Monday, February 25, 2013

Laura Thies – an inspiring German woman director

Josephine and Laura about to be unmasked
Many countries have their own crowd-funding sites now. But it seems that there's not a lot of cross-border traffic, except into and out of the States. Because I think that cross-border co-productions may be one path to more features by and about women, I want to learn more about women's features around the world. One way to learn is by following crowd-funding campaigns. So I was delighted to see this German clip from Laura Thies, made for Woods of Words, the second feature she'll direct. It enchanted me.



Laura, her writer Josephine Ehlert and their team are about to start a new crowd-funding campaign, so I asked Laura a few questions about the project and its context. Her energetic response includes a stunning term I hadn't heard before and can imagine using a lot : 'doom-loop'!


Your first feature was Surviving Family. Can you tell me about it and your experience taking it into the world?

Making Surviving Family was the biggest luxury a director can dream of. With writer Mara Lesemann as my producer, who financed the entire movie herself, we had the unique freedom of just making the movie we wanted to make, without having to look at who and what we need to satisfy! That's how it should always be when making movies! And it was worth it. We have been shown at 10 festivals and have received 26 distinctions - 13 awards and 13 nominations and we already have lined up 3 more festivals already for 2013! Also the feedback that we get from our audiences is extremely, extremely good and satisfying! We have touched and moved a lot of people and that is more than I can ask for from my feature film debut!

What did you learn that you're taking into Woods of Words?

I will take exactly that from it! The most important thing for me is to touch people's hearts and to make the movie I want to make! I spend a lot of time and a lot of lifeblood when I work on a project, so it better be worth while for me as well! There is nothing more beautiful than somebody coming up to you, who thanks you for your work, who tells you about their own stories, or who tells you how moved they are! It feels so good!

Woods of Words seems very different than Surviving Family. What's it about?

Well the heart is the same: It's about a young woman on the quest of finding herself! Woods of Words is about a young song text writer, Julika. She has a writers block and decides to go to the countryside for a while, to the old house, which her father once bought by auction. While there, she discovers through dreams and other surreal experiences that there is a very old secret hidden in that house, which she can only solve if she opens up her usual way of looking at this world and by not only seeing with her eyes but also with her heart. It is a film about self-discovery. In the last couple of years more and more people try new things like yoga, meditation, Tai Chi, etc. to find a deeper meaning in life. More and more people feel like there is more and our story is about one way of looking for and finding this other dimension.

Where does the story come from?

Hm. Hard question. It just came to us. One day my colleague and friend Josephine Ehlert and I were sitting in the park and we decided that we wanted to make a movie together. She already had an idea what she wanted to write about and so we continued to yarn for a while. And then it just came out of Josephine's fingers! The simple answer... we both are watching the world very closely. Josphine is doing shamanism for a couple of years now and I am on a path that I can't even put into words or name because I don't know yet what it is. We both are meeting more and more people who share this experience and so the subject for this film wasn't far!

How far have you got with the project?

Pretty far! Josephine is writing the 3rd version of the screen play now. Half of the cast is set, with Josephine as the main character and Jule Ronstedt and Tim Bergmann, who are popular actors in Germany, in strong supporting parts. Most of the main crew is organized with Markus Ilschner as Cinematographer and Dieter Schleip, who has won the Grimme Award, as the composer. We also have most of the locations secured since we will be shooting in my home village in the middle of nowhere in Bavaria and everybody is extremely helpful and supportive! So technically we are ready to shoot tomorrow ;) Well, after February 28, once we have the 30,000 Euros from the crowd funding campaign!

Has it so far been easier than Surviving Family?

Easier? No. Not at all!

What are the challenges and satisfactions?

We have big challenges! The German film industry works extremely different then the one in the US. The independent scene here is pretty much non-existent and barely nothing is produced without a TV-chanel as a producer. This is due to the state funding system, which is great and amazing and a ton of money is generated through it, so that we can produce many films, but it also brings along a lot of handcuffs. It is also very, very tough to break into this system, especially if you don't come from a state film school, which neither Josephine nor I do! So a lot of people from the industry have told me not to make this movie independently because I won't have a chance of showing it! But if I go with the system, I will be occupied for the next two years with finding a producer, then finding a TV-channel and state funding, which is a doom-loop because you can't get one without the other! This movie needs to be made now, so we are challenging the system and the German people, because furthermore there is the challenge that crowd funding is not very known yet. So not only do we go 'against' the film system but we are also trying to build awareness and excitement about crowd funding, which is not an easy thing, believe me!

But is is very satisfying too! Josephine and I are moving mountains right now! We are making things happen, more and more people are following us and are excited about what we do. And we already have tons of people who can't wait to see this movie! Hopefully at the end we can stand up to their expectations! A lot of good things are happening and things are just falling into place!

You started as an actor, went to the New School in the United States and so did some of your team. Why did you choose to study in the US rather than in Germany?

I had a dream. Haha, that sounds nice. Well, when I was 8 years old my dad took us to New York for the very first time and I saw my first Broadway show, The Secret Garden. I had been on stage since I was five so this was the icing and the moment where I decided that I wanted to become an actress! And of course one day I wanted to do that in New York. So at 18 I just auditioned for schools. I was also signed up to audition in Germany but right away I got accepted at AMDA - the American Musical and Dramatic Academy so I didn't have the chance to think about which country!

How do you see yourself in relation to the US now?

I lived in NY for 8 years starting at the age of 18. So I became an adult over there. Also most of my professional skills I learned there, at school, on the set, on the stage. So I have a lot of US in my toolbox! My blood and my spirit is German though. I think this shows in Surviving Family. It's an American film for sure but it has a lot of my German soul in it! I still keep my ties to New York, to my friends, and I am for sure keeping up my collaboration with Mara!

The United States is a major market but many people there don’t like subtitles, according to the legendary producer/distributor Karin Chien, when I interviewed her last year . Do you see it as a problem that you’re working in German, with English subtitles?

Yeah it will definitely be limiting to work in German with subtitles. It's always difficult and a tough decision when you work across language borders! Also with Surviving Family! Germany is a total dubbing country. We HATE subtitles. But I would hate to dub the film because a lot of the humor, etc. would get lost! And it is just not the same. So no matter how you do it, it's never perfect! Some Germans are starting to shoot in English now. But also that would be very strange in our case! The accents would sound strange and not authentic and English would just not fit into the surroundings! It's a shame!

In the Woods of Words clip, I love the interchange between you and Josephine Ehlert, the actor who also wrote the screenplay. Tell me about how you met and how you work together?


Laura and Josephine
I met her through a dear friend, Sharyhan Osman, who is a singer, song-writer and actress and who will also play a big part in Woods of Words. Two years ago Sharyhan needed a scene for her demo reel. Josephine wrote the scene and I directed it and after that we just stayed in touch and did a couple of small exercises together. It is a great collaboration. We just work. Both of us have tons of power, tons of energy and we have the urge to make the impossible possible! She is somebody I could go and steal horses with as we would say in Germany. In the US you would say she is game for anything, a good sport! When it comes to our campaign - Josephine has the ideas and together we try to put them into action. When it comes to the screen play - she writes and then I read and try to give her good feedback. At the beginning we just talked a lot, about the story, the characters, the structure... everything.

I have a theory that actors have many advantages when they write and direct. What do you two see as those advantages?

Great question. Josephine has a very distinct way of writing, which of course I love! It's very natural and at the same time brave. I think that actors have a very sensitive understanding of what the human being is and how we work. So she can let this knowledge be part of her writing! Josephine divides the two things very clearly though. She doesn't write the part of Julika for herself in that way, which is important because otherwise her actress ego would get in the way of developing the character! This is very important and dangerous! She is very good in keeping that cut! Her writing is just brilliant, very visual! You read and you just see everything! And for me, my acting background is vital for my directing! I don't know how I could direct without knowing what acting really is! It gives me a very special understanding and a language that lets me communicate with my actors in a unique way and on a deeper level!

And do you two have an additional strength in that you've been trained in different cultures?

Yes. Since I 'grew up' in this American Independent scene, I have seen what is possible with simple love and passion for what you do! I think Germans who work in the film industry often forget what it is that we do. And I understand it because it is really rough out there! But at the same time we are artists. We have a vision and a message and we are supposed to do anything to bring it out there so that we can change the world. You laugh. I laugh too but it's true. Being an artist has never been easy but at the same time I'm not a doctor. I don't 'play' with people's lives. I 'just' make art. It's not that serious. Just because Hollywood is what it is and Julia Roberts is who she is, it doesn't mean that filmmakers are supposed to follow stardom and money. I have a mission and in order to make it happen I don't count my working hours and I don't count my money. My job is not a job. My job is my life. I do what I love to do and that's what life is all about! If I hadn't been in New York for such a long time and had met the people I met, I wouldn't talk like this ;) I have been pushing this 'Let's just do it' attitude onto Josephine! Maybe sometimes too hard but it has opened tons of doors and it has definitely made us and this project much stronger!

Can you get state funding in Germany?

Well, good question! We have met with the FFF Bayern, the funding organization for Bavaria, to apply for the young talent funding. For young talents, which we definitely both fall under, there are two pots. One is for 150,000 Euros, but that is only for students who graduated from the state film school or from the Macro Media school, the biggest private film school in Munich. Then there is the other one which is for 30,000 (small difference in the sum), but that one is only for people who didn't study film but who have gained experience about film making in other ways. So I can't apply. And you can only apply as a director or as a producer. Josephine could apply but since she is already the writer and the star and they don't like to see a person in more than 2 positions, the chances there are also very small! We could apply for regular funding but chances are very slim there too because competition is huge and as a new comer it's just not a good idea to do that, plus then we would need a TV-chanel...

There seems to be a very strong group of women filmmakers in Germany, so maybe the state supports them well?

Are you talking about me and Josephine? Well, thank you. Yeah we are very strong but the state doesn't support us... YET! Just kidding! Strong women filmmakers in Germany... There are some for sure but to be honest I don't know if the state is especially supportive of women or less. It's hard to tell.

You were at the Berlinale last week. From here, it felt that it was an exciting time there for women filmmakers. Did that seem the same for you?

It was definitely an exciting time. I'm not sure if I would have felt different if I was a man. And I can't say that it was especially exciting for women filmmakers at all! I don't look at gender. It doesn't make a difference for me and for the work I do. With all the challenges I am facing right now with not coming from a German state school... I don't need to also focus on the small percentages of successful female filmmakers. I am somebody who always thinks positive so I try to make myself belief that the rejections we get, I am looking at all the rejections we have gotten from festivals for Surviving Family, that they have nothing to do with my gender. That's maybe naive but that's the only way I can push forward! Same with the challenges with the German film industry. Everybody is complaining about the funding system, about the power of television, about the doom-loop. But nobody does anything about it. Nobody has the courage to go out there and just make a movie with little money, without state funding, without a TV chanel as a backer.

At the Woodshole Film Festival, which we premiered at with Surviving Family, I saw a brilliant feature length comedy Missed Connection. It's made by a young American couple, both actors and he also writes. It's a great screenplay! They brought together all there very talented acting friends and just shot this movie over several months on weekends when everyone was free and they made it happen for 25,000 dollars! That is inspiring to me! How much can I do with very little money if I just have the right story and good actors who don't need to have a big name to be fabulous (by the way)!!! Long answer short. Being aware of being woman might be a barrier but if you don't see that barrier it simply doesn't exist and you are able to do much bigger things!

Did you go to the EWA (European Women's Audiovisual Network) meeting or to the Women's Film Festival panel? If so, what did you get from them?

Yes I did go to the meeting. To be honest, I was a little bit disappointed. I had been in Berlin for 10 days already and had gone to a lot of panel discussions about the German film industry. At every panel people just complained. Mostly young talents who complained about how tough it is to break into the system, but if you asked them what they had already tried, you didn't get a good answer, or the rest who just complained about the doom-loop. I had been really excited about the EWA meeting, to meet other women filmmakers, to form a network, to exchange experiences, to simply get together, meet each other and form a power group, with people who simply support each other and their projects! I don't see others as a threat or as an opponent! We are all artists and each of us has their own signature. We could gain so much from just helping each other.

But again this was a meeting were everybody just complained, nobody had answers or anything positive to say and I left the event feeling rather down. If I wasn't so convinced that I am an artist and that that's my life calling, I would have left Berlin and with it my job! I would have returned to Munich and signed up for the next business or banking course!

It is so great that there is something like EWA and that they managed to bring together all these female filmmakers from across the entire globe and that they are trying to change things for women, but in my opinion we missed the opportunity to exchange and to support! It wasn't that bad but we could have done so much more than just again tell each other how difficult it is!

But here is my positive ending for this question! I left this meeting even stronger because I am even more convinced now that we can't continue this way, that we can't continue to wait for anything, for state funding, for producers who believe in us, for better times, for what not. We just need to do. Josephine and I are running our campaign for about a month now. The things we organized during this time, beginning with several news paper articles, radio and blog presence, several videos, a huge benefit party with a raffle with all sponsored presents, guerrilla marketing at it's best all over the bridges of Munich and EVEN filmed by a camera helicopter, and some more exciting things we have planned for the next 3 days... were beyond our imagination. When I look back at this time it seems very unrealistic but we did it. And we were only two people! Two female filmmakers! I bet you NOBODY expected this from us. But we just did it because the word 'no' didn't exist. Now thank goodness film making is teamwork and soon we will be even stronger because we have more people behind us! If we all just stopped complaining and turned all this negativity into positive energy and positive action, so much more would happen! So many more good things! So right now, with that in mind, we are challenging everything. We are challenging the German film industry, we are pushing the German people to support crowd funding, we are playing with our feminine, sweet charm, and are using all our female powers to make this movie! And I can just advise everyone to do the same! It's a lot of fun!

And here they are having fun!





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