Interview: Director Timo von Gunten on his Oscar nominated short film “La Femme et le TGV”

22nd February 2017

Filmmaker Timo von Gunten's La Femme et le TGV has found many adoring audiences worldwide and its Oscar Nomination in the Short Film category is sure to garner it many more. Based on the real life encounter between a train driver and a woman who improbably pass each other love letters from a high speed train, its sure to leave cinema-goers a little better and brighter than it found them.

And it's no wonder, La Femme et le TGV is full of a vital kind of romance that, although loaded with a dedicated amount of whimsy, is certain to joyously inspire its viewers. Jane Birkin as the modernity embattled Elise grips the past with ferocity and refuses to change her routine or interact with the outside world. Instead unwelcomingly sitting alone in her unvisited cake shop, her one interaction is waking to wave with uncapped joy at the high speed train that hurtles past her comedically shaking house at 6:05am every morning. And so the the letters and La Femme et le TGV's story begins.
We caught up with Timo as he travelled to LA in time for the prestigious awards to find out about analogue love in a high speed world and why he says you should never give up as a filmmaker.

Why did you want to make movies?
It started pretty early on. When I was around 10 years old, I spent a year in Boulder, Colorado with my parents. My Dad was on sabbatical and we had this mini-dv camera. I abducted it and I started playing around with it. I just documented everything I could. I think the because of the fact that I never had a TV, film was always something special for me. It was always something magical, something I wouldn't have in my ordinary life. It certainly helped that my upbringing with my parents was very creative. I just had a lot of freedom in childhood to just develop do what I wanted on a creative level. I kind of grew into it in a very creative light way.

How did you discover the story?
I read it in the newspaper. It was just a very small article, just a few sentences, and the title said “The woman is no longer waiting.” It just seemed so perfect for a short film. So I googled the name of that woman by the train tracks and found her phone number online. I called her up and I said “Ma'am, I want to make a movie about your life.” Eventually she agreed and she invited me to her place where she told me everything. How they spent Tuesdays writing to each other without actually seeing each other. Everyday, she had to find that letter in her garden, she never knew where it flew because the wind would carry it anywhere, even sometimes on the tracks.

How did you make contact with Jane Birkin for the role?
Through a casting director who knew the agent of Jane. We got the screenplay to her and she fell in love with the story (just like many others) and yeah she said she wanted to do it.

You had this idyllic Swiss village and then you have this thrust of modernity coming through. Is that something that appealed to you?
We live in a world that's kind of split also in generations. We find ourselves in a super connected high speed world but in a way we find ourselves distant to each other. Maybe even more than in the old days. Everything connected but also lonely. It's about loneliness and the hope to reach out to someone but not quite daring to. Kind of deliberately staying in a bubble and then suddenly being confronted with reality and then through that being then able to connect again with real human people. So Elise is trying to find love in that high speed world..

In a very analogue way..
In that sense it's very, very relatable probably to many people, this quest for love.
I think that's why we have cheering audiences across the globe, because it's a very global theme.
I guess, what she ends up with is self love?
Learning to love herself and learning that the love she was looking for is not necessarily romantic love but the love of being around people. It was there all along but she kind of just declines the modern world. As soon as she starts loving herself and starts loving the outside and start looking at not just what's passing her at 300mph but what's literally in front of her door. Who are beautiful people who can love her as well. Like the young dance guy. And that's also part of what she learns throughout the story.

Where do you pull your inspiration from?
What I really love on set is if I can use my intuition because very many wonderful things happen on set if I use my intuition. If I'm given that freedom from my producers wonderful scenes can evolve. My inspiration comes from real life, I guess. I also have to work on an idea, if it's together with the actors or just by myself. If I invest my thoughts into a story so many things pop up and come back and attract me in a very odd way, I kind of suck everything in I can to bring out and make it visible in my films.

What was your experience making TGV like?
It was a hell of a ride I would never have thought that high speed train would go that far. For filmmakers who read this interview, I think it's important to know… we got a lot of declines in the beginning. We wanted to do a co-production with France but we didn't find a single producer who wanted to co-produce this film. In the end we pulled it through ourselves. I think it's important in the beginning to really love your story so much that whatever happens you're not going to lose it. Put in all the love you have and find people around you that share your excitement. Even then its not positive that its going to be successful because there are so many things around it that you have no control. But it's exciting too that there's so many parts that you never know where it's going to go.

And being Oscar nominated?
It is quite odd in a way. Suddenly you have all these people next to you, Steven Spielberg and Emma Stone, it's so awkward but they're just normal people like everyone else. For some reason they had success and they were lucky at the right time. And until you see them in person, there's this myth but in a way they're just normal people. I think that's the beauty of this trip, they're trying their best and they have their failures too.
La Femme et le TGV is available to watch on iTunes and Vimeo on Demand
Words by Cormac O'Brien

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