Tucked away in the heart of Berlin is a locale that is famous for its luscious menu, its historical architecture and its interesting, well-known patrons. This large café was the meeting point where I had the privilege to interview German film director Marc-Andreas Bochert.
Karen: Thank you, Marc-Andreas, for taking the time to do this interview with me and for our English readers in Hamburg. We appreciate this opportunity to learn more about you, your role in the film industry and to gain a better understanding of the world of film.
Karen: I would like to hear how you got into the film industry.
Marc-Andreas: From early childhood, it was my desire to first become an astronaut and then an actor and then 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 I had a natural knack for directing. I went to film school in Babelsberg, Germany (a former DDR film school) and took courses to learn as much as I could about making films. I’ve kept going and have not stopped
Karen: How long was your schooling?
Marc-Andreas: It is normally four years to study, but it took me seven…
Karen: Oh, and why was that?
Marc-Andreas: Basically because we didn’t have the pressure to finish. We also can work in the industry without a diploma, and so it made more sense that everybody in the school was enrolled as long as he could in order to keep the student status. For me, another reason was to be able to take more time to work on my graduation film project.
Karen: Tell me a little bit about the graduation film.
Marc-Andreas: It’s a short film, and it’s called Small Change. It is based on the theme from a play by Christopher Hampton, called The Philanthropist. It is a story about a businessman and a beggar who meet everyday on the same city street and who become involved in a strange relationship. The businessman wants to ignore the beggar, and the beggar wants to be recognized by the businessman. The businessman then tries to find out what is really important in his life but at the expense of the beggar. That was the theme of my graduation film, and it was 15 minutes long.
Karen: So, 15 minutes constitutes a short film?
Marc-Andreas: Yes, it was a classic short film.
Karen: What year did you make your graduation film?
Karen: I heard that you were given some special awards for your film?
Marc-Andreas: Yes, it has won a lot of awards, but one of the most important was the Student Academy Award for the Best Foreign Student Film in 1999. The following year, it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Live Action short film. It also won the Silver Bear for the German short film prize in 1999, as well as the Studio Hamburg Nachwuschs (new growth from the new generation of filmmakers coming up) prize, which is a talent prize for students only, not for established filmmakers or professionals.
Karen: After completion of your project for graduation, did you automatically sign up for various contests, or did the contests come to you?
Marc-Andreas: We were so lucky, because the first thing that happened was that the film had won the Student Academy Prize. And people like to give awards to films that have already won awards. So, we had a big start and so nobody dared to ignore us, therefore, we were invited to every festival. We did not take home a prize all the time. But, we were so fortunate that early on we had become somewhat famous for producing something that was quality as well as award winning. Because of this fact, we had many calls asking us just to forego the application process and just send the video of the film for viewing. We had no problem to promote the film. I saved a lot of money on application fees because when you are an award winner, then the costs often are free for your entrance film. I was very fortunate because my promotion skills are not one my strong points. My film and its awards promoted itself.
Karen: In reference to the contests or festivals, are they interested in you as a director as well as your film?
Marc-Andreas: Oh, yes! Sometimes you get invited along with the film because they would like to announce that you, the winner of the student award, will be there along with the film. It is an advantage. However, you still have to enter regular competitions like everyone else and to already be a winner was very helpful in the beginning.
Karen: Could receiving so many awards in the beginning of your career be a disadvantage for you?
Marc-Andreas: Oh, no! It definitely is an advantage. It opened some doors for amazing opportunities and contacts. The good thing was that it was with my graduation film and not with my first film at the film school. That had also happened to others, and it is hard to come down off of this high and still have to study and continue working as a student after winning such awards. You really want to just go out and start working when a prize is given for your work. It was really good for me, because I was looking for jobs after finishing with film school and I had this amazing resume right off the bat, as a prize winner and then coming fresh out of school. This was and probably always will be an impressive point in my resume. It was more and more of an advantage for me, but from a psychological point of view, it can also be more of a hindrance, if you get too much praise too quickly. But, I believe that the advantages really outweigh the disadvantages.
Karen: You began filming as a teenage, attended film school, winning awards and establishing yourself in the business. Are you still passionate about your work?
Marc-Andreas: It is always exciting to do the job. It is not the importance of what film it is but to be able to do it, is so amazing…and I enjoy it all the time. However, because of my experience, now I am more aware of the difference of passion as opposed to just fulfilling the job. If filmmaking just becomes a craft rather than an art then I feel that there is a challenge to fight for the art. And to not allow it to be just a craft or just a something of …even the craft side I like and enjoy, which are the very practical things. And there is a danger that it can get to be just a job in order to earn money…. in order to survive. I don’t want that for me. I hope that I can avoid that!
Karen: So, it is important to keep your passion alive for the material?
Marc-Andreas: Yes, that is always a struggle because you also want to work. You need the passion, and you can not always find the project that is so exciting that you want to just “die for it” in order just to make it. So sometimes, there is a compromise.
Karen: Is that a normal part of filmmaking?
Marc-Andreas: For a lot of people this is a normal way. For some, they just make what they are really excited about and make a film once every five years; I don’t want to do that…and others, they might make five films in one year. But I am not excited about that way either…what I want is to find my own way and pattern.
Karen: Who were the people in the business that you emulated in the beginning? Why? Who influenced you and what did you learn from them?
Marc-Andreas: Alfred Hitchcock. He was the first director who was really known for being a director. There are lots of books about him. Since I could read about him, I really studied his films. When I became a professional movie watcher, I really enjoyed Woody Allen.
Karen: What did you learn from Hitchcock?
Marc-Andreas: Mostly that film is a visual art and that you have to tell a story by image. The dialogue should support the story but should not overshadow the images..and that the story should be told by images. That is the key thing everybody learns from Hitchcock, as well as the importance of the placement of the camera. The different effects and the psychological effects that a certain distance or close up can have on the imagery. He really invented a lot of things that the directors use every day in film. He always created a special effect or atmosphere with the placing of the camera.
Karen: … And Woody Allen, what did you learn from him?
Marc-Andreas: He is not the cinematic type because he doesn’t do a lot of that in his films, but it is his content. I like the way he could tell very sad stories in a funny way. Especially, in this good Jewish humor?
Karen: Why do you say good Jewish humor…? What is that?
Marc-Andreas: Hmm… that is a very good question, I am not sure I can define it...It is positive… good humor with a little bit of self-revelation. Dealing with very serious situations and with humor….I think that the Jewish people have had so much trouble in their history that they have had to learn how to protect themselves. They have used humor to develop this protection that really is so delightful. It is a very special sense of humor and I love it!
Karen: OK, you have had some success, and you are older. Who, at this point of time, is influencing you in film?
March-Andreas: Hmmm…good question! It is not so much a special director, even though I really admire every film of Peter Weir. He is still my favorite director. It is not so much that I admire a special style or so, but just the films which are more compelling and relevant stories. I am not so interested in the art of directing like with the technical side but more interested in the content or the story. At this point, I question more: What is a good drama? What is the relevance? And for the audience who sit in the theater, what touches their life now?
Karen: Do you have a particular target group that you are striving to influence at this stage of the game?
Marc-Andreas: Right now I am working with children\'s productions. It is not really by choice that I want to influence children, but it is a target group that I am working with now. Children work well with film.…every movie has another target group…like with my short film Small Change; the target group was to reach the established professional in Germany…I was really thinking of politicians as a target group, because those people have the power and make decisions, and it speaks to everybody in that target group. On the other hand, I always said for everybody who sees this film, I hope that they can find themselves in the character and could change if need be.
Karen: If you are not only focused on one target group, then are you more flexible working with a variety of projects?
Marc-Andreas: Well, the target group for the cinema it is the teenager. Often one caters to those kinds of films the teen wants to watch but then again there is an older group that also goes occasionally to the cinema but still often enough…However, you do have to choose to which target group you want to make films for ….For example, it is very rare to get a film that speaks to all, like with the film Good Bye Lenin that was a hit.
Karen: Have you ever used test groups?
Marc-Andreas: No, not really, we used to show a rough version to some friends but that is not really a test group…
Karen: Do you want feedback?
Marc-Andreas: Well, you need to get feedback at a certain stage of the film…that is important because you can erase mistakes or problems in a film that you might not have been so aware of it. It is good to show it to people who do not know the story. They tend to be more objective. I have to analogize my own feelings with the group too…as a director sometimes you wish scenes would be going faster or different and cannot figure out how to do it…and a target group can often give helpful tips even without knowing it. You also learn to read the film in the eyes of the audience, and it can help to improve the film, but it also has the danger that you just want to please the audience, and then you really get nowhere with your own personal goal of the film.
Karen: In the beginning, what were a couple of things that were frustrating about the business?
Marc-Andreas: You can get a lot of really bad scripts that really aren’t made for good films or should not be made at all into films. This has not happened to me, but I have known others who have gotten material or productions just cut away and not allowed to continue a project. I was always lucky to work with people who respect my work and visa versa. That mutual respect for each other\'s expertise was a positive aspect in working. In my film for Christmas, for example, the time the network showed it was at midnight…. And not during a prime time hour of the day, so all of the work that one puts into a project one wants it to be shown more…often when one works with TV, the life of a project is also short lived…
Another frustrating thing is when you realize that the film you are doing is not very interesting to your producer, and they are only interested to keep their business going…they don’t really believe in it and want to make it as cheap as possible. I did not have this experience with a main producer but knew of others who had this problem….it is so difficult when you see that no one cares about the project that you are working so hard to make and finish.
Karen: What is joyful about your work?
Marc-Andreas: 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.
Karen: As a director, do you work closely with editing, the camera, the technical aspects…do you actually do this work too?
Marc-Andreas: No, I don’t do it, I work with an editor and camera people, etc. I am not as interested in the technical side except for editing; I do not do the technical work…I have those who really collaborate and catch my ideas, and we can work well together… it is a give and take; I enjoy working with these people.
Karen: You could say that you have the ideas and the vision, correct?
Marc-Andreas: Yes, but others also contribute a lot to it. I allow this on my projects. For example, in my short film, with the opening shot…that was a very beautiful shot, and I did not have this idea. The idea came from the cinematographer. When I wrote the script I did not know that this shot was possible, and I thought you would always notice that you were looking on a car, and so he just found it and on the day we just shot it… and he said let\'s just do it like this, and I was wondering about it and a little bit afraid but it is very often that a cinematographer brings great ideas
AND also the production designer…he suggested the office, which is a special office with glass doors. I did not have this in mind when I wrote it. It was also very interesting for me to accept another idea than the one I had in mind…but it was very good and a good process for me…
Karen: How did you over come this? Are you a flexible person to where you can say OK…let\'s do it your way? Is that a process for you to go through?
Marc-Andreas: It is a process…I always give the other idea a chance even when it is not my own …I say OK.. I’ll think about it….and maybe if it is better, I have no problem accepting it or making the change. Sometimes I do have to overcome my pride when I really insist on my idea and admit that the other idea was better. But I have started getting used to it and say you were right….and to admit this, is good….
Karen: Are you willing to give compliments? Is this important to you?
Marc-Andreas: Yes...I think that it is a key issue. It is that important to me to encourage the people. I expect them to bring something to the film that you did not have before and to give them the feeling that they are the ones who have to do that and can do that…in most of the cases you will not be disappointed.
Karen: Are you the final decision-maker on your projects?
Marc-Andreas: Yes…along with the producer who cuts down the budget, but I have to be comfortable with the product.
Karen: Have you worked with anybody who you have had a hard time with?
Marc-Andreas: Yes. I did not know them before they were hired for the project, and it ended up that they were working against the project. If this happens, the best thing to do is to separate as early as possible…
Karen: Is this easy to detect?
Marc-Andreas: No, not always! I try to give everyone a chance….I learned to do that. For example, once while on a project, I had worked with a cinematographer and we worked three months together. He was a nice person and we liked each other but his ideas about the story were very different than mine. nfortunately, I was using another film student\'s help and I could not just fire him…but I was willing to just go ahead with his work and try to get the job done. Fortunately, this guy admitted that should not continue. I was thankful that he did it, and then I found another person who was really better for the film and the goals of the film….I also learned that I should have said it before…I sensed it but ….it was not easy for me to separate…because I try to get along with people. But in end I have to learn to make a clear cut…and go on for the good of everyone involved.
Karen: What are the differences between working with technical people as opposed to working with actors?
Marc-Andreas: The technical people bring in their profession and their technique. The actor really brings in himself, and if you want him to do what you want, then you have to get along with him. You have to tend to the relationship even though you are not close. You cannot fire the actor after a week of shooting, and sometimes they know this fact. Some like to make it their own thing. Thus far, I have only had this problem once…mostly I am really fine with the actors
Karen: When you are starting a project, do the actors talk with you to find out your idea about the film or do you go to them? Is this talked about in the beginning or while you are moving along in the project?
Marc-Andreas: That is a very good question….it depends…there are some actors who want to know everything before they commit to the project. For example, they will say to me, hmm, I don’t really understand this element and can you explain this…etc., and that is OK with me…. Others, say I like you as a director, and I want to work with it, and we will see how it goes along and let’s do it…It is very different from actor or actor! The difference is in their experience. Sometimes we do not choose the actors, and when they show up to shoot, they think they have all the answers and know their job…often coming into their world, you come as the new person; you have to earn their respect, and sometimes they are not willing to give you that right away…and then you have a hard time…
Karen: Why is it difficult to earn their trust? Is it because you are coming into their work? What is going on there?
Marc-Andreas: If an actor plays a character for five years then he doesn’t need instruction. Which is also correct, but sometimes when you come into it as a new director, you see something different and you want to make changes because it is not good. Some actors have problems with accepting direction because they know how to do it and often better than you do ….and well, they don’t want to be directed. It depends…I have had only one case like this…but mostly they are great to work with and they give you a lot of credit and have a desire to work together.
Karen: Who would be actors you would like to work with? Why?
Marc-Andreas: Borkhard Clausner. I have worked him already, and I enjoyed working with him, and I would like to make another film with him sometime. He is a great comedian and is a very normal with no star complex…and I like his ability and his talents. I like the actors who are not big stars but are always around, and mostly they appear in the theater…etc.
Karen: Are there any foreign actors that you would enjoy working with?
Marc-Andreas: I have to think about this….
Karen: What about foreign producers?
Marc-Andreas: It would be very interesting to work with foreign actors and producers, but the main thing that I would need is the specific project that brings you both together…I would like to make a film that is more international, but it is the project that is important and its message that I would want to go after…
Karen: I saw a documentary on young filmmakers going into major credit card debt. Why?
Marc-Andreas: I decided that I don’t want to invest my own money in my films and so, 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 either be ready 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.
Karen: What advice would you give to someone getting into film, ready to ….do their project and don’t have enough financing…?
Marc-Andreas: Try to make the film where it doesn’t cost so much and that they can pay for it…it doesn’t have to be expensive…For example, you can edit at home with the right programs, and it really is becoming less expensive …you should just make what you can afford. But the main thing is to just make the films and not to wait until the money is available in order to start.
Karen: who handles the budget of a film, director or producer?
Marc-Andreas: Both...I have to know what the budget is…
Karen: Is it different for TV and film…?
Marc-Andreas: TV tells you how much you have to work with, and you can not go over it. Film is a little different…you can go over a budget but then you can get into a lot of trouble…and then it is your problem
Karen: So you never had to worry about finances…
Marc-Andreas: No...not really!
Karen: What is it like working with women?
Marc-Andreas: In my crew, I try to have a 50/50 balance of men and women. It is not for the feminist reasons, but it is for the atmosphere. If you have too many men then it becomes too tough and competitive. If you have too many women it is too feminine, but if you have a balance it is just fine. This is with all jobs…
Karen: Are there a lot of women in the technical field?
Marc-Andreas: Yes…I enjoy working with women because there tends to be less of an atmosphere of competition…it is hard to say….but….often there is....hmm, how can I say this…OK, well, I am a little bit shy. I enjoy working with women because, often, when you work with men, you have to prove yourself. There is an underlying tone of competition that you have deal with that I don’t like…I admit it is strange…I don’t know why, but it is…it can be difficult with men because you want to have the right and the last word…and it can be more complex dealing with the competitive edge…even though you are working together…and with women it is often a little more productive. You can waste a lot of time dealing with these underlying aspects. I have not really have thought about it so much, but I so believe that in my experience it is happened this way…
Karen: I think that it is very commendable that you would be so honest dealing with men and women with your own experience. It seems to me that there are more women getting into the film business in all fields. Have you worked with a woman producer?
Marc-Andreas: Yes…and I have also found out that they can be very tough people. This is good…because you have to be able to get what you need…I do feel comfortable working with women because maybe it is that I can take critiquing from women better? I don’t know…I feel the most secure when I have the balance, working with men and women…
Karen: Is the film industry a tough world?
March-Andreas: I think so….yes…because it is very competitive. You really have to have the passion and will to survive. There is a lot of uncertainty in this business…and it is important to know how to protect yourself from the competition…but it is not any more competitive than any other occupation…it is not so special….the pressure to keep getting jobs and sticking to them is intense, and you have to have the personality to thrive on this and or wait and be patient….of course, you don’t want to be a failure…so you are always thinking about this aspect too…there is no guarantee that you will have jobs coming your way…
Karen: Do you prefer to write a script or take off from novels, short stories, etc.?
Marc-Andreas: I mostly like to work with pieces that fit to me, my ideals and my thinking. I have to look for materials because, to be honest, my life is not so rich that I can draw from my experiences. I need to look to others for supportive material….I think it is also very exciting to come together with another world ….something that is already invented…but, it is also difficult to find good material….
Karen: Are period pieces expensive to make?
Marc-Andreas: It depends…For example: the Luther film was not very expensive to make….
Karen: Have you ever put your personal experiences in your films?
Marc-Andreas: You always try to put yourself in the place of the main character and its emotions so that you understand the main character. In a round about way it does have something to do with me…but you always try to bring everything together that you believe in with a film …some stories allow that and others don’t so you can only add very little of you….
Karen: What kind of legacy do you want to leave younger filmmakers? How do you want to influence people that come after you? What do you want to leave them?
Marc-Andreas: oh…wow…hmmm….you want to make a way to create the experiences that were important to you when you were young. When I was young and went to the cinema and loved the experience. I want to create and leave behind this experience of living those emotions….Hopefully some of them will want to enter the world of film
Karen: Pitfalls! What would be a situation where an inexperienced filmmaker would fall into and an experienced filmmaker would see it coming?
Marc-Andreas: There are a lot of tricks that you learn on how to work with the different aspects of sets, technical equipment…It was freeing for me to learn that I don’t have to prove myself as a brilliant director but to just tell the story. When you start in film you have the desire that you need to prove that you can do everything…and that you are brilliant. But in reality, you need to just tell the story well because every film is a new learning experience. You never stop learning! Even now, it is like a job that you never finish. Every film is a different experience and you will always make stupid mistakes. It is important that you deal with it, learn from it and go on…it is OK….!
Karen: What is a stupid mistake?
Marc-Andreas: I learned….that the first day of filming you need to shoot something that you can hide somewhere (in the middle or wherever) in the film if it isn’t so good or take out if it doesn’t fit. To shoot a key scene on the first day of filming…this is not a good idea because everyone is not really working together yet…and everyone is a bit insecure of their job …the first day or two can be painful….For example, the longer they are on the set the more they are getting into their part -- they get into the rhythm. It takes a while, and if you only have one day to shoot a critical scene, don’t waste it on the first day….you need to be able to ask more questions as you go along about scenes, etc. Sometimes the first day you can not repeat…
Karen: Well, there is so much to talk about…so much more to discover…
Marc-Andreas: Well, you could write a book about this…
Karen: Yes...you could, you have so much to tell that is so interesting and helpful…it is amazing! It is fun talking with you and I have enjoyed myself immensely.
Marc-Andreas: Thank you.
Karen: Is there anything you would like to add…
Marc-Andreas: No, I don’t think so…I have put everything in the right light that I talked about …
Karen: I have appreciated your openness, honesty and your wealth of advice. Thank you so much for your time. On behalf of myself and our readers, I appreciate the investment of time that you have given to us….
Marc-Andreas: It was my pleasure!