TIFF ’19 Interview: Katrin Gebbe on Fleshing Out “Pelican Blood”

Nearly six years to the day that her second feature “Pelican Blood” would make its North American debut at the Toronto Film Festival, Katrin Gebbe had been wandering around the streets of Paris while her first, “Nothing Bad Could Happen,” was playing at the L’Étrange Festival when she spotted a book about the sculptor Berlinde De Bruyckere across the way from the cinema.

“[When I was thinking of a next film], I never wanted to make a pure horror film or a pure social drama. I wanted to balance it and have the audience decide what they want to see, and [when I saw this], I was like, “Wow, this is amazing,” Gebbe said of seeing the Belgian artist’s undulating provocations that often overlay the exterior elements from animals such as goats and horses onto corporeal forms that take on unusual shapes. “[These] sculptures really speak to my heart in a weird way because she works with horses’ bodies in a weird shape or monsters that look like old women, and you feel so much pain and emotion and nakedness. It’s really brought up a lot of twisted thoughts in me.”

Even if “Pelican Blood” didn’t directly deal with horses, casting Nina Hoss as an equestrian trainer named Wiebke who’s hired by the local police to prepare their stallions to stay calm in riots, you can see how Gebbe could find a kindred spirit in De Bruyckere, a gifted artist who has mastered the finer points of her craft in order to innovate and has taken the same approach to understanding humanity to explore its darker corners by starting with what’s familiar and gradually subverting into something that’s surely not. Just as in Gebbe’s debut, which fearlessly followed a devout Christian as he was adopted into a family of heathens that saw his faith as a weakness to take advantage of him, “Pelican Blood” wonders what’s to become of a misfit in Raya (Katerina Lipovska), an irascible six-year-old who is adopted by Wiebke after a number of other homes didn’t work out. While there’s hope that the compassion and patience Wiebke practices with her horses will have a calming effect on the child, Raya shows no signs of being tamed, rubbing off in negative ways on Wiebke’s other adopted daughter Nikolina, being thrown out of her preschool for threatening the other children, and jeopardizing Wiebke’s business by wreaking havoc on the horse farm.

Still, Wiebke takes immense pride in not giving up on any of God’s creatures, especially the ones the rest of society seems eager to dismiss, and with a commanding lead performance from Hoss, Gebbe is able to take audiences to the edge as one begins to wonder whether Wiebke is serving Raya’s best interests or merely herself by continuing to care for her when she’s clearly overwhelmed and the personal drama tips into surreal horror when it looks like she may be past the point of no return. Although the filmmaker is able to precisely summon emotional currents that are often ineffable, she remains an admirably unclassifiable filmmaker with intense character studies that never seem to belong to any single genre but do share a feeling of danger that makes them impossible to look away from. When Gebbe was in Toronto, she spoke about the inspiration behind “Pelican Blood,” getting such a devastating performance out of her young lead Lipovska without putting her in psychological peril, and figuring out how to tell a story over the course of the year with the seasons changing on a shoot that could last only 42 days.

How did this come about?

It’s because of “Nothing Bad Can Happen” a little. I was researching the childhood of psychopaths, [curious about] “Are they born like this? And when a trauma changes the brain this way, can it be changed again? Can you make a loving person out of a psychopath?” I found a really exciting documentary called “Child of Rage,” and I found out later that this psychopathic child that the documentary is about, was kind of healed by her new adoptive mother later on. She wrote a book and I really wanted to know more about this kind of woman who really endangered her own life and really give everything she had to break through to this disturbed child. I thought in this really difficult situation, a mother would have to give more mentally and physically than maybe she is capable of doing. I was also wondering how would society react when you have such a child because it’s really a problem that people are left alone with these kind of children that are harming other children and you understand both sides — people who want to protect the healthy ones and people who want to help a child that is traumatized and deserves healing. So this was the basis [for the story].

Then I created this kind of allegory that’s like a fairy tale because in this case, it has a happy ending, but in the real cases, it often doesn’t, [yet] I wanted to speak to society in a broader sense, not really concerning the theme of having an emotionally disturbed child, but in general how we treat people who do not fit our norms. This could be criminals or the mentally ill – how do we treat them in the moment that we see “Oh, it’s become really difficult”? It’s quite easy in society to lock everybody away who is not fitting — putting them into prisons, or a sick person into a mental institution, or children into orphanages — so that’s a question I would love to ask in this movie – how much you want to give, as a society, not [just] as a mother.

It was fascinating to watch in parallel with “Nothing Bad Can Happen” because in that film, you watch a young man coming into the city, trying to find his place and here, it’s a woman who’s lived some life and clearly wants to live outside of society, but is still tied to it. Were you consciously trying to flip that dynamic?

Yeah, that’s true. In “Nothing Bad Can Happen,” there was this character coming into the family and being a catalyst in a way [for] what you see is beneath the surface, how they start to become what they are maybe inside already and in “Pelican Blood,” it’s quite the same. There is a person coming into the new family, like an intruder and then everybody starts to behave [reflecting their true colors]. It’s a great thing if you see film as an art form in a way to tell a story that is quite particular as a family story, but in fact you tell something about the society that has an “intruder.”

How long a shoot was this? You appear to authentically capture summer and winter, which is impossible these days for most films.

Yeah, this is a process in reality that might take more years, but I wanted to keep it together and I felt like one year should be the time this film takes place. A year is enough to show a healthy child — but only mimics a healthy child — then to be surprised by what lies beneath and then also go through all the process of thinking of maybe removing the child from the family. For everywhere the film goes, I thought we needed time and telling time in film is expensive. Sometimes it looks really shitty because when you find solutions that are cheaper, it looks cheaper. [laughs] We found a solution where we shot 40 days in summer with the kids and we did everything that was in the house, and then we [set aside] two shooting days in winter, so that worked quite well. But even 42 days in total was quite tight because there are so many scenes where you have children and horses, so I could’ve shot maybe 60 days, but this is what we could afford with our budget.

The old adage is “Don’t work with animals or children” – was it an exciting challenge?

Yes. It was not planned. I was touched by the story and then I found a picture of two women cleaning a horse – I still have that and I don’t know why – but I felt this is a job for Wiebke. I’m often working with moods and I felt like a horse farm could be the right place for this to take place and I found out about this natural horsemanship and these images of the mounted police and I thought, this is what I want to explore because it’s also about how you educate horses that have to fit [a certain lifestyle], so it’s mirroring [the adoption of a child].

“Top Gun,” the horse Wiebke takes care of in the beginning is a horse that doesn’t behave according to how the police think it should, and she wants to train it. Horses are animals that naturally escape difficult situations, so [Wiebke] is teaching the horse not to be afraid and not to act emotional and to the contrary, with the child Raya, she has to learn to feel emotions and to be afraid. That [dichotomy] is something I felt was really great about and also to have the police at the horse farm [as an extension of] the society observing Wiebke’s every step. Of course, everyone was like, “Are you crazy? How do you want to finance and shoot this? You’ll have so many problems on set.” But I felt this is really making the film feel richer and since I feel really good about this, I have to make it work.

I was really, really lucky that I found Katerina Lipovska, who plays Raya. She’s really amazing and beyond what children do at that age. She has a mother who’s actually a children’s coach and has a children’s theater and we had a great collaboration so I could really work with her like an [adult] actress. And of course, I didn’t want to make a film about a traumatized child and then traumatize the child. When I was writing it, I was thinking like, “Shit, how can this work out? What tricks should I use?” I researched a lot about directors’ work with kids, but I felt they often have to trick the kids. And [Katherina’s mother] Simona, because she’s already so skilled in working with kids, she had all the ideas. I said, “This is where I want to go. Can you tell me how we can make this happen?” And for the entire story of the film, she created another fake story for [Katerina], so she believed she was doing a movie about how she, as the main protagonist of the film, would become a veterinarian. [mild spoilers ahead] During the ritual [in the film], she learns the language of the wolf and the lion, so when the shaman would go around her, she would be confronted with the lion who teaches her the language of the lion.

So for [Katerina], it was actually really fun and the mother would really take care of her before and after the scene [to make sure] that she’s entertained and not concerned about anything. The more difficult thing actually was to keep her excited when we had to repeat a shot because she was mostly best during the first shot and then when you would have her repeating something, she would be bored, so the true challenge was to make scenes always new and fresh and exciting for her.

Does having the great Nina Hoss onboard make things easier?

Yeah, she’s amazing, right? I approached her agent with the script and it was a version where I really was comfortable that she might like it. But her agent was like, “Well, Nina is doing a lot of theater and she doesn’t have so much time, so maybe in a month she’ll be able to read it.” Then the next day, I got a call saying that she read it and she wants to do it. And when you ask her, Nina would explain, the scene that comes early in the film where Raya is standing next to her bed, and [Wiebke’s thinking], “Something with this kid is wrong,” there was a moment where she couldn’t stop reading and was really, really excited by the character and how she doesn’t want to let go, how idealistic she is and how she gives everything to reach Raya, so Nina was full-on from the very beginning.

What have the last few weeks been like, bringing this out into the world?

Like giving birth, a little. The baby’s out there, so it’s really relaxing and it really is amazing if you get the chance to premiere in Venice because it not only gives the film a visibility, but also there’s at least a couple people who believe the crazy shit you’re doing is worth watching. [laughs] That was the moment I started to get relaxed, but I was really tense how will people react because I know this film is very special in many ways and now I’m really overwhelmed. I thought the German press would not like the film, but [they were] was actually really positive and because it’s polarizing, it’s fun when people really argue about this film and sometimes I really want to pick a fight for my film. [laughs] But on the other hand, you want your child to be loved and appreciated, so it’s nice to meet the people in Venice and Toronto and have a lot of conversations.

“Pelican Blood” will next screen at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar on September 21st at 5 pm and September 24th at 11 am, the Hamburg Film Festival on September 29th at 6:30 pm at the Cinemax 1 and October 4th at Passage 1 at 4:15 pm, the Zurich Film Festival at the Arthouse Picadilly on October 2nd at 8:45 pm, the 4th at 6 pm and 6th at 5:45 pm, and Sitges Film Festival on October 9th at 8:15 am and 9 pm at the Auditori Melia Sitges and 10th at 8:15 am at the Traumuntana Melia Sitges.