Andrej Dojkic makes his directorial debut with ‘The Egg’
Andrej Dojkic is a Croatian actor who’s taking his skills behind the camera for the short film The Egg. Based on a short story by science fiction author Andy Weir, The Egg is a cerebral exploration of life and death. In Dojkic’s hands the story is equally visually stunning and emotionally impactful.
The Egg may be Dojkic’s directorial debut, but it’s only the beginning of his career as a director. Dojkic followed up the film with two more shorts: The Economy in the Time of COVID-19 and Singular. Meanwhile, he’s continuing to lend his acting talents to projects like The Match and The Staffroom.
We had the chance to speak with Andrej Dojkic about acting, directing, and the power of science fiction. We got into a deep discussion on The Egg and how fatherhood has impacted his creative work. Read on for some insight into an incredible up-and-coming director.
You direct and star in ‘The Egg’ based on the short story by Andy Weir. What first drew you to that particular story?
When I was a kid, I often had thoughts about why I am me, as in, none other than myself. How come I’m not somebody else? And what happens to us when our lives in this world are done? I came across Andy Weir’s short story while I was searching for information on life after death. I remember that the first time I was reading it, certain images and ideas started to unfold in my head. The impact it had on me was visual as much as it was emotional.
I called my art director, cinematographer and photographer Boris Krstinic and told him I’d like to turn this story into a short film. And when Boris read the story, he came up right away with a suggestion for the shooting location. So this Weir story really made an impression on both of us, and we both had this immediate reaction, an urge to work with it, to give its tone and message another mode of expression.
Have you always been a big fan of science fiction?
I’m not a big fan of SF, but I like the way this genre extends the limits of plausibility, and in this way provides you with means to tell certain stories and convey certain ideas, such as those in The Egg for example.
Also, Stanley Kubrick, who did amazing work in this genre as well, is one of my very first favorite filmmakers. The way he turned Clark’s novel into a film such as 2001: A Space Odyssey blew my mind when I was a kid, so much so that it didn’t matter much that I couldn’t fully comprehend what the whole thing was about. But mesmerized I was, for a long time, and I still remember how it felt to see it the first time ever. And I believe I share this experience with many different people, and this is one way to describe what makes Kubrick so special. You might say there’s this “Kubrick effect” anyone in the movie industry experiences at some point; whether you like it or not, you cannot not have an opinion and a feeling about any of his films. And the impression has been a lasting one.
It wasn’t my intention really, but maybe it was this impression that was working in the back of my mind when I was conceiving the final scene in The Egg, in which you have my newborn daughter’s hand appear, as if penetrating from this world to the “other side” to imply that the main character moved to a new incarnation, a new life, with the goal to do a little better this time around, to progress a bit further as a human being, as it were. So, in reference to Kubrick, this might be on a similar track as that grandiose, spirit-lifting ending of the Odyssey.
How much did you need to deviate from the source material to create your film?
I wouldn’t call it a deviation; in the end it was the same message that Andy Weir wanted to communicate – life lasts more than a single lifetime. It’s a process our soul goes through in order to learn and progress and contribute more and more each time it gets to be born as a human being.
Some changes were made in order to adapt the dialogue and the stage directions to the location. Unlike the story, which starts much more directly, with the character immediately aware of everything and fully present within the given circumstances, The Egg starts with 4 minutes of nothing but sounds and the space of that cave. The man is at the stage of becoming aware of where he is and what happened to him, and of the fact that there is nothing he can do about this.
The growing feeling of total loss of agency, of any ability to undo what had been done, ever again, the feeling it’s over, really over… On the one hand there’s that, and then coupled with this is the fear to leave this horrific moment in between the life concluded and the unknown beyond the cave.
In a way, he is both terrified of the cave, and afraid of the next step he must make. He learns all this and much more from this dark figure, which is just like the cave, scary and comforting at the same time. This dialogue constitutes the central part of the film, and then comes the relief brought about by his readiness to accept and forgive and in this way get a chance to further evolve in the course of the ensuing cycle, which, considering the pristine nature outside the cave, is a promising one.
Can you walk us through your creative process with a story and a character?
In my research on after life I read a lot of Michael Newton; Journey of Souls is a title I would recommend to anyone interested in this matter. I found Newton’s ideas to be closest to my own and those I felt should be highlighted in the movie. One of the important points is that an individual has to face their fears and the consequences of their deeds, if not during their lifetime, then when meeting death. The main character is told that an individual is treated in accordance with his or her deeds and intentions during life.
People often get away with murder, and bad stuff often happens to good people, we’ve all seen it. But payback time always comes, if not in this life, then in another. Also, this man is haunted by the fears and insecurities he failed to conquer during his lifetime, and he learns that this is the baggage he will bring into his next life in order to finally deal with it and basically evolve into a better human being. At least that’s the chance he’s given, he’s the one who will again have to take it and do something about it, otherwise the baggage will remain.
How did you decide to act in the film as well as to direct it?
When I started thinking about turning Weir’s story into a movie, I was thinking mostly about the visual aspect because of that strong initial impact that was all about these images I had in my mind’s eye as I first read the story. And then, I did test shoots with Boris and DOP Dario Bajurin at the location we chose, and it fit so perfectly with the images I had in my head that it was uncanny.
I realized I was so into making this movie that I want to have something to do with every single aspect of its making. I loved the story immediately, I loved the feeling I got from reading it, and then we found this location that seemed to perfectly match the insight the story provides. So, in a way it was an impulsive, or maybe even an intuitive decision.
Also, I might have been triggered by some unfortunate family circumstances that happened around that time and conceiving a creative way to express these kinds of ideas, on the purpose of life and the meaning of death, was probably a way to process the grief I felt after what happened to me and my family. Munch has his scream, and The Egg is mine.
Were there any particular challenges that came from filling multiple roles on the same film?
In indie filmmaking there are challenges at every step (financial, organizational, technical, creative …) but when the desire prevails over analysis and when you surround yourself with professionals who believe in your idea and vision then things just tend to work out, even for someone who is in front of and behind the camera for the first time.
Also, I taught myself to fight fear of new challenges by reminding myself that failure can always be a lesson if you know how to use it. You learn more when things go wrong than when things go well. A great incentive for making this movie was provided by my friend and executive producer Marios Taramides who helped the realization of the film from very beginning, in pre-production, production and post-production.
You shot much of the film on location. Why was it important for you to heavily feature nature in the film rather than to simulate it?
I believed authenticity is crucial for doing The Egg right, the way I wanted it to be done, either in terms of directing or acting. Easy way had never really been my way. I took the time to do my research and as much test shooting as I needed, and in the movie-making business, having the time is certainly an opportunity you don’t take lightly, so I really used it wisely.
Finding this cave near a small town called Tounj was a very fortunate circumstance that had to be taken advantage of. I’m sure I would find a way to capture it on film somehow, because it is every bit as beautiful and magical as it appears in the film after all the post-production is done. The light it traps, the colors it generates, all the animal and life forms it accommodates, and those underground waters that penetrate to its surface. But the most amazing thing about caves is that they provided the first really reliable shelter to humans.
People in Guadix province in Spain still think of them like that obviously. And of course, comparison with the uterus is unavoidable. You have this feeling of warm, enveloping safety and comfort, where you can let your guard down and gain strength because, the fact is, both the uterus, and the cave, as well as this life are to be left behind. The step beyond the confines of what is known and safe must be made. So this cave simply had to be featured “as is”, anything else would be a sacrilegious waste of incredible potential.
What filming challenges did you face because of your choice of location?
A cave as a shooting site has its advantages, but it certainly presented a challenge in terms of many technical issues which arose. Shooting was done in the summer when the outside temperature was 36˚C, and the interior of the cave was so cold you had steam coming out of your mouth. The water in the cave was around 8-10˚C. To protect the plant and animal life of the cave, “cold”, LED lighting was the only option we had at our disposal, so our DOP, Dario Bajurin, had to come up with a way to shoot everything in an interior with barely enough light and very limited technical resources.
On the very first day, we had to deal with follow focus malfunction due to heavy humidity. Since we couldn’t use the power generator because of the damaging effects of noise on the natural cave environment, we charged batteries for the RED camera and lighting equipment at a location about a mile and a half away from the site. Our equipment was arranged around the cave interior with respect to the fact this was home to certain animals and an environment which is prone to sudden rises in underwater level. This in fact did happen, but we managed to react properly and on time.
Whether conditions changed so quickly in such a short amount of time that day that we were on the verge of wrapping it up for the day. In many respects, this film is a result of a huge amount of enthusiasm, hard-work, and some great teamwork, and I feel privileged to have had this chance to turn my idea into reality.
I was fortunate to have gathered a team of people who are not only amazing talents but were also brimming with enthusiasm and positive vibes. It was as if we were all in each other’s heads, but I believe this has to do with the subject matter itself, universal and humane as it is. Dario Domitrovic contributed as sound designer, giving that final touch to the overall mood, successfully having dealt with the challenges imposed by an environment such as a cave. Dusan Maksimovski did an incredible job together with Marija Posavac and her beautiful soprano.
I was also fortunate to have Nina Silobrcic on the team as the costume designer, who wholeheartedly wanted to prevent my freezing on the set, but whose suggestion I kindly turned down (for better or worse). I mustn’t forget the awarded make up artist Sanja Hrstic whose work attracted a lot of positive feedback. I am proud of the whole team because each of their individual energies made this project not just successful, but also a pleasure to take part in.
Did you really direct yourself to eat mud, walk barefoot on sharp rocks and spend days in freezing cold water to get the film just right?
The main character is a successful young businessman who was coming home from work one day, had a terrible accident and ended up in a river. Unable to escape from what remained from his car, he had no other option but to stay there stuck and make peace with his destiny. I wanted the movie to start immediately after this accident happens, but in this cave which is to represent a kind of imagined space in between this world and the one beyond life as we know it. This is where the man regains consciousness, breathing in deeply, with mud oozing from his mouth. This mud was found all around the cave and it made perfect sense to use it as a part of that surrounding context. And it wasn’t as unpleasant tasting as it may seem, especially when you get used to it after several takes.
When it comes to barefoot walking, Damir Medvesek the set designer who did a great job on the movie together with Marina Maric his assistant, made me these funny-looking leather soles to make it easier for me to move around the cave. But this didn’t work out because I had to shift a lot from dry areas to the wet ones, back and forth and these soles were too restricting. More so, apparently, than the sores on my feet I had to put up with instead.
In the aftermath, I had to pay a visit to my doctor to remove some leftover mud from my right ear due to which I was half deaf for a while, and I also had a bladder infection that also required treatment.
What is it about this film that you are most proud of?
The fact that a film reached an audience is what constitutes success for any filmmaker and the team behind the project. Awards are only a bonus, a confirmation from those who have the authority and the knowledge to decide which work is of outstanding merit. And it’s wonderful when your work is acknowledged in this way, but getting the movie seen by a regular audience is much more rewarding because movies are made to communicate something, so having the recipients of the message is much more significant than receiving awards.
It is devastating when you consider how many projects never see the light of day, that is, never get to be completed and shown before an audience, never get their message heard. Now that’s a failed project. So, we, the team who made The Egg, myself included, feel the greatest satisfaction when we think about the people who saw the film, and that’s the primary reason why we sent our work to be presented at different international festivals. The fact it was so well received by both the audience and the critics is just the cherry on top.
What do you hope the audience will take away from watching ‘The Egg’?
The subject of life after death is both unavoidable and forever open to interpretation, on a personal and cultural level.
This film and the story it’s based on does not presume to offer anything more than another interpretation, another perspective on this subject that some people might relate to, some might find it merely compelling, whereas others may reject it completely.
I personally find it interesting and reassuring. We are born into this world alone, and we die just as alone. The space in between, the state of no longer living but not being dead yet, the “cave”, is where we meet our true selves, realize what experience and insight we gained from living the life we lived, and what baggage (some of it in fact holding treasures) we will leave with as we enter our next life cycle.
How important are the awards for an indie production such as yours and which one would you highlight?
As I explained before, I didn’t make this film to win awards, but I can’t help but be happy and grateful for the awards it received. It’s not something we even hoped for because in order to take part in festivals, especially major ones like Sundance for example, you really need an adequate budget for all the marketing such participation entails. And we didn’t have that.
Your daughter was born while you were shooting ‘The Egg’. Did the experience of having a new baby reflect on your work on the film?
The film was in the editing phase when my daughter was born. At some point I decided to include her chubby baby arm in this closing scene where it sort of penetrates this invisible membrane and in this way marks the onset of a new life cycle. Somehow the time she was born perfectly overlapped with the finishing phase of making this directorial debut, and I loved being able to include my baby girl into it and sort of blend two important milestones in both my private and professional life.
How has fatherhood changed your approach to filmmaking?
Fatherhood has been by far the most rewarding experience in my life. It provided me with a new perspective on priorities in both private and personal life. I think twice about anything now, more often than I did before. Good thing the shooting The Egg took place before she was born; I’d probably reconsider that barefoot walking.
So far in your career as an actor you have been known to go to certain extremes in your preparation for the role. One time you lost 40 lbs, you deprived yourself of showers for 23 days, for The Egg you were willing to lie in a pool of ice-cold water and do a drowning scene in the car which also required spending a certain amount of time in conditions which present a health-hazard to put it mildly. As a director would you consider a different, perhaps less radical and demanding approach?
What I believe to be authenticity in acting, in character development or the narrative is not necessarily the same as some other actor believes; it’s, to an extent, certainly a personal thing. When it comes to the director and the actor who work together on a project, it’s very important that they have mutual understanding as to what each of them considers to bi crucial in bringing the character and the story to life. There are ways to save the actor from going through all sorts of difficult, hazardous, or uncomfortable moments or activities that take place in the script.
There’s technology, there’s protocol, stuntmen, green screens, and whatnot. And then, for example, you have Sean Penn directing Into the Wild and expecting Emil Hirsch to dive into ice cold water. The temperature outdoors was at freezing when Emile performed the naked back float down the stream endangering his health. Now is this exaggerating or is this Sean Penn being eccentric? Or is it that, for a story such as the one told in this particular film, and taking place in such a setting, you really want to capture the genuine reaction on the face of the person plunging into 4˚C water? Such a story and the message this film conveys really deserve this kind of an approach, of an approach, almost fitting a documentary.
It has nothing to do with how capable an actor Hirsch is, I am with Penn on this one, it had to be done. Not every film, or role for that matter, demands this kind of commitment. When I personally ventured into such extremes, it was because it came to me as an almost spontaneous decision in the course of my exploring the character and the story. And when the director I worked with supported such a course of action on my part.
So these things are not done lightly just to provoke attention or to show off, it has to be justified by the story, it has to be something without which the story cannot be told properly. And since the director’s vision is one to be acknowledged as well, she or he must also corroborate this; at least, this is how I see it.
What would you say your mission is as an actor and a filmmaker?
I wish to continue delving into issues that are universal to man, those that necessarily provoke questions, emotions, and ideas to anyone watching, regardless of their different backgrounds, gender, age. Human condition, motivation, fears, needs, neuroses, relationships, purpose… I find those universal subjects most inspiring and thought provoking, never ever getting old.
What advice would you give to new actors or filmmakers out there?
If you have an idea for a project and you feel the urge to make it happen, arm yourself with patience, perseverance, and good vibes. There will be problems, difficulties that seem insurmountable, people who are putting you done and don’t share your good faith … This is a matter of fact, don’t even try to avoid it, but brace yourself, expect it and just believe you can go through it one mess at a time.
Just don’t quit, that’s too easy. I speak from personal experience, and even though I know we all must learn when to quit, somehow for me not giving up has proved to be a good choice so far. Sticking to my vision demanded I develop emotional strength, thicker skin, trust in my intuition and positive outlook on things even when going gets tough.
Can you tell us anything about projects we can expect to see from you in the future as a director?
I’m currently focused on several projects with a team of people I have been fortunate to gather. One is another short film, dealing with the complexity of romantic relationships, which I’m working on with Tamara Damjanović, a young Croatian theater director and playwright. I have just finished a short experimental video titled ”Singular” which might evolve into something much more substantial.
It is based on a short text penned by Ana Predovan who helps me articulate many of my creative endeavors. There is also a documentary which required some shooting to be done on a different continent, not to mention a huge amount of research that is still under way, but I wouldn’t go into much detail on that at this point.
Who are some of your current filmmaking influences?
Gaspar Noe, Damian Szifron, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Lynch, Christopher Nolan…
Lastly, if you had to pick, what would you say is your favorite movie of all time?