/ deutsche Version unten / Caroline Fayette’s first brush with DL was in 2014, where her short film The Island Where I Come From (made with Chloé Guerbois under the name Studio Twins) made the list for the 10-day DLX. Her work again showed up at a DL presentation at c.a.r. (Contemporary Art Ruhr) in …
In 2012, H.D. Motyl’s Nude Descending a Staircase #2 was selected for screening at [DL8]. Motyl flew over to Berlin from the US, where the producer and screenwriter is also an Associate Professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and active in the Big Muddy Film Festival. … read more
Directors Lounge at Mitte Media Festival 2019. – Bizarre, Hypnotic, Wonderful – Selected Gems from the DL Archives. Get lost on a visual trip to the surreal, mystical and mesmerizing realm of bizarre, hypnotic and wonderful movies. Including works by Anton Corbijn, John Christopher Gibson, Guy Maddin, Mario DeGiglio-Bellemare, Allan Brown, Roger Deutsch, Masha Godovannaya. …
Out on the (Fata Morgana) floor, four suspiciously alien creatures (Tristan Honsinger dragging voice and bow across low registers), Moeko Yamazaki (beating a ritual drum to within an inch of its life), Izumi Ose (as silver and silver gets, all a-glitter and a-twitch) and Woody Hoofer (acting up with his body as a sensual weapon) got very close indeed to the gathering one of during DL’s various presentations for the Mitte Media Festival 2018. A slew of unearthly film cuts and an ethereal installation were also part of the mix. Who needs gravity, after all?
DIRECTORS LOUNGE AT MITTE MEDIA FESTIVAL 20 – 22 April, 2018
Join Fata Morgana/coGalleries, Z-Bar, Leo Kuelbs Collection, Benhad & Djilal, BRLO, Chased Magazine, Kunstleben Berlin and Directors Lounge for the second annual MITTE MEDIA FESTIVAL! Lots of performance, art talks and videos of all kinds in the heart of Berlin’s Mitte neighborhood.
Mitte Media Festival takes its creative cues from the neighborhood itself: a thriving international scene with its own deep German heart. Berlin-based artists are mixed with a variety of international creators to provide a cross-section of what’s going on in the world of video and media art.
DL at Mitte Media | Program I (88 min) “In the other side, by her side” curated by Elaine Tedesco (Brazil), 20 April, 5 – 7 pm at Z-Bar: Contemporary videos of women artists about the city, urban issues, the arts circuit, performance, social problems, speeches and their forms, feminism, audiovisual language, memory, selfimage, daydreaming… Read more…
DL at Mitte Media | Program II (110 min) curated by Kenton Turk and Klaus W. Eisenlohr, 20 April, 8 – 10 pm at Fata Morgana Gallery: Here, DL will be doing a double-dig into its box of flickering tricks, with a program of shorts from both the Berlin International Directors Lounge Festival as well as the Urban Research side of things. There will be new projections as well, including, rumour has it, a mad monkey and film art that literally leaps into the room. Saying more would be telling…. Performers of the night include Tristan Honsinger (cello), Izumi Ose (melodion), Moeko Yamazaki (taiko drum) and the very odd Woody Hoofer (indescribable). Read more…
DL at Mitte Media | “Was vom Kino übrig blieb” (What remains from cinema), André Werner, 2018, 21 April, 6:30 – 8 pm at Z-Bar: The first in a series of Interactive video installations capturing glimpses of cinematica. See more…
THE MOVING PICTURE
Lights down For a show in the dark Vantage point the back row Where the screen fills your eyes
Watch her before you now Her gaze thrown far and wide See the picture begin to move Bold magic of cinema Before your unquenched eyes She raises her hands And shapes a world
She fashions a world And runs through it Peoples it with towering thoughts Covers it with high-standing dreams Places to run free and grow wild Up on the screen Flickering bravely in the dark
Now your gaze seeks her Catches her only here and there A soul playing coquette Revealing itself in fleeting moments
Watch her from the edge of your seat She is running in fields Her hair trailing electric sparks Her face thrown back Arms outstretched to two horizons Laughter darts across her lips Leaves around her fall Pages of unwritten memories Following their wilful aimless path She runs through them You watch from the edge of your seat
Her laughter trails distant But the picture remains Moved only to the next screen
– Kenton Turk
One year onward Never forgotten, our dear Claudia 12.01.1960 – 26.06.2016 Team DL
[DL] DEEP FEATURE
THE TWO-EDGED TONGUE
Very British leading wave DL satellite director/screenwriter Alex Ross on our strange creatures, his odd views, life and art in London and Paris and becoming “ein Berliner”
by Kenton Turk | Directors Lounge Magazine | December 2015
pictured: Alex photographed in Berlin (photo: Nick Font/DL)
BRITAIN BLEEDS INTO EVERY WORD spoken by the razor-shorn guy who makes movies about a city across the Channel from where he was born. He squints and reaffirms if asked that he is “ British by birth, British by nature,” despite twenty years and counting in a city with a different language and take on how life is to be lived. Alex Ross however tells stories in moving pictures about people here in Berlin, not simply as a convenient backdrop, but as an integral part of how said people enact plans, react to one another, perform sex acts with one another.
Beyond his award-winning short films, there have been four features so far, with Ross as writer and director, and occasionally actor – German films with English titles: Move On Up, Land’s End, Tom Atkins’ Bluesand the most recent, the quirkily-named Weak Heart Drop. What sounds like a clumsy attempt to describe a cardiovascular crisis is in fact the kind of clever, offbeat film cinemas are (or should be) screaming for. The tag line – “Du kannst eine Lüge nicht für immer geheim halten” (“You can’t keep a lie a secret forever”) – sells the film considerably short of it complexity. There is an interaction between the living and the dead (the latter actually reaching in to shape the present), between perpetrator and victim, between victim and victimizer (often the same person). Tom Atkins’ Blues lives on the sand in the gears of its machinery. With Weak Heart Drop, the machine has received oil to reduce the friction and open the pumps. The film played at targeted cinemas throughout the spring and summer, bobbing and weaving in a calculated norm-dodging light artillery assault on the standard cinema run. Audience reactions (having attended a number of screenings myself) are immediate and strongly favourable. This is a good piece of work. Why aren’t there more films out there like this?
Release times for these longer flicks have never been suitable for a DL screening, but other films with the Englishman’s fingerprint have made their way into the festival, and there has been talk of possible a future guest curation. Ross knows the DL festival from way-back-when, through location and conceptual changes.
We find a semi-cloistered back room of an in-demand local hangout to chuck around questions and answers on who this man is and how that might affect his work. Like one of his main influences, Terry Gilliam, he has British wit (and the British Isles term “shite”) at the ready. The final scene in Time Bandits (“a very playful film,” he says with relish) where Ralph Richardson turns up as God, saying, “For God’s sake, look at all this mess you’ve made!” can pull up an immediate chuckle out of him. Very, very British. His formidable accent when he occasionally switches to German I don’t read as inability, but as tranquil defiance, the kind that rears its head in his eccentric films. Trim and kinetically energetic, he takes a seat with comfortable ease, the sun at his back. “The sun never sets on the British Empire,” indeed….
“In my opinion there are two sorts of people who work on films… people who are there for the work or people who are there for the pose.”
KT/DL: You’re a Londoner?
Alex Ross: Not by birth, by choice. I was not born in London, but I spent quite a few years in London, a very intense part of my life. That’s where I go back, generally.
Did you crawl off as a gypsy child?
No, I just moved to London when I turned 21. I was born east of London. We moved to Stoke-on-Trent, then to a place near Coventry in the Midlands. Then I moved to London; it just seemed like the right thing to do. I was there for a number of years. Then I took two years out and went to the Bournemouth Film School. After that, I went back to London, and because the grad film I did there was very successful and won a lot of prizes, I was invited to a lot of places, did a lot of travelling.
Your Eraserhead, so to speak.
Maybe. So I basically came to Potsdam, just outside of Berlin in ‘91, and to be honest, I never really left again. I saw the former East Germany a year and a half after the Wall came down and went to East Berlin. It was only a matter of time before I moved over.
What was the name of the film?
Jacob’s Ladder.Not to be confused with the Adrian Lime horror classic, but actually my film did come out first. I get a lot of abuse on YouTube from people saying,“This isn’t the Tim Robbins film!”
It’s the original!
That’s why it says “A complete film by Alex Ross,” “The award-winning short film.” If you bother to read the titles, then you’ll see that it isn’t the feature.
What year was that?
1990… so 25 years ago. That kind of got me… I mean, to travel with your film is the best of both worlds. Sometimes you’d be picked up at the airport in a gleaming black Mercedes, put in a hotel and be rewarded with a lot of favourable comments, and sometimes I’d win a prize. It was completely… like these things are, when they’re unexpected, it’s the best of everything. The film really resonated with a lot of people; it was great. My world expanded, and I came here on the back of that to try and get a project started with some people I’d met in Potsdam, in Babelsberg. Inevitably, that didn’t happen. I went back to what I had always done in London, which was jobbing: I was a furniture removal man for about three years. Out of that, I wrote the screenplay that was picked up.
A furniture removal man?
Yeah. It’s a proper term. Möbelpacker. You’re removing it from one house and installing it in another. I did that for a number of years, and then wrote a little idea quite flippantly that was based on that, and that was picked up quite fast by ZDF¹, Das Kleine Fernsehspiel.²
And what was that?
That was a film called Move On Up. What a title, eh? Although it was only a TV film, it won the Grimme Preis, which I suppose is the equivalent of a BAFTA. That was also completely unexpected. It was… loosely based on some of my experiences. It’s about an English guy that comes to Berlin, checks his holiday romance, she doesn’t want anything to do with him, he wants to stay to try and win her back, ends up joining a furniture removal company. So it’s kind of like a road movie through the city, set during the European football championship in 1996, where England met Germany in the semi-finals, so it only heightens his sense of homesickness. The flatline was the football tournament, then you had all the furniture removal stories, and the love story about how he tries to win back his holiday romance. It was an exhausting film because I think we shot for 32 days, and not a single day was it the same location. We were constantly moving around.
Move On Up, you said it was only a TV film. Do you have a sense of hierarchy… a caste system for films?
No, I mean that the film scene has changed a lot in Germany, and a lot of these Kleines Fernsehspiel or grad films also get small distribution deals and make it into the cinemas, although most of the money is TV money. That’s what I meant. When I said only TV, I meant it was only shown on TV. We didn’t really know about it… or the relationship between me and the producer was not healthy enough for us to pursue that after the film was finished. I think that… were quite glad that we didn’t see each other.
One of those, OK. Can I print that?
Absolutely. I mean, he wouldn’t say anything different. So when I say that, I don’t mean as a derogatory term. It was only ever shown on TV; it was never shown in the cinema. And that goes for the second film I made for that slot [Land’s End, ed. note] that was very problematic in its birth, in its making. It kind of disappeared off the radar as soon as it was finished, really, which was certainly the agenda that the commissioning editor had, to bury that film as soon as possible. And then I was no longer welcome…
So, I wasn’t invited to the party at the Berlinale. That was a really nice touch, I didn’t get an invitation. Like someone crossed me off their Christmas card list! And then when I wrote to the commissioner at the head of the editorial department, she suggested I look for money elsewhere. So I was given some very clear signals. Although you can make up to three features with them, it was made clear that the Redakteur, the commissioning editor, didn’t want to work with me, and didn’t want me to work for them. That’s where I found myself working in other departments, as an assistant director, editor, assistant editor, translator, production coordinator, whatever. That was what I like to call “The Wilderness Years.”
“The Wilderness Years”… that’s a good chapter for the autobiography.
Exactly! But then it came a point when I really felt the need to make something again, which is where Tom Atkins’ Blueswas born… out of the fact that we hadn’t made anything. Tom Atkins’ Blues was made possible because I spent those years grafting, made a lot of connections, spent a lot of time on the set, if not as a director, but made a lot of connections, pulled in all the favours I did for that.
I’m curious, from others’ point of view, your ex-compatriates… what makes you difficult to work with?
What makes me difficult to work with?
I think what made me difficult to work with was the fact that my German language skills weren’t great, and I was often misunderstood, often frustrated, not being able to say what I really meant.
You didn’t encounter people trying to show off with their minimal English?
It wasn’t the same though, because the film was in German. And I also – particularly, it has to be said, in my opinion there are two sorts of people who work on films. There are people who are there for the work or people who are there for the pose, and the problem on that film is that a lot of people who were hired by the producer were there for the pose, and made my life unbearable. Only a few people seemed to be pulling together for the film. So under a lot of stress and in a somewhat frustrated frame of mind, I was probably quite… short with people.
But not the actors, I’m talking about crew members. And I had the assistant director fired… although she jumped before she was pushed, but my God, I would’ve pushed her! My DP [Director of Photography, ed. note] is from Scotland, and he had never experienced anything like it. To make films is hard enough anyway; to go and try and make them in a foreign country where you don’t really speak the language, it just makes everything harder. But my German’s much better now; I’m more experienced, more confident. I think I’m a very easy person to work with. I don’t suffer fools gladly, I don’t like laziness. It’s about the work, and I don’t like people trying to push the project in a direction that is quite obviously not right for the project. People have their agendas, I know…
A very quotable line. Would you call yourself a British filmmaker?
Yeah. It’s a bit of a cliché, but there’s this quote where you can take the man out of Britain, but you can’t take Britain out of the man.
They use that with all kinds of qualities and categories.
I think that sensibility… I think Britain is good at doing social dramas that are serious but have a certain amount of comedy. I don’t see that so much in Germany.
So would you say you’re doing British style social comedies in Germany?
I think I would say… I’d like to think I bring just that kind of sensibility to my films, whatever the subject matter or wherever they’re set or whatever language they’re played in. And I have my own view of what I think is good and not good, what works and what doesn’t work.
Do you find yourself becoming Germanized over time?
No, I just think there’s a lot of… it’s interesting, I know a few expats, and they live in their flats, and go and work where there are just expats. Whereas me, here, where I used to live before, where the late night shop [setting of Tom Atkins’ Blues, ed. note] was… I’m very embedded in my neighbourhood, I know a lot of Germans. There’s a lot of things about German culture, the Berlin culture, that I like and understand. So I feel that I’m not a tourist.
If you’re a tourist, I think your tourist visa has expired, from 1990 until now!
Maybe “traveller” is a better word…
But you’re here, resident with family and all this, so…
Yeah, I’m quite happy here.
You could hardly be any more solid.
No, absolutely. I don’t really know many expats.
The idea is definitely not to come over here and hang out with people who you spent a lot of money to leave…
Genau! To sit around and talk about how much better Montreal is, or something like that.
Which reminds me of a little film clip that I sent you. That’s exactly what I meant.
That’s one of the best quotes I’ve heard! We had a quote in film school about a lot a things, which was, “What a load of wank!” But I think “Biggest wank this side of midnight,” that’s embellishing that. I think I’m going to use that a lot later on!
It just popped in my head. I thought, it doesn’t get worse..
It’s everything that’s wrong about so many things.
We will be mentioning names…(laughs)
“Only a certain amount of films could get made. And I didn’t go there to sunbathe. I would have taken anyone out to get the money.”
THE WAITER, AMICABLE if a little distracted and/or scatter-brained, comes with a round of drinks (not tea) that we carefully position on a less than stable 1950s asymmetrical table. Ross seems somewhat thoughtful peering into his glass. Before I can hit him with another question, he shares what has been going through his mind.
AR:It’s not very often that you’re asked that, what makes you… why are you difficult to work with.
DL: We’re going to get to more unusual questions as time goes.
That’s a good question, though. I think that these days, I’m much easier to work with. I think probably when I was younger, I was harder to work with, but that’s all about, you know… I think because of the way that Tom Atkins’ Blues and Weak Heart Drop have been made, there’s no need to be defensive or territorial about things, because it’s our own thing. I think when you’ve got commissioning editors and producers who you notice are not really… what’s the phrase, “not reading from the same page,” then you get very territorial. It’s another cliché but it’s true, that a film shoot or a film production is a benign dictatorship.
With “benign” as an option.
Yeah, exactly! Somebody has to say yes or no! And Land’s End was an interesting experience. Don’t get me wrong, that was a really great shoot to work on, but it was filmmaking by consensus.
Morrissey once said democracy doesn’t work in a recording studio because everyone’s got their hand on their own faders, pulling them up to 100. Not everyone can be the star. It doesn’t work that way.
I have to say that both the last two films, Tom Atkins’ Blues and Weak Heart Drop were made with Martin [Parry], my old friend from film school. He shot that grad film, he shot Move On Up. Land’s End is the only film that I’ve made that he hasn’t shot. And we do everything together. There isn’t a single decision that’s ever made on these films that I don’t run past him first. I still get final say, but if I say no and he says yes, that’s OK.
That difficult-to-get “artistic control.”
But, you know, we agree nearly on everything. There’s hardly ever been anything where we’ve had radically different opinions about something. That just makes a huge difference, because certainly on Move On Up, a couple of friends who worked on that shoot said they just saw me on my own in the middle of this film shoot with no one really helping me. I’m not making it sound like it’s a tough world, but you’re on your own, and then your insecurities do creep in. But there’s always two of you – then you feel very confident about what you do, and you don’t feel alone.
Rather like marriage, isn’t it?
It’s something like that.
And it is a tough world, by the way. (laughs)
It’s a tough world being a miner or a farmer or something, It’s a luxury to make films. But the work’s tough, the hours long. It’ll be interesting, if I go back to funded filmmaking, quite how that will be. Also… you get to 50, and you’ve just got a different attitude to everything. With my student film, I would have rucked with anybody to get that money, because we knew that the film school only had a certain amount, and only a certain amount of films could get made. And, you know, I didn’t go there to sunbathe. I would have taken anyone out to get the money. But it worked out fine. We got a large slice of the budget that year, and deservedly so, because the film worked out well, and it won a lot of prizes. That youthful aggression and fire, that fades, the older you get, to a certain extent.
I think part of it is just, “I’ve done that already.” In the same way that, if you’ve worked in a library all your life, you might say, “Now I want to join Hell’s Angels. I’ve done the library thing.” Speaking of the Angels… people have an idea that urban Britain can be a tough place to grow up. Give me a tough experience, your tensest moment.
Well… over the years, I’ve had tense moments with the police, but that was mainly due to my own folly. (laughs)
Switchblades against your neck…?
The only time I had any serious trouble with anybody, where a knife was shown, was actually because I knew him and not because something had happened on the streets.
It’s good if you know your killer. It helps you prepare.
But I’ve had a gun pulled on me twice, both times in Berlin. Just after the Wall came down. It was just bizarre. I used to live in areas of London which had a terrible reputation at the time. The worst was when a woman – I lived in the same house as her – was stabbed a couple of times. We were never quite sure who, but her boyfriend and his French mates were all into heroin back then. It was ’84 in Brixton, all very dark and nasty. Quite harrowing.
What was the first time you had a gun pulled on you?
Well, the first time was… a mate, who was here, he was looking for work and a flat in a style not unlike like Yosser Hughes from Boys From The Backstuff,³ where he’d just ask anybody anywhere anytime if they knew about a job or a flat, in English. And this guy invited us back to his place to talk about it. It was another classic guy just after the Wall, an East German guy who just thought he could make some money. We turned up in his flat, and he started playing really loud death metal music, and he was just really weird. Then he pulled a gun out, and insisted we started playing Russian Roulette with him. And he put a single bullet in it. I couldn’t have told you if that was a live round or not, or if it was a blank.
That’s not something you want to find out the hard way.
And me and Martin we were sitting on the sofa. You could feel that… we tensed at the same time, all the sphincter muscles went like that [demonstrates with this fingers], and all of a sudden they went wheynnng! It was like, “What the fuck?!” And we just went, “Whoa!” and ran out before it was our turn.
A proper guest would play along.
Yeah, I know.
It would be the British thing to do.
Well, we had somewhere to go…. And the other time, some guy knocked me off my bike during a Saturday afternoon, Jannowitzbrücke [east central Berlin area, ed. note]. And you know, I spoke very little German back then, and I was cussing, man, I was cussing quite badly, and he said to me, “You don’t speak to me like that in front ot my wife!” And then he pulled a gun out. So I positioned myself behind his… amply framed wife to pull his gun away, and then of course the rule is, if you have an accident, you have to call the police, and then he called the police. So I just got on my bike and fucked off and thought… “This is too crazy!” (laughs) I was involved in the second riots in Brixton, but that wasn’t so hairy, because the police were on the back foot the whole time. Perhaps what was a bit hairy was that we we were coming down off acid, but that’s another story. Going down to a front line where there were flames and police – that was pretty… whoa! But I couldn’t say I’ve had anything really that bad happen.
Good, I’m not looking for anything nasty; I’m just curious. We were talking about tough times, etc, and that made the connection.
“People started saying, ‘Oh that’s a lovely little film.’ People do that, once you’ve won a prize, people start praising it.”
DL: I want to ask you about Land’s End. Sum it up in five words?
AR:A very enjoyable experience.
OK, with one word left over!
I found that Move On Up was a very, very different experience for me to deal with afterward. I set out to make a feature, and it was so difficult to make, and when it won the prize, it meant very little to me, because I’d fought so hard to get it to where it was. That’s when people started saying, “Oh that’s a lovely little film.” People do that, once you’ve won a prize, people start praising it. But I felt… if I go through that experience again, I’m never going to make a film again. The crew on Land’s End were fantastic. It was all shot out in the countryside, so we all looked healthier at the end than when we started, which is normally the other way around. The problems we had was when we hit the editing room. The commissioning editor was not a fan of anything we’d done, and didn’t seem to know the script. It was a real struggle to get the film edited the way I wanted. But I learned a lot about how to deal with a situation where the gods are not really on your side. The film kind of disappeared off the radar, because they wanted to bury it. They cut the budget, so we had to cut pages. The beginning was cut. A friend of mine said, “Where’s the rest of the film?” We didn’t foresee that kind of compromise. And that’s the thing, if you start compromising on day one, where are you going to be six months later?
The decision about what parts to cut, that was done over your head?
Well, it wasn’t done over my head; I got to do the cutting, but, you know… I couldn’t cut out the middle of the story!
You could do what Kennedy did for reading, apparently to save time at university – read every second page and figure out what must have come between. I guess that wouldn’t work too well for film…
I don’t know! But if you get into a position where they say, “You can make this for 100,000 less,” and we only have 500 [thousand] to begin with, you’re not going just say, “Well fuck it, I’m not going to make the film.” But we were told we had use a certain amount of shooting days, a certain amount of scenes. This was three or four years before everyone started shooting on DV [digital video, ed. note]. So if the film had been three years later, we wouldn’t have had this issue. From day one, the production company want to know about shooting ratios. When you’re shooting on film, it’s always about shooting ratios. How much of the negative do you print? It’s all those things. They said we could have 8:1. 8:1 shooting ratios? You’ve got to be joking! By the second week, people in production are talking about… “We have to bring down our shooting ratio.”
That’s something the layperson doesn’t consider – technical limitations, what’s imposed on you, and what you end up having. Since you brought up “day one”… as far as the Directors Lounge annual festival in Berlin, you’re one of the earlier visitors. Tell me how you first came to show up there.
I first came to the DL… must have been 2007, but it might have been 2006, when it was in the Frankfurter Allee.
Probably the second year. The second and third year, it was in 137 and 133.
But a very clean white exhibition space. Loads of us went. And then, probably two years later, possibly 2008, the location had changed; it wasat Oranienburger Tor [Scala, cinematograph theatre, built 1908, ed. note]. It was difficult to know when you compared the two – one bright light classic exhibition space and one seedy, off the beaten track – whether the festival had gone up or downhill! (laughs)
Sideways. Actually, always the tendency has been toward atypical spaces.
And George [Drivas] showed the second film there [Beta Test, 2005, World Premiere at DL2, re-screened at DL4, ed. note]. That’s where I got to meet André [Werner], [DL founder, ed. note] who also showed this… I think in his circle it’s quite a well known piece where he cut lots of key moments from horror films together into a fluent narrative. [Flash, 2008, World Premiere at DL4, ed. note]
That was the first time you met him?
Yeah. I had worked on Beta Test, I’d helped find some of the locations because George was trying to portray a kind of a future world, so, very specific locations. Because of my experience working as an AD [Assistant Director, ed. note], I knew of quite a few locations, Stasi buildings, stuff like that. Then I came into the editing room and gave my opinion about a few things.
Tell me your impression of André upon first seeing him.
(Pause) A bit mad.
OK, that’s good!
Well, not mad in… I mean mad in a positive way. He looked like a man who didn’t see much of the day.
That would be André, yeah.
I don’t remember him to be the biggest of talkers, actually.
But you know, it’s like pleasantries, someone introduces you, you have a bit of a chat, and then someone else grabs him. It’s always like that, you never really get to chew the fat for very long. Then he moved the festival again, and it was showing at the Pfefferberg.
But not there. Through Ofir Feldman and his crew the Verbal by Nature football segment, the poetry one, [“Poetic Account,” ed note] which we showed in L.A. as well… you had worked with them. Through that I came to the Tom Atkins premiere… at Lido.
I AD’d it. I was in on all of the casting sessions. He credited me with casting, actually, in the credits. I really pushed that it should be… Ernest Hausmann, I think is his name, who plays the footballer. [Ernest Allan Hausmann, ed. note]
It was this contrast picture between things that don’t fit, linguistically – the poetic soccer player, the…
I think that’s the one that works the best of all of them, the football one.
We shot that a few months after the all the others, and it was bitterly cold out in Klein Machnow. It was hard! But it was good. If you do a reshoot or you do a pickup and it’s got something about it, it makes it all worthwhile…. there’s nothing worse than the shite at the end.Agreed.
Tom Atkins’ Blues – that was a very special screening. A very special evening. There was something in the air.
It was a great night. I came and talked to you, but not for long. I think you were very busy, pumping the flesh here and there.
There were a lot of people there.
That never hurts….
Meral Perin and Benno Lehmann onstage with Alex Ross (photo: Nick Font/DL)
“Even the most notable newspapers, half of their front pages are just light stories about this and that… who gives a fuck? Spare me!”
DL: What about the other side? Inside or outside of film, tell me something that irritates you.
AR: The amount of shite that’s out there.
In general, or any specific kind of “shite”?
Well, there just seems to be kind of an increasing gap between the amount of shite that’s projected through all sorts of media platforms and what’s really going on in the world. I find it really irritating that people seem so easily distracted from any serious train of thought. And it manifests itself anywhere, d’you know what I mean? Or everywhere. Even the most notable newspapers, it seems, half of their front pages are just light stories about this and that, you know… who gives a fuck? “Communists! Communists!” Spare me!
They’re fighting of course for the non-existent reader.
It seems that that’s what people go for. Look what sells, look at what’s on television…
But it’s always like, “This is the most popular thing on TV.” Yeah, it may be the most popular thing on TV, but how many people watch TV? Or what percentage of people watch TV? “This is the best-selling album in pop music.” Yeah, but what percentage of people actually listen to pop music?
Then there must be a vacuum of people who are doing… what?
I don’t know – not listening to listen to pop music. What you don’t have is any relativity about anything. “This is the biggest thing since sliced bread.” No, it’s the biggest thing since sliced bread in that little cosmos, but that’s all anybody’s talking about. But what percentage of people actually watch or listen to it? It was a lot simpler 30 yours ago, because there weren’t that many TV channels, or radio stations or newspapers, but now we’re just awash with images and opinions, and… I don’t know, I wouldn’t say that that irritates me, but… no, it does irritate me, actually.
Do you do anything to keep yourself thinking clearly?
I jog most days.
And that does it for you.
Yeah. It’s interesting, I was on the airfield… I don’t know if people know, in Berlin, the former Tempelhofer airfield is now a park, a very, very big open space. It’s enormous.
It’s actually bigger than most people think. It’s bigger than Central Park.
Yeah, it’s massive! I was on it yesterday, and there was a father, mother and son, he could’ve been about 10 or 12. He turned his bike without seeing me and almost hit me, and his dad said, you know, joking, “All this space and you managed to hit someone!”
Well, you know, talent shows up in strange places.
So I looked back and smiled, to give him a signal that it didn’t bother me at all. Before I knew it, he was cycling beside me. He said, “Isn’t it a bit boring jogging here?” and I said, “I know that there are people who find the field very boring, because there’s nothing here. But what I love is… the open space!” The thing is, if you’re like me who’s only ever lived in cities for the last 30 yours of my life, if you’ve lived in London… to have a park that size! It’s incomprehensible to a Londoner. Or in Paris or Moscow….
It’s not just the size. Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, they’re also large parks. But it’s a flat field; that’s the thing.
You know, I work a lot; I’m a six/seven-days-a-week guy, really. But some of my best ideas come when I’m out there, about halfway round. Ian McEwen said that for him, motion is the best way to be creative. Whether you’re in a train, on a bus, in a car, as a passenger, walking… I think there’s something about motion; it’s good for the mind. And that keeps me fresh. If you make films, there’s a lot to think of all the time. Robert Altman, when he was making McCabe and Mrs. Miller, lived on a diet of grass during the day and bourbon at night.
As in the smoking kind. He wasn’t grazing on a field…
Apparently. The other way to relax is a couple of glasses of red wine and watch something thought-provoking, or, like somebody said about some of the HBO stuff, watch something that makes me feel intelligent when I watch it. (laughs)
That would explain the popularity of all those other shows we were talking about!
Like Mad Men. I’m rewatching The Wire at the moment. It’s incomparable; there’s nothing out there like it.
I only know it by name. I have to confess I watch none of these TV series. I don’t know where people find the time for it. I don’t have the time to sleep, even.
That’s one of the biggest problems these days. I’m doing an episode a night at the moment.
What was the last book you read?
The last book that I finished was called Bageye at the Wheel.
That’s very interesting; that was going to be my second question, but I’ll backtrack first. Who is that by?
It was written by an Afro-Caribbean; he’s of Caribbean descent, but he was born in England. [Colin Grant, ed. note]It’s his recollection of growing up in a West Indian family in a little council estate in Luton in the 70s. I’ve started – I’m about halfway through Brixton Rock by Alex Wheatle. He’s another writer of Caribbean origin. That’s all about a guy, he’s 16 in 1979 in Brixton. That’s great because it’s just a few years before I moved to Brixton. It’s a place and a time that I remember myself. And you know what, sometimes you start a book, and within page one, you’re in? I was on the way to a birthday in a restaurant in Charlottenburg [upscale district of Berlin, ed. note], and I thought, fuck it, I’ll just ride the underground all night and finish this book!
I’ve had those kind of page-turners where I’ve stayed up all night to finish them. The Collector, for example. I like to read books that became films to see how they varied. Another one was Marnie, later made into a Hitchcock film, but very different in the original. I had to stay up all night. I thought, “I’ve got to find out, I’ve got to…!
I love that, when a book gets you like that.
Maybe you’re a mind reader, because the second question I was going to ask you was, what was the last book you didn’t finish?
I can tell you, there were two. One was a bio about Eddie Merckx, the famous Belgian bike-rider. I don’t know why I didn’t finish it. I just put it down and didn’t pick it up again. But the last book that I didn’t finish was a book I barely started, and that was White Teeth by Zadie Smith, who was very hyped.
You get books that are hyped and have won all kinds of prizes, like the famous Life of Pi. Couldn’t get through it. Partly well written, but too spotty. I couldn’t force myself to finish it.
Even if I don’t like a book that much, I try and give it 60 pages…
I think I gave it more… 100 I would usually do.
I just didn’t care; none of the characters were particularly likeable…
On the subject of the likeability of characters – I went with my sister [Angela Turk, DL reviewer, ed. note] to a presentation at the Toronto Film Festival – Pasolini, by Ferrera. A lot of potential, but completely off the mark. The central characterization left us both cold. The same evening in her apartment, I played her a couple of scenes from Weak Heart Drop. She said, “I know this is going to be good, because I already care about the characters just from the few moments I’ve seen.”
That’s what my mum said too.
That’s an important thing; it’s hard to get that. Do you have a method of doing that, or does that just work out? Or is it just down to the nuancing of the actors?
Well, you’d like to think so. It’s the first film I’ve made where I’ve had white collar characters. In Land’s End, the main character is a failed architect, but you never see him as an architect; you only see him as a fish out of water. You never see him in his office or anything like that.
There are minor characters in Tom Atkins’ Blues who come in and out, white collar people, but as the enemy, as it were.
I did wonder if having the main characters as a gallerist and a therapist, if people would find them likeable, but…
Why shouldn’t they? Because they’re white collar?
Well, because it’s something new for me, new ground for me. But I think particularly with the gallerist, it has a lot to do with Megan [Gay]’s portrayal of the character. How can you not like her?
She’s spot-on in that, I think.
Everyone who sees the film says that; it’s not something that I would trot out otherwise. Because it’s effortless, it’s not like she’s acting. That’s where I like to go with actors, is to say to them, “You’re acting! I see you’re acting! Just be.” Another performer in the cast wrote a very nice letter to me after we finished the shooting and said they felt they had learned something new about acting working with me and Martin: they learned to just be in the flow. It’s the highest compliment you can get, when you get letters from actors.
TOM ATKINS’ BLUES TRAILER
“A tennis player or a swimmer, I don’t think they’d necessarily be suitable for a film, because it’s all about team, isn’t it?”
I don’t think it needed to, either. I just think that whole project was blessed with luck. The first week it was showing in the cinemas, it was the last week of August, the first day after the summer holidays. If the sun had shone all week, then people wouldn’t have gone to the cinema – but it rained all week. And on the back of loads of good reviews that all came out, because there was nothing coming out – as it was just the end of the holidays, there was that low. We had real luck. But you know I think you make your own luck, I really do…
It sounds very good, but unfortunately there are other factors that do broadside you.
Tom Atkins’ Blues happened so quickly, you know, it was difficult to get broadsided. We got broadsided a couple of times with Weak Heart Drop becauseit went on and on and on and on and on.
What is the Tom Atkins’ Blues scenethat sticks out most in your mind?
Now, one of the documentary interviews, because two of the protagonists have died. I thought, fuck, they’re gone!
Who was that?
You know the two guys who are talking about Marx and Hegels? Both. [Helmi Schäfer and Bernd Voigtländer, ed. note] One died in February. We hadn’t known, he had had a stroke the previous July and was recovering from that, and then he went…
That weakens people.
Yeah, people have a stroke and don’t come back. The film scene that sticks out the most? I think it’s that whole sequence with me on my bicycle, because that’s something we thought up afterwards. Music is such an important element of the film; he’s always playing music. We needed to get out of the shop, and so Martin said, “Why don’t we have a sequence where you ride around Berlin?” It really it was a joy to do that. Also, when I watch it, with the music and everything… it’s right absolutely in the middle of the film, and it’s really what the film needs; it brings everything to life.
Breaks the claustrophobia.
Yeah, exactly. Probably my favourite acted scene is the face-off in the shop, where the new boyfriend comes in. It’s like a Western scene, in a way.
In that one, you played the pivotal character. How much of that was you?
Very little. I remember when I first showed it to some friends in London, the summer after – my friend Helen, after about 15 minutes, she said, “Alex, he’s nothing like you!” I said, “Thank you!”
I just assumed that a lot of it was going to be heavily autobiographical.
What’s true is, I used to work in a shop, and I have seen the neighbourhood change. And some of the things that happened in the shop did happen, like the drunk Frank [Benno Lehmann, ed. note], that’s based on a real character; also somebody coming in and complaining about the tomatoes being too hard. Apart from that, I used to live in that street.
I figured the expatriot, transformation… I can imagine that you’re someone who probably would not deal so well with speedy gentrification.
But that happened after I had left, really. I worked there in ’95, ’96, ’97, and then moved away from that neighbourhood in 2000. Toward the end of 2008, I thought… “Fuckin’ hell, where’s it all gone? Who are all these people who are coming in? It’s all new to me!”
I thought of it as being something broader. A lot of people find themselves confined to things they’re not ready or prepared to cope with – changes in body, ageing, all kinds of things. I could sort of see that as being an allegory of all kinds of situations where the sand shifts under you. And then what happens, sink or swim?
That was very key – very early on, we realized it’s about change. But the subtext is, if you choose change for yourself, then it’s all positive. But if change is forced upon you, it’s very difficult to deal with.
That’s good, a feeling of satisfaction. Any film you’ve seen where you think, “I could have done that, and better?”
No, I tend not to look at films like that. There are a lot of people in this town that don’t get to make their films, because there are so many people making films here, and because of the way the funding structure is here. I was probably the same for two or three years. You would find yourself comparing yourself to filmmakers because they were making something and you weren’t. But I don’t look at things like that anymore. Martin and me, we went to a film school where we shot on 16 millimetre and then editied on a moviola. That was back then with a three machine edit, when Beta SP was the newest thing. We bring that kind of like that schooling to digital filmmaking, but we have been blessed by the fact that technology has improved so much that we are able to utilize digital technology, we didn’t have to pay for film or video material anymore, we can edit it at home. Tom Atkins’ Blues and Weak Heart Drop were utterly empowering; we were able to make the films that we wanted to make.
What do you think of cinema d’auteur, the Truffaut/Godard-advanced idea of a film being a singular vision of a filmmaker? For example, Hitchcock’s films being only his vision. Hitchcock didn’t write the scripts…
He certainly didn’t edit them, either!
No. You have certain sequences that are called Hitchcockian that were completely scripted by someone else. He might shoot a certain way…
And then he used that iconic music.
Even in the case of Psycho, he was going to pitch it, and use it for his television show until he heard the music and realized that this put the film in another sphere. So you do see it as a collaborative effort.
That was exactly the word that I wanted to bring up. Often it’s the director, or the lead in the film that’s seen as the face or the name attached to that film. But film is such an unbelievably collaborative medium. A tennis player or a swimmer, I don’t think they’d necessarily be suitable for a film, because it’s all about team, isn’t it? There’s an anecdote… Ken Loach gathers everyone in a circle on the first day of shooting and says, “It doesn’t matter whether you’re making the tea or the director, you can fuck this film up,” which means everyone’s important to the set-up. With me and Martin, it is a constant dialogue. We’re also very good friends away from film. Certainly, actors pick up on that, there’s no doubt. That is a feather in our cap with both Tom Atkins’ Blues and Weak Heart Drop, some of the actors who have come down and done something for us. That says something about the way we are. Actors like to work with us.
Then it’s fair to say if I were an animal you’d be a herding animal.
I don’t know. Certainly not a sheep! (laughs)
Why, because they just chew and shit?
Yeah! You can stare at a sheep and… there’s nothing going on in there…!
They’re at peace with the world! This is the equivalent of your being on the airfield!
But it’s the naiveté that you see in their eyes.
Maybe that’s their jogging, just ruminating.
But I used to camp with kids, and we used to be in fields with sheep. Sometimes we’d just stare at sheep, and, fuckin’ hell, there’s nothing going on in there.
Maybe like the broad masses? (laughs).
WEAK HEART DROP TRAILER
“If you live in a foreign town and you start to get the feeling that your time’s up, go sooner than later; otherwise you’ll end up in a right old mess. I was on the cusp of that.”
DL: I remember reading, when I was studying theatre, that when you become an actor, and go to see a film or a play, you no longer just see it, you always think in terms of, “I’m not that good,” or “I can do better.” As a filmmaker, do you look at films and say, “Hmm, I would change this,” or “I’m not up to that level yet”?
AR:No. There are some films… most films struggle in their last third. I think if a film struggles, it’ll struggle in the last third. You often notice that films are running out of ideas, they run out of speed, they don’t know what to do to get to the end, there’s a kind of lull in the last ten minutes. I think even if you weren’t filmmaking, you’d instinctively pick up on that. Sometimes I think, “Oh God, they’re not very good actors,” or “God, that was a bit of a strange cut!” but I know as a filmmaker, that’s probably all they had; that’s why they had to cut.
We wrote… well I wrote, but me and Martin would then do script doctoring together, I think I wrote four or five drafts of Weak Heart Drop. And when people read the script, literally, from creative consultants, dramaturgs, actors, everyone really liked the script – the way it took off and where it went. But when we cut the scenes together as in the script, the first ten minutes of the film were completely mystifying, baffling. We thought, no one knows what’s going on, because basically, the script was about people and their secrets. The script was written that you would show the characters in the act of deceit before you knew who they were. So you’re basically dealing with six or seven characters, one of whom is dead, and you don’t know she’s dead.
That threw me for a loop for a long time! Maybe I’m not the most savvy viewer…
No, no, you weren’t the only person who wasn’t quite sure about that. And the rest of it got picked up after that. So Martin came up with the somewhat simple, but actually brilliant idea. He said, “Why don’t you just take, not necessarily everybody’s best scene, but the scenes with the most important characters and pack them to the front of the film?” So in fact the running order of the scenes is scene 2, then scene 6, scene 17, scene 19, scene 26, 27, scene 44.
You remember that?!
Well, you remember the scenes, yeah. What that did, that left holes elswhere. When you’re in the editing process, your scene 44 is no longer there. Also, although the therapy scenes read very well, they were far too long, far too many words. So in the end, I cut 40% of the dialogue out of the film. Most of the scenes were at least twice as long.
I see. Your earliest childhood memory?
Getting locked out. I remember it, but obviously embellished by my parents recounting what really happened. I climbed out of the window – we lived in a bungalow – at six oclock in the morning, and was handed back by the postman. I remember how I hated it.
The most pivotal event in your life?
(Long pause) Meeting Uli. My partner. I’d been in Berlin nearly three years, and done a lot of furniture removal work that year. It was one of those really cold, hard winters, and I just felt that things weren’t really going to go anywhere in Berlin. There’s a friend of mine who lived in Barcelona who came here for a bit, and he said, if you live in a foreign town, in a foreign city, or a foreign country, and you start to get the feeling that your time’s up, go quickly, go sooner than later, because otherwise you’ll end up in a right old mess. And I was on the cusp of that. Then I met her more or less overnight, and I’m still here because of what came out of that. For me personally, having a family and teenage kids hasn’t always been easy, but it gives a kind of base to work from. It’s not suitable for everyone, I know.
No; it stops you from being a vagabond, however.
Yeah, and I’ve done enough of that; I’ve been a vagabond in London and here. You know, losing one of my best friends was not so pivotal, but it’s probably the thing I remember the most. But if there’s something that affected my life more than anything else, it’s got to be meeting Uli, because just see me 20 years later. That’s a cliché, but I think if I hadn’t settled down, I would have carried on being a bit too excessive in my lifestyle.
Like Tom Atkins.
Yeah, but Tom Atkins doesn’t drink in that film. You never see him take a drop of alcohol or a toke or anything.
It just feels like he does! That’s like the whole thing about James Dean never wearing a leather jacket; you say, “Didn’t he? I thought he did!” Never in the movies…
No. Marlon Brando did. But you don’t see Tom smoking anything, you don’t see him drinking anything. He was portrayed as a teetotaller. I generally was, when I worked in the shop, because you can’t work in those places and drink. That seeps into everyone’s mentality there; you just encourage more people to drink…. and then it just gets nasty.
“This world is being plundered at a speed that’s just unbelievable! In another 50 years there’s going to be nothing left apart from a few rich people….”
AR:Maybe why me and Martin haven’t made a bigger impression on the film world than we have is because film isn’t the only thing we’ve got in our lives. I know other filmmakers, that’s all they’ve got! I have a lot of interests; personal happiness or enjoying myself has always come before killing yourself for the film.
DL: And yet of course with many things, having a back door is an option that can be fatal. But to work yourself into an early grave because something didn’t work in one of your films would be pretty stupid, if you think about it.
I know other people who are like that. You take away their projects, and, God, they haven’t got a life. They’ve got nothing to go home to.
Everyone has something they can’t bear. A word you don’t like to hear?
“Nigger.” “Kanake.” Any kind of detrimental references to somebody’s origins, I just think, you know, “God, is that as far as you’ve got in your life, mate?”
Unfortunately yes, in many cases.
That really – I can’t bear it. More than anything else, I just think, “Ah, man….” (sighs)
How about a concept for which there is no word that you think there should be a word for?
(Pause) There should be a word for when people wake up one day and realize the folly of what they’re doing.
It’s called “living”!
It’s not exactly a revelation, is it? They wake up one day, and see their world for what it is.
…yeah, and they step into it – that stepping into that other world. But people don’t do that, you see, they don’t say, “You know what, I’m getting rid of my car,” or “I’m going to stop consuming this,” or whatever, “I’m going to stop importing the most expensive fucking caviar.” You know what I mean? I’m sorry, it’s my trip at the moment. It’s just that if you bother to spend any time looking at what’s going on… this world is being plundered at a speed that’s just unbelievable! In another 50 years there’s going to be nothing left apart from a few rich people. You’ve all these people being distracted by cars and bigger flatscreens and more mobiles and more shit on Facebook, more shit on this or that. Surely, there must be something where people wake up one day and they think, “I’ve been…!” And then they reject that, and go out and do something more interesting with their lives.
Is it fair to say you might know someone who’s had this experience?
No. You see, you’re talking to someone who doesn’t have a car, who doesn’t own property, who doesn’t eat meat…
A lot of people don’t eat meat…
I had that kind of experience. I am just not interested in this rampant cliché consumerism.
But you know, you’re not the only one. The second Deep Feature was on Brandon Cronenberg. A very unaffected person. Actually, the title of the article is, “If I Had a Chesterfield,” because he said, “Well, I sleep on this entry-level futon.” Pretty unaffected, completely under the radar. It’s kind of similar. “I don’t need a car….”
MORE DRINKS APPEAR. With them, a last round of questions. Alex flashes a grin.
DL: Paris could have become home, but Berlin won out in the end. Why?
AR: I spent quite a lot of time in Paris, because I had a girlfriend there. But I never really… I couldn’t find my way in there. Whereas the first time I came to Berlin, I was straight in; I felt right at home. You know that the first night I ever spent in Berlin overnight was in the same house as where late night shop is?
First bar in East Berlin was “Obst und Gemüse.”
We should do firsts, good idea.
First one in West Berlin was “Bar.” Skalitzer Straße. We met for a drink and went to Eiszeit-Kino and saw the midnight special of Taxi Driver. And I loved it, with the gas lights and everything; I thought, “Yeah mate, give me more!” And I liked the fact that it was just called “Bar.”
Simple, direct, yeah.
You know, I felt almost immediately… I mean, that’s true, what I said in Tom Atkins’ Blues – I found my niche. I’ve always felt very at home here. In Paris, I used to really enjoy myself, I was always in good form, but I knew there was just no way I was going to be able to find my slot, find a flat, find a way, a place to belong; whereas here, it just seemed to be shouting at me.
In those days, it was much, much easier, I have to say. How long did you live in Paris?
Well, I didn’t live there, I was just there. I lived in London and she lived in Paris, and either she was in London or I was in Paris. I used to take the boat train; it was too expensive to fly. But I spent a lot of time there…
Pretty much like me. Do you travel a lot?
But you have.
Well, not really. The farthest I’ve ever been was Moscow. I’ve never been to America, never been to South America, never been to India. You know, it’s only that it was really, really expensive to fly to North America in the 80s!
It still is. I fly twice a year, maybe, and it still is.
And I didn’t always have a lot of money. Now I seem to only spend my time in Berlin or London.
Let me ask a couple of cities you’ve been to, and just give me a one word reaction to them, OK? You mentioned Moscow. In one word?
In one word?
This is like cutting down your script.
Unbelievable. An equivocal word. OK, London?
(Pause) So long ago…
It never changes. The Eternal City.
So they say…. Last time I was in Rome was 1981.
Hasn’t changed since then.
OK! (laughs) “Dirty!” I hear Rome is dirty… in maybe more ways than one.
That may be true, OK. Madrid?
That might describe you better than the city. Barcelona?
One word to describe it? “Vibrant.”
Oh, you’ve done that twice.
Yeah, I think it’s OK; you can have two homes, can’t you?
They do. What are you going to do with the rest of today?
I’m going to check me’ e-mails, have something to eat and then go to a dinner party.
Is that a typical day?
No, it’s definitely not. You see, I hardly ever go to dinner parties. And it’s an expat dinner party, and I never go to those. It sounds terribly pretentious, but it has something to do with my status as a director that I’ve been invited.
I see. You’ve arrived!
Hobnob! A bit of expat hobnobbing, or something like that.
Oh, the evil word… you’re “networking”!
I don’t think so…
That’s what we need – a word for the concept of when you’re not really networking, but you in a way, you are.
I’m always very skeptical about that, whereas, you know, me and Martin are just trying to find a way to survive financially and still make films. It’s not ideal, but you know at least we’re doing it. You know, we’re trying to get our third one made, but we’ve made a couple of decisions about how things have to be….
¹ Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (major German TV station)
² series featuring films by upcoming film and TV directors
³ icon of 1980s Thatcherite Britain; catchphrase: “Gizza job” (“give us [me] a job”).
[DL] DEEP FEATURE
WHY MEN BUY ROSES
Filmmaker-cum-filmfest fixture Alexei Dmitriev gets loose on jury scrapes, artistic binge-drinking, the depths of karaoke… and what’s left to learn from Russians
by Kenton Turk | Directors Lounge Magazine
ALEXEI FROM ST. PETERSBURG comes at us with drinks, five in number, deftly clutched in the fingers of both hands. “Watch out for these, they can be murder,” he says, and when a Russian says it, you know it must be true.
There is no official stamp on this gesture, but somehow I feel as though the annual DL festival has gotten officially underway.
Years back that was, my second encounter with Dmitriev. The first was not as good – a self-formulated introduction to a compact figure curled over the kind of technical equipment I avoid, in smoke-grey light, deep in the night after a flurry of films at DL’s February filmfest. Later he apologizes for his mood of the hour – he apparently had heaps on his mind. Fast forward – by now, I’ve encountered him a good number of times, here in Berlin, over in “Peter,” the naked left shoulder of Mother Russia. I know some of his dislikes – he transmits these often enough free of solicitation. In the number: the hipsters of St. Petersburg’s Novaya Gollandiya Park (or anywhere), “manspreading” on the city’s trains (or I presume anywhere). But negative he is not. He has a number of loves, things he pursues with Russian passion – healthy they may not all be, but relished. Palpably.
Alexei is a singularity in the DL cosmos, a kind of Sputnik 1 that circles it and transmits signals of life out there among the heavenly bodies. He has created specially curated blocks of oddities on a fairly regular basis, the last being “Alexxxei’s Program” at [DLX],¹ a pan-global mix of cleverly sexual cinematic swipes. His onstage demeanour, whether announcing the line-up or answering queries on his own films, carries an overtone of bedside charm – intimate, loose, unvarnished. Example: he invites the audience at a recent Shortcutz special presentation of his films to come see his latest, The Shadow of Your Smile, at the upcoming Porn Film Festival in Berlin with the words, “We’ll watch some porn together,” lowering his eyes and promising them “bonding.” Titillated laughter from the gathering. A sly smirk from the stage. Dmitriev regards the audience like a cat that has just mastered the art of purring. Probably doesn’t suffer too many lonely nights, unless by choice. At the festival, a day or two later, the screening room is full to overload during the block with Shadow. How many came to see the man from St. Petersburg is impossible to say. The word “porn” still bears evidence of being able to attract on its own.
Tonight, Dimitriev is prepared to talk to me in higher-than-usual decibels, a necessity in the bar we’ve made our way into – his idea, a favourite among many near the Kottbusser Brücke. Rauchverbot hasn’t made its way here – the tight crowd smokes until it penetrates your clothes. He knows the bars of Berlin and other cities better than well, and is always open to new discoveries. We have done the rounds a number of times in the past. Crawling through some of these one night with me in consenting tow, he runs into pal after pal from country after country in bar after bar – mostly filmmakers with exotic accents and offbeat tales. Some I know as well. These creatures are like the trail left by Theseus in the Labyrinth, something you leave in your wake to follow up later.
“We basically created the whole idea of subtitles for festivals in Russia. Before that, they were also dubbing the shorts. There is a booth, and a woman with an extremely monotonous voice, and she goes, ’Na-na-na-na-na-na-na.’ It kills everything.”
IT ISN’T EASY to find a seat, but we get a couple near a warm radiator and a cold window. Dmitriev rarely dresses like he is looking to be noticed. Browns and muted blues predominate, as tonight. I prepare to do what I haven’t with him before – talk “on the record.” The idea is to let Alexei take things where he chooses.
We start off in mock earnestness. This feels a bit strange, considering our usual banter and that of moments ago. I address him by his first name (I’ve never learned his patronymic name) to indicate we’re underway. Like a man about to be sentenced, he replies, “Yes?” He is solemn and his eyes don’t flicker. I want him to start by telling me something about himself I don’t know. He has not made a great effort up until now to be candid to those who may be interested. His cryptic one-line official bio reads: “Since I was a little girl, my dream was to star in an experimental film.”
He rarely deliberates. (I must have known it, but only now am I aware of it). Without any delay, he fires, “When I was a kid I wanted to be a archeologist.”
OK. An unrealized dream. That I didn’t know. Why isn’t he one now?
“Well,” he says, getting rolling, betraying a hint of the swells and untertow of his native language, “the problem is all the cool stuff is already discovered. I wanted to be an Egyptologist, and all the Rosetta Stones, all the King Tut’s graves are found, so there is almost nothing else exciting to find. And I don’t want to be in anthropological archeology, where you find bones. I don’t like bones,” he adds in characteristic abbreviated summary, “I like stuff.”
Alexei always has definite ideas about what he does and does not like. His likes he can reel off as though thumbing through a catalogue: “Dancing, karaoke, cats, football, good paintings, good food, cooking, ladies, good coffee… a lot of stuff.” The order is admittedly random. His distaste for “bones” compared to “stuff” could be a touch of misplaced resignation, even fatalism. It can be counterproductive to see things in terms of being finite, especially for artists. It might be possible to say that all the good films have been made as well.
No… and yes. “I think not all the good films, but all the topics have been covered in a way,” he opines, “so you don’t have to go for something that will shock and surprise people, in the sense of science fiction. The presentation, the context and the way you’re doing it could be surprising. As one Russian singer once said, ‘All my songs are about the same topic, love to God.’ As a Jewish friend said, ‘All my films are about suffering.’ So maybe it’s true.”
It should be mentioned up front that in Alexei’s case, “all my films” means a scant number of shorts, not exactly the highest output. No real surprise for someone who spends his time attending as many festivals as he does – some 25 a year, by his estimate, often as jury member… or prize-winner.
Agreement from his side. “I’m one of the few people who cannot have the word ‘prolific’ in their biography,” he admits. “Four films over the last nine years. Altogether, it’s 17 minutes.”
17 minutes, nine years… we’re talking about an average of two minutes per year? Pravda, you can’t call that prolific. On top of that, they are largely constructed out of found footage. At the same time, his films are surprisingly varied. They toss and turn in terms of style like Bowie in the 70s. Maybe it’s down to the long breaks between. Maybe design. Four years separate the first film (Dubus, 2005) and the second (Abstract?, 2009). Something must have derailed him there.
Part of it is in fact by design. The explanation: “I have very strong self-censorship, so as soon as I am happy, I can show it to other people. I don’t do stuff that I don’t feel cannot be improved anymore.” It takes me a moment to sort out the triple negative in that last sentence. Alexei keeps on, his feet clear of the brakes. “And sometimes in my films, a couple of them, I have moments where I know that they could have been better, but it’s impossible with this material, or there was no other material, or it would have been stupid, or too long, so I release the film as soon as it’s ready.” A second admission follows, putting the foregoing in another light. “Thus, I’m also a very lazy person.”
A number of people claim that – strangely, many of the most productive ones. DL-featured digital artist Erdal Inci comes to mind. But more has kept him away from exploring his own inventiveness. Bringing arty films to Russia free of linguistic slaughter turns out to be the other reason for his relative lack of productivity with his own creations. “Basically,” he drawls, eyes adrift, “a year and a half after the first one, a friend of mine and I founded a company to show, promote and make festivals and short films. We basically created the whole idea of subtitles for festivals in Russia. Before that, except for arthouse cinema, they were also dubbing the shorts. There is a booth, and a woman with an extremely monotonous voice, and she goes, ’Na-na-na-na-na-na-na.’ It kills everything. Imagine seeing a 30-minute French fiction short where three women are talking at the same time. You don’t get anything!”
Not true. You get something: an unexpected multi-media experience. I have experienced similar in Prague – The Trial, Orson Welles, English with French subtitles and an elderly woman speaking all the parts in Czech. With occasional coughing attacks and the resltant picture-dialogue dissonance. Kafka-worthy confusion, live. Dmitriev and his co-crusader saved Russian cineastes from all that. No easy ride. “Apart from subtitles,” he expands, “we were also translating, doing screenings in 35 cities in Russia. We would make a program or bring a festival from abroad and show it around the cinemas, because with short films at that time, there was no scene for it, except for a couple of festivals in Russia. We were bringing features that would never have had distribution in the country. We were doing a music video festival, national film weeks. We were also working with people who wanted to do a festival but had no idea how it’s done – how to promote it, how to publicize it, how to get the copies. So we were doing everything.”
Too much, it turns out, at least where filmmaking is concerned. Even if there was another dividend. “After four years I understood that I don’t even have time to show my second film in person. I was loaded with money, but I had no time. I couldn’t attend any screenings. My films are very short, but I didn’t have time for three minutes in four years. I decided, OK, something’s got to change; otherwise, I’ll stay a festival person. I could be the director of some big festival in five years, or curate or advise or whatever.” The decision: “I decided to come back to film.”
With this talk of film and Russia, it’s tempting to imagine Dmitriev as a latter-day Doctor Zhivago, braving the elements, bringing arty films to the needy in Novosibirsk, Kamchatka, Vladivostok. Or passing days on the Trans-Siberian, watching the Steppes fly by, his suitcases loaded with offbeat flicks. Inaccurate, but a good film motif.
Still, the trekking does cover enormous distances and take in inhospitable regions. Alexei elaborates: “We took all the 17, 18 cities over one million, and then smaller ones, but the most important ones, for example Surgut, one of the oil capitals in the middle of Russia, but north, really far north, toward the Arctic. A lot of the cities, they might have a cinema, but they only get one, only blockbusters or bad Russian films. You’re in a city of, let’s say, half a million, and they’ve never seen a short film, except for some advertising or some funny animation on YouTube. I guess the closest festival is maybe 5000 km from them. I think we did 15 or 16 in person over the years. It was hard because a lot of the cinemas were state-owned. To make them understand what we were doing, that it is profitable in the end, and that it also attracts a young, new audience… it took a while.”
A Russian proverb: Byeshyenoy sobake sem’ vyorst nye kryuk. Translation: “For a mad dog, seven miles is not a long detour.” What does that make the madness potential in this particular dog? More from proverbs: Every man wants to leave his mark. This may be his, successful beyond the reach of his hand. Alexei: “The company is still running. They have a chain of 35-something cities in Russia, though they’ve decreased the amount of things that they do. It’s become less edgy, less experimental, but still, for short films, that’s one of the two or three biggest companies in Russia.”
“Karaoke was, in the beginning, a drunk trial. I [did] ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ – blind drunk, the Portuguese version. Not very good, but I got a round of applause, and my dad cried.”
THE CONFIDENCE TO GO ON STAGE and present films came by way of one of his declared loves (liberally spiked with spirits): karaoke. His attachment to this bit of social kitsch is well-known in the Euro-filmfest scene; it was in fact one of the first things I ever heard about him. The seeds are laid long ago – back in the USSR, as the song goes.
“First of all, my dad used to be in a children’s choir in the USSR,” he begins. “He’s from a very small town, like 10,000 people. When he was between ten or eleven, they won the USSR children’s choir competition, and they sang in the Kremlin. My dad actually sings really well. When he wakes up, he starts going around the house singing complete bullshit, made-up songs. Even in a house with these particular acoustics, it’s… very good. And both my brothers are musicians, so the male part of the family is really musically gifted. I’m the only one who cannot play anything and who is a shit singer. I always envied musicians, because of this direct interaction with the audience. So karaoke was, in the beginning, a drunk trial.”
While tempted to look at Alexei in terms of being Russian (maybe a compliment, given my taste for Dostoyevsky, Rachmaninoff, Chekhov), he is more that breed of man-about-globe for whom flying is not much different than strolling, and borders are hazy lines. Rarely at home and seemingly at home everywhere. It follows that the story picks up thousands of kilometres away, on the Iberian Peninsula. Like most of his tales, soaked in alcohol. “I was bar-hopping in Lisbon, like 20, 30 bars. We ended up in a karaoke place, a proper one with tables, people sitting, big stage. You’re alone, and the stage is ten metres long, so it was really like performing. And in Portugal, everyone knows how to sing and dance. In the end – I’m a big fan of Astrud Gilberto – I said to the guy, ‘Hey, can I do ‘The Girl from Ipanema?’ He said, ‘Yeah, that’s going to be the last song.’ I went on stage, blind drunk. They only had the Portuguese version – and I don’t speak Portuguese. But I know the Portuguese version. So I did it. It was not very good, but I got a round of applause and my dad cried, so I said, ‘OK, that actually was quite rewarding.’”
Not the end of the story. On one of my trips to Russia, I get to see Alexei in action. Hours after having my ID, transport, debit and credit cards stolen in the Petersburg Myetro (a rite of passage in Russia; the latter surfaced shortly after as attempted payment for thousands in jewellery and other items), I hit a local karaoke with him to let my frustration out as Jagger, Morrison, anyone who can let out a good scream. (Must have been OK; sweating Russians slapped me on the back with the heavy-duty accolade, “Kruto!”) Alexei rarely let his handprint cool down on the mike, belting out number after number to a rough and ready crowd of serious drinkers. But in a simbiotic exchange, one stage experience bolsters the other. Alexei: “I’ve been on stage in the sense of presenting films, my films or other people’s films, since I was 21. That already taught me a lot – how not to be shy, how to deal with the audience, where to look, la-la-la…. But karaoke is a bit different, because you’re actually not talking, you’re singing. You have to make it either good singing or that people want to watch you.” The din encroaches, Alexei pushes it back. “I like it. I’m not that good, but that’s my thing.”
“Festivals have to stop caring about films being offline or on. My films were seen by 10,000 people, offline by 20,000. The difference is huge.”
CONCEIVING AND EXECUTING a restless and ground-breaking film road show, one of his other “things,” has lent him the creds and clout to make him a near-obligatory figure on the Euro-filmfest circuit. He knows everyone (in film), has seen everything (on the screen). At least, you could get that impression. Photos show evidence of a good amount of extra-curricular merry-making on the jury circuit, but he takes the assignment seriously. As he does the merry-making, please note. The work-hard-play-hard-drink-hard type.
Selecting what to down for the next round in a bar is however easier than selecting films to honour. The democratic process has its drawbacks. Exhibit A from the vaults: difficulties selecting a prize winner from a lot spanning the good, the bad and the ugly. City and names intentionally withheld. “Film number one was shit,” Dmitriev says with typical directness, but not before pointing out that the theme from “Dr. Who” is playing in the background. “The other films were either good or discussable. Then we went into discussion.” Decisions are easier with the dross quickly filtered out.
Next: a Mexican standoff. One jury member opts for the “shit” film. No reason given. No flexibility. The cowboys freeze, guns drawn. Not that Dmitriev balks at disagreement – he seems to like it on occasion, better with an attention-starved shot glass in hand. But he wants a rationale when it comes to film evaluation. The dissenter won’t be budged past a foggy single-sentence assessment. Dmitriev is irked. “He said, ‘It obviously was the best.’ No argumentation, no reasoning. The crappiest film, that was his cup of tea.” This brand of nebulous justification clearly irritates him. “When you’re on the jury, you have to prove why this is better than that….”
Twelve Angry Men with a micro-cast, in colour and 3D. But there is more to deal with out there. Alexei readily weighs in on what needs to die in the film festival world, with vexation on speed-dial. Pet peeves parade forth, one malcontented matrioschka after another.
“First of all, nepotism,” he begins. “Being selected because you’re friends, because they’ve shown all of your films. Also, film schools really have to change. Film production and distribution has to change. Festivals have to stop caring about films being offline or on. My films were seen by 10,000 people, offline by, let’s say, 20,000. The difference is huge. Filmmakers have to stop producing too much material, be more accurate at what they’re doing. Also, how to deal with online distribution, how to deal with offline distribution.”
This is a recurring theme in Alexei’s rundown: the rotting fruits of technological advance. Paradoxically, also resistance to change. “The world is changing rapidly,” he continues, “and the film industry doesn’t change that fast. There should also be more young people. A lot of really big festivals, really big companies are controlled by people in their 60s, and they are doing stuff for the people their age.”
He agrees that the other end bears its own problems: after two feature films, you’re no longer fresh meat, and unlikely to be served up as a featured dish at certain festivals. Bigger still: who profits from the trailblazers. There is still dangerous terrain between innovation-smiths and those who stuff their pouches with golden talers. Dmitriev feels a need to guard the avant-garde – art and business don’t always marry off well. “Coming from experimental film, also a music video background… big guys immediately start using things you did. You can do a great piece of video with an interesting visual approach or effect, and it will be immediately stolen by commercials. It happens all the time. Same with experimental film. A lot of stuff that people did over the years, like Jonas Mekas or Stan Brakhage, got so commercialized that it doesn’t feel like theirs anymore. And obviously these guys never got paid. Somebody saw it and said, ‘Hey, we can do this shit, but make it profitable.’ Corporate laws have to change drastically.”
The crowd around us remains boisterous and loud, happily consuming their poisons of choice and shouting clumps of geniality at one another. There will be money in the coffers tonight, no doubt about it. The commercial end of pleasure has its permanent place, like it or not. Besides the exploitive aspects, there are at least occasional dividends from the “biz” side of film art… and not just a few, in Dmitriev’s view. A number of recent cinema-packers get his nod.
He starts the list. “Commercially this year… Snow Piercer, a Korean movie with older American actors. Very good, post-apocolyptic. I really enjoyed The Guardians of the Galaxy.”
I have to admit giving that one a miss. Alexei is happy to give a spontaneous abstract.
“It’s a crazy, bad superhero movie,” he starts in. “One of the superheroes is a talking raccoon, voiced by Bradley Cooper. It’s insanely funny, it’s very stupid, and it really plays with the superheroes that Marvel and DC comics created over the years, some of them completely bizarre and silly. Extremely good. Lars van Triers’ Nymphomaniac also was released commercially, that was a good film. Leviathan by Andrey Zvyagintsev, an amazing piece of work, but more arthouse. But commercially… I do enjoy watching bad American films, in the sense of superheroes or fantasy. For me it’s OK. It kind of switches off this kind of artsy fartsy thing. You can just watch….”
No doubt his endless festival traipsing and steady diet of artful tidbits to evaluate overloads his capacity for cinematic edginess and subtle subtext to a degree that most don’t experience.
“I’m very open to the normal features, if they’re good, they’re good. I’m really looking forward to the next Mad Max. I saw the trailer, it looks good. This year I was drinking in London, and I woke up with a friend with a hangover. We decided to watch Kung Fu Panda. Amazing! Funny, great, really light, a lot of jokes, greatly animated. You know, I enjoy this as well.”
“I don’t say everyone should study filmmaking. I didn’t, a lot of my favourite filmmakers never did as well. But they should have some experience in a sense as a viewer, what the format is.”
BEING OPEN TO CERTAIN blockbuster crowd-pleasers designed to line producers’ and investors’ pockets does not mean Dmitriev is any less discerning about film method and art – or any less willing to share his angle. Rare is it, if ever, that Alexei is short of a point-of-view he can slam on the table like the winning hand in a late-night game of five-card stud. Jury duty around the globe has brought him an outlet: films to thumb-up or thumb-down. On the issue of what people do in festival films that they shouldn’t do, he rolls out the litany. By category, like a checklist for targeted evaluation.
“Documentaries,” he says, diving in, “the problems are: a lot of talking heads, this American TV thing… you get the information but you just can read it as well; it shouldn’t be a film, to be honest. And with experimental, the biggest problems are that people have done something wrong, forgotten to focus or to develop the film properly and say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s absolute cinema.’ And that really kills the whole idea.”
He has expressed this before, railed against “kind of experimental stuff, but not really experimental films – crappy video art, mini DV cameras, people eating bananas on film, thinking it’s art.” He sums this up the broader problem this way: “Too many people making too many films.”
Unfortunately without a great deal of forethought, to hear him tell it. And the technology that has helped many to even consider shooting a film in the first place is, he says, the culprit.
“That’s become a bit of a problem over the last 5 or 6 years, the whole digital madness.” He picks up a ubiquitous consumer electronic device resting on the table, dangerously near spilt substances. “With this phone,” he says, turning it slowly in his hand, “you can take film, and the quality wouldn’t be that bad. If you play with it, it can be quite decent. So the amount of films people are doing is crazy.”
Could sound like the words of someone waving a tattered flag for a formally schooled approach to filmmaking. Not the case. “I don’t say everyone should study filmmaking. I didn’t, and a lot of my favourite filmmakers never did as well. But they should have some experience in a sense as a viewer, what the format it, because it’s much harder to tell a story in 15 minutes than in 70 minutes. In 70 minutes, you can do a lot of things. In 15, it’s very hard. So there is a lot of this. There’s a lot of not understanding, especially in fiction, how the story works, how the narrative works, what’s important. Animation, for example, is much harder to do. You really have to research the technology and spend a lot of time. Even with 3D, you’ve got plenty to do to make it actually work. But fiction – you take a couple of friends, go into a flat and film something, a love story. It can be total crap, and usually, it is.”
Dmitriev maintains the gunslinger’s penchant for straight-shooting. But note: he likes bullets fired in his direction as well. Example: one night in the wee hours in Berlin, we (he and I plus filmmaker Simon Ellis) are talking on the sidewalk in front of an all-hours bar. The young, transplanted Irish proprietress comes out and issues an edict: “Either come in or fuck off!” Alexei stops short and beams at her through glazed eyes. “I think I’m in love,” he moons.
“I bumped into a video of two guys having sex with a girl. She was laughing her ass off. The guys, you could see in their faces… is she laughing at them? I thought, very interesting… to try to make it more playful. It looks romantic and nostalgic, and then….”
AS FAR AS SIMPLE LOVE STORIES, Alexei hasn’t made one yet. To hear him sum up his four short films to date: “The first one,Dubus, [2005, ed. note] I’d say: music video, jazz, audience-friendly and found footage. The second one, Abstract?, four years later: Rothko,² Hopper,³ paintings, twist and again found footage. Third one, Hermeneutics, two years ago: war, fireworks, again twist, found footage and Second World War. And the new one running now, The Shadow of Your Smile: porn, nostalgia, VHS, found footage and laughter. Something like this.”
What an academic approach to Dmitriev’s approach would look like is difficult to picture. He himself reveals his main tools to be his “right hand, electricity and the Internet,” slippery country when taken in context of The Shadow of Your Smile. On first viewing, the short impresses primarily in being unlike his other films. It quickly takes on a quality – the manipulation, taking something and putting it in a very nostalgic, sentimental sphere, the video noise from the fast forwarding conveniently covering up the naughty parts, the cold shower at the end – all of this makes it very funny indeed. This develops the wry humour present in all four of his shorts to date, and reflects Alexei’s dry-as-wood wit in conversation. Its conception was painless.
“It was very easy.” He takes a sip, swallows. “I was watching porn for recreational purposes, and I bumped into a video of two guys having sex with a girl. And she was really enjoying the process, she was laughing her ass off. And the guys… you could see in their faces… is she laughing at them? Or because she likes it? Or maybe some other reason? Maybe she’s ticklish? And she obviously was having a really, really good time. I thought, that’s very interesting, to find a bit of something….” He hunts down the words. “Because this was very….”
Here he hits his fist into his palm to give an unverbalized idea of the explicit nature of the film before picking up the story. “…To find something a bit more tasteful where a woman smiles and looks at the camera at some point and try to make it more playful. So I was looking for a bit from the 80s or 90s, when VHS was invented, and was used in porn a lot. For me, those were the first porn films I would see. Then to play with it. Also with some VHS noise, and to have a twist, so that in the beginning you’re not really sure what’s going on. It looks romantic and nostalgic, and then… because the title doesn’t say anything, you have no idea what is going on, unless you’re in a special erotic program. So the audience goes, ‘OK, that looks rather sensitive.’ Then when the guy turns and you see what’s actually going on, a lot of people go, ‘Oh wow!’ and they laugh, and then the original music starts and the credits go.”
Not a blockbuster, but a hit with audiences, whose reaction is not lost on the Petersburger. “It’s actually quite nice to see people really laughing, because a lot of my films, that first one… people still don’t laugh during it. They can dance to it, they start clapping, they give me a standing ovation at the end sometimes, but they never laugh. But this one, I’m surprised where it goes with the audience. I still haven’t had a screening where people were silent or wouldn’t clap afterwards, or ask questions. This, surprisingly, became a real crowd-pleaser. The audience really enjoys it.”
WHAT ALEXEI HIMSELF ENJOYS is clearly the short film… while not seeing it as a distinct form in itself. This bit of de-categorization doesn’t make it less, but in fact more, freeing it from its museum-piece status. At the same time, it can make the viewer re-evaluate “feature films” as being often little more than short episodes stretched out like messy roadkill on a superhighway. “Short film is the same thing as a feature film, it’s just short. It’s not a different genre, it’s just a different way, a much more compressed way of telling a story. There are a lot of attempts by Hollywood to squeeze more out. A friend experienced it, after winning a major prize. Folks came over and said, ‘Would you like to make it as a feature?’ He said, ‘No! This story does not expand over 20 minutes.’” Alexei is a staunch supporter of keeping what should be short short.
Compact length acts magnetically. No surprise, he claims. “I mostly watch shorts. Probably, you know, YouTube generation, shorter attention span. I was asked by Dazed & Confused magazine to name my three favourite films. Two of them were short films; one was Man with a Movie Camera. For me, good short films are films by Jean-Gabriel Périot, Nicholas Provost, Simon Ellis. They are as good as most of the features that I see. Aesthetically, a short can be an over two-hour film which cost 150 million dollars, or a really good feature can be a very average or very expensive or very fancy kind of short. So it doesn’t matter; if it’s a good film, it’s a good film, that’s it. There are no other rules about it. It doesn’t matter who acts in it, who directed the film. I don’t care, you know?”
The fluidity of forms, “short” and “feature,” could mean Dmitriev, free of genre specificity, is ready to try his hand at the almighty cinema standard, the feature film. He has been around enough to ensure ideas are not likely in short supply.
“To be honest, I don’t have an idea for one, but as soon as I do….” Here he considers. “I kind of have an idea. It’s very different from what I usually do. It will be basically people telling stories, and then the visuals will be diverse. It can be 40 minutes, it can be 75, I doesn’t matter. Medium blanks from 30 to 60 that nobody wants, except for TV. Festivals don’t. As soon as I get an idea, and I’m ready to do it, absolutely, but in general… I won’t say I’m a short filmmaker. I’m a filmmaker, and that’s it. If I can do something good in 60, good; if I can do something good at eight minutes, great.”
It is hard to imagine what shape a Dmitriev feature would take, given the shorts to his credit. A possible problem, as cited in a talk with Brandon Cronenberg not long ago – the nature of the beast is that, because of the kind of money that has to go into funding anything on that level, some marketability has to be there.
Dmitriev doesn’t react for a moment. Then: “To be honest, I don’t think so.”
Maybe he is thinking about low-budget marvels, thousands, not millions, like the 1988 British thriller Following, made for $6,000 with extensive use of handy talent. Would he going for that approach?
“I would. I work alone, usually, except for the music parts, so I’m absolutely OK doing this either way – myself, or with really good friends who can help out in different stages. Two friends, really good producers, could get some money for this, but maybe 100,000 tops.”
I assume we are not talking roubles. Money is, of course, an issue, at least on an ethical level.
“If it’s a festival success, everyone gets paid properly. If it’s not….” Alexei sorts out opposing concepts of the gravy train. “Festival success doesn’t mean money. Festival success, that would mean worldwide, Canal Plus, or screening over half a year, if you go into theatre distribution. Even if you don’t get a lot of money, but the film just strikes out on festivals, so earning nothing, that’s a good step for a lot of people.”
The festival circuit is a very cloistered group of people, one could think. Like doing paintings and exhibiting them in your back yard.
Agreement, and disagreement. “Yeah, but at the same time, if you’re talking about a proper festival….”
I have to laugh; I am pretty sure I know who he thinks is not on that list.
“The room is 20-25% filled by industry people,” he elaborates. “Directors, producers, festivals, whatever. 75% are actual audience. My first film was shown at 300 festivals, meaning probably around 600 or 700 screenings just in competition, and another 300 without competition. That’s 1,000 screenings, from small cinemas to 1200-people cinemas. So over the years, a lot of people have seen it, and I’m very happy. People have been giving me good reviews. People have been writing fucking PhDs about my films….”
This has to be worth at last half a Palme d’Or. What it is like to see others view you with academic distance, search the landscape of your output for underlying themes and symbolic intent and then proffer it in formalized language… this is an experience not every artist will get to notch on his or her belt. Alexei eyes register double slam tilt.
“I still haven’t got a copy. I learned yesterday the girl who wrote her PhD about me, and Jean-Gabriel Périot, just made a film, a found footage porn film. I was just like, ‘Really?’ It’s a rather small world in the sense of people working and being around it.”
A small and friendly world. If offered ten million dollars to do a feature, Dmitriev knows how he would use the windfall. “To be honest, I would give this money to somebody else’s project. I know a bunch of brilliant colleagues need millions to make their feature. Otherwise I would say no; I don’t need so much money.”
It may be a moment of synchronicity, but Alexei appears unaware of it – while he is saying this, I detect “From Russia With Love” playing over the loudspeakers.
“In the 20s or 30s I would say, yeah – you can learn cinema from us. Now, no. Not anymore.”
THE QUICK AND DIRECT APPROACH, the value of PhDs notwithstanding, might be the best way of prying Dmitriev’s skull open long enough to see how the gears grind. Intuitive, rather than intellectual. He is invariably quick off the mark, up for any game, so it shouldn’t be a problem. We’ve been chucking words back and forth and decide to change the game to call-and-response syllabics – I pitch. Using what’s at hand, I start with what is occupying the glasses on the table between us. “Beer.”
No deliberation. “Me.” Did I hear him right? “Me,” he reaffirms. We go on.
“Fire.” – “House.” I stop him again. “’House’..?”
“’House’… on fire.” Ah. I begin to get how his mind plays with things.
“Berlin.” – “Wall.”
“Russia.” – “Vodka.”
“Film festival.” – “Fun.”
“Woman.” – “Sexy time.”
“Black.” – “Is the new orange.”
“Productivity.” – “Low.” Shades of sitting in a confessional booth.
“Friendship.” – “Forever.”
“Travel.” – “A lot.”
“Character.” – “Chicken.” I don’t bother asking what that is about.
“Hat.” – “Yes.”
That one makes me laugh. He is wearing one. More: “Sound.” – “Stereo.”
“Technology.” – “Depends.”
“Hair.” – “Fresh.” I don’t ask for names.
“Short film.” – “Is the best.”
“Interviews.” – “Fun.”
Wrong answer there. It should have been “torture.” But Alexei seems happy enough. Tonight and in general. This is the kind of place I’ve seen him shake off any fleeting tension in on other occasions. The bar has become a very cozy corner of the world by now – dark, candle-lit, but still loud. An Austrian director friend is out scouting much-needed food and has promised to join us later. Alexei seems content with just his drink. After the rapid-fire verbal Rorschach test, we sit back a moment and do nothing more than take an occasional sip on what’s left in our respective glasses.
Now a Russian compatriot finds us at our table. He is also a creative mind, exiled by choice, at least for the time being, in culture vortex Berlin. A good chance to get another round of drinks. Alexei also gets a chance to cart out his limited German, bar-speak. The common language at our table shifts here and there – English between Alexei and me, German between his friend and me, Russian between Alexei and his fellow countryman. I suggest they allow themselves the opportunity to govorit’ po-russki – I should understand enough anyway. A good chance for a mini-refresher course, despite the noise.
His friend only stays for one round. I have not picked up any new words; above the crowd, I barely heard half of them. Still, it makes me think. What could a West European learn from a Russian? More than linguistic scraps, certainly.
“Obviously, you can’t learn how to dance,” Alexei begins. “Usually people already know how. You can learn how to drink. You can learn – depending on the country you’re from – how to be hospitable but not look hospitable.”
An enviable talent, although arguably the reverse would serve better.
More comes. “You can actually learn how to fight. You obviously cannot learn any good pick-up lines, that’s impossible.” Here, he seems mildly dizzy with the rush of ideas coming at him. “Wow. Unless you’re Dutch, you can learn how to make 700 meals from a potato.”
I thought the Irish did that. I’ve learned something.
“The Irish and the Dutch. Apart from this, it’s hard to say anything, to be honest. In the 20s or 30s I would say, yeah – you can learn cinema from us. Now, no. Not anymore.”
Alexei photographed in Berlin (photo: Nick Font/DL)
STILL, THERE IS THE DRINKING. Finns and Russians are the undisputed masters, searching for days or even weeks for the bottom of the glass. The multi-day drinking binges might fricassee brain cells, might on the other hand bring them to a useful boil. J.G. Ballard claimed the creative “microclimate” in his head came courtesy of a large helping of scotch. Hemingway, Capote, Kerouac did well under the influence. Orson Welles hit the bottle early in life, created his best works early in life. There is a great history of intoxicated ingenuity – Van Gogh, Dylan Thomas, the appropriately named Amy Winehouse. The problem might be remembering anything at all.
“I’m still young, I still do remember,” Dmitriev avers, glass in hand. “Blackouts are not that often. I’ve had a couple of ideas. I write them down during days of partying or being drunk or… They can become a rather nice visual effect in a film, or a good story plot, or something else, a good title. During these days, I came up with some things I might use in the future. Even this can be used creatively. You have to fight the laziness of writing it down. If you are drunk, on drugs or you’re partying, and you have an idea, just write it down immediately. It can be a really good idea. I came up with some really good titles while being intoxicated.”
Lizards make for the toilets. We the warm-blooded stay put. Our wandering Austrian arrives and we prepare to make a move. There are other people to connect with as well in Berlin, and time is limited – in general for many, as a specific rule for Alexei. After Berlin comes Riga, other festivals, no break in sight. Even if his free time is in short supply, the ideas are not likely to dry up or get sideswiped, whether as a filmmaker or entrepreneur of film art. His modest output in the former category have not hurt him a bit. Seventeen minutes of film and he has enough profile to be one of the most regular denizens of the film festival circuit… he might do well to ask the Russian authorities to list it as his profession. He doesn’t bring it up, but the films, beyond being shown from Asia to America, Tribeca to Tempere, have racked up a sizeable number of awards, enough that he has been known to forget this or that one in a station or lounge before hopping a train or a plane to the next festival. Forgetfulness does make an occasional guest appearance.
We are thinking where to go next. Alexei pumps in suggestions. More ideas. You won’t find him short on these or imagination, something he clearly views as a cardinal sin. Or at least a punishable offense. This goes for films, philosophy or flowers. The attitude makes itself known not least in his abundant asides, comments that take in corners of the world and assess them at high speed, leaving behind bits of modern folk wisdom that reveal his spin on what surrounds him. Spying a bouquet, he feels compelled to comment, his eyes dealing their usual death-ray devastation. “Roses are what men without imagination buy women,” he shoots out, another direct hit leaving no survivors. And a bit of personal philosophy that speaks volumes.
¹[DLX], The 10th Berlin International Directors Lounge, Feb. 6 – 16, 2014 ²Mark Rothko, Light, Earth and Blue (1954) ³Edward Hopper, New York Office (1962)
pictured: Alexei photographed in Berlin (photos: Nick Font/DL)
[DL] DEEP FEATURE
IF I HAD A CHESTERFIELD
Brandon Cronenberg dodges superlatives and delves into distorted dreams, comedic masochism, helming a multi-million-dollar feature and that elusive Canadian thing
by Kenton Turk* | Directors Lounge Magazine
A MISTAKE. MAYBE. I could have taken Brandon Cronenberg up on his offer to talk over dinner, but I’ve never been good at juggling speaking and chewing, so his alternate suggestion of meeting at a bar gets my nod. But suddenly hungry, I am forced to wolf down a quick-buy nutrition bar, wiping crumbs from my mouth while getting out of the taxi. I am exactly on time. Brandon, like with our last meeting, is already there.
This is Toronto during TIFF (the Toronto International Film Festival) with all its flapping and flailing, and while this particular Cronenberg is not screening this time around, he will likely show up at this or that premiere, free of the pressure of having to “do the carpet,” as he has in Cannes and elsewhere. This could make it easier to enjoy what’s flickering at up to 48 frames a second up front. Besides, he’s not really a tux-and-tails type. He’ll be at a film event tonight and may decide to dress the part, but right now he’s in a loose-fitting, once-black T-shirt and wearing jeans, and he looks comfortable indeed.
Brandon’s association with Directors Lounge is still a slender one, at present not more but not less than branding it as looking “extremely cool” (first via e-mail) from what he’s been able to see of it (screening programs, press response, on-the-spot pics), sending video greetings on our tenth outing ([DLX],¹ the 10th Berlin International Directors Lounge – his hats-off clip was the very first film to hit the screen) and promising to take us up on our standing invitation to curate a special selection for a future DL fest, maybe including some of his own shorter film assaults. And possibly even stop by one February to skipper the audience through it.
Cronenberg is about as humble as they come in this industry. This could be Canadian understatement to some degree, but it is in any case refreshing. “Say less, deliver more” beats the reverse hands down anytime. On being asked to contribute to [DLX], he demurs with what seems like self-deprecation, a first in Team DL’s collective memory. At our lead-in meeting in winter, a get-to-know-you over hot and cold brews at place called the Lakeview with no view of the lake, his demeanour is comparable to the steady breath of a small, blue gas flame: warm, but definitely low key. It is enjoyable to talk to him, make no mistake, but none of the flip swagger of many of his peers is there. He doesn’t even drive a car.
By this second encounter, with sunlight paving the streets and road and air traffic supplying a constant and sometimes jarring backdrop, he is more of a front element flame. His eyes are wide open in more than one sense. He is watching what is going on around him and thinking about how best to deal with it.
BRANDON’S BIGGEST PROJECT so far has been his bleak extrapolation of contemporary celebrity worship gone self-invasive and self-destructive. Antiviral is all antiseptic walls and understated anxiety, wish fulfilment where the wishes should never have been formulated. The first-timer is both author and director, securing the desired performances from fresh screen mimes Caleb Landry Jones (looking badly in need of a month in the sun) and Sarah Gadon as well as first-generation droogie Malcom MacDowell himself. (Very nice guy, likes working with new directors, he says.) The film gets its first chance at an audience in Cannes, in competition for the “Prix Un Certain Regard,” a special section initiated to recognize young talent with innovative and daring works. A slightly tauter version (six minutes lopped off) goes on to share the Best Canadian First Feature Film prize at TIFF later that year. The storyline revolves around the idea of fans vying for infectious diseases from choice luminaries to gain a connection that goes under the skin and into the veins. Fans injecting themselves with their idols’ diseases – there’s an obvious metaphor in that, although Cronenberg avoids these in conversation. That “viral” in the Internet Age has become a term that denotes a surge of click-and-reblog popularity while retaining the aura of disease is also surely not lost on him. Nor is his turning to the flip-side of the present-day carb-and-calorie-counting health vogue-slash-mania likely accidental. The abilty to turn situations around in your hands, to swirl them around on your tongue to access varying flavour-sensitive zones, is the mark of a thinking author/director, and one that will make an audience think. Even if they don’t necessarily go home in the cozy glow of a happy ending.
AT THE MOMENT, Cronenberg himself seems to be thinking about last night, from what he discloses a boozy affair he may be still recovering from, although if so, then with easy-going refinement or consummate submersion. Our seat at the front is a compromise between sitting outside (too loud) and sitting farther in (too dark). Air conditioners hum in windows up and down the street. Brandon has already ordered and is already working on a cold one, its foam clinging to the inside of the glass.
Rather than go for the good (too easy), I ask him first about the bad… the last bad idea he had. In or out of film.
He seems mildly taken aback by this kind of opening salvo. “What was the last bad idea…?” There is a longer pause while his green-blue eyes explore a space somewhere beyond my head. I try to help by suggesting it might be whatever went down last night.
That isn’t it. “No, I was OK last night,” he swears with an conspiratorial grin. “I don’t regret it!” Like Piaf. But soon we hit on something he at least regrets hasn’t happened up until now.
“I haven’t been to Berlin. I’d really like to go, actually. I applied for an artist-in-residence that happens there but I didn’t get it. It’s probably all right, because I think you have to be there for six months as a filmmaker, which would be amazing, but I don’t know if I can get away for that long.”
As I will find out later, Brandon is busy with a number of film and non-film forays. But not too busy to occasionally hit the road – in true “Have film, will travel” mode, he does get around. “The last time I travelled was for the movie. Do you know the Sitges Film Festival?” he asks. “In Spain – it’s about 30 minutes from Barcelona. It’s kind of a resort town. They have a genre film festival there. That place was really, really great. I was only there for a couple of nights….”
What got his attention? The festival or the place?
“A combination of the two. It’s on the coast, this really beautiful Spanish coast, and the festival’s great because it’s all genre geeks, so there’s a good vibe to it; it’s not very pretentious, and everyone’s there for the love….”
That’s rare these days. No question. Enough to make Sitges stand out in Cronenberg’s memory. Again nodding to understatement, his other European travels target the little countries: Andorra, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein. I continue by trying to get him into superlative gear to start, just to explore the reaches of his experience up to this point, a kind of groundwork for other questions. Best film set moment, for example? Only fair, since I first hit him up with that “worst idea” question.
Here, I don’t get him to play ball so easily. “To be honest, I find it so hard to do ‘best of’ questions because my brain just doesn’t work like that.”
I can see that, and some sense in it, but push the point a bit, saying it’s easy to get a fast idea of someone’s parameters that way, and know that everything else fits between. If someone says their most physically painful moment was breaking their leg in three places, ultimately twisting it off and being forced to stitch back it on by themselves, you’ll know not to come with complaints of a scraped knee. “No, I know the value of those questions,” he affirms, “it’s just my brain doesn’t work that way at all. It’s a problem because people love those questions. Anything from, you know, even just top five films or whatever.”
Agreed, I find that kind of question almost impossible to answer. But that brings up a better question: Just how does his brain work?
THE FILM ANTIVIRAL is marketed (to the filmmaker’s chagrin) with the tag line, “From the mind of Brandon Cronenberg.” It’s not hard to imagine that there is a certain amount of pressure in being swept up into a dynastic line of visionaries. Or having millions of dollars put up to bring your brainwaves to expectant audiences. The problem may be in satisfying a vision and the necessity of commercial viability when working on feature film scale. You can hear a fair deal of talk from directors about the need to challenge an audience. Most features, however, imply another side. The comparison is easy to make at the moment – I have actually just come from a having a drink with a film producer who told me about being between two worlds, the arty and the commercial. The claim: people lose an audience when they’re just being arty. How does Cronenberg see that?
“It depends on your audience. I know a lot of people who just don’t want to see commercial films anymore, because they can’t stomach another superhero film – it’s just the same experience over and over again.”
How about commercial and good? What would qualify?
Cronenberg reaches all the way back to the early 70s. “The Godfather, I think, some of those…” he says, considering titles. What about “exotic” Euro-films that once had people lining up outside North American movie theatres? The Tin Drum, Diva, Betty Blue – is that possible now? “I’m not sure. I agree, very successful movies now are a little less arty than they have been in the past, but I don’t know….”
No question, there’s pressure to cough up films in the kind of genres that will put backsides on the upholstery in these sometimes gargantuan facilities. Maybe for a two-hour attempt at killing as many brain cells as possible, but that’s another thing.
Even if the aim of many feature directors isn’t (purely) to make megabucks, they likely don’t go out to make something that no one will see just so they can set an artistic halo above their heads, either. But where does the devil come in? How do you find the line between being commercially and artistically viable?
“That’s something that is particularly difficult for a film,” he explains. “Unless you’re doing a really specific type of filmmaking, you can’t just go out and make your film the way you could write a novel or do a painting or write a song. It requires so much money, unless you’re working on a very, very microbudget level. I think that’s always a struggle inherent to the art form, or at least a certain area of the art form. It’s maybe not a question of what’s going to make a billion dollars, but even if you want to make a smaller film that’s just three to five million dollars, it has to be commercial viable up to a point, so you still have to ride that line – unless, if you’re being completely esoteric, you have to accept that you’re not going to get funding from anyone and you have to do it yourself.”
“48 frames per second – a lot of people’s reaction has been that they don’t like it, it’s too real. A lot of the arguments are the same that people were making when colour film first came out.”
IT COULD BE that the answer to the current dilemma of how to maintain the classic movie-going experience lies in innovation. It has in the past certainly been a quandary that has forced innovation (and more) along: Cinemascope, Cinerama, Sensurround and even Smell-O-Vision have all played bait to cinema-goers.
We might have exhausted our possibilities. “It’s hard to be extremely innovative especially with film because it’s been around long enough now that I think from a technological standpoint, it doesn’t advance extremely quickly anymore. I mean, there’s 3D, frame rates….”
Of course, it doesn’t have to be technically, I remind him; it could be for example in terms of subject matter, approach. (Think X-rated dramas in the late 60s and early 70s.) Maybe an entire film narrated while focusing on a knee. Crazy stuff. I personally know at least one screenwriter who likes that, I tell him. Take something that’s insignificant and obsess on it. Over the length of a feature film.
“Really?” Brandon asks, and laughs. Of course, he’s forced to do other things to stay afloat, I let him know. I might be worth something to be able to say it is something new; at the same time you might say you’re testing your audiences big time. But as far as more popular innovations? He has mentioned 3D, once little more than another desperate trick to pull audiences back to the cinema, now improved (less painful) and gaining ground. How does he feel about it?
“3D? I think in the right context, it can be extremely interesting, but I think it doesn’t necessarily enhance the experience. At least right now, because the image ends up being darker and a little harder on your eyes. I wouldn’t want to watch a great lot in 3D. But sometimes people use it in interesting ways, like Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the Herzog documentary, did you see that? He shot it in 3D, but the thing is, he went into these caves, and they were allowed to film very, very old cave paintings; I think they were the first ones to be able to really film it. But because the paintings are on these walls which obviously aren’t completely flat, shooting it in 3D was a brilliant idea because then you’re watching the documentary, and you see not just the images but the shapes of the images on the cave walls.”
A far cry from Bwana Devil and It Came From Outer Space. This is about giving film a further dimension, maybe making it more real, switching on our sense of depth. If film in fact needs to be real. Does that matter at all?
Ambivalence. Or thinking in multi-angles. “I don’t think it needs to be real, but I also don’t think it needs not to be real. It’s interesting … I haven’t seen the new Hobbit movies yet. I was interested in seeing them because of the 48 frames per second thing. A lot of people’s reaction has been that it’s too smooth… they don’t like the motion of it, it’s too real. I have the feeling I’ll react the same way to it, but it occurs to me that a lot of the arguments are the same arguments that people were making when colour film first came out.”
And when sound film came out.
Agreement. “And when sound film came out.” Admittedly, that changes the medium immeasurably.
“But even colour film. A lot of those old arguments, if you look the old film theory essays, they were saying, ‘No, film… it needs this ghostly, unreal quality, that’s its charm, and when you have colour film, it’s too real.’”
Assuming the colours are real colours.
Agreement again. “Assuming the colours are real.” Our waitress interrupts to ask about the golden brew that has disappeared from our glasses. I keep thinking of the magic quality to Harryhausen’s effects in Mysterious Island or Clash of the Titans, where every frame of stop-animation is visible. Less real, more enthralling.
“Not that you only have to work in extremes, it’s a question of something that’s deliberate and satisfying, rather than just a product of a lack of control or focus.”
OF COURSE, FILM IDEAS, enthralling or not, don’t simply spring into life as fully-grown creatures; even the best brainchilds will need to be fleshed out and gingered up by someone willing to put in the hours and sweat. Or tamed. This can be a question of how, and how much. Films can and do, often enough, lumber under good intent. On the maxim of “Less is more,” does Cronenberg agree? Disagree?
“It depends how far you go with it. It’s about doing something that feels deliberate that’s obviously an attempt at something rather than taking something that’s middle-of-the-road. If you do something that’s minimal deliberately, and you’re really owning that and that’s a stylistic decision, that can be more, but going in the opposite direction in a very deliberate way, I don’t know that’s necessarily bad. Not that you only have to work in extremes, but one isn’t obviously better or worse; it’s a question of something you have control over and something that’s deliberate and satisfying, rather than just a product of a lack of control or focus.”
Overcrowding and overloading are indeed bogs on cinematics’ moors. Minmizing dialogue is difficult, but rewarding, most say, in the end. Music as well, where it is and isn’t, can make or break a film. It seems like a typically Canadian thing to allow more space, maybe an atavistic impulse stemming from the fact that 99.9% of this country is unoccupied. Although that could mean more space than might be good for the film. Think of Last Year at Marienbad, all empty space, moving from room to room….
“There isn’t one approach that’s necessarily better or worse,” he reaffirms. “It’s all to do with the rhythm of the film.” Here he stops to let a jet pass overhead, one of several that blast our conversation into momentary oblivion. He continues as if on cue. “Sometimes you’re in editing and you’re looking at a shot and it feels rhythmically wrong somehow, and the question is, do we take away from it, or do we add to it? And you can only get to that by trying it. This feels too long, say. You’re cutting, cutting, cutting, and it’s still not working, and if anything, it’s getting worse. Then you say, let’s try actually even making it longer. Sometimes that works.”
This is assuming the basis is there. There has to be a spark. I’ve come back to musing on how Cronenberg’s brain works, where and how sparks fly. For example: Does he dream in colour?
“Yeah!” This he utters with some measure of surprise. He turns it around. “Do you not dream in colour?”
I do, I tell him. Sometimes. But they say that most men don’t.
“Really?” Again surprise. “I keep having dreams where in the dream I think what’s happening is an amazing idea, that I really should write it down, and as I’m waking up and realizing it’s a dream, I think, oh, this is it! This is an incredible story! Then I wake up, and 30 seconds later I think, that was completely incoherent, it doesn’t make sense whatsoever….”
Precisely that could be the interesting part, I let him know, the incoherency. Does he write them down?
“Not those ones!” This may be the goldmine, however, an El Dorado for someone like himself steering clear of comedies, coziness and caped crusaders. Artists are often little more than conduits. The best ideas come out of left field, unexpectedly. Antiviral’s central idea began with Cronenberg sitting at home with a cold – somebody else’s virus. When I tell him of a bizarre dream configuration of words and disconnected images I developed into a story plot, he stops me with mock mendacity, reaching for a non-existent device. “Let me record this!”
WE ARE STILL GETTING attentive service from the Celtic waitress. With traffic nearby and insistent jet-liners, it can get difficult to make out every word. My little recorder gets pushed closer under Brandon’s nose whenever it seems he’s pulling words out of earshot. It’s good for the occasional smirk, like that scene with a nervous young Redford getting miked in The Candidate. It’s only in the interest of accuracy, I tell him. Besides, my memory is not nearly that developed that I could cough a conversation of this length up without a lot of hazy generalizations.
It should be said this could have happened earlier, our talk, and in a quite different way. Cronenberg offered to bridge the thousands of kilometres that would regularly separate us with an e-mail solution. Questions with time to calculate answers. Maybe easier than my off-the-wall shots, maybe a hint of self-protection. The justification sounds like this: “I think you get a better sense of what someone thinks about something when they have time to think about it.” I ask him to say it once again, but with spontaneity. He gets the drift of my playful needling but keeps backing the same horse. “I find it interesting that people tend to see an e-mail interview as somehow ‘lesser’ because of the lack of spontaneity, but at the same time, most interviews take place during press junkets when people rehearse their answers anyway. You’re not really getting spontaneity.”
A brief pause. I seal it with a mock “You may quote me on that!” and Brandon laughs. I prefer this. Fact sheets are for press kits.
Cronenberg is of course not new to the cat-and-mouse of interviews. The game can be played several different ways, and with widely varying outcomes. As the writer-director has the freedom to create works of plausible or implausible fiction, so does the journalist. I tell him about Tom Kummer, himself (in a neat twist on things) the subject of a film (Bad Boy Kummer), a Swiss reporter for hallowed and semi-hallowed journals such as Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung and Der Spiegel among others who sidestepped the tedium of scripted verbal Pablum by putting words of rare insight (or inanity) into the mouths of the likes of Mike Tyson and Pamela Anderson. In print for millions to drink in. And presumably swallow. This is my excuse for the mildly intrusive recording device.
But he knows the drill, that fiction-as-fact is a many-armed monster that breathes jet flames of titillation. “I did an interview with one guy,” he contributes. “He didn’t write down anything, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is pretty interesting.’ He didn’t record anything, he didn’t write anything. A few notes. He said, ‘Oh, it’s all up here,’” tapping his forehead, “’I prefer to keep it casual and talk.’”
And was it all “up here,” I ask.
Of course not. “Well then, I read his article, and he was quoting me as though I had been saying things, but he was just making stuff up, it was like….”
Like a film script, maybe. It could be that the journalist fell into a self-made trap of wanting to put forward his own message, utilize Cronenberg to leave a piece of himself, his own spin on things. Maybe all art forms, creative journalism and filmmaking included, feel this particular need – to go beyond the dictated boundaries, become more than the sum of their parts. How to avoid it? What question would he like to be asked?
“Hmm,” he says, and stores it for later.
“Moving directly to BluRay or VOD at a certain point was an indication that your movie wasn’t good enough for theatres. That’s changing because it’s harder and harder to make money from a film unless it’s a superhero film.”
I MAY BE LUCKY ENOUGH to get Cronenberg playing with hypothetical situations (if I couldn’t edge him into the superlatives), so I throw out one about a conventional way to expand on the boundaries of an idea. What if someone said, “I’m bankrolling, let’s do Antiviral 2”?
“I don’t think anyone would say that,” he answers with a laugh. But he can be playful. “Sure, I would love to, I’d love to do it!” Like Jaws 2 and 3D, or Star Wars… franchising, lunchboxes, things like that?
“Yeah, I would love to franchise it! If anyone wants to pay me for Antiviral 2….”
More seriously, Cronenberg has some ideas of how the choice between “arty” and “commercial” will affect the inevitable business side of feature film projects, how it will alter our view of certain marketing moves. “One interesting thing, I think, is – skipping theatres, moving directly to BluRay or VOD at a certain point was an indication that there was something really wrong with your movie, like it wasn’t good enough for theatres. That’s slowly changing because it’s harder and harder to make money from a film unless it’s a superhero film, in actual theatres. But there’s huge business being done on video-on-demand. I think more and more that we’ll see that the only films that really have a theatre life beyond art theatres are superhero films or really huge budget blockbusters, and then really interesting stuff will be available through VOD.”
So offbeat flicks that might have once struck paydirt with broad popularity would now be relegated to boutique film status?
He agrees while disagreeing. “But then that’s less a mark of failure, it’s not like the direct-to-video stigma that used to be there. It’s less relevant now.” I have to say he’s right there. “Direct-to-video” were once painful words. All those Brooke Shields write-offs….
Cronenberg also sees this as a welcome gap-filler. Whatever may have been missing at the local Bijou (films from different countries, in different languages, of different lengths) can more easily be found. “I think now probably more than ever people don’t have to rely on what’s playing at theatres. It’s easy to find anything by anyone from anywhere.”
Still… isn’t there something different about the communal experience of seeing films together in the dark? Almost like gathering around a fire and having tales told and retold? “There is some value to that,” he concurs, “but also… there are people talking next to you, the sound is terrible, the bulb is too low – it’s hard to have a good film watching experience if you’re picky about that kind of thing. I was at a movie yesterday [a TIFF presentation, ed. note] and there were people beside me who started going, ‘What are we watching? I can’t believe that we’re watching this!’ And they kept on going on about it, laughing to themselves, ‘Ha ha ha, look at us seeing this movie!’”
Brutal honesty can hurt. Maybe he agreed with them…?
“No, no, it was great, they were just being really obnoxious. One of them was talking on their phone and accidentally started playing an ice bucket challenge video really loudly in the middle. I don’t think I got much from seeing that in a theatre with people.”
“The things that have profound impact are somewhat challenging and unexpected and not entirely comfortable. It’s very hard to create that kind of experience when you have a 300 million dollar budget and people ensuring there’s nothing that could put people off.”
BRANDON’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE with where the film industry is headed can be summed up in one word. The broad picture, summed up by veteran screenwriter Devery Freeman: “In the quest for world markets, you are being asked to write in international language such as sex, violence and special effects."²
Cronenberg has a more focused picture. The word that comes up most often over lagers and ales our waitress is happily plying us with is "superhero.” It resounds like a call to battle, and this filmmaker has definitely chosen sides. You would be justified in thinking Cronenberg has a real apprehension of the genre and what it might mean to other less crowd-friendly film projects. And sleepless nights might be justifiable for him, too. All three leading actors in his Antiviral have danced with this particular devil: in 2011, before doing Cronenberg’s film, Caleb Landry Jones appeared as Banshee in X-Men: First Class, Sarah Gadon followed it with a turn as Kari in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in 2014. Culty anti-hero Malcolm McDowell jumped in even earlier, lending his voice (beginning 1996) to a number of animated TV superhero shows, as both Metallo in Superman: The Animated Series and Abraham Whistler in New Spiderman, graduating in 2010 to Merlyn the Magnificent in DC Showcase: Green Arrow and Mr. Makuro in Lego Hero Factory. Superheroics obviously pays bills.
What if someone waved $100 million under his nose, the condition being he make a superhero movie, ‘I don’t care how you do it!’ Maybe he could bring something to the genre? Something remotely satisfying?
“I feel that the ‘I don’t care how you do it’ is the big fantasy there,” he answers, laughing. “Because I think that’s the thing – with those films, there’s so much money on the line, and they’re such big properties and there’s such a fan base built in that the studio wants to please that I don’t think that there’s a lot of freedom there to be able to do anything too interesting.”
Still, there must be some space left to do more than spoon-feed. Assuming that’s important. Maybe there is even an implied arrogance in the very idea.
“I’m not talking about trying to challenge people. What is art is a pretty subjective thing, but to me, often the things that have that sort of profound impact that I’d associate with art are somewhat challenging and unexpected and not entirely comfortable. It’s very hard to create that kind of experience when you have a 300 million dollar budget and all these people ensuring that there’s nothing that’s too unexpected or that could put people off or deviate from a format that’s consistently making money. I can’t imagine how much weight I’d have to carry to be able to shoot a superhero film for 200 million dollars and have anything resembling artistic freedom.”
Brandon is able to back this up with an example from real life of how creative and commercial considerations can clash – and here, we are not talking about a Warholian experiment with the camera turned for eight hours on something that doesn’t move. “Edgar Wright… he was working on Antman for the longest time. And then he left, presumably because there were some sort of creative differences. And he’s not even a non-commercial guy. His movies are crowd-pleasers. So the fact that even he wasn’t able to, for whatever reason, work with Marvel on this project, the fact that someone like that might not be able to find creative common ground with the studio I think probably says something about how specific the format is for that kind of thing.”
THE NEXT FEATURE Brandon shoots presumably won’t have wafting capes and second-skin boots, but may well centre on an insect. Or at least, so it sounds. He is taken with an odd creature from far northern climes, a creature that by rights should not exist but does. He has come back to my question about which question he would like to be asked, and presents it as though it is an offer that will net interviewer and interviewee great new metaphorical insights. “I’d like you to ask me about the Woolly Bear caterpillar,” he submits, already looking satisfied.
OK, then, I’ll take the bait. Maybe this is a window onto his core person. Just what is a Woolly Bear caterpillar?
His eyes light up. “The Woolly Bear caterpillar is a caterpillar which can live through the winter. It can hibernate once it’s hatched, then it turns into a caterpillar. It has a cryoprotectant that protects it from being damaged when it freezes. And they’re very wide-ranging, but in the Arctic, because there’s so little vegetation, there’s such a short period where there’s actual vegetation that’s available for them to eat, they freeze for the winter, for most of the year, and put this on. Then they come out for maybe two weeks when there’s vegetation, and they start eating it, and then they freeze again. This can go on for years, ten or more years, until they have finally have grown enough, and then they find a mate and turn into this moth and then….”
I want to do my part, and submit, somewhat fatalistically, that they probably die.
“And then die,” he confirms. “But the fact that they can actually freeze and live frozen in the Arctic for, you know, ten, fifteen years is pretty amazing, I think.”
Hmm. And does he see himself in that scenario?
“No, I have no cryoprotectant.”
Oddly enough, a cryoprotectant is something I can imagine one of the Fantastic Four or the X-Men having. So capes and boots might not be too far out of the picture. Maybe in some sort of metaphorical sense?
“No, it’s not a metaphor. But I find that really interesting….”
“I couldn’t really decide what I wanted to do. That was part of why I got into film – it has elements of visual arts and writing and music. Torture everybody, it’s great!”
IT CAN BE COLD south of the tundra as well. There is a stand-up comedian in the back room of the bar, massaging his audience with the fingertips of humour. It is not going spectacularly well from what is filtering through, if in fact it is going at all. Brandon is only occasionally distracted by his unwitting comrade-in-arms in the fight for an appreciative audience. It may be that his jibes are too subtle, that there is too much “wise” in his wisecracks, the comedic equivalent of direct-to-disc artiness in the film world. Or he may just be bad – there’s too much ambient din between us to be sure.
But the affinity with struggling inventiveness is there. And he knows the worst reaction is… none at all. “If only there were hecklers!” he says out of the blue, a plea that might not be shared by the latter-day jester trying to work the room. I hear neither giggles nor jeers at this point. Maybe there’s no audience. He’s right, taunts would be more useful than silence. An artist of any discipline can work better with opposition. Work with it, make it part of the show. Is this part of the Canadian pysche, not invading the performer with catcalls of censure?
Brandon is sympathetic and starts in on stories of other comics suffering a slow death in the limelight. And what the reaction might mean. “People would just not pay attention,” he recounts, recalling similar floundering shows he has witnessed. He gives his beer bottle a stroke. “We were talking about the Canadian thing. I feel like that’s a Canadian thing. You go up on stage to be a comedian, and no one will pay attention to you, but no one will get mad at you either.”
That sounds frighteningly like Night of the Living Dead. The living brain-dead.
“Yeah, it’s like, it’s good enough that you’re trying, you know? We don’t really care, whereas I feel that in a lot of other countries, if you go up on stage, everyone’s going to look at you and expect you to do something great and if you aren’t great, they’ll throw something. Whereas here, no one pays attention. So you get comedian after comedian, these poor Humber College students doing these showcases at some sports bar. It’s like this masochistic event where they go and tell their entire set to the backs of these people, or to the wall….”
It could be the trouble lies in trying to wear too many hats – submit to academia and audiences in turn. Here may be why there is a semblance of sympathy. Feature filmwork is not enough to keep Brandon happy, either. There is the award-winning short Broken Tulips,4 which paved the way for Antiviral. A video for Animalia’s track “Stifling”³ (described by Moviepilot as “nightmarish,” certainly a little painful to watch) is another example. He has non-film projects going, too, enough to keep anyone off the street. One he mentions is a book of poetry to illustrate. His own?
“No, a friend of mine’s.” So he’s an illustrator as well? “Yeah a little bit,” he answers. More understatement. “And I’m collaborating with a friend on a video game, and I’m meant to be writing a segment for a comic book that’s supposed to be illustrated….”
Just a moment… do we hear “superhero” here?
“No, no,” he promises, “it’s actually an old school horror comic. There’s a Kickstarter for it now.” Still, having a lot on the back-burner can prove fatal in terms of following anything through. “Yeah,” he agrees, “I keep on having to put everything off.” DL may have to get over to Toronto to make the promised collaboration happen.
With this number of parallel projects, it occurs to me I’ve assumed filmmaking is Cronenberg’s first love, but I could be wrong. Maybe it’s only his second or third. Maybe he’d rather be a welder. What would he like to do most, apart from this?
“I don’t know…” he begins, sifting thoughts. “I used to be very interested in being a visual artist, mostly ink illustrations, but also painting. Also, I really wanted to be a novelist and write short stories and try to write a novel, and I was in a lot of bands and…”
Here I stop him. This sounds suspiciously like my own life history. What did he do in music? What did he play?
“Bass,” he says. Paul McCartney, I’m afraid, in the Beatles. “But I wasn’t the frontman.” Has he ever thought about adding another duty to his filmmaking chores? Did he compose as well, or just play in the band?
“No, I wrote some. But the thing is, I couldn’t really decide what I wanted to do, and that was part of why I got into film, because it has elements of visual arts and writing and music….”
My thinking exactly. You can satisfy a lot of needs or torture various audiences at the same time.
Full agreement from Cronenberg. “Yeah, torture everybody, it’s great!” Already conceiving, writing and directing his first major project might not be enough for someone whose eyes veer from the centre of the highway to the off-ramps. He could develop this into a collaboration of one – take on composing duties as well. And possibly more. Auteur extreme. “Do the composition myself?” he asks. “No, I don’t think I’d want to do that because there’s often not a lot of time set aside for writing music, and it happens in a panic during other post-production processes, and I think it would be extremely difficult. I know some people do it. John Carpenter does it. But I’m also not such a good composer; I don’t think I could really do soundtrack stuff. I wrote, you know, ‘band stuff.’ But it was very helpful having musical experiences, to be able to talk to a composer and have at least a sort of basic sense of how music comes together and of music editing and composition is useful in terms of directing.”
Maybe better. It could get lonely when you are the only one on the set.
OUR COMEDIAN MUST BE doing a little better – some mild applause seeps in from the back room. The stage can be a lonely place when nothing is coming back from the stands. Brandon’s own experiences with audiences have luckily been less fraught with missiles and mishaps. The A-level film festival circuit is generally (although not always) more civilized. There’s something about tuxedos and tomfoolery that doesn’t mix. But it is possible they carry their own drawbacks. How does he feel about those extravaganzas? Cannes, for instance.
“They’re a mixed bag. It’s, on the one hand, really exciting to be showing a film to an audience, and obviously, Cannes, it’s a huge honour to be at a festival like that. I don’t get a lot out of the parties and that kind of festival culture. I find that can get tiring after not too long.”
There is also that fabled, torturous beach scene with all those hopeful starlets.
“Maybe the beach scene…” he concedes with another chuckle. “But it was nice in Cannes, it was great because I was there with the people from the film, and we’re all really close, we became good friends. And my dad was there with a film, so my family was there. So that side of it, just sharing that stuff with all those people I like was good, and showing the film, that part of it was exciting.”
And the hotels, cocktail parties, paté de foie gras are… depressing?
“Your words,” he tosses back with a kind of machine gun snicker. Yet he concurs. “Yeah, I don’t find it too exciting. But definitely, there are some people who obviously love that part of it, and the glamour.”
Only that part, I’m sure.
“Only that part, or not only that part, but they’re attracted to the glamour of it. But I would usually rather be at home than at a film party. The other aspects of the festival are nice, when the people are actually into the film, being able to talk to an audience, that side of it.”
There will be no going home to whip up Negronis or Mickey Slims tonight, I’m sure of that, too. Home for Brandon is actually walking distance from here and the filmfest madness a few blocks southward. He could be lying on his chesterfield5 within fifteen minutes, light years away from the world he works in. Tux-free, easy. Or not.
“I wish I had a chesterfield!” he laments. I suggest to him we make this a call-out: “If you have a chesterfield for Brandon Cronenberg, please donate it!”
“I have a futon,” he informs me. A futon. I can conjure up memories of the firm Asian bed-rolls being more than just a place to sleep or a way to save your pennies. Futons used to be a statement of being non-standardized, used to be sexy. Still the case?
“I don’t know; this is like an entry level futon that I’ve had for over twenty years.”
Have to quote that, that’s for sure. What would his colleagues in the Bright Lights Biz think? And would Cronenberg care?
*the author was assisted in the interview by DL writer Angela Turk ¹[DLX], The 10th Berlin International Directors Lounge, Feb. 7 – 17, 2014 ²"Collaborating with Yourself,“ from The First Time I Got Paid For It, Da Capo Press. ³with co-director Jonathan Hodgson 4with cinematographer Karim Hussain 5typically Canadian word for sofa
Brandon Cronenberg photographed in Toronto (photo: Nick Font)