People On Sunday 2010

Joint SUMMER SCHOOL of the UCLA Film School and the ifs internationale filmschule köln

“Pragmatism vs. Theory” – or Getting the Story Right

by Becky Smith

I pride myself on being decisive as a film director, organized, able to think quickly on my feet, good at pre-planning, and good at changing the game plan if something goes awry. As a teacher, one of my main goals is to make sure film directing students “get the story right” before they go into production. From my perspective, that means having the key elements of successful story telling in place in the script – (elements I won’t enumerate in this blog entry.) I urge students to take an active, smart approach to pre-producing their films – finding locations that are workable and effective, crew that will serve the project well, actors whose performances will transcend the story and production values.

What I don’t deal with much, because it’s not my forte, and because there doesn’t seem to be much “time” for it, is thinking critically, or theoretically, about the work before we begin. In the film school where I teach, critical studies are separate from production. They have their classes, we have our classes. To us, they are philosophers, airy, imaginative but impractical, of the mind. To us (at least to me), we are the practical ones, the worker bees who make things happen.

In our ifs/UCLA collaboration this summer, we did things differently. Gundolf Freyermuth, with input from Lisa Gotto and Chris Horak, was the brainchild behind the collaboration between UCLA and ifs film students. Gundolf is a prolific writer, journalist, and film theorist. Lisa is an exciting theorist who writes on film and culture. Lisa provided focus on ways of using the city (Cologne in this case) as a reflection of personal themes. Chris is the director of the UCLA Film Archives and a prolific academic with wide interests, particularly in immigrant film culture.

The Summer School Team in the ifs, front left: Becky Smith

Gundolf and Lisa structured our six-week program so that the entire first week would be devoted to talking about and thinking about key figures that were the inspiration for our collaboration. I’m referring to the German Jews who collaborated on the 1929 German film “People On Sunday” before most were forced out of Germany by the rise of the Nazi party and ultimately made their careers in Hollywood. Our focus during the first week was on Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, Edgar Ulmer and Robert and Curt Siodmak. Gundolf and Lisa both have a great passion for film. Gundolf has a particular interest in the émigré artist, possibly because of the years he has spent in the U.S. During our first week, we considered what it means to be an outsider, an immigrant, and an artist in a country where the language you work in is not your first language.

We watched Billy Wilder films, “People on Sunday” of course, and the two he filmed in Germany (and on Hollywood soundstages) after the Second World War, “One Two Three” and “Foreign Affair”. We watched Edgar Ulmer’s “Detour” and Robert Siodmak’s “Cry of the City”. We talked about cultural stereotypes, and why they are comic and ugly, truthful and ridiculous simultaneously. We talked about what “People On Sunday” tells us about the Berlin of 1929, and what it doesn’t tell us. We talked about what it means to use documentary-style production values and to work with cast who are sometimes not professional actors. Edgar Ulmar was discussed in the context of how one can be highly imaginative in a narrative context with very little time to shoot, and very little money.

The student filmmakers were given the next full week just to explore and absorb the city of Cologne, which is the backdrop of what will become our modern day “People on Sunday”. None of the American students had been to Germany before, and none of them spoke German. They would see Cologne, and Germany with – not émigré eyes – but certainly tourist eyes.

The filmmakers explored Cologne on bikes with their German compatriots, (who all speak English!) seeing the famous Dom, the cemetery, the river, beer halls, World Cup viewing arenas, parks and ethnic neighborhoods.

I spent the second week walking around the city with my digital still camera, trying to imagine what I would do if I were given the same exciting task. How did I see the city of Cologne? What stood out for me, what defined Cologne? How would I process what I saw, and find a compelling short story to frame my view? What would I agree on with the group to be key leitmotifs, the key questions that our four films would answer? I took photographs. I read a biography of Billy Wilder and an autobiography of Curt Siodmak. I researched “People On Sunday” more on the Internet. I fantasized about the task at hand.

And it occurred to me that our week of films, conversations, seminars, and readings from the faculty had given me more exciting ideas, more clarity, more contexts – than I could have imagined.

I believe that the most interesting artists pose questions (consciously or unconsciously) – and their art is an attempt to answer those questions. The theoretical portion of our summer provided me with more stimulating questions than any amount of practical preplanning ever could.

I, the pragmatist, had benefited enormously from just one week of musing, discussing, listening, experiencing larger questions before “getting the story right”.

Category: Academic Week, Quotes & Musings


Comments are closed.


July 2010
« Jun   Aug »



    From the UCLA:
    Lucas Mireless, 2nd Year Director
    Iliana Sosa, Director
    Jeanne Tyson, 3rd Year Director of Photography
    Leigh Underwood, 2nd Year Director of Photography
    Ryan Slattery, Producer

    From the ifs:
    Nancy Mac Granaky-Quaye, Director
    Johannes F. Sievert, Director
    Christopher Becker, Producer

    From the Dortmund University of Applied Sciences and Arts:
    Nina Frey, Director of Photography
    Jens Nolte, Director of Photography

    'Making Of' of the Project:
    Paul Pieck
    Nicole Schmeier


    ifs internationale filmschule köln gmbh
    Schanzenstraße 28
    51063 Köln

    T +49 (0) 221 - 92 01 88 - 0
    F +49 (0) 221 - 92 01 88 - 99

    Geschäftsführung: Simone Stewens, Rainer Weiland

    Amtsgericht Köln | HRB 32573