The German director talks about the challenges of making a comedy about mental illness.
13 Mar 2012 - 12:23 PM  UPDATED 13 Mar 2012 - 12:23 PM

“How do you think it will do in Australia?” asks Vincent Wants To Sea director Ralf Huettner, at the end of our chat. The film has already screened at the 2011 German Film Festival to an overwhelmingly positive response so its contemporary take on mental health issues and family dysfunction obviously plays well outside of its homeland. Huettner seemed pleased with that. “It's funny and entertaining,” he says, before adding with a laugh, “I'm always questioning what makes people go into cinemas!”

To be sure, Huettner's road movie tale of three troubled friends coaxed his compatriots into theatres; by the end of 2010, it was Germany's biggest homegrown hit, taking in over 5 million Euros and scoring German Film Awards for Best Film and Best Actor. Huettner's false modesty belies a savvy commercial instinct: he previously helmed such audience favourites as the buddy-cop romp Die Musterknaben (1997), the rom-com hit Mondscheintarif (2001) and the action-adventure The Charlemagne Code (2008).

Review: Vincent Wants To Sea

Huettner credits much of his film's success to the small screen popularity of his leading man and the film's writer, Florian David Fitz (heartthrob star of the hospital drama Männer sind die beste Medizin), though he does admit that Vincent Wants to Sea won over audiences with its universally human story. “Fathers and mothers know these problems from their own daughters and sons,” he says. “The audience for the film is very wide; it is a family film. The audience is for everybody between 12 and 70.”

Huettner's point is well-made though one wonders how some viewers from those bookend age groups reacted to his main character's random outbursts stemming from his Tourette's syndrome, the nervous condition that manifests in uncontrollable explosions of profanity. The film's opening scene – a church service for Vincent's late mother, during which the stressed young man unleashes a tirade of coarse expletives – is truly shocking.

The original script was actually a far more comical examination of the disease. Fitz began writing it after studying under an acting coach in Boston who suffered from Tourette's.

Working everyday with the film's writer and star was not always easy, but Huettner is philosophical about the experience. “Well, on the positive side...,” he begins, with a knowing laugh, “I've rarely known an actor who is so properly prepared, who had done so much research for the role, as both the author and the actor.” There is a slight pause, before he continues. “On the other side, it's always very hard to have a writer on the set. They are very egomaniacal,” he says. “They always say, 'Where's my line?' or 'You lost something', so we had... discussions. But in the end, it was a very creative, working process.”

The first element of the script to go under Huettner's guidance was the broad comedy. “The key to this script was to be very true to the characters,” he explains. “I didn't want to make jokes about handicapped people. I pushed the script into a more realistic direction.”

Much of the tonal realism sought by Huettner emerged during post-production. “When Florian freaks out in tics or shouts out, I wasn't sure if it worked best just one time, if that's perfect, or two times, or if by three times it becomes boring or exploitation of the handicapped,” he explains. “It was in the editing process that we were able to cut it out or leave it in, to make it true.”

Huettner's commitment to a respectful portrayal of mental illness extended to Vincent's travelling companions. Alexander (Johannes Allmayer) has a debilitating case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (“In rehearsals, we established what was truthful and funny but did not exploit his character,” says Huettner); Marie (Karoline Herfurth) battles with a self-loathing that has led to chronic anorexia. “You can't make jokes about anorexia. It is a very sincere sickness that kills a lot of young women in Germany,” Huettner remarks.

Despite the film taking some liberties along the characters' journey, the filmmaker's commitment to a brutally frank representation of life-threatening diseases ultimately infuses the film's final act. “It couldn't happen that you have a happy ending for Vincent and Marie. You can't tell an audience a story of a young woman who [decides] to eat again just because she fell in love. That would be a big, big lie,” Huettner says. “I was very aware and very sensitive about these things because I think the audience would be aware, would feel it if something was written [falsely]. The audience senses it.”