Crystal Swan Interview with Screenwriter Helga Landauer – SIFF 2019

During SIFF 2019, Ivy Pottinger-Glass had the opportunity to sit down and talk with the screenwriter of Crystal Swan, Helga Landauer. During the interview, they discussed the historical context in which the film takes place, the collaborative process between Landauer and the director Darya Zhuk, and the personal connections to the film’s main character Velya. 

A full transcript of the film can be see found below, or you can listen to the whole interview as well! The written interview has been edited for clarity and readability.

Ivy’s review of the film can be found here.

I: I’m really interested in how your prior work focused on documentary filmmaking, and the creative switch between documentary and feature length filmmaking. What was your process and approach?

H: I’ve been writing for other projects, and this is what I do. Darya [Zhuk, the director of Crystal Swan] was the producer on several of my prior films. When she came to me and said she wanted to direct her first project, I was really supportive and pleased. 

I: Do you find the process between documentary and feature very different?

H: When it comes to writing, of course it’s going to be different. I feel when people make documentaries, they mistakenly think that if they have a subject, they can just film whatever happens and retroactively figure out how to structure the film. It never works. You have to have a screenplay. Even if deviate from the theme or subject, you will eventually change it, but if you have a sketch for a screenplay, it’ll have some coherence. Without it, the material won’t fit together. You’ll be like, “I wish I shot this,” and, “I don’t have enough of that.” It just doesn’t come together like you want. 

With a feature, it’s a different thing. You can change dialog and various things during production, but it’s much more streamlined and developed as something with a different level of precision. You pretty much what go with what you envisioned first. 

I: So you said you worked with Darya before. How was it working together to make the screenplay? Did you work collaboratively on the screenplay? 

H: It was initially her idea to write a story based on the situation of a phone call — which was a true story that happened to a friend of her’s. The initial idea of the story came from her. However, when you write a screenplay for a director, you always work together on the screenplay. You write a draft. You send it over. She comments on it. We talk it over. We think about what we need to add or take away from the scenes, but it wasn’t joint process from a writing perspective. It was in the realm of typical collaboration when writing screenplays for someone else. The screenplay is always for the film, for the director. It’s not like I envisioned it, it’s how she wants it.

I: How did you envision the central character Velya? Was that something you based on a conversation with Darya or something else?

H: I was about Velya’s age in the 1990s when I was leaving Russia. I didn’t live in Belarus. I lived in Moscow, so I went through a number of things myself. Being a young woman out of college trying to adjustment into this completely changed social and economic climate of 1990s Eastern Europe. 

Darya had a different experience in Belarus, and she was younger. I was trying to create a character that would be more connected to her experience. Someone that is based on her memories or occupation — which she actually was working as a DJ at the time. She was involved with different music at that time. She knew it well and it wasn’t my realm. I was trying to incorporate my experience, but mainly make the character that would speak to Darya first as a director. It was kind of like a hybrid between Darya and I.

I: I noticed that there was a sense of latent political unrest within the story. Do you think that it was symptomatic of Belarus is in the 90s?

H: Of course. It was a time of immense, sudden freedom, and also simultaneous restraint that came with the social changes. It was similar to other former Soviet Republics. We decided from the beginning that this should be a film about freedom and about different margins of that freedom … how people deal with it and how social changes work with each character we create. I was more for the stronger political underline. In the beginning and end of the film, I suggested that we take that message further, but Darya decided to make it her film, so at the end of the day, maybe it doesn’t come through as much.

I: I’m wondering what stories interest you now, and what ones you plan on telling in the future. Is there anything you have planned? 

H: I’m really fortunate that so far in my life and career that I’m working on projects I’m deeply interested in. I choose the subjects that would help me or take me further. Thinking about things that deeply matter to me. Although there are very different forms of that work, when I write a screenplay it’s more collaboration. At the end of the day, the film is a director’s statement. Not a screenwriter’s. 

Right now this year, I’ve written one synopsis that’s also taking place in the 1990s. I also wrote a feature screenplay for the whole 20th century around a historical drama. As of current, I’m developing the former film. The 1990s was a very important time for me, and I find that there’s so much to be explored during that time. Personally and historically, this period of transition for the country and me is something that I’m excited to explore.

I: I’m excited to see what you come up with next.

H: Oh thank you. Can I ask you a question? Do you find points of connection with this film? It’s a different countries and different times for you, but I’m really curious how Velya can be perceived by a young person. 

I: Even though I can’t relate to the cultural context, I still identified with this young woman who has all these dreams — there’s things holding her back, but nevertheless, she’s pursuing what she wants to do. I really related to Velya in that sense regardless of our differences. I found it to be a very engaging story not only because of our age similarities, but also the experience of a young person in general with restraints and yet all these aspirations.