Alex Holdridge and Linnea Saasen: Art Reflecting Life

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It’s not every guy that makes an indie cult classic (In Search of a Midnight Kiss), then is unable to get a followup made for seven years. Then again, it’s not every guy that gets to go to Berlin on vacation, fall in love with a beautiful dancer, run off to Montenegro with her, and make a semi-autobiographical film about it. With her as his partner, in life as well as art. But that’s what happened to Alex Holdridge and Linnea Saasen, whose new film Meet Me in Montenegro has, guaranteed, the most unusual backstory you’ve heard in quite awhile. They joined us recently to talk about the film, which they co-wrote, co-directed, and co-starred in, as well as co-lived, for that matter.

Paste: There’s a first question that is often tedious, but usually necessary, about the genesis of the project at hand. But in this case I’m really looking forward to hearing your answer, because after seeing the movie and knowing it was semi-autobiographical, I’m dying to know what parts are fully autobiographical for the two of you!
Alex Holdridge: It was a crazy process. I had done a big table read at the studio because I thought I was making this big studio film. I packed up everything I had and put it in my parents’ garage, and that was that. I was leaving L.A. to do this film in New York that had been years and years in the making. That’s what I thought was going to happen. So I take this vacation to Berlin and meet Linnea, and we fall madly in love on my last night there. And she asks me if I want to take this train ride to the Balkans, and I say, “Yes! Let’s do it!” She thinks she’s going off to art school…

Linnea Saasen: I had already given up my job and my apartment, and I was ready to move to Amsterdam. I had been living in Berlin for about two years.

Holdridge: So we travel down there, and it’s really terrific. Then she gets the news that she got the axe from art school. She was on the waiting list, but it was supposed to this really easy thing, but now it was not going to happen. At that same time, I got a call from the studio head—and it’s bad news when the studio head calls you. My phone didn’t even work; I had to check in to this tiny little hotel to take the phone call. And basically they said, “We decided that we don’t want to pull the trigger on your film this year.” So I walked back out, and we kind of looked at each other and said, “Okay, we have no jobs, no careers, and everything we own is on our backs.” And we thought this was a really hilarious way for two people to meet for the first time. So we went to a hotel in Sarajevo, wrote down and tacked up all the ideas on a wall, and then went back to Berlin.

Paste: I know that dealing with semi-autobiographical characters can be quite a sticky wicket. You’re dealing with your own memories, and the emotions associated with them. But then, as you allude to in the café scene, you’re also trying to make a great movie. And the things that seem interesting and poignant at the moment in real life don’t always exactly translate into a great movie. So I suspect you have to have some kind of distance as well, right?
Holdridge: That’s why it took us four years to do it. (laughs)

Saasen: It’s definitely something that was on our minds constantly—how to make the movie interesting, how to have forward momentum all the time. And yeah, it was an intense and very long process to get it right.

Holdridge: You don’t want it to be this kind of megalomaniac thing. But we thought for our story, since it took place for so long and over several countries, if we could play these parts, we could have something really special. We could go to the cliffs of Montenegro and shoot, and then have flashbacks from three years ago, and use some of our photographs from real life to add some elements of real time, and we could go to Berlin and shoot in these underground clubs…

Saasen: Capture snow.

Holdridge: Yeah, wait for it to snow. These are things you can’t do with a traditional production. You can’t justify waiting six months for snow to get the shot. It’s just not practical. So for us, it was, what can we do to make this special for an independent film? And we had so much stuff. At one point we considered cutting it into a five-and-a-half-hour TV miniseries. There was just so much material and so many side characters. Even characters that only have one line in the film—they probably have several scenes that you’re not seeing. So as we kind of shaped it into a movie, that’s when it kind of got that forward momentum that Linnea was talking about. When we started getting feedback from people.

Saasen: We were very close to the story, and we really needed that outside perspective.

Paste: In that turning point café scene, you ask yourself what you would want your character to do if your life was a movie script. It reminded me of Don Miller’s great book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. I think this is a really fascinating application of what we do as screenwriters. The reason great stories work is because they have great truths in them. This idea that we can analyze our lives like a script—which of you did it come from, and has it affected your real life since then?
Holdridge: That really resonates. Expressing that wasn’t in what we set out to shoot originally. But these movies take on a life of their own and become something that you discover along the way. And these ideas that have been floating around in your life, that you’ve been feeling, end up coming to the surface as you discover what this movie is. So yeah, that is something I’ve thought about for years. I can be very cowardly, and fearful of the world. Over the years, I think part of my writing movies was writing characters who would do the things that I would never have the nerve to do. And I did have that thought that, my God, I’ve been living in Los Angeles for seven years and my biggest experience has been sitting on the 10 in traffic. I would joke with people that my next movie was going to be called General Meeting, because that’s all I seemed to do. I had one meeting with a guy who had been working as a producer for twenty years. And he said, “I’ve been working here for twenty years, and we’ve never made a movie. We’re in the development process, but we’ve never actually made a movie.”

And there is this thing where you’re so concerned with getting these things made that your own life slips through your fingers. And coming to Berlin and meeting Linnea, who has a much more courageous willingness to take chances, really inspired me. You kind of feel like you have this closed-off connection to the world. And then all of a sudden you’re with this amazing person, in a place you never thought you’d go, and you just feel so lucky to be alive. And it’s scary to do that. You’ve got a lot of connections and reasons to do things the way they’ve always been done. And sometimes you just have to say, don’t be such a pussy. Just go for it. So it’s nice to be able to dramatize that.

Paste : Linnea, I’m curious about a specific part of your process here. Your primary medium is dance. And you’re partnering with someone who you love and trust, but for whom film is his primary medium. Was it difficult to trust Alex to work with him on a film project, out of your element?
Saasen: When we met, of course I was madly in love with Alex. And still am. But we kinda just leapt into it. I didn’t even have time to think about it. We just had to tell this story and create something. In the beginning, I was observing and learning. And it was a very organic process. I grew with this project, and learned everything I could. Creating the script was a more personal process, just the two of us. I felt very comfortable working with Alex and exploring our ideas. That was not hard. But then came the shooting. It was very interesting, but a completely new process.

Holdridge: She brings a lot of energy and creativity, and probably more courageousness than I have, which is inspiring. But her role grew and grew throughout the process. When she began, she had never edited anything. But she went over to and started to learn how to use the software. And like a week later, she started cutting some scenes, and the DP and I were on the opposite side of the room cutting, and in no time she was cutting scenes that were way faster than our cuts, and better! In no time at all, she became the main editor. And then all of her drawings are incorporated into the film; that was all after the fact. And then at some point our DP had to go back, and she was shooting B-roll. And she did all the special effects. It may look like that movie has special effects, but all the skies that look so nice, all those colors are all fake. We were shooting in grey skies in the middle of winter. I think it’s hard for her to see how much she became such an incredible voice of the film during this time. That was really fun to see.