The Movie Waffler Waffling With... <i>51 DEGREES NORTH</i> director GRIGORIJ RICHTERS | The Movie Waffler

Waffling With... 51 DEGREES NORTH director GRIGORIJ RICHTERS

Sci-Fi thriller 51 Degrees North opens in UK cinemas July 3rd. We chatted to its director Grigorij Richters.

Interview by Ren Zelen

You started off as a child model but your interest in actual film making began at a very early age. I read that you directed your first TV commercial at the age of 13 with a budget of €50,000?!

Yes, that’s right. It was an organic process; I “grew up” in front of the lens and I was super comfortable with it. I must have been a baby when I had my first modeling gig. I aspired to become an actor at an early age, but as soon as I bought my first second hand camera, I was in love and never let it out of my sight. I always took it to school and even filmed during class. You could always find me somewhere hidden in the back corner, filming the teacher and my fellow students.
I directed my first work when I was 9 or 10 - these were documentaries and short films. I got the offer to shoot this commercial when I was 13 but it took a year until it was actually finished and produced. It was a great experience, I was able to play with massive cranes, steadicams and all of that, it was a proper production. Most of the crew didn’t believe that I was the director at first - but they got used to it pretty quickly.

You’re from Hamburg I believe, but what attracted you to filming in London?

Well, I went to boarding school in Surrey, England. I was 15 at the time and I knew that if I wanted to have a career in film, I would have to learn English at an early stage, as I always dreamt of working in Hollywood. I made the move to the United States, but to New York. I lived there for two years but decided to leave for London. London is a much more receptive place to make films when you haven’t made it big yet. It’s also a lot closer to home and that was another plus point as I am very close with my parents. It’s just a great city for creative people full stop.

The principal character in 51 Degrees North is a young German film-maker living in London - anything autobiographical about this movie?

Of course. When you don’t have big budgets, when you have to keep things simple - then you work with what you have and with that you know. Moritz (who plays Damon) is a German actor/filmmaker; there was no reason to complicate things. We tried to recycle as much from our own lives as we could and it was a very intense journey. It was crucial to me that everything about the film felt authentic. Almost nothing was staged, with most situations involving non-actors, shot in locations without a permit. There was no budget for permits.

Why did you choose this particular subject matter for your first feature? Are you worried about an asteroid hitting the earth or were you just attracted to the ‘disaster’ genre?!

Of course I am worried about asteroids! No, it’s not as dramatic as that, but I certainly think about the possibility, I think we all do. Wouldn’t it be absurd if we, the first species who have the technology to detect and deflect asteroids, suffered a catastrophe due to lack of funding or ignorance? That’s what I am worried about: Humanity simply ignoring this issue because we are too wrapped up in needless conflicts and ruining our planet for profit. I know we face many other challenges such as climate change, famine and water shortages, but unfortunately we must address the threat of asteroids as well.
I stumbled upon the topic of asteroids by chance, I have no scientific background and at the time I had NO knowledge about asteroids. I was one of those people who thought that Bruce Willis would save us, seriously! Until, one day in 2010, my former assistant sent me an asteroid documentary which I can’t recommend enough. Asteroids: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, it opened my mind and I was hooked. I became obsessed; no one could speak to me for weeks. I was locked in my office, buried in research papers. I was very lucky that Prof. David Jewitt advised me on some key issues and helped me gain a coherent understanding of the situation we currently find ourselves in. The bottom line is: I don’t think that an asteroid will hit us any time soon, there is no reason to panic, but I want us to be prepared. That’s why I founded Asteroid Day and that’s why I made it my mission to raise awareness and get the citizens of Earth and their governments to listen and act!

Are you interested in Astrophysics? How did you involve Dr Brian May in the project?

I am interested in astrophysics now, but I am no expert and I still consider myself a real amateur. Dr. Brian May was first suggested to me by the UK Space Agency. He seemed like the perfect choice to compose the soundtrack although he wasn’t on my radar until 2013. The funny thing is that Damon played a Queen song every morning during production to get the team going; it eventually became a ritual. He has always been a huge Brian May fan, talking about him and showing me his guitar solos. But I had no idea that Brian had a PhD until the UK Space Agency pointed it out to me. The second they mentioned it, it made perfect sense. It seemed like an impossible task but that’s when I thrive and amazingly it worked out. Brian responded extremely positively to the draft of the film which I sent him and by March 2014 he had recorded the soundtrack for us at Sarm Studios. Brian talks about it in the video below.

Your films have a certain guerrilla-style approach, which makes for some dynamic scenes but has probably caused a few problems?

Yes many, I even got arrested a few times. Our stunts caused Tower Bridge and Waterloo train station to be shut down by accident due to the police mistaking us for terrorists. We also got arrested outside King’s Reach Tower (now South Bank Tower). We got away with some amazing things but that’s why it took so long to make this film. We shot a scene at Piccadilly Circus with 2,500+ extras but we had no permits and as a result it had to be choreographed perfectly. We considered every aspect of the production and especially the safety of the cast/crew and it took us four months just to plan that. My producer Alex Souabni really pulled that one off and that scene now sits as the centrepiece of the film’s climax. It’s one of the only moments in the film where the focus shifts off Damon and we see the reaction of the rest of London’s citizens. I feel this is important in helping the film’s message hit home.

There must have been many technical and logistical challenges with this movie, such as wrangling extras and filming in the heart of London?

Yes, it wasn’t just the organisation that was brutal, it was also making sure that the film would feel authentic throughout. When we began making the film, three people were working on it. By the time we produced Piccadilly, we had more than 3,000 people who worked on the movie intermittently. We started coming up with bigger and bigger stunts but we always wanted to make sure that Damon’s journey was at the heart of the story. I guess the most challenging shoot was getting all of those aerial shots. I had to operate my DJI Global Phantom blindly in Central London and I eventually crashed it into Marble Arch...

Do you think the movie can also be read as a metaphor - as a warning to get one’s priorities straight and live life fully and compassionately, because none of us really knows how long we have?

Yes, pretty much. I know that I will be accused of fear-mongering and all that but at the end of the day this is a film, if there is no drama then there is no story. As a result I hope that people will treat this as a feature film and not purely as a documentary. My intention has always been to reach as many people as possible. I want to reach young people too and make them realise that there is no hero and it’s really up to us to figure this one out. Why should this not be treated like a top priority? Isn’t it better being well prepared, knowing where all these objects are? We need increased investment in this and a global coordination of our efforts. That’s why any profits from the film will be put into the Asteroid Day Foundation which continually calls for increased asteroid detection.

Do you think the movie addresses the question of modern society’s desire to film every aspect of their lives and put it out there on YouTube or wherever, for some kind of validation?

Sure, I personally love it! A lot of the online stuff is a lot better than most things on TV nowadays. There are a lot fewer big corporations pushing their agenda through and it’s a lot cheaper to put something online and it’s a new expression of free speech! I wanted to make that part of the film because it’s part of today’s culture and Damon’s son would find it strange just as someone who lived in the past wouldn’t understand. But it is important to preserve our culture and I think that is evident through Damon’s son’s virtual connection to his father, through his ‘vlogs’ as well as through CCTV footage.

Are you thinking about your next project?

My next project is being an advocate for this wonderful blue planet. I will be running the Asteroid Day Foundation for at least another year full time and try and get as much done within this time as possible. My ultimate goal is to get the world better engaged with this subject matter, to raise awareness and to protect ourselves, our communities and all the other species from asteroids.