011: Ramon & Silvan Zürcher
An interview with directors Ramon & Silvan Zürcher, whose new film 'The Girl and the Spider' has its world premiere at this year's Berlinale
Welcome to Tune Glue, a newsletter that’s run in conjunction with Tone Glow. While the latter is dedicated to presenting interviews and reviews related to experimental music, Tune Glue is a space for interviews with artists of any kind. These interviews could be with filmmakers, video game designers, perfumers, or musicians who aren’t aligned with what Tone Glow typically covers. Thanks for reading.
Ramon & Silvan Zürcher
Ramon & Silvan Zürcher are Swiss filmmakers and twin brothers who broke through in 2013 for the film The Strange Little Cat, which Ramon directed and Silvan produced. Eight years later, they’re premiering their sophomore film The Girl and the Spider at this year’s Berlinale. It’s billed as the second installment in a “trilogy about human togetherness,” and places viewers in the midst of Lisa moving to a new apartment. Throughout the course of the film, the Zürcher brothers portray a complex web of relationships that are undergirded by desires for intimacy and a fear of loneliness. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Ramon & Silvan Zürcher via Zoom on February 25th, 2021 to discuss their new film, what it was like growing up together, how they split up work when making a movie, and more. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Hello, hello!
Silvan Zürcher: It’s already night here in Berlin! It’s sunny where you are, right?
Yeah, it’s 11:30 AM right now. I’m a high school teacher and I’m actually on my lunch break right now (laughs).
Ramon Zürcher: Ah, okay! Where do you live?
I’m around Chicago. It’s a little warmer today, which is nice. How’s the weather over there?
Silvan Zürcher: It’s very warm! Spring just started so we’re able to walk around with just our sweaters on—without jackets. It’s 19 degrees.
That’s so nice! I wanted to begin this interview by saying that I’m a twin as well. I’m really close to my twin brother, and have been for my entire life. It seems, given that you two work with each other, that you’re close as well. I was wondering if we could start off by having both of you share one thing you love about each other.
Silvan Zürcher: (chuckling). That’s difficult. (pauses to think).
Ramon Zürcher: When I’m nervous or have many thoughts in my head, he helps take my four thoughts and turn them into one. He’s calm, and that makes me calm. That’s what I like about you, Silvan.
Silvan Zürcher: (cheerfully laughs). What I like is that when I’m analyzing or am thinking too much, you, Ramon, have this intuition that leads us. You have a better intuition, and you don’t overthink things. I find that enriching.
I love hearing that, thanks so much for sharing. Were you two always close growing up? Did you two work on stuff together prior to filmmaking?
Ramon Zürcher: We grew up very close. We were in the same classes, not only in primary school, but until the end of high school. The first time we were separated was when I went to art school and Silvan went to South America for 13 months. Up until that point we shared every chapter of our life together. Before that we’d sometimes be separated for just one day, but afterwards we’d talk with each other, so most of our experiences were always together. When Silvan went to South America, there wasn’t internet or email or phone at the time, so there wasn’t a possibility for us to talk and share our experiences together—there was an actual separation there.
Silvan Zürcher: There was actually a period when Silvan studied art and I studied at the university—he had practical things to do while for me it was more theoretical. We also didn’t share our works together. Ramon had his art practice and later when he went to Berlin to study film, he did his first short films on his own, without us coworking.
Ramon Zürcher: But I did send you the scripts so you could give feedback, you were like a script doctor.
What do you two feel like you’re able to bring individually during the filmmaking process? And when you two work together, what’s that whole process like?
Silvan Zürcher: We don’t have a recipe for how we co-work—it’s something we have to find again and again, from project to project. For example, with The Strange Little Cat there was a very precise division of labor, but with The Girl and the Spider, I started to write the first draft and then we later decided to co-work. First, we had to figure out how it’d be best to co-write. We gained this insight that we work better when there’s this division. Otherwise, there’s a diffusion of responsibility. When we co-write, sometimes it feels like it’s unclear who’s responsible—who’s the father of the baby—and who’s giving 100% and not just 50%. The thing is, if both of us give 50%, it doesn’t sum up to 100%.
So Ramon adopted the script and went on his own. Later in the process of realizing The Girl and the Spider, it was clear that it’d be Ramon who’d work with the actors, and that I’d be the assistant director. But we still kept on being artistically involved. It’s very good to have clear roles. It’s not that we have one vision and always have the same preferences; we’re different, so we have to keep discussing.
Ramon Zürcher: And that’s why it was also important that during the scriptwriting, we had our own spaces—I had my own space to write and Silvan had his own. This was so our own intuitions could come out and that there wouldn’t be [this situation] where our intuitions would always be colliding. There was a wall, and then at certain times he would come to me or I would go to him, and then we’d speak together. I think for twins there’s always that balance of togetherness and individuality—you always want to find your individuality, but you also want to have room to be symbiotic siblings—and both can be integrated.
That makes a lot of sense, and I relate to that a lot. I really like this idea of allowing yourselves to have the chance to work individually without any worry of compromise, but then communicating regularly and being open with each other. To me, one of the most striking things about your feature films is that there’s a lot of stuff not spoken amongst the characters, but it’s in that lack that we understand so much about them. With The Girl and the Spider, what were you trying to capture, ultimately, about human relationships? Like, what do you feel you’ve learned in your own lives that you wanted to put onscreen?
Silvan Zürcher: There’s a lot of talking in the movie—there’s a lot of dialogue and stories—but one gets the impression that the characters don’t really reveal what’s driving them. They’re communicating as if they want to share what they’ve experienced, but they still have their secrets and their mysteries. And even though they want to connect with each other, they end up being isolated again and again.
That’s something I find is part of the human condition, that there’s this desire for connecting and building up in unity with another human being—to not be alone anymore. But I’ve found that one fact of life is that, as humans, we are isolated. What I find interesting is showing characters who, despite their communication skills, don’t succeed in connecting with one another. That’s one aspect of it.
Ramon Zürcher: I’d say the film is a very personal gaze on life. It’s personal but it’s not autobiographical, though I’d say that everything the characters are dealing with—the longing desires, but also the funny things—are also aspects of my life. I couldn’t say that this and this character are closer to my life while this other one isn’t, because while there are so many aspects to the film that are transformed and fictionalized, everything is always coming out of my life.
When you were writing, how did you make sure that you’d be able to capture all the feelings that exist throughout the film? There’s sexual tension and dread and a desire to rid oneself of loneliness, and it’s always deeply felt. Like, how in the writing stage did you make sure that’d be captured?
Ramon Zürcher: Hitchcock once said that his films already exist and that the process of shooting is just… to cook the recipe, to make the cake. The film is already thought of during the writing process and it’s all there in the script. The only thing that is not thought of, which happens during the shooting, is improvisational stuff with the animals and the children, or things that are coincidences, “gifts.” The set dresser for the film knew how to build a swan out of a towel, so when the chambermaid in the film makes the bed in the cruise ship, she makes a swan. That wasn’t written—it was a gift from the set dresser. Otherwise, most things are thought of in advance.
Silvan Zürcher: It was clear during writing that the visual concepts—the camera, the shots, the editing—wouldn’t just connect people, they would separate them. It’s not like we use shot/reverse shot; rather, it’s a decoupage that isolates them. That’s why it’s possible to write it that way. With specific aesthetics, you can achieve this result.
I wanted to ask about your use of sound throughout the film. It’s very clear that you both care about it a lot. There’s that one scene in the film where Mara is listening to the children and the fountain—do you two also spend time just engaging in this act of listening and hearing the world around you? And how have your own experiences with sound impacted the way you use it in your films?
Ramon Zürcher: I don’t actually listen to much music, and I don’t really go out and listen to the forest or the birds—I don’t actively consume sound. It’s rather that, in my life, sounds are too disturbing, that there are too many of them. When somebody speaks I can’t process my thoughts, or when there’s (points in different directions) that sound and that sound, I can’t really concentrate. Sounds can be like an attack. For example, when there’s a radio interview on and then somebody else is speaking [in the same room], I listen to both—I can’t just listen to one thing.
I think that’s something I use in this film. It’s sort of like an autistic problem—some autists can’t focus on one sound because there are too many of them. And even though I’m not autistic, sometimes it’s just too much. In most plot-driven films, there’s a narrator and there’s always some focus. I think it’s more interesting to have a narrator who is overstrained or unable to cope because of everything happening. It’s like a broken PDF or a broken mirror—there are pieces and signs and you’re trying to put it all together.
Silvan Zürcher: It’s a mode of perception in a way.
Outside of sound and just other filmmakers in general, would you say there are things in other mediums of art that influence your films?
Silvan Zürcher: Like other films or in general? Because there are many cinematographers that we’ve been that have influenced us a lot. There’s Chantal Akerman and her film Jeanne Dielman. There are others we could list but there’s also books and literature and characters in books that we have a big warmth for. There are many things that we are influenced by.
Ramon Zürcher: Very much French cinema. I think in French cinema there are many interesting characters who are often unpredictable, and they’re often female characters. I also like the genre-driven aesthetic of Brian De Palma and Paul Verhoeven. I often like it when a film is art house combined with genre elements—when there’s not a homogenous aesthetic, when there are different aesthetics together that create a new, unique film language. I like “guilty pleasure”/genre films, and then there’s French, Italian, and Asian cinema. [Editor’s note: Ramon sent the following list of films for each of the aforementioned categories.]
“Guilty pleasure”/genre films: Showgirls, Game of Thrones, Booksmart, Love, Simon, Legally Blonde
French cinema: Sandrine Veysset’s Martha… Martha, Catherine Breillat’s 36 fillette, Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Le voyage du ballon rouge
Italian cinema: Michelangelo Antonionio’s La notte, Ermanno Olmi’s L’Albero degli zoccoli, Marco Bellocchio’s I pugni in tasca
Asian cinema: Takashi Miike’s Audition, Nobuhiro Suwa’s M/Other, Hong Sang-soo’s Tale of Cinema, Nagisa Ōshima’s Ai no korīda
Silvan Zürcher: Yes, it’s also these portrayals of women by Antonioni, these characters in crises. That’s also in films by Bergman. Our two films are more joyful—they’re not so heavy and crisis-driven. They’re borderliners—the characters are in a crisis but they’re also happy, the characters are darlings but are sometimes monsters.
Ramon Zürcher: It’s a little bit like life. When there are sad circumstances there are also light moments, and in funny periods there are dark shadows.
Silvan, you mentioned books and literature—are there any things that come to mind?
Silvan Zürcher: It didn’t really influence me in a direct sense, but lately I read L’Amant by Marguerite Duras. There’s also The Great Gatsby. There are great characters that I admire in books that I’m sure affect me during the character development process, but I’m not really sure what I was reading while I was writing The Girl and the Spider. In the press kit, we mentioned Salinger. He’s an author we like a lot because of the outsiders he portrays—these sensitive characters, these awkward characters.
Ramon Zürcher: I also very much like the universe of Murakami because it has a very everyday, normal surface and then a strange magical realism grows up into that normality. In Murakami’s universe, that magical realism and everyday life come together in a unique, personal, and organic way. It has a bit of a dream reality. I appreciate that very much. It’s also very unpredictable, it gives you this feeling that at any time, anything can happen.
Ah, wow, all this makes a lot of sense given your films. I wanted to ask: What do you feel like you learned from your time working on The Strange Little Cat that you were able to apply to this new film?
Ramon Zürcher: The Strange Little Cat gave us self-confidence, and we learned things, like that we can work with animals. The actors, even when they play or speak differently—when they have different aesthetics of acting—all those things can work. One experience we had with The Strange Little Cat is learning that the camera can unite different aesthetics—it isn’t like the film will fall apart.
Silvan Zürcher: When we made our short films, we never had the attention of a public audience. So with The Strange Little Cat, it was the first time there was any public attention. It helped us realize that it’s possible to make these kinds of films, that we can go further into what interests us, that there are other people who are interested in this very aesthetic.
What sort of things did you learn when shooting The Girl and the Spider? Obviously you broadened everything—there are more locations we see, more people, more relationships that exist, it happens over the course of a longer period of time.
Ramon Zürcher: For me, there’s that feverish night scene in the film where the old woman is on the roof. When those little surrealistic or psychedelic things happen, at first it’s a little bit like, “Does that fit in the aesthetic?” But now it’s one of my favorite parts in the film because it’s an odd-man-out, it’s something you don’t think fits, but in the end gives the film a new tension. What I’ve learned is to let those surrealistic things be and not say, “Oh it’s trashy, it’s B-movie like.” What I learned is to let this “trashy” part inside of myself in. It’s a part of me. I’m not gonna let my intellect or the analytical parts of me cut those things away. I just want to let it be. That’s what I learned.
Silvan Zürcher: What I learned is what we talked about at the beginning, that even though we’re identical twins, it’s good to have clear roles. You have to have this division of labor. The film was also an experiment in constructing the apartments [that act as the sets in the film] in a studio. We weren’t sure if it was going to work out or if it was going to look too artificial. It made me realize that it’s really possible to have your sets constructed and that you do not have to shoot on original locations. Also, we worked with green screens for what you see outside the windows. Those were all added in post-production. It was always an open question if it was gonna be an irritation or not, and it was an eye-opener because we realized that, if necessary, this is something that really is an option.
I love hearing about all this because I’m now wondering what sort of things you’re going to strive for and what you’re encouraged to do with your next film, The Sparrow in the Chimney.
Ramon Zürcher: The third part will be more explosive. The conflicts won’t be under the surface anymore, and the characters will really let things out—it’s way louder. it’s kind of a family war film, and that’s something we want to figure out and try to do.
Silvan Zürcher: The Strange Little Cat and The Girl and the Spider are both driven by static cameras, in terms of the visuals. With The Sparrow in the Chimney, we’re going to experiment with camera movement in order to go further. Working on film is like being in a laboratory. The filmic practice involves adding new tools and seeing how it works. There’s a curiosity, but it’s not about having an anything-goes mentality, it’s about having a palette of tools to work with. With The Sparrow in the Chimney, we want to have a wider range of tools, one of which will be camera movement. There will also be one more day in the film—it’s gonna take place over three days in total. We want to have this laboratory, we want to experiment.
Ramon & Silvan’s Picks
I asked Ramon & Silva to create a list of 10 films they enjoy. These aren’t meant to represent their top 10 films, but rather 10 films they simply really like. The following is what they sent.
LA MAMAN ET LA PUTAIN (Jean Eustache)
PLAYTIME (Jacques Tati)
BASIC INSTINCT (Paul Verhoeven)
THE CONVERSATION (Francis Ford Coppola)
L’ÉCLISSE (Michelangelo Antonioni)
SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly)
THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (Charles Laughton)
E.T. (Steven Spielberg)
JEANNE DIELMAN (Chantal Akerman)
LA MUJER SIN CABEZA (Lucrecia Martel)
LE QUATTRO VOLTE (Michelangelo Frammartino)
POLICE, ADJECTIVE (Corneliu Porumboiu)
LA FILLE SEULE (Benoît Jacquot)
AI NO YOKAN (THE REBIRTH) (Masahiro Kobayashi)
MULHOLLAND DRIVE (David Lynch)
DAS SCHWEIGEN (Ingmar Bergman)
JOKER (Todd Philips)
UN CONDAMNÉ À MORT S’EST ÉCHAPPÉ (Robert Bresson)
EMA (Pablo Larrain)
LADY CHATTERLY (Pascale Ferran)
Thank you for reading the eleventh issue of Tune Glue. Let’s get out there and experiment.
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