Hotel Sinestra: a day on the set of the new family film
Legend has it that the «Hotel Sinestra» is haunted. In the very same place, a Swiss family movie of the same name is being shot. On my visit to the set in nearby Sent, I find out what the poltergeist is called, how much a camera is worth and why it’s sometimes better to drag your feet.
«We’re rehearsing!» someone shouts.
The old square in front of me is full of snow carted in this morning by farmers from the region of Sent. «Snow recycling,» they joke. The film crew, made up of twenty or so, are spreading it around. There is meant to be a nasty snowstorm raging in this scene after all. Trouble is, the sky above Sent is a radiant blue.
I adjust my sunglasses and watch five children wrapped up in thick jackets. They’re playing the main roles in the film. A woman, probably the acting coach, is talking to them.
«You guys have just run in here in a frenzy. The storm is bad and you’re out of breath. Breathe heavily.» She inhales and exhales deeply to demonstrate, «Just like that, see? And now: save yourselves – get to the church!»
A church with a high bell tower provides valuable shade. Even in these sub-zero temperatures I can feel the warmth of the sun. The young actors will just have to visualise the storm. An assistant daubs their brightly coloured jackets with snow. Someone shouts, «Action!» The kids run into the church and someone else shouts, «That’s a cut.» The rehearsal is over. Everyone goes back to their starting positions.
After four attempts, the scene is in the bag. In the film, it’ll last about two seconds.
Set break. The kids are bundled into the adjoining parish hall, where hot chocolate, cake and muffins are waiting for them. There’s coffee for the adults.
A poltergeist named Hermann
Four hours. That’s how long the train takes to get from Zurich to Sent – a textbook mountain village. Adorable. Tiny. Picturesque. Some of the buildings are even reminiscent of the Belle Epoque era at the turn of the 19th century. An interesting clash of styles in the depths of the Grisons. Beyond Davos. Beyond Scuol, even. There at the end of the valley, in the back of beyond, a Swiss family movie is currently being filmed. My photographer colleague Thomas Kunz and I were invited onto the set of
I used the time on the train for research. The hotel which the film is named after really does exist. Following the River Inn downstream, you can see it on the left side of the valley. It’s said that the ghost of a Belgian man, christened «Hermann» in the late 1980s, wanders the floor of the old spa. Ever since, the Hotel Val Sinestra has been used time and again as a setting for horror films. But even Hermann the Ghost probably would never have believed that a family film would one day be shot there.
One of the film’s producer’s was responsible for the decision. As a child he’d spent holidays at Hotel Val Sinestra – the Val is omitted from the film’s title – and claims to have encountered all kinds of spooks. As a result, he came up with the following idea:
Ava (Bobbie Mulder) is on a winter holiday at the Hotel Sinestra when she wishes her annoying parents would just disappear. And then it happens: the next day, all of the adults have vanished. Finally, the children can do whatever they want. That is until they realise that the carefree childhood they had with their parents was better after all. Their attempts to reverse the spell end up leading them to a church in Sent –
the location of today’s shoot.
In perfect chaos, there lies a forbidden church
I’m told before my visit that the film is supposed to be a mixture of «Pippi Longstocking» and «Home Alone». That’s made apparent by the atmosphere on set: the kids mess around, throwing snowballs and laughing loudly. The adults are unfazed. They set about their work with concentration – building sets, laying thick cables and manoeuvring the wardrobe-sized wind machine – later responsible for generating the terrible storm – into place. No part of this hustle and bustle happens by accident. No-one’s there just for the fun of it. No-one puts a foot wrong.
Professionals are at work.
It’s as if I’m observing the perfect kind of chaos. While the kids are busy making a racket, the adults are meticulously planning each shot. There’s plenty to think about: from the position of the Alexa Mini camera, to the tracks used for moving it, to the marker where the children will stop to look meaningfully at the camera before running into the church. Elsewhere, someone is climbing up a slippery railing, risking life and limb to take down a parking sign that’d screw up the shot. Nobody questions this.
While there’s still a hum of activity outside, the shoot continues inside the church. Nobody’s allowed in except the five children and a few select crew members. It’s actually a restricted area. What’s being shot is supposed to be a secret. Nevertheless, photographer Thomas Kunz disappears. Suddenly, I’m alone. Half an hour later I spot him coming out of the church.
«There you are!» I shout to him. He shrugs his shoulders sheepishly. I joke that he could blackmail the studio with the photos. Thomas just smiles. «Well, I did ask,» he says. Revealing nothing else, he grins – and continues snapping.
The value of a single camera
Waiting is the order of the day. «Not again,» I think, slightly annoyed. Rumour has it, it’s the last waiting game of the day. Afterwards, the set in front of the church should finally be ready to shoot today’s final scene.
«The weather’s almost being too good to us today,» says production manager Alexis Lieber. It’s his job to run interference for the director, leaving him free to concentrate primarily on creative tasks. This means, Lieber mainly takes on the organisational side of things. «We can always add the storm digitally later.» Lieber adjusts his black woolly hat and gestures at the wind machine with his thumb: «We’ve still got a few tricks up our sleeves, you know.»
Something rumbles in the background and Lieber whips around, startled. My heart stands still for a moment, too. Hermann? A couple of men wave it off, «It’s all good». They’re carrying out the finishing touches to a mini wagon. It’s heavy. Three men have just hoisted it onto a three-metre-long track – presumably the source of the noise. The camera is subsequently set up on top of it. It’s the only camera available to the crew.
«It’d better not break,» says Lieber.
Firstly, because it’s just a rental. According to the production manager, it’s easier and more cost-effective to rent the equipment you need individually for each film or day of the shoot. Depending on the accessories, a camera like this costs between 50,000 and 85,000 francs. Second of all, out here in Sent, it’d take more than a day to get a replacement. The same goes for all the equipment. «In the worst case, production has to be stopped. That costs money.»
Then they slowly shuffle home
The time has come. The storm scene begins.
For the final shot, I place myself behind the camera, right next to director Michiel ten Horn. He doesn’t even notice that I’m not part of the crew. In front of us, there are four wooden figures. It’s a kind of nativity scene, as the film is set at Christmas time. The children are waiting at the other side of the square. Their mission is simple: run uphill, stop at the marker, look at the camera, carry on running. All while being blasted by a giant wind machine. Two helpers send snow swirling into the air blowing directly into the children’s faces.
«Action!» shouts ten Horn.
The kids are doing well – never once complaining. Quite the opposite, in fact. All of this running uphill only looks like it’s exhausted them. Between takes, they muster up the strength to get into mischief – just as their roles in the film dictate. «Method acting,» I hear someone joke.
Although the afternoon is still young, the shoot is already drawing to a close. That’s in the children’s interests, too: by law, they’re banned from working more than three hours a day. But that doesn’t mean they can put their feet up already. I find out that film productions involving kids also include private schooling. Every day. Education is a must.
That applies to the small group of child extras on set, too. Unlike the five young leads, these children live in Sent and were given the afternoon off school especially for the shoot. Even if they weren’t actually needed today in the end. They’re not upset about it.
«Super! Now we can even go home early,» one girl shouts excitedly. «No,» says one of the minders sympathetically, «if we’re finished here early, you’ll be going back to school.» The children look crestfallen. Only the girl grins. «Then we’ll just drag our feet extra slowly on the way back», she says, quiet enough for the minder not to hear.
The children giggle. The atmosphere on set has pepped up again.
The family comedy, directed by Michiel ten Horn, will be filmed in Sent and the surrounding area until the end of March. «Hotel Sinestra» is expected to be released in Swiss cinemas during the Christmas period of 2022, distributed by DCM.
I'm an outdoorsy guy and enjoy sports that push me to the limit – now that’s what I call comfort zone! But I'm also about curling up in an armchair with books about ugly intrigue and sinister kingkillers. Being an avid cinema-goer, I’ve been known to rave about film scores for hours on end. I’ve always wanted to say: «I am Groot.»
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