Across her five previous features, Austrian director Jessica Hausner (Amour Fou, Lourdes, Little Joe) has developed a distinctly unique tone––one which carries through her sixth outing Club Zero. Led by Mia Wasikowska, the dark satire follows a nutrition teacher at an elite school whose relationship with five students takes a dangerous turn. While Hausner is perhaps intentionally poking the bear as it relates to eating disorders, one could swap out the subject of her new film to another topic du jour and still retain a cogent, one-of-a-kind look at cult mentality.

Ahead of Film Movement’s theatrical release of Club Zero this Friday––followed by their digital release of new 4K restorations of Lovely Rita and Hotel, along with Lourdes, on March 29––I spoke with Hausner about being inspired by fairy tales, the provocation of withholding food, collaborating with Mia Wasikowska, divisive reactions, the overwhelming stress of youth, and more.

The Film Stage: You’re dealing with themes of cult mentality and blind faith but putting it on this kind of universal canvas in the sense that everyone eats, everyone has a relationship with food in some way. When did you decide that would be your entryway into the story?

Jessica Hausner: I started from the point where I wanted to make a film about manipulation and also radicalization. And I remember I was inspired by a fairy tale called The Pied Piper of Hamelin. The fairy tale is not at all about food intake, but it is about an adult who seduces a group of young children and abducts them from their home. The thing that interested me about it was the fact that this seduction takes place so the children follow that adult free-willingly in the fairy tale. He has a very beautiful flute and he plays a wonderful melody. And in my film it’s a teacher who offers an interesting ideology. And this ideology provides the children not only with ideas about healthy food, but also with more than that, with a meaning in life. And I think that’s the trigger that works and that seduces them in the end. So in a way, nutrition is just an example.

And then, on the other hand, it’s more than that because nutrition is so existential and it really touches us in our very physical, very existential moment. It’s a bit like breathing. You just have to do it. And refusing food has a very strong impact on society. Also in religion: fasting has always been part of religion because it’s supposed to open up a more spiritual ability in people. But also in a political context and hunger strikes: you could think what led to them die of hunger. But that’s never the case. If some political person starts a hunger strike, it’s always stressing everyone. It is a very strong means of provocation and making your statement in society. It’s very political.

In all your films you have a central concept, but then you really push it to the extreme in the sense that, by the end, it feels like you’ve explored every corner you can. In your writing process, do you start knowing kind where you’ll end up or is that a natural process knowing you will push your characters to certain extreme lengths?

Yeah, I normally start from a very simple idea, and sometimes this idea does come from a fairy tale. I like fairy tales because they offer a sort of insight in what humans thought a long time ago. And I find it interesting because then I can sort of relate and think, “Okay, what of it is still true? What has become of that story throughout the centuries?” And it helps me to see the difference between what is the specialty of the nowadays times and what is something very basic that has been the same throughout history for us humans. It helps me to create the balance in my story because I want both. I want to touch on our very existence and human needs, but I also want to find the relevance for us nowadays. What does it mean for us nowadays?

So I often start from being inspired by a fairytale, which are also very simple stories. I love simple stories because they also hardly change. It’s like boy-meets-girl. That’s really simple. For example, Lovely Rita, my first film, a girl kills her parents. Very simple. And you ask about the ending. So yes: the ending is there already from the beginning. It’s that simple. 

I wanted to ask about the casting of Mia Wasikowska. I admire her career––she seems very interested in international cinema and working with very interesting directors like yourself. Were there certain projects that caught your eye? How did those conversations start with her? And what were your conversations about the tone of the film, how she should approach the character? 

Yes, I saw Mia Wasikowska in many films. I’m actually a huge fan of hers for a very long time. I saw her in the TV show In Treatment. I think that was 2009 when I saw it. She was really young back then and I was totally fascinated by her performance back then already. And since then I’ve followed her and recently I saw a film called Bergman Island by Mia Hansen-Løve, a French director. And I thought, “Interesting. Maybe Mia Wasikowska is working with European directors now.” So I was, of course, also thinking that’s maybe my chance, because I would have never dared to ask her. Because we cannot offer the money that she might earn normally. We’re far away in Europe somewhere. But then when I saw her in the Mia Hansen-Løve film, I asked Mia Wasikowska if she would be interested in my film, so I sent her the script. She liked it. We talked on Zoom because Mia lives in Australia. We found out that we can connect well. Mia also writes herself and is planning to also direct. So the conversation was on a very high… I would say a very pleasant, interesting intellectual level.

And when we started to create the role of Ms. Novak, we also interviewed people who had been part of the cult––ex-cult members––and we asked them about their cult leaders. What were the cult leaders like? What was their personality? What was their need? Why did they do what they did? Did they really believe in their crazy messages? All those sort of questions. And that was inspiring. And Mia and me, we then decided to go for a version of Ms. Novak where Ms. Novak really believes in what she says. So she’s not the bad guy, but she’s more of a saint. She’s a crazy saint. She really thinks that it’s going to work.

I admire your approach to cinematography and production design. It’s an interesting dichotomy where there’s a very bright, vibrant look to the film and you juxtapose it with a darker undertone with the storytelling. It’s a heightened palette but you are also immersing the audience, like how you introduce the ensemble with a 360-degree pan.

After I’ve written the script, I start to visualize the film. I draw a little storyboard for each scene because the drawing process helps me to visualize the scene. And sometimes, through drawing, I also find out about the rhythm of the scenes, because the two most important questions for me when I think about the visualization is the perspective and the distance. And when I find the right perspective and the right distance, the next question is the time. How much time does it take? And sometimes, in the script, the scene is one sentence. In the film it’s three minutes. And sometimes in the script it’s three pages, and in the film it’s half a minute. So in my case, it’s not obvious how that is going to be translated into images. And I think the reason for that is that I sometimes like to create this kind of confusion about what is important and what is not.

So when I write the script, it’s very traditional; it works like a normal script. But when I think of the film and then I think of the visuals, sometimes I blur it a little bit, sometimes between one event and the other one there is a long gap of nothingness, or some scene is suddenly two minutes long because that’s the real time and I don’t edit it. And sometimes there is an ellipsis and we miss a lot of scenes and it’s a time jump. And again: we’re sort of thrown into a new context. So I like to do that because the way I make films, it’s very much about showing that the way we perceive the world is not 100% sure. It’s not the truth: “That’s reality. And we see everything and we understand everything.” No, we sometimes don’t see everything. I often have scenes where an actor comes into frame and goes out of the frame, but the camera stands still, and it means that we don’t know what he’s doing behind the camera. That’s bad luck, but that’s how I try to portray the world. It’s complex and the viewer is not omnipotent. 

All of your films feel like uncompromised visions, and some have had divisive reactions. As a filmmaker, do you appreciate the kind of conversations your films create?

Well, I don’t know if I really appreciate it, but I understand it. The more films I make, the more I understand why that happens. And I think it has got to do with that largely distanced perspective that I choose. In my films there is a distance that allows or invites the audience to make up their own mind. So what you see in my film, it’s not very clear. Is it good? Is it bad? Is it sad? Is that funny? What is it? What does the film want me to think or to feel that there is a gap? It’s a little bit open to everyone, to think what you want to give it. You have to make up your own mind if this is something you find right or wrong. And I like to do that. That’s why I make films.

But of course the result is that I have very many different opinions because every person has a different perception of things. And a lot of people don’t like that openness. When they see the film they say, “What does it tell me? Why is it so open?” So I already know those reactions. Still: sometimes I’m still sad not everyone embraces that. But that’s how it is. 

I’m always curious to hear that because, for me, it’s refreshing to see something that is not like any other film I’ve seen that year.

Yes, me too. I also like it. As a viewer that’s what I like to see in a film: something unusual, and that makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. 

Yeah, exactly. I read the film was partially inspired by your time at a Catholic boarding school in the ’80s, which was probably carried through some of your other films in religious regards. With Club Zero, what specifically did you pull from that time?

I think in this film––especially the question about food intake and bulimia and anorexia––are topics that I knew well from my youth as well. That was also part of that only-girls Catholic school I went to in the 1980s––many girls had eating disorders. And when I did the research for this film, I also interviewed teachers and caregivers in boarding schools and asked them if that was still the case. I was really curious to know: is eating disorders still the number-one psychological issue in schools? And they told me that it’s again increasing, also with boys. Now boys also have eating disorders.

And the other thing they told me that it’s very much also about––self-harming, like cutting your skin. That was not so popular when I was young. I think every youth has their own diseases and being young is a delicate moment. It is very often the case that you’re confronted with an overwhelming stress of, “Who am I? Who should I be? What is expected from me?” So there is a lot of pressure on young people in our society as well as it was back then. 

I just interviewed Christian Friedel for The Zone of Interest and he discussed his great experience working with Sandra Hüller for the first time in your film Amour Fou. They are both having quite a big year, along with Anatomy of a Fall. Have you seen their latest films, and do you have any special memories working together?

That’s really great, especially in The Zone of Interest, when both Christian Friedel and Sandra Hüller are together, because they were together in Amour Fou. I totally understand. I think those two are incredibly great actors. When I worked with both of them I was so impressed. It’s such a sensitive and sensible quality there. It’s so elegant. It’s incredible. We can really sort of work together in a way where those actors develop a very, very fine instrument of how they perform. So every twinkle of the eye is sort of real and plausible and interesting. They both have that incredible talent that makes you want to watch them. I think that’s also something an actor has to have and they both have. It’s like the light is switched on and you want to see what they do. 

Club Zero opens on Friday, March 15.

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