Eight years on from their landmark debut The Strange Little Cat (2013), Swiss brothers Ramon and Silvan Zürcher have made their long-awaited return with The Girl and the Spider, the second in a planned trilogy of films about human connection and the slippery nature of kinship. A genuinely sui generis work, The Strange Little Cat announced a singular worldview in which cinematic time and space are made to enfold and reanimate the messiness of everyday life. In The Girl and the Spider, the Zürchers apply this philosophy to a slightly larger story: set mostly in two apartments over two days (in contrast to the The Strange Little Cat’s one apartment-one day scenario), the film follows a pair of roommates, Mara (Henriette Confurius) and Lisa (Liliane Amuat), as the latter moves out of their shared apartment and into a new flat across town.
From this threadbare setup, the Zürchers fashion an entire ecosystem of characters moving in, around, and between the apartments. Friends, family, movers, and pets are seen navigating these tight quarters in a kind of domestic dance in which individual dramas and relationships are articulated through furtive glances, subtle gestures, and off-hand exchanges, many of which occur either off-screen or in unexpected ways within the frame. Again pairing static setups with carefully manicured lightning, the brothers get remarkable mileage out of their cubist arrangement of bodies and meticulous mise en scène—to say nothing of the intricate sound design, which can turn the mere act of pushing a pencil through a paper cup into a moment of teeth-gnashing intensity. Similarly exacting, the film’s larger narrative is revealed in a distinctly piecemeal manner: never explicated, the exact relationship between Mara and Lisa is left to the imagination, their history and emotional attachments suggested through flashbacks and dream sequences that cleverly take the story outside the confines of their busy living spaces. As the coordinates of Mara and Lisa’s lives and those of their neighbors slowly take shape, the film matches these subtle character beats with an escalating display of audio-visual interplay that betrays a clockwork-like sense of synesthetic storytelling. With unassuming humor and quiet command of a self-built cinematic language, the Zürchers continue to be that rarest of things: a genre of one.
During this year’s virtual edition of the Berlinale, Ramon, Silvan, and I connected on Zoom to discuss The Girl and the Spider’s long gestation and their unique collaborative process.
NOTEBOOK: What have you guys been up to these past eight years? Based on your films it seems safe to say that you’re perfectionists, but have you been working solely on The Girl and the Spider since your last film?
SILVAN ZÜRCHER: We actually don’t have much of a set work flow; we had only made one film prior to this one. The Strange Little Cat wasn’t made within the industry—it developed within the safe space of an academy. [Note: the film was produced by the Deutsche Film & Fernsehakademie Berlin, in collaboration with the German Film and Television Academy.] So we’re still learning how to function within the industry. The long gestation of The Girl and the Spider came about because we originally wanted to finance the film in Germany, but in Germany it’s quite important to have as part of the financing process a television component, so the film can eventually be broadcast on German TV. It’s only then that other co-financers will join a project.
This made it hard for us on a script level to convince broadcasters to work with us on the film. I think the script was a bit too technical for most of these companies. That’s why we tried our best to finance the film in Switzerland, and there it did function but it still took a bit of time to get the project off the ground.
Also over this period we founded our own production company to make films on our own, where we’ve been developing other scripts in the interim. So there was always something to do as we awaited the financing for the film. Also, because of COVID the post-production of the film ended up being delayed. The director of photography lives in Berlin and he couldn’t come to Bern, where we are, so we had to do the color grading remotely, and this didn’t turn out to be a good idea. We ended up having to do the grading a second time, all together in Berlin. So adapting to COVID made the process even longer.
NOTEBOOK: How long was the shoot compared to the post-production?
RAMON ZÜRCHER: The shoot was only two months, from June to July 2019. The editing then went until February 2020—so half a year. Then in March and April we worked on the sound, but when we wanted to start the color grading the COVID situation had emerged. Everything except the grading was done by March or April. It’s really the grading that took a long time because we were forced to work on it remotely.
NOTEBOOK: Other than the financing and the post-production delays, what were the difficulties or differences between the development of your first film and working in more of an industry context with the new one?
SILVAN ZÜRCHER: The main difference was the time we had to invest to secure the budget. If we had been able to work at our own organic rhythm then we would have shot the film years ago. We didn’t have to invest that kind of time in The Strange Little Cat because it was funded by the film academy. That said, we still had a great deal of freedom with The Girl and the Spider. There weren’t any industry players telling us what we could or couldn’t do. We still had carte blanche to do what we wanted.
NOTEBOOK: I’m wondering if you could each talk a bit about your backgrounds and how those experiences may or may not have shaped the kinds of film you’re making now. Silvan, I know you studied philosophy in school, and Ramon you studied film, but with a focus on video?
RAMON ZÜRCHER: From kindergarten until high school we were both in the same school. After I graduated I decided to pursue practical arts at an art school: I started with painting, and then in the second and third year I mostly made experimental video and performance pieces. I think even then I knew I wanted to pursue film, but I was told by many people that it would be good to start with other arts and make other kinds of work first—basically just to have other experiences.
I figured since it was art school it would be a good opportunity to experiment with the moving image. My first videos were silent—I focused solely on montage. This was around the time that Silvan was studying philosophy.
SILVAN ZÜRCHER: Along with philosophy I studied film and German literature—the latter made the process of script writing feel familiar. As far as philosophy, there hasn’t been a theory or dogma I’ve been driven by as it relates to film. Maybe it’s because philosophy is somewhat general—it’s more of a way to ask questions. But it still helps you develop a school of thinking, so maybe there are influences, though it’s hard to clearly describe what they could be. Of course I’ve been marked by all these experiences, but their role in what we do now is difficult to say. Our goal is not to deal with explicitly philosophical subjects or topics, but maybe the way we’re dealing with certain subjects is philosophical?
NOTEBOOK: How far back was the script written for the new film? I know this is the second of a planned trilogy, but was it conceived and written after the success of The Strange Little Cat?
RAMON ZÜRCHER: After The Strange Little Cat, which I wrote, Silvan began working on The Girl and the Spider and I began writing the third film, The Sparrow and the Chimney. Silvan was the sort of script doctor on The Strange Little Cat—the first person reading the different drafts and giving his impressions. At the time that we were writing these films we weren’t thinking of them as a trilogy. It was only later that we noticed that these three films had similarities—that they were siblings and this could be a little family of films. We noticed that they had formal similarities, but also similarities in content—there was a relationship between the films. It was through the process of writing the films that these similarities sort of organically revealed themselves.
For example, The Strange Little Cat takes place on one day and in one flat—it’s like a chamber piece. The Girl and the Spider takes place over two days and mainly in two flats, with some other activity happening around those spaces. The Sparrow and the Chimney takes place over three days and is set in a village. So the formal structures are enlarging and the dimensions of each story are growing. Concerning the content, it’s like a journey from static to movement: The Strange Little Cat is a portrait of a mother, living in a kind of prison. You can see the journey of these stories represented in the arc from the cat to the sparrow.
SILVAN ZÜRCHER: In a way it’s almost like a laboratory, where you add new tools, experiment with these tools, and add new variables as you go. So for The Girl and the Spider that means enlarging your character palette while learning how to weave these characters in and around the multiple apartments. The third film will then raise new questions, and it’s these questions that make the films feel like a family of films made under different circumstances.
NOTEBOOK: As far as the script for this film, what was the writing process like? I know you mentioned that Silvan began writing it, but from there is there a certain dynamic at play with regards to who’s writing dialogue versus who’s focused more on things like structure and character?
RAMON ZÜRCHER: Since this is the first film that we actually co-wrote, we didn’t really have any written rules for who did what. Silvan wrote the first draft—it was something like a 200 page script. For him it was an additive process where he would collect materials from all over the place. He had the characters and the structure of the two days, as well as the two apartments: the new flat and the old flat. From there our working relationship became a sort of real time act of research into what would be an ideal collaboration. When we started everything was working fine, but with each little problem it became a process of responsibility diffusion. Because this script was Silvan’s baby, and now it was suddenly like it had two mothers—or two fathers as it were. It’s like it’s 50% mine and 50% his, but no one is responsible for the baby.
As far as our process, we sort of split it in half: one day it would be me working on scenarios and then the next it would be him. I think script writing is like painting: it’s often very intuitive, and when there’s a second person with their own intuition and thoughts, always saying how they feel about certain things, it can make you feel constricted in your writing. So we separated the parts: I wrote certain scenes and he wrote certain scenes. It was a collaboration based on separate spaces, and then punctual meetings to talk about the things we had written. We were never in the same space writing together.
SILVAN ZÜRCHER: There was also a third period where Ramon kind of adopted the script, where it was only him writing and I became sort of the script doctor again. An insight we gained from this collaboration is the benefit of having a second person available to look at your work. Right now, for example, I’m writing a script and Ramon is writing a script, so in a way it’s good to have a set of fresh eyes on hand to be able to look at what you’ve done and to give the other person that first round of feedback.
NOTEBOOK: Ramon mentioned that you began this script by collecting story materials. Where do these materials come from: everyday life, your personal relationships or your past, or from somewhere else entirely?
SILVAN ZÜRCHER: When I observe things in my everyday life that I find remarkable or extraordinary in some way I write them down in a notebook. So it’s like I have a collection of small pearls to draw on. And Ramon actually does the same—he has his own collection of pearls.
From there it’s kind of a chaotic process. It’s not ordered. One of these pearls may be a starting point, but from there I allow other things to enter this cosmos: certain topics, elements, or essences. And then we may have to say goodbye to some of these things, too. It’s very associative. Because the films aren’t driven by a structure that combines any one story or character, we’re allowed to be more open. It’s intuitive, like an architect working in trial and error mode until he finds something that appears to be beautiful.
RAMON ZÜRCHER: Sometimes there are bits of lived life. For example, the chambermaid subplot: I was once on a bus with my cousin and she told me that her utopia would be to clean beds on a cruise ship. So it’s like fictionalizing little pieces of reality and combining them to construct a new reality.
NOTEBOOK: It’s funny that you mention how chaotic the process can be considering the final products are so precise and well-ordered. I’m curious: do you guys storyboard before shooting, or are the formal ideas worked out on set?
RAMON ZÜRCHER: Oftentimes in our scripts we’ll use colors: for example, black for on-screen and green for off-screen. We’ll note that certain words or sentences have to be spoken by certain actors off-screen or delivered through voiceover. And then with the cinematographer Alexander Haßkerl we try to make a 3D model for how the mise en scène could be done—for example, how it could be shot with a static camera and with a very economic kind of montage. But for this film, because we didn’t know exactly how the floor plans would be laid out, we didn’t make a real storyboard until close to the end. We started to storyboard, but the rest was developed during the shoot. The shots and the mise en scène are things we plan during the script stage, but during the shoot we look and see if the ideas work. The visual ideas in the script are just the basis, and from there we build on those ideas during the shoot. It’s a little bit like Hitchcock, who said that his films already exist in his head, and that the filming of the script is like following a recipe. There are some little improvisations, and there are some elements that aren’t as controllable, but our process is a little like Hitchcock’s in that way: the film already exists many steps before the shooting.
NOTEBOOK: You mention the floor plans: are these sets or real apartments?
SILVAN ZÜRCHER: We did look for original locations in Bern and Biel, but it was crucial that we find buildings with apartments that are opposed, with one apartment looking out toward another apartment with a stairwell in the middle. But the apartments we found in Bern that we thought would be appropriate didn’t look out toward other apartments—they would look out at walls. So it was pretty last minute that we found an empty brewery and decided to build the apartments in a studio-like situation. In the film there are a total of about six apartments, but we only built one construction of two opposing apartments. And that turned out to be pretty complex on a production design level because we had to finish shooting everything in, say, Apartment A, before it could be transformed into Apartment B. That said it was great shooting in this studio-like situation because we didn’t have to move locations—we could spend more time shooting and we had more control.
NOTEBOOK: Did you find this situation more conducive to your process as compared to The Strange Little Cat, which I assume was shot in a real apartment?
SILVAN ZÜRCHER: It actually turned out to be pretty similar. In The Strange Little Cat the apartment is supposed to be on the second floor, but in reality it’s on the ground floor, so it was somewhat studio-like as well. We could light it easily from the outside—we didn’t have the lighting issues we might have had if it was higher up. But what we didn’t have on that film was the green screen that we use in the new film. And that was a concern for us: is it going to be very visible when we look out of a window? Is it noticeable that we’re adding these backdrops in post production? Would it combine in an organic way?
NOTEBOOK: Well, I didn’t notice!
RAMON ZÜRCHER: Very good!
NOTEBOOK: Can you tell me about expanding the world of this film on a narrative level as compared to The Strange Little Cat? While the film is primarily set in two apartments, there are also flashbacks and dream sequences and other devices that take the viewer outside the walls of the apartments.
RAMON ZÜRCHER: Narratively expanding with each film maybe wasn’t something we set out to do from the beginning, but during the writing process it became a question or an interest of ours to use more surrealistic moments, or to play more with the degree of stylization. For example, the feverish, psychedelic night sequence where the old woman appears on the roof of the flat during the storm—these were things to make the film feel more artificial and more stylized. These were questions we posed for ourselves—we wanted to see how these things would work. For the next film these surrealistic images are something that interest me very much.
While the base of the film is everyday life, it’s not very naturalistic or photorealistic, because of the static camera and controlled mise en scène—that kind of controlled chaos. It’s everyday life but a little bit artificial. Formally, the film probably initially seems like it’s told from an outside perspective, from the point of view of an observer, but it’s actually pretty close to the perception of Mara. Things become so dream-like and so subjective that we move away from that naturalistic, everyday feeling.
NOTEBOOK: The film is credited to both of you, with Ramon designated as the director. What’s the division of labor like on set from a directorial standpoint with regards to the camera, the choreography, and the actors?
SILVAN ZÜRCHER: During the shoot it was only Ramon talking to the actors. Actually, it was clear that it shouldn’t be both of us talking to the actors—we decided only Ramon should do that. Otherwise I was kind of an assistant director. I was usually behind a monitor, watching the takes. After the takes we would discuss what we thought, what we could change, and what we could maybe improve. Other decisions like the costumes, the makeup, the set design—depending on how much time we had we would sometimes split up those duties. That was helpful when things were stressful—we could just divide the work. But when things weren’t so stressful we could decide on certain things together.
NOTEBOOK: Ramon, can you talk a little about working with the actors on the dialogue and the choreography of each scene? Obviously things seem pretty precise. Is there any room for improvisation?
RAMON ZÜRCHER: For us the shoot sort of starts at the casting. And that’s because for each actor we probably do two to three auditions, and it’s at that time that we first begin to talk with them about the characters. That preparation is the basis so that during the shoot we don’t have to do rehearsals. Once on set I didn’t talk to them much about the characters, but if they had questions of course they could always ask. It was during the audition process that we really spoke about the characters and any background information the actors wanted to know.
This allows us to focus on the mise en scène and choreography during the shoot. From take to take I make little modifications: a little bit louder, a little bit faster, things like that. So there were little adjustments along the way, but we had it more or less worked out with the actors at the time of the casting. Our on set work is mostly drawing the movement of the camera through each space.
NOTEBOOK: Can you tell me how you conceptualized the look of the film with regards to the colors and the lightning, and what the working process is like with your cinematographer and set designer?
RAMON ZÜRCHER: We actually didn’t use the colors very psychologically. For us it’s a little bit like the films of Éric Rohmer. Those films are very light and joyful but there are little dramas and philosophical things going on under the surface. We kind of like that same contrast between things looking light, colorful, and joyful on the surface but with drama underneath. We use the colors—and also the music—to heighten the lighter or more comedic aspects of the film.
With the set dresser we watched different films. We looked at and considered the degrees of stylization in certain films. For example, should it be very artificial looking like the films of Roy Andersson? Or should the colors or lighting be more like Fassbinder, where things are very stylized? We also watched a lot of Godard films, and looked at his use of red, blue, and yellow—those primary colors. We took cues from all these filmmakers, and well as different forms of still photography, and figured out a way to apply them in our own way.
NOTEBOOK: Did you also use these various colors and design aspects to help visually differentiate between the apartments?
RAMON ZÜRCHER: Originally I wanted very white walls, like white paper—surfaces that leave no traces of the characters. But to differentiate, say, the old flat, the shared flat that Lisa is moving out of, we needed there to be a certain patina. We also wanted Lisa to be associated with yellow, and Mara a little bit yellow as well. Kersten, the downstairs neighbor, we wanted to be red, and Nora also red, but a much deeper red. This way every character and room had its own color. Thinking about it today I would probably make the walls in Lisa’s new apartment darker. For me they’re a little too white. Just visually, I think that would make the actors’ faces look better against the backdrop.
NOTEBOOK: How much footage are you shooting on average? Are there scenes from your films that we’re not seeing?
SILVAN ZÜRCHER: In The Strange Little Cat in total I think there was only one to three shots that we didn’t use in the film. For The Girl and the Spider we shot a lot more—the film itself contains more shots. So there are things we left out. I’m not really sure what the average amount of unused shots is for a traditional film. All the scenes in the script ended up in the film, but there were shots and segments we took out. I recall two shots right now, though there must be more.
RAMON ZÜRCHER: There were actually a couple scenes in the script that didn’t end up in the film.
SILVAN ZÜRCHER: Which ones?
RAMON ZÜRCHER: There was a scene with Kersten where water comes up out of her sink.
SILVAN ZÜRCHER: Ah, right!
RAMON ZÜRCHER: And also there was a scene where Markus falls and has an accident.
SILVAN ZÜRCHER: Right, yes, there were some slapstick moments! [Laughs] We laughed while writing them but I’m not sure they succeeded in the way we thought they might.
RAMON ZÜRCHER: Also I think there was a shot of Kersten taking the piercing out of her lip that we didn’t use. So there were a few things.
NOTEBOOK: Maybe we can talk about the sound for a minute. I actually watched the film twice: once on my TV and once on my laptop with headphones on so I could focus on the sound design, which is super intricate. How much Foley sound are you recording, and how much post-production work is done with the sound editing?
RAMON ZÜRCHER: A lot of sound is noted in the script, usually in green font like I mentioned earlier. During the shoot we record a lot of the off-screen sounds, like when people are speaking off-camera or from another room. Then we’ll take one or two days to just to record various sounds without the actors—just us and the sound person on location. But, for example, sounds like when Mara puts the pencil into the paper cup are Foley. We did five days of Foley in Brussels. We keep a list of sounds we’d like to record. So a lot of the sounds are noted in the script, but like everything else it’s also additive. I think it’s interesting to not simply hear onscreen sound, but to instead hear something outside your own view. Because in reality sound is complex in that way—there are constantly things we hear but we don’t see.
NOTEBOOK: I’m curious as we end if you can talk a little about your characters as both formal and narrative devices, and if that’s something you feel is evolving through your work across these three films? I feel like The Girl and the Spider is in a lot of ways about looking—about characters being and feeling seen, sometimes unintentionally. With the Mara character specifically it’s not ever even clearly defined why she’s so upset over Lisa moving out. The specifics of their relationship are only suggested, never spelled out.
RAMON ZÜRCHER: As far as character design, we like that there’s a protagonist but that the focus on that protagonist is fluid. So here, it’s not only about Mara; we cut to the construction worker outside, who looks, or to things that seemingly aren’t that important, like little side stories.
Like Silvan mentioned, we’re not very interested in showing everyday life in a realistic manner, but with the characters I still like to show just a little bit of their real life, to keep them complex. So for Mara and Lisa, their relationship is somewhere between friendship and love. But when you meet people you usually don’t know if they’re homosexual, heterosexual, or whatever—they don’t have a label on them. We didn’t want to define the characters. We wanted it to be more like a spectrum, with fluid characters. We had one formal idea as it relates to the characters: that Mara would be the static body and Lisa the moving body. We wanted it to be like a battle between static and movement, with some characters moving like Lisa while others disrupt that movement, and thus are more like Mara, who wants to maintain the status quo. These are things I like to dance with to varying degrees. The third film will utilize similar methods but it will have more of a plot—there will be more development. It’ll be a little bit wilder; maybe more explosive. [Laughs]