An impressive cinematic recreation

of  images and moods.

Hollywood Reporter




13 of Edward Hopper’s paintings are brought alive by the film, telling the story of a woman, whose thoughts, emotions and contemplations lets us observe an era in American history.

Shirley is a woman in America in the 1930s, ‘40s, ‘50s, and early ‘60s.

A woman who would like to influence the course of history with her professional and socio-political involvement. A woman who does not accept the reality of the Depression years, WWII, the McCarthy era, race conflicts and civil rights campaigns as given but rather as generated and adjustable. A woman whose work as an actress has familiarised her with the staging of reality, the questioning and shaping of it; an actress who doesn’t identify her purpose and future with that of solo success or stardom but who strives to give social potency to theatre as part of a collective. A woman who cannot identify with the traditional role model of a wife yet longs to have a life partner. A woman who does not compromise in moments of professional crisis and is not afraid to take on menial jobs to secure her livelihood. A woman who in a moment of private crisis decides to stick with her partner and puts her own professional interest on the back burner. A woman who is infuriated by political repression yet not driven to despair, and who has nothing but disdain for betrayal.
Shirley, an attractive, charismatic, committed, emancipated woman.



art imitating art.


A prime example of




As the starting point for this film, which is about the staging of reality and the dialogue of painting and film, I selected Edward Hopper’s picturesque oeuvre, which was not only influenced by film noir – in his choice of lighting, subject and framing as seen in paintings such as Night Windows (1938), Office at Night (1940), Room in New York (1932) and his direct references to cinema such as in New York Movie (1939) and Intermission (1963) – but which also in turn influenced filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock, Jim Jarmusch, Martin Scorsese and Wim Wenders.


Based on my conviction that history is made up of personal stories and my reading of John Dos Pasos’ USA novel trilogy which portrays the life stories and destinies of a few as representative of the wider social, cultural and life histories of the US, I have chosen an actress as the film’s protagonist – Shirley – through whose reflective and contemplative inner monologues we experience the US from the beginning of the 1930’s through to the mid-1960’s.


Here we have three decades, which have seen great upheavals at all levels – political, social and cultural – that have changed the country and its people forever: Pearl Harbour and WWII, the atomic bomb and the “conquest of space”, McCarthy and the Cold War, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the start of the Vietnam War, Duke Ellington and the big band swing, Billie Holiday and the Southern blues, Elvis Presley and the rock n’ roll, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and the protest song, The Group Theatre, The Living Theatre, Method Acting, The Actor’s Studio and its affiliated movie stars such as Anne Bancroft, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, the Stock Market Crash, the Depression, Fordism and Interstate Highways, race riots and the Ku-Klux-Klan, the March on Washington and Martin Luther King. These events, names and legends, which are inscribed into our collective memory, evoke images and moods. Shirley experiences and reflects all this as a committed and emancipated actress with left-leaning politics. She enjoys jazz, listening to the radio and going out and loves film. She is a woman with strong opinions and both feet on the ground, even during times of personal or professional crisis. She is attractive, charismatic and likes to play outsider roles such as that of the prostitute Francie in Sydney Kingsley’s play Dead End. Besides her art, she is also interested in socio-political issues. As an ensemble member of the Group Theatre and Living Theatre she combines art with her socio-political involvement.


While Shirley and her partner Stephen, a photojournalist for the New York Post, share an apartment on only two occasions during these three decades, their private and professional lives are deeply connected: unemployment as a result of the Depression, disappointment after the betrayal of Group Theatre members in front of the McCarthy committee, repressions as a result of the politically-minded theatre, career retirement as a result of ill partners, loss of partners, retirement to the countryside and questioning of the effectiveness of art, emigration to Europe – personal destinies that are pursued in front of and influenced by world-changing events, cultural revolutions and socio-political upheavals.


History is made up of personal stories.



Gustav Deutsch, January 2013



Stephanie Cumming

Christoph Bach

Florentin Groll

Elfriede Irral

Tom Hanslmaier

Yarina Gurtner Vargas









Art Direction



Production Management





Julia Cepp

Michaela Haag

Marie Tappero

Dominik Danner

Gabriele Kranzelbinder


Österreichisches Filminstitut

ORF Film-Fernseh/Abkommen


Filmfonds Wien

Innovative Film Austria - BMUKK

European Community








Gustav Deutsch


Gustav Deutsch

Jerzy Palacz

Gustav Deutsch

Christian Fennesz

David Sylvian

Christoph Amann

Hanna Schimek

Gustav Deutsch

Veronika Merlin

Art for Art Theater Service

Rudi Hopsig

East-West Filmdistribution


KGP (Ö), Rendez-Vous Filmverleih (Germany), KMBO (France), Karma, Obala Art Center, Art Fest, Pregnant Pictures, Anjou-Lafayette


2013, 93 min, Color, DCP, 1:1,85, 24 f/sec, Digital Sound 5.1.




Up to now, you have created many of your artworks by happening upon or tracking down found footage material. This time your “found object” is Edward Hopper. What fascination does he hold for you?


There are two things about Hopper that fascinated me, which weren’t clear to me at the beginning: firstly, as an avid cinemagoer he was strongly influenced by film. He clearly references film noir by the way he uses lighting and frames his subjects, and he also had a strong influence on filmmakers through his paintings. When Alfred Hitchcock shot Psycho, he was clearly guided by Hopper’s House by the Railroad. Even today, filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders refer to him. Secondly, Hopper is considered a realist painter, which is not something I found to be true upon closer analysis of his paintings. Hopper does not portray reality but stages it. The staging and assembling of reality is also the nature of film.


You have not only stepped away from found footage material to painting, you have also moved from essayist, experimental works to fictional narration. What brought you to fiction?


There were the paintings. Albeit, just the paintings and not the context.
In my previous work, I established a connection between the images of diverse films. Through montage, I managed to create meaning contexts by attempting to unearth something that was not the original intention of the filmmakers.
I wanted to narrate new stories, and this is also true for Shirley – Visions of Reality. I tell “other” stories with Hopper’s pictures as well. By means of a character, which for Edward Hopper is usually a woman, I intended to narrate thirty years of American history, the same time period that coincides with the creation of the pictures: through the reflection of this woman and through her eyes. That way, I can introduce elements that are not shown in the pictures. What is fascinating about Hopper is that his protagonists experience or observe something that they do not share with us, because it is not depicted. Many of the pictured women look out of the window, observe something, react to something and we do not know what it is, and this is of course something I can invent. I can introduce it through sound or the woman’s inner monologue.


What did the screenplay look like - surely nothing like a „classic“ screenplay?


In my oeuvre, I am again and again concerned with the reflection of the history of cinema and film. The tableau vivant is a precursor of cinematography. It was a popular social past time to re-enact famous paintings, and film in its early stages also assumed this form of entertainment. My main idea was to “vivify” the pictures. I wanted to imagine what happened shortly before and after the moment that remains frozen in Hopper’s painting. At the beginning my thoughts turned to the sequence of moves the woman would do – does she sit down or enter the room? Very early on, my idea was to work with a dancer, rather than an actress, because this work is much more about gestures and movements. Only later did I start contemplating her character. What is her profession? What are her interests? I started to think out thirty years of this woman’s life. I was merely interested in these thirty years of her professional and private life, not her earlier experiences. The professions of my protagonists – there is also a principal male character – should reflect the theme: the discussion, reflection and staging of reality. This is why my protagonist is an actress and her life partner a photojournalist.


But this woman is not only an actress concerned with getting parts, in these thirty years she is also politically minded and involved?


I wanted a strong female character, who acts uncompromisingly, and who takes an approach supported by the idea that one is not born into a given destiny but that life can be created as it unfolds, even in these times, and as a woman. Regarding her profession, it was important to me that she would achieve this not on her own but within a group. In theatre, back then, there was the Group Theatre, inspired by Konstantin Stanislavski, who also developed “method acting”. These methods require the actors to live together in closely- knit communities, rather than only meet up on stage and during rehearsals.  continue


My protagonist also takes this approach and for a time does not live with her partner but with the group. Her partner supports her fully, his job as a photojournalist enables him to be more compromising, he has a steady income and, during the time when she is unemployed and the Group Theatre dissolves, he is able to take her in. Among the 13 Hopper paintings, there are a few that didn’t allow me to define Shirley as an actress – she then works as a secretary at her partner’s newspaper or as an usherette at the cinema. Her periods of unemployment coincide with the Depression of the 1930s, the crisis of which saw her out of work as an actress, but her political convictions also stopped her from pursuing certain trends followed by her Group Theatre colleagues, such as going to Hollywood.


How did you find your actress Stephanie Cumming?


For a while now she has worked as a dancer and choreographer with the Company Liquid Loft here in Vienna. But I also noticed her when I saw Mara Mattuschka’s films, which emerged on the basis of dance pieces choreographed by Chris Haring and Stephanie. Stephanie caught my eye not only as a dancer, but also as an actress. She is very active in Mara’s projects, sometimes also androgynous, while in my film she portrays a feminine, calm and reserved character. To my delight Stephanie said yes without hesitation.


You are known for your meticulous and precise work method. With your rigorous standards, how did you approach such elements as colour, light and space? What strategies did you use?


Let’s start with colour, since painting is our starting point here. In 2005 I began to work on the project with Hanna Schimek, my companion in life and art.
We both have our own projects, sometimes we work together on projects. In this case, I have asked her to be the artist, not just for everything that needs to be done painting wise, but also for the design of the overall colour scheme and to help me pursue the question of why Hopper’s colours have such a fascinating effect. On a trip to the US, we went to the museums with the original paintings, from which we were able to determine the colours by using colour charts. With the help of Hanna’s colour guide, we then worked on the set. She determined the colours, which changed with the light, and when we watched the digitally shot images on screen, they had changed again. We were constantly discussing colours and colour charts and this went on throughout the colour correction and colour grading processes. I wanted to transfer that which defines Hopper’s work, this fascinating play of cold and warm, light and shadow, onto the big screen.


Surely the transformation of space from painting to film was also a challenge for you as an architect?


Space is a play with the possible. In Office at Night, for example, Hopper uses an angle, which approximates that of a CCTV camera. In order to recreate what he painted, we had to tilt all the furniture to such an extent that the tilt left everything flying off the table. Of course, Hopper’s preoccupation with spaces was of great interest to me as an architect: How is it possible to recreate these rooms three dimensionally? I had to build several models in order to even come close.


Did many of Hopper’s subversive spatial arrangements only become apparent during the building phase?


Yes. The dimensions he worked with are unbelievable. Often his beds are three metres in length. Then there are armchairs so narrow that it is almost impossible to sit in them. It was important to consider which elements were to be played on, what targets were viable. Things that are not used can be built so they look like they function but don’t. And everything is anamorphic, no furniture is placed at a right angle, no space is orthogonal.


What was the challenge regarding the lighting?


Lighting plays a major part, not unlike the characters, requiring as much attention as the mise-en-scène of actors or the colour design of the set. The lighting design took up as much time as the shoot, about one to one and a half days. Jerzy Palacz, the cinematographer, and Dominik Danner, the gaffer, worked on the realization of Hopper’s world of light and shadows, ever since we shot the teaser. They were also obsessive in their endeavour to recreate the painted light in Hopper’s picture as accurately as possible. With some pictures we were stretching the limits of possibility and we were frequently faced with questions such as: What should or shouldn’t we allow? Will our protagonist throw a shadow if she stands in front of the window or not? How can we make it look real, even if it is not in the Hopper painting? Evidently, our work has to be credible in a cinematic sense as well, like a Hopper painting has to work as a painting.


Are there only long shots in the film?


No. At least one moment in each episode is an exact match of the Hopper painting. We were not allowed to move the camera position, not even by three centimetres, because otherwise things would have looked out of place. But we were able to zoom in and out, change the shot size, and as far as possible, even pan. Despite his limited scope for manoeuvre, Jerzy Palacz got the most out of what was available...


.. and thus pushing cinema to its limits?


We were limited. We could neither walk around with a hand-held camera, nor do a shot reverse shot. We were always in the position of the spectator. It is very much like Hopper to assume a voyeuristic and observant position.
In all departments of this project, it wasn’t about taking liberties but putting time into detail and working with what is available. The challenge is of course to avoid boredom and create suspense in a subtle way. How this works, we can judge now, after watching 90 minutes on the big screen.






Film de Cult



The exhibition deals with the topic of the staging of reality and replication and reconstruction in art, taking the example of Edward Hopper.


VISIONS OF REALITY, the title of the exhibition and the subtitle of the film SHIRLEY, addresses inter-alia the fact that Edward Hopper did not reproduce reality in his paintings, but instead combined individual set-pieces to create a fictional reality, a method that is also inherent in the medium of the film.


In the course of the three-dimensional life-sized transformation of 13 Hopper paintings for the film, pictorial and sculptural artefacts were created that were combined into sets to produce the illusionist reality of the film.


In the exhibition, these artefacts on now taken out of their film context and presented in compilations and setups on the topics of panel painting and replication, dioramas and illusion painting, anamorphotic and metaphoric furniture, symbolic objects and artefacts steeped in history. In associative sequences of images, reciprocal influences and links between painting, film, architecture, popular culture, illustration and advertising are challenged.


Its exacting visual fidelity to Hopper’s work

is the chief pleasure








Seidengasse 15/3/19

1070 Vienna, Austria

Fon +43 –1– 522 22 210



East-West Filmdistribution

Schottenfeldgasse 14

1070 Vienna, Austria

Fon +43-1-524 93 10 34


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