The Berlin Film Festival attracts many different types of filmmakers from students to world-renowned individuals. What are their similarities and their differences? What is their message and why? The Berlinale was the perfect place to pursue some of the best filmmakers and technical directors that the industry has to offer. The following filmmakers I interviewed were delighted to share their passion as it related to their particular area of film expertise:
Marc-Andreas Bochert: Berlin film director, winner of the Student Academy Award in 1999 for his short film Small Change
Michael Epstein: director, writer, producer with Viewfinder Productions, Inc.; Academy Award-nominated for documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane; among other works, produced documentary film Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven’s Gate.
John Kirk: director of technical operations for MGM Studios, film historian and restoration expert. Among his notable works, he has just finished the restoration of Heaven’s Gate.
Kevin Pecota: German-American film student in Southern California.
Although representatives of different generations, they share an illuminating passion for storytelling, interesting life experiences, a love and history of movies and a confident future to produce quality material.
KP: How did you get into the film industry?
Bochert: From early childhood, it was my desire first to become an astronaut and then an actor and a film director. I stuck with the third choice. I started to make films with friends in the 1980s when video was very popular. It was very easy for me to make those early films. I enjoyed it and had a natural knack for directing. I went to film school in Babelsberg (former GDR film school) and took courses to learn as much as I could about making films. I kept going and have not stopped.
Epstein: I think that people who find their way into movies have movies in their blood. They love going to movies as a child; there is something about cinema that touches them and they want to be a part of it. I was no different. I never went to film school, I never formally trained in film but I sort of stumbled into it. I have most but not all of my graduate degree in architecture and urban planning/design. I wanted to tell the story of a housing project in Chicago that was notorious and really terrible. At the time, I was at the University of Michigan. One of my closest friends, a black student, and I were featured in a documentary about race relations on campus. Through this experience, I became friends with the producer. I told him that I wanted to make a film about a housing project but I didn’t know what to do or how to make it. He said that if I came to New York, he would help me. I worked for him for six years and within those six years, I had The Battle Over Citizen Kane under my belt.
Kirk: My education was directing me into the area of Foreign Service, but I had never been out of the United States until I went to Europe at the age of 18. At that point in my life, anyway, I realized that I was not ready to live in a society that was so different from my own. Therefore, I had to totally re-think my career choice. Movies were what I knew best. My mother started taking me to movies when I was six weeks old. She was a single mom who worked all day and the only kind of entertainment that she could afford and had the time to do was to go to the movies at night after work. She would usually take me with her…I literally don’t remember a time that I did not go to movies. And we went several times a week. So I actually went back to school, not to get a degree but to take some courses in TV and film work and in that process I discovered that editing was what I wanted to do. I left Texas and ended up in L.A. after detouring in New York where, through the connection of a girlfriend, I started in the proverbial mail room of a production company. Within four weeks, I was moved into another department and two years later I finally got the job that I really wanted – in editing. Through this position, I was able not only to explore my field of interest but could make other contacts; my job actually started out because of my training in foreign languages.
Pecota: I lived in America in the tenth grade (having grown up in Hamburg, Germany). I attended a video production class for two semesters. This was my initial and only exposure! I put my experience on hold until I returned to Germany and there began creating ideas for a senior class (Abitur) Memories Video -- two years prior to graduation. This experience was so positive that I had a strong desire to learn more about film and the world it encompassed.
KP: What is joyful about your work?
B: It’s just still the work! It is very important to me that I have this joy. For example, when I work for TV, the reward is not that it is only shown on television, which is nice, but it is really the work itself, the people you get to know and the experiences you make with those people. The whole process is a joy.
E: I came to New York, and in my heart (I don’t know if I have ever really let go of it), I wanted to direct feature films. However, I found my way into non-fiction documentary and I am genuinely very happy. I love the storytelling and I still create something. People go to the theaters to see my films but it was not my initial dream or the reason why I left Chicago. I think everybody finds their water level at some point in life and you have to know when you find it.
P: My Senior Memories Video because of the experience. I made a short narrative action film as an introduction to the memories film. The whole project totaled 50 minutes. It was fun and hard work that amazingly fit together. The visual media is so powerful! I was amazed at the power that I had to communicate a message. My message was to value the process of growing up and treasure those memories. I was doing this all alone, with very limited equipment and ok, it was home video-ish, but it didn’t look cheesy! It looked professional! The reaction from the school, parents and students was awesome. No one had ever done anything like that before at my German school…it was a total surprise to everyone. I started a tradition and now they do it every year. That is cool!
KP: I saw a documentary on young filmmakers going into major credit card debt. Why?
B: I decided that I don’t want to invest my own money in my films and, thus far, I have found investors. But I have also had a great deal of luck and if you don’t have an open door like I have had, then it is very difficult to finance a film. You can go into debt very quickly just to get the film finished. The business is tough because it is very competitive. Your goal is to survive and there is a lot of uncertainty. It is important to know how to protect yourself. The financing and the pressure to keep getting jobs and sticking to them is intense. You have to have the personality to thrive on this or be prepared to wait and be patient. No one wants to be a failure. I think to address this issue there are more films being made now with different countries as co-producers, like France and Germany. Some of it is money-related and some of it is related to filming strategies. As the industry changes so must our ways to get financing.
E: The problem with film is that the studio system does not have a legitimate linear way to work your way through, to where you learn on B-movies and work your way in…The challenge today, even in my small documentary world, one has to ask the questions…how do you get noticed, how do you break out, how do you have enough of a track record and enough of a resume? There are a number of people who write great screenplays, get somebody attached to it and get noticed that way, or there are people who make a great short film. The reality is, even with someone like me with Final Cut, you go into debt with the anticipation that if you can make something that people take notice of, more work will come your way. I have accrued some personal debt but work has also come my way because I got myself out there, people see me, they say that was a great film and say we need a Michael Epstein, etc. Without the risk I took of incurring some debt, I may not have had the other opportunities. You go into debt because you have no other choice or option left for you. It’s crazy and absolutely insane! Michael turning to John, “Does that make sense to you?”
K: Well, yes, I …
E: John’s lucky…
K: I am! I am not in the position of spending my own money. I was hired by a studio for my position, and it pays my salary. Many people think that if you work in Hollywood or in film, you make a lot of money. That is not true! I do my job because I like the work I do, but I’m not making the big bucks.
KP: Aside from your projects, what is important to you now?
B: It is important to keep the passion alive for the material, but it can be a struggle because you need work and can’t always find projects that you want to die for. Sometimes there is a compromise because you can’t live on nothing, now can you? The work itself of transforming a story is my passion. It is like putting the pieces of a puzzle together, an intriguing job. I do see that there is a difference when the film is just to fulfill the job. At that point, filmmaking just becomes a craft rather than an art. There is a challenge to fight for the art. I want to find my own way and own art pattern.
E: There is a side of the business that tries to take advantage of you and people should never lose sight of this, mentors aside, because it is all about trust. Find individuals in the business who either touch you or you can deal with in an honest way – there may not be a lot of those people. But, when you find them, don’t let them go! Whatever the cost of staying loyal to someone is, do it. Your own individual integrity or loyalty to people is incredibly valuable.
P: Getting my foot in the door with any kind of job in order to get a start, to find people of integrity to work with and to be able to find stories worth telling.
KP: What advice would you give to the next generation?
B: It was freeing for me to learn that the audience is not interested in the brilliance of the directing but in the story. So I feel that I don’t have to prove myself as a brilliant director but I do need to focus on doing my job well and tell the story. When you start in film you have the desire to prove that you can do everything, or that you are brilliant. But, in reality, how many people are honestly brilliant? Every film is a new learning experience and you never stop learning. I look at it as a job that you never finish: Every film is a different experience and you will always make stupid mistakes. Just deal with it, learn from it and go on. It is ok!
E: I tell people not to go to film school unless you want to make movies in Hollywood and then try to get into the intern program at either USC or UCLA. However, for undergrad work, study anything: history, art, science, etc. Have something to say when you get a chance to make a movie because if all you know is movies you are limited to what materials you can draw on. Honestly, this is part of the problem of movies today, there is nobody coming up with anything new and very few people have something new to say. At the present, and oddly enough, those who do have something to say are the non-fiction filmmakers. Every year at Sundance you hear how the fiction wasn’t so good but the documentaries were really good. This is because experience is being drawn from life to know loss or pain or peace. When you learn the skill of depth of fields or film stocks, if you learn how to write a script or how to direct an actor or be an actor, or whatever skill you do, and then are lucky enough to be given that opportunity to use the skill, you will need to have something to say. Your life experiences and knowledge of other fields will be invaluable.
K: Looking back, the only thing that I would say…is not so much to go to film school, but particularly for somebody who literally wants to come to Hollywood and be in Los Angeles…get either into USC or UCLA if you can afford it... and if you can’t, take a film course at L.A. City College because the interns that are taken on by all of the studios, the networks and everything, those people are the ones who get the great jobs – after they’ve proven themselves as great interns. It is extremely rare that someone can get a job walking in off-the-street and turning in a resume to an HR department. In my case and almost with everyone else I know I didn’t get that job in the mail room just because I asked for it…I knew the daughter of the owner of the company and she got me the job. She said, “Dad, my friend needs a job, and he said OK”! People think – oh I can pick up a video camera and I can make something – but honestly, most of them don’t really have anything to say. If fewer movies were made that were better, I think we would all be better off. That is not to discourage people from becoming filmmakers but make sure that you honestly have the talent for it. Not everybody who likes movies needs to be a filmmaker. For example: I doubt that I would be a good director and would not presume that I could do it. For me, the main benefit of taking an introductory overall course in film and TV was learning what part of the process I was good at. We students had to do everything! I learned that I could never be a director of photography because my depth perception isn’t very good. I don’t want to be a director because I realized that I don’t want to be responsible for controlling a zoo of activity at one time, day after day. I discovered that what I was good at, as I had been in high school and college with writing, was the editing process. I can take something that someone else has filmed and put their material together or tell them how to fix what they have already tried to put together. I can do this much better than I could come up with my own ideas from scratch and to a certain extent it is why I have become good at film restoration. I could never make anything close to something like Heaven’s Gate, but I think I did a good job of recreating the original version after it had been butchered. Find out what (s)he’s naturally good at!
KP: What comes to mind when you think of the Berlinale?
B: The chance to make connections and view the recent films not only on the European market but in the other world markets. Unfortunately, you have to sit through five boring films to see one exciting one.
K: It is unique because it is one of the largest festivals that show both new movies and old films. There is a place for me as a film restorer in this setting. I can come here to show work that I have done They are supportive of the work I do. It is very big. It is well organized. It has a wide range of films, from documentary and narrative features from all over the world. I always look forward to coming to Berlin. I am proud to attend the festival.
P: A learning environment: to observe, listen and make connections. And I was proud that my mom was an accredited journalist!
To see a transcript of Karen's full interview with Michael Epstein and John Kirk, click here.
To see a transcript of Karen's full interview with Marc-Andreas Bochert, click here.