Clara Stern and Peter Hengl on the magic of one’s very first feature-length film

“What can we expect when we watch your movies at the cinema?” was the first question that mdw Magazine had for the Film Academy alumni Clara Stern and Peter Hengl. We quickly found out: before the audience can expect anything of their films, they’ll first have to fulfil their makers’ expectations—which are quite high indeed.

Their two projects are of differing types: Clara Stern has an experienced production company at her side (Geyrhalter Film), while Peter Hengl is realising a film as a so-called workshop pro-ject together with four actors and a team that includes lots of other feature film first-timers. What unites them is the great adventure of one’s first major work.

Wenn wir die Regeln brechen © Johannes Hoss/Clara Stern

In Stern’s film, we encounter the strong lead character Mira in the midst of a developmental process that straddles three worlds: those of her professional ice hockey career, of nightlife, and of her family’s winemaking operation. Wenn wir die Regeln brechen [When We Break the Rules] deals with personal liberation and with the norms handed to us by society.

Peter Hengl’s film likewise features a strong female lead: in Family Dinner, the teenager Simi hopes to get help losing weight from her Aunt Claudia. However, events both unexpected and dreadful soon see the whole thing mutate into what’s more of a “weird coming-of-age horror story”.

Family Dinner © Gabriel Krajanek/Peter Hengl

The two directors describe the days spent filming their first feature films as equally strenuous and marvellous: long days on the set, tonnes of new impressions, and the constant need to make decisions that will ultimately have a huge effects on the final result. “There were so many decisions where I’d never before contemplated having to make them myself someday. So it’s only now that I’ve really become fully aware of what my job as a director is,” says Stern.

Many of these decisions may seem like unimportant details. But they are indeed significant when it comes to making the mosaic that such a film ultimately embodies seem like a harmonious whole. Is this perfectionist? Sure—but, then again, that’s exactly what it’s all about: “The wonderful thing about film is how everything influences everything else,” Stern remarks. And Hengl, too, views directing as “unbelievably detailed work, where you pay attention to every breadcrumb.”

At the same time, the two of them also mention another important characteristic that one needs to bring to the table as a director: capturing the essence of a scene but still remaining flexible enough to take the filming situation’s highly individual dynamic into account. “To me, directing means knowing what the story’s core is and making that clear to everyone else,” Hengl says. And then, on the set together with the cast and crew, near-miracles become possible: “Ingenious, spontaneous things can suddenly emerge that are better than anything you could’ve ever dreamed up in advance.”

Clara Stern also experienced this while shooting her film. Her motto is: “You need to have a plan, and that plan’s there to be questioned.” Having so many experts around her is something that she found to be extremely enriching.

Both Hengl and Stern say that what differed most from their shorter previous works was the sheer size of their projects and the greater amount of coordination involved. “It sometimes felt like an anthill,” comments Stern. Which also had its advantages: with the many experts on the set, and thanks not least to the great work done by her director’s assistant, she was able to concentrate on a director’s core responsibilities.

Family Dinner © Gabriel Krajanek/Peter Hengl

In Peter Hengl’s smaller production, his directing responsibilities were joined by a lot of organisational work—and also characterised by that special and wholly unique pressure that is inherent in filmic debuts: “A lot more is at stake than in a short film.” One’s very first feature film is the calling card with which one introduces oneself to the industry—and how this debut is received ultimately determines whether there will ever be an opportunity to make a second one. Clara Stern puts it similarly: “I can’t let this film disappear in a drawer, even if I get the feeling that I’ve failed with it.

Failure, the disappearance of student films into a drawer somewhere—that was still possible at Film Academy Vienna. And for Stern, that was a huge luxury—as were the good contacts in the film industry that she was already able to make as a student. Hengl sees it this way, too: “The short films and practice films are like learning to swim in a children’s pool. But with your first feature film, you’re suddenly on the diving board at the Olympic Games in Tokyo with everyone wondering: “What’s about to happen?”

Family Dinner © Gabriel Krajanek/Peter Hengl

Hengl, who views this project as the fulfilment of a life dream, expresses how this is more than just a profession: “I’m conscious every day of the unbelievable privilege that I enjoy. And I wake up each day happily singing like a Disney princess because being allowed to do this is such an honour and such a pleasure.”

In both cases, the final result is set to be impressive. Stern and Hengl are satisfied with how things have been going so far, and the cinematic debuts of Wenn wir die Regeln brechen and Family Dinner—both currently still in postproduction—are planned for 2022.

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