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How We Made The Last Faust (Interview with Philipp Humm)

1. What prompted you to make TLF and how much of Goethe’s work were you familiar with beforehand?

I liked Paula Rego’s staged illustrated paintings of folk tales and Dali’s illustrations of Dante’s divine inferno. It inspired me to do staged illustrated paintings and sculptures of a major book or theatre play. As I went to a French school yet am German, it could have been based on a French or a German book. I vaguely remembered Goethe’s Faust, having red Faust 1 in my youth. I felt that the “Faust pact” still resonates well with our tech world. So, I purchased Faust and got started. I discovered the richness of the text and its contemporary relevance and that Faust 2 was more interesting than Faust 1. I was thrilled and decided that this is my subject matter. It felt as if Faust had been waiting for me to be discovered.

In October 2017 I red Faust again and again and noted down the parts of the book which I felt are the most important for the story and the most relevant to the 21st century. This gave me a structure, which I kept on tweaking until I had defined the 37 scenes, which later became the core scenes of The Last Faust.

I now started to think through how best to artistically interpret the scenes. I did small pencil sketches of 4-5 cm each. I refined the sketches into pencil drawings of 76x56cm each, which became the storyboard for the photos and later for the film.

Our model was still to have actors stage my scenes, my life-partner Daniele photograph them and for me to paint and sculpt using photographic reference material. At that time we had a small budget.

While surfing the internet, I saw some amazing hyperreal photos. I was intrigued and started researching computer enhanced photography. My original idea was to create surreal backgrounds for the photos. The idea evolved organically to create surreal photographic artworks using computer technology. We met the CGI artist and agent John Fox, who gave us the confidence that it was doable.

In March 2018 we developed the idea of asking the actors to recite Faust quotes to the respective scenes, so as to have material for potential art installations. We searched for a film director freelance to help us realize that plan. We started looking around for a photographic studio and a small video room. I have always been a great admirer of Bob Wilson, in particular of the use of lights and colors, often in the form of projections to create surreal and impactful backgrounds. I thought to myself, why not film a theatre play using projections to create surreal and arty scenes, closely related to my original drawings. This could be very impactful and still be a low budget production.


‘The Bet’ with Paul Orchard and Glyn Dilley ©The Humm Collection

The film project evolved and we started casting actors in April. The brief was to find serious actors with unique faces. As I continued to develop the script and the storyboard and interviewed film , I got increasingly convinced that I wanted to do a feature film of about 90 minutes. Yet I became increasingly frustrated by not finding the right film directors. Most directors were not flexible, not inspiring and expensive. Daniele got involved and searched film directors in the UK and in Germany. She came across Dominik Wieschermann, a German film director specialising on commercials and who did some interesting short films. She liked his style and contacted him. He responded immediately and we started a conversation. I liked Dominik straight away, he was professional, flexible and had a good sense for art – having studied design.

In April/May I focused on detailing the schedule, refining the film script and detailing a storyboard. I also worked with a costume designer to design and source costumes and props. One of our sources for props was Amazon. Daniele focused on preparing the photo shoot, finding 2 adjacent studios and recruiting the rest of the team.

In May Daniele went to Malaysia for 2 weeks and I went to NYC for an art fair and my son’s graduation. We kept on working from abroad. In NYC I realised that we needed professional dancers and a choreographer for some of the scenes. I started the recruitment process and contracted 2 dancers, a choreographer upon my return.

In the first 2 weeks of June, we rehearsed with the actors and on June 10 we started setting up the studios and on June 11 we started production.

This would be 15 intense days, averaging 2.5 scenes a day, hoping from the film to the photographic studio and having to live with the restrictions of filming in a photographic studio, which for that purpose was not big enough and not sound proof. Somehow, per magic it worked out. Primarily because we had recruited a team of lovely individuals and excellent team players.

Scarlett Wilson performing in front of a horse ©The Humm Collection

We had a lot of fun experiences on the way. We decided spontaneously in a rehearsal to get a horse for one scene as one of the actresses, Isabella Bliss had a friend with a horse. We asked Edwin de la Renta, a very talented black actor to wear blue contact lenses and dye his hair blond to make him Arian. We tried and failed to make our actors fly sitting on each other. The harnesses were too painful for that matter. So, we had to improvise. And we used a toy baby instead of a real baby for Euphorion.

At that time, my idea was to have an acting narrator tell the story and help the viewer understand how the 37 scenes fit together. Daniele and I went on vacation to Pulia-Italy and I contacted script writers to rewrite the narrator script. As I was working on the script, I had the idea to create Faust’s successor, Dr Goodfellow, who would help anchor Faust into the 21st century. I decided to go with Ellen Waddell, a young script writer and stand up comedian. She was invaluable, helping me to transform what I had written into proper theatrical dialogues. Daniele was busy calling and writing to every casting agent to convince them to give us their star actors. In August Daniele got into contact with Steven Berkoff’s agent. Steven was intrigued by the play and we were able to contract him. Steven was perfect for the role. He is one of UK’s best actors with a very iconic style, he likes to play the villain and has an invaluable theatre background.

Philipp Humm and Steven Berkoff ©The Humm Collection

Now that we had contracted Steven, it was about time to find a new iconic location in or around London. We found a beautiful large townhouse in London’s East Lordship Park, which was a professional film-studio-house. Part 2 production with Steven Berkoff and Edwin de la Renta and Isabella Bliss started September 25th for 3 days. Daniele supervised the production, did the BTS photos and did the photo production. I focused on art directing film and photo. Our budget had grown to 850000. We were now at the limit of our financial capabilities.

On September 27th, the film and all photos were completed. We now started working on creating our surreal photographic art and with the post production of our feature film. The film was finished in January 2019 and the photo-artwork in March 2019.
I worked intensely 1-2 days per week with John Fox to create the photo-artworks . Some of them very close to my original drawing and others I completely redesigned as new ideas came to mind.

Fortunately our film director Dominik Wieschermann had an extensive work experience in a post production house. So he knew how to edit the film and to enhance scenes on the computer. The more complicated CGI work, I outsourced to a CGI artist in Austria and a team in Georgia. Dominik and I spent 3 weeks together in the editing and sound mixing room. This allowed us to cut the red tape and take decisions on the spot. As we had time and location restrictions in production, we had to very creative in selecting/enhancing the film material. We often only had few takes of a scene and had to overcome studio issues.
We worked with Florian Siegmund a sound engineer on the music. I did not like his first draft and saw myself forced to define a musical concept for the film – despite my poor musical abilities. I listened to 77 film trailers and came to the conclusion that I wanted to have classical music, it had to be German and a composer who would work well with Goethe’s Faust. Richard Wagner became quickly a very obvious choice. He had the orchestral depth and variety, and he composed music for Faust. I did not want music to be too overwhelming, so I decided to not take Wagner’s orchestral work, instead only piano pieces. Finally I listened to a complete set of Wagner’s piano compositions and selected Elsa as a theme music and other pieces for the scenes. With that briefing, Florian did his magic and created an amazing music to enhance the film.


Florian Siegmund and Philipp Humm

 

2. The Faust epic covers vast tracts of narrative and straddles multiple philosophical standpoints. How did you go about combining both books into one fluid screenplay?

I red Faust again and again and noted down the parts of the book which I felt are the most important for the story and the most relevant to the 21st century. This gave me a structure, which I kept on tweaking until I had defined the 37 scenes, which later became the core scenes of The Last Faust.

I now started to think through how best to artistically interpret the scenes. I did small pencil sketches of 4-5 cm each. I refined the sketches into pencil drawings of 76x56cm each, which became the storyboard for the photos and later for the film.

Goethe had written more than 30 years at Faust 2. As a result, some of the original scenes seemed a bit over the top and did not really add to the story, like the Plutus play/ceremony or the classical Walpurgis night. So, I left them out. I also made changes to the script where I felt it was needed. I decided to keep Homunculus alive and to make him Faust’s testament executor. I also used an Angel to play the roles of the chorus of angels and gave her a personality of her own. Lastly by creating Dr Goodfellow, Faust’s successor, I was free to write my own story and what I foresee a world in blind pursuit of technological progress will end up with.

 

3. You cast Steven Berkoff as Dr Goodfellow. Berkoff is a notoriously maverick actor and director, was he in your mind when you wrote the character? How did the initial conversation go with Berkoff, did he ‘get’ Faust?

I wrote Dr Goodfellow’s role without having Berkoff in mind. We approached him, because we felt that he would be perfect for the role.
He got Faust and I felt that the role was growing on him. It might even triggered him to write his Harvey play.

 

4. TLF is very much a theatrical piece of filmmaking, what were your cinematic references? (I.e. were there movies that you’d seen that influenced the overall look).

I had a cinematic reference with the Rocky Horror picture show for the narrator , with Clockwork Orange from Kubrick for the staging and style and a theatrical reference with Bob Wilson for the stage settings.

 

5. You’ve stated that TLF is a part of a Gesamtkunstwerk, does the rest of the work, the paintings, photography the novella and the drawings exist to support the film or is it one unified body of work?

It is a unified body of work. I find it fascinating to see how different my interpretations of the same subject matter are from one medium to the other. Each medium offers unique opportunities and has its restrictions.

 

6. There have been many adaptations of Faust, almost since cinema began, what separates your vision of the Faust mythology from earlier productions?

It is the first adaptation of Faust 1 and 2 ever done in the world. While I like Faust 1, I find the Gretchen story a bit superficial in contrast to the multi layered stories in Faust 2. For example, I find operas like Gournaud’s on Faust very superficial. He reduces Faust to an old man who wants to be rejuvenated to find fresh love. Faust is primarily about a scientist striving to emulate God’s creation, which has much more depth to it.

 

7. A great deal of the imagery in the TLF has a very contemporary feel to it, certain scenes could have been transposed from pop videos while other scenes reference classical art, you don’t seem to have constrained yourself to a particular genre?

The imagery is very contemporary, arty and colourful. The scenes and the choice of costumes can be controversial. For example using a white burka to enhance the beauty instead of hiding it, the use of Nazi symbols to emphasize the German supremacy thinking, the blond hair of a black actor, a burlesque Angel, fat suits for Phorkyas…


Burqa ©The Humm Collection

 

8. What were the biggest technological difficulties in making this film?

With 2.5 scenes per day and 2 paralell productions for film and photo, we had little time left for filming. So we did not have a lot of takes to play with. Also the studio was not big enough for filming, so we had difficulties keeping the camera on the projection area. Lastly we had to overcome sound problems from cars and planes.

 

9. TLF will be released later this year, what do you think audience reaction will be?

It is a film for an intellectual audience which loves theatre, art and arthouse films. They will love it as it combines art, film and cinema to a very unique formula – rarely done before.

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