A Q&A with TIFF’s “Miracle” screenwriter and director Egle Vertelyte

Egle Vertelyte is a professional screenwriter, co-owner of film production company In_Script and has just directed and written her first feature-length film “Miracle” which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) on Sept. 7th.

The film is about a woman named Irena who struggles to manage a post Soviet-era pig-farm, and a boisterous American-Lithuanian stranger intent on buying the farm and making it great again. It’s the first time in seventeen years that a Lithuanian film has been screened at the world-renowned festival.

Teviskes Ziburiai – The Lights of Homeland contributor Skaidra Puodziunas recently sat down with Vertelyte after her sold-out, public TIFF screening to discuss the film and the process of making her idea into a feature.

(Pictured above are Canadian Lithuanian Youth Association members Daina Sablinskas (left), Lydia Zemaitis (red) and Skaidra Puodziunas (right) with Egle Vertelyte and Radka Bardes (Producer at Orka Postproduction Studio) wearing AS LT t-shirts gifted from the Canadian Lithuanian Youth Association.

SP: You just screened your first feature film at an international festival to a sold-out crowd. How do you feel?

EV: Accomplished but also a bit empty. A project that has taken almost ten years to complete is coming to an end. “Miracle” began as an idea of mine in 2008 and has since gone through five script drafts, three of which were complete re-drafts and additionally, almost two years of casting, directing, filming and post-production.  

Egle Vertelyte next to her Toronto International Film Festival Director’s badge.

You’ve written lots of screenplays, but why did you feel it was also important to direct “Miracle”?

I had a very clear vision for “Miracle” and felt strongly that this was the feature-film for me to take on.  I didn’t feel comfortable passing it along to anyone else. 

Was it challenging to be both director and screenwriter?

 At times, yes. I tried to be as objective with my approach to directing the film as possible, given I went in with very clear ideas about scenes because I had written them. But when I was directing “Miracle,” I had to deal with more than just the words on a page.  I had to balance budgets, coordinate with production teams, casting directors, short timelines, etc. There were so many moving parts and stakeholders involved that I just had to keep moving forward. It’s different when I’m writing or directing solo projects.  “Miracle” was a much bigger project. I loved this challenging yet rewarding process with many small wins along the way.

You have experience directing documentary films, but what was it like transitioning to a feature-length film?

Feature films have always been my goal, however, other opportunities have presented themselves along the way. For example, in 2010 I had the opportunity to travel to Mongolia for a year. My unique living circumstances led to my documentary UB LAMA, where I trailed a twelve-year-old boy, in love with hip-hop and computer games, on his way to becoming a Buddhist monk. This documentary wasn’t a series of interviews I had with the boy, but a narration of his journey. I took a similar approach with “Miracle,” as I trailed Irena’s journey, a struggling pig farmer, working to survive in post-soviet times.

“Miracle” was a co-production with Lithuanian, Bulgarian and Polish production companies. Why?

All three countries experienced similar histories post communism.  Since the film had a rather ambitious budget, we thought to reach out to external sources for funding and production support. We were fortunate to have made connections with the Lithuanian Film Center, the Bulgarian National Film Center, Eurimages and the EU Media programme.  The majority of the interior, apartment shots were filmed in Bulgaria, all the exterior and farm shots were filmed in Lithuania and all of the post-production work has been managed through Poland’s Orka Postproduction Studio.  We were also pleasantly surprised to have received a grant from WomenInFilm a US-based organization.

What was the casting process like for “Miracle”?

It was a long process but I knew right away when I met with Egle Mikulionyte, who starred as Irena, that she was the one.  She had the right look, presence and a personal connection with the script, having lived through soviet times. With Bernardas, we tried casting a Lithuanian living in Lithuania for the longest time, but the “North American accent” was always missing. As soon as I connected with Vytas Ruginis over Skype, I instantly knew he was the right fit.  He had the accent, the flare and acting experience to bring the American-Lithuanian Bernardas character to life.

What process do you go through before committing to write a script or direct a film?

I always have to ask myself what is the personal relationship I have to this idea. Is this idea important to me? Will I be able to bring my soul into it? Only if I can answer yes to these questions can I move onto the next stage, which for me is always writing and rewriting.

Whose films do you admire most?

There are so many.  A few directors that come to mind are Roy Anderson, The Coen Brothers, Aki Kaurismäki and Emir Kusturica, his earlier works.  I like the tones, topics and strange worlds they create within their films.

Final Question. What’s your current book on the side?

Canadian author Alice Munro- a collection of her short stories.  

Interview conducted by Skaidra Puodziunas