German-born, New Zealand-raised writer-director Florian Habicht was desperate: he'd gone to New York on a scholarship worth $NZ80,000, his money was running out and he was keen to make a film in the Big Apple.
I like it that when people watch it they can make up their own minds about what’s real and what’s not
He had three weeks to come up with a concept and had a brainwave one night when he met a gorgeous Russian actress, a friend of a friend, and spent 10 minutes chatting with her.
The result is Love Story, a very funny and highly original blend of romance, fantasy, docudrama and comedy, which purposefully blurs the line between real life and fiction. The narrative follows the gangly, effusive filmmaker as he pursues the actress, Masha Yakovenko, and asks New Yorkers for their advice on how to woo her.
“I had a palm reading from a psychic in New York who urged me to never get in front of the camera and that gave me the idea to make a film where I'm one of the leading characters,” Florian tells SBS Film on the line from Austria where he was visiting his grandmother after attending a screening of his movie at the London Film Festival.
After that initial meeting Habicht had arranged to meet up with Masha in a bar. He emailed her his ideas about the film and asked if he could film that meeting. She agreed, and that scene is in the film.
The encounters with people in the street happened exactly as depicted, as were the scenes in which Florian talks via Skype to his supportive father Frank Habicht, a noted photographer, back home in New Zealand.
In the film's opening sequence, Habicht spots Masha on the subway holding a slice of cake on a plate. He tells random people in the street about this woman and asks why they think she's holding a cake. Most think it's a form of seduction. In between subsequent meetings with her, he informs bemused passers-by of his progress and asks what he should do next in the film he's shooting.
The director is coy about just how much of the footage with Masha is real and how much was scripted or planned. As for whether he fell in love with his co-star, he laughs and asks, “What's the film called? There were definitely some good sparks between us. I like keeping the romance a mystery. I like it that when people watch it they can make up their own minds about what's real and what's not. There's actually no way of knowing.”
In one sequence which is jarringly at odds with the generally light, whimsical tone, Florian cold calls a guy in Texas who turns out to be a legless Vietnam Veteran who's not too pleased at the intrusion. However, the director subsequently sent the man a DVD of the movie and he said he really liked it.
Habicht self-financed the shoot which was spread over four months as his director of photography Maria Ines Manchengo, who used a hand-held GD camera, guerrilla-style, went off to shoot another film at one point, but it was shot in sequence.
Returning to New Zealand, he showed a rough cut to the New Zealand Film Commission which agreed to pay for post-production including the sound mix, fees for the crew and the rights to license an eclectic array of songs by Nino Rota, Ennio Morricone, Lalo Schifrin and Kiwi Marc Chesterman.
“For me, it was a miracle that we got permission to use those tracks,” he says. “We showed the [music publishing] companies bits of the film and they knew we were working on a low budget. If it was a big budget we probably wouldn't have been able to afford the music.”
He lived in New York as the inaugural recipient of the NZ Arts Foundation-supported Harriet Friedlander Residency, named after a dedicated supporter of the arts who loved that city.
The film garnered an enthusiastic response in its world premiere at the New Zealand International Film Festival in Auckland last year and performed well in Kiwi art houses but, to Florian's dismay, didn't click with mainstream audiences.
Natalie Miller's Sharmill Films swooped on the Australian rights after the film screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival and it opens in December; it also screened at the inaugural Cockatoo Island Film Festival and will be featured at the Canberra International Film Festival.
Selling the film himself, he's had offers from buyers in the US and the UK, which he's considering, and the film has played in numerous venues including Rooftop Films outdoor screenings in New York, Hot Docs in Toronto, the New Horizons festival in Poland, St Petersburg in Russia, St Tropez in France, and the Montreal docos festival, and it's been invited to screen in a gallery in Beijing.
The movie has proved to be an unexpected fillip for the movie career of Frank Habicht: he's been asked to appear in a vampire comedy to be directed by Taika Waititi (who did coming-of-age tale Boy), with Flight of the Conchords' Jemaine Clement.
“He wanted to be a filmmaker when he was young but his conservative parents wouldn't let him,” his son says. “He's living his filmmaking fantasies through me.”
The writer-director's first feature was 2003's Woodenhead, an experimental fairytale about a rubbish tip worker who is ordered to deliver his boss' beautiful mute daughter, Princess Plum, to her wedding. The New York Times review declared parts of the film may seem like “gratuitous grossness or, worse, a music video… but moviegoers looking to energise their nightmares will love it.”
Among his other credits are the documentaries Kaikohe Demolition, which examined a series of holiday-weekend demolition derbies in the northern town Kaikohe, and Land of the Long White Cloud, which focused on the world's largest snapper fishing contest at Ninety Mile Beach.
He's developing a fictional love story set in Japan, a surrealist fairytale set in New Zealand and a follow-up to those two documentaries. He's also weighing an offer to direct a film in the UK, sparked by Love Story's screening at the London festival."
He's found, “I can spend a year working on something and trying to make it happen, then something else falls into my hands and that'll be the thing I end up going with. Love Story is a really honest film; it's how I like making films with people I am close to, family and complete strangers, and having a lot of fun doing it, like a band touring.”
Love Story is released in cinemas December 6.