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„There is a reluctance to dealing with reality“ - How SUNSHINE EYE brings reality on screen

Seriencamp’s artistic director Gerhard Maier talks to director Maria von Heland, the creator of SUNSHINE EYES, about the creation process of the exceptional series and why it is difficult to tell stories that deal with the „real“.

Director Maria von Heland created her series Sunshine Eyes under unique circumstances: During the first lockdown of 2020 and with a mixture of amateur and professional actors that improvised most of the dialogue, Maria von Heland told a story that acts as one of the most direct records of the first few months of the pandemic. A daring feat as filming started without commissioning and out of necessity to capture the cascade of emotions that unfolded. Produced during the pandemic, Sunshine Eyes directly translates history as it unfolds into stories that move us – several months later even more than before. Maria von Heland talks with Seriencamp’s artistic director Gerhard Maier about the creation process of the exceptional series and why it is difficult to tell stories that deal with the „real“. 

We're very happy that we had the opportunity to screen Sunshine Eyes during the Seriencamp Festival. One of the reasons why it was such an easy pick for us is that it focuses on a topic that has not been told in this way or through this perspective on German television – and as far as I can tell, I haven't seen a series globally that takes on such an intimate view of what happened during the first Covid-19 lockdown and the kind of mental environment we were moving in. How did the project come to be?

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Maria von Heland: Well, you know, the first approach to lockdown that I had was obviously to stay at home, water the plants and think about the novel to write. But then the second wave sort of came in. And it was about three weeks into hard lockdown in Berlin that I just woke up one morning, I thought: „We're going to forget this!“ It's so crazy and we have no idea what's going to happen next. We're in the middle of history and we're just holding our breaths. We don't know anything. I just had the sensation that we are right in the middle of history.

I've written some films that were set in the Nazi times for example, and it's so easy to judge people's morals because we know how it ended. But we're in the middle of something and you have no idea where it's going to go. And I had such an incredible urge to capture that moment in time as a filmmaker. The stillness and the boiling environment that we had inside the households and the amount of drama that came up. So, I think what happened for me was, I took what I had. Which was to begin with my family, because it was a hard lockdown. So Leticia Adrian, who plays the lead, is my son's girlfriend. She was staying at her house. The younger girl is my daughter and the grandmother is actually Leticia's actual grandmother and she's never been on camera before. Everybody thinks she's a famous German actress when I show the footage. She did actually once apply to film school in her youth, but she's been a gallerist. That was the little trio that we started with. And I didn't know exactly where we were going, but we got started using stories that happened around us, real stories.

When I called up Leticia's grandmother and said, would you be in the film – because we're in the same virus environment and I need a grandmother – and she said: „Well, I will do it as long as I don't have to have Corona.“ And I said, No you don't have to have it. You just have to die from it, and then she said: „Okay, Okay! If it has to be, I'll die from Corona, fine.“

And then we sort of started there and we started building the world. And I phoned up Arri and they were so generous, mainly because absolutely nobody was shooting – they gave us an Alexa camera for almost nothing. And my friend, fellow filmmaker and wonderful cinematographer Christian Pirjol, joined us and we just started working, digging where we're standing. As the lockdown eased up, we started connecting to actors. Actually everybody was so hungry to tell the story. Because what happened and it's still happening in Germany – which is the challenge that we face now, getting the series out – is that nobody wants to talk about it. I've shot two 90-minute films during the corona times and the thing is, we're not even allowed to show masks, we're not mentioning corona. Everybody should pretend like nothing ever happened. And I know that we've had one film on ZDF now, and a Tatort in which they had masks – there's been a few little moments. But in general to process what we're going through, in the moment as we're going through it, is very, very hard. And that's why we started working entirely unfinanced and have continued unfinanced, because it would have taken years to get the project on its feet. It was the only way to go about it, to just close one's eyes and jump from the top floor and just let it all happen to us and that's what we did.

There are several series that we had here in the program of Seriencamp Festival that obviously deal very pointedly with the pandemic but Covid-19 was not to be mentioned in any of the texts. So it's a series about Covid-19 but you should not mention it because people are turned off by it. It's a really strange, maybe schizophrenic thing that's happening here. It surrounds us, but we don't want to talk and hear stories about it.

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Maria von Heland: Yes, it is puzzling to me, because of course there is always a very lively debate about the storytellers of our time. And the EU is putting in money to make people write things that were real. We are trying really hard. We all want to get out there, we want to do it, we want to be straightforward – but then, everyone is scared of saying the wrong thing, because we don't know how it's going to end. I don't know how it's going to end either and I'm not trying to put pointers on how to handle Corona. What I'm doing in the series is telling the story of people in a very special circumstance. It could have been a war it could have been another disaster, but the war or the virus is not the story. The story are the people.

Because I work a lot in German television and that's how I make my living, I have complete respect and I'm grateful to be one of the players in the industry. But I'm also acutely aware that we're selling a world. You know, we go to an island like Sylt and we do four murders a year, whereas there hasn't been a person murdered on Sylt since forever. So there is always a very big reluctance to dealing with reality. Sunshine Eyes is hard, but it's also very funny and we have lots of extremely comedic moments, but they come out of a reality. I think it's okay to kill people off and look for the murderer – I make those films all the time! I also think it's fine to make lightweight comedies. But there has to be a little bit of space for reality, as well.

One of the first things that we talked about in the programming team, when we watched the first three episodes, is that Sunshine Eyes has a rawness and authentic voice that really sticks out in Germany. Because it looks like it moves into a spot that regular television entertainment doesn't dare to go to. What do you think is at the core of this? Is it the structures? Are there too many people trying to build something that is made for consensus or is it the time you need to get it done?

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Maria von Heland: We had a very funny moment with Juliane Köhler, because she came in and said: „Oh dear, oh dear, how is this going to work? I'm terrible at improvising!“ And Juliane is of course one of our great actresses. And as great artists often do she starts out saying I'm a total idiot, I can't do this and I said, well the good thing is we have loads of time. And she said, what do you mean? We've got two days to shoot the whole thing. And I was like, Yeah, but we can just sit down now and take our time. Nobody's putting a gun to us to make the camera roll. We can just enter the space and the scene will be as long as it needs to be. It's a different pace when you have somebody whispering into your ear every three and a half seconds how many seconds you already wasted. That's the reality of a normal TV shoot: „We're late! We're late! We're late! Move on!“ You've got to go faster, faster, faster and here we actually produced an enormous amount of material in comparatively very short time but precisely because we weren't rushed.

I strive towards filming life not people pretending to live and that's whenever you create something, I think. You can only strive towards that which you love yourself and for some people that will be to this or to that, but that's my natural striving. When you go through the regular process of German television – I actually think German television is mini Hollywood. Because in television in Germany we spend a lot of money on the shows and this money comes with voices as always in life. People who pay money, want to have a role in the outcome. But just like in Hollywood people want to control and people have different agendas. Some people want a big audience, some people want to make sure that nobody smokes or drinks in the film. With the national public broadcasters there is of course a little bit the desire to show the people how to live, which does limit how much you can reflect what life is really like. Because most of us don't live the way we're supposed to live. But what happens in Hollywood and what happens in Germany is that the director is just one person on set who is more or less urged to paint by numbers and then you can be revolutionary and paint a bit outside the squares and get a bit wild and use colors that no one's used before – but the grid in which you're moving is very clear. With Sunshine Eyes we didn't have a grid. We were sort of acting like Monty Python out of the basement of the BBC. We were just a little revolutionary crew of so few people that we could move freely within storytelling.

But this freedom obviously causes a little bit of irritation because you're still looking for a broadcaster.

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Maria von Heland: „Irritation“ is a mild word – I would say: profound suffering. But I am an extraordinarily, ridiculously positive individual and I know the strength of the material. I feel it, I know it and it's there and it's not going to go away. And we will find our outlet and we will find our audience, I'm certain of that. I am however very impatient, so it is driving me absolutely bonkers. But we have to hold out, we will find somebody who will wake up one day and go: “Wow, this is different! We need to show it.“

How important do you think is it for series in general but for yours especially to act as a document of the times and not filter it too much.

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Maria von Heland: In general we as filmmakers are storytellers – this is our profession. We tell stories. Why do we need stories? We need stories to interpret the world that we're in, to put ourselves in perspective, to experience life through other eyes, etc. We all know this is the basis of storytelling, right? Which is why there is room for so many kinds of stories, because it's more like instead of just seeing it with our own two eyes, we become flies and we can see a bigger world and thereby develop understanding, tolerance, openness – great human qualities that will also be tremendously good for humanity. I don't even mind there being hundreds of serial formats in which somebody is killed in the first ten minutes in German television. I'm fine with that. I just think that we should leave just a little peek for people who are doing something else. We have it in Art House Film, right? There is some opening there. But actually I'm sort of struggling, because I don't think that Sunshine Eyes is a small Art House project at all. I think it's a project for a broader mass. it's clearly a young adult series, I'd say as a primary audience. And I think it's pretty forceful there. Having dealt with a large amount of young adults in general in life – not just making the series – I think we will find them some way or another.

I want to take two steps back to something you mentioned earlier. A lot of Sunshine Eyes is improvised and I think that gives it a certain authenticity and a certain directness that maybe a lot of other stories that also deal with the pandemic are missing. How did you develop the story? You mentioned earlier you started out with filming and putting in scenes that were directly affecting you. How did it grow from there and how did it evolve from there as a project?

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Maria von Heland: The real story is that one of the first people who signed up to be in the series, who was very keen and supportive of the series and absolutely wanted to be in it was Michael Gwisdek, a great German actor. Who then had to say no last minute, because he was too ill and subsequently didn't survive his illness. So Micha was saying I will definitely be there, I'll do it, I don't care – you have to do it! And when he couldn't do it, that actually broke my heart so much, I said: Don't worry, but I'm not gonna recast you. I'll just change the whole thing to become something different. And that's kind of where it opened up to become not just the story about this little family. The premise is quite simple: Lea needs to tell somebody that Granny is dead. But nobody listens, because everyone is caught up in their own lockdown drama. So, what we do is we walk into these other people's homes and understand what drama they're in the middle of. Why can't they listen? Why isn't she heard? And that's basically the dramatic premise that allowed the journey to take place. So it was quite clear what the characters had to do and there was lots of improvisation, mixed with very little actual writing. But I did occasionally scream in a line – it's like writing on the fly – „Say this! Say that!“ I did have urges for them to say things that they wouldn't have said, so then I kind of whacked it into the scene.

For you as a screenwriter how natural does it come to let go or did you work before with this kind of improvisation and free-flowing growing of the story?

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Maria von Heland: A little bit. I did a feature film in Sweden called Search a few years back, in which we worked with similar principles. But there I took the improvs and wrote them into scenes. I do generally push in quite a bit of improv in everything that I do because it always gives results that are alive. And like I said before, I'm not so interested in showing feelings in front of the camera, I'm interested in people having them. Like I said, I was sort of strict. Basically it's a waltz with Christian Pirjol, the cameraman, and we're dancing together with the actors and creating this space and we're all in it together. My main direction though to the actors was just basically: „Shut up! Don't talk!“ Impro is not about saying clever things. You do not need to say a single clever word. I'm happier if you just say nothing. I've also had a fantastic editor, Sylvain Coutandin, who's spent a massive amount in the editing room, so that it feels like a written dialogue. Basically, it's a wild dance which we've then shaped in the editing room. Now it looks like it was all planned out which is my dream come true. But we were shooting from the hip and from the gut and I think having years of writing experience is what enabled this. Because it actually does hold together perfectly in 10 episodes and it's got all the arcs that you need.

Did you already jot the arcs down between the first part of shooting and the second or did some of them just take shape when you were sitting down at the end with all the material in the editing room?

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I'd say we did a four part structure. First, we shot a lot in the first lockdown and then we took a break for about six to seven weeks and did some editing. And then we went back and shot seven more days. Those seven days were crucial to make the narrative hold together. But I still was slightly unaware. I always imagined the episodes to be longer. Probably, because I've never done a 25 minute series. I've written them, but I've never directed one. So, I thought, okay fine, it probably will be 45 minutes or whatever and I didn't really know the length of it. After having edited, we tried to break it down once and kind of failed entirely and then we restarted with shorter episodes and that's when the series really took shape. One of my old collaborators, a great Danish editor called Søren B. Ebbe came in from Denmark and helped me do dramaturgical exercises, beating it against the wall bravely, until it took shape.

I think something extraordinary came out of it. When you watched Sunshine Eyes afterwards, did something pop out or did you notice something you hadn't noticed when you shot it? Like something that formed out of this primordial thing that this series was, that you didn't intend to, but found when you watched it for the first time?

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I'm still in the middle of it, I'm not entirely done. So, I don't think I have that depth of perspective yet. It does move me tremendously. And I feel like it's such a collaborative beautiful effort and I feel such incredible love for the people in the pictures and I feel incredible love for the cameraman and the editors, too. There's so much warmth in there, that's why I don't feel it's a dark corona story. Yes, it may to one extent deal with death. Yes, it might deal with some difficult themes. But it's actually such a positive portrait of humanity trying not to lose their balance, because that's what this time is about, right? And we're still completely confused. So I feel an enormous tenderness towards the material and towards the project. Maybe, if I lean back later, years pass and then you go: „Oh, that's what it was!“ Right now, I just feel like it's still a child that needs raising.

For more information on Sunshine Eyes please contact

CEO & Producer Philipp Kreuzer of Maze Pictures.

Or click here for more information and the trailer of Sunshine Eyes.

You can also listen to the full interview on our Sehr Sehr Serien-Podcast:

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Sunshine Eyes

Um was geht es?

Die Folgen der Pandemie erschüttern im ersten Corona-Lockdowns das unmittelbare Umfeld von zwei jungen Schwestern.