting to do everything to get out of it. It could have been Romy Schneider’s story or someone else’s that touched me in this way. Of course with her past, the past is important, as the fact she was one of the European biggest stars was there but the fact that I was interested in the woman and that I recognised that from those pictures and also from the interview I read gave me a lot of freedom. I wasn’t afraid of tackling her as an icon.

The pictures of Robert Lebeck really did help me. I met him, I met Michael Jurgs the journalist. I even met the friend, the girlfriend that was there. But she didn’t want to be involved in the project and that allowed me to create a fictional friend, which I did; Hilde, which was a huge freedom for me, to have at least one character in the film who I could use for the drama of the story, for the storytelling. So what really helped me was that Robert Lebeck, who unfortunately also passed during the making of the film, gave me all the rolls of the films he took during those three days. There were twenty pictures out there, publicly available and published in his book and he gave me pretty much another 580 pictures, the most intimate pictures; pictures of her doing the interview and pictures in the bar. For me they were like an amazing treasure, they inspired me to do the film, and to do the film in black and white.

The primary emotional tension that underpins Romy Schneider’s crisis in 3 DAYS IN QUIBERON is between motherhood and filmmaking (in her case, acting). Is that something you wanted to talk about as a filmmaker, given that you yourself are a mother?

Yes of course that was something that interested me a lot – the fact that Romy Schneider had two children, a 14-year-old boy and a 4-year-old girl. And did one film after another until she died at the age of 43, and she’d made at that point more than 50 films. In her final years she was making three films a year, and most often playing the lead part. And she was always torn, and this is what she mentioned in the interview she gave, between wanting to be a present mother and a working woman.

She started working at the age of 14 and she didn’t know what else to do, how else to be. I think she was totally, how do I explain… It’s like the fame and the love of her fans and the admiration of her fans, and of her directors – she was obsessed by it. It was like she didn’t know anything else. So the fact of stopping work to be with her family, she couldn’t take that, she was torn. On the one hand she wanted to be with her kids, wanted to take care of them, wanted to be the perfect mother that everybody expects of a woman. While on the other hand, she didn’t know how to do that – she’d never learnt it. Her parents themselves were both actors and never took care of her, it was her grandmother who took care of her. So it was something she really suffered with – it was one of the big influences on her depression. She had many but it was definitely a big part of it. The problem I was told about was that when she was with her family and kids she was buying gifts, pouring affection on them in that way because she struggled with simply caring for them, because of her own experiences when growing up.

This really interests me because to some extent what Romy Schneider was experiencing is universal. It’s something that’s timeless – we see it happening still. Women need to work and women want to work. Of course they want a family but of course they want to also work and it becomes this terrible juxtaposition of wanting to learn, to work and to grow, to earn money, but and on the other hand wanting to have children and wanting to be there for them.

I personally know this dilemma. Since 2015 I’ve been making about a film and a half a year, most of the time these projects are not shot where I live. It means I’m gone – away for pre-production, away for the shoot. Most of the time I’m allowed to edit in Berlin, where I live, but not always. So it’s hard. I have a husband who is wonderful because he’s really there in those moments; he becomes mother and father during those times.

My daughter, who’s now eight, is used to it because I’ve been doing it for so long, but it’s not easy on her. And it’s really not easy on me either, it gives you a bad conscience, and basically that doesn’t help anything or anyone and I wish I could get rid of it, the bad conscience. I know my fellow filmmakers and working women have the same dilemma.

The thing that I try right now is to be good at everything at that moment, to be focused. So when I’m shooting I focus and I’m 100% present. In the evenings I take work out of my mind and I talk to my husband and daughter. At the weekends when I’m free my family come to me or I go back to Berlin and the phone goes away and I give my daughter all my time and 100% focus, it’s the same on holidays. Then there’s of course the other dilemma of being careful to give time and focus to your partner and to your relationship with them, and to yourself as an adult of course, it’s too easy to lose yourself. It’s hard for many in all lines of work but as a filmmaker it’s so intense, the nature of the work intensifies all this need for balance.

The film’s seems to conclude that work isn’t worth it if you can’t be the parent you want to be.

I don’t see the film concludes that way, that wasn’t really my conclusion – I felt I was more of an observer of Romy Schneider’s dilemmas and troubles and the turmoil she experienced. I’m not sure she had a set vision of how a parent should be. The thing is Romy Schneider, because of the life she had – starting so young and not being protected by her parents, she never had the chance to be a normal teenager – she never had the experience of being around other teenagers. Instead she was surrounded by adults and doing one film after another, she started with alcohol very early at film parties and became a huge star at age 16. I think the adoration she experienced from fans, directors and critics is something she needed to feel real. It was how could she manifest this feeling through more intimate, real love. As she said in the interview – I need to be at home and with my kids to find peace but once I’m at home too long I go crazy and I need to work…

The film won seven German Film Awards – congratulations! Was that something you imagined for this film, given how intimate it is?

No of course you can’t imagine something like that. Whenever I start on a film my biggest desire is that it will have an audience, a big audience, and not only an art-house audience, I want to reach people across a broad spectrum. I want my films to be seen internationally, to be seen by people from different cultures. You want every film to be successful, initially with audiences and then yes, I always want my films to travel and go to festival and it’s absolutely beautiful to win prizes but that’s not why you make the film! It’s dangerous to hope that you will win awards, you can’t think that way as most of the time you will be disappointed as there’s so much competition. The best thing is not to think about festivals and prizes but in making the most honest film possible.

You both write and direct, and also direct work you haven’t written. In the UK female directors have historically tended to be writer-directors, meaning there is a longer gap between their making films. Could you talk about how and why you do both – and how they detract or support each other?

Well that’s a really good question. My first three films were cinema films and I co-wrote them and directed them, and it’s true it took time in between – it takes so much time to get films financed and also it takes time to write them. If you’re fast it takes two years and if you’re not it takes six or seven. And in between you always have to start a new project. After my third film I had a bit of a blockage. Not a personal blockage – I call it a universal blockage – I just got no more jobs. We’d just bought an apartment and my daughter was a baby and it was really tough. I wanted to work, I wanted to direct – I was telling my agent I was totally ok with working on scripts I hadn’t written and also on TV projects. As long as it was my line of storytelling so female-driven, perhaps about a woman’s existential crisis and then her coming out of it or a family story. But I didn’t work for four and a half years and it was really hard. I was still writing, at that time I was writing 3 DAYS IN QUIBERON, but I wasn’t directing. And then finally I got a TV job, not written by myself and it was wonderful because I’m really a director at heart. I write or co-write my feature films because I need to, to really be into the material, I really need that but I do prefer directing. But in TV you re-work with scriptwriters and it’s much faster, you get the green light from the TV channel and you’re off.

It was so wonderful to be able to direct again and it was so important, I think 3 DAYS IN QUIBERON has that quality because I’d directed three TV movies before it.

So I had no problem working with the scripts of others but to be honest it is easier to work on your own scripts or those you’ve co-written. Because I’m freer with the material, you can cut scenes and you can just do it, of course if you’re working with a co-writer there is a discussion about it but there’s also the connection you have built that helps with that. When you work on someone else’s script you have to be more careful – it’s their creation but as a director you have to take it and make it to your own and they understand that as well but it is often more prone to conflict. I’ve been lucky to have authors that didn’t demand on something.

But yes, writing and directing your own work takes time and I don’t want to make a film every four years, if I could I would make a film a year. I want so much – that’s my problem! I want to direct a film a year, I want to spend time with my daughter, I want to spend time with my partner and I want to spend time with my friends. I want to travel, and I want to spend time alone, time to walk, time to think. And I think that’s what a lot of female creators want – we want it all!

I wish I could only sleep three hours a day and have the energy I have when I’ve slept for seven so I could fit it all in. And then there’s the stuff you don’t want to do – like taxes, household – so it’s a challenge but it’s a very full and a wonderful life too. I just hope that I can give enough to everybody and that, as we’ve mentioned is the big dilemma, but it’s one I’m ready to face…

You can follow Emily on Instagram and find out more about her work.

Image: © Peter Hardwig

2019-01-30T16:21:43+00:00January, 2019|Interview, The Long Read, Working in TV|