What happens to film, art and ultimately to our lives when AI, algorithm takes control? This burning question and main theme of the upcoming Göteborg Film Festival, is also at the core of Danish pic “About a Hero,” by versatile artist and helmer Piotr Winiewic (“Reflector”).
Variety has secured in exclusivity the first still from the movie, due to serve as a case study during Göteborg’s industry confab Nordic Film Market (Jan. 31-Feb. 2). The pic is being produced by Denmark’s Tambo Film and Kaspar, with German co-producers Cineteam, in association with leading U.S. indie prodco Pressman Film (“The Crow,” “Daliland”).
“Corsage” star Vicky Krieps has just boarded the project, to be sold internationally by DR Sales.
Broadcasters attached so far include pubcasters DR in Denmark, NDR in Germany and European network Arte. Producer Rikke Tambo Andersen said she will negotiate U.S. rights separately, in close coordination with U.S. partner Sam Pressman, son of Hollywood’s legendary mogul Ed Pressman.
The mind-bending hybrid project currently in the editing room, mixes artificial intelligence and the work of legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog.
The stranger-than-fiction project is the brainchild of helmer Winiewic and techno savvy Danish producer Mads Damsbo, who came up with the idea to build an AI language model (named ‘Kaspar’ as a nod to Herzog’s “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser”) and to train it on the body of work of Herzog, so that it would write a scripted narrative. The resulting script is now being combined with traditional documentary techniques, including a behind-the-scene and interviews with experts about AI, its impact on film, art and humanity.
Winiewic says Herzog’s famous quote “a computer will not create a film as good as mine in 4,500 years” was partly the trigger for his endeavour, but also a personal event.
“Some years ago, I was in a relationship in which, even though we lived together, we only communicated via emails. It was around that time that Google introduced ‘smart compose,’ an algorithm that learns from your emails and it was able to predict your next words and sentences. I felt that by that time ‘smart compose’ wrote 60% of my emails.”
While the relationship ended – “I’m not sure if I should blame Google or be actually grateful,” says Winiewic – the latter started to reflect on the impact of algorithms on our life narratives.
“This path led me to the idea: What if something so heartless as a machine could evoke emotions? Can a film written by a machine move us?”
“Funnily enough”, continues the Polish-born helmer, “the script that [Kaspar] came up with is very self-reflective and probes deeply into the impact of technology on mortality and humanity.” At its core,” he explains, “is an investigation of the mysterious death of a smart appliance factory worker, that supposedly took his own life after being replaced by a machine.”
According to Winiewic, the second part of the pic, with reflections from experts on AI, science, philosophy, cinema, touching upon authorship, human beings vs machines, is being “weaved through the narrative in such a way that it creates ambiguity as to who is speaking their truth versus that of the machine.”
Asked what role Vicky Krieps would play in the pic, Winiewic said: “I will let you see that once the film comes out!”
For L.A. born Sam Pressman, joining Winiewic and Damsbo on their AI cinematic experiment was a no brainer. A true believer in AI’s ability to transform storytelling positively, “through the lens of artists,” the Hollywood producer is a regular AI talks contributor, credited for the recent Tribeca Immersive entry “In Search of Time,” billed as the first AI-generated film to play at a major film festival.
“From the moment Mads and Piotr shared this project with me, I was determined to help bring their dream to the screen,” he told Variety.
“Werner Herzog has been a defining influence in my life since watching ‘Aguirre the Wrath of God’ in high school, and I had the opportunity to work for him, closely shooting the behind-the-scenes footage on my father Edward R. Pressman’s film ‘Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.’
Pressman, who introduced Winiewic and Damsbo to his father, said the latter was “fascinated by their process and their experiments in AI.”
“Our industry is grappling with challenging questions of equity and attribution brought on by the growing presence of AI in production. “About a Hero” explores these and other issues surrounding machine learning in an original and provocative way.”
“Pressman Film has always supported the innovation of independent filmmakers and we’re very excited to continue this tradition with Piotr and a score of brilliant artists and fascinating interview subjects,” noted the producer of the upcoming reboot of “The Crow” starring Bill Skarsgård.
Commenting on “About a Hero”’s international potential, Kim Christiansen, DR Sales exec producer, for documentaries and co-productions said: “We anticipate quite a [lot] of hype around it.”
For the Danish film executive, “About a Hero” is a “front runner” in AI talks, set to “break down the barrier between AI and human crafted art in a very intelligent way” and “to show how to use AI creatively and make it the main vehicle of storytelling. It’s complex and crazy, but we love it, and I’m sure the audience will as well”, he claimed.
Eager as well to collect industry’s reactions following the pic’s case study in Göteborg later this month, Tambo Andersen said she is aiming for “a high-profile festival platform and theatrical distribution.”
“It’s been amazing to have our U.S. partners who have helped us get the film out to the world”, she said.
Besides Sam Pressman, executive producers Paula Paizes and Max Loeb of Pressman Film, U.S. investors include Trey Perpeluk of Yo Productions, Hicham and Aelfie Oudghiri.
The pic has also received public coin from the Danish Film Institute, Film Fyn, and Germany’s Nordmedia.