The Weekend Warrior’s 1st Berlinale Experience – Part 1

Back in December, I was contacted by Fox Searchlight about going to Berlin, Germany for the premiere of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel at the 64th Annual Berlinale Film Festival. At that point, I was still in mid-recovery from my stem cell transplant, but it was just one of those opportunities that was really hard to say “no” to. So I didn’t. I knew that the trip was a few months off and I mentioned it to my doctor and then just asked them to give me a little more time to see how things progressed with my recovery.

But the trip happened last week, and I got to spend roughly four days in Berlin, mostly covering The Grand Budapest Hotel, but also seeing some movies at the festival. This report on my stay in Berlin may be interesting to some, boring to others, but I just wanted to share what these experiences are like in case you’re ever interested in going into movie journalism – which knowing how much CS readers like movies, there’s a lot of you dying to do this and it’s definitely not an impossible career option to achieve.

I have a special connection to Berlin, having been there 14 years ago with my parents, both of whom were both born in Germany, so there was the excitement of returning there for the first time in over a decade. I knew that this trip was mainly to do stuff to cover the premiere of “Grand Budapest,” but I decided to stay an extra day and try to see a couple of movies at the festival since I had paid for accreditation.

Berlinale is a true international film festival with a smaller percentage of American journalists and movies than most festivals and really focusing on the cinema of the world, particularly Germany, Asia and everywhere in between. I also learned that they have an entirely separate market festival, which is just for showing movies to potential buyers without having public screenings with tickets, etc. and there were other movies like John Woo’s new one The Crossing playing just for buyers.

Now, some of you may remember that not only was I one of the few critics who hated Anderson’s last movie Moonrise Kingdom, but I actually hated the movie enough for it to make it onto my annual Terrible 25 that year at #15! So the idea of going all the way to Berlin and potentially being disappointed by another Wes Anderson movie was worrying, but like I said, it was also an opportunity that was hard to say “no” to even with my health concerns.

Tuesday/Wednesday

The biggest concern for the trip was getting there and getting back, because I knew that Searchlight had everything else covered once we arrived in Berlin. The thought of flying from Columbus to JFK to Heathrow before getting to Berlin seemed like it would be a long and rigorous day of travel, and it was! Literally from the front door of the airport in Columbus to the one in Berlin took 24 hours because there were some plane issues, as well as me going to the wrong gate at JFK and almost missing my connection to Heathrow altogether. It all worked out, though I was exhausted and we finally arrived at the hotel over four hours later than expected with plans to meet up with the other attending bloggers in a couple of hours.

Searchlight put us up at the Wyndham Grand Berlin Potsdamer Platz, a fairly new establishment that looked really nice and modern, but also not really close to anything substantial like restaurants. It was pretty obvious the place had problems, starting with the in-room Wi-Fi which seemed to work for some sites but not things like Gmail or Twitter or Facebook or being able to send/receive Email, essentially what most of the arriving press were going to need after a long day of travelling. I’m sure not having Wi-Fi is still better than how they’re faring in Sochi, but it was kind of annoying especially since I was running right out for the blogger/Searchlight meet-up, which was at the Hotel Atlon Kempinski, right next to the Brandenburg Gate.

When we arrived at the Atlon, we saw that the place had been decked out for the movie with a Henckl’s Bakery bicycle outside and a full-scale model of the Grand Budapest Hotel inside the lobby. The Atlon was the central headquarters for the movie even though we were staying quite far away, but apparently, all the talent from the movie was staying at the Atlon, rather than one of the hotels at Potsdamer Platz and there were lots of “lookie-loos” hanging outside the front door hoping to spot one of them. We’re guessing that the hotel was picked because it’s old style fit in with Wes Anderson’s visual aesthetic.

But the real view to behold was the Brandenburg Gate not too far away in all its glory. Last time I was in Berlin in 2000, the Brandenburg was being renovated—at least I think that’s the right term–and the entire thing was covered with an ugly tarp that had a drawing of the Brandenburg Gate on it as well as a really ugly advertisement for T-Mobile. On the Brandenburg Gate! The job had long been done years earlier and now it looked like the centerpiece of the once divided city that it should be.

Once I got back to the hotel, I kind of got the Wi-Fi working and decided to order some food, trying to figure out the on-television room service menu, which didn’t even seem to work. Now, mind you, I’m not a food critic but when room service brings me something that I feel like I could have made better myself, then it’s kind of bummer. The only thing that looked of interest was the spaghetti and I literally could have gone to the store, bought a box of spaghetti and a jar of Ragu and made better spaghetti. And this is supposedly a world-class hotel, brand new, modern, everything… but I guess I can’t really complain because as mentioned earlier, it was all covered by Searchlight. But I did complain when I found out how much they were charging for this crappy food and Wi-Fi anyway.

Thursday

Thursday was a work day and it was all about “Grand Budapest” so I went to see the press screening at noon in a completely packed theater at the CinemaxX in the Potsdamer Platz district, noticing there really was no organization in terms of loading in the press. There was just a mob of people from all over the world standing outside the theater and they slowly nudged their way in. Loved the movie–you can read my review here–but it was immediately evident how much nicer the theater venues are at Berlinale than they are at Toronto and Sundance, the latter where they sometimes create theaters just for the festival.

I can’t say I ate a lot of good food in Berlin, but my favorite place to visit was the Street Food Market across from the main press headquarters at the Hyatt as they had a lot of variety of different foods – Korean noodles, Arepa sandwiches and all of it was delicious.

Potsdamer Platz had changed a lot in the past 14 years, as I remember picturing it as this enormous space surrounded by a couple of large and tall buildings and I also remember always getting completely lost whenever I tried to use the subway at Potsdamer Platz, because there were a half dozen entrances all going to different places, long tunnels that may or may not take you where you want to go. That was still somewhat the case, but now they have these two huge, clearly marked glass terminals at least and it wasn’t difficult to figure it out. (Though in general, Berlin doesn’t seem to be big on having clear signage to get around for those visiting the city. Research is definitely required in advance.)

Since I was there on Searchlight’s dime, I figured I might as well do some work and as much as I hate covering red carpets, for reasons that will soon be evident, I figured that might be a way to get some early questions answered before the roundtables the next day. At least that was the plan…

Searchlight had given me a nice spot at the barrier near the entrance to the Palast and I got up there and set up my stuff, pretty much ready to go whenever the stars of the movie had shown up. Unlike many of the people on the carpet, I actually had seen the movie so I had specific questions, but I was surprised how short the red carpet was compared to other ones with journalists and cameramen on opposite sides. Now even though Searchlight had set up the journalists there with their own spaces, anyone with a press badge could enter the area and what happened is that a lot of really rude international journalists and cameramen just decided to push their way through to the front. As I waited for interviews, some squat Russian cameraman, literally bum rushed, pushed his way to the front of the barrier and stood right in front of me, but since there were no actors of interest, I tried working with him and said, “You shoot what you need to shoot and when I have to go back up front for an interview.”

When covering the red carpet, you generally have to get the attention of the publicist or talent and call them over, but this was literally a zoo and for most of it, I just sat at the back as more and more journalists piled in front of the barrier. The German Reuters guy had a system down and they are Reuters so everyone came over to talk to them, but I was pretty much trapped at the back by that point, so finally, someone from Searchlight came looking for me and they called me forward through the mob of international journalists to talk to Jeff Goldblum, so I went back up front and waited. At one point, there I literally had a giant video camera against the side of my head – my head was being used as a tripod! Actually, I wish someone on the carpet turned around and snapped a picture of it, because it looked pretty hilarious. Anyway, I was literally two feet away from Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Jeff Goldblum and others and I didn’t get to ask any of them a single question. I got to ask Saorsie Ronan two questions before she was dragged away, but most of the movie’s cast showed up late, took a picture together and barely did any interviews, so I’m not sure anything I got was useable. So yeah, I was pretty frustrated about what a waste of time the whole thing was, but I’m glad I challenged myself with something I hadn’t done in a while.

After heading back to the hotel to drop my equipment off, maybe take a quick nap, change, I headed back to the Palast for the Berlinale opening night party, which originally I was going to skip since it started so late, but I decided to show up and I’m glad I did. While sitting at the table eating, I caught Steve Weintraub from Collider walking by and then Alex Billington from FirstShowing, so the three of us sat there eating and catching up before finally heading down to the basement to meet up with the rest of the bloggers and Searchlight peeps.

But what made my night is that when I went downstairs to get my jacket I saw John Lithgow walking towards the stairs, and I was able to politely stop him and tell him how much the 3-year-old son of a friend of mine LOVED his children’s book. Lithgow’s face just lit up with a big smile because he probably had heard all sorts of praise while at the party but that may have been the first time someone mentioned that book.

Friday

This was going to be the big day for the interviews as Fox Searchlight has set up a pleasantly small roundtable back at the Adlon Hotel, made up of some top-notch bloggers including the likes of David Poland, Jeffrey Wells, Thelma Adams and Rodrigo from the Playlist. Like me, few of them do group interviews, but it just helped add to the great questions that were asked of the talent.

I think most of the journalists were surprised when a publicist came in to announce that no only were we going to get time with the elusive Bill Murray, but we were getting him FIRST and we would get 25 minutes with him! Murray has a very small role in the movie and he’s a notoriously elusive interview, but this really was the highlight of the day with lots of great anecdotes about Anderson’s earlier film Rushmore. Look for that interview sometime early next week.

Next up was Willem Dafoe and Jeff Goldblum, who play very different roles and have a different relationship than they do in Anderson’s earlier film The Life Aquatic with Steven Zissou. Dafoe did a lot of the talking during the interviews, and he thought that Anderson was far more prepared in advance to make “Budapest” than he was on “Life Aquatic,” and he was the first person to mention that Anderson had created an animatic version of the entire movie doing all the voices himself. Who knows if that will ever see the light of day, but that would be a pretty cool DVD extra if ever released.

The two youngest members of the cast, Tony Revolori and Saorsie Ronan, who play Zero the lobby boy and his baking love Agatha, were next, and they literally were acting like a married couple, finishing each other’s sentences and arguing about things. But first, they spent a few minutes going on about how much they loved “Breaking Bad,” which Tony binge-watched the entire series in a week. Tony has been acting since he was very young, mostly in commercials, but when it came down to finding his Zero, Anderson got it down to two choices, Tony and his older brother, who have a competitive relationship as actors.

The true star of The Grand Budapest Hotel is Ralph Fiennes, who plays Msr. Gustave, the hotel’s eccentric manager in a performance that’s so witty and clever that you can’t walk away from the movie and not remember the character. Fiennes came in sporting a full beard, but dressed quite elegantly and he talked about working with Wes and how got into playing Gustave.

Last and certainly not least was Wes Anderson himself who came in dressed in his distinctive jacket and with his usual laissez-faire attitude, ready to answer any question in an honest way. (He actually addressed some of Murray’s comments about working with Jason Schwartzman on Rushmore as well, and the parallels between the relationship in that film and the one between Gustave and Zero in “Budapest.”)

We’ll have excerpts from some of the interviews above sometime in the next couple weeks before the March 7 release of The Grand Budapest Hotel in select cities.

You can read the rest of my report, which covers more of the festival itself, sometime tomorrow.

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