An Interview With The Founders Of Film Festival Unknown Pleasures

Joaquim Phoenix and Marion Cotillard in James Gray's 'The Immigrant', a film screened at Unknown Pleasures

“Maybe there’s a desire to tell stories truthfully, to be more honest.”

Unknown Pleasures was founded six years ago with one main goal; to show real independent American Cinema. Ottilie Wilford from the Berlin Film Journal caught up with  Hannes Brühwiler and Andrew Grant, the festival’s Artistic Director and Programmer, to discuss their inspiration behind their project and the challenges facing indie filmmakers in America today.

Could you tell me a bit about how and why you started ‘Unknown Pleasures’?

Brühwiler: I’d just seen a lot of American independent films at festivals that I liked and I was just surprised that they never made it to berlin. At first it was it was just a programme of twenty films and the reception was pretty good, filmmakers seemed to like it, so I thought ‘let’s do it again.’ People are surprised at we show, they’re  like “oh, is that really independent?” Whether it was a bigger budget film like Django Unchained (2012) or some experimental works. We use ‘independent’ in the old-fashioned way, films that are produced in an interesting way; whether it be a guy sitting in his room scratching on film, or someone who finds like 80 million dollars and produces something independently. So it’s a very broad definition which was used up until around the late eighties. And we try to open up the whole Sundance definition, you know, like this cute little crazy girl in a cute like whimsical film…

Like Little Miss Sunshine?

Brühwiler: Stuff like that

So, you’re trying to redefine what it means to be independent?

Brühwiler: It’s changed a lot obviously, because of the digital world, the financial meltdown in 2008,  a lot of things affect it and I think it’s a difficult but also a great time for American filmmakers and especially for independent filmmaking.

Grant: I think it’s an important point what Hannes mentioned because the whole Indie subject in America was really co-opted by Sundance and Little Miss Sunshine is a perfect example. Everyone spoke and treated like it like an indie film but it wasn’t, it is a multi-million dollar film with an 8 million dollar marketing budget. It’s not that we close our eyes to anything that’s at Sundance, but the spectrum is much wider than that… we held films last year like Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty as well as films that cost maybe 6000 dollars to make. That’s the picture we want to paint, the broad spectrum of indie film…we’re not attaching ourselves to names or stars, it’s driven by personal interest in cinema.

Brühwiler: And in general you could say it’s about personal filmmaking, all the films we show are expressions of personal filmmaking and ways of how to  tell a story, which try to find other ways of telling a story maybe…

So what would you say that you’re looking for when you programme?

Brühwiler: We never really look for a theme, say this year  it’s ‘broken families’.  It’s never really like that, we look around at what’s available and it’s kind of an eclectic programme. We don’t have sections like ‘short film’ or ‘gala’ , we try to put them all together but there is sometimes a theme does emerge. This year we saw a lot of films that deal with history, how to talk about history, how to represent history. The opening film The Immigrant (directed by James Gray) is very classical filmmaking but old-fashioned in a very good way, and it’s based on the recollections of his, the filmmaker’s grandfather. That’s one way to talk about history but there is another way for example Matt Wolf’s Teenage which is based on the invention of teenagers . It’s about how to make a film about a book of non-fiction, interesting as  usually we see fiction books adapted. The Travis Wilkerson films, he’s a political filmmaker but always about historical facts and how to  find different ways to talk about history. So that’s the big theme, we’ve had all these films that are talking about history.

And how do you go about finding films?

Grant: A combination of things. I’ve been in involved in the festival for three years. Hannes and I had known each other through e-mail and I used to run a distribution company in New York which distributed a number of small American indie films- that’s how we got to know each other. The network of myself being in touch especially with the East coast film scene. But it’s a combination of festivals, recommendations from friends or things we’ve just read about. And sometimes we find them in the oddest places. For example a film this year ‘i hate myself 🙂’ (Joanna Arnow) didn’t really have much in the way of any festival play. But a filmmaker who Hannes and I admire, (who’s film we showed last year) called Dan Sallitt wrote about the film and we saw it and that’s why we showed it. We have many, many sources. We’re not just at the festivals, we like to dig and find the hidden gems.

Brühwiler: And it’s also that we don’t try to look at everything. We don’t aspire to an objective ‘best of’ list. Of course for us those are the best films but we don’t look at all the films or try to look at as many films as possible. One film leads to the next one and then the next one. And in that way it’s more like an intuitive process.

So  you (Grant) have been part of the festival for three years?

Grant: Yes, I moved to berlin three years ago and of course it’s just a part time thing . I’d release these films in the states it would be hard to see them get recognition. There’s always festival run but you’d never see them in a cinema like ‘The Babylon’ for example. And it’s really exciting for me to see these films get played in such a prestigious theatre. And we’ve found there are a lot of Germans here who are curious and interested.

Of course Berlin has a strong history in cinema…

Grant: Of course, and a lot of big Hollywood movies do really well here, but there’s a lot of curiosity in these small films. A lot of times we’ll expect twenty people and get maybe between 1 or 2 hundred. Each year it’s hard to build awareness, to build an audience and it takes time. Jan 1st start date is always a bit tricky but after the first day or two, you know, it’s cold, perfect time to got to the cinema.

What would you say the problems facing American filmmakers are, say, in comparison to German Independent filmmakers?

Grant: The main thing is access to money. I’m working as a producer with a  filmmaker here who’s based in Norway and I’m amazed at the money we’ve been able to raise from public funds to make this film. In the states for a filmmaker to make 10 or 20 thousand it’s- you know- credit cards, loans, begging, things like that, there’s just not a whole source of money. Yes, there’s a few grants and things like that but it’s very specialized. That’s the main difference. But, as Hannes and I discussed, that’s almost to an advantage because in systems like Scandavian countries and Germany where there’s a lot of public funding there’s also a laziness. These filmmakers in America who are struggling to make their films, they really want to tell their story. And when you’re not dealing with any commitments to funds or TV stations or commissioning editors you can really make the film you want to make.

What do you think about Zach Braff raising money through crowdfunding?

Grant: Don’t’ get me started. In theory Kickstarter can be used for and by anyone but that’s not what it was created for. Both Braff and Veronica Mars Kickstarter events were absolute fiascos and I think it is doing damage. Especially with the Veronica Mars one which basically raised 7 million dollars so that Warner Brothers would say “yeah ok we’ll go ahead and make this movie”, it’s not like they really needed this money. But you know, more power to them. If the American public feel like they want to give their money to corporations like Warner Brothers or millionaires like Zach Braff then that’s their choice.

Brühwiler: I’m 100 % sure that that’s the future model of filmmaking. Also for blockbusters. I’m sure studios are working on their own crowdfunding platforms. Because it’s so obvious. For example Lord of the Rings; you start a crowdfunding campaign and everyone get’s a little toy or something and of course you get a lot of money and you get a built-in audience immediately. There’s no way that something like Kickstarter will stay on a small scale, it will get big. And the question is then what happens with smaller projects.

Grant: I think it’s very dangerous, studios will be less likely to take chances of course. But then on the other side, a filmmaker whose films we’ve shown at the festival several times Joe Swanberg who’s making films for less than 5000 dollars with his friends and family in Chicago. He had a film this year called Drinking Buddies (2013) which turned out to be quite an indie success, it’s slightly more polished than his usual films but that really did find an audience. It was a quite smart romantic comedy, better than a lot of the Hollywood ones, you know. So, I think studios are taking note of these small movies that take a little bit longer to find an audience. It doesn’t happen on the opening weekend. But Drinking Buddies has, (between theatres and on-demand)  been available for months now and it’s doing quite well.

Brühwiler: The horror film scene. It’s quite a lively, like Ti west. They started very small and they’re quite easy to market, like a mumblecore. If you look globally in the  last 15 or 20 years you see that the middle disappeared. It’s easier to make a film for very little money or a very big budget. In the us to do something for 20 or 30 million dollars is very difficult. Studio is much more willing to  give you  a 100  million. I think that’s troubling that the middle cinema, a certain type of cinema, has a much harder time than before. A good example for me is Paul Thomas Anderson. He’s kind of this classical, middle-ground filmmaker-

Grant: But he had to go abroad anyway to find his funds. That’s the point. A 20 million-dollar movie grosses 100% at the box office, is great, but to them it’s only another 20 million in our pocket, whereas  a 200 million dollar film can gross 400 million and wow we’re talking real money. A perfect example from this year is Shane Carruth’s Upstream Colour (2013). It’s a beautiful film, it’s quite a challenge, but people went and it’s now turning up on a lot of ‘best of’ the year lists and that’s very encouraging.

Brühwiler: I’ve noticed a change that in the past 10 or 15 years in the American independent scene. A lot of the younger filmmakers have started to be really aware of their film history. We’ve got a film this year called Soft in the Head from Nathan Silver that  really has a 70s sensibility to it. And we’ve got this film about Richard Linklater and James Benning Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater that was directed by the film critic Gabe Klinger. I think in the beginning when digital cinema was new, it was ‘let’s pick up a camera and make a movie’. I think now that the ocean is a bit wider they really do want to make  their mark so you’ve got a lot of filmmakers who are really coming from the past.

Brühwiler:And I think a lot of films are more serious. I’m personally very tired of irony. The 90s Tarantino kind-of irony. The films he’s making are still interesting but there were so many rip-offs and I’m surprised when I look at the past years how  serious the films are. A serious hard-core romance, no comedy, just pure emotion. Like James Gray’s Two Lovers(2008) that we showed a few years ago. Lots of filmmakers talk about this film. It’s serious without being too heavy. Maybe there’s a desire to tell stories truthfully, to be more honest, in  a way.

Grant: I think this a great thing as well. Snark and irony is rampant in the written word, on the internet, and there are filmmakers still doing that but it’s nice that there are a lot who aren’t. Filmmakers like Mathew Porterfield who’s film we’re showing I Used to be Darker, a very sincere filmmaker who would sit and talk about this. A friend of mine looked at the programme this year and said “not a lot of laughs this year”.

Brühwiler: Comedy is very difficult to do well. We tried to get one or two but it didn’t work out. 

What about Nebraska (a film screened at Unknown Pleasures)?

Brühwiler: Yes,  it’s not a bleak film, it has moments of levity.

Similar in tone to The Descendants?

Brühwiler: Yeah, it’s black and white obviously. The stories and the actors and the film are the things he’s focusing on. It’s a melancholy film. And very much an homage to the seventies.

Grant: A good step back for him. His films were getting bigger and bigger. This reminds me of his earlier films.

What would you say is the future of American independent cinema?

Brühwiler: I think no one knows. The main problem is distribution. The main problem is now is not making a film but how to show it, that’s the big question. If you can find an answer to that question then you will get very rich. The tendency is very much to big films. I remember reading about Netflix at the beginning and  everyone said it would be great for smaller films but that really is not the case. Everyone’s still going to the big-budget films obviously for a lot of reasons so it’s not really a new dawn for smaller films.

Grant: Films are available to many more people than ever before. If you don’t sit and browse through every film that’s available on itunes or Netflix or amazon streaming. Yes it’s available but finding it is the real challenge. I do think, as Hollywood is really veering more and more to franchise movies because I think that’s just where the money is, every marvel or DC adaptation or Tolkein based film. Even someone established like Hal Hartley turning to Kickstarter. I think these filmmakers will go on, they will find a way. Paul Schraeder also looking to Kickstarter. It gives them greater energy, they are free from the shackles of studio control. Any filmmaker who goes from studio to indie always talks about the freedom.

Brühwiler: On the other side I wish for a few filmmakers to actually make a big-budget film. I would be very curious to see what Jo Swanberg would do with a 150 million.

Unknown Pleasures is held every January at the Babylon Kino, Mitte



Tags from the story
, Babylon Kino, crowdfunding, Independent cinema, Jo Swanberg, kickstarter, , The Immigrant, unknown pleasures
Ottilie Wilford
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