In his latest film Incarnation, Filip Kovacevic tells the story of a young man who wakes up with no knowledge of his past, and four masked assassins on his tale. As he lives through a loop of murder and rebirth, it is a race against time to see if he can break the cycle before meeting his end once more.
FOG! spoke with the director/co-writer about what it was like to leave mathematics for film, the challenges of a repeating structure with a multi-year schedule, and the current Serbian/European film scene.
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FOG!: What interests you about telling stories through film?
Filip Kovacevic: I like the fusion of storytelling techniques that film provides. I love the musical aspect of it and the way you can economically put ideas in people’s minds without taking too much of their time. I live for that magical moment when the right balance between image, sound, music and words is struck at the cinema.
Was there a particular moment where you realized filmmaking was what you wanted to pursue over mathematics?
I started making my first short films when I was 14, and I got into Mathematical grammar school at about the same time. I never planned on going to film school because I felt confident I could self-educate myself in that field. Mathematics helped a lot, because it makes you think conceptually and going through film theory came naturally to me. The hard part is the actual filming which takes a lot of time on any given project. When I graduated on the Faculty of Mathematics in parallel with working on my first feature film, I realized I had to take pressure off my schedule. I used mathematics for what I needed and committed myself to film from then on.
How does it feel to present your work to audiences on the festival circuit?
I remember when I showed my first film to a large audience, it was titled The End, a short post-apocalyptic film that won the best science fiction film award in 2008 at a festival in Belgrade. I was proud of it at the time and I spent the whole third year of high school doing it, but seeing it in front of an audience really scared me. I was 17. I also remember clearly when we showed Incarnation for the first time. The fear didn’t go away. Those are the scariest times, when you’re showing it to other people.
How did you first start thinking of this story?
I was around 20 years old and I wanted to make an intimate story about a young man who is trying to find deeper meaning to his existence. I felt there weren’t as many stories with a repeating structure back then and I wanted to make an introspective film in which the main character learns that between many paths in life he was taking he didn’t see the one which was always in front of him. I was pursuing that kind of a risky ending that challenges the audience. I won’t repeat it in my next film, so it was an interesting experiment.
Was it hard to keep continuity with a film that restarts itself so often?
It was hard. We did a lot of invisible VFX work to make sure those busy streets merge coherently on film. The film was shot out of order, which made things more difficult. Every shot was planned in advance, because simple things like the continuity of light coming from the sun became an extreme challenge in those situations. This film was shot over 3 consecutive summers, so there are cuts between shots that were not done in the same year. Like around the bench, where we had situations where one shot is from 2013, and the next is from 2014. I reshot some things because of light or sunlight problems.
Was casting more or less difficult than you thought it would be? Why?
It wasn’t that difficult. This started like a student film. We were all very young and enthusiastic. The majority of the crew is from the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade and the same goes for the cast. Our main actor Stojan was my first choice.
The movie makes you reinvest in the main character constantly. How do you keep the audience engaged when he knows so little about the situation?
We went through a lot of test screenings and tweaked the experience as much as we could. The story is challenging for the audience so we wanted to make sure that they are brought in on an unconscious level. I like to design scenes around an immersive point of view, so I insisted on moving the camera as much as possible, but never without motivation, so we can feel the space and the challenges our protagonist is going through.
Were there difficulties in learning some aspects “on the job”? Are their ways in which you find your lack of formal training helps you approach situations?
I think the only way to truly learn anything is “on the job”. You can’t escape the process of trial and error however well you are prepared. I don’t know how other people work, so I don’t know what sets me apart from people who had formal training. I think everyone has their own path. I try to approach any situation with a combination of integrity and reliance on other people. The second part is usually harder.
Was there a particularly difficult shot you are proud of?
I am proud of a couple of them, it’s hard to pick one. Maybe the one where the camera goes through the mirror. It was a very difficult VFX shot because of the flickering lights and I think we pulled it off.
What was a time during shooting where you really saw everything you hoped for come together?
I am always anxious during shooting and it feels like a surgery, so I usually only see things I didn’t do when I finish a day of shooting. It’s in editing where I start seeing things that I did do and that is always a great moment. I was proud of the team when we did the pivotal fight scene. It was a very difficult night shoot and it was shot in sequence with longer shots, so I could see it coming together before my eyes and that was exciting.
Is there something unique to the Serbian film scene right now? How does it set you apart?
It’s a part of the European film scene, which usually relies on state funds and stories that orbit around local issues. I have a tendency to develop high concept stories, although I aim for a more grounded approach in the future. I am interested in universal story structures with themes that can resonate the same with people from all continents. Maybe that sets me apart, although I would recommend anyone to check out what is happening in the past couple of years in the Serbian film scene, because some great films came out and a couple of exciting new ones are on the way.
There are so many different avenues for new filmmakers now (Netflix, Vimeo, YouTube, etc). Do you feel that this helps visibility or makes it harder to standout?
I don’t think I am on that level yet where it would be an issue for me. I like the fact that there are many avenues. It’s important to figure out your audience and to put the work out there. I like the fact that you don’t have to only rely on film festivals now if you are making an independent film, although they are still extremely important.
Who do you think will most enjoy your film?
I think teenagers and younger people enjoy it more than the others. But I had all kinds of people approach me and give me theories about its ending and meaning, so I don’t know. It sort of divides the audience, usually half of the people respond to it, and half of the people stay confused. I like the fact that it creates a conversation.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a story I’ve been developing for the past two years and it is completely different from my first film. I am proud of Incarnation and I learned a lot from it, but now I am interested in telling a more grounded story, which puts its ideas after it’s emotions. It is again about big ideas with a complex world and a lot of twists and turns, but it revolves around an intimate love story. It is again a chase film, but this time it isn’t an introverted one.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years? What steps are you taking to get there?
I am completely focused on the story I’m working on at the moment. I don’t want to rush it and I want the script to be fully formed before I consider filming it. I will also be traveling to California to meet with new collaborators and people I have already met through screening the film. That is my plan for the next couple of months and then I hope that in the next 5 years I will be doing it all over again after I get the current story put to film.