Berlin, Germany and the Berlinale – Part 2

Part Two: Prologue

 

The trajectory of Dan Doran and mine’s friendship is interesting, I think. I met him freshman year of college in a special topics film class, the subject of which I forget. I just know we watched movies like Belle du Jour and Chop Shop. We did a project for that class together when we didn’t know each other too well that had us watching Clerks in his dorm and making a presentation about it. When I was a freshman in college I was a nervous little shit. I’m an introvert and I used to be a lot more closed off and shy than I am now, but going into college was obviously a big deal and the added pressure of trying to make connections and establish new friendships was intimidating, alright? Anyway I feel like I didn’t connect with that many people, in the friendship sense of the word, initially because of my psychological reservations. I know this now and I knew it then, but sometimes it’s easy to know what to do but hard to do it or let yourself follow your own advice. Anyway, I think we probably got an A on the project.

Dan is a good filmmaker, and his freshman film was one of the best in our year. Flash forward to Sophomore year and his next film was again, one of the better ones to screen from our class. He’s a good photographer, he has a good eye and he’s practical. I’m very proud of the film I made that year and it even got into two festivals in the middle of the country. I came into the year with a script I wanted to shoot, however, but it turned out to be too ambitious to make with the time I had. I was approached by one of my friends to collaborate on a film and I wrote what became our Sophomore film in a the span of about two or three weeks. I’d never written a film that fast with no prior knowledge about it before, so it was a struggle and something I was initially hesitant to do. It was for that reason that I decided to make another film the following semester with a script I’d written almost a year previously. I approached someone in November to shoot it, but he said he’d need a while to figure out what he was working on. So I then asked Dan, who read the script and agreed. The film was The Classics and it was fun to make and probably a terribly important part of my undergraduate film life. I directed it and acted as the sole producer so the ship was all mine and the experience I took away from it was tremendous and it certainly has made me a better filmmaker.

Ithaca slushed and rained for a few months but summer started to haze its way across campus at the end of the semester. I had just finished the first draft of the script I was to make the following fall, The One And Only Billy Shears, and Dan was on his way to my dorm to give me his thoughts. We both wanted to continue working together after The Classics. He brought over a couple beers and we talked about the script. It was 30 pages and I reassured him I’d cut it down – but we agreed to work together again and planned for an early October shoot. This was the end of the semester, as I said, so this was one of the last interactions we had before leaving for the summer. We corresponded in the coming months as the script was honed further and when we came back as Juniors, we talked a lot about the visuals and how we’d shoot the film.

I’ve always been this way and it was only until a few years ago that I consciously realized this and started thinking about and analyzing it, but I honor relationships in an almost…restrictive way. That is to say, for the most part, if someone is older than me, even one year older than me, I never loose the thought that they’re older than me and therefore that, by default, informs the way I feel or think about them. And I don’t mean to say that I treat people differently because of it or even that I consciously think about it. It’s very subconscious, but I’m old enough to be able to recognize it. I will say here that I was more like this when I was younger and I do feel myself growing out of it. Not that it’s a terribly negative thing, but it makes me respect things like hierarchies. On a film set that’s both important and dangerous because you need to be aware of people’s jobs and you need to know when to shut up and just do as your told, but it’s also important to have some sort of presence and personality. I talk about this because the relationship between a director and his DP is very important and something I cherish, really. Being a filmmaker is a vulnerable and intimate thing, especially if you write your own stuff too, which I do. You write something alone in the quiet of your room and you make it about the things you love and hate and wish could or would happen and it’s extremely rewarding but it’s also very personal. And you know the goal is to share it with as wide an audience as possible, but it’s also your job to communicate to a lot of people what you were feeling and how you think it should be expressed visually. And the DP is in charge of how the film looks and you have to trust that he understands you and the story and will honor it and tell it the best way he can. And for the most part I do trust Dan and we work well together. He works fast and he has a great knowledge of light and technicality which I lack very much. He’s practical and tells me when I’m being stupid and he doesn’t take any shit. Anyway he was studying in Paris and was meeting us in Berlin.

 

Part Two

Dan was flying from Paris and he was staying at the same Hostel we were. Josh and I didn’t exactly know when he was getting in, but wondered if he ever would, based on how hard it was for us to find it earlier. We were walking back form  getting beer and were about half finished with them as we got back to the hostel. We went up the stairs and into the lobby and rounded the corner to use one of two computers that were situated on a table at the end of the hall to see if Dan had messaged us. He was sitting at the table.

We shook hands and greeted each other and immediately told him of The Grand Budapest Hotel. He asked if we knew a good place to get beer and we went out of the hostel to go back to the convenience store. We all caught up a bit as we walked through the night, which was very empty, and talked about the films we were seeing. We walked back to the hostel and drank in the shabby kitchen. Josh went to check something on the computer and Dan and I talked about Paris and London and films we were trying to do. In a past blog post I mentioned the film I wanted to make while abroad, and I told him about it and was very open to helping to shoot it if I went to Paris, which I’m going to do in April. By this time it was around midnight and I had gotten up at 1 am to start this journey the night before, so I was beat and went to bed. We agreed to meet at around 9 the next morning in the lobby. Josh and I only had one film to see the next day, and that wasn’t until 7:30 at night. Dan was going to try and get tickets for the same show but other than that he didn’t have anything all day either, so we decided we’d spend the day seeing those famous Berlin sights.

I set my alarm for 9 but somehow Dan got into Josh and mine’s room (it locks from the inside) and woke me up a little before then. I woke Josh up and the three of us got some breakfast at a little cafe thing owned by the hostel. I got a sandwich and a coffee. We walked to the underground and rode it a couple stops until we got to the place where Josh and I mistakenly thought our hostel was the day before. We wanted to go back because the buildings and the square we saw there were really beautiful and we wanted to explore. We walked around for a bit and took some photos before returning to the subway and going back to Checkpoint Charlie to walk along a section of the Berlin Wall. The part of the wall that was close to our hostel also had parts of basements that used to be SS headquarters during WWII. Josh knew of another place in East Berlin that had a bigger section of the wall, so we hopped in the U-Bahn and transferred a couple times until we ended up more east, by a river.

As I said before, Berlin is kind of cold and industrial and being here didn’t change my opinion of that. The Wall was very cool, though. It was graffitied on for miles and some of the art was very good. We all signed our names on it and walked along, taking pictures and admiring it for about a half hour. Walking to the river, we passed a genuine schnitzel place so we decided to get some lunch there. The inside of the place was small but very cool. Very German and hip. We each got schnitzel that came with fries and a salad. Schnitzel is just either chicken or a different type of meat that’s fried a certain way. It was great. We all got beers but I got this thing that was half beer half lemonade, which is apparently a thing other places too, but I’d never heard of such a thing. The guy behind the counter made fun of me because the one I got didn’t have as much alcohol as the ones Josh and Dan got.  It was good though.

We sat outside and ate and talked for a long time until we decided we’d go back to the Friedrichstadt Palast so Dan could see if he could get tickets for The Grand Budapest Hotel before the film he was going to try and see with us later that night. Budapest was showing again and he wanted to see it badly. By the time we got there, there was already a lot of people lining up to get into the palace for another showing of some film. We were about an hour and a half early for the possible second set of Budapest tickets. Josh and I agreed very easily that if Dan got tickets we would try to see it again. There was another large queue outside the box office for advance tickets. I don’t think any of us really thought we had much of a chance but we were going to try anyway. Dan and I got in line and inched our way up and were almost past threshold of the door when I heard him say “oh shit” in front of me while he was looking in the Berlinale magazine of film listings. He’d made a mistake and read the days wrong. The 8:30 showing, or whatever it was, he thought was tonight was actually tomorrow night, and tonight’s showing of Budapest was happening an hour earlier – at a theater across town. We had enough time to get to the other theater and get in line for those tickets, but we had to leave now. Dan and I booked it from the line, ran towards the subway to find Josh, collected him from the pub he was at and raced down underground to the train.

We figured out where we needed to go and patiently sat and enjoyed the ride. I liked this. This was cool. Racing around Berlin, chasing after film tickets at different Berlinale theater venues with two good people without knowing how the night would turn out. It was cool. I was also still shit tired. Running around a city without having gotten that much sleep the night before does that. I was wiped. I knew where we needed to go but all of a sudden I noticed we were past the point where we needed to get off. I told them both to get off the train and we did. We had diverted somewhere and I honestly had no idea how we missed it. I guess I was more tired than I thought. I mean it was spooky, I had no idea how we got to where we were, because the train had to have turned somewhere or something. Anyway, we figured out we needed to get on another train and transfer two stations up and take a train from there to where we needed to go. Easy enough, but the clock was ticking.

We got on the other train and rode it two stops to our transfer point and hopped off. We descended further underground and discovered the platform looked a little hazy and it smelled like fire. We couldn’t tell what was going on but based on the way people were meandering toward the exits and the German voice over the loudspeaker, we realized no trains were going to come to this station. We exited the underground and asked some kind of employee how to get to the street we had to get to. It started to drizzle down on our heads as we walked to the end of the block to look at the street signs. We recognized the one we were on as the one we had to be on and crossed the street at a run in the direction of the other street that the theater was on. It was pretty much a straight shot to the road we had to turn on, and after some deliberation at an intersection, we made a right down a quiet street off the main road and soon the red and white glow of the Berlinale signs welcomed us with their luminous familiarity.

This particular theater wasn’t as grand as the one Josh and I had been, but it was more homey and comfortable looking on the outside and it was tucked away off the road in an area with grass and trees and a small gravel parking lot in front of the doors to the lobby. There was a queue of medium length lined up and we joined at the end to wait until tickets were to begin being distributed. Now I wanted to see Budapest again, no doubt. And when it comes out in wide release on March 7th I’ll be seeing it a handful more times. But since I’d already seen it the night before, I wasn’t really worried or nervous we wouldn’t get any tickets. This put my disposition at an advantage and allowed me to soak up the night and enjoy my sense of being. I ducked inside to see where the line was and investigated the lobby of the place. Not as big as Friedrichstadt, as I said, but it was nice, with a bar at the end of the long room with small seating. I looked around and then left to sit outside against a tree, about 50 feet away from the line and the building. It was a nice night with a little breeze and it was good to take it all in from a distance. It was a good night.

The line started to move and after about ten minutes we were about 20 people away from the box office. Dan was getting excited but, sure enough, about 15 people out they announced there were no more tickets. We stuck around for about five minutes afterward, hanging on to a false sense of hope, until we decided we should just go back to Friedrichstadt so Dan could try and get Caravaggio tickets and see it with me and Josh in about an hour and a half. We knew the way back by heart now, so we took our time riding the subway back the way we came. When we arrived, Josh and I hung out outside while Dan went into the familiar box office to get tickets. I decided to go in after him, just to see if he got them or not. He was the only one in there and he was talking to the woman behind the counter. Dan retreated from the glass enclosure, confused, and said to me that Caravaggio wasn’t playing at this theater. I instantly realized what the outcome of this conversation would be as I pulled out my ticket and examined it more closely. I guess I had just assumed Caravaggio was at Friedrichstadt for some reason I don’t really know. I was probably too excited about Budapest the day before to care where Caravaggio was, but as I looked at my ticket I smiled, because it was funny. “Where’s the theater?,” Dan asked. “Where do you think?” I smiled and rolled my eyes. We went out and told Josh we were going back to the same theater we came from and he couldn’t believe it. I was too amused to be angry or annoyed as we, the kings of the subway, went back on it and rode to our other theater. It was amazing we hadn’t been caught for taking advantage of the subway system yet.

We got back to the homey theater and of course Dan got Caravaggio tickets, because what the hell is Caravaggio, and we had about 40 minutes to spare, so we went and bought beer at a convenience store and found a diner type of German place to get some dinner. When we sat down, we each ordered food (this is important). We each ordered food, and then Josh politely asked the waiter if he had a bottle opener for his beer. Now I can see where the waiter was coming from, refusing to open the bottle, because we hadn’t paid for the beer at the restaurant. But he threw a big stink over the thing. He could barely speak English and he was so confused and beside himself that Josh would ask for a bottle opener. He turned to another waiter and said something in exasperated German, which I can only gather was something like “I’ve never been so enraged and confused in all my life.” Josh, Dan and I all looked at each other, not knowing what to do, as the waiter just stood there. “Ok, what should we do with them?” Josh asked. “I don’t know,” the waiter said. I took my beer from the table and tried putting it on the ground by my feet, but this didn’t please the waiter either. “Should we put them over here?” Josh asked, indicating a ledge on the wall that was flush against our table. “I don’t know. I don’t know, this is the center of Berlin!” Umm……..what? This would prove to be a great joke for the remainder of our trip. “This is the center of Berlin!” As if that statement made any difference or carried any kind of relevance whatsoever. Eventually we just ordered three cokes and the waiter left. A few minutes later he came back with our food and patted me on the back, as if in truce and mutual respect that two alpha males grow for each other, and we ate our meals and left. I still drank my beer when he wasn’t looking.

We hurried back and dove through the doors to the theater and took our seats in the balcony just in time for some guy in a tuxedo to come out on stage and introduce the movie. Now this movie Caravaggio came out in I think either 1983 or 1986, and it was Tilda Swinton’s first movie. Sean Bean is in it too. And the reason they were showing it here was because it was the premiere of a new 2k resolution print. The film is the story of the painter, Caravaggio, and it follows his life as a boy through his death. It’s, um……..bad? It’s set in the 1600s but also the 1980s but the characters don’t change and people die but they die for different reasons and it’s generally pretty hard to make sense of pretty much everything. For these reasons its a good movie to make fun of, though, and since we were all friends having a good time in Berlin that’s just what we did. It was rough to sit through for most of it, but when it was over we just kind of turned it into a punch line.

 

By this time it was about 9 and I was still really tired, but we wanted to see if we could go out and get a beer or something before going to sleep. We all had early movie the next day. We went back to the hostel and changed and checked our messages and lied down for five minutes before asking the person behind the desk at the hostel if he knew where there was a good place to find a pub or something. He pulled out a map and pointed us in the direction of, I guess, the more happenin’ part of Berlin, which was about three U-Bahn stops away. When we got to the subway station I was so tired I sat down on the ground and started to nod off until the train came. When we got out, we followed the crowd and headed in the direction of the most lights in the distance and eventually came to an intersection. Nothing really looked like a pub or bar or anything, so we asked these two guys if they knew of a bar or something we could go to. They pointed across the street to a place called “Cake.” So we went to Cake.

 

The place shouldn’t be called Cake. It was a small, kind of average bar, but past the bar there was a small dance floor where a bunch of German youths were dancing and grinding and groping and having fun. There were some small tables lining the wall to the opposite of the bar, which were crowded with people as well. There wasn’t a cover charge, but we had to have our hands stamped with a little red stamp that said “Cake,” which was, I don’t know, not the kind of thing I think you want advertised on your hand. Anyway it shouldn’t have been called Cake because, first of all there was no cake I guess, but also it was just a regular kind of loud, crowded bar. Everything was bathed in red, though. All the lights were red, which made for a pretty cool atmosphere. The other thing about this place was that you could smoke inside. That’s illegal everywhere else I’ve ever been, so that fact was pretty unique. Dan, Josh and I got some beers and found a little pseudo booth next to the bar and sat down. We had a smoke to indulge in the novelty (I don’t smoke, mom, it was just a thing to do here). We stayed for about an hour, had another round, and then left. It was about 2am at this point, and we had no idea how to get back. Luckily, Josh came out from a store with, he proclaimed, good news, and said that he just found out the subways run 24 hours a day on the weekends. This should be a thing everywhere. We rode home and I set my alarm for 8:30 because Josh and I had a film at 9:15 the next morning, as did Dan, but a different film at a difference place. We went to sleep, each of us in our ten person room. I slept in my jeans with my wallet and passport in my front pocket the whole time I was there. I didn’t take any chances with those things.

 

My alarm went off the next day at the time I had set it. I forced myself awake and reached under the bed to get my watch (my watch is my prized procession, folks). Here began a long, tiring day. I noticed the time on my alarm clock and the time on my watch didn’t match up. I’d forgotten to set my alarm an hour ahead to compensate for the time difference. We had 20 minutes to get to the theater before the movie started and they wouldn’t let anyone else in. I got up frantically and woke Josh and the both of us were dressed and outside in 5 minutes. Because of the previous nights back and forth and our time traveling for the past two days, we were pretty well oriented with Berlin, so we knew our route to Friedrichstadt like the back of our hand. Poor Dan had to go see a movie a the Zoo Palast, which, like it sounds, is at the zoo. Groggy, Josh and I raced to the theater and made it with a couple minutes to spare. Our seats were pretty good and we settled down to watch a German film called “Jack,” which was in competition. It would prove to be the best film we were to see at the festival (aside from Budapest). Jack is about a young boy, Jack, who is about 10 or 11 years old. He has a younger brother who is 5 or 6 and his mother is only about 25. I thought she was his sister at first. The story is about Jack and how he has to be a man and look after his young brother because his mother is too young to realize how to take care of her children. The whole story revolves around the mother, who has just dropped Jack off at a kind of orphanage for a few weeks, disappears. Jack escapes the orphanage and goes to claim his brother, and the two of them search for their mother for two or three days. They sleep in an old car at night and try any lead they can to find their mom. You probably won’t ever see it, so I’ll just say that eventually they find their mom and the mom doesn’t realize how worried the kids were. Jack discovers that the mom didn’t bother to look and find any of the letters he left her asking where she was, and the film ends with Jack taking himself and his brother back to the orphanage, knowing that they will be better off without her. It was a great film. Josh was of the same opinion as me.

 

It was about 10:30 when the film let out, and it was a beautiful day. Our next film wasn’t until about 3pm, and it was a movie called “’71,” a fictional war film about the IRA and the British struggle in the 1970s. It was the movie Dan was seeing at the zoo while we were seeing Jack. Josh and I headed back to the hostel to meet up with him, and as it happened we arrived at the same time he did. Dan wanted to go back to Potzdamer Platz and see if he could get a ticket for a documentary he wanted to see the next day, so we all went back to the nervous system of the Berlinale. He said ’71 was intense, but a good film. When we got to Potzdamer I bought a Berlinale hat and poster and Dan got his ticket. We were all starving so we ventured across the street to see if we could find a place to eat. We found a good old American style diner.

The diner was great and they were playing the winter Olympics, so that was cool. It was 12:59 and they stopped serving breakfast at 1, so Josh and I got breakfast and we got a pitcher of beer for the table. I stole my beer glass because it had the Berliner Pilsner logo on it. This was a nice break and we enjoyed talked about the films we saw, the experiences we’d had so far, and each other. Dan’s next film was at a theater right in Potzdamer Platz, so after lunch we bid him a temporary goodbye and Josh and I made our way to our Berlin home of Friedrichstadt and got there with plenty of time to spare before ’71 started. The film was another great one. It was the story of a British soldier who is fighting the IRA in Ireland amidst all the terror and confusion of that struggle. He gets separated from his unit and passes from the care of a young boy to a old man and his daughter and eventually into the hands of two people who turn out to be double agents. Its a great film under the war genre. There one shot where the main character is sitting in a pub, gets up, goes outside, the pub explodes, he’s thrown to the ground, and he gets up and goes back to the rubble to see if someone inside the pub lived – and it’s all one shot. Good movie.

 

I think Dan was still in his movie by the time ours ended (around 5) and our next movie wasn’t until 9 that night, so we went back to the hostel. One of our roommates, ALYSSA, arrived in Berlin a day later than we did. She’s not into film and wasn’t there for the festival, but she was meeting a friend she had from high school and they were going to to touristy things together. We didn’t see each other the day before and we honestly didn’t know if we’d ever see her, but when we went back to the hostel we had a look in the common area they have there and there she was with this naval fellow named Bob, who is apparently covered with tattoos, although we only saw a couple of them. Man, Alyssa is just great. She’s really just everything anyone could want in a woman. I guess you could say she’s the apple of my eye (omg are you happy now Alyssa?). Bob was either studying abroad in or was stationed in Sicily so he’s been in Europe for a while. We sat here and decompressed and talked a little with old Bob for about a half hour until we decided to go out and get some food. We crept up to the reception desk and asked the guy behind the counter if he knew of a good place us kids could get something to eat. He immediately suggested we go across town to this kebab place, that, as he said, had the best kebabs in the world. So we obviously went there.

 

Around three stops on Das Bahn later, we were wandering around the streets looking for this place, called Moustafas, expecting to find a restaurant. What we found wasn’t a restaurant, but a little tent/booth/counter propped up on the sidewalk with a huge line in front of it. We didn’t have anything else to do and it was a nice night and we all liked each other so we got on the back of the line. Josh and I got some beers at an adjacent convenience store and enjoyed the freedoms Berlin had to offer and drank them in line while waiting. We all talked and had a good time, but by the time we got to the front of the line I think it’d been an hour. And literally right as we got to the front they ran out of the huge shank of lamb or whatever that meat is that they carve off with a scimitar sliver by sliver, and we observed the process of putting another, frozen one on. Luckily there was still enough excess meat they had previously shaven off the other shank to use for our kebabs, so we delighted in the pleasure of having THE BEST KEBAB IN THE WORLD. This was the first time I’d ever had a kebab, so I really had no way to know if that was true. Anyway, it was amazing. And since that night, I’ve had maybe 6 or 7 kebabs since. I’m nuts for them now. They’re very European, I guess – I see kebab places everywhere here. And boy let me tell you, there’s nothing like casually moseying down the street with two hands wrapped around a good kebab.

 

I’d brought a DVD copy of Billy Shears (the latest film I made, if anyone doesn’t know) with me just in case the planets aligned and I found myself face to face with Wes Anderson or anyone with some clout in the picture business, but of course that didn’t happen. So, right before Josh and I left Alyssa and Bob, I decided to give Billy Shears to Bob. Alyssa told me he’s a huge Beatles fan and I of course like to spread my films around as much as possible. So Billy Shears is floating around Sicily somewhere as we speak. I hope you liked it, Bob.

 

The last film for Josh and I was a Forest Whitaker vehicle called “Two Men in Town.” Apparently it’s a remake or a reimagining of a foreign movie of the same name, I think. It’s about a man with anger issues who is newly released from prison and his unassuming, strong willed female parole officer and how both follow the trajectory of Whitaker’s mood swings. On that morning I tried to et Budapest tickets in London (and failed), this was the only movie I bought tickets for online. I really only got them because Forest Whitaker was in it. Anyway, unfortunately (because it was our last movie and we were leaving early the next morning) the film was terrible. It was too simple and straightforward and the main character doesn’t have any redemption – which is the point of the film but it was still executed rather indifferently. The best part was the actor who played the parole officer, but here character’s story didn’t resolve. Ah well. Still the best weekend of our lives.

 

We got back to the hostel and found Alyssa, Bob and Dan and hung out with them for a little while and had some beers. We talked a bit and I think I made loose plans to meet Dan in Paris in April to shoot some stuff and Josh talked of visiting in the summer as well. We shook hands and said see you later (Dan was staying all day the next day, where he would see either three or four more films, including The Monuments Men). I remembered to set my alarm properly and the next morning we met Alyssa in the lobby and took Das Free Berlin U-Bahn for the last time to a stop where we would transfer to the overground (the S45 train – underground starts with U and overground starts with S there) to the airport. We had some final dramatic moments waiting for the train, which seemed like it would never come. We had to ask two conductors where the heck it was. We finally made it and with some time to spare. In Berlin itself I didn’t see any real tourist shops or place to get souvenirs, but of course at the airport there was all the classic, authentic German stuff you could ever want there. I didn’t have any money at this point so I didn’t get anything. We sailed home on our economy flight and arrived back home in London to a very nice day. Thus ended the best weekend of my life.