In his latest film Florian Habicht has told a New York love story — his own. Although how much of it is real is up to the audience to decide. Whatever the case, the movie looks set to catapult the eccentric film-maker to new heights, writes Scott Kara.
Florian Habicht and Masha Yakovenko make a lovely couple. They really do. They're both tall, striking, and her grace and beauty is an intriguing contrast to his endearing goofiness and oddball style.
They certainly make a gorgeous duo in Habicht's latest film, Love Story, in which the director-actor plays himself, a Kiwi film-maker in New York, who meets a Russian woman (Yakovenko) on the subway, falls in love and convinces her to make a movie about their blossoming romance.
As with his other films, he combines his Elam art school pedigree with his uncanny ability to get on a level with anyone he meets (something he did most notably in 2004's Kaikohe Demolition where he delved into the lives of demolition derby fans in the Far North).
Love Story also blurs the line between fiction and reality, and merges fantasy with documentary. So much so that you'd swear their love is real.
But do you think he's letting on? "When people watch the film they can try and figure it out," he smiles, over a coffee at an Auckland cafe.
Yakovenko - who hasn't seen the film yet and didn't want to see footage as it was shot "because I didn't want to be self-conscious and over-think it" - isn't giving too much away either. Although she's perhaps a little more revealing than Habicht.
"We went through whatever emotions we were going through in the film, and then we did some intense scenes, and that really tore down that wall of separateness," she says on the phone from New York.
One thing is for sure, this is a love story with a difference. You see, while Habicht was in New York for a year during 2009/10 on the Arts Foundation's inaugural Harriet Friedlander Residency, he intended making a film but didn't have a story. So he hit the streets of the Big Apple with his camera to ask people what his film should be about - and later, what story twists this romantic journey should take.
"I had a Marcello moment," he beams, referring to actor Marcello Mastroianni who played a director with writer's block in Federico Fellini's 1964 film 8 1/2. Mastroianni's character has people running round making a film yet he has no idea what it's about.
"And that's when I went out on the street and asked my Korean shopkeeper Mr Sheen, and people on the subway for help."
As the project went on, he talked to New Yorkers from many different walks of life.
There's the cocky stockbroker ("Do you even know what a stockbroker does?" she asks Habicht after he jumps into her cab uninvited); the homeless guy who looks like Santa ("He's like this beat poet or something, his brain is really beautiful"), and subway-dwelling entertainer, Richie, who sings to people on the trains (although for copyright reasons Habicht couldn't use his music in the film. The soundtrack does swoon, though, with music by film composers like Georges Delerue and Ennio Morricone.)
When Habicht viewed the footage he knew he could make a film out of people's "great wild responses".
Also, key to the story is his father Frank who pops up sporadically throughout the film offering hilarious advice to his son via Skype. In that spirit, here he is now in his cameo role in this profile about his son ...
"Our family have always had very close relationships. We are pretty open about everything there is no doubt about it. Very, very open." - Frank Habicht
Habicht's dad is a renowned photographer who made his name in London and Berlin in the swinging 60s. "He's like my best friend, he's like my brother," says the film-maker. While Frank has appeared in some of his other films, including his 2000 short Liebestraume and as Santa in Kaikohe Demolition, his part in Love Story is a starring role and helps kick the film along.
Frank has suggestions about everything from the need for fireworks and some Michael Jackson dancing (just like in Boy), to some rather saucy ideas for the all-important love scene.
This love scene is one of the best to feature in a New Zealand film, with its mix of sensuality and hilarity that takes place in the bathtub. And there are other fruity romantic moments, like Yakovenko eating breakfast out of Habicht's sunken chest, and a lovely segment where he leads Yakovenko on a blindfolded walk through Chinatown.
It's an odd, funny, and beautifully touching film that brings together his love of film-makers such as Fellini and Portuguese director Joao Cesar Monteiro ("For me the greatest films ever"). And there are even hints of Borat and Flight of the Conchords, but it's all done in his own unique and offbeat style.
It could just be the film which launches Habicht from quirky, art-house film festival regular to a wider audience. It's also a contender for film of the year and if the laughs Love Story got on the opening night of the New Zealand Film Festival earlier this month are anything to go by, it bodes well for its general release in two weeks.
Habicht, who was born in Berlin in 1975 and moved to New Zealand in 1982, is an affable and warm chap - even if he comes across a little awkward at times. Or as Yakovenko puts it: "He's very obviously eccentric."
"I felt like a really serious person with him around, and I'm quite a serious person, but I've never felt quite so serious," she laughs.
He's also humble, which is illustrated by him letting the people of New York decide the direction of Love Story. He openly admits he's not the greatest writer, which is one of the reasons he makes his films in a collaborative style.
"I jam off people, get ideas off people, and when you connect with people you feel alive afterwards and so I wanted to make a love story but I wanted to have all these amazing New Yorkers in it."
"He always had a very, very open ear and eye for the human environment. He loves people." - Frank Habicht
It's the film-maker's lovely way with people that makes him so disarming and means he can approach almost anyone without getting a knuckle sandwich. And he says his pink pants, which he wears a lot in the film, also help break the ice.
"When you're in a city where no one knows you, wearing pink pants does get a lot of smiles. People come up and talk to you. And I put my pink pants on for a lot of the filming because it works."
"It's not always recommended to trust complete strangers, but Florian has a feel for people, about who you can trust or not. It's a gift." - Frank Habicht
As a film-maker, Habicht also reckons he's not intimidating because he only uses a small Canon 5D Mark II - pretty much a top-of-the-line handycam - and he's not confronting.
"I don't really judge people," he says. Love Story is his most personal and revealing work to date in both an emotional and physical sense. It premiered at the film festival and during Habicht's speeches - he talked before and after the film, and even called Yakovenko as the audience listened in on speakerphone - he said he was still "feeling a little bit raw" about the film.
"But," he explains a few days later, "because I was the producer and director I knew that I had control of what was in the film. If someone else was cutting it together then I don't think I would have done lots of those things. I just feel very free. And Masha was as well ... she was super-trusting, and she didn't want to watch any of the footage because she just wanted to keep it real. I feel like we both didn't censor ourselves.
"And I was in love with the city. In summer I just felt so alive, free and happy. And also creatively inspired."
"Florian inherited this love for people, and visual sites, and New York is such a great city for both." - Frank Habicht
Habicht believes "all film is an illustion. Film-making is contrived. But my passion about this illusion, this magic thing called cinema, is finding the truth and the realness in that, and I've spent 10 years playing with it and exploring it.
"Film-making also takes over my whole life," he admits, and is the reason he has made five feature films in 10 years, which isn't bad going.
In 2003's twisted fairy tale Woodenhead he was dealing with "real personalities in a contrived fantasy world", Kaikohe Demolition had fantastical, almost dream-like scenes presented as documentary, Rubbings From A Live Man - with eccentric artist Warwick Broadhead - was like a performance documentary, and during the making of his fishing film Land of the Long White Cloud he learned how to document people and "not look through the camera while I was filming".
"He also has a little bit of black humour. But it's beautiful." - Frank Habicht
And with Love Story he has blurred the lines between documentary, fiction, and fantasy even further but at the same time made his most appealing and accomplished film - and he did it all with limited funding.
"If you haven't got a big budget then your weapon is being honest and original. And it sounds really simple but it's actually really hard. But the things that you could see as a disadvantage, like not having a script, they were like my advantages and I was embracing them and trying to make something really, really honest."
And he knew it was about time he stepped up and made his best film yet.
"I did feel like I was a little bit stuck in the last few years, I had to really push myself to make something amazing. I applied for funding while I was in New York and didn't get it. I had been making films for 10 years, and it is so hard to get things funded, so I was having a hard time of it. But my survival film-making instincts kicked in and I thought, 'Man, now is the time. You're in New York you have to do something really f***** amazing if you want to make it to the next level'. So I really felt like I found myself."
This dark and surreal début showed that Habicht was a film-maker who makes films like no one else. Like a twisted fairytale for grown ups, Woodenhead tells the story of Gert, a man charged with driving Princess Plum to her wedding - and along the way they encounter everything from murderers to rampaging five-year-olds.
Kaikohe Demolition (2004)
This delightful film about demolition derby fans in the Far North put Habicht on the film-making map. Without this documentary we would not have met characters such as Uncle Bimm, Ben and John whose passion for smashing up cars and soaking in the hot springs was a joy to watch.
Rubbings From A Live Man (2008)
A strange yet charming film about eccentric stage performer and artist Warwick Broadhead. Instead of telling the artist's story, Broadhead re-enacts, or performs, parts of his life for the film to create a whimsical documentary.
Land of the Long White Cloud (2009)
Habicht's return to the Far North finds him on Ninety Mile Beach talking to those taking part in the Snapper Classic fishing competition. Like a sequel to Kaikohe, although not quite as good, it's a film about having fun and getting fisher folk's take on everything from the impact of Princess Diana's death to the contemplative nature of fishing.
Love Story opens at cinemas on August 11.