By Pete Barell
Arts and Entertainment Editor
Alexander Berman’s short film “APP” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 18th. The film, about a geeky man who creates a sentient phone application that helps the user pick up woman, was presented in the Handle with Care program, which emphasized delicate people and situations. Satirical and comedic, “APP” is a modern film that deals with how the idea of romance has changed in our exponentially growing globalized techno society.
A graduate of the prestigious American Film Institute fellows and Harvard University, Berman recently finished a Fulbright Fellowship in the Russian Far East, where he shot his feature documentary “The Volcano People”. The filmmaker won the Grand Jury Prize at the Provincetown International Film Festival for his short film “Songs from the Tundra”, about tank-riding reindeer herders. The Pioneer had the chance to speak to Berman about love, technology and the future of filmmaking.
The Pioneer (TP): You recently finished a fellowship in Russia to make your feature documentary, “The Volcano People”. At what point did you decide on doing something very different, like “APP”?
Alexander Berman (AB): I think that moving to Los Angeles really had an effect on me. The other day at a Q and A somebody asked me ‘what inspired this film’? And I said, that I lived in Siberia for almost two years, and moving to LA I realized that it was easier to meet someone in Siberia than it was [there]. All the different ways that people were trying to find connections in such a big city I found really interesting, and then as a personal experience I wrote this film as a satire of that atmosphere. I knew I wanted to do fiction filmmaking, so that’s why the opportunity to go to AFI on a scholarship was incredible, but really being in LA inspired a new set of interests in me, and that’s where the film came out of.
TP: Did you have any particular influences for “APP”? You said it was a satire. Were there any references?
AB: Definitely. In terms of references, from the real world, was my brother who did the animations [in “App] Benjamin Berman. He works at Apps Now and we’re huge geeks. You know, using Tinder for the first time, which is a big app, but when I was writing the film it was small, and now is a multi-million dollar thing. That was definitely an inspiration.
And then, in terms of films: “Her” [by Spike Jonze] didn’t exist back then. There’s definitely a dialogue between our film and “Her”. [That film] imagines ‘what is the relationship going to be between love and our technology fifty years from now?’ and I was more interested in what it is going to be like tomorrow, or in year. [Other influences include] Charlie Kaufman’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”. Anything where technology allows us to explore our relationship in this new age are some of my favorite films, and definitely an artistic inspiration.
TP: If you could make a prediction of where the film industry might go in the future, especially now that we have new technologies and digital filmmaking that is more accessible, where do you think we may go in ten or fifteen years?
AB: Our film, which we had to do for a skinny budget, had one guy doing all of the visual effects, of which there were 230 shots that needed visual effect treatment done. If one person can do now what a post [production] house could do five years ago, then you’re going to see that, just how digital filmmaking has put cameras in everyones hands, we’re going to see some really cool fantasy as the costs of visual effects go down. People will make, I wouldn’t say more creative stories, but [ones] that certainly go beyond our reality.
And then in terms of the business, like someone starting out. I just finished AFI, and I have a film at Tribeca and looking at the opportunities for me to build a career out of it, you know the web is a very interesting place, because after headline TV shows like “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black” coming out on Netflix, Amazon Studios and even for X-box now, the quality of online original content has gone up. There are many entrances in the field and a few projects I am developing are actually for a web outlet.
TP: Could you tell us about those projects? What are your plans now that you’ve had “APP” on the festival circuit?
AB: I have a feature that I am writing about a guy who can’t get it up in Los Angeles. He’s just gone through a bad relationship. He and his friends realize that it’s also happening to them, and also happening all over LA, so it’s like a zombie apocalypse of impotence is traveling through the city, and they’re trying to find out how to solve it. So it’s, you know, another dark romantic comedy. In terms of TV projects, for the Web, I’ve been developing a few series, definitely in the tech sphere.
TP: “APP” is a modern film, exploring technology and what it means to quote unquote be compatible with someone. Can you tell us about the idea of the film, and what it means to you personally?
AB: In terms of my personal connection to it, I was getting out of college, and out of very intense relationship. As many of these films are, they’re inspired by breakups. I remember this was right on the cusp of our whole datafication of our lives, you know like everything today is on Facebook, it’s like an entire library of your life online that’s out there. I was in this relationship, it ended in and amicable way, but I remember being so tempted to look at her email. Like a lot of people, we shared passwords and whatever. And I was just shocked. If I wanted to, I could go back to look at her conversations with her sister six months ago if I wanted to. I [stopped myself] and felt really guilty and told her, and she laughed and said she did the same thing to me.
So, I realized then that the datafication of our lives, it’s so much about spies going through out stuff, or corporations doing it, but we have this intense fear of rejection as people, and technology can enable us to take uncertainty out of our lives. But that’s fundamentally changed a lot because love is about the mystery of ‘I don’t know what my life will be like with this person, but I love them so much that I want that mystery’.
TP: Do you feel that technology can disconnect people?
AB: Yes. I think the way it disconnects is that it’s impossible to have a private conversation anymore. What I mean by that, for example, is let’s say you and I are friends, and we’re talking, and you turn off your self phone, right, because you’re really a stickler about not having any distractions during private conversation. But your alternative self, the one that is online, on your Facebook account, is still carrying on a conversation with so many other people, but I don’t know about you but when I turn off my phone I feel a certain anxiety that people are talking to me, and I haven’t responded back to them, I haven’t checked my email, I haven’t looked at whose liked my stuff on Facebook. I think We are being rewired such that it’s not just technology disconnecting us because we’re checking our emails during a conversation, just that we can’t disconnect from it now, it’s too much of who we are.
TP: The Pioneer is a student newspaper, for a college campus that includes film majors. Do you have any tips for young filmmakers who are trying to get their own work made?
AB: Having just finished being a Fellow at AFI, the advice [I heard] the most is that talent isn’t enough, and that it’s all about hard work. I think that’s true, but one think that we lose in the mix, particularly when you go to New York, or Los Angeles, or a big place where ‘everyone is writing that screenplay’ it’s easy to feel like it’s such a crapshoot. I think really the people who make, are people who are at least my role models, like Darren Aronofsky, and Spike Jonze, who I really admire, it’s really about being a person who can stand rejection the most. Before I had a film at tribeca, we had a lot of festival rejections. It’s crazy odds. It’s thirty films out of three thousand three hundred. I think the thing that I would advise anyone starting as a filmmaker is that if you have the passion, you can do it, but it’s just about hearing no, and having that inner strength to keep going. In my own life I’ve heard no a lot
For more information on Alexander Berman and “APP”, visit appthemovie.com and alexanderberman.com