Before the premiere of “Meet Me in Montenegro,” Alex Holdridge accidentally out on stage before he was introduced by TIFF programmer Jane Schoettle, a funny reminder that timing has never been quite the writer/director’s thing, nor has he really been one to stay in one place for too long. As a student at the University of Texas at Austin, Holdridge made the irreverent underage beer run comedy “Wrong Numbers,” a film that was actually optioned to be remade by a big studio after its win at the Austin Film Festival in 2001 before the similarly-themed “Superbad” stole its thunder. Then after making the uproarious sex farce “Sexless,” Holdridge decamped to Los Angeles to make “In Search of a Midnight Kiss,” a swooningly romantic ode to a city, told through the story of two strangers who fall for each other on New Year’s Eve, that he eventually came to see as toxic when his work on a subsequent studio gig came to naught. Each film he made was funnier, emotionally more complex and more technically accomplished than the last, likely owing to his longtime collaboration with director of photography and fellow UT alum Robert Murphy, yet Holdridge never seemed to catch a break.
But all that would seem to matter now is that he was in the right place at the right time to meet Linnea Saasen, a Norwegian art student who he first came across in Germany and began a romance so torrid it would seem to come straight out of one of his films. Naturally then, we have “Meet Me in Montenegro,” which as co-directed by Saasen, appears to have been made with the energy and enthusiasm of someone helming their first film, but with the skill of a seasoned pro. Drawing somewhat on their own personal history, Holdridge and Saasen play versions of themselves, coming together only days before they face major decisions in their life, with the American filmmaker traveling abroad to land a star for a sci-fi studio epic or risk seeing his big opportunity wither on the vine and the art student intending to leave for Budapest before her educational grant is put into jeopardy. As the two rapidly develop feelings for one another, Holdridge’s housemate (Rupert Friend) watches on, wondering if he can rekindle the spark with his girlfriend (Jennifer Ulrich), whose interest in visiting a sex club for a threesome suggests things aren’t hunky dory in their relationship.
Shot in bits and spurts across Europe over three-and-a-half-years, which saw Holdridge and Saasen sleep largely in bunk beds with their editing system always lurking beneath, “Meet Me to Montenegro” is unusually vibrant and vital, packed with photos, snippets and sketches (drawn by the multitalented Saasen) that illuminate that transcendent feeling of falling madly in love. It also has that sense of opening up new possibilities, not just as it applies to the real-life couple’s personal life, but for the artistic form they engage in. Shortly after the film’s premiere in Toronto, the two spoke about how they initially decided to make a movie together, giving “Meet Me in Montenegro” its inimitable texture and what it means to have a permanent document of their love story.
How did this come about?
Linnea Sassen: It happened naturally out of crazy circumstances. We met in Berlin in a café randomly and we decided to take this spontaneous train trip down to the Balkans. We didn’t know each other at all, but we were falling madly in love with each other and at this point, I was starting to art school. I had given up my life in Berlin completely. Alex was in the middle of [developing] a Hollywood studio movie, and we were on this tiny beautiful island in Croatia, but my art school plans fell apart and I had no idea what I was going to do with my life.
Alex Holdridge: And the movie fell apart, which happens. It was years in the making. I had given up my apartment and life in Los Angeles, so all of a sudden, we’re just sitting there thinking, we have no jobs, no careers, and we have everything we own on our backs at this moment. What are we going to do? Along the way, we were talking about making this film about our experience. I had money for the first time in my life at that moment because I had sold a script to a studio and I was like, that can get us started, I will put up a little bit and we can shoot the beginning, then we’ll see how it goes.
We basically rented a little apartment in Sarajevo and started tacking up ideas. It was really exciting and fun – for [Linnea], it was her first time as a filmmaker, so I got to collaborate with somebody that’s bringing a completely different perspective. Also, she’s a dancer, a performance artist and European, which was [a] really interesting to create a romance that wasn’t just [from my point of view].
If you’ve seen “Sexless,” you’re filming your relationships, but it’s really from your perspective and you’re really controlling the whole thing, so you’re giving into the chaos a little bit when you’re saying, “We’re both going to contribute. It’s not going to be one person’s objectification. It’s going to be these conversations about what is transpiring.” That is how it began. It rolled on for three-and-a-half years until we were finally done.
It seemed like the pastiche-quality of some sections in the film, which was one of my favorite parts with all the photos, sketches and offhand footage you captured, could only be done if you had been collecting it for such a long period of time. Was that the case?
Linnea Sassen: Doing it over such a long time, you give it a lot of texture because all of a sudden it’s snowing, so you’ll run out and you shoot the whole city in the snow. You can really just do everything you want to do. It takes a lot of work, and of course, we edited it, which took a long time, but you can really be more creative because you have more time and you think a lot about it.
Alex Holdridge: You have the footage in the can. On a practical level, we were shooting [a lot] like you’re suggesting, and we talked very seriously about should we make this a five- or six-part series where we’re getting into everyone’s story? We shot everyone’s backstory, side stories for the side characters. At the end of the day to make it work for a 90-minute movie that has forward momentum, over time, we really strengthened it from Anderson’s point of view and gave it a structure from that angle. But when you shoot so broadly, you have the advantage of taking scenes you shot as full scenes and using them as a quick, two-second [shots] in a montage, so [when Linnea] says, “Yeah, I may have to go back and work at that cupcake store,” you have these beautiful shots of working and placing cupcakes in the proper order that you would never take the time to shoot if you knew it was going to be two shots.
The other advantages of having shot so much over such a long period of time is that you’re able to create flashbacks. Being on a train three years before with completely different haircuts and then cutting into present day and you’re in a dead of winter in Berlin, you can do these edits that are a result of having shot a whole lot, and continuing to work and work and do [test] screenings. Then we mixed in [more of] our personal lives, pictures you’ve taken on your travels, old videos that you’ve taken, some documentary footage of breaking down my office when my life was a complete disaster – all of that became the texture that gives it something you could never [remake]. “Wrong Numbers” could be remade in Hollywood, but this cannot. It’s a piece full of that kind of texture.
A big part of that is also Linnea’s sketches with occasionally pop out from the screen, and Alex, you mentioned after the premiere that she did the special effects in terms of giving the film’s imagery some incredible colors. Did Linnea latch onto that as an area she could really contribute immediately as a first-time filmmaker?
Linnea Sassen: Alex and Robert [Murphy, the cinematographer] were editing and I was like, I should also because it will be faster if I can help too. I went on Lynda.com and I learned how to edit and of course, after hundreds of hours of editing, you become pretty good at it.
Alex Holdridge: She was faster than we were and we liked her assemblies better. There’s millions of filmmakers out there doing the same thing, getting on YouTube, “How do we make that? How do we do that?” She is probably the hottest visual effects nerd on the planet.
Linnea Sassen: I always have that attitude [where] I think that I can do it, whatever it is. When it’s about sky replacement or any kind of visual effect, just go to video co-pilot or linda.com and listen to a ten-year-old kid from Ohio that tells you how you do it. Attention to detail [is very important to me] – I want things to look good.
Was it an obvious decision to cast yourselves as the leads?
Alex Holdridge: It was an extremely practical decision. I don’t feel actors at heart, but we knew that we could cast actors to play the other roles and shoot them very traditionally. In four weeks, we could shoot Rupert Friend and Jennifer Ulrich all over Berlin, and go to the Kit Kat sex clubs and all of these things, and get their storyline.
Our story had to take place over an extended period of time and [more exotic] locations, so if we could play the parts, we would have the advantage of going to Montenegro and film for weeks on end and then take time and edit it, because we can give up our apartments and live down there. Then we can all move to Los Angeles and stay with my family there while we shoot some LA stuff, and then we go back to Berlin. We could never hire an actress and say, “Be available for the next three years while we shoot little pieces and think about it.” In that way, we knew we could gain a tremendous amount cinematically if we could just be passable as actors. We did tests with ourselves and we watched it, we edited a little bit together and we thought, “Let’s do it.” Of course, it’s terrifying because there’s no layer of safety that you’re hiding behind, but that’s how it came about.
Also perhaps terrifying was just how much you shoot in public places. Why was it important to get as many locations as you have in the film?
Linnea Sassen: It was challenging at times. It’s pretty funny – in one of the scenes, we are having quite a serious talk and there was a group of angry, drunk guys throwing bottles at us …
Alex Holdridge: … Screaming. We’d have to stop between every line and wait and sit. And it was a huge pain in the ass to be in the middle of a Christmas market or a flea market or whatever it may be, yet that’s also why it’s special to capture it because with these little cameras you can go to all these places. We could go out to the rocks in Montenegro and shoot a cliff-jumping scene, which lasted there for 30 seconds. It takes five days of climbing out over the rocks with all the equipment, shooting from one angle because it’s only sunny in that slope for about two hours a day, but we knew that together – Linnea, myself, and Robert Murphy, the guy who shot “In Search of a Midnight Kiss” all the way through “Wrong Numbers” – we could do that.
Linnea Sassen: It really captures really the real life more.
Alex Holdridge: Yeah. We knew okay, because we had the cameras and it’s us, we could go into the Christmas market, the flea market, and the super clubs that we go to. That could cost millions of dollars to stage, but when it’s also a club/art event, they were very supportive and said, “Come on in,” and we could just film. A Hollywood movie could never choose all those locations. Even though it was exhausting going to all those locations, it was what would make it special, to have an adventure like “Wrong Numbers” years ago. I always thought people would want to go on a journey through Austin like this right now, to sit in the back of the car and see all these places. This was the same spirit.
Linnea Sassen: Yeah, it is exhausting but it makes it epic.
Does the film mean something different to you now than when you first started it?
Linnea Sassen: Absolutely. When we started, we had no idea it was going to take three-and-a-half years. We didn’t really know what we were getting into. It evolved a lot as the process went along. We explored new ideas and new angles that weren’t really there from the beginning [where] it was like jumping right in and, “Okay let’s just do this.” Now, it is very thought through and much more personal, scarily.
Alex Holdridge: I’ve never done something that scared me this much. If you fall flat on your face, you feel like, my God, I just wasted my money, my time and my family and my friends’ who all chipped in. We really were like if this fails, we are just going to start a fish taco truck in Norway and that’s going to be our life. Having this done, I have no idea how people are going to relate to it, but whatever criticisms there are, I feel very proud of the full effort that me and Linnea and our little team put in. We did everything we could do make it worth an people’s hour-and-a-half of people’s time. We’re happy to have it exist in the world and let it be.
“Meet Me in Montenegro” will open in Los Angeles and New York on July 10th and will be made available on VOD the same day.