Tribeca Film Festival - Lou Reed's Berlin - May 4, 2008
Sunday marked the last day of the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival and my final Conversation in Cinema I attended, Celebrating Berlin – a discussion lead by Vanity Fair’s Lisa Robinson with rock musician Lou Reed and Academy-Award nominated director Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) whose documentary, Lou Reed’s Berlin, made its New York premiere. The film opens in limited release at New York’s Film Forum and NuArt Theatre in Los Angeles on July 18. Tribeca Film Festival Co-Founder Jane Rosenthal introduced the film saying, “This has been a really long 13 days, but what a better way to end our festival.” This was my first true foray into the music of Reed. I was only familiar with his song “Walk on the Wild Side,” and many friends over the years have mentioned how brilliant a song writer and performer he is, but for some reason I never really had the chance to sit down and listen to an album or watch one of his performances until Sunday. I found the music to be absolutely riveting and the lyrics profound, though he seems to have more of a spoken-word component to his vocals, rather than just pure singing, which I understand because the lyrics are very poetic in nature, but just took me a bit to get used to hearing up against such a vibrant sound.
After the film, which was met with much applause from the audience, Robinson asked Reed and Schnabel how they came to collaborate on this film. Schnabel responded that he felt a responsibility to do it. He had heard the record back in 1973 when it came out and it made a huge impact on him before he ever knew Reed. When making The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Susan Feldman asked him if he would direct a staging of Berlin at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. But since he was busy directing another film, she asked him if he would at least design the sets. Schnabel had some 18th century Chinese prints and blew them up and also some photos of a hotel with greenish walls. There was no money for the art. The budget was $16,000. He couldn’t stretch the canvas for that. But Schnabel acknowledged two people sitting in the audience who contributed their own film work to Berlin – the first being his daughter Lola, who he said shot all the good stuff in the film (with actress Emmanuelle Seigner as the character Caroline whom Reed’s songs in Berlin follow the story of), and the second being his brother-in-law, who shot the sequence with stuff flying around in a fish tank.
Robinson noted the great sound heard in the film and asked how they achieved it. Giving props to John Harris for the sound, Reed said he had never heard rock sound so good in a movie before. It usually sounds disjointed and he didn’t want to get volume dependent. He just wanted to get the tone.
When asked by Robinson why Reed chose Schnabel to direct this film, Reed responded that he asked Schnabel to at least do the sets, but Schnabel told him how could he do the sets without directing it, too? Schnabel brought in cinematographer Ellen Kuras, who Reed called fantastic. Schnabel said he didn’t want there to be any fancy filming with cranes. He invited an audience and told them there would be a camera person on stage who would be shooting the performance.
Robinson mentioned that Susan Robinson had brought Berlin to St. Ann’s Warehouse. Reed commented that Robinson had always wanted him to stage Berlin there. Schnabel elaborated saying that he thought Reed had a really bad experience with Berlin a long time ago and he was absolutely sure if people hear this anytime, it would be relevant. Reed hadn’t played this ever before in public.
Robinson asked Reed if there was a luxury in doing this more than 30 years after the album was released. Reed said he wasn’t even going to do this and that Schnabel knew the record better than him. Schnabel added that what’s in the film is the first time Reed played Berlin, which he eventually went on to play other performances of throughout Europe. What’s interesting about the first time he played it, it was like watching Christopher Walken performing open-heart surgery on himself, he said. Schnabel noted that Reed lives across the street from him and asked Reed to come look at his daughter’s and brother-in-law’s films. Reed said it was serendipity the way these films matched his music. The sensitivities were just so similar, he said.
One song performed toward the end of Berlin was “Rock Minuet,” that’s not in the original record. Robinson asked Reed if he felt he could have made that song back then. Reed said he could have done it then, but Schnabel said he asked Reed to do it for the film. Reed said Schnabel really loved that song, which is kind of visual and Schnabel thought it was kind of an anthem like “Walk in the Wild Side” was.
Robinson opened the discussion to the audience. One audience member asked Reed what he thought about music critic Lester Banks’ original comments on the Berlin record back in 1973 that it was “the most depressed record ever made,” to which Reed replied, “I don’t have any thoughts on Lester Banks’ comments.”
Reed was also asked by another audience member if there was anything in the film that surprised him about his performance when he saw it. Reed said in the old days, he used to wear sunglasses on stage, but now he can’t wear them or he’ll trip over the cables. He said the performance is what it is and that he wanted to write these monologues for himself because he likes acting. Schnabel also said there’s a level of trust that Reed has had to endure. Things have happened to him in his life that have probably been dissatisfying to him.
When asked what the production and rehearsal process was like, Reed said they didn’t have very much time. “We were on the seat of our pants,” Schnabel said. The concert footage was shot in three days. Lola’s film was shot in four days. The editing took approximately four months.
Schnabel called his film sort of a hybrid. It’s not just a concert movie. To him, it was making a portrait of Reed whom he loved. That was his intention. Reed concluded by saying for him it was "an amalgam of when a woman does a certain thing to you, you end up with Berlin.”