In conversation with Modra director Ingrid Veninger and Hallie Switzer

Posted: September 20, 2010 in Q&As, Toronto International Film Festival
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Modra director Ingrid Veninger between Alexander Gammal and Hallie SwitzerDirector Ingrid Veninger’s previous film, Only, starred her son Jacob Switzer, but she insists casting her daughter, Hallie Switzer, in the lead role of her next feature, Modra, was not a matter of being fair. “It was like: I want to make a film which explores being 17 and travelling to Europe for the first time; and I have a 17-year-old daughter and I wanted to have a final adventure with her before she went into her life as an adult.” Veninger asked Switzer if she was interested in the project and when she said yes, the film was born; if she’d said no, there would be no movie. The story parallels some of Veninger’s experiences when she travelled to Slovakia for the first time at Switzer’s age and met her extended family. Knowing she wanted to eventually film a movie in her ancestral homeland, this project presented the perfect opportunity.

The obvious question for Switzer is “what was like it working with your mom?” “Everyone asks me that,” she says. Even though there was some friction, she says it’s not the horrible experience people seem to expect. “Ultimately we communicate really well … I think she probably knows me better than anyone so because of that I think she was really good director for me,” says Switzer. She cites her mother’s ability to know the personal experiences she can draw on for particular scenes as a distinct advantage during shooting. Switzer liked the character of Lina because she’s just a regular 17-year-old who’s trying to figure out her life, much like Switzer herself. On the other hand, Lina’s decision to spontaneously invite a boy she barely knows on a cross-Atlantic trip is not really Switzer’s style.

Veninger took a significant risk casting Alexander Gammal in the role of Leco. She’d met him as a favour to a friend because he was interested in starting an acting career, but he was still entirely fresh. However, she saw the qualities of the character in Gammal, who was also 17 at the time. She was captivated by “his every boy vibe; a typical 17-year-old boy, but he had this extra vulnerability because of his bad skin, and he bit his nails, and he was kind nervous and confidant and tentative and insecure and arrogant at the same time,” remembers Veninger. “I knew that he would have interesting chemistry with Hallie because they’re completely the opposite,” she adds. It was also important for Veninger that both actors be the same age as their characters, noting the loss of an authenticity when twenty-somethings portray teenagers.

The majority of the remaining roles were played by Veninger’s real aunts and uncles in Modra – none of whom are actors. With the exception of most of the younger men in the film, the cast is comprised entirely of relatives. This created an additional complication, as Veninger did not want to offend any members of her family with the final product. “I wanted people to have fun and I wanted it to be constructive, but my first responsibility was to make a good film,” she says.

The biggest risk Veninger undertook was making substantial changes to the script during shooting, discarding six months of writing for scenes impulsively written in five to ten minutes. “I had to have this incredible faith that I was doing something to make this film better, even though my daughter and my crew sometimes thought I was making choices that was making everything worse,” says Veninger. Switzer spoke about how it was difficult to trust her mother’s choices during the process, particularly when she didn’t agree with the amendments or the spontaneity of the adjustments. “It was really difficult at times, but throughout it I did trust her,” she says. “It was really hard, but I’m really happy with the final film so now I see she made good decisions.”

Modra may be a love letter to Slovakia, but it’s also an expression of trust and adoration both in front and behind the camera for the story, location and people involved.

  1. Allan Tierney says:

    My wife Jirina and I live in Bratislava and happened to be in Modra a couple of days before the screening and happened also to see a poster for this film in the town. We hadn’t heard of it previously but it immediately piqued our interest. It was a delight to be in the packed cinema that night and to share the enthusiasm and laughter of the audience. We both loved the film and hanging out with everyone, including many of the cast (some in traditional costume) was a real delight.

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