I’ve never made a movie. I’ve always wanted to, I’ve written a couple on my own, co-written a couple more, and even arranged a cast and crew and scheduled a shoot only to have it all collapse, twice, but I have yet to actually make a movie. The excuses are always easy: no time, no help, no money, one day, one day.
So when I have the chance to meet people who have actually made their own films, or nine features while still in their late-twenties, there’s always a sort of fascination. This was how I felt meeting German independent filmmaker Lars Henrik at the Saigon Underground Film Festival where he was screening his film Leon Must Die, a time travel science fiction tale with elements of dark comedy, bittersweet romance, and at times profound sentiments on the punishing yet moving nature of love. All done on less than 5,000 Euros (just over 5800 USD). It was even more surprising to know that he’d already completed his next film, a crime-comedy with hints of supernatural horror called Bearkittens.
Having already wrapped yet another feature, the closest he’s made to a true horror film, Lars is now engaging on his most ambitious and personal project yet, a comedy/drama mini-series based upon and shoot in the village where he grew up. Pop Mythology managed to pull him away from his scripts for a conversation on the demands of independent filmmaking, the process of making features on no budget, and how the aggravations of the German financial system actually lead to his career as an indie filmmaker.
PM: I suppose the best place to start is at the start, so what was your first film and what first inspired you to get into independent filmmaking?
My parents say that my first words as a toddler were, “How can I make a movie?” But me being a totally independent filmmaker today probably has more to do with the country I live in and its very particular way to handle things. Up until very recently, violent horror movies were basically banned in Germany. Before the internet it was almost impossible to get such classics as Night of the Living Dead or Peter Jackson’s Braindead. Because of this there has been a very active underground cult following to movies like these. When I was a teenager, I was very fascinated with that. The German splatter film fans were the only ones in this country who actually had an independent film scene to speak of. Since they couldn’t get films they wanted from other countries, they had to start making their own (very bad) amateur splatter films in the 90’s. There are tons of them! They were laughably bad, but I admired their makers for all the work and love they put in those awful, awful movies. So, even as a 13 year old, I knew that you could make and even sell feature-length films with no budget. And I was sure, that I could write better scripts than them. I started making my own DIY films with no story and no talent during these years. None of them were ever finished or published.
I wasn’t particularly good at school and when I was seventeen I dropped out. A guidance counselor told me that with my grades I could not study film but only become an actor. I went to drama school, studied acting and actually started out pretty successfully. I starred in a comedic stage play that toured all over Germany and became part of the main cast in an Australian teen comedy series that was shot in Germany.
On the set of my show I got to know Australian actors and filmmakers who had a completely different attitude towards film. Germans don’t view film as an art form. Australians do. It was eye-opening and so great to finally get to talk to like-minded people! I thought I could emulate the basic processes of a big set without money. I paid close attention to the production side and the director’s job, and right after we wrapped the first season I assembled a team of film students and made my first feature Why Hans Wagner Hates the Starry Sky. It’s a Lovecraftian romcom based on a novel I had written as a 16 year old. It got released to cinemas in Germany by an actual distributor, played some festivals, got rave reviews in major publications. I have made many no budget independent films since. All of them played some German festivals, were screened in cinemas, got some good reviews. But for a long time, that was all there was. I was losing money, my audience didn’t grow and my films never turned out the way I wanted them to. Until I met Nisan Arikan, the lead actress from Leon Must Die. Nisan has been my creative partner, editor and producer on every project from then on. We always share the “A film by” credit 50/50. Since we started working together, things went up. Our films play international festivals, win awards and get released internationally. We have attracted some investors and the projects grow and get better every time.
PM: Has the indie film scene improved since those days with the rise of the internet and other such factors?
Indie is fine, just the no budget part is annoying. Thanks to film financing being a federal affair, German companies and individuals aren’t used to investing money in films. It’s a really annoying situation. There is a German independent film scene today, a tiny one, thanks to the recent revolution in DSLR (digital single-lens reflex camera) filmmaking, without which my own stuff would not have been possible. I used to organize the Obsessive Underground Festival here in Hamburg together with fellow filmmakers. Especially in Hamburg, we have some really creative filmmakers who have made great features.
There are more and more interesting little films popping up, though, and there seem to be more and more young people with a genuine interest in film at places where they can really make a change. Prepping F60 Kamikaze, we’ve had a lot of meetings that have made me very hopeful. Especially Netflix has changed a lot of minds over here.
PM: At this point, how many films have you made?
I’ve made nine features and two seasons of a comedy series as writer-director.
PM: What is your process toward developing a project?
It depends. I always have notebooks with me and write down every stupid idea that comes to my mind. That’s about one movie idea per day. At some point, several of these ideas merge in my head until I have a concept. The next step is to put that into words. I come up with a two sentence pitch and if anyone likes it I start making up characters and writing an outline.
Our latest two films were developed differently. Bearkittens was the first time Nisan and I worked with the Hamburg drama school Bühnenstudio der darstellenden Künste. I taught Film Acting and as part of the class I developed characters and situations with the students. Going from there, I made up a story, feeding from brainstorming sessions in class and always modeled according to the student’s wishes, and wrote the screenplay, using lots of the dialogue the actresses came up with in improv sessions.
I like this way to work a lot and we repeated it for the film Performaniax that we wrapped on last week. This time we collected the wishes and ideas of the students, then Nisan had a concept that the students liked, they came up with their characters and situations, we did the usual improve work, then Nisan wrote an outline and I wrote the script.
F60 Kamikaze, our next project, is a different beast entirely. We were thinking about what kind of project we could manage to realize PROPERLY – able to compete with mainstream productions. We know a lot of great actors, so something in the drama/comedy realm seemed appropriate. First, we had planned it to be a movie, until a potential investor told us, that he thought the whole thing would work better as a mini-series in the vein of The End of the F***ing World. He was absolutely right, so while I am answering these questions, I should be rewriting the scripts. Procrastination, yay! But I’m almost done, anyway.
PM: Yeah, I should probably be working on my new book… so what can you tell us about F60 Kamikaze?
The story goes like this: Nicki and Banzai are the only two cool people in their village. She moves every few weeks with her mother, fleeing from her vengeful, violent father, while he’s trying to build Disneyland in his garden as a last present for his dying little sister. The two of them fall in love and a cute little romance starts to build, until their very real demons catch up to them.
It’s inspired by a lot of real-life characters and stories from the village I grew up in – Which is where we will shoot it, too!
Of course, since we’re a completely independent production, we can always use some extra support. Anyone interested in contributing can contact me on social media. We really appreciate the help!
PM: You mentioned during your interview at Saigon Underground that Leon Must Die grew out of an interest in making a science fiction film. Is there any particular style or genre of filmmaking that you find connects to you most?
The genre I’m most drawn to is horror. I often use some horror elements, but I think my films tend to be a lot too goofy to be actually scary, so I haven’t made a proper horror film so far. Performaniax, the one we just finished shooting, comes close. I have to see the finished film, but I’d call it a “psycho thriller.” With lots of laughs. Is there such a thing as a “thriller comedy?”
I love films from every genre but I’m personally very drawn to stories with supernatural and some dark elements. It’s difficult if not impossible to realize those professionally without a budget, so I tend to either mock them like in Leon Must Die or only hint at them, like in Bearkittens. As soon as I’ve made it, though, I will only make gigantic franchise films, set in strange worlds and full of magic! One day.
PM: So any interest in making a Troma-style splatterhouse film?
Absolutely! Since Troma is always looking for new scripts for Lloyd Kaufman to direct I’m always planning to write one but never really get to it. I’d love to direct one myself. Splatter can be so much fun! I don’t really have a story for such a film right now, but I’d love to make one.
PM: How do you look at the concept of genre in your films?
I love genre elements, but I’m actually pretty bored by most genre films. I very rarely care about the characters in action movies, but I do wish the characters in romcoms would have more to worry about. I don’t like predictability, but I guess, that’s exactly what genres are for: To tell the audience what they’re in for and then deliver exactly that. A24 is different, of course. I love everything they produce.
I’m also very influenced by serial story telling. TV is the new independent film and most of what I love to watch is streaming as a TV show somewhere. In TV shows, you need strong characters to carry the narrative, rather than just a concept. Especially in horror, that changes everything. American Horror Story is very different from what you’d expect from a horror movie, a lot weirder, just because you get to spend a lot more time with the story. The first horror “movie” I loved was actually a mini-series – Rose Red, by Stephen King.
So, to me, characters are the most important thing in a story, then decent world building, and I love all kinds of genre elements spicing things up.
PM: Different as they are, both Leon and Bearkittens also have a level of dark comedy to them, would you consider that to be part of your voice as a filmmaker?
Yes, absolutely. Last week, I found myself on the set of our new horror film, staging actors in the background of an intense and dark scene so that it would be funnier. I can’t help it.
PM: In your opinion what does filmmaking provide you that other creative outlets, such as screenwriting or writing alone don’t?
I love being on set. It’s stressful and wonderful at the same time. Performaniax was the most exhausting film shoot I have ever experienced, and on day 11 without proper sleep or a break, I thought I was just going to explode. But after we wrapped and I lied down for a day, watching One Tree Hill, I thought, “Boy, I’d love to be on set right now!”
I also have type one diabetes and my blood sugar reacts very visibly to stress but whenever I’m on a film set – one of the most stressful environments in the world – my blood sugar is perfect. It’s when I’m back on my desk, dealing with taxes and insurance, that it flies off the charts again!
Basically I just love storytelling, so if I wasn’t making films, I’d probably be writing. I don’t know if I could write a decent novel, so I’m better suited writing scripts and making movies. Films and TV shows are just the art form that I enjoy most as a consumer. So, that’s what I want to make.
PM: What are your shoots like? Are they loose with a lot of improv or tight to the script, or do you change that for each project?
Since I am busy every second of a shooting day, I don’t really know what our shoots are like for other people. There’s always lots of laughter but also a gigantic amount of stress. We need to get around 8 minutes of film every day. I work very intensely with the actors and take a lot of time for directing them and helping them find the right tone for every scene. No one is required to stick to the exact words in the script, but I want the actors to understand every beat of every scene perfectly before they change anything. Improv should never become an excuse not to learn your lines.
PM: What’s been your favorite of your own movies? (If any, I know I can barely stand looking at my own work until at least five years later.)
I usually like the newest one best, because there’s always improvement. At the moment, that’s Bearkittens. I know that it will be surpassed by Performaniax, once that’s done. And F60 Kamikaze has the potential to become my all-time-favorite. I’m beyond excited for that one.
I have to be able to look at my own work A LOT, because of all the screenings I have to attend. Nisan always discovers mistakes she wants to fix and I’m always hoping she won’t this time, because of all the work that causes.
PM: Is there a dream project you currently have, regardless of money or cast or resources?
Nisan has written a script about the refugee crisis, told from the perspective of a cat, based on true events. We want to make that as a stop motion animation film. It’s too expensive to do right now, but that’s what we’re working towards. After that, I have lots of stuff that I want to make.
PM: What for you is success as a filmmaker?
Having an enthusiastic audience. Money would be nice, too – Not eating gets old after a few years.
PM: What has been your greatest success as a filmmaker so far?
Leon Must Die has played many international film festivals and won several awards. Thanks to crowdfunding and complete irresponsibility when it comes to money, I have been able to attend three of the festivals, and all three were great experiences in their own right. Also, Leon is available for streaming on Amazon Prime worldwide, thanks to the great distributor IndieRights from Los Angeles. Bearkittens is just starting out, but it will be screened at the Sanford International Film Festival in Maine and it’s available for streaming on the German arthouse streaming platform Realeyz – that’s a pretty exciting start!
PM: Great. Any plans for Perfomaniax?
We’re very excited about Performaniax. We’ve shot this one on the Blackmagic Cinema Camera, which is a first for us, and it looks amazing. We’ve lit every scene with colorful lights and that looks fantastic, too. I’m really happy with the cast and the script, too. We still haven’t started the post-production, so I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but if the movie becomes as good as I hope, then there’s a lot of festival we’ll try to get in. Horror is one of the very few markets in which indies still seem to have an actual chance. Let’s see, though. Maybe, Performaniax is too silly for that. It’s really funny at times.
PM: Have you had the opportunity to on non-independent films, like a mainstream production? Would you take such an opportunity or are you strictly do it yourself?
I’d love to do that! In Germany, though, it’s next to impossible to get jobs in the industry without having studied directing at the right universities. It’s no wonder Kafka’s “Process” was conceived in this country. Everything depends on the proper forms. Because of that, I am going to start studying in a few months, despite having written and directed several award winning feature films that are commercially available and lauded by critics worldwide. It’s bizarre, but I don’t want to make no-budget indies anymore. There’s a lot to love about it, but it’s exhausting and projects with budgets just turn out better.
PM: I definitely understand that, being a starving artist gets pretty tired. What, if any, advice would you have for someone like me who has always wanted to make a film but felt like they’ve never had the resources or opportunity to actually make one?
What’s stopping you? Go out and do it! Young actors always need experience, good picture and sound is possible on consumer grade cameras, microphones and sound recorders nowadays. Grab some local students as crew, they probably already have the proper equipment. Network, get as many people as possible into the boat – Make them promises that force you to pull through and finish the movie. That’s the part most people fail at. For DIY films, it’s important to work with what you already have. Everyone has access to something, that other’s don’t. Maybe that’s a pool or a garden or an empty house – Whatever it is – Use it!
Before making your own movies, experience on a professional set is pretty important. Crew is always needed, on every kind of set, so a job as a runner for example should be easy to get, wherever you are. There is a certain way to construct a good call sheet and to organize a film crew, that you won’t learn anywhere else.
Of course the script is incredibly important. Start your film with a hook. Leon took an eternity to start. After the first cut, Nisan removed 20 minutes out of the film and changed the order of some scenes, so that it started with Aqua shooting two creeps. The feedback got better INSTANTLY. Start with a hook, construct your story well (I always take the 12-step-version of the hero’s journey as a template), have lovable characters with unique quirks – You won’t impress anyone with great effects, so this is what really counts! Any DIY movie will look cheap, so see to it that yours looks fun. Come up with a style, think of visual quirks that you can achieve. Never have a white wall in the background!
I could write an entire book about this. Above all else, it’s an incredible amount of work. It will eat your time, money and private life. Maybe there won’t be a reward except, you know, the satisfaction of telling your story the way you want. I don’t want to discourage anyone from trying to make films on their own. It’s possible! Especially today – Everyone could do it! It’s just also really hard and the biggest challenge is to finish.
PM: Lastly, where can people follow your work?
I am on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. Sometimes, I post a lot on social media (for example when I’m supposed to be working on my annual tax declaration), sometimes very little, but it’s usually possible to stay up to date by following them. As you can probably imagine, we desperately need all kinds of help. If you want to support our project, please contact me.