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The Cinematic Katzenjammer: A Q&A With The Guys Behind Pixelschatten


A Q&A With The Guys Behind Pixelschatten

This past week I watched and reviewed a little German indie flick called Pixelschatten (see my review here). I was lucky enough to discuss the film with its writer/director Anil Kunnel as well as its star, Ben Gageik. To give you a little background, the film follows Pixel, a twenty something blogger who records everything in his life for his blog, Pixelschatten. As he becomes more obsessed with his site and refuses to move on like the rest of his friends, he risks losing his real relationships and even his girlfriend. I personally loved the film and said that it "tells a story that's incredibly relatable to the point of almost being tragic" and that "it's both somber and energetic". 

*Keep in mind this interview does contain spoilers.*

Anil Kunnel and Ben Gageik. 

N: In my research of the movie I found out that you won a contest with ZDF, a German radio station that gave you funding for the production. How'd that come about and what was your "pitch"?

A: Yeah, ZDF is a public TV station, much like PBS in the States. They have this program called "Das Kleine Fernsehspiel" which supports young filmmakers. They have also produced the first films of directors like Tom Tykwer, Jim Jarmush, and Derek Jarman. And they had this competition called "Bodybits" where they were looking for new filmmakers. You had to pitch your idea to get your movie produced and the idea of Bodybits was to make documentaries about the themes of digital media and human lives, but I didn't know about the documentaries, so I applied with a feature film idea.

N: So did you have the idea to film it in a first person perspective right away? Or did that come about later on?

A: No, that came much much later. In the original version, we wouldn't even tell the story through the blog. It was a story about Pixel, who posted the video and then disappeared. You would see the friends deal with it and start the new blog. 

Caro (Caroline Suren) and Robert (Sven Gey)

N: What made you decide to use the first person perspective?

A: Well, the first step was the idea that it would be much more interesting if you would watch the events from the POV of the blog audience, rather than through the characters, because it would give it a totally different layer. You as the audience would believe that Pixel had returned, because you only knew the blog posts. That was the first step, but then we had a problem. If you would shoot the film as it is in the third person, you would see Pixel all the time. So you have the blog entry, and then you would see Pixel doing what he's writing about. But the idea that you would be emotionally attached to a face and an actor would make the twist ending a bit of a stretch. But then I got the idea of showing it in the first POV and that, suddenly, made it more personal, but also more ambivalent at the same time. You wouldn't be so attached to Pixel's physical appearance, because, for the film, you could become Pixel, which is what private blogging is all about.

N: How early in the process was Ben and the cast involved? Had they been cast with just the script and idea, and then the POV came into play?

A: No, the POV was first, and then we went into casting. During the casting process, we were looking for actors who would not only fit the character but were also comfortable with the headrig we built. We also tested the other actors in the POV, because the kind of acting I was looking for was really special. 

B: I don't know about all the others, but during my casting the POV camera rig was already there. 

N: Ben, what were some of the biggest challenges of using the head-rig? Also, what was it like getting cast in a film and knowing you'd have very little actual screen time, even though you are the main character?

B: Well it was kind of weird in the beginning knowing that I wouldn't really be seen in the movie. But in the end I actually liked it, because I could enjoy the movie for what it was and not only as a piece of my work.

N: From productions photos I've seen, the camera looked like an alien face-hugger.. It had to be uncomfortable.

B: At first it felt like one too. I got dizzy wearing it when we were doing test footage, but after about two days I got used to it and by the end of the shoot I was able to do pretty much anything wearing it, including riding bikes and playing basketball. As for the challenges while acting, it was hard to not only act and give my fellow actors something to play off of while wearing a huge rig on my face and head but also make sure the framing was right and the picture stayed interesting. It must have been just as hard for my colleagues to perform love scenes with a robot. But that was also the challenge that compensated very much for the lack of screen time. While we went on shooting the rig was improved by Clemens, who built it, and I can only say it was actually quite comfortable in the end.

Here's some ideas of the "face-hugger" we were talking about. 

N: After Pixel leaves in the film.. Is it still you behind the camera?

A: Yeah it's still Ben. Because for the blog readers, it's still the same narrator, so we shot it like that. And it sounds like a technical task, what Ben did, but we worked on it like on any character. Pixel had to be a coherent protagonist and you can't do dialogue scenes in the POV without the real actors. That's one of the first things we learned because the other actors will react differently and the POV performance will be different as well.

N: That makes sense. The cast of your film had terrific chemistry between all of them and seemed to be real friends in real life. Did anyone involved know each other beforehand or did the rather intimate story bring them together quickly?

B: For my part, I didn't know any of the others until casting and shooting. For me it was mainly the story that brought us together and we got quite close in the end. I believe that many scenes couldn't have worked on that level of intimacy if that process hadn't taken place in real life.

A: Yeah, they didn't know each other. We cast Zora, Adrian and Sven, who played Suse, Lutz and Robert from the same acting school, but they didn't know each other very well. But as those five had to be comfortable, the actors had a lot of free space in their performances, and sometimes it was more important to have that authentic feel, rather than filming every line of dialogue from the screenplay. Sometimes, we only had two takes, but often we would also have 25 takes.

N: I was just going to ask, how much improvisation was there?

A: I don't know. Ben, what do you think? 

B: And some of the takes took up to 12 minutes. But, yeah there was a lot of improvisation. 

A: It was a strange situation. I guess there is a lot of improv, but regarding the dialogue, there couldn't be too much improvisation in the second half of the film.

B: As Anil said, it was more important to deliver what the scene was about authentically than to act out the dialog exactly as written. 

A: Because every line had to fit into the real and fake story but we tried to create an open atmosphere and there are actually many ideas from the actors that made it into the film. 

B: And sometimes it took some time too develop that certain mood or level of energy we needed. 

A: Yeah. And sometimes we would just shoot and see what happens.

N: Anil, you're 28, and the characters in the film are also in their twenties. How much of the story did you borrow from your own life? There's a sense of authenticity that can be attributed to the film, and a large part of that is the acting, but the script had to have played a part as well. 

A: Yeah I was 25 when I wrote down the pitch and 26 when we shot it. I guess the authenticity of the film comes from the fact that we didn't have much money and decided to shoot it in my hood. A lot of minor characters are actually friends and M√ľnster is one of the bigger student cities in Germany. I jumped into this film straight after graduating from university - so that kind of life was still very present. Also, I felt that most German films don't represent the way I grew up - in a fairly small town, with people who are really normal people. I liked the idea of having a blogger not in an urban setting like Berlin, but in a small town setting, the way most Germans actually grow up.

N: Had you received larger funding, do you think anything related to the setting would have changed?

A: I'm not sure. It was really clear from the beginning that this would be a micro-budget project because they (ZDF) originally planned to do a 40-minute doc with the budget. So, I guess I would have changed the paycheck for all participants first. 

N: Haha. I saw that the film is listed as a TV movie. Where did it originally air?

A: Yeah, it was produced by ZDF. With an air date from the beginning. This was cool because it was clear from the beginning that we knew it would be aired.

N: So a question for both of you, one a filmmaker the other an actor. Do either one of you blog on your own time?

A: Not really. I only used Blogger for a kind of silly fan-boy project once.

B: Just for fun and mostly for myself. Tumblr stuff mostly.

N: Because I'll be honest, as a blogger myself you were able to capture the "obsession" with one's own blog ridiculously well. I've had times where I almost need to bite my tongue and not go on and on about what I write and do.

A: That's really interesting to hear. In the middle of the production I remembered that I had written a really extensive paper on autobiographies on the internet, mostly blogs. So I wrote this really extensive academic paper on blogging, and had actually forgotten about it, until I found it in a folder during production. I then realized where all my ideas were from. 

N: I think that's a large part of how it connected with me. Not only was the film full of characters my age doing stuff people my age do, but the blogging aspect really drew me in.

A: But that was more a subconcious thing - I guess that even if you're not blogging, you're experiencing similar things when you use social media or if you're doing something creative that no one seems to understand.

N. Exactly. Everyone's thinking about what to post on Facebook or Twitter. Even if its subconscious, you're always wanting to impress and 'brag'.

B: I was just going to say that I've had to bite my tongue quite a few times on Facebook.

A: It kind of has become a phenomenon that's also happening offline- trying to impress and brag, hasn't it?

N: Certainly. When you decided to use the first POV and a large focus switched to the actual blog, did you have to change the script or the interactions to make the focal point the relationships? The blog bits are very memorable, so you'd need a lot from the other ends of the production to bring it all together. 

A: So, are you talking about the blog comments?

N. That and the videos, and just the fact the entire movie was the blog. 

A: Well, I think before we switched to the POV and the blog as the focal point, we only worked with outlines. I think when I wrote the first draft, it would include the comments but as I only had 6 months from the first idea to the actual shooting, I didn't include a lot of comments in the shooting draft. It would only be Caro and two others. The script would already include the videos, though, and the screenplay would include different colors for the different layers. Very complicated. Also with the comments, I wrote most of them in the post production, which was a great way to change the film a bit in the edit. 

N: To both of you, what do you believe the message of the film to be and what do you think Pixelschatten is all about?

A: I thought a lot about it, and there are so many elements, but I realized that emotionally, and only to me personally, the film is about the value of saying "I'm sorry". Pixel never does that and that's what destroys his relationship with his friends. The last spoken line of the film is when Suse says "I'm sorry" to Caro, and this is what is basically the whole difference between the first and second blog - and kind of the ability to deal with each other like humans, even if you're hurt, is the triumph of these friends.

B: To me it is a lot about evolving as a person and finding a place in your world while that world and everyone elses expands rapidly at that certain age. I think Pixel has a lot of trouble with that while comparing himself to his friends and especially to his girlfriend. That hit quite close to home for me at that time so I could definitely relate.

N: I thought a large part too was the fact that pixel got too 'connected' and then lost what he loved most as a sacrifice for doing so. It's almost like a love letter to days before blogs and social media. 

A: That's interesting. 

B: I think so too.

N: I guess that's a strength of the film- that it can be interpreted in so many different ways and really means something different to everyone.

A: It's strange, on one side you see how people hurt each other through social media but they also create something new and connective. I guess it's more interesting in how technology changes personal lives, rather than judging technology. These characters don't know the days before social media and who knows, maybe that's what drew Suse to Pixel in the first place.

N. Very good point. To wrap things up, what's next for you two?

A: I spent the last months tweaking three film ideas as potential new projects - so I'm getting really excited about the possibility to make one of those. 

B: I've got a short film planned with some friends from university and I'm getting back to applying for drama school at the end of the year. 

N: Well I wish the best of luck to both of you. Anil, with those big time directors going down the same path you are, you certainly have the potential to do even greater things. And Ben, I'd love to see a movie of yours with your face on the screen, as opposed to the being the man in front of the man behind the camera. 

We went on talking about random things and determined that the next film Anil needs to make is called Tequilla Smugglers in The Germinator: Return of Pixel. Ben is set to star alongside a bunch of shotguns, because you can never go wrong with a lot of shotguns. Production is set to begin in early 2013. 

To find out more about Pixelschatten, head over to the official website here. To contact Anil, you can email him here and you can also follow him on Twitter

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