Melania’s Home — How the First Lady left a legacy of pancakes, loungewear, and excitement for one small village’s future.
The people of Sevnica, Slovenia, are hopeful, optimistic—almost expectant of a change that’s about to sweep their small town. Melania Trump was born among these bucolic hills and cobblestoned streets. Will her status as America’s First Lady transform it? Will Trump buy the castle? How good are all the Melania desserts? David Freid, executive producer of MEL Films, with his scrappy, super skilled team, spent a few days delving deep to answer such questions in a subtly hilarious short film (embedded below. How’d they do this, exactly? We chatted with David to find out.
Brittany Washington: First of all, how on earth did you come across Sevnica and its Melania obsession?
David Freid: While Trump was winning the election back home, we were filming a grave digging competition in a ‘burb outside Bratislava. I remember hearing that Melania was from Slovakia — how serendipitous — and then found out that she’s actually from a small town called Sevnica in nearby Slovenia. We saw that it was close enough to drive to, so we felt a strong pull to go see the election response. Who knows, maybe we just weren’t in a rush to hurry back to America. That’s about it, really. Ladyland’s total lack of plot is probably a reflection of our lack of plans and forethought. It was a moment in time that we happened to be close enough to see.
BW: In twenty minutes, we get quite an encapsulating sense of what it’s like in Melania’s hometown. Without much pre-production, once you landed, what happened?
DF: Why, thank you. We got to Slovenia without a flight home, but generally our shoots are about three to five days long. Our tiny team made over forty short films together just last year, so we’re quite practiced at improvisation. Sevnica was a rainy and mysterious place. We didn’t have any contacts other than the town’s mayor, who one of our coordinators back home got a hold of.
BW: And then, the mayor led you to whom?
DF: His assistant, who had a friend who spoke English well and became our fixer. During our first meeting with her, over a large plate of Melania pancakes, she told us that her friends knew of an upcoming Melania prank on that same day. At the prank, there was a male choir singing traditional Slovenian jams, which began the musical act in the film. And then, the dominos continued to fall from there. We spent the first week figuring out where the hell we were, and the second week shooting and eating a ton of strudel.
BW: There’s a lot of nuanced humor here. You’re not poking fun directly at the people of Sevnica, but you do allude to the hilarity in banking on Melania to turn tourism around. This is a delicate balance.
DF: Well, the humor of the situation was found in the shoot and perfected in the edit. We wanted to show the most accurate depiction of our experience — and the scenarios we experienced felt like satire. I want to you that no Slovenians were harmed during the making of this film. We showed it to everyone involved and it was shared throughout Slovenia.
The balance, I think, comes from us stepping back from an edit and asking ourselves if we’re laughing at or with our subjects. The answer should always be with.
The world is insane and hilarious, and unless they’re a bad person, I have nothing but admiration and respect for everyone we’ve put on tape. And I believe they know that. We’re all just trying to make the best of the situation we’re in. I had a couple of friends tear up during the Celine Dion karaoke at the end. I think they felt as connected to these characters as we did.
BW: There’s a lot of hope from the locals in the tourism potential of their town. Did you see any evidence of that while you were there?
DF: Actually, our first couple of days in Sevnica felt like burnt turf because of how many other film crews we saw. The locals see all this new attention, and they hope it’ll help the economy. Who can blame them? Most folks were too polite to say anything disparaging about the Donald on camera, even if they felt it. They just figured that Melania could help rein him in a bit. That sentiment came up a lot, actually — that maybe she would help make him a good president. I kept asking everyone if they knew the story “Lysistrata,” but ancient Greek comedy wasn’t at the top of mind.
BW: The music intermission is stellar. Tell us more about this, and about your general approach to working with music in documentary storytelling.
DF: Music deserves at least half of the credit for any good film. Whenever I have an opportunity to film anything local, I take it. Since there’s an element of travel to most of our films, music is just another way into the tapestry of a culture. It’s also nice to get away from those royalty-free libraries every now and then. We met our yodelers at a charity talent show at the local high school. I heard the yodel from the back of the auditorium and one of them was done by the time I made it close enough to see who it was. Then, we found her and her sister at a farm in the middle of nowhere. They lived in a beautiful village in the mountains: a totally traditional life. The whole extended family was there to welcome us and feed us very locally, and had recently procured charcuterie. And none of them spoke English. We mimed our way through a lot that day. I wanted to film them standing in a big open field for the yodeling and, lost in translation, they just started playing some polka right there at their farm. That became our intermission. Afterward, I mimed if they knew anything in English, which is how “My Heart Will Go On” became our end credits music. From the opening bombast of yodeling for the circus of Melania to the soothing cover song vocals to play us out, our film wouldn’t be the same without our music.
BW: Did you send the finished piece back to the citizens of Sevnica? What’d they think?
DF: I hope everyone in Sevnica saw it. I know everyone involved in the film did, and I know it was shared. It seems to have gone over well. One of the subjects shared it on Facebook with “Watch the movie, be amazed, come and visit!” That was the same optimism we saw while we were there. And one of their Slovenian friends shared it and typed “Make Sevnica Great Again.” Well intentioned humor is not lost on them.
BW: In retrospect, anything you would’ve done differently? You don’t usually shoot on the fly like you did on this piece. What’s the vibe when you go on such a shoot?
DF: With more lead-time, I probably would’ve over-analyzed it, saw how much other media was covering Sevnica, and never made the trip around the globe. Besides having an outstanding field producer and a support team who is somehow always holding it together, my approach to shooting on the fly is pretty simple: I try to trust the initial creative impulse that drew me to the story, which almost always stems from curiosity, no matter what obstacles production sends my way. That trust came with repetition, and made it easier to improvise. It’s kind of like being a character on a long-running sitcom. Eventually, the characters’ responses to plot stimuli begin writing themselves. The problem with that that I’m currently encountering is that I sometimes feel like I keep doing the same thing over and over again. I like to blame the schedule. Hopefully the creativity is still there and these films will evolve and get bigger and better and, most importantly, continue to be watchable.