Villager’s ghost stories, visual effects of dream sequences, an unwelcoming house, self-funding a first film, and casting a photographer as the lead responsible for carrying the bulk of the film, are just a few things writer/director Konstantinos (Kostas) Koutsoliotas, writer/producer Elizabeth Schuch, and I discuss during our interview about their first feature film ‘The Winter’.
This talented duo are no strangers to film. Kostas manages Melancholy Star, a London-based production & VFX company. As an animator and VFX artist, Kostas has had numerous projects including Hollywood features, commercials, broadcasting, and music videos. As part of the video/animation team, Kostas won the British Animation Awards 2010 and Annecy 2009 in best animation category, and was also nominated for a Scottish BAFTA for his short ‘Celephais’. Elizabeth began her career in Chicago theatre, she snagged Chicago’s top honor for Set Design (2003, Journey’s End, Jeff Award). Elizabeth now works internationally as a theatre and film production designer, storyboard artist (TED, BBC, Ridley Scott Assoc., Nutopia) and illustrator.
‘The Winter’ is a Greek fantasy drama about Niko, a romantic, young Greek writer living in London. When his finances go astray, he hides out in the neglected family house in the Greek mountain town of Siatista. Surrounded by the ghosts of the past, Niko must uncover the mystery of his father’s death and retain his grasp on reality. The movie is fantastic, and learning the influences behind the film is equally intriguing. There is nothing big-studio, big-budget about this film. It is indie film at its finest. After having the privilege of viewing ‘The Winter’, and writing a review, Kostas and Elizabeth took the time to interview with me.
Kostas how did your journey to writing and directing ‘The Winter’ begin?
When I was really young, I would create stories and drawings. This is where it started. I attended the University of Glasgow, majoring in Psychology. During that time I just continued to draw and I was accepted into grad school for animation. I met Lizz there and after years of us doing work for other people, we thought it was time to do our own.
What was the influence for ‘The Winter’? How did it evolve?
Kostas -We visited my family home in the mountains (in Greece) and thought wouldn’t it be fantastic to shoot a film here. We have no money, but a great free location. Liz’s approach comes from a Hitchcock-fan background, and mine comes more from fantasy, and we both are fond of European magical realism. This was our starting point. We began working on a script about a guy escaping from something, debt, and then having to be stuck alone in this house with the ghosts there, and without help, avoiding life. And a father who died in strange circumstance, like the way the house was when we found it.
Elizabeth – In 2009, when we visited the house, we started developing the idea of for the script and listened to Kostas’s mother’s ghost stories. We were collecting all of these fantastic ghost stories from his parents. And the way they tell the stories is so different than what we are used to (in the US). Its not “Oh my god.. and then… the GHOST came down the stairs!!! ” told in super dramatic tones like the biggest event of your life. It’s more non-chalant, “Oh, sure, and then the ghost killed the baby. Anyway, more chicken?” (major laughter by all of us). Through 2010 we worked on developing the script, worked with the composers, gathered cast and crew, and met Theo Albanis. The film was shot in Greece in 2011, and the final shots in London in 2013. Kostas did all the effects himself. So many long hours and a lot of time making all of the animation happen.
Kostas – Yeah, we were working full-time jobs so we would work 11 or more hours at our jobs and then work on the film at night. We would pay off something, work, pay off something as we went along. It was really tight, we only had 17 days to shoot in the mountains and then later 5 days in London. When we got back from the shoot, we had nothing left – and loads of debt, so we sold every single piece of equipment we had. It was a really rough time, but we learned so much through the whole process.
Okay you guys, I have to ask where these ghost stories came from? I mean in more detail, because there are a lot of haunting scenes. Things just kind of creep into the scene, nothing jumpy or sudden, but more subtle. And the house, we need to talk about that house.
Elizabeth – We wove in a lot of real family stories. The beast on the chest is actually a very common story, especially when we spoke to the people from other mountain villages in Greece. The tentacles, not so much, that was a Kostas addition. The stories started with his mother, though we didn’t use the most personal ones. And generations that grew up in that house would see dark shadows, things sitting on them. Its not a happy house. No matter what you may or may not believe in, it’s not an environment that’s friendly.
Kostas – There’s something not nice in this house.
Elizabeth – Yeah, I wouldn’t call it a holiday home. Furniture would move when we’d come back the next day. Imagine 400 years of making fur coats in the house… and there’s rumors that it was a prison during the occupation. There’s little hidden rooms behind cupboards and several basements. Kostas’ father claimed that there are treasures down there.
Kostas – Of course there is. (We laugh)
The house was like a cast member all on it’s own. Talk with me more about the cast and especially Theo Albanis, as this was his debut role. How do you end up with a photographer as your lead?
Kostas – Our flatmate had met Theo at a photography studio one day and later invited him over. We met him and as he was hanging out with us, both Liz and I were like “huh, this seems like the guy we are writing about.” We talked more about it. Yeah, he’s got the look. He could be our guy. Shortly after I gave him the script and he loved it. We did some tests, made sure he looked right on camera. It was perfect.
So much of what Theo had to do in order to carry the film was non-verbal.
Kostas – It’s crazy isn’t it? When you stick a camera on him, he lights up. It’s like you know he’s made to do this.
And the rest of the cast?
Kostas – We approached a company we had wanted to work with and they helped us cast the film. Everyone was fantastic. Vangelis Mourikis, an amazing actor in Greece and we really wanted him. He read the script and loved it and agreed. Efi Papatheodorou, she helped us so much, and has been huge in promoting the film as well. They’re all just amazing.
Let’s talk about the ending of the film, because so much of this can be left to interpretation.
Elizabeth – We have different opinions on the ending. we disagree on whether it’s a happy or sad ending.
Kostas- What is real? Reality is exactly what you chose to have in your head. Whatever I believe is real, is real for me. And, its different for you. For Niko, if he really believes he lives in that place in his mind, then he’ll die happy there.
Elizabeth- For me it’s a complete tragedy because he has potential as a human being and as a writer, and he doesn’t fulfill it. He’s giving up and disappearing. Niko is a lovely guy, and you want to see him get a nice girl and have a writing career.
So, what’s next for you guys?
Next up, we’re been writing a handful of new scripts, a monster movie in Greece, and a circus thriller, amongst other ideas. All very much fitting with the core of who were are – the backstage of the theatre for me and dark mythical fantasy for Kostas. We both can’t wait to get back on the set and start the next one, just going to see which one gets funded first!
Are you ready to check out more about ‘The Winter’?
For my review: http://areviewlution.com/reviews/review-winter/
To learn more about Kostas and Elizabeth: http://www.winter-thefilm.blogspot.com/p/crew.html