Three Johannas and a lot of big names: the cast
The question lurking at the back of the heads of everyone involved since the start had been: Who's going to play Johanna? This character who is so strong yet so contradictory: a woman who summons up the discipline and strength of will to live for years unrecognised as a man and who still has to bow to the power of her love for Count Gerold; a woman whose highest goal is proximity to God and yet learns how to achieve her goals in a most secular way. Such a character requires an actress who can portray both big emotions and fine nuances credibly and who is simultaneously able to carry a film like this.
A lot of names were mentioned, including those of international stars; but then Johanna Wokalek suddenly became the favourite. The renowned stage actress has proved, not least in her leading role in Til Schweiger's hit film BAREFOOT (2005), that she is also able to captivate a wider cinema audience.
Oliver Berben describes her as a "Mecca of acting art"; Martin Moszkowicz, no less euphorically, as a "sensationally good actress with a lot of charisma". Moszkowicz continues: "We made THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX with her and knew the explosive power her acting has. When I talked to her about POPE JOAN for the first time, she already knew she wanted to do it. She was enthusiastic about being involved right from the start."
After this decision to cast a German actress in the leading role in this international production set in mediaeval Germany was applauded by our foreign partners too, the matter was settled: Johanna Wokalek is POPE JOAN.
For Sönke Wortmann it had also been clear long before the first clapper that Wokalek was a very good choice: "She is a very passionate actress; we talked a lot and in great depth during the preliminary discussion. And working with her during the shoot was child's play. It was a pleasure to be able, as a director, to lean back in an almost relaxed manner and just watch what she was doing."
Casting Johanna was the largest piece of the puzzle, but with over 70 speaking roles to cast, the work was a long way from over. Which started off with the further casting of the lead role.
Because by deciding to show Johanna at different ages it was obvious that two different child actors would be required to play Johanna in her younger years - actors that would require not only the acting talent but also the appearance that would make them credible to audiences as one and the same person. "If you set the standards high and it works, then it's that much more enjoyable", says Wortmann, and the result justifies his words. Tigerlily Hutchinson, a young English actress, plays Johanna aged five, and the German Lotte Flack, who has already appeared before the camera in several TV films and the TV series "Die Pfefferkörner" took on the role of Johanna from ten years old. "Getting all the Johanna actresses together like this was a real success", says Oliver Berben.
The international casting continued for the other roles, and here too, Wortmann's many years of experience in Germany and the USA stood him in good stead. Wortmann: "As a director you have your strengths and weaknesses, and I consider one of my strengths to be good at casting: I chose actors that aren't prima donnas, who take their job seriously and are team players."
One should also add: actors that are amongst the best of their kind - as the impressive cast list shows. Starting with the Australian David Wenham as Count Gerold, who has been renowned worldwide since his role as Faramir in Peter Jackson's LORD OF THE RINGS, underscored by his performances in VAN HELSING, 300 and in Baz Luhrmann's AUSTRALIA.
He can be seen in the summer of 2009 at Johnny Depp's side in Michael Mann's PUBLIC ENEMIES.
Furthermore, Wenham was also Donna Cross's first choice to play Gerold - "and it wasn't difficult to agree with her on that one", as Moszkowicz says. "With someone like David Wenham", Wortmann adds with a laugh, "it was almost a bit frustrating when he did everything right the first time …! For me as a director it's so much nicer when an actor starts at 50 percent and then develops to 100 percent with my help." It was not only Wenham's professionalism that impressed Wortmann, but also his typically Australian 'unshakability': "Australians do tend to be always relaxed", says Wortmann.
Iain Glen was cast in the role of Johanna's father, the strict, dogmatic village priest. Glen, who is also highly respected in his native Britain as a stage actor, is known better internationally for his action roles in films such as LARA CROFT - TOMB RAIDER (2001), RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE (2004) and KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005). Sönke Wortmann looked at a stage performance from Glen in advance and was very impressed by his intense stage presence - something that Glen has been able to reproduce on the big screen without any apparent effort. Oliver Berben reports: "Iain Glen has a very repellent part to play, and he plays it splendidly. During the shoot we really became physically afraid of the man."
John Goodman was chosen to play Pope Sergius. Goodman was, of course, already well known to all, not least because of his starring role in the sitcom "Roseanne" and several Coen Brothers films, - but he was not personally known to Wortmann: "We didn't know what John Goodman was really like", he says. "We had already said that if we were unlucky, then we'd end up with this American who'd say he could ride it out sitting on his backside. But the absolute opposite was the case: he turned out to be a really nice guy, as well as some one with immense acting ability."
The team of renowned actors was rounded off by further renowned actors such as Jördis Triebel (as Johanna's mother), the Swiss actor Anatole Traubman (as Johanna's Roman opponent Anastasius) and the British stage and TV veteran Edward Petherbridge (as headmaster Aesculapius).
Make it dirtier! - How the Middle Ages came to life during the shoot
With such an international cast it was clear from the start that the film would have to be made entirely in English. But the difficulties Wortmann had outlined before the shooting started turned out to be minimal: "I always used to say I prefer filming in German because I can try out a whole different line in nuances with the actors; but I have since realised that they understand very well what I want this way too." The actors and the crew had a total of 60 days to negotiate, which took place in Saxony-Anhalt, the Eifel and for a large part of the Rome scenes in Ouarzazate, Morocco.
The effort required to make such a historical film was particularly noticeable in departments such as costume and production design. The constructions created by production designer Bernd Lepel and his team were the result of in-depth research carried out to re-create both Johanna's remote village and the monasteries and towns as authentically as possible, so that the audience would feel immediately as if they had been transported back to the middle of the ninth century. And as Sönke Wortmann says, this included dirt. The mediaeval costumes, made under the supervision of Esther Walz in Rumania, had to be aged artificially before they could be used in the film. Wortmann reports: "It was difficult to drag them through the dirt and almost ruin them. But I kept on saying the whole time: Make it dirtier! - The Middle Ages were dirty, don't worry about showing them that!" But Wortmann admits that even the authentic dirt had its limits. For example, the actors were not given "rotten teeth" dentures, which would have been typical of the times: "You have to pay tribute to the medium a little bit. Audiences should be able to fall in love with the people, and bad teeth would be a bit of a hindrance there."
But the workload was immense even without the artificial gapped teeth. Wortmann says the costume designers and make-up artists sometimes had to get up at two in the morning in order to have up to 500 extras dressed and ready by daybreak.
The many outside scenes set in ninth century Rome were shot in North Africa, after other possible locations were rejected relatively quickly. Martin Moszkowicz: "For a short while we considered filming in Rome itself. Bulgaria was also a possibility because there was already a big Rome set there. But when we were in Morocco filming a few scenes of THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX, we discovered some sets that could be used for our Roman scenes."
There have already been some major productions with scenes shot in Ouarzazate, such as Ridley Scott's GLADIATOR and KINGDOM OF HEAVEN and ASTERIX: MISSION CLEOPATRA. "There are some fantastic production conditions there", says Oliver Berben: "This is a city surrounded by a landscape that simply doesn't exist in Germany. And for us, who wanted to show Rome in 840, it was just ideal: a Rome we don't know from Caesar's times, a Rome in which there has been a lot of decay."
For the rest of the production, the ground rule was: anything that could be filmed in Germany would be. The Monastery Church of St. Cyriakus in Gernrode was used as the Benedictine Monastery at Fulda, into which Johanna, disguised as a man, is accepted; other important locations were the Castle of Querfurt, west of Halle, also in Saxony-Anhalt, and the Schmidtheimer Forest in the Eifel, where the village Johanna spends her childhood in was set up. "The trend is clearly moving away from Eastern Europe", says Oliver Berben: "An important reason for this is the DFFF (Deutscher Filmförderfonds) - and the fact that many of the Länder are making efforts to get a production to come to them. This is about the economic aspect of the work, making sure the taxes are paid locally; but it is also about being linked to a project like this."
Moszkowicz and Wortmann also stress the role of the DFFF in the decision about the locations. For Wortmann, working in Germany also had a further, pleasant side effect: "I also really enjoyed rediscovering - or learning for the first time - parts of German history; I had no idea what a high density of castles there are in Saxony-Anhalt."
After the final take
The clapper was closed on POPE JOAN for the last time on 30 November 2008. This then ushered in the post-production period - frequently an extremely long work phase in productions of this magnitude. But this was not the case with POPE JOAN, as Oliver Berben says: "On the contrary, it was really quick. Sönke is a director who 'shoots for the cut', in other words, he has a pretty precise idea of how he would like to have a scene cut - and for a project like this, this is an absolute gift, of course!"
One of director Wortmann's last official acts was the sound mixing: "This is a very pleasant phase for me", he explains: "You can use the sound design to set the tone that little bit more and get that final percent, to make it absolutely perfect."
This included putting the final touches to Marcel Barsotti's film score. Barsotti, who has been one of the most in-demand film and TV composers for years, has already written scores for Wortmann for the films THE MIRACLE OF BERN and GERMANY: A SUMMER'S FAIRY TALE. "Never change a winning team", says Wortmann simply when asked about how he went about looking for the right composer for POPE JOAN and adds: "It was clear to me from the beginning that it would have to be orchestral music; anything else just wouldn't be right for a film like this. Marcel Barsotti composed a few layouts by way of experiment that I found very convincing." Barsotti and Wortmann also researched the music of the times while they were preparing, but discovered that the repertoire was very limited - and even "the Gregorian singing that already existed at the time get a bit monotonous after a while", as Wortmann says.
One rather important viewer is already completely convinced by the quality of the film: the author herself. Sönke Wortmann flew to New York personally to show Donna Cross the film.
And he returned with a clear result: "I'm very impressed and touched by the work - I love the movie", she said. When the creator of POPE JOAN herself gives her blessing, then it can only be a good sign …