Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Filmmaker Nils Keller and Jonas Lembeck Is Helping To…

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Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Filmmaker Nils Keller and Jonas Lembeck Is Helping To Change Our World

Especially on my first few projects, I would have slept much better knowing that I can rely on my skills to handle these complicated situations that threaten a project. I would also have annoyed my loved ones and fellow team members far less.

As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Nils Keller and Jonas Lembeck.

Nils Keller and Jonas Lembeck: ‘Almost Home’

Without question, one of the most ambitious and spectacular shorts of recent years is film-making team Nils Keller and Jonas Lembeck’s ALMOST HOME, which focuses on the dilemma facing a mother and son as they return to Earth.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?

Thank you so much for having me. It’s a great honour! I grew up in Munich, Germany — a city probably best known for its Bavarian beer culture. Since living in the city isn’t cheap and my mom had a much more secure job than my dad, who worked in the creative field, she went back to the office a few weeks after I was born, and he took care of me and my elder brother. I think that was comparatively progressive at that time. I had a very fulfilling childhood where my parents supported me in pursuing lots of different hobbies — even wild ones like making rap music on a semi-professional level. At the same time, they were the opposite of overprotective. Since they were both working full-time, I started worrying about my own schedule early on. As you can imagine, that didn’t always work out well, but it gave me room to have my own experiences and learn how to deal with responsibility. I’m honestly grateful that they trusted me so much, even though sometimes there was trouble with people I hung out with or I showed up at home very late. Apart from the usual discussions that happen in every family, we always had a very good and open relationship and we agreed that sometimes it’s okay to tweak a few rules if a teenager thinks it’s the right thing to do.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

When I was 5 years old, I started playing the violin, which developed into a wild on-off relationship over the coming years. I never completely stopped, though and there are a lot of things that came from that activity that influence my instincts and creative decisions as a filmmaker today. The most intense contact I had with the film was through my father, who did a lot of different things over the years. One of them was that he became an outspoken film music expert in Germany, a field that doesn’t quite exist here. When I was a teenager, there were these meet n greets where I would shake hands with these amazing composers like Ennio Morricone and Howard Shore. As I was nearing the end of my school years, I knew that I wanted to do something creative and was dreading a 9-to-5 job. I briefly pursued a rap career, recorded an EP and had my first gigs. Then I discovered that film directing offered a much broader opportunity to be creative. Storytelling, collaborative work, creating things and of course music. However, when I started doing my first little film ideas and internships, I was surprised at how much I loved this whole universe and how much was there to be discovered and work with.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?

We were shooting a commercial in Rome (Italy) and there was a scene where we had to do an animal stunt with a trained cat. The animal keeper who travelled from Prague made a request that we should ask the service production to arrange for some extra “apple boxes” to help him prepare his setup. These are multi-functional wooden boxes of various sizes that the grip department in a film team uses for anything that needs to be temporarily propped up or supported. It is a common name that is also used in Germany. However, when we arrived in Rome, the service production welcomed us with towers of crates filled to the brim with apples. We learned that the correct Italian name for the crates, at least the one the service production used, was something like “Cubi”. Besides our little loss in the translation incident, it was amazing working with them by the way.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

It was quite interesting to interact with personalities like Howard Shore and Ennio Morricone early on in my life and see that they are just normal people. From the media, you often think they’re these weird aliens who are completely different for some reason. And in some cases that might certainly be the truth. But I felt that the more important they were, the less they tried to flaunt that and the more they sought that experience of normality and made everyone at the table feel comfortable. Morricone, for example, was very interested in how my violin playing was going and, in my memory, he even asked about the rap music thing my father must have told him about.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

This might sound a bit boring, but I really mean it. At a time when I was struggling to really figure out what I wanted to use my filmmaking voice for, when I was having a hard time getting my ideas out there, hesitating, feeling on the verge of giving up or being a total failure, my fiancée (soon to be wife) and my parents were always telling me that everything was going to be okay. That I should take my time to get things going, and most importantly, that they weren’t embarrassed. In fact, my first films were not invited to a single film festival and the response was rather lukewarm. However, my father used to say that he himself didn’t exactly know how to guarantee a steady income until he was 35. My parents and my fiancée are also important to me as a special audience, giving me a lot of insight that doesn’t come from theory or professional filmmaking but is closer to the opinions of a perceived audience.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

It’s not an official quote, but it’s something close to: “If you want to be involved in important decisions, be prepared to take responsibility.” I think that’s pretty much what’s at the heart of successful filmmaking. I often meet people who want to have a say in so many things, but when it comes to implementing them, be it through work, time or money, they shy away, point fingers, etc. From a personal point of view, this ruins many opportunities, prevents great undertakings and weakens confidence in oneself. How is anyone supposed to trust your vision or ideas if you are not willing to stand up for them yourself? If something is important to you, why don’t you fight for it? This doesn’t mean you have to be self-centred, unnecessarily opinionated or averse to better ideas. Being responsible also means admitting when you are completely wrong and admitting to yourself that there are areas where someone else is the expert and you are just the person who brings together the best expertise.

I am very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

I think diversity and the pursuit of representation enrich the landscape of the stories we tell. Not through exploitation, but because it forces the industry to move from generalization to specificity. When you start not just swapping faces, but asking for different perspectives, there’s a chance to find a deeper truth about who we are as a society. Since my future wife is of mixed Asian descent and grew up in a diverse family, I understand how much it has touched her emotionally that there have been more and more of these characters with mixed cultural backgrounds in recent years. There are these scenes in THE FAREWELL where she sits back and says, “My mother always does this,” or in reference to her German father, “My father always struggled with these family expectations.” When we watch a film like that it kind of opens a door for me to understand things that underlie her reality, even though we may have talked about it many times before. There’s a difference in going through it in a cinematic way. And it’s also more interesting to see new perspectives on life, rather than the same old family constellations and characters, right? Of course, this insight can go much deeper and be less smilingly entertaining than that. When a story is told from a particular perspective and point of view, as for example is the case in MUDBOUND by Dee Rees, my awareness as a non-American, yet a privileged white person is further opened to the structural racism in society and the underlying mechanisms. And to return to storytelling in general: If we only ever see men doing heroic things in movies, we may forget how often they are far less heroic in real life and how much our mothers, as well as female and non-binary friends make a difference in the world.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

There are several developments I’m working on right now that I’m very excited about. Many of them are with Jonas Lembeck, who has been the producer of ALMOST HOME and most of the talks are now happening on an international level with the help of our new management ECHO LAKE ENTERTAINMENT. I’m very happy that the success of our short film is opening all these doors for the film projects I’ve always wanted to do. Let’s call them cinematic genre experiences that combine entertainment with deeper questions about humanity. At their core, they are character-driven dramas, using these amazing tools of various genre to create a world and a setup that elevates the dramatic impact. There is a feature film adaptation of ALMOST HOME. The idea is to use the same core themes as in the short but also make it more “Hollywood” in scope. The most important novelty will be that we expand the humanistic question being posed in the film now also talking about social injustice and the question? What do you stand for? Another project is a dark horror story that deals with the lies and fairytales we tell each other in order to avoid recognizing the implications of reality.

Which aspect of your work makes you most proud? Can you explain or give a story?

As a filmmaker, I love using all these tools that make up a film experience. But in the end, they are all there to tell a story, to start an entertaining yet meaningful conversation with the audience. The thing I’m most proud of with ALMOST HOME is that in addition to all the technical aspects, we’ve managed to put the characters and their drama at the centre of the whole experience. At least considering the feedback we’ve received. For example, we put a lot of effort into having our main character, Jakob, float through space in zero gravity at the beginning of the film. Seeing someone in the air is fascinating, of course, but from a storytelling perspective, it was also meant to convey the character’s optimism, the feeling of being free. I’m very happy that people are not only asking about how we did it but that they seem to relate to this almost poetic sentiment that is part of the basis for the emotional journey to come.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

…at the beginning of every project that we won’t spectacularly fail:

Especially on my first few projects, I would have slept much better knowing that I can rely on my skills to handle these complicated situations that threaten a project. I would also have annoyed my loved ones and fellow team members far less.

…that I need to learn to share the load:

Delegating tasks is perhaps still a problem for me today. Opening the door to the amazing things that can happen with a great team and creative collaboration, without losing responsibility for the vision, is perhaps the greatest of all skills a director needs.

…that there isn’t that magical state of mind where you suddenly get creative:

In the first few years of filmmaking, I really burned myself trying to find the best routine for putting myself in a genius state of mind — and failed spectacularly.

…that I wasn’t an arthouse genius:

Thinking I could or have to have turned into a film student who created a lot of eccentrics, over-engineered superficialities instead of really thinking about what I wanted to share with the world.

…how fulfilling it is to honour your audience:

Within certain circles at my film school, there seemed to be this idea that you must make films mainly to express yourself as a filmmaker and that the audience is more of a necessary evil. Today I feel that it is both important to develop your own voice and to learn how important it is to find the right language to engage with your audience.

When you create a film, which stakeholders have the greatest impact on the artistic and cinematic choices you make? Is it the viewers, the critics, the financiers, or your own personal artistic vision? Can you share a story with us or give an example about what you mean?

I’d emphasize that filmmaking is a team effort and there is always the need to determine and navigate the interest of the audience and all stakeholders. As a director or writer in this process, I tend to think of myself as somewhat of the “first audience”. My biggest task is to determine what I think is in front of me no matter if it’s my own idea, a script, an actor’s performance or the first rough edit. The next step is to think about how this will be understood and by whom, what I or we want the impact to be and what tools inside the scope of production we have at hand. Obviously, I don’t do all this alone but rely on the expertise of my collaborators as well as certain requirements that are present. This all comes together as something like a vision of the project. Being convinced of that and being able to make clear why I believe in it strikes me as the best way to get stakeholders and creative collaborators on board. Also, it’s important to update and re-evaluate the vision at every step, discuss things and debate to get to the core of a story and all its aspects. After all, filmmaking is about being passionate about things and believing they are worth investing in. I also tend to listen to pretty much all feedback whether it comes from someone within the team, a financier, an audience member or a critic. The real task is to filter. Who is saying what and why? What is the person looking for, what do they like or what do they miss and for what reason? How does it fit into the vision? What is their expertise? Is it perhaps related to a weakness that I have already noticed? The biggest example of that is working with actors. In the end, they are the persons living in the scene, not me. I can only instruct them, help them understand what I am looking for and give feedback, makeup blockings and situations that I think fit the purpose. But they are doing the performance, not me. Again, filmmaking is a team sport that I’m very glad I don’t have to do alone!

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

How about a “leap of faith” that forces us to give the ideas of others the benefit of the doubt or present a better idea? Instead of relying on a negative gut feeling and assuming foul play and bad intentions by default, we would be forced to build a system with real expertise that we can rely on.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this.:-)

100% Denis Villeneuve. I would totally love to hear how he approaches his projects and how he manages to maintain his creative scope. I love how he conquers all these various genres and still manages to make me care so much about the drama and characters. By the way I mean both his Canadian like INCENDIES as well as the US ones. Especially ARRIVAL.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Producer of ALMOST HOME Jonas Lembeck and Le Hof Media:

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

Yes indeed. Thank you so much for your time, these great questions and the good wishes. It was a real pleasure to talk to you and your readers!

Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Filmmaker Nils Keller and Jonas Lembeck Is Helping To… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.