How Swiss director Michael Steiner doubled India and Spain for Pakistan

Steiner talks to KFTV about his kidnap drama, And Tomorrow We Will be Dead, including doubling Pakistan, using GoT sets and securing Disney

Swiss action thriller And Tomorrow We Will Be Dead is based on the true story of a Swiss couple, Daniela Widmer (Morgane Ferru) and David Och (Sven Schelker), who, in 2011, while travelling in Pakistan were kidnapped and held hostage by a group of Taliban fighters.

Their escape – reportedly the first ever by hostages – is captured in this gripping film, which was a world premiere at the Zurich film festival and screened at the European Film Market in Berlin last month.

The film is a Zodiac Pictures production in co-production with MMC Zodiac, SRF and Blue. It was supported by the Federal Office of Culture, the Zurich Film Foundation, SRG SSR, the cantons of St.Gallen and Lucerne and Suissimage.

Here KFTV talks to the film’s renowned Swiss director Michael Steiner about doubling the Sierra Nevada in Spain and India for Pakistan, taking over Ridley Scott’s old film sets, making Bollywood actors more “European” and securing Disney as distributors.  

How did you discover this story and when did the film start to come together?

Steiner: I was living in south-east Asia when the kidnapping happened and read in some Swish news that Daniela and David had come back from Pakistan. I looked up on a map where they’d been abducted and I figured out they were taken 500km to the mountainous region of Waziristan and handed over to the Taliban. So, I called them up and met them to find out more. The Swiss media just said they’d been abducted and been there for a year and it was their fault, as if they’d driven there themselves.

Daniela and David told me their story and how they wanted to get the truth out, and I said I’d like to make a movie about it. That was 10 years ago in 2012. But they wanted to publish a book first (Und Morgen Seid Ihr Tot), so I waited, figuring it would then be easier to write a screenplay.

What did Daniela and David tell you about their experience and the risks they took to try and escape?

It was obviously a horrendous experience for them. They told me that when they planned the escape they thought their chances were 50-50. They were terrified of being caught, but also their escape route potentially meant walking for a week through difficult mountain terrain littered with mines. There was a US soldier there who was caught trying to escape and they put him in an iron cage for a month.

Did your script stick to what was in the book?

Not everything. There are, of course, some dramatic adjustments. I met them several times over the years to get the full story, and it became a trusted relationship.

After years of writing the script with Daniel Young, I wanted to shoot in 2015, but the project was denied Swiss government funds. Then a year later a new production company, Zodiac Pictures, came onboard, to push it forward. They brought on Urs Buehler as a new writer. Daniel and I already had 16 drafts then Urst started from scratch and came up with a new version. In the end it was a mix of both our efforts.

Zodiac then went back to the Swish state with a whole new business plan and screenplay and that made the difference for getting the funding second time round.

It must have been a relief after a long journey to get the film made?

It was crazy. I’m probably the most successful film maker in Switzerland, but it was a controversial subject matter. A lot of people doubted their story and didn’t want to touch it. I felt like I was betraying Daniela and David all those years because I couldn’t get the movie made to tell their story.

Can you tell me about where you filmed and what issues you faced?

I considered shooting in Pakistan, but the negotiations to film there are led by the Pakistan government and they are not portrayed well in the movie. So we went to India at the start of 2020 to film in Rajasthan, which looks like the Pakistan terrain we were after. Daniela had shown me lots of pictures of what the area in Pakistan looked like, and I was in constant dialogue with her throughout the shoot.

In India they check all the screenplays, but I think the fact it portrayed Pakistan in a bad light played to our advantage.

Did you face any issues filming there?

The weather and terrain conditions weren’t too bad. We chose to shoot between January and March so it wasn’t so hot – between 18 and 25 degrees.

The main issue logistically was getting all the equipment and crew from our base in Mumbai to Rajasthan, which took about three days. They always have big crew on productions, so some days we had 200 people on set. There was a lot of travelling involved, but local outfit La Fabrique were really helpful on that front.

What about using locals as cast members?

A lot of the actors were from Muslim communities and because right wing hardliner Narendra Modi became Prime Minister they were afraid to act in the movie because they thought it could play against them. But with time and the support of my Indian co-producers, Deborah Benattar and Javed Wani from La Fabrique, we got there. They sorted all the Indian state paperwork and found the cast in Mumbai from Bollywood. But I had to bring in Giles Foreman, my acting coach, to make the Indian actors not act Bollywood like.

How did that work?

We had to stop them opening their eyes so much. We did a 10-day coaching course with them about how to do European acting and teach them how to speak the language of Pashtu. Unfortunately, they still got some of the lines wrong, so we had to do dubbing afterwards in a sound studio.

But it was a great experience working with the Indian actors – they loved being in a European movie. Everything we needed for filming in India was there.

How come you moved to film in Spain?

We were filming in India when Covid struck. Suddenly everything changed. The locals were suddenly a bit more wary of us white people there. We were staying in a hotel where before they would be friendly and chatty, but with Covid, they would just drop our food at the door and run.

So we left India in March unsure if we’d be ever able to return to complete filming. Months went by until by the summer we realised we had to find somewhere else to shoot.

We thought about Italy, but the terrain didn’t fit. Then considered Morocco, but we wanted to be closer to home in case anyone got sick. So we turned to Spain instead. The Sierra Nevada was perfect with great landscapes and a load of former film sets lying around. We actually shot the scenes on Lala’s farm where Daniela and David escaped on Ridley Scott’s old Exodus: Gods and Kings set. There were also old sets from Game of Thrones around us. It’s all free, so why not use it.

How did you find your two lead cast members (Morgane Ferru and Sven Schelker)?

Sven was my first choice, but I was looking for Daniella for almost a year. Then Sven suggested Morgane. I auditioned her and immediately gave her the part – she was made for the role.

What has the reaction been like to the film back home?

In the Swiss German part of the country when the film came out, some newspapers didn’t even write about it because they’d attacked Daniela and David when they were released. They were trying to ignore it. In the western part they wrote about it because they hadn’t.

It was great to have Disney onboard as the local distributor in Switzerland where the film was released (on 28 October 2021). However, the timing wasn’t great because of Covid. Anything not James Bond struggled.

But we are hopeful it will sell around the world through The Playmaker Munich.

What are you working on next?

I am shooting a series about detectives in Basle for Swiss TV called The Observers. It’s comedy and suspense mixed. I’m shooting six episodes across 60 days.

 

How Swiss director Michael Steiner doubled India and Spain for Pakistan
And Tomorrow We Will Be Dead
How Swiss director Michael Steiner doubled India and Spain for Pakistan
And Tomorrow We Will Be Dead

Swiss action thriller And Tomorrow We Will Be Dead is based on the true story of a Swiss couple, Daniela Widmer (Morgane Ferru) and David Och (Sven Schelker), who, in 2011, while travelling in Pakistan were kidnapped and held hostage by a group of Taliban fighters.

Their escape – reportedly the first ever by hostages – is captured in this gripping film, which was a world premiere at the Zurich film festival and screened at the European Film Market in Berlin last month.

The film is a Zodiac Pictures production in co-production with MMC Zodiac, SRF and Blue. It was supported by the Federal Office of Culture, the Zurich Film Foundation, SRG SSR, the cantons of St.Gallen and Lucerne and Suissimage.

Here KFTV talks to the film’s renowned Swiss director Michael Steiner about doubling the Sierra Nevada in Spain and India for Pakistan, taking over Ridley Scott’s old film sets, making Bollywood actors more “European” and securing Disney as distributors.  

How did you discover this story and when did the film start to come together?

Steiner: I was living in south-east Asia when the kidnapping happened and read in some Swish news that Daniela and David had come back from Pakistan. I looked up on a map where they’d been abducted and I figured out they were taken 500km to the mountainous region of Waziristan and handed over to the Taliban. So, I called them up and met them to find out more. The Swiss media just said they’d been abducted and been there for a year and it was their fault, as if they’d driven there themselves.

Daniela and David told me their story and how they wanted to get the truth out, and I said I’d like to make a movie about it. That was 10 years ago in 2012. But they wanted to publish a book first (Und Morgen Seid Ihr Tot), so I waited, figuring it would then be easier to write a screenplay.

What did Daniela and David tell you about their experience and the risks they took to try and escape?

It was obviously a horrendous experience for them. They told me that when they planned the escape they thought their chances were 50-50. They were terrified of being caught, but also their escape route potentially meant walking for a week through difficult mountain terrain littered with mines. There was a US soldier there who was caught trying to escape and they put him in an iron cage for a month.

Did your script stick to what was in the book?

Not everything. There are, of course, some dramatic adjustments. I met them several times over the years to get the full story, and it became a trusted relationship.

After years of writing the script with Daniel Young, I wanted to shoot in 2015, but the project was denied Swiss government funds. Then a year later a new production company, Zodiac Pictures, came onboard, to push it forward. They brought on Urs Buehler as a new writer. Daniel and I already had 16 drafts then Urst started from scratch and came up with a new version. In the end it was a mix of both our efforts.

Zodiac then went back to the Swish state with a whole new business plan and screenplay and that made the difference for getting the funding second time round.

It must have been a relief after a long journey to get the film made?

It was crazy. I’m probably the most successful film maker in Switzerland, but it was a controversial subject matter. A lot of people doubted their story and didn’t want to touch it. I felt like I was betraying Daniela and David all those years because I couldn’t get the movie made to tell their story.

Can you tell me about where you filmed and what issues you faced?

I considered shooting in Pakistan, but the negotiations to film there are led by the Pakistan government and they are not portrayed well in the movie. So we went to India at the start of 2020 to film in Rajasthan, which looks like the Pakistan terrain we were after. Daniela had shown me lots of pictures of what the area in Pakistan looked like, and I was in constant dialogue with her throughout the shoot.

In India they check all the screenplays, but I think the fact it portrayed Pakistan in a bad light played to our advantage.

Did you face any issues filming there?

The weather and terrain conditions weren’t too bad. We chose to shoot between January and March so it wasn’t so hot – between 18 and 25 degrees.

The main issue logistically was getting all the equipment and crew from our base in Mumbai to Rajasthan, which took about three days. They always have big crew on productions, so some days we had 200 people on set. There was a lot of travelling involved, but local outfit La Fabrique were really helpful on that front.

What about using locals as cast members?

A lot of the actors were from Muslim communities and because right wing hardliner Narendra Modi became Prime Minister they were afraid to act in the movie because they thought it could play against them. But with time and the support of my Indian co-producers, Deborah Benattar and Javed Wani from La Fabrique, we got there. They sorted all the Indian state paperwork and found the cast in Mumbai from Bollywood. But I had to bring in Giles Foreman, my acting coach, to make the Indian actors not act Bollywood like.

How did that work?

We had to stop them opening their eyes so much. We did a 10-day coaching course with them about how to do European acting and teach them how to speak the language of Pashtu. Unfortunately, they still got some of the lines wrong, so we had to do dubbing afterwards in a sound studio.

But it was a great experience working with the Indian actors – they loved being in a European movie. Everything we needed for filming in India was there.

How come you moved to film in Spain?

We were filming in India when Covid struck. Suddenly everything changed. The locals were suddenly a bit more wary of us white people there. We were staying in a hotel where before they would be friendly and chatty, but with Covid, they would just drop our food at the door and run.

So we left India in March unsure if we’d be ever able to return to complete filming. Months went by until by the summer we realised we had to find somewhere else to shoot.

We thought about Italy, but the terrain didn’t fit. Then considered Morocco, but we wanted to be closer to home in case anyone got sick. So we turned to Spain instead. The Sierra Nevada was perfect with great landscapes and a load of former film sets lying around. We actually shot the scenes on Lala’s farm where Daniela and David escaped on Ridley Scott’s old Exodus: Gods and Kings set. There were also old sets from Game of Thrones around us. It’s all free, so why not use it.

How did you find your two lead cast members (Morgane Ferru and Sven Schelker)?

Sven was my first choice, but I was looking for Daniella for almost a year. Then Sven suggested Morgane. I auditioned her and immediately gave her the part – she was made for the role.

What has the reaction been like to the film back home?

In the Swiss German part of the country when the film came out, some newspapers didn’t even write about it because they’d attacked Daniela and David when they were released. They were trying to ignore it. In the western part they wrote about it because they hadn’t.

It was great to have Disney onboard as the local distributor in Switzerland where the film was released (on 28 October 2021). However, the timing wasn’t great because of Covid. Anything not James Bond struggled.

But we are hopeful it will sell around the world through The Playmaker Munich.

What are you working on next?

I am shooting a series about detectives in Basle for Swiss TV called The Observers. It’s comedy and suspense mixed. I’m shooting six episodes across 60 days.

 

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