Note: The interview contains a handful of spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it already, give No Man’s Land a watch before reading any further.
How did the idea for No Man’s Land come about?
Patricia Doyle, who is a very well established theatre director, had the beginnings of an idea for a silent film set in Germany. As I had assisted her on her first short film in 2011, she approached me and asked if I would help turn her one page concept into a shootable script and then help her direct it. At first, I was unable to commit because I just didn’t have the time, but she persevered and in the end, I agreed to take a look at it.
A co-production? Is that something that was new to you?
Very much so. In the past I usually either write a script knowing it will be handed over or I write knowing that I’m going to direct it, but this fell somewhere in between. The deciding factor for me was that Matt Loudon was on board to produce and I have a wonderful relationship with him. Over the years, we’ve learnt the ropes together and worked on countless projects, so I felt assured we would make something worth our while.
How did you find the experience?
Interesting. Eye-opening. Testing. Rewarding. There are many challenges with every film and this was no different. Patricia is an incredible theatre director and I think working together was educational for both of us. What we shared from the offset was a passion to make something from a slightly different perspective to what we had seen.
How did you achieve that within a theme as frequently covered as the holocaust?
Over the years, my understanding of how Hitler was able to pull off what he did has vastly expanded. I visited Sachsenhausen in Berlin and found it a really harrowing experience. The thing is, Hitler was incredibly effective at making the average person on the street detest the Jews. He turned them into an enemy, making them a scapegoat for German’s who felt they were losing their wealth and their women. The interesting thing for me was to focus on the life of an everyday man who, against his better judgement, gets emotionally attached to Hitler’s hatred for the Jewish people.
Your film is slightly ambiguous. Has the lead character been tricked by Hitler?
The ambiguity is intentional because it’s not for us to say who did and didn’t willingly adhere to Hitler’s plan. In researching this project, I read an incredibly powerful book titled Hitler’s Willing Executioners in which the author, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, made it very clear there were officers who knew exactly what they were doing. I also learnt some other extraordinary facts, such as a wave of German artists – who foresaw what was going to happen – fled the country and started to create masses of black and white artwork, which symbolised heaven and hell. Remember, these people felt they were pushed out of their home by a dictator and so their work was filled with expression, and through this process we were given the concept of “Noir.” Art has always been a great channel through which to express pain and that the Holocaust led to one of the most stylised genres in existence today is really interesting to me. If you want my personal view on our lead character, I don’t think he supports Hitler’s radical views at all. He is simply a man in pain who accepted Hitler’s propaganda as a solution, and that is a heart-breaking story.
You mentioned the link between this era and the creation of Film Noir. Is that why you filmed No Man’s Land in the way that you did?
For me, it had to be shot this way. That we were able to give a nod to the poor German artists that created Noir was a nice touch. People seem to forget that Hitler’s reign ruined countless German lives as well, and I think it’s sad that German victims are often overlooked. In my visit to Berlin I was overwhelmed by the sense of responsibility the German’s still feel and I love the fact they are so determined not to let people forget what happened. It is a testament to all German people how they dealt with, and continue to deal with, such a dark part of human history, and I felt we could acknowledge that in our film.
The decision to make it a silent film was interesting. How did that come about?
When I first sat down with Pat, she had one A4 page of notes and within it, she had stated she wanted to make a silent movie. It was an idea I agreed with right away because I am obsessed with making stories revolve around the strength of its characters, and I knew this would help us avoid a lot of clichés you often see in similar movies. It meant we had to focus on our visuals and make it interesting to look at. This decision didn’t feel like a challenge. It was actually quite liberating.
The performances in the film are incredibly strong. How did you go about preparing your actors?
One of the main things Patricia brought to the table was the fact she’s in touch with some extraordinary theatre actors. They were an absolute pleasure to work with and, to be honest, they didn’t need a great deal of direction. As there were no lines to learn, we spent our time holding meetings where we would just talk through the backstory of the characters, ironing out the details so everything made sense. When we were all happy, all that was left to do was turn up and perform, which everybody did.
How do you feel with the finished film?
I feel satisfied. Let’s face it – it’s a niche film that not everybody is going to enjoy, but I’m glad that we made it and that we got to explore the filmmaking methods we chose. When making shorts, you have to test yourself because when it comes to features you have a lot less room to experiment. I feel that everybody in the cast and crew did that, even though many were out of their comfort zone, so I feel we can be proud of what we achieved within a very limited budget.
No Man’s Land was co-written and co-directed by Jody Medland and Patricia Doyle