A Snowman's Chance in Hell: An Interview with Tomasz Thomson (Web Exclusive)
by Catherine Sawers
As winter approaches, a German black comedy opens in theaters and online, inviting audiences into Tomasz Thomson’s frosty and desolate Snowman’s Land. The film is superbly rough and real. Characters approach their criminal careers with nonchalance, reminding us that hitmen and drug dealers are as much a part of life as filmmakers and critics. And so it is completely normal that two hitmen are summoned to a remote mountain lodge to help a reclusive crime boss subdue the surrounding forest and transform it into a refuge for luxury, leisure, outdoor recreation, and nightly debauchery. The plan never comes to fruition and the two mediocre hitmen, the crime boss, his wife, and his bodyguard share a tawdry and fatal couple of days in the lodge.
Snowman’s Land moves at a gratifyingly glacial pace, allowing each character’s isolation and bleak, decadent outlook to imbue the film with a sense of malaise. In the process of trying to annex the surrounding forest and drive off the neighbors, the outsiders are stymied by the snow and can only fight each other. Snowman’s Land is cheeky and smart, and utterly suspenseful. I had the pleasure of seeing Snowman’s Land and meeting Thomson at the film’s international premiere in 2010 at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. For the film’s North American release, I asked Thomson about his filmmaking style.
Cineaste: Something I like about the exposition in the film is that it's not all clustered at the beginning; in fact, it seems to take the opposite approach. In the beginning, information is on a need-to-know basis and the interludes and explanations come toward the end of the film. What was your idea of exposition in making this film?
Tomasz Thomson: Yes, that's right. But there isn't much you need to know for this story. You don't need a complex background for the protagonist to understand him and his actions because the characters are moving around in a known world of black comedy. So you can assume that the viewer knows the rules of the game. Aside from this, I like when a film starts off right in the story and you need a while to understand what it's all about. That's a part of contemporary storytelling.
Cineaste: How much of the plot and character development was present in the script? Are you a meticulous screenwriter or an improvisational director?
Thomson: We had a very detailed script. But the circumstances are not always as you've planned. Something always pops up: like you have to shoot earlier and faster or in a different region or the coproducing TV station kindly asks you for some major changes shortly before the shoot. So, you need to be very flexible, to use what you find on your way and, most important, you need to love to improvise, like in all low-budget productions. And I do somehow. Take Berger's [Reiner Schöne] house as an example. We were looking for a kind of run-down Bauhaus-villa. This is impossible to find in the Black Forest region; the houses there look all the same and very typical for this area. Not good for us, as our film pretends to take place somewhere in the East [Carpathian Mountains]. Our location scout was driving around for days with no results. Our timing was tight; we started looking for alternatives soon and found abandoned hotels. Finally our location scout called me and said, “Tomasz, get in the car. I guess I found something really weird.” It was a strange and empty sanatorium, huge and not at all as described in the script. But it was great and gave a mass of new possibilities for the story, so I started to rewrite the script. Almost every day we had a situation that forced us to change scenes or shots or entire dialogues, but you have to look at it in a positive way, very good things can come out of this. And of course, a black comedy is a perfect playground for improvisation.
Cineaste: The pace of the story is very deliberate, especially compared to a lot of dark comedies about the criminal underworld—I’m thinking in particular of Snatch. Did you consciously slow down the pace and editing?
Thomson: Snatch has several simultaneous storylines, a lot is happening with many twists and turns and the mood is entirely different. A fast pace wouldn't be right for our setting, the remote mountains and the protagonist. Walter [Jürgen Riβmann] is not a cool hitman; he's an old drunk, greasy-haired loser at the end of his career. He and his buddy Micky [Thomas Wodianka] are killing time in Berger's house. Things are relaxed. They are alone in this big, cold house and there's nothing but snow outside. Melancholy is an important part of this story. So the pace fits here, but I have to admit, if I'd had the chance, I would have made the film a few minutes shorter.
Cineaste: Your music choices are interesting. Sometimes they complement the mood, other times they seem to comment directly on the action, such as the song "There's two ways to kill a lady . . ." Do you think that this approach to music is inherent in dark comedies or similar genres? In other words, how important is music in maintaining the tongue-in-cheek attitude?
Thomson: Of course, music helps to set the tone, right? But the scenes should work without it, too, also in their tongue-in-cheek attitude. And when it comes to the song, "Two ways to kill a lady," I’d rather avoid music that comments on action, but that was an exception because the song itself matched so well to the scene, even if you ignore the lyrics. The general idea for the score was to have something very simple in terms of instrumentation, self-made, maybe even low-fi to reflect the pristine mountains but still modern and complex in its structure. I think Luke Lalonde from the Born Ruffians did a fantastic job.
Cineaste: Snow plays an integral role in the film; it is ever-present, harsh, and indifferent to the plight of the characters. The snow also creeps through the screen and makes your extremities numb, as one imagines how the characters must feel. How much of a role did the snow play in devising this story in the first place?
Thomson: Not as much while writing as while shooting. Snow is just ordinary snow in a script. But its impact on the actors and their acting while shooting is tremendous because they don't have to pretend that they are freezing or that running up a snowy mountain is exhausting. They had to fight against the elements all the time and it helped them to create a believable scene—simple but effective. We all were prepared for the cold and the snow but yet were surprised how it influenced every single scene. So nature became a character on its own.
Catherine Sawers is a screenwriter, film critic, and poet based in Los Angeles.
Snowman’s Land is distributed by Music Box Films and is available on DVD or for download at www.musicboxfilms.com.
To purchase Snowman’s Land click here.
Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 1