INTERVIEW: Director: Kristijan Milic

When Croatian filmmaker Kristijan Milic was hired to direct the film adaptation of Josip Mlakic’s popular novel The Living And The Dead, fans from his native land would be forgiven for feeling apprehensive about bringing the book to the screen.

After all, Mlakic’s novel told the story of a conflict close to the hearts and minds of many in the Balkans. Alternating between Bosnian conflict in 1943 and 1993, the story focused on two very different squadron’s of HVO (Bosnian Croat) and Domobran (defenders of the Croat Independent state) who trod the same path with the same bleak conclusions.

But in truth, fans need not have worried, as Milic’s resulting film delivered a layered and vivid adaptation of the novel. Chief amongst Milic’s achievements is undoubtedly the cinematography of the film, which flits between two clearly defined eras, whilst Filip Sovagovic as HVO soldier Tomo and his grandfather Domobran Martin ties the two eras together with a understated performance that captures the kind of everyman soldier thrust into the horrors of war.

Now, four years on, The Living And The Dead is coming to Western audiences via the medium of DVD. For Milic, this is an undoubted triumph, with the director a keen admirer of classic American cinema and genres as diverse as horror and even the spaghetti western.

But Milic, who started out as a key grip and stage hand in Croatia has always strived to create "something that looks good and sounds good.” Now, four years on from the release of The Living And The Dead, and with everyone a little older and a little wiser, we sat down with the Croatian director to discuss the film…

How was the film received in Bosnia when it was first released?

The local press received it very well; however the audience was pretty divided about it.

Have your feelings about the film changed since its release?

It is very hard for me to be objective. I've heard some extremely bad and good reactions, and it sure doesn't help me to clear my own feelings about it.

The film covers two different eras of conflict in Bosnia. How much research was involved in creating an authentic setting for both conflicts?

As we lived through those rough times, we knew enough about the events from the recent conflicts.
   As for the WW2, we grew up hearing the stories of our grandfathers. It was easy to recreate 1993, but we had much more fun with 1943, even when we couldn't be 100% accurate.
   As for the guns and uniforms, we managed as much as our limited budget allowed us, and we had to make some compromises.

An important way of contrasting the two different eras appears to have been through the cinematography. How was this achieved?

We used a lot of different ‘tools’ to achieve that. We wanted the old times to look like a western, while the new era was supposed to resemble the Vietnam-war films. Classic film equipment was used for the 1943 part (dollies, cranes); while the 1990s pseudo-documentary style required a hand-held camera and steadicam. Also, 1943 was shot in winter and early spring, while 1993 was shot in late spring and summer. However, the most obvious and effective tool was colour grading.

Where did the idea of Vialli's character come from?

You would have to ask Josip Mlakić (the writer) about that. I just know that he was written after a real soldier who was nicknamed after football player Gianluca Vialli.
   I think that Velibor Topic did a great job with that character.

How did you help Filip Sovagovic prepare for the dual roles in the film?

He's extremely talented actor. I did very little, if anything, to help him.

The photography of the film really stands out. How much did the natural setting play a part in this?

It plays a big part. I always liked the contrast between beautiful picture and ugly events on the big screen.

There's a standout moment when one of the rebels realises that the man they killed, Redzo, was someone he had played with in a social club. How important did you feel it was to highlight the sudden divides that the conflict in Bosnia created?

We shot this film in the town with two names: one for Muslims and one for Croats (Gornji Vakuf - Uskoplje). It is literally divided in half by one tiny street. And even now, after almost twenty years, they still don't cross that line if it's not absolutely necessary. Josip Mlakić (the author of the novel and the screenplay) lives in that town.

The film does a good job of capturing Bosnia: the combination of a untouched wilderness marred by death comes across particularly in the graveyard setting. How did you set about deciding on the look?

We generally tried to picture Bosnia as a beautiful place soaked with blood. It was important to have one symbolic place where everybody ended no matter what nation or religion they belong to. This particular graveyard is mixture of Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim insignia. There's no such graveyard in reality.

How important do you think the supernatural elements of the film are?

I prefer the realistic approach, so I tried to keep those elements on the symbolic or subconscious level. But I think that everyone should choose his or her own interpretation.

There seemed to be a real sense of camaraderie and also weariness amongst the men. How did you prepare the actors for filming?

We didn't have much of a preparation. It was guerrilla style from the very beginning. But those guys are really good actors and most of them are friends in real life, so it wasn't hard for them to act as a real buddies. And they were tired and cold for real.

How long did it take to shoot the film? Did you encounter any issues in filming in the naturalistic setting?

We shot it for six weeks, in three different campaigns, over the period of a year-and-a-half. We began shooting in December 2004, and wrapped it up in June 2006. We were shooting very high in the mountains, so some days we had snow and sun changing in a matter of hours. We had to shot more day scenes in winter and more night scenes in summer, so it wasn't a walk in a park but I think it was a worthwhile.

What future projects do you have in the pipeline?

I have a few different projects, but they're all still in a process of finding finances. Meanwhile, I work for television, and make short films for fun. I hope that I'll be shooting my next feature film by the end of this year. JB

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