Žiga Virc, a young Slovenian film and TV director, is getting ready to make some waves – again. In 2010, when he was still a student at the Academy of Theatre, Radio, Film and Television at the University of Ljubljana, he managed to raise the international roof with his short fiction film Trieste Is Ours! (Trst je naš!, 2009, Virc). Even though the short is at its core a comedy, its title rung the warning bells all the way to Italy – and the Italian minister of foreign affairs, who labelled the film as ‘provocative’ without even watching it first: “Trieste is ours!” is a slogan that has been used by the Slovenian community in Italy and in Slovenia as a means of showing dissatisfaction with the post-WW2 annexation of the city of Trieste to Italy. Trieste Is Ours! then went on to be nominated for the Best Foreign Film at the 2010 Student Academy Awards.
After graduation, Virc kept himself busy and went on to receive several awards, and then in 2012, he announced his next project with the means of a short Youtube promo film, which within hours gained national and then international attention. With this project, Virc – with his incredible sense for selecting attention-worthy topics – seemed to have decided to make waves that can be seen from space: Houston, We Have A Problem! (2016, Virc) deals with the space race and the conspiracies and realities of the secret Yugoslavian space program. It took some years to bring this project – a co-production of Slovenia, Croatia, Germany, Czech Republic, Qatar and HBO Europe – to life, but in this coming week, on April 16th 2016, the mysterious docu-fiction feature, which features also the world-famous Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, will have its world premiere in the Viewpoints section of the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. The premiere screening was sold out in minutes.
You can imagine the time race that Žiga is currently dealing with, so we are really grateful that he took some time to answer our questions.
The Yugoslavian space program: where did the idea come from?
A few years ago, I came across interesting documents that intrigued me so much that we started developing a new project – Houston, We Have A Problem! I have always loved Cold War era stories, which were always somehow unclear and mysterious. Think of the Area 51, moon landing etc.! The 60’s were a special decade, when it seemed that everything was possible. Space exploration was sort of a climax of that era.
Are you personally a fan of conspiracy theories?
In the first place, I am a filmmaker. Our docu-fiction film’s main purpose is quite the opposite – to take a critical point of view not only on conspiracy theories, but rather what we perceive as the truth in general. In our film, fiction and reality are blended into a political thriller, inviting the audience to make their own judgement of what is true and what is not.
Regarding conspiracy theories in general, I usually take a critical stance. I try to understand why they are they so popular. Conspiracy theories are mostly fairy-tale like, with a villain, which is usually a government, and a hero, who leads the way. For example, as far as I am aware, there were more than 400.000 people involved in the Apollo program. It was a journey of a few decades with many successful and failed missions. There are still remains on the Moon. And it’s scary that there can be just one conspiracy theorist who claims that it was a hoax and then you end up with 7 % of Americans who believe in that. One person with questionable evidence against all the scientific proof in the world.
Can you tell us a bit more about how this project developed?
In 2012, we released the first version of the trailer that intrigued the public so much that we spent over a month only answering to media inquiries. Also, we got a lot of interesting information from people all across ex-Yugoslavia. One thing led to another and we continued developing the story. We searched for interesting material in American archives, the archive of the former Yugoslav Army, national archives of ex-Yugoslav countries … We filmed in 8 countries, on 3 continents, for 47 days in total. The result is a captivating story, full of exciting dramatic moments.
Right after the first teaser trailer for Houston, We Have A Problem! was released, NASA showed interest in this project. What was the extent of NASA’s involvement?
Well, actually NASA rejected our cooperation offer, so no one from NASA has been involved in the movie. However, we’ve used many interesting documents from American archives.
Besides being produced by your own family’s production company Studio Virc, this film was also produced by production houses from Croatia (Nukleus Film) and Germany (Sutor Kolonko), while one of the co-producers is also HBO Europe. Were you the one to approach these production companies, or did they approach you?
We soon realized that Slovenian funds are not going to be enough to cover all the production costs, so we started searching for funds in other places. We spent over 3 years travelling, held numerous meetings with potential partners, resulting in a co-production of Slovenia, Croatia, Germany, Czech Republic and Qatar and the first original local production by HBO Adria. But I’d like to point out that having an international co-production is not just a matter of funds; it helps the film to reach its full potential. Even if there were enough funds at our home country, I’d still be working with international partners.
You have directed and produced several other film projects, but it is safe to say that Houston, We Have A Problem! places at the top of the scale in terms of national and international exposure. Are there certain doors that you hope will open after this project is released?
I think one of the biggest disappointments that many filmmakers face is the fact that nothing happens automatically. My film Trieste Is Ours! was nominated at the Student Academy Awards in 2010. It was a great success, but at the end of the day, I had to come up with a new idea and start looking for business partners. No one approached me and said “Here’s money, go make a movie!” The point is, the exposure and awards are great confirmations, but they help only as additional resume lines in the applications for your next film. And you personally have to come up with a new idea, the same way as you did for your first film. The difference is that this time, you have a crew to help you.
What was it like working with the world-famous Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek?
Slavoj Žižek is a fascinating persona and he plays an interesting role in the movie – his thought-provoking inserts illuminate both myth and the conspiracy theory phenomena, and lead the viewer through the movie, letting him decide for himself whether he is going to believe the story or not. Slavoj is a person that is great to work with and have, of course, a meaningful conversation with. And he’s a very busy man!
This docu-feature has been in the works for quite a while; how do you feel now that you can actually see the finish line?
We worked on this movie for 4 years, which is quite the usual time for a film development. The difference is that we’ve announced it at the beginning of our work so that’s why it seems as if it has been in the making for longer than other movies. Now, when everything is finished and we are having our world premiere next week in New York, I feel happy, relaxed and I am looking forward to the audience’s feedback. I would like to thank all of the crew who made this magic happen.
What made you decide to have the world premiere at Tribeca Film Festival and not in Slovenia or one of the other ex-Yugoslavian countries?
Tribeca is a highly recognized film festival and we are honoured to be able to participate. American audience is quite intrigued by the film – the premiere in Manhattan was sold out within minutes! The Slovenian premiere will take place a few days after Tribeca, on April 25th. The premieres in other ex-Yu countries will follow in the end of April and the beginning of May. We’re coming to cinemas across ex-YU countries during May. The decision where to premiere the film should be based on what’s best for your particular film – and Tribeca film festival certainly is.
Do you already have the next project in the works or are you planning a well-deserved vacation?
We are always working on interesting projects, so stay tuned. I can only say that we have already started a development of a new project.
Do you have any advice for other young directors who are striving to achieve a similar success?
Practice, practice, practice. It’s like being a piano player. You can’t just wait for the big solo concert. It will never happen if you don’t play every day almost everywhere possible – and appropriate. I’m lucky to have had a chance to direct a commercial project on a weekly basis, so when I switched to a bigger film, it was not that radical a change in terms of practicalities. I could focus on important things that are expected of a film director.
Thank you for taking the time!
And thank you for showing interest in my work.
Written and interviewed by Sanja Struna
All photos courtesy of Houston, We Have a Problem!