Marcus Sternberg and James Chau @ StoryDrive China, photo: C.Y.Schmidt

"I want sentences that scintillate!"

An interview with StoryDrive film director Sternberg

By Holger Volland on July 16, 2012

Director Marcus Sternberg has made a series of films for Frankfurt SPARKS featuring media experts and their very personal visions of the media landscape of the future. He usually spends his time shooting music videos for people like Xavier Naidoo, Nena, Run DMC and Kosheen. He filmed the Frankfurt SPARKS videos on the sidelines of the StoryDrive China conference in Beijing. Three cameras were set up behind the scenes in a storage room for chairs that had been converted into a studio. It was hot in the small room, the spotlights glared and the camera man, sound man, director and interviewee had to exercise great caution to avoid tripping over one of the many cables.

Holger Volland (HV): When the camera comes on for an interview, I immediately feel like a puppet and suddenly incapable of relaxing. This is surely true for many people. How do you get people to relax? How do you create a feeling of trust?

Marcus Sternberg (MS): I ignore that, to be honest, and simply get started. It’s like going to the hairdresser. He’ll just stop listening at a certain point if you spend too much time talking to him about hair. I also try not to just film interviews, but rather to have a conversation in which I am also a willing and interested participant. I also reflect during the conversation so that I can slowly approach my conversation partner’s intuitive islands of thought. This is admittedly difficult with all the technology surrounding us, but the idea is to create an atmosphere like that of the dinner table, where you sit down with someone who then starts to tell you things with a certain sense of trust. It only gets interesting if I collect insights and not mathematical truths or memorised PR lines. But you also can’t forget that people come to events like StoryDrive as representatives of their companies and, of course, they have messages. But at a certain point, even company representatives start to say things that reflect a mix of personal persuasion and corporate identity. When asked to describe her job, for example, Jenny Marchick of Sony said: “I always start off by saying that I sell insurance”, because it’s difficult to explain a career in show business. The idea behind the Sparks films is: I meet with an interesting person and he or she tells me something. Not: I meet the VPCCICO from company X. You can watch films like that on corporate websites.

HV: These coordinated PR messages in videos are always the most boring anyway. But many companies want it that way!

MS: People don’t mean any harm by it. In addition, PR culture has changed dramatically in this respect in recent years. In the past, people were afraid they’d appear too unserious if they talked about their work, their environment and even their customers with a certain sense of humanity and empathy. Today we find it strange when people talk about their work like robots. It’s now seen as conservative and old-fashioned. It’s a similar story when people like Steve Jobs take the stage wearing trainers because it makes them feel more comfortable. They know they won’t be able to say anything authentic if they’re wearing oppressive shoes. Each of us is engaged in vanity management to a certain extent, and we all pick out the passport photo that most closely fits the positive image we have of ourselves. In the Sparks films, however, we get very close to people as they really are. Their suits are a bit wrinkled, they haven’t been to the hairdresser and they’ve just worked on the stage for three hours. But they know it’s ok because it will be spontaneous and I’ll make sure they come across well.

HV: You chose a very clean, corporate-friendly aesthetic for the SPARKS films. Did you do this to allow companies to feel more at ease, despite the personal messages of the interviewees?

MS: It’s interesting that you should see the aesthetic as “corporate”. I come from the fields of film and photography and associate this white photo studio look more with the photos of David Bailey from the 1960s. He did away with the romantic fashion photography of the 1950s. In the setting I’ve chosen, the individual is more like a work of art in a white gallery. There aren’t any Book Fair visitors scurrying in the background, no poorly veneered doors, no wallpapered cafés. I don’t want to be distracted or create the wrong context for the person I’m filming. We communicate visually and our goal is to tease out a message. I’m looking for “sentences that scintillate”. I probably got this from my father. He always underlined sentences in books. Whenever we sat down to lunch and had a conversation, he would suddenly jump up, grab a book from the library, point out the sentence to me and say with great admiration for the author, “Isn’t this incredibly great, what Berthold Brecht says on this subject?” The idea of gathering these sentences in an encounter with a person has always been an exciting concept for me.

HV: Did you already know which stories you wanted to tell ahead of time in the SPARKS videos? Those few minutes didn’t give you a lot of time.

MS: Intuitively I almost always had a feeling of where I wanted to go. I already knew the people in front of the camera a bit, either from a meeting or from the stage. Of course I always prepare myself for the people and the context in which the interviews will take place. I then try to quickly find out what the person’s passions are. Everyone has a passion like this, and as soon as we start talking about it, the camera suddenly becomes completely unimportant and people talk about things that actually mean something to them. With SPARKS we’re dealing with some very interesting people. Philippa Donovan, for example, is a very educated woman, who is well informed about many issues relating to literature, storytelling, authorship or crossmedia content. Luckily she can also expertly discuss creative processes in a way that is deeply moving. That’s “grand cinema” in the form of a seemingly short online film. That’s another reason why I really like making the SPARKS films – because StoryDrive brings together some really terrific people. StoryDrive moderator James Chau speaks of a “collision of balls” when referring to all the experts who gather at the conference. He expresses it in a very playful way, but that’s exactly how it is: instead of offering ready-made statements, StoryDrive is about passing the ball to each other and engaging in conversations to create something new together. My goal in these films is to tell the individual stories behind this.

HV: Thank you!