As this post goes up, I am in the air, flying from San Francisco to Atlanta for the holidays. I will also be flying with an infant in my arms, so, if you never hear from me again, it won’t be because of anything tragic other than a complete and utter mental breakdown.
So this week’s post has to be fast. I’m going to tell a quick story about the weirdest 90 minutes of my life.
Is this Christmas related in any way? Sort of, only because it involves air travel and that this story really started at Christmastime 5 years ago.
In 2008, Dakota Skye won Best Picture at the Charlotte Film Festival. They tell you this ahead of time, these smaller festivals, to entice the production to send a representative. There were two other festivals going on at the same time, all of which we were invited to, so we had to split up. Director John Humber and actress Eileen Boylan went to Canada. Producer Shaun O’Banion and actor Ian Nelson went to Michigan. Me, having grown up in the South, volunteered for / was assigned to North Carolina on my lonesome.
I really wanted to go to Charlotte mostly because my friends and family in Atlanta, if they wanted to, could easily make the drive to see the film with an audience. This was especially important for my parents and brother. They had all seen in on DVD, but I wanted them to experience a screening, along with my Q&A after. I spent a few days with my family in the ATL then, with my brother in tow as my “assistant” drive up to Charlotte.
The festival was fun. Small, but fun. Saw a really great documentary called Immokalee, USA that you should check out if you can find it. After the first of two Dakota Skye screenings, which went well, I was approached by two German men. They informed me that they worked for the Filmkunstfest Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, a film festival in Schwerin, Germany, which is a quaint city of 100,000 or so, north of Berlin, close to the Baltic and on the way to Denmark. It wasn’t quite the Berlin film festival, but very few fests are.
These two men explained to me that their filmkunstfest was a sister festival with Charlotte and that they had a best-picture exchange program. That whatever won best picture at Charlotte played in Schwerin the next year, and vice-versa. Dakota Skye, as that winner, was invited to play in Germany.
I thought little of it. Just because it seemed unlikely to happen. So I took their info and passed on the director’s, for he was the one that handled that stuff.
That Christmas, I was home in Atlanta when John called me. We’d been invited to Germany. It wasn’t a 100% free ride, but they were willing to pay enough of it to make it worth considering. He was definitely going, and I was also invited. The question is, did I want to?
You see, for the first 30+ years of my life, I was a scaredy-cat flyer. My brain knew it was safe, but it had a hard time communicating that to my gut. And I had never been to Europe. The only time I had spent outside of the country was a half-day trip down to Rosarito I took once with my friends Colleen and Matt. I really wanted to go, but the flight a flight from Los Angeles to Berlin scared the ever-loving shit out of me.
But when these types of opportunities pop up, you can’t say no. You just can’t. So I agreed to fly to Germany to show our movie.
Cool enough, right? But this is where it starts to get weird.
For those of you unfamiliar with Dakota Skye, all you need to know in the moment is that the film is full of subtitles. Not subtitles in another language, but in English. They are burned into the film. They are an integral part of the story. Which pretty much makes Dakota Skye un-subtitle-able for foreign audiences. Because at any given time there could be three sets of titles on screen: one interpreting the spoken English, one English-language story-based one, and then another to translate the English-language subtitle itself. Just imagine all that text on the screen. Untenable. Unwatchable.
So the only way for Dakota Skye to play in another language is to dub it. That at least gets rid of one set of subtitles. But being a tiny, tiny film, we had no ability to put together a German-language version of the film. But the festival organizers told us that they would take care of that. All we had to do was show up.
So in early 2009 John and I flew to Germany. And I did pretty well for my first trans-Atlantic flight. In fact, ever since then, my fear of flying had reduced greatly. What’s a four hour trip to the East Coast when you’ve sat through 14 hours to get to Europe?
We landed in Berlin, got our passports stamped, and I was officially a world traveler. After spending the night in a hotel by the airport, we were met next day by one of the two men I had met in Charlotte. He would be driving us up to Schwerin (maybe a two hour drive). He was late in meeting us, which I told him destroyed my perceptions of German punctuality, but he explained to me that he was actually Bavarian, and, from what I could gather, Bavarians are to Germans as West Virginians are to Ohioans.
On the drive up to the festival, the weirdness began. The festival rep, riding shotgun while another man drove us, broke out a document. It was the English to German translation of Dakota Skye. Being the writer of the film, I was intrigued. He started asking me questions to make sure he had things right. Certain cultural references, even things as simple as bowling lingo, wouldn’t translate, he said, so he needed my help finding alternative ways to say things.
Wait a minute, I thought. The first screening is tomorrow. In fact, we discovered, we were the OPENING NIGHT FILM. And the dubbing hadn’t been done yet? They were still tinkering with the script. Then we found out the bizarre and terrifying truth:
They would be doing a live dub.
A live dub involves a person standing in the projection booth with a microphone who then talks over the film’s natural audio (which is also audible), reading from a German script. One person doing every voice, just reciting the translation in a monotone. It’s like what you see in movies about the United Nations, except in this case it’s for a dramatic (and more dangerously, comedic) piece with several distinct character voices, both male and female.
And the man who would be doing it was like 40 years old.
Dakota Skye stars a 19 year old woman playing a SEVENTEEN YEAR OLD GIRL. So you’re telling me, Mr. Bavarian, that my teenage female protagonist is going to be dubbed by a full-grown man?
“Trust us. We do this all the time.”
So we were swept into the film festival as American celebrities. We did a press conference, in which we said maybe two sentences between both me and John, went to the reception, saw an art show, and were interviewed by two German teens for the festival newsletter. They were good kids who two days later we found ourselves drunk with, another bit of culture shock. They were full of questions about how Americans see Germans. I’ll never forget when one of them said to me, “World War I started because someone killed an Austrian; World War II started because someone didn’t.”
So, opening night of the festival. The theater is filled with donors and older folks and people and suits and here we were about to present our little American romantic comedy filled with masturbation and marijuana jokes. I mean, this was our crowd:
You can understand why we were nervous.
But nothing could prepare us for what came next:
The weirdest 90 minutes of my life.
I very rarely sat through a Dakota Skye screening. Add my natural anxiety to my filmmakers’ anxiety to the fact that I’ve seen the damn movie a thousand million times, but there was no way John and I were going to miss what we were sure was going to be a train wreck. We sunk down into our seats before it even started.
And then it started.
During Dakota’s festival run, we had screenings that were good, great, and mediocre. But there were certain moments, and definitely certain laughs, that always landed.
Not so much in Germany that night.
So the movie starts and the moment our heroine begins to speak, this deep, male German voice comes over the speakers, talking over everything in an attempt to German it up. And wow was it awkward. The laughs definitely did not come when they were supposed to and did when they weren’t. Sometimes the scene would move too fast for the translator, and he would just give up on it. I didn’t know what he was saying, but I definitely heard him stumble and stutter a dozen times. A handful of people walked out. We weren’t sure what everybody else was thinking, but from our point of view it was a disaster.
And it was the most fun I had at a Dakota Skye screening.
Because there was no pressure. Because it wasn’t our fault. The audience understood what was happening. They were seeing the movie, which is great looking for a 100k film, but is still a 100k film, but they weren’t hearing it, and it’s a fairly wordy piece. They had no idea what was going on. At moments, neither did I.
It was kind of hilarious.
It was without a doubt the longest, strangest, most surreal, blissfully uncomfortable hour and a half I have ever experienced.
So after the polite applause, John and I were brought up, with a translator, to answer questions. The first question I was asked, by the moderator, was “How was it seeing your film in German?”
“That was the weirdest 90 minutes of my life,” I said. And, before the translator got out a word…
THE WHOLE FUCKING THEATER FUCKING LAUGHED.
At my joke.
Son of a bitch…
Turns out a lot of folks in Germany speak English; you’d think the Germans running the festival would have known that.
The next day we had a screening of the film in a much smaller theater and without the dubbing, just in the original English. And it played very well. Got laughs. Got good questions after. It was a typical, fun Dakota Skye screening. Go figure.
A lot of awesome things came of that trip. I got over my fear of flying long distances, paving the way for subsequent trips to Italy, France, Italy, England, and Italy. Got the first stamp in my passport. I spent a day in the gorgeous city of Berlin, going to the Pergamon Museum and the Brandenburg Gate and a near-secret bar that didn’t open until after 11:00. John and I met legendary cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who shot many films for Martin Scorsese, including Goodfellas, one of the greatest films ever made. Discovering currywurst. Finding a section in the record store called ‘Black Music’. Legally getting drunk with 19 year-olds. Seeing London, kind of, while landing and taking off from Heathrow while making connections. It was all-in-all fantastic.
But the highlight to me, which would be the lowlight to some I guess, was watching my movie, hearing my words, badly dubbed in German in a room full of people. Watching romantic scenes between Dakota and Jonah with the same man playing both parts. The utter silence during the film’s biggest laughs. Looking at John with complete and utter amazement at what was happening. Disappointing the sold-out opening night crowd. Experiencing something so crazy and wrong and embarrassing and so out of our control that all we could do was laugh and take some video to show people later. I wish I had that video now; I’d totally post it here.
It was glorious.
To me, at least.
Anyway. That’s today’s sort-of-Hollywood tale. I won’t be posting Christmas Eve, which is my next turn, so Happy Holidays and stuff.