Maria von Heland

Maria von Heland, you have been working in the film industry for 25 years, writing and directing both cinema and television on a high level. What made you start shooting in spring 2020 without financing and without a developed screenplay?

It was a turning point in human history. I was living and breathing the moment on my block in Berlin. It was both horrifying and beautiful. In a way we are experiencing the same thing right this moment, with Ukraine, the horror of the war. The beauty of how people come together to fight for freedom, democracy. How we see clearly that this moment is shaping our future, and we need to unite to fight for the light. The Pandemic had us all imprisoned in our homes. We had no idea how it was going to end. We had to face each other and ourselves. I wanted to catch that moment, in absolute honesty, in the language I speak best, which is cinema, or television. IN the end, it turned out to be a series, which I at the time had no idea about.

We started shooting without financing, because I wanted to catch what was in the air, in that moment. To be financed, you need time. Also, no one would have put money into Sunshine Eyes right there and then, as it was so uncertain what would happen. I am guessing this is why we are the only series in the world addressing the topic the way we do. This is not a series about Corona, it is a series about what happened within us as we realized that we were all potential targets of a pandemic, and that our lives would be changed forever.

And you focused on the younger generation?

I focused on those whom I feel are hit the hardest, mentally. Teens and young adults. I am talking to my own children. To their generation. They were not the target of the virus. But their lives were stopped in their tracks. Their trust in existence itself was shaken at the root. The young are supposed to feel immortal, untouchable, and career about the place in a happy-go-lucky way. But suddenly everyone was potentially lethal. It was right there in their faces. No one cared at the time, the inner wounds of this generation were lost. A hundred years after World War 1, we are looking at a second “Lost Generation” that is disoriented, wandering, directionless. Sunshine Eyes looks them straight in the eye. Offering a possibility to cry, to laugh, and to see themselves.

So back to the nature of the series, when you started shooting you really had no idea what it was going to be?

When starting out to work on any film, I can always see it, but as a Fata Morgana, a guiding spirit. No details are clear, but I can feel the story, I can hear its voice and see its images. I know where it wants to go. What is important. That Fata Morgana acts as a blueprint for sorting ideas and heading in the right direction. For Sunshine Eyes I had a vision when we started shooting, but no precise end goal.

You’ve said that you did not write scenes with dialogue, so how did you approach storytelling on set?

Intuitively. Every morning, I knew what I wanted to achieve that day. Which dramatic points were crucial. But without the extraordinary support of all the actors in the series, I would have been lost. They are the spirit, the glue, the souls of this series. And I am beaming with pride and feel an enormous gratitude towards every one of them.

You shot the bulk of this series with a crew of 4. That is yourself plus 3? The series looks and sounds as if there was a large crew behind it. Why is that? 

For the main shoot we were four people, all in all. The cinematographer Cristian Pirjol is my main collaborator. Without him this project would never have happened. I am convinced that he is a genius, although he won’t like me saying that. What I know for a fact is that it is more important to have one incredible eye behind the camera, than a truck full of lights. The tiny crew – Christian plus a soundman, our DIT Alexandre Forge, who evolved into a general factotum, and myself – made us very flexible. We got help from friends when we needed it, but because we were in the middle of a pandemic, we had little other choice. I am proud to say that all the people around me really rose to the occasion. My own family was truly amazing. You find them all over the credits. Because they were in the process in all ways possible. My husband, my ex-husband, my children, step-child, foster child. The partners of the elder kids, their families. That process was so beautiful it still makes me cry. That love seeped into the series too. My producers from Red Balloon Film and Maze Pictures, Dorothe Beinemeier and Philipp Kreuzer made it possible to turn Sunshine Eyes into a reality. When many others ran away screaming at my idea in spring 2020, Dorothe placed that one call to Arri which got us an Alexa nearly for free. She got us production insurance and shooting permits. There never would have been anything without her help. Philipp and his company Maze have helped us get out in the world, and supported us patiently through the post-production.

The series is 10 episodes, nearly 400 mins of drama, how long did you shoot?

32 days. We produced nearly 100 hours of film. Sorting it was a big job. I reached out to the editors I had worked with in the past and got lots of help. In the end the dramaturgy of the series was worked out together with the Danish editor Soren B Ebbe, and I edited the series with the French editor Sylvain Coutandin, who may well be the most patient individual I ever met. He never gave up looking for the essence of every moment of the story. The final version of the script was written in the editing room.

Did Sunshine Eyes in any way change your life?

In many ways. I formed my own production company, together with an old friend who came to Berlin from California: Eric Holland. Without him, there would be no print to screen in Series Mania today. My voice as a filmmaker deepened. In that way Sunshine Eyes is not only a Coming of Age story for the protagonists, but also for me as a director.

What are your wishes for Sunshine Eyes today?

Like my wishes are for all my children once grown up: I want it to get out in the world and shine. I want it to be seen for what it is. To get a chance to do what it came into the world to do. To live up to its potential.

Interview by Francesca Ferguson