Ramon and Silvan Zürcher on The Girl and the Spider (Interview)
The filmmakers talk about their wonderfully unpredictable film and how we connect (or don't) with others
Ramon and Silvan Zürcher, Directors of The Girl and the Spider
By Nicolas Rapold
The Girl and the Spider is the second feature from directors Ramon and Silvan Zürcher, two of the most original voices in contemporary cinema. It takes place over two days during a move—Lisa is leaving behind her roommate, Mara, for a new place—and tracks the storm systems of feeling and desire among them and their friends, as well as Lisa’s mom, a father-son builder duo, an unnerving neighbor. It’s a micro-episodic comedy of observation, unpredictable and even volatile in shifting between barbed and tender, sometimes plunging us into the solitude Mara carries around with herself, other times bubbling along with old jokes and games between friends. It’s a film that I also thought about together with The Worst Person in the World in terms of its faithfully complicated look at its twenty-something characters. The Zürchers (who are twin brothers) collaborated early on in shorter films, and video and other projects, but also, dating further back, just reading each other’s stories. The filmmakers were a pleasure to speak with—Silvan in New York, and Ramon patched in from Aarberg, Switzerland, where they grew up—during the New York Film Festival, where The Girl and the Spider screened after its world premiere at the Berlinale. The Girl and the Spider screens at Acropolis in Los Angeles (before its theatrical run starts April 15), and is currently playing in New York (where I watched it again recently at Metrograph).
The Girl and the Spider is so beautifully dense with the details of life, and I started to wonder about the kinds of journals you must keep.
Ramon: Actually, yes, I have my booklets. I have many of them! I have a master journal or master book, which I don't want to lose, so I don't put it in my backpack, or I just keep it at home. I have many other booklets to write things in, but then I always try to put those very quickly written things into my master book. I do that after a few months, so that I don't have the feeling of chaos. But now I have about eleven of those master booklets—the collections of ideas, of pearls, of just small observations. When I have an idea for a plot or a story, I write the scenario, and it takes energy to construct something out of the blue. But once there’s a draft, it's nice to go to those small booklets and look what's inside, to see if there's a pearl which I can put in the skeleton of that bigger film.
Silvan, do you have a similar method for the chaos?
Silvan: Yeah, actually, when writing The Girl and the Spider, I wrote the first draft, and later Ramon joined the process—we co-wrote in the middle period. At the very beginning, there was just the skeleton, the idea that it's about a move: one character moving from one place she shares with another character to her own single apartment. It wasn't a topic or certain themes that dominated the writing but rather these pearls. There was this minimalistic plot, and because of its minimalism, it was possible to have these everyday observations collected in the notebooks that I could just assemble. Later when it was becoming clear that the themes are about a desire to connect, and all the other themes that are inside, we started to work the material, to condense it, and to say goodbye to pearls if they didn't fit in.
How did you choose to focus on the two locations and a short period of time? The entire movie is basically the move.
Silvan: The Strange Little Cat, our first film, took place on one day in one apartment. When that film was finished, I started to write The Girl and the Spider, and Ramon started to write The Sparrow in the Chimney. We recognized that these three projects are siblings in a formal way. So very early on for The Girl and the Spider, we thought that we'd like to have two days instead of one day to widen the range we had with The Strange Little Cat. We also wanted to widen the spatial range, to have two buildings with several apartments inside, and also a wider spectrum of characters to weave together.
Ramon: Very early on when making short films or medium-length films, there was always this real-time storytelling, and scenes which often didn't have ellipses. For me, it was always a bit like Chekhov, like a theater stage. Not cutting and going to another space, but rather constructing a story design where people come in. The strategy of one space, one room, one time, like on stage. And in these short films or medium-length films, we always liked when there were huge scenes, like monoliths. In The Girl and the Spider, there are those monoliths, but then there's music and then a cut and we go to another space, to the old flat, where there’s the man with the jackhammer. So there’s this real-time storytelling, a shock, and we're at another place. A little bit like in the film Marseille by Angela Schanelec.
Do you feel the film is centered on Mara, or does it feel more diffuse to you?
Silvan: No, I agree that the center or the perspective is determined by her—by Mara perceiving these two days.
Ramon: At the starting point, it was multi-perspective, but then we put the focus on Mara. Not the person who leaves but the person being left. And in putting the focus on her, the topics of desire, the brittle worlds, the desire to find a new symbiotic situation—these grew with choosing Mara as the perception center.
I like the way Mara’s character is presented, because you give her the freedom to be unhappy, if that makes sense, and even to be a little mean because she's unhappy. Could you talk about showing her different sides?
Ramon: When writing her, she had destructive sides early on. Mean aspects or sometimes a little psychopathic or destructive aspects—putting coffee on the dog, or making scratches on the new furniture of her roommate. In the casting process, we asked ourselves, is it good to take somebody who already has that in the physiognomy or in the behavior or the voice or the gaze? Is it good when that’s already present in the actress? Or is it good when the actress brings something different, some sensitivity which isn't one-to-one with the written Mara, but can bring something new to the character? And in casting, I always liked that about [Henriette Confurius, who plays Mara], and responded to that. She has something very sensitive in her gaze and her eyes. This was very good for the character of Mara—someone not simply psychopathic, but like a lonely monster. We understand her, so she's not only negative, she’s a fluid personality. She’s somebody who looks for closeness, but who sometimes creates distance. I liked that in her performance.
Silvan: We also have an interest in passive-aggressive behavior. We like to write scenes where characters—based on their frustration of not having their desires satisfied, for example—express themselves with these moments of passive-aggressive behavior. And we like to have borderline setups so that it's not all in the same tone: characters that look like darlings can have monstrous moments, and the other way round. The film also looks a bit like a comedy because of the bright colors. The look is very light visually, and so you might expect something light and maybe comic. But certain abysses open up, where it gets dramatic rather than comic. So we like contrasts.
That makes me imagine L’Auberge Espagnole but with abysses. I also like how this film creates these wonderful rhythms of conversation that sometimes feel naturalistic, sometimes not.
Ramon: Writing the dialogues or monologues, or directing them, I didn't think so much about rhythm, but rather the qualities of the communication. Is it something which collects them and brings them together—
Silvan: You said “collect” but you meant “connect.”
Ramon: Ah. Thank you, Silvan!
Silvan: You’re welcome!
Ramon: Yes, in thinking the nature of dialogue, is it something which brings the characters together or which separates them? Mara would like to connect to somebody but she’s separated. She's like a molecule in her own skin, and she feels that she can't be together with the others. Maybe then [we can] use speech and dialogue to isolate people. And in the construction of dialogues and monologues, when is the spoken word closer to thoughts or to an inner voice, like a voiceover, and when is it an interaction within the scene? Sometimes it’s closer to thoughts, and maybe that's also why it is sometimes not very naturalistic. There’s something joyful, like in theater, when you play with dialogue, and sometimes it's very artificial, but there you accept it. I also like that in films, when there's a joyful use of dialogue or monologue, but not so that you think of it as an experimental or art film.
Silvan: There’s a lot of talking in The Girl and the Spider, but there's also a feeling of speechlessness: that people don’t really express what bothers them. They don't really say when something bothers them, even deeply. So the way we staged it, we’re curious about the desire for connection, on the one hand, but also that this intimacy is something very brittle. They're not successful in achieving intimacy, because there's often someone observing them. At the end of a conversation, you realize that someone has been listening. So this is also a principle in the communication design.
It’s such an intriguing movie on the nuances of friendship. Listening to the conversations with their friend, Kerstin, and others, I had the sense of a friendly conspiracy, as in their inside jokes.
Silvan: It’s definitely a film about friendship, but also the dark aspects of friendship. Even though they're friends, they can be mean to one another, they can lie, or when there's a young man between them, the loyalty starts to get lost. So there are the lighter aspects of friendships, like the inside jokes, but also for example what Nora and Kerstin have downstairs, this darker, psychosexual realm. It's not a romanticized notion of friendship. There are these cruel aspects, even though they're friends, when they are destructive with each other.
All of which is so carefully orchestrated in a very particular way. Were there any movies or other works that made you feel that it was possible to make something like the movies you make?
Silvan: There's several, for example, Jeanne Dielman by Chantal Akerman. The way she stages the choreography of the main character is something I often have in mind when just thinking about the filmic space, the choreography and staging of characters in rooms. Or Jacques Tati in Playtime. There's also this real-time feeling of one character drifting around and having these visual moments when he sees something or hears something, and there's a sound or a visual element. Actually, there’s a big pool of films that can guide in a way. Also the French cinema, like The Mother and the Whore from Jean Eustache, in building scenes.
Ramon: The formal aspects are important, but also which people are portrayed in a film. We often like characters who have a certain absence, or where the formal language of the film connects with a personality who has a certain crisis. So often it’s films which do not really narrate a whole story from A to Z but which use the cinematographic language to portray a psychological landscape. So as Silvan said, some French films or modern films of the 50s and 60s like Bergman and Antonioni—but also characters like Franny and Zooey, the Salinger books, because they are so hypersensitive that sometimes they have to cry from that sensitivity. Brutal things and sensitivity, so close together. And we often like a formal strength, like in the Angela Schanelec films, where there’s an economical use of the camera—it does not do everything that the camera could do. I like the contrasts of static and movement, chaos / order, brutal / sensitive. Or proximity and distance, like a ballad. There are so many great, great films, but we don't have a god or goddesses. Rather, many gods and many goddesses, and they always change.
Nicolas Rapold is a writer and editor. His work is published in The New York Times, Sight & Sound, Artforum, Filmmaker, and W Magazine. He hosts the podcast The Last Thing I Saw. If you like what you read (and hear), please show your support below!