The nearly deserted Mariovo plateau once bustled with life. Abandoned stone houses are all that remains of Mariovo’s more than two dozen villages, deserted in the 60s and 70s. Volcanic rock slashes the landscape with a harsh, graphic quality, described by director Milcho Manchevski, who made the area internationally known thanks to his films (Before the Rain, Dust, Mothers, and Willow ), as ‘biblical’.
“The locations are absolutely characters in the story,” says Jane Kortoshev, producer of Vrba (Willow). “It is the case in all of Milcho Manchevski’s films. There are two types of dynamics with how the use of locations in his films is perceived by the audience: The Macedonian audience takes a lot of pride in his films and perceives them even as part of nation-building. The foreign audience sees Manchevski’s films – and the locations – as both a representation of this tiny country, but also as something universal.”
Willow is composed of three tales about three women and their strong desire to have children. Two stories are set in present day, while the first chapter is set in Medieval times and was filmed in the evocative area surrounding the city of Prilep, with vast fields of grain and craggy outcroppings.
“The story of Willow needed the vast space that Mariovo and Treskavec offer. We needed to see a different reality from the modern reality we are living, where everything is crowded and small. These locations were contrasted by the urban contemporary setting of the second half of the film. We wanted the viewer to feel detachment from the world through these never-ending landscapes.”
The locations not only add value to the director’s vision but are an essential part of the story. The sight of a willow tree symbolically connects the three tales.
“Throughout the film, the locations directly help the rich symbolism – for example, a dry broken tree seen through a window, the barren landscape itself with its black and gray volcanic rocks, the centuries-old man-made holes in the rock.”
Choosing to shoot in the area around Prilep was easy for the production. Director Milcho Manchevski grew up in North Macedonia, a place he calls home.
“He has filmed there on previous projects. He has a special bond with those landscapes. We still had to scout specific spots for specific scenes. We travelled there dozens of times and made thousands of photos. In addition to picking the right locations for specific shots, we had to arrange for the construction of several sets. It was a two months long process.”
Filming on mountaintops and rocky soil was a bit of a challenge for the cast and crew working on Willow.
“For a scene on the mountaintop of Treskavec we had almost the whole crew chasing sheep and goats on the mountain top. In another scene, a pair of strong oxen chased the two main actors.”
“On another occasion, everything was ready for the camera to roll. We had artificial rain, but at that moment the water truck decided to stop working. This even before we could do a single take. As the location was not so close to civilization (about an hour or so), it was going to take a long time for a replacement truck. We couldn’t wait that long, so we moved to another scene. We shot the rain scene on another day. There was also a situation where we converted an old stone village into a medieval village – removing antennae, electrical wires, plastic coverings, and more. The sheep and goats seemed to be easy at first, but then we realized that they all had plastic tags on their ears and we had to remove those or count on expensive CGI effects in post.”
The elegant stone bridge in Zovich, the stone houses in Shtavica and the open, rocky landscapes of Mariovo and Treskavec served Willow to great effect. Milcho Manchevski’s film is the North Macedonian entry for Best International Feature Film at the 93rd Academy Awards®.