The Girl and the Spider

Body horror and compositing: The directors of The Girl and the Spider go deep

An interview with filmmakers Ramon and Silvan Zürcher, whose new film is the second instalment in a unique animal trilogy.

In The Girl and the Spider, Lisa (Liliane Amuat) is moving out, leaving her flatmate Mara (Henriette Confurius) behind. Set over just two days, it’s a film of limited action but enormous transformation as Mara grapples with impending loneliness as her friend leaves her. Animals and people alike flow through the space, disrupting and disorienting it. Mara’s internal crisis becomes externalized through cuts and blemishes on her skin. Shot with a precise static camera that emphasizes angles and doorways, the film gives the illusion of fixed and inflexible space, but that idea quickly breaks away to reveal a world that is far more fluid and dream-like.

The Girl and the Spider is a part of a kind of unofficial trilogy dubbed the animal trilogy by its filmmakers. The first film, The Strange Little Cat, was made as part of a university program and set in one apartment over a single day. It was a lovely little treasure of a film that examined the comings and goings of a family who have gathered for dinner with humour and grace. Their now signature style, which favours crowded frames and almost architectural attention to space, challenged the more mainstream aesthetics of typical European arthouse cinema. Ramon and Silvan Zürcher are working on the pre-production for the final instalment, The Sparrow and the Chimney, set to shoot this summer.

Over Zoom, Ramon and Silvan discussed the making of The Girl and the Spider, building the apartments, body horror inspirations and working with animals.

Justine Smith: Can you talk a little about the two apartments? I read they were constructed from scratch.

Ramon Zürcher: When we wrote the script, we wanted to shoot in Berlin. In Berlin, there are huge apartments where there’s a stairway (between two flats). [Ramon gestures to show how they face one another] When we realized we were going to shoot in Switzerland, the apartments in Bern were very different. You have a stairway, and the apartments are more [one after another]. For us, it was important to have the possibility to open up the front door and see the neighbour’s apartment, to be able to link the different flats. We knew we wanted to have some things in the foreground, middle ground and background — different layers.

That’s when we thought of constructing the flats in a studio situation. It was an old brewery in Bern. We rented it out and built the two flats there. It was a kind of “chameleon” flat. One week it was Lisa and Mara and then it became Madame Arnold’s flat with the cat, and so on. The space was always transforming and changing. We had this idea that these flats would get a little claustrophobic, and sometimes you wouldn’t know which flat you were in because we aren’t using a wide shot or many establishing shots. We use close-ups on the face so that from time to time, you lose orientation, and you don’t know where you are anymore.

Since the movie starts with the floor plan and gives you the illusion of a simple space, we have created these fluid spaces. When you walk through the flats, it’s a space that is not as simple as it looks from the beginning. 

JS: Can you talk about the “dream” sequence during the storm?

RZ: We always call that sequence the psychedelic sequence. It’s in the middle of the film, between the first and second day. It’s a bit like when you have a fever and things get a little surreal and expressionistic. Lisa has her party, and it’s getting more concrete that she’s going to leave. Mara is struggling because everybody is so lucky, so happy, so drunk, and she’s with her loneliness. The party is like a springboard for this feverish night. 

First, it’s like the movie is everyday life, a kind of objective reality. Then we wanted to have a period where it’s getting more inner life, subjective. The whole film is like a psycho-drama and like the audiovisual culture of Mara’s inner life. The camera is very static, and you think it’s very objective, but it’s a film-poem about Mara being left by Lisa. The psychedelic part of the film is where it becomes more clear that it’s a stylized situation. We have a lot of curiosity in horror movies. 

Ramon and Silvan Zürcher
The Strange Little Cat by Ramon and Silvan Zürcher

Silvan Zürcher: In The Strange Little Cat, some scenes were like a dream; we didn’t shoot it, but it was always in the script. There were scenes in The Strange Little Cat that transcended the deep observational and entered dream-like spheres, but we didn’t live it out. This curiosity followed us and it was very clear that we wanted to widen the range style-wise, stay observational, increase the subjectivity and enter a dream-like or expressionistic style.

JS: Speaking about horror or psychological elements, were there any works of art that informed this?

RZ: In literature, for example, in the early Murakami novels where everything is like everyday life, and there are these ruptures, these small things that alter perception and everyday life becomes weird or uncanny. In German literature, there’s also this thing called Schauermärchen, these small surreal novels where everything is very everyday, and these small things alter the perception, and everyday life becomes weird or uncanny. Just one idea can shift a whole reality so that things become strange.

(Ingmar) Bergman and his psychological dramas like Cries and Whispers (are also inspiring). There are so many body horror scenes in that film, like where she cuts herself. In The Girl and the Spider, it might not be so present, but there’s a basic interest in showing that inner life, that the skin or the body is a place where the scars or wounds of the psyche become visualized. You can’t look inside the characters. There’s like a membrane where you draw a line between the inner and outer lives. The invisible psyche becomes visible.

I’m also interested in Japanese or Korean cinema, like Audition by Takashi Miike, which starts as a relationship drama, then becomes a sadistic horror movie. I like that there is a certain space within genre to play with the rules. Suddenly, you make a change, and it’s taken in another direction as if you’re constructing another universe, and the spectator loses orientation. I like the irritation because the spectator is awoken, and his gaze (becomes more focused) because he’s losing confidence in reality.

Dead Ringers by Cronenberg also has this very psychological side about these two brothers, then it uses the possibilities of body horror to make invisible things visible. It allows us to go deeper into the inner lives of the characters. 

JS: Could you talk about working with animals? The film features dogs, cats and spiders.

SZ: The dogs were trained. You could stage them, or the animal trainer could. We had two possibilities: first was to shoot all the choreography at once. Or second, we could first shoot the human actors, and then we didn’t move the cameras so that the human actors would take a break, and we would shoot the choreography with the animals. Later in post-production, we could composite both choreographies. So either combined in front of the camera or compositing in post-production.

There was more “improvising ” with the other, they were not as staged. We had a cat that was trained and the other cat that was not. The cat was doing a good job. We could work with her in a similar way as the dogs. The other cat wasn’t trained, and we’d improvise, and we would use compositing. The spider was improvising. The staging of the human and non-human actors is often very exhausting. Like ballet, it has to be done like clockwork to make sure the rhythm and musicality of the choreography are correct. These “improvisation” periods were always very nice because of the animals, and you just had to wait. You pause a director and hope for the best. It was a kind of meditation.

JS: Outside of the animal scenes, how much compositing is going on?

RZ: We used compositing with all the windows because of the green screen, but otherwise, it was primarily animals. We never move the camera, so there are sometimes shots where the left part of the shot is good in three and the right is good in part five, so we combined it. It’s invisible compositing. The other CGI is when Kerstin spills wine from her piercing, and then later, the fly in the room. And the steam when Mara pours coffee on the dog. Also, the older woman on the roof.

JS: The film is part of an unofficial trilogy. What would you like to do with the third part?

RZ: The third installment is called The Sparrow and the Chimney. It’s a loose trilogy called the animal trilogy, which is about human togetherness and behaviour. The first and third parts are mostly about family. The focus is on the character of the mother. The films are formal siblings.

The first film was about the cat, and a cat is somewhat like a domesticated animal, which used to be very wild. The Spider is rather wild and also free, outside and inside. In a house, or its web. Mara is like that, looking for her place, a desire for freedom. For the third part, the sparrow (represents) a utopia. It’s not a static portrait of a mother but about empowerment or emancipation. 

We are shooting in July and August. ■

The Girl and the Spider, directed by Ramon and Silvan Zürcher

The Girl and the Spider is playing exclusively at Cinéma Public starting this Friday, April 15. 

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