Murina: Croatian Filmmaker Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović Swims Into Directors Fortnight With Her Debut Feature Cannes

In an industry which is still largely grappling at putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to empowering female film directors, there will always be something encouraging about seeing a first-time female director debut her work at an international film festival. But when you meet writer-director Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović, it’s hard to think that her name won’t be one that we continue to see in the director’s chair for years to come. The Croatian helmer, who has spent a chunk of her adult years in New York, is touching down on the Croisette for the first time with her debut feature Murina, which is premiering in the Directors’ Fortnight section of the festival tomorrow.

The concept for Murina was largely inspired by Kusijanović’s short film Into The Blue, which was a huge hit on the international festival circuit, nabbing prizes in Berlin and Sarajevo. That film saw 13-year-old Julija and her mother flee from an abusive household to find refuge on the idyllic Croatian island that she grew up in. Murina, takes the story further, as we witness the same character Julija attempt to replace her controlling father with his wealthy foreign friend during his weekend trip to their home on the Adriatic Sea. In a post-lockdown world, it’s a bewitching sight for vacation-hungry eyes while touching on themes of male chauvinism, family control, teenage rebelliousness and freedom.

The film stars Gracija Filipovic, Danica Curcic, Leon Lucev, Cliff Curtis, Jonas Smulders and Klara Mucci. Kusijanović directs from a script she penned with Frank Graziano. Rodrigo Teixeira’s RT Features, Martin Scorsese’s Sikelia Prods. and Croatian outfit Antitalent produce.

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The Match Factory is selling the film in Cannes this week.

Deadline sat down with Kusijanović, who is 39-weeks pregnant with her first baby (in unbearably hot and humid weather conditions in Cannes no less), in advance of her film’s premiere to talk about the film’s journey and what it’s like sitting on the precipice what looks set to be some major life changes.

DEADLINE: It’s your debut feature and here you are in Cannes. What an achievement this is already for you. What was your journey like into the director’s chair?  

KUSIJANOVIC: I grew up in Dubrovnik, which is a very small city by the sea. It’s almost like a fisherman’s village and is very, very medieval. Growing up there as kids, we were always out on the street in big groups. Looking back at the past, I think all these games we played as kids made us really use our imagination. We would put on these big shows for the parents every night, building tents and there were like 20 of us. It really was like directing. At the age of six or seven, I started as a child actress, acting in the theater. But then I didn’t want to pursue acting so I went to produce movies for college. Then I moved to New York and worked as a producer for five years. There was one documentary project where we didn’t have a director and so I kind of stepped in. When I did that, everything made sense and I knew I wanted to direct movies.

DEADLINE: What does Murina mean?

KUSIJANOVIC: Murina is a moray eel. It’s the only animal that bits her own skin to free herself. For me, that was a metaphor of our protagonist. She’s ready to even sacrifice her own family to escape that place.

DEADLINE: What was the inspiration for this movie? How did the idea come about?

KUSIJANOVIC: I grew up on an island with my grandmother and my great grandmother. During the summers, I was free on this island and the contrast of this with stark, dangerous nature and hormones, that was kind of my upbringing and that inspired my short film Into The Blue. That film is about kids completely free in themselves in contrast to this nature. Nature is violent and their own violence is in juxtaposition to that. When I finished that film, I realized that I really wanted to stay more in that world. I started writing that same character, Julija, for the feature film. The world of chauvinism and family relationships and those dynamics started opening up because I was also spending a lot of time in Croatia at a time prepping the movie and the character really came to me there. Her desire for life, love, wanting more and wanting to leave her environment is probably something that is very close to me.

DEADLINE: You mention this world of chauvinism – is that something you’ve felt exposed to a lot in your life growing up in Croatia?

KUSIJANOVIC: I think that that mentality exists everywhere. Once someone asked me, “so how much chauvinism do you think there is?” and I said, “you mean in percentages? How long have you got?” There’s as much as you allow. It can be a cultural thing though, like in Balkan countries. But I also see the same thing in any country in the world. You know it’s just what we call it. In the U.S. we call it chauvinism, in Croatia, we call it mentality. In some other cultures, it’s maybe called culture or to push it further, customs. I think that it only has one name, which is sexism.

DEADLINE: What was the journey getting this film financed and off the ground?

KUSIJANOVIC: I was very lucky. I started financing this film, in 2017, which was a very important year for all female filmmakers. I definitely felt like I was making the movie in the right time. I had just finished my master’s degree from Columbia, I had premiered a very successful short film and that was kind of a calling card because it’s also in the same world of this film. Another beautiful benefit I had is that I’m both European and American so the film was financed both through the private equity from the American and Brazilian sides but also European soft money. It was really the right time, the right project and everything moved very efficiently and smoothly I have to say.

DEADLINE: Where did you shoot this?

KUSIJANOVIC: We shot it on this Croatian Island that my grandmother grew up on and the island I was raised on. It was incredible because the all the underwater scenes and like night scenes in a cave, it was my grandmother who came up with the location. She said to me, “why don’t you go and look at that cave, because it’s not so dangerous but it’s very deep. I used to swim there as a girl.” So, it was the perfect location in the end. Then the house we shot the Hvar, which is very beautiful. And then the older outside that are outside of house. Exterior locations were shot in Kornati National Park. For me, that was a very important part of the film, because I wanted the nature to be stark and without any vegetation. I wanted characters to be completely exposed to the sun, almost like lizards that have nowhere to go and nowhere to hide and everything is wrong. There’s both desire and anger and everything is on the surface.

DEADLINE: How did Covid affect things for the film?

KUSIJANOVIC: We’d finished the shoot but Covid did stab us in post-production. It was just important for us to keep patient and keep our resilience and hopes up. I started developing other projects during that time so it was a good way to contemplate what the next step will be.

DEADLINE: Let’s talk about the underwater scenes because there are so many of them and they are so beautiful and so many important things happen in them. How do you approach these underwater scenes as a director?

KUSIJANOVIC: I think shooting underwater scene and to just have a camera underwater is useless. So, unless there’s a real purpose and actual scene happening, then I didn’t really go under the water because it’s very complicated. So, we would rehearse those scenes out in the dry as if you’re underwater. There was lots of prep with the actors in the pool. So, these scenes were actually really fun because it’s almost a set above water and then we have a big set up underwater. There’s extra security because each person has a person watching over them underwater so while they are focused on the filming and acting, someone else is focused on their safety. It’s a pretty big setup actually underwater. In the beginning for rehearsals, I went down with them, but for the shoot. I had this hydrophone, like for synchronized swimming. So, there was a speaker underwater and I was with the microphone on top of the water watching the screen and directing them. We would have about 40-minute takes with them underwater.

DEADLINE: Tell me a bit about the casting process.

KUSIJANOVIC: For Into The Blue, I cast Gracija Filipović, my main character. I did regular casting in the city, there were like 100 kids and I picked her. It was so beautiful to work with her there was a real synergy between us so I knew I wanted to work with her again. We grew from having this relationship of me being almost like a mother and she was 13, and then she was 15 and it was more like a big sister and now we are really friends. She’s grown up into this very intelligent, powerful woman. So, with Murina, I really concentrated on building the entire cast around her.

She needed actors were both right for the role but who also knew how to support her in such a complex role where she’s also on screen every single moment. We did castings with her and other actors so we could see the dynamics. In pre-production, we did very extensive rehearsals. We also lived all together for almost a month on the island where I grew up in, and these dynamics were built right there. With physical prep, safety was paramount. Gracija is a professional swimmer and she’s been training for 11 years and she’s a top swimmer. She’s like a fish. In some of the scenes, I would actually have to tell her to swim less professionally!

DEADLINE: What does it mean to you for your debut feature to be selected to play in Cannes?

KUSIJANOVIC: Of course it’s an incredible feeling. I’m so proud. But also because we have been waiting so long for this to premiere, finding this out was a real relief. As a filmmaker, you always feel that you took so much energy from your team, from your actors, from everybody who contributed to this film. So, this felt like we made this all worth it for them. So, it gave me an incredible sense of relief because I have a very strong sense of responsibility to the people I work with. But in terms of what it means for me, it’s just the perfect festival to premiere a film, especially my first film. It’s definitely going to impact the way the film is sold, distributed and now my next film is financed.

DEADLINE: You’re debuting your first feature this week but you’re also nine months pregnant with your first child. A lot of firsts on the near horizon! How does it feel? Might this be a red carpet baby?

KUSIJANOVIC: It is amazing – I’m very excited. It’s incredible that it’s happening at the same time as this premiere. It feels like it’s raining good news at the moment. But yes, I’m so pregnant right now. I’m hoping to drive back to Croatia at the moment but I’m open to delivering the baby in Cannes!

DEADLINE: It’s so great to see another female director out there. There’s not enough of them. How are you feeling about gender parity in the business at the moment?

KUSIJANOVIC: Directing a movie is always hard and yes, chauvinism does tend to kind of be the general mode on set, so it takes some energy out that is unnecessary. I just did an incredible shoot in Mexico a couple of months ago and I was on set with only women. The gaffers, the grip, the DP – everybody was a woman and it was very emotional. My DP was also pregnant and the gaffer had this little microphone in her ear and I thought it was just a regular microphone but she was listening to her fifth child on the monitor and I just thought what an amazing, incredible experience this all was. So, I do think the mood of working like this is more inspiring and freeing and I was definitely more focussed on my work as a result.

DEADLINE: What films or directors inspire you?

KUSIJANOVIC: Jane Campion. She’s just amazing. And I think to this day my favourite movie is still The Piano. It’s so complex and has so many layers. The way she portrays a woman as a mother and rivalry with a child and her relationship with sexuality and towards an oppressive society is amazing. It’s all in one film and it a film that ages so well.

DEADLINE: Obviously you’ve got a lot going on personally, but what do you see happening in the next couple of years for you career-wise?

KUSIJANOVIC: I always stay open. Often when I don’t plan things, the universe finds a way to make things better than what I would have planned for myself. But I am working on my next film and it’s something that I will hopefully shoot in New York. That is the city that I feel is my second home. It’s definitely shaped me into the person I am right now and I feel a real connection with that city.

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