Remainder, Tom McCarthy’s vast, cerebral debut novel, was widely considered unfilmable material, until Berlin-based Israeli artist Omer Fast came along and turned this strange story into an unconventional psychological thriller.
In the film, a man who's been offered a huge settlement following an accident that left him feeling psychologically disconnected tries to reconstruct the events leading up to the traumatising accident. Director Omer Fast had his work cut out for him.
Remainder will celebrate its German premiere February 15 in the Panorama section.
What drew you to adapting this book?
I thought the novel was wonderful when I read it for the first time. I finished it in an airplane. At that time I had no idea what I was getting myself into or that I’d be adapting it for a movie. But while I was reading it, I literally had the physical experience of time slowing around me as if I had taken some mildly effective drug. I felt the book deals with time in a very palpable way for a generation that deals with it in a neurotic way.
So you’d say time is a central theme then?
Yeah, I think the protagonist is negotiating with time. He’s trying to carve out spaces where he can control both space and time.
What are the most significant changes you’ve made when adapting it for the screen?
Well without getting into spoiler territory, I think there’s quite a significant structural change, in terms of how the movie is structured as opposed to the book. This is not only reflected in the different conclusion, but also in the way the narrative transpires. The protagonist in the book is extremely talkative. You’re inside his head and he’s talking all the time. I knew from the start that I didn’t want to make a voice-over-driven movie – although in hindsight I think it would have been interesting to try that. But anyway we made that decision and had a protagonist who’s much more reluctant to let us into his head.
Was Tom McCarthy also involved in the adaptation process?
Tom was involved at the very beginning, in helping me come to grips with a book that’s very sharp and extremely complicated. We come from the same neck of the woods so we didn’t need a lot of icebreakers to get things going and we became very good friends. What we did was to meet for a weekend and literally create a visual anagram of the book. We put up a big piece of paper on the wall in a studio in Stockholm where he was staying at the time. We created a kind of flow-chart, a kind of Mark Lombardi diagram in which the main characters and the events of the book, and their relationships to one another were graphically represented, with arrows and little signs. I folded that thing up to fit into a suitcase and took it back with me to Berlin. That was kind of my roadmap for the script.
Could you also draw on your personal experience for the project ?
The book really resonated with me. We have a protagonist who’s been through a major accident so we’re kind of dealing with a post-traumatic situation. He’s literally a mess and he’s trying to piece things together in his DIY way. These are themes that I’ve been dealing with in various ways in the last 10 years as an artist. So for me it’s kind of a no-brainer, an easy fit.
You live and work in Berlin. What’s your take on the filmmaking scene in the city?
I don’t feel qualified to comment on that because I’m an artist and the kind of filming I do comes from a very independent spot. My projects are very often commissioned by institutions that are outside of Berlin or Germany. This film was not initially a German production, it’s mainly a British one. Only when we got some money for the production did we apply for additional funding in Berlin and, for post-production, in Hamburg. So it became a British-German co-production but I don’t come from the Berlin school.
You mentioned that this is a British-German co-production, but the film was shot mostly in London, right?
We had four weeks of filming in London and two weeks in Berlin, so some of the interiors you see were actually shot in Berlin. The lawyer’s office is in Hackescher Markt. The hospital scene, which was eventually cut down to just a little sequence, was shot on the outskirts of Berlin. And the restaurant where the protagonist meets his enabler and they talk about their plans was in Neukölln. So there were a few Berlin locations, which was part of the production deal.
There are scenes where the exteriors look conspicuously like a soundstage. Were, for example, the last few scenes with the bank robbery actually shot on soundstage?
Yeah, this was a tricky thing for a low-budget film like ours. What we decided to do eventually is to rent a big hangar in east London. We were not able to rebuild the entire street obviously, so we chose a London location for our bank that looks extremely fake. It’s a real street in the city, where sort of the financial district is. When you look at it, it has a clean perspective with a vanishing point. Everything on the left and right looks flat and there’s no trees. It looks very much like a studio. So we picked out this location for the bank and were hoping that – because the real place looks as fake as it does – when we recreate it inside the hangar, we would have reality and its artificial double looking as close to each other as possible, without having to do too much post-production work. So we built a 1:1 replica of the bank inside the hangar. And then we just added bits and pieces to it to indicate that – in his obsession, the protagonist was extending the street and rebuilding it completely. Obviously those shots were computer generated. Basically we had started with a real place and then began to dissemble it in order to shoot the scenes backwards.
As a viewer I found it almost confusing to be confronted with a location that looked fake but also real and substantial.
That was exactly our goal. With our budget we were obviously not trying to reproduce the entire Oxford Circus, but rather to try to find a location. Because of how clean it was, how little life there was, how mannered the architecture there appeared, reality in itself would look extremely constructed. So that’s the location that we chose, which really suited the story.
Have you been to the Berlinale before? Any expectations?
I participated in the Berlinale as part of the Forum Expanded section as an artist. I was very happy with the screenings hat I had. This time I’ll show a feature film in the Panorama programme. I don’t really know what to expect. I know I hope that the film plays without the projector breaking down, that people enjoy it… I don’t have big expectations.
Remainder | Mon, Feb 15, 22:30, Cinemaxx; Tue, Feb 16, 20:15, Cinestar; Wed, Feb 17, 20:00, Cubix; Thu, Feb 18, 22:30, Colosseum; Sat, Feb 20, 22:00, Zoo Palast