TIFF Interview: Jan Zabeil, Berenice Bejo and Alexander Fehling on Family Values, Relationship and ‘Three Peaks’

Jan Zabeil – Director

Family drama, relationship with stepfather or stepmother is a common thing nowadays. Families get together and divorce afterwards. In the end, there is one element, one person or two week struggle the most – the child. The story being told in Jan Zabeil’sTHREE PEAKS is heartbreaking, sad and universal in many ways.

During the Toronto International Film Festival I had great pleasure sitting down for half an hour with writer/director Jan Zabeil and the lead cast, an Academy-Award Nominee Bérénice Bejo (The Artist, The Past) and talented German actor Alexander Fehling (Homeland, The Labyrinth of Lies), who gave a deeper insight on the subject being emphasized in Zabeli’s movie more than I could anticipate.

Bérénice Bejo (left) and Alexander Fehling (right)
Bérénice Bejo (left) and Alexander Fehling (right)

MOVIEMOVESME: There is an interesting family relationship being unfolded in ‘THREE PEAKS’. Could you talk about the idea where it came from?

Jan Zabeil: I think this kind of patchwork family structure is more likely to happen more and more and I see a lot of families who are in this situation and I don’t see a lot of discourse or I was interested in. Kind of using this triangle for a universal conflict story to take this family story and to try get it into something bigger and possibly universal.

MOVIEMOVESME:  There was a moment when I was very very worried about the boy (Tristan)  and his future. The beautiful part of this film is you still live in it even after it ends.

 Jan Zabeil:  My experiences with the audience is that everyone sees a different movie. Some see an evil kid. Some see a mother that fails. Some see a mother’s new boyfriend who is unable to step back or unable to find his place. So there’s this almost equal amount of different perspective on these characters. And for me this was from the beginning. All this was very important. About the boy, I think the more he loves the more he hates. I found that like an interesting paradox that doesn’t exist so much in other love relationships. Or, at least in this kind of circumstance it becomes so obvious that this paradox is something I find very fascinating to watch in families and therefore I try to copy that to the script.

MOVIEMOVESME: I am still trying to figure out why Tristan was doing what he was doing… 

Bérénice Bejo: To a certain extent kids separate mom and dad. You know they go into the middle of the bed between mom and dad. So I think this is kind of normal that you know that the boy is trying to get in between the couple. I think what’s very interesting is the fact that the more he loves his stepfather it made me feel more and more guilty about his dad. So that must be very difficult for a kid to handle. So he’s trying to handle it. And I think in a way, maybe, we as adults fail for trying to comfort him and explain him not to feel guilty.

MOVIEMOVESME: Alexander, there is also a moment when Tristan pretty much confronts Aaron demanding him to leave his mother. What was your take on that approach of the storyline?

Alexander Fehling: I don’t know. I think when he says, ‘Promise me that you will leave my mother alone.’ Maybe there is no hope that he’ll get out of the conflicted situation. So, I think that’s his motivation of that very moment.

Bérénice Bejo: I think nobody is evil. They’re just human beings fighting with their feelings and trying to understand and even growing up. He’s also very young so as he’s growing up he tries to figure out the situation and possibilities.

Jan Zabeil:  … And maybe it’s like a very early form of mind of a kid. I mean as an adult you kind of know that you can be close to people at the same time as someone else. But as a kid it’s difficult. And then you have the father who is always interested in what is happening without him when he’s not there. So he always has to tell him the story of what they are experiencing as this new triangle which puts him in this situation.

MOVIEMOVESME: Alexander, there is also an interesting emotional development which was going on between Aaron and Tristan. You play someone who’s always nice. But also someone who has his own limits.

Alexander Fehling: I think there is. He wants to be nice as you say but maybe there is a strong will in him. To be able to endure like everything and you know this is confronted with what he wants to endure that. That maybe is kind of one of his big mistakes because I think you know for a good relationship even when you were a strong guy or a strong woman you have to be strong willed yet patient. I think it’s very important to say stop at certain points or just just say ‘hey I can, or I can’t do it anymore.’ I can’t cope with it. He does that in the middle of the film when he talks to her. But I think he kind of always goes the way it is.

Bérénice Bejo: it’s a complicated situation for him (Aaron) too. When you become parents,you’re learning with the baby and you become mom and dad. It just happens, you don’t think you have to be nice or you’re just mom and dad. So when you’re a stepfather or stepmother you suddenly have a kid and you don’t know. It’s really scary for Aaron to say them not sounding mean to say stop because you’re always so scared that the boy won’t love me anymore or Leah won’t love me. So everyone is dealing with their own problem. And you also can feel that he is always on the edge.  And I think it’s pretty well shown in the movie everyone is dealing with those conflicts.

Alexander Fehling:  And I think that’s also the way how you picture yourself or you picture the life you want to live. Because we’re living in rich countries, in good conditions. So I think he maybe has an image of himself that he can’t quite feel, I mean.

MOVIEMOVESME: Berenice, there is a line I felt like Leah did not try to help Aaron much when she says, “Aaron, you need to understand. He has a father, and do not interfere with this.”

Bérénice Bejo: Look there was a moment when I’m talking with you about it. That’s what we hear. I feel like I’m on the way. She didn’t really believe that what would I want me to talk about that part of the story because there was a line she told you to.

Jan Zabeil:  Especially in this topic there’s a lot of cliches and there’s a lot of traps. And one of them is, let’s say the mother that’s not together with the father anymore and the father might be an asshole or he might not care about the child anymore or the biological father. This is very much the cliche image of patchwork. Or at least this is what we’ve been going through in the 80s is the father paying money. Is he still there for the child. How’s that? How is it for the child to be without his father or sometimes the mother. And I wanted to say aggressively,  show something else. And I wanted to try to show that it’s really in that circumstance and he has his dilemma. And then he manages to play this ambivalence so fantastically, so strong. The boy has to know who’s the father and there shouldn’t be any confusion about this. So I think for me it was the new aspect of it to have a capable, loving, possible father who not able to fulfill that and possibly the problem of him not being able to step back.

Bérénice Bejo: It’s true. For me there is also a political point of view. I mean the movie it’s about a family going through something new. Kind of family but it’s something that we still not recognize. I mean, the stepmother or stepfather you can be with someone for 20 years and grew up the kids of someone else and if you divorce then you don’t have any rights of these kids that you’ve been with. It’s a very complicated situation and I think the world is the same and that is why I like the fact that we speak English, German, and French and we’re living in a very new world. We’re like the Internet and all the things that are going so fast. And I think it’s a very beautiful metaphor about the world like we are really moving and changing the world is really changing fast and we have to adapt. And these three persons have to adapt and then everyone has their own problems.

Jan Zabeil: I feel that’s breaking through the ice. Exactly like trying to break free from these pressures and from all the predefined ideas of who you want to be in terms of being able to transition through this. So for me this is actually very symbolic.

MOVIEMOVESME: Amazing acting by everyone, especially Arian Montgomery who was simply brilliant. How did you manage to find a common language with child and go through difficult scenes so flawlessly?

Alexander Fehling: He didn’t know the entire story so he only went from situation to situation. And always, before we started shooting or working on this special scene, we would explain this to Arian. But as you say, I think it was always about the connection that we had before we started shooting. So I went to Munich and called his dad and said, “Hello, I’m Alexander Fehling, and we’re going to do THREE PEAKS with your son. And I was wondering if I could come over and spend some time with him.” And so I spent some days with him and we got along quite well and quite fast so very quickly. So there was a certain trust built. And that’s really what you’ve got to do, I thought. if you work with a child you really have to seduce him to play the scene, to seduce him to be connected. So I think we’ve been connected the entire time. That was really my approach. So I really gave myself in his hands. He gave himself in my hands.

Jan Zabeil: Pretty soon we came to the stage where Alexander and I said we don’t want you to rehearse anything anymore. It’s just to be able to enter this space of intimacy and trust. This was also for me so interesting that Alexander was capable to come up with something like a new seduction all the time because that Arian is also easily bored. And as soon as he’s bored then the whole thing is over but he manages to come up with new and new things and more all the time.

MOVIEMOVESME: I am sure the movie would work anyway, but with this casting, it was impactful and powerful in so many way. Would you talk about your casting approach?

Jan Zabeil:  With Alexander we did the last movie together. We did short films together. We know each other for 10 years and have a very special work relationship in the sense that very early on I knew that he would be Aaron and around there I constructed the story. We’re the same age and both from Berlin so there’s a lot of similarities and there’s a lot of that same myself in the character and there’s also a lot of Alexander I think. I wanted to tell a European story so I was looking for a French actress who would get this European element and I actually couldn’t believe my luck when Berenice Bejo just said that she liked the script and that she wanted to skype with me, which was one of these moments where the film really takes a big new step. And I knew from that moment on that this would work and it did. And then we had Arian Montgomery. I saw, I think around 100 boys and with him it was quite clear that it can only be him.

MOVIEMOVESME: What was about him that you could tell it is him that I need be as Tristan.

Jan Zabeil: He was able to switch. And yet I mean first of all he had this angel like appearance.

This beauty and therefore I felt that with him I could go very far. I mean to have this beautiful boy in the white suit in the fall. But on the other hand he can be so cruel. And I realize that he has the potential even just by looking. Yes, and the strength in him to make this come across as one and then he was just very playful, very intelligent and with a lot of ideas all the time where we were just became quite clear. In addition to that, when the boys were there because their parents wanted them to be there but he seemed to be there because he wanted to play and he thought this was a great adventure. And the other thing was, I could give him lines in a moment where he was. Very intensely in the scene and I could give him lines and he would just say them without getting out of the scene. And then we did get together. And from that moment on I knew that If I screw up the film it’s definitely not the cast to be blamed, it would be my fault. So the pressure was even higher.

MOVIEMOVESME: Berenice, I wonder why you told yourself you should be the playing this role? Where does the desire to pay complex characters come from?

Bérénice Bejo: Well I have to say, I’ve been reading many scripts. They were not interesting nor inspiring. But this one was a German script that I avoided it for a few weeks. For me it took me a month to read it. And my agent was calling me saying we have to give an answer. And I said you know, I don’t speak German so maybe we should just pass on the project. And I felt really bad, because I can’t say no to something I haven’t read. And so I sat down to read it. Lots of the situation really talked to me because I have this kind of family and I like the fact that the nature was very present, you can feel the landscape. And the atmosphere of the movie was really on the script. And then I saw the movie “The River Who Became a Man” with Alexander.

It’s not just about the characters the characters in this special place and how they handle themselves confronting to the world, mountains, here, to the river, to Africa, to you. How do you live in that very difficult situation, like how he’s going to handle the bullet in the mountains, how he’s handling the river, the Africans, the new culture. Something was very interesting about it and so yes, I called my agent and I said, ‘this is something really interesting’. It’s not the lead role so maybe I can learn German a little bit and maybe we can do a French, German, English, Spanish. Jan was very clear, ‘if you liked the script, we`ll make it work’. So I had to learn German for this movie. And Alexander’s been helping me a lot. And Jan’s been helping. So it worked out but really it was mainly just the script and that gave me the desire to be part of it more than the character.

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