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Q&A with German Director Jan Ole Gerster

Kevin Noonan | Monday, November 25, 2013

The Observer had the chance to sit down with German director Jan Ole Gerster before he presented his debut film, “Oh Boy” (2012), at the Browning Cinema this past Thursday evening. The film nearly swept the German Film Awards, winning Best Film, Best Direction, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor and Best Score. Scene Editor Kevin Noonan talked to the director about his film, why he became a director and what he sees in his future.

KN: Your debut film, “Oh Boy,” came out in 2012, what can you tell us about it? What’s the idea behind it?
JG: It all started with the idea of making a film that’s very personal in a way, because I was stuck in several screenplays that I wrote did not satisfy me. I think the reason for that is that I tried to follow the rules of screenwriting, how to make a film, how to write a script, with the result that I thought it was boring stuff.

So I started to rethink what filmmaking means to me, I looked at all the films, especially the first films of the people that I admire, my favorite directors. I figured out that it’s important to talk about something in your film, to make it about something that you really, really know, instead of making up stories.

I thought I’d give it a try and write about something that I’ve experienced, no matter if it means something to a bigger audience or not. It’s just a very selfish way to think about making a movie about something that I in a way experienced.

I started the screenplay, and it sounds weird, but it was the first process of writing something that I really enjoyed, and it all went very fast. I wrote the first draft in two weeks, and gave it to a few people to read. Everybody was like, ‘Okay, you gave us a few things before to read, and now we finally can say that it was not good. But this somehow is true, it’s honest, it’s funny. We don’t know what it is, we don’t know what it is about, it’s a weird script, but it’s fun to read.’

So I got confident with that script, and took the next step, found producers, actors, and the most important thing, some money to do it. This is weird, but I never expected a response like this, and the film found quite an audience in Germany. I’ve been to lots of film festivals all over the world, and I’m invited to be here at Notre Dame to present my film, and even in my wildest dreams I never expected this to happen.

KN: It was your first film, and it won the Lola, the German Film Award [for Best Feature Film], how crazy is that for you?
JG: Yeah, it was the wildest year of my life. I think I’ve been to 40 film festivals, I was all around the world presenting the film. I mean this is what you dream of when you decide that you want to become a director. I’m glad that it is this film that made it happen for me, to have this kind of life that I’m having right now traveling to different countries presenting the film, because it’s a very personal and important film for me.

Sometimes life takes weird directions, because especially that project, I really had no expectations at all of how people would respond to that film, I just thought, ‘Don’t be a fraud. Write about something that you know. And make your first film funny.’ Because I was waiting for that for such a long time.

KN: What parts of you do we see reflected in the film itself?
JG: I think, the character and I, we have in common this period where we are kind of paralyzed by what life has to offer, which is the right direction to go. The decisions I made when I was younger, are they still the right ones today? He’s kind of paralyzed and alienated from the world he’s living in because he’s basically drifting through his days, thinking but not really acting in order to find his spot in the world that he’s living in. And this is something I experienced and pretty much how I felt when I went to film school.

It’s a paradox, because all I ever wanted was to be in this film school, and I was dreaming about becoming a director, but then when it was really time to go and shoot something, I was like, ‘Okay, this is different from what I thought it is.’ Going to films, loving films, is like escaping from reality, and making a film is the complete opposite. It’s like standing in front of an audience and saying, ‘This is what I have to say. This is me.’

I had so many expectations for my first film that it kind of scared me a little when it was really time to do it, maybe because I was afraid as well to fail. Because if you dream about this for such a long time, you don’t want it to be the worst experience of your life. So I think that’s what I waited for such a long time, and that’s why it took so long to find this very small and simple story, and get away from all this big ideas of huge films, and go back to something very simple and basic.

KN: If your first film is obviously very successful first of all, but also extremely personal, where do you go next? What do you do with the second film when you’ve had so much success already on a very personal idea?
JG: That’s an interesting question that I ask myself a lot these days. I try to keep following my instincts more than being tempted by stuff that I get offered now. Like, ‘Do you want to do a comedy? Do you want do this thriller? Do you like this screenplay?’ It’s very tempting, because a few doors opened up after this film, and I think I should do it the way I did the first time again, really try to find something that I really want to express. Most of the time it’s the stories that are not very conventional in the beginning that then turn out to be the more interesting project. But of course you can’t go out and shoot films about everything that’s important for you, you always have to find a way to make it shareable in a way. I think it’s good when films are personal, but they never should be private. For me the most important thing to find the next project, and I’m already writing something, is to come from a direction that I personally relate to.

KN: You said that when you starting to write this screenplay, the “Oh Boy” screenplay, you looked at some of your favorite directors and what they did with their first films. Who were some of the people that you looked at?
JG: There are a bunch of directors that I admire, European directors and American directors. For example, if you look at the first film of Martin Scorcese, a film called, “Who’s That Knocking On My Door?” Everything that was important to him at that time and later on his career, like his family, being Italian-American, being surrounded by a criminal environment and at the same time growing up with a Catholic background. The whole subject of all his films he did later on, it’s already in that film. I think it’s maybe his most personal film, and I think one of the few he wrote himself. This was a film that inspired him not because of its style or what it was about, but the way he said, ‘Look, this is how I grew up. I’m Martin Scorcese, I’m from Little Italy in New York City, and this is what it’s like.’ It was the same with Francois Truffaut, who did a film called, “Les Quatre Cents Coups,” that was his first film he shot with the very young Jean-Pierre Léaud. Jim Jarmusch who did “Permanent Vacation,” about New York, which is about having a permanent vacation. All these films seemed to be honest and true to me just because these people were in a way sharing something that they experienced with an audience and I still think, especially with first films, that’s the way to do it, in order to do something that’s different and unique. It’s not a guarantee, but I think that’s the only chance you have.

KN: You said that you knew that you wanted to go to film school for a long time, when was the moment, when you were growing up maybe, when you knew, ‘I need to do this, I want to be a filmmaker,’ when was that moment for you?
JG: Well I had this desire when I was 14 or 15 years old. I fell in love with films, I read about films, but I grew in a very boring neighborhood. There was nothing going on at all. I mean, it makes South Bend look like New York City, it was really, really boring. So films were important to me because there were some kind of a window to the world. But there was no filmmaking whatsoever around, so I had to wait until I finished school and sent an application to my favorite film company that did a few films in Germany that I really liked. They produced “Run Lola Run,” and they got me a job, even though there were lots of students applying, for some reason I was the lucky one who worked for them. And then I became the assistant of the director who shot a film called “Good Bye, Lenin!” which was a very good experience, because I loved the screenplay, I like the director a lot, and it turned out to be a huge success all over the world. I learned a lot from that period, but after that I went to film school and for the first time I was confronted with the actual filmmaking, making films by myself. Before that I was just working for people, learning stuff. And film school is about okay, now you should film. What is it about? Write a script. That kind of paralyzed me in a way, because, you know, what do I have to say? You study with a bunch of people, and you start to admire the ones with the bad childhood because they can do a great film about it, I don’t have anything to say. I wish I had a bad childhood! (Laughs) And I never was into genre film. It never came into mind to do a science fiction film, because of all these directors that I liked, I was thinking about what I could about or make a film about. It took a while to really get the confidence to do this step from loving films, hiding in movie theatres, escaping from reality to, ‘This is my script, give me money for it. I want these actors. I put this budget on my shoulders and I present it to people.’ It took a while to really find the confidence to do this film. I lost track, what was the question again?

KN: No, that was perfect. When you talk to students or you talk to prospective filmmakers, what do you tell them, what are your two bits of advice of what it takes to be a filmmaker? Although I guess you’re still young so you may not have it all figured out yourself, but what’s the first step for them, people who want to do this?
JG: That’s right, I think I’m not in a position to advise really because I only did one film, and that’s probably the only difference between young filmmakers and me, that I somehow tamed the beast of making the first film. But I don’t regret that I insisted somehow to not just become part of an industry, but try to be true to what I really about film. I think it’s about being unique, it’s about having a voice, and it’s easy to say and hard to do. Even if you believe that it’s true, that films should be personal, what does it mean? How do you find a way to share something that is important to you with other people? It’s not as easy to express something that is important for yourself, but it’s worth trying in order to do something that is different and honest.

KN: And you shot this film in Berlin?
JG: I shot it in Berlin, yeah.

KN: Is that where you’re from originally?
JG: No, I grew like I said in this boring town, even though Berlin isn’t New York City, too. I moved to Berlin 13 years ago.

KN: When you’re looking to the future do you want to go back to Berlin or do you want to explore more of Europe or somewhere around the world?
JG: Yes, I certainly want to live outside Germany for a while. I don’t know if I’ll come back, but right now after 13 years of Berlin I feel like I should move and live in different countries, even though I still like Berlin. There are so many other great places to see that I think I should go and discover other places, like New York or Paris. I don’t speak French but I want to live in Paris for a while.

KN: That’s not a bad choice.
JG: Not a bad choice, no.

KN: When you sit down and start making a movie, I know you said you’re starting to write your second one right now, do you come at it from a visual standpoint, do you do straight writing? Are you a writer and then a director or are do you more write toward what you see in your head, if that makes any sense?
JG: I know what you mean. There are people, especially some writers, they write a story, and then if you’re a director you’ll write the film, if you know what I mean. It’s not always the case, but most of the directors who write their own scripts, the scripts are way more visual and unique than people who just create plots. But it doesn’t have to be like that, there are lots of scripts around by very talented writers. The way I start, I have no clue what it’s about. Things come to my mind, I write them down. I have no idea what they mean, but I learn to trust that it means something at some point in the development process. I start with little fragments and I try to figure out what they’re all about. Most of the time I start with characters. I hate research, if it’s a story where I have to research for like two years in order to tell it in an authentic way I wouldn’t want to do it. I’m too lazy for that. This is probably the right answer, maybe I write stories about stuff that I know because I’m too lazy to research.