by Véronique Gray
“The Zurich Film Festival is a celebration of cinema. It is a festival for everyone.”
One year before the 10th anniversary of the Zurich Film Festival I met earlier this summer with the Managing Director and Co-Founder, Nadja Schildknecht. She talked openly about the festival, which will begin on September 26th with Ron Howard’s racing drama, RUSH. She expects about 60,000 visitors to watch one or more of the 122 films.
It has been 9 years since she started in her current position after working as a respected model and travelling the world for famous magazines. She explained how the modeling business has helped her in her present role and where the most challenges lie.
In the months before the festival Nadja is totally devoted to her job and racing to find sponsors, secure finances, hire reliable people and negotiate with politicians. However her dedication does not end when the next festival starts. She continues by being there for her guests and sponsors, showing up on the green carpets daily, attending most parties and joining 70 cocktails in over 10 days!
Do you want to know more about the hightlights of this year’s Zurich Film Festival and hear Nadja Schildknecht’s views on why you should visit the festival?
This interview will not only give you an insight into the ZFF, but no doubt this self-confident, friendly and ambitious woman is surely an inspiration to many women.
Vivamost: You were a talented model before being the Managing Director of the Zurich Film Festival. What similarities do you see between the two jobs?
Nadja Schildknecht: Oh, it is not easy to say, but both roles require you to look after yourself, manage your time and work around the world with a lot of new people.
I learned a lot about other cultures, which I think helps in the job I am doing right now. I am pretty strong-willed and that experience made me even stronger. In this business, where I am now, you have to believe in what you do and you have to be strong.
You also have to deal with so many problems every day that I often have to say to myself “I will manage it,” she adds laughing. These could probably be the similar parts, but of course I have been learning so much in the last 9 years managing quite a few people, working with the sponsorships, our marketing and our financing.
On the other hand, this job is different; modeling was a nice job, it was really cool, but I am really happy where I am now. I found what I am good at. I believe I have good eyes for things and can connect ideas together. I also feel that I am pretty good at negotiating and feel that it is in my blood!, she continues with some laughter.
Vivamost: In the evening during the festival you get to wear many beautiful dresses, does it make you miss sometimes your previous job or in a way does it help you stay connected to the fashion world?
Nadja Schildknecht: Well, you have to present at the festival as we are inviting all these people. It is also about manners to wear a nice dress and to celebrate in a way the festival. But of course it is not like this all the time. People see me at the festival with a long dress, but during the rest of the year, I rarely wear dresses because I am just running around.
For me it is inconvenient to have to find the dresses and I always do this at the last second. Tommy Hilfiger provides me with a lot of nice dresses and attire, which helps me.
This is not something that I like to do. I prefer to manage, to be in the background hands on with everything and to see that all goes well. I usually think at the last second about what to wear and where I can have my hair done.
Some people approached me two years ago to help me. I was happy to have somebody who does my hair and my dresses as it is not something I look forward to. I look forward to the festival, that people go to the cinema, discuss the films and that the sponsors and donors are happy. This is just something I have to do.
I have millions of things in my head at this time. I think of others and not about myself.
Vivamost: Could you please tell me what fashion designers you use the most for the opening ceremonies and award nights? Who is your favorite designer and why?
Nadja Schildknecht: They were so many different ones. For me what counts is the cut of a dress and to feel comfortable. Tommy Hilfiger has really nice dresses for the day time and they will do some dresses for the night now. Wearing a big brand X does not make sense if it does not fit your body.
Vivamost: Who does your hair and make-up?
Nadja Schildknecht: I have someone who helps as I have little time. For the opening night, the awards night and probably the Golden Icon award of course it is nice to have someone who can help with make-up and hairstyle, so I don’t have to think about it. I can sit there and focus on the more important things.
For me it is really not important. My mind is on the festival. It is good when you feel more comfortable on the stage and green carpet and it makes it easier.
Vivamost: When you started your role at ZFF did you think it would be the way it is?
Nadja Schildknecht: No, I never thought it would grow so fast, of course we had dreams, I had a focus.
I never thought in 9 years that I would be there. I had an idea where I would like to be once, but I always thought the best way is step by step, do each festival and really think about every little detail, do it better and have more ideas, more vision and go straight forward.
That was also nice that the people who come to the festival really like it and feel our spirit. We are always careful with our guests that they feel comfortable, they have everything they need, that they go home and say “Oh Zurich is great and the Zurich Film Festival is a lovely festival that really cares about you and I made a lot of connections.” The atmosphere, the people around you are very important.
At the Zurich Festival we take care of not only the big stars, but also the young directors because they are the upcoming stars and they appreciate it very much.
We think every year how can we can do it better, how can we do more for them. Of course it is always a budget problem. How can we progress in each area?
Vivamost:What is the most challenging task you have to face during the festival?
Nadja Schildknecht: When it starts you have done everything so you just have to do it and hope it does not get stuck somewhere, that the stars are happy, that people go to the cinema and the stars have a good time together. We were always lucky that the jury members had a great time and actually were friends afterward.
These are the thoughts during the festival, but we have so many tasks before it starts. At that time, it just has to be done.
The challenge is that after the festival then it starts again with the finances. Did we do well? Did it work out? What comes next? We have to do a budget, have a strategy and find all the money. I have to find 6 Million Swiss Francs, that is really not easy. We have more than 100 sponsorships and sign over 200 contracts. That is a huge thing.
After the festival the people in our team, who have been with us for a few months, have to leave and that’s not easy. We have 15 people full time and now we have 45 with the film coordination, program and guest management teams. We have to build every year a new team and that is difficult because you have to rely on people you don’t know and hope that they will work well together.
We have 280 volunteers. We are very happy with our nice volunteers, who are really good. We need them for the bars, with the guests, to build up the tent, to clean, etc… We also have 40 people working in guest management (4 full time the rest of the year) and about 400 flying guests.
At the ZFF we do everything in house as we have to work fast. We produce the catalogues, the books and book all flights and hotels; we are a concierge in a way.
I also have to work closely with politicians as we need permission for everything.
Vivamost: You always look so calm and relaxed on the green carpet, what are the techniques you use to survive these stressful 11 days?
Nadja Schildknecht: Relaxed, really I am not at all! Probably you get used to it and you can handle it. It is a pressure to be on this carpet. It is nice because it is something special and you know the festival is here and it is a celebration of the artists. On the other the hand, of course, all of these photos and questions are sometimes difficult. I think I am a little bit used to it, but sometimes my knees are shaking, especially when I have to go on stage and say something to the audience, it is the worst for me.
I go to so many meetings and I have so many speeches but to go on stage in front of these 750 people and I know that it is about the festival, about the work that I and my team have done for the past 360 days, that it is so much pressure that I am totally nervous.
Some people tell me to take a deep breath before I go out so I have enough air in my lungs, but I am not sure if it helps me!
Vivamost: What will be some of the highlights of this year’s festival? Is there anything, which has not been done which will be implemented?
Nadja Schildknecht: Well, we started so many things last year with the music film competition that we did not want to do a whole new program, but wanted to progress in the things we had started.
Something I would like to say to the public is that we do more for children and have a section for children (6-10 years old) with five movies from around the world. I think it is really special. We started with two films last year to try it out and it was a big success; so we thought we would do that more.
And yes, this is something I like because I have a child, she continues happily.
The films for the children are good for them but also for the parents and teachers and can be discussed afterward in the classroom.
The film music competition is a huge (stressing the word “huge”) project, which we started last year at the Tonhalle Zurich. We actually gave a 5 minute part from a film and ask the composers to send a new composition. We got over 230 submissions from Japan, Australia and all other the world.
The jury picks the five best ones. It will be open to the public and the orchestra will play them. You see always the same picture, the same five minutes of the movie with different music. Then you have five different emotions. Music is so important in movies, she continues.
Last year the city and government saw it and thought it was really great because it is not something we see very often, actually nowhere else in the world. It gives the composers in a way a stage and they are also in the focus and not only the stars, the actors and actresses.
We will do that this year in a cinema in Sihlcity with the Zurichkammer orchestra and Zurich Jazz orchestra. One year we are in the cinema with the big bands and the following year in the Tonhalle with the orchestra (more classical).
It is something for people who love music and films. This is a big project.
We have 122 movies from around the world and our gala nights. Hugh Jackman will receive the Golden Icon Award this year and we will pay a tribute to Michael Haneke’s career.
There will be a highlight every night; I know there will be more parties going on. We will do more with the film boutique, which is more for the industry and very important for us.
We wanted to do more in each section instead of planning 100 new things and having nothing done very well. The quality of the movies is important and not the number of films, she proudly adds.
Vivamost: How would you encourage people who haven’t been to the ZFF yet to go this year?
Nadja Schildknecht: I think a festival is something special, the filmmakers are there to talk about the films, you meet a lot of people from the industry, but also guests.
Film is in the air. It is great just to put yourself into the film industry, you see a lot of films that don’t come out, because they don’t have a distributor. It is interesting in a festival that you just try out a little bit more. You know you see some films first. Gala Premières are so different from documentaries.
A festival is the perfect place to learn in a way and also to have fun. There are a lot of parties around. It is a cool atmosphere.
It is a celebration of cinema, “Ein Fest für das Kino,” a festival for everyone.
Vivamost: I am sure you are already thinking of the 10th anniversary of the festival and started planning for it. It should be really nice with the finished Sechseläuten square. What are you and Karl Spoerri envisioning for this special occasion?
Nadja Schildknecht: I have quite a lot of ideas but they are not settled yet. I have to first fix this festival and then go deeply into the next one. Directors and actors are not committing for 2014 as it is too early.
I hope I will have the chance to do a little more because the 10th anniversary is special. Probably the government or even the permission office will let us do more, but of course it depends whether can we put the money together or not. But I am a positive thinking person. A no is for me not a no, it gives more drive!
It is more important to have ideas, like how the audience can be more a part of this festival. We would like to celebrate with the audience and not only with the directors or the industry.