INTERVIEW: "Mostly Martha" Director Sandra Nettelbeck Wants to Eat, Make a Film a Year, and Put Down German Cinema
by Brandon Judell
(indieWIRE: 08.15.02) — After you watch “Mostly Martha,” you’ll never be able to view the lobster scene in “Annie Hall” and laugh again. Why? Simply because as Chef Martha explains, lobsters boiled alive feel pain and take a long time to die. As a humane alternative, she prescribes where to cut the crustaceans on the neck so the lively critters can be cooked peacefully.
Martha, by the way, who’s the second best chef in Hamburg, has a lot else to divulge about food, especially when she’s with her shrink. “One knows the quality of a chef by his simplest dish,” she intones. She even brings her psychiatrist five-course dinners. But there comes a time in life when chatting about a fresh berry compote or a creamy crepe polenta just won’t do. Events occur that force Martha to open up her heart and not just her refrigerator.
Sandra Nettelbeck‘s sweet comic love story and food fest follows her debut in 1995 with “Loose Ends” and her follow-up in 1997, “Mammamia,” which won her both the best film and best script awards at the 1998 Max Ophuls Festival.
Fraulein Nettelbeck sat down with Brandon Judell the other day at an expensive midtown hotel’s upstairs lounge and let loose a bit over a Coke.
indieWIRE: You studied film on the West Coast.
Sandra Nettelbeck: I did. In San Francisco.
Nettelbeck: Why? (Laughs) Actually, I was in law school at the time and I decided I needed a break. So I bought a one-way ticket to New York from Germany, and I drove across the country for a while. I thought I had to get ready for law school somehow. Instead, I headed for and fell in love with San Francisco. So much so, I stayed. Then someone told me about the film department at San Francisco State which because it was a state school, I actually could afford. It was an independent film education program where you learned every aspect of production. They were sort of grooming independent filmmakers. It sounded perfect, and I applied, and I got in because I guess I was especially weird. So I stayed, and I was at State for three and a half years.
iW: So you have more American influences than German influences?
Nettelbeck: Well, I don’t think there are ANY German influences to be frank. (Laughs) When I was growing up, I grew up on the American cinema. I grew up on the ’70s and ’80s movies. Scorsese. Coppola. All those people. Those were my heroes. Then a lot later I became interested in European cinema, but I’m glad I did because there is really some great cinema in Europe. I think as far as my own filmmaking goes, I’m more influenced by people like Truffaut and other Europeans than by the Americans. But I love American movies. I go see them all the time. Shame on me! But I do.
iW: Do you think there is a revival of German cinema currently?
Nettelbeck: (Laughs) Is there? I hope there is. I hope there is. Because I think that we have the resources and at the same time we have the liberties to make movies for a lot less money than it takes to make movies here generally. So I hope there will be a revival. But there’s not much that’s happening now.
iW: Is “Mostly Martha” mainly a German production?
Nettelbeck: We have about four countries involved in the production. Some people came from Switzerland. The assistant director came from Austria. We worked with an Italian crew when we were shooting in Italy. The actors were like Swiss, Austrian, Italian, Danish. I asked Ulrich Thomsen (Festen) to play the neighbor because I thought he’s the greatest actor in the world (laughs) and he came, which is incredible.
Crew-wise I haven’t really branched as out as much as I’d like. But I’m happy with the key folks. Like my DP (Michael Bertl) is fantastic, and my costume designer (Bettina Helmi) I love. I’ve always worked with her. So they’re always part of the crew, but I think there’s a lot of incredible people out there in Europe. Like my set designer (Thomas Freudenthal) was great but I was on the set of [“Italian for Beginners” director] Lone Scherfig‘s next movie, and I was blown away by the studio set designers. “This is what I want!” (Laughs)
iW: Rosa von Praunheim did a documentary on Fassbinder a few years ago that included all these tales about how cruel Fassbinder was. He even put out cigarettes on his actors’ bodies. A decade from now, when we interview everyone who appeared in your films, will we hear similarly weird stories?
Nettelbeck: No. I’m totally boring. I never put a cigarette out on anybody. No. I don’t think there’s anything to say about me that goes in that direction. (Thinks for a second.) I LOVE food. (Laughs) That’s what people can say about me.
iW: Martha lives for her food, and she uses food as a wall to prevent herself from feeling life. Would some of your friends say that you use film as a wall from making certain connections in the real world?
Nettelbeck: I don’t really see it as a wall so much as a way of Martha using food as a means of communication. And she’s totally convinced that it works. But you see the thing is that it may work in her world, but it’s not a substitute for the real thing. If you want to talk to somebody, you got to talk to them. You can’t cook them a meal. It’s nice, but it doesn’t always work. Like with her niece, it doesn’t work. So for the first time, Martha realizes her way of communicating doesn’t work. The kid doesn’t want to eat. It throws her so she has to find a real way of communicating. In that way, she discovers that there is this whole other way of like connecting with people and not just through food.
So in a way I guess you could compare it to directing because making films is a way to communicate very simply. It’s much more obvious than food because you are trying to say things to people. But of course it’s no substitute for the real thing.
iW: So are you a driven filmmaker? Are you obsessed, going from project to project to project?
Nettelbeck: I think there are people who would call me that. It’s funny because right now like it seems this would be the great moment where I can just leap onto the next thing. I’m in the middle of trying to figure this out because it’s aggravating and great at the same time.
It seems that things are slowing down although I think they should be picking up. Something is happening and I’m not sure what it is. I hope it’s a good thing. But I have to be really patient with this film. I shot it two years ago, and I’m still sitting here doing interviews. Part of me goes off simply nuts about it.
I’d rather be on a set, and I have two scripts that I could shoot tomorrow, and I would rather do that. But it doesn’t seem to work that way. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I don’t want to wait five years until I make my next movie. It seems, though, that’s like the time clock that a lot of other people are on to make independent films.
iW: Unless you’re Woody Allen or Steven Soderbergh.
Nettelbeck: I met this guy Miguel Arteta in Nantucket, and he made a film that’s now out, “The Good Girl.” I asked him, “How long did it take you to put this thing together?” It wasn’t his first film. He made another film before this one that got some recognition. I didn’t see it. I forgot what it’s called. [editor’s note: his previous films were “Star Maps” and “Chuck & Buck.”] Well, he doesn’t even blink when he says, “It took me like six years, which is the average for an independent film.” I was shocked. It was like six years and you’re not even grinding your teeth over it. It’s incredible. It’s too long. I think it’s way too long.