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Dream project “Traumfabrik”

For producer Tom Zickler and director Martin Schreier, their new film “Traumfabrik” (“Dream Factory”) is a real dream of a project. In an interview they talk about this complex film production—and about their collaboration with ARRI.

The latest film by producer Tom Zickler (“Head Full of Honey”) and director Martin Schreier (“Unsere Zeit ist jetzt”/“Our Time is Now”) “Traumfabrik” hit German theaters on the 4th of July, 2019. This drama takes place in the 1960s and is about a film extra and a dancer who meet and fall in love at the Babelsberg film studios but are then separated when the Berlin Wall is erected.

Tom, “Traumfabrik” was shot in the Babelsberg film studios in Potsdam near Berlin, where you have worked for over the past three decades. How did you get into the film business?

Tom Zickler: I started at Babelsberg in May 1986 at the age of 21, and it felt like coming home. Especially since I’d been in the army before that. I’d always wanted to be a cameraman, ever since I was about 10 or 11 years old. I’d passed the aptitude test for the film school in Babelsberg and got an internship at the studios. In the army they then sat me in front of a computer monitor with green and red dots on it representing the NATO and Warsaw Pact aircrafts—but I couldn’t tell the difference between them. The dots all looked the same to me. After admitting I was colorblind, I lost my university slot to study camera work, and there I stood, in front of Mr. Golde, one of the responsible persons at the studio, and said: “But I want to make films!” And he said: “Well Mr. Zickler, if you’ve already got an apartment here, I can offer you a job as assistant to the production manager if you like.” And I said: “Yes, no problem. My Aunt Inge lives here in the Steinstrasse.” Of course, I never had an Aunt Inge, and Steinstrasse was the only street name I’d seen from the bus coming into town. The first four weeks I slept at the Potsdam-West train station. Then I found out that that there was a props department at the studio, and that there were lots of beds standing around, so I started sleeping there.

And then things started to come together …

Tom Zickler: That’s right. I discovered this room, a studio, that is still my office more than 30 years later. In “Traumfabrik” there’s a sequence where the protagonist enters the studio for the first time. That was what it was like back in the day—15 productions all being made simultaneously. In the cafeteria where the extras ate, concentration camp prisoners drank coffee with Roman soldiers and construction workers, and waited for their calls. That was fascinating to me.

You started out mainly working on fairy-tale films?

Tom Zickler: Yes. Costumes and make-up were always a big issue. Before making the dresses, the fabrics were screen-tested. Up to 250 people were on the staff of one film. That helped me a lot in my career, because it took away my fear of big teams. After two years there I went and studied film production in Babelsberg. And, in retrospect, that is actually more my thing than being a cameraman.

What about you, Martin?

Martin Schreier: When I was five, I saw “The Empire Strikes Back” on TV and knew immediately I had to do something like that. Of course, as a little boy, I first wanted to be an actor, then, when I was ten, I noticed that there are far more ways to express yourself behind the camera than in front of it. I was fortunate in that my dad always had good camera equipment at home, and I started making my own little films—in stop-motion with action figures, for example—and I haven’t stopped doing it since. I studied VFX for a year, but that wasn’t the right thing for me. I’m a storyteller who wants to reach and move people. So, I studied at the Film Academy in Ludwigsburg. I worked on my final thesis project with ProSieben with Teamworx and at the time we were working on “Robin Hood,” with Ken Duken in the lead. That led to producer Sebastian Fruner finding out about me, and even Til Schweiger knew about the film. They then called me on-board for the film about the German rapper Cro: “Unsere Zeit ist jetzt.” That led to me to get to know Tom Zickler—which was love at first sight. And because we all worked so well together, Tom Zickler, Sebastian Fruner, and I decided to do our next thing together as well. And we've been living a dream for the past two years working on “Traumfabrik” together. From the development phase through filming through to postproduction, everything has been incredibly fun because we all wanted the same thing.

Tom, how did you get to know Til Schweiger?

Tom Zickler: That was in 1995 when I was still at the university. He’d heard that there was this madman in Babelsberg who had made a few films. Til wanted to start his own company and make a film. We are the same age, and when we met it all just clicked into place. The screenplay he put together with Thomas Jahn was great. “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” was our first film and we’ve been making film ever since for the last 20 years.

Getting back to “Traumfabrik.” ARRI is coproducing. How did that come about?

Tom Zickler: It was a big risk for us. During the intense eight-month preparation period, the executive producer, technical and costume people were already involved and of course had to be paid. It was one of the closest financial calls I’ve ever had in my career. We actually didn’t finish until about a week before we started filming. By that time, we had already accrued costs in the seven-figure euro region. Especially when you’re making a historical film it’s important to get your math right, because everything costs a lot of money. “Traumfabrik” is the first production of the newly founded company Traumfabrik Babelsberg. The stakeholders are Studio Babelsberg and myself. As we couldn’t finance the film alone, the idea from the very start was to find partners. I’m really happy that Pantaleon, HerbX, Bully Herbig’s company, and of course Studio Babelsberg are working with us, and that Funkhaus Berlin Nalepastrasse also came on-board as a co-financier. And it was very important to us to have ARRI as coproducer and equipment partner. We knew that the lighting work would be far more extensive with this studio-shoot concept than with a normal feature film. It meant spending a week hanging up the lights and trying them out for another week so that we could then make good progress when all the hundreds of extras arrived. Because we needed a great deal of lights and equipment, I talked to Josef Reidinger (General Manager of ARRI Media) about ARRI coming in as a coproducer. That was a godsend for the entire project. The amount of lighting and camera equipment required was enormous.

Martin, being a director, you know exactly the shots you need. Do you leave your cameraman some wiggle room?

Martin Schreier: I try to give everyone on the team as much freedom as possible, not just the cameraman. But at the same time, I know exactly what I want. Director of Photography Martin Schlecht and I locked ourselves in a room for two months and planned every single shot together. 70 percent of the film came directly from the storyboards. And yet, on set, Martin still managed to top what we had planned in many cases. That’s the great thing about working with creative people: They can lift your own vision to an even higher level.

How did you choose the camera?

Martin Schreier: That was a joint decision. We knew we only wanted to shoot with ARRI—with the ALEXA. We had hoped to be able to film all of “Traumfabrik” with the ALEXA 65. That was our thinking for a long time. But of course, the data rate is very high, and it became clear we would have to film with various different cameras. Especially for the big dance scenes, if we just let the camera roll, the data volumes would have gotten so massive that we would have reached the limit of what a production like this can handle. This is why we decided to go with the ALEXA XT and anamorphic lenses. We tested a bunch of them and are now very happy with our choice. We shot 80 percent of “Traumfabrik” in 2.8 K anamorphic. The ALEXA 65 was also on set for a few days.

What is it about the ALEXA 65 that fascinates you so much?

Martin Schreier:The ALEXA 65 is something very special. It’s not the resolution that’s most important to me: for me it’s the sensor and the vivid picture you get when you fully exploit what the ALEXA 65 is capable of. It just has a whole other film quality than shooting on 35 mm. It’s pretty impressive. I hope I can shoot my next film entirely with ALEXA 65.

Is “Traumfabrik” also available in Dolby Atmos?

Tom Zickler:Definitely. We wanted that right from the beginning. Dolby Atmos is perfect for “Traumfabrik.”

Martin, how was it to have ARRI as a coproducer on the project? Was ARRI’s influence noticeable?

Martin Schreier:Actually not at all, which is a good thing. Of course, I knew when ARRI gave notes on the script. We also roped Josef Reidinger in when it came to casting, for instance, and we invited people who ARRI suggested. In the end, it’s similar to editing on a film: you don’t notice good editing, only bad editing. So, the collaboration was great. Nobody put anyone under pressure. Everyone worked well together and was very personable. I’ve really only had good experiences with ARRI to date. I feel really at home in the ARRI family.

How did ARRI support you in other ways?

Martin Schreier:The entire collaboration with ARRI, be it with Rental or in postproduction for picture and sound, was simply outstanding. You can rely on the team in every aspect of filmmaking. I think one reason is because we all share the same passion for film. I felt that from each and everyone involved. There is no problem ARRI can’t fix—and they repeatedly surpassed my expectations both professionally and personally. ARRI is a wonderful home for my films and it's always a joy to come back.

Martin, you were born in 1980, so are still fairly young for a director to be making such major films. What tips would you give young filmmakers?

Martin Schreier: You can try to generate interest through festival films, but that was never my method because I want to make films for the masses. I like watching Hollywood films too; what can I say? And I’ve always done what I was totally convinced of, not what other people want. That’s probably noticeable. “Traumfabrik” is a dream project for me. It’s a movie I really wanted to make because I’ve been carrying its themes around with me my entire life. Now we’ve developed it together and got it done, which only worked because I always remain true to myself. Instead of thinking about attracting attention, film students should think about doing what they love. That passion then transfers to the screen. That’s when you can touch people. That’s why all my films are deeply personal. It’s me you see up there on screen. That’s the difference.

Tom, what is your memory of “Traumfabrik”?

Tom Zickler: It has been my best filming experience yet. When I started at Babelsberg 30 years ago, there were always dozens of people for costume and make-up, and on “Traumfabrik” the dimensions were similar. We had an entire building complex with the costumes for the extras and workshops where the clothes were made. It was great to see how that came into being after all the months of preparation; how the building kept filling up more and more until it was bursting at the seams. 1,400 costumes, each with a name on it. Hundreds of people were buzzing around every day. The good thing about our studio is that it's only 10 meters to the costume building, 60 to the production office and 120 meters to the catering tent, so the distances are short. Everything went off perfectly. On the 37th day of shooting we had the first unscheduled hour of overtime, and every production manager who reads that will know its significance. A studio shoot gives you full control over the shots. We tested long, tried everything out and then executed. Now I know why the Americans always like filming in studios: because you are simply in total control of the shots.

More about “Traumfabrik” on the Tobis Film website.

Photos: Tobis Film (1) and Affonso Gavinha/ARRI (7)