Michael Koch and Michèle Brand on Reaching the Emotional Heights of “A Piece of Sky”

When Anna (Michèle Brand) and Marco (Simon Wisler) get married in “A Piece of Sky (Drii Winter),” one need only to look at the two on the dance floor to see that they are in a world all by themselves. Haddaway’s “What is Love” comes over the speakers and everyone around the newlyweds starts to emphatically get in the groove while Anna and Marco slow dance, unbothered if not unaware that they’re moving at a far different pace. In the remote Swiss village that the couple calls home already seems on a different axis than the rest of the world, exceptionally attuned to the seasons when most residents run farms, but otherwise disconnected from time – here, Haddaway’s 1993 hit single is likely to still sound fresh in the 21st century – yet Anna and Marco run on a rhythm all their own when he insists on quiet and keeps to himself while she clearly is attracted to the challenge of drawing him out.

The idea that opposites attract would seem to be as stable a foundation for a marriage as any other in the mountainous region where options for companionship are limited, but Anna is asked to give far more over of herself than she bargained for in Michael Koch’s engrossing second feature when Simon is plagued with a cancerous tumor that makes him even more introverted than before. As unexpected as this news is to the couple, Koch is continually surprising the audience as he posits that a battle against disease is no different than what they endure on a daily basis as part of living in a place where the perils of the natural world are especially pronounced with stables stocked with unpredictable animals, the looming threat of inclement weather and the consistently punishing work that the land demands, whether it is in the fields where Simon starts to struggle putting his back into cutting the crops or in the local bed and breakfast cafe where Anna takes orders from locals who’d rather not speak after such difficult days.

Any chance of a financial windfall from a visiting Bollywood production is quickly dismissed when Anna doesn’t have the rooms at the B & B to accommodate them, but they come to express Koch’s own view that there is something of value hiding in the hills waiting to be revealed by a camera and even taking inspiration from Bollywood musical numbers with the occasional appearance of a choir, the director sees the beauty of Anna and Marco braving the elements, both in their immediate surroundings and within their tumultuous marriage. Brand and Wisler give powerful performances as the central duo, made all the more impressive by the fact that like nearly everyone else on screen it is the first time for both in front of the camera, though Koch’s own experience behind it shows in how sensitively he tucks himself into their relationship and with the film now a contender for Best International Film at the Oscars after Switzerland made “A Piece of Sky” its official selection, the filmmaker, along with Brand, spoke about getting the reality of life in the Alps on the screen, recruiting a cast from those familiar with the area and guiding such ultimately tender turns.

How did this come about?

Michael Koch: Years ago, I met a young woman in a remote mountain [town] who told me her story about her husband who changed a lot during illness. I was really touched by the way she coped with her challenges and how she reacted to it, especially how she found this difficult period a way back to her husband and accompanied him to his death. It was such a great human gesture, and I thought I would like to write a story about her, and I met all these people in this remote Alpine village and I thought it would be really nice to include them in the movie. So the idea was born to make the movie with nonprofessional actors because they bring something really special to the film and I decided to shoot my movie with them together.

Michèle, I understand you had another life as an architect before all this. What made you want to leap into acting?

Michèle Brand: Now, I’m back at the architect part, but I saw an announcement in the newspaper where I work and I just had this feeling I want to be a part of the movie. I met Michel and then I wanted to do the part more and more because I think Anna’s a really strong woman and I can relate to her faith in nature — I think it gives peace and strength when you accept that things in nature, like the cancer, just happen.

With all the research you did Michel, how much did you want to give to the cast when what you liked about them came naturally?

Michael Koch: I always told them “Stay yourself. Don’t act,” because I wanted something really personal from them. Michèle was an exception, but the other protagonists, I told them stay yourself and I adapted the screenplay a lot to these characters and I just wanted to have something really authentic about them. Besides the story of Anna and Marco, [I wanted to express] how it is to live in this remote place on these steep hills in this narrow valley, and what it is like to work there with the animals in the mountain farmer’s life. I think they’re really special and they taught me that you often have situations in life that you cannot control and you have to learn to accept this. They [have] this really strong, stoic behavior because nature teaches them that they cannot control everything — you have like avalanches coming down and this heavy weather, so you have to adapt and stay calm in order to succeed. That’s what they taught me.

It was important for me to have a lot of shooting days, so that we could react to what happens, to the weather for example or also to some work the farmers did. For example, there’s one scene where hay bales are coming out of the white sky down [from the mountain] and it wasn’t planned in the script because I didn’t know they do it in winter. When I talked to the farmer and he said, “Okay, we’re going to get some hay bales down” the next day, I thought, “Okay, we have to shoot this scene” and then we waited here until the moment when the weather changed a little bit, so we have this nice foggy atmosphere, and then we see the mountain on the other side. For me, this way to shoot the film, you get some unexpected lovely scenes and you have to be really prepared, but then you get some wonderful things and from time to time.

Michèle Brand: For me, every day was a special day because it was something totally new, but it was really nice to shoot outside with the weather, sometimes nice and sometimes stormy and cold. I don’t have this in my architectural world where I sit on the computer and I really liked that as well. We did it during Corona time, [which is] why I kept really distant from everyone in my family and my colleagues and I love these scenes where I can touch Simon [who plays Marco]. I really love this scene the most and it gave me and Michel as well strength.

Is it true it actually took two years to convince Simon to be part of the film?

Michael Koch: Yeah, because I met Simon years ago on a cattle show and he stayed in my mind. I was sure that he’s the one, but he told me really early that he was not interested in movies and he hasn’t got time. But I kept visiting him over the years, telling him about the project and how perfect he fits the main character’s role, trying to persuade him over two or three years. In the end, he said, “Okay, I’m going to accept it because I like you, but I’m just going to do it for you. I don’t do it because I want to be in the movies.” I was really happy to have him because he has a great presence. His physicality is really impressive, but at the same moment, he has something quite melancholic inside him. It’s like a treasure hidden inside himself, so I was really interested in this, but actually this was quite a challenge to get all the nonprofessional [cast] — all the people you see — in the movie because everyone was not excited about it in the beginning, except Michèle. But it’s also understandable that these farmers have a lot to do, especially during summer, and the more they didn’t want to be in the movie, the more I was fascinated by them, so at the end, I was just asking them again and again until they said, “Okay, we do it for you.” [laughs]

Michèle, what was it like to build a relationship with Simon?

Michèle Brand: When I met Simon the first time, we did one or two scenes and it matched naturally. It’s kind of difficult to explain because he’s also not an actor, but [we] fit.

Michael Koch: Yeah, we rehearsed some scenes with the camera as a preparation for the shoot and I was really impressed by Michèle’s acting skills because she was really direct and so authentic and had such a great energy and she could just take Simon and play with him. It was really important for me to have someone like Michèle who was so engaged and so free. Because she was not ashamed, she was just going for it and it was really important to have this energy in the film and also for the other people like Simon to let themselves go a little bit.

What has it been like seeing the film out in the world?

Michael Koch: I am really surprised, but it’s amazing that a film which is set really locally touches universal questions, so we’re very happy about this echo of the film. The film was shown at over 50 international film festivals and we had a wonderful theatrical release in Switzerland with a surprise amount of admissions. It’s really nice to get this because it’s a long film and a heavy film and I’m just so grateful that so many people from all over the world are interested in watching it. That’s really nice to experience.

Michèle Brand: It’s also surreal. It’s not really what I expected and I just enjoy it now and I see on Instagram [it playing] some other film festivals around the world, and it’s really nice that I got the chance to be part of such a nice project and now so many people see it.

“A Piece of Sky” does not yet have U.S. distribution.

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