Swiss action thriller And tomorrow we will be dead is based on the true story of a Swiss couple, Daniela Widmer (Morgane Ferru) and David Och (Sven Schelker), who, in 2011, while traveling in Pakistan, were kidnapped and held hostage by a group of Taliban fighters.
Their escape – apparently the very first by hostages – is captured in this gripping film, which had its world premiere at the Zurich Film Festival and screened at the European Film Market in Berlin last month.
The film is a Zodiac Pictures production in co-production with MMC Zodiac, SRF and Blue. It was supported by the Federal Office of Culture, the Zurich Film Foundation, SRG SSR, the cantons of St. Gallen and Lucerne and Suissimage.
Here, KFTV talks to the film’s famed Swiss director Michael Steiner about dubbing Sierra Nevada in Spain and India for Pakistan, taking over old sets from Ridley Scott, making Bollywood actors more “Europeans” and secure Disney as distributors.
How did you discover this story and when did the film start to materialize?
Steiner: I was living in Southeast Asia when the kidnapping happened and I read in Swiss newspapers that Daniela and David had returned from Pakistan. I looked on a map where they had been abducted and understood that they had been taken 500 km into the mountainous region of Waziristan and handed over to the Taliban. So, I called them and met with them to find out more. The Swiss media just said that they were kidnapped and had been there for a year and it was their fault, as if they had been there themselves.
Daniela and David told me their story and how they wanted to get the truth out, and I said I’d like to make a movie out of it. It was 10 years ago, in 2012. But first they wanted to publish a book (Und Morgen Seid Ihr Tot), so I waited, thinking that it would be easier to write a screenplay then.
What did Daniela and David tell you about their experience and the risks they took to try to escape?
It was obviously a horrible experience for them. They told me that when they planned the escape they thought their chances were 50-50. They were terrified of being caught, but their escape also meant walking for a week through harsh mountainous terrain littered with mines. There was an American soldier there who was caught running away and they put him in an iron cage for a month.
Did your script respect what was in the book?
Not all. There are, of course, some dramatic tweaks. I met them several times over the years to get the whole story, and it became a relationship of trust.
After years of writing the screenplay with Daniel Young, I wanted to shoot in 2015, but the project was refused funds from the Swiss government. Then, a year later, a new production company, Zodiac Pictures, came on board to push it forward. They hired Urs Buehler as their new writer. Daniel and I already had 16 drafts, then Urst started from scratch and came up with a new version. In the end, it was a mix of our two efforts.
Zodiac then returned to the Swiss state with a completely new business plan and script, which made the difference in securing the funding a second time.
That must have been a relief after a long journey to shoot the film?
It was crazy. I’m probably the most successful filmmaker in Switzerland, but it was a controversial subject. Many people doubted their story and did not want to touch it. I felt like I was betraying Daniela and David all those years because I couldn’t get the movie to work to tell their story.
Can you tell me where you shot and what problems you encountered?
I considered filming in Pakistan, but the negotiations to film there are conducted by the Pakistani government and they are not well represented in the film. So we went to India in early 2020 to shoot in Rajasthan, which looks like the Pakistani terrain we were looking for. Daniela had shown me lots of photos of what the area looked like in Pakistan, and I was in constant dialogue with her throughout the shoot.
In India, they check all the scenarios, but I think the fact that it paints Pakistan in a bad light worked to our advantage.
Did you have any problems filming there?
The weather and terrain conditions weren’t too bad. We chose to shoot between January and March so that it wouldn’t be too hot, between 18 and 25 degrees.
Logistically, the main problem was transporting all the equipment and crew from our base in Mumbai to Rajasthan, which took about three days. They always have a big team on productions, so some days we had 200 people on set. There was a lot of travel, but local outfit La Fabrique was very helpful on that front.
What about using locals as cast members?
Many of the actors were from Muslim communities and because right-wing extremist Narendra Modi became prime minister, they were afraid to act in the film because they thought it might work against them. But with time and the support of my Indian co-producers, Deborah Benattar and Javed Wani from La Fabrique, we got there. They sorted through all Indian state papers and found the cast in Mumbai of Bollywood. But I had to bring in Giles Foreman, my acting coach, so Indian actors wouldn’t behave like Bollywood.
How did it work?
They had to be kept from opening their eyes so much. We did a 10 day coaching course with them on how to do European theater and taught them to speak the Pashto language. Unfortunately, they got some lines wrong again, so we had to do some dubbing afterwards in a sound studio.
But it was a great experience working with the Indian actors – they loved being in a European film. Everything we needed to shoot in India was there.
How did you come to the cinema in Spain?
We were filming in India when Covid hit. Suddenly everything changed. The locals were suddenly a bit more suspicious of us white people. We were in a hotel where previously they were friendly and chatty, but with Covid they just dropped our food at the door and ran.
So we left India in March not knowing if we could ever come back to finish filming. Months passed until summer when we realized we had to find another place to shoot.
We thought of Italy, but the terrain was not suitable. Then we considered Morocco, but wanted to be closer to home in case someone got sick. We therefore turned to Spain instead. The Sierra Nevada was picture perfect with great scenery and a host of old movie sets lying around. We actually shot the scenes at Lala’s farm where Daniela and David escaped to the old Exodus: gods and kings together. There were also old Game of Thrones sets around us. Everything is free, so why not use it.
How did you find your two main actors (Morgane Ferru and Sven Schelker)?
Sven was my first choice, but I had been looking for Daniella for almost a year. Then Sven proposed Morgane. I auditioned her and immediately gave her the role – she was made for the role.
What was the reaction to the movie at home?
In the Swiss German part of the country, when the film was released, some newspapers didn’t even mention it because they had attacked Daniela and David when they came out. They were trying to ignore it. In the western part, they wrote about it because they hadn’t.
It was great to have Disney on board as the local distributor in Switzerland where the film was released (October 28, 2021). However, the timing was not ideal due to Covid. Anything that wasn’t James Bond struggled.
But we hope it will sell worldwide through The Playmaker Munich.
What are you going to work on next?
I’m shooting a series about detectives in Basel for Swiss television called The observers. It’s a mix of comedy and suspense. I shoot six episodes over 60 days.