Filmmaking: Christian Ditter - 'How To Be Single'
Issue: February 1, 2016

Filmmaking: Christian Ditter - 'How To Be Single'

Filmmaker Christian Ditter is a Munich-based writer and director who last year directed his first English-language film, the romantic comedy, Love, Rosie that opened internationally in October 2014 and in the US in February 2015. But this month, the director makes his US/Hollywood debut with the Warner Bros. film, How To Be Single, starring Dakota Johnson, Rebel Wilson and Leslie Mann. 

Overseas, the director is known for his short films, which won numerous awards at international film festivals, including his debut feature French For Beginners and later, his big-screen adaptations of Germany’s beloved children’s books, The Crocodiles series. He also wrote and directed Germany’s first major adventure film shot entirely in 3D — Wickie And The Treasure Of The Gods.

Now, with Single, which was shot entirely on-location throughout New York City and on a soundstage in Queens, Ditter says, “We wanted the film to really feel like New York.”

Speaking exclusively with Post from Burbank, CA, Ditter discusses his newest offering and the post process.

Why did you want to make this film? 

“I read the script after I did Rosie, and it was very special to me. It made me laugh out loud but also touched my emotional strings in a very honest, heartfelt and real way. It reminded me of the classic comedies I always loved, like The Apartment and When Harry Met Sally. Even Ghostbusters had this perfect mix of the right amount of really funny stuff with some true to the heart core to them and that’s what sprang at me when I read the script and what really captured me in that way, so that’s what got me interested.”

Are there any unique challenges to directing a comedy over other types of films? 

“You know, the template back in Germany was more adventure-type movies, and some of them for kids. They all had heavy moments in them, but they were all on the light side. So I do feel comfortable with comedic scenes, but this is the first full-out comedy I’m doing, and so this was of course a challenge for me. But I figured, me, as a guy from Germany, if I find it funny on-set, everyone else will be rolling on the floor (laughs).”

What cameras did you shoot with and why?

“We used Arri Alexa most of the time, and we used the Alexa 65 for one scene, which is awesome. I totally want to shoot on that for now on. In Germany, I always shot on 35mm. When I did the 3D film, I shot digitally, but I like film better. But for this particular film, How To Be Single, I wanted to have the ability to keep the camera rolling a long time; to do improvs or alternate takes of jokes and gather a lot of material to have a treasure chest for later for editing, so the Alexa was the right choice. I also did a lot of testing back in Munich, which is where Arri is, so we did a lot of back-to-back comparisons of 35 with Alexa, and we found quite a good curve that emulates the film look very well on the Alexa and in post, and on the eye not steering too far away from the film curve — make it look and feel pretty much as film would feel. It was the best choice for that movie.”

How closely did you work with DP Christian Rein?

“I met Christian when I was in film school, so I already worked with him on my short films and all feature films I directed in Germany, so we go a long way together. I tend to stand next to the camera and not behind the monitor, just to be close to the actors and be able to talk to them and look them into the eyes as they are acting. And so, we basically stand very close to each other on the set. We always had an extensive preparation where we go though the script, scene by scene, but the most useful thing about the prep time is that we get on the same page about what the scene is about so that later when surprises come around the corner on-set, and they do, if you have actors like Rebel Wilson, who have ideas (laughs), then you can stay flexible because you develop the whole pace of the visual approach together.”

How would you describe the look or feel of the film?

“We set out to make a classy comedy for grown ups, so story wise, we wanted it to be funny, but with heartfelt moments. The thing is, comedy often times focuses solely on the comedy, but I think today’s generation of moviegoers, people today know what is good and what is classy, and what a good-looking image is. I’m really sure if you want to make a film to reach a set audience, your film should look good. And so, what we did, I started from photographs, when I was in New York as a tourist, and by looking at other photos on Flickr and from other people posting pictures from New York and street life and I picked and chose images I felt represented the feeling of what the film should have. So that was a starting point for conversations with our production designer, but also our costume designer and DP. I sat down with these images as a template of how the movie should feel. And actually, we do end up with quite a few shots in the film that are very close to these photographs and that inspired a lot of choices.”

How early on in the process did you integrate post? Did you have your editor on site?

“Yes, my editor Tia Nolan, the most fantastic person you can hope for, she was there from Day 1. She was in New York, which was very helpful for me. Because we shot a ton of stuff and a lot of variations, and I went to the editing room very often after we finished shooting just to watch some scenes, have some laughs and see where we were, and get a feeling for the overall flow of things. I always like to do it that way because it also informs me of where we might need some breathing moments — hopefully we planned for it but maybe not, so I like to stay current of where the cut is.” 

Do you enjoy the post process?

“You know, my favorite thing as a kid was building Legos and so it’s like, for me, it’s the same thing. On the set is a lot of fun and we capture everything — there’s a lot of movement and energy and you’re always on your toes, but sitting down and really thinking about the stuff and going into detail and turning every Lego brick around and seeing what matches what where, I love it. And I think that hopefully the film comes together and is defined in editing. Especially a film like ours, in itself, it has a lot of storylines that need to be balanced and within the storylines themselves when you have actresses like Rebel Wilson, or Leslie Mann or Dakota Johnson, very inventive, suddenly you end up with five possible versions of a scene — and to make all these choices and balance out all these things, that’s really a challenge but a fun one. I enjoyed it a lot.”

What editing system was the film cut on? Was it Avid?

“Yes. I always use Avid.”

How closely did you work with editor Tia Nolan?

“I trust her a lot and so I don’t sit next to her and have one hand on the keyboard. I sit back and she does all the magic and I enjoy it.”

Were there any VFX in the film?

“Yes, we have a lot of effects shots. Several hundred. Often times, small stuff, like tattoo removals, but also some bigger stuff like building parts of the Manhattan Bridge in the 2D environments, which I hope nobody realizes. Quite a few set extensions, greenscreen work, and some snow work. We used Psyop and Hollywood Visual Effects, and Bruce Jones and Dan Levitan were our supervisors. I think nobody will see a single one of these, which is great, but there are a lot.” 

How important was the DI process?

“It’s very important because you can really go off the rails if you don’t watch out because there’s so much cool stuff you can do. So, for me, it’s mostly about keeping the integrity of the image.”

How important is audio to you as a filmmaker?

“I think that audio has a more direct connection to your heartstrings than images do a lot of times. I find audio, specifically music, and also sound design, very important. Before I started making this movie and especially coming to this genre fresh, I watched a ton of films, and I made a list of things I didn’t want to do. And top of the list, don’t Mickey Mouse with music. Don’t use comedy music on that because it’s a comedy and a lot of comedies tend to do that.

"We used source music that was very current and true to what people actually listen to that live in New York. So we brought on Season Kent as music supervisor, [who] did films like The Spectacular Now and great soundtracks. She’s very current and she sent me a playlist to spark some ideas before I started shooting, and I said, ‘You can stop working right now because this is already the soundtrack and such an amazing playlist.’ And we ended up using songs from that original playlist. Also, New Lines’ head of music, Erin Scully, is a very tasteful person, and she had input, so that came together as a great team effort. For the composer side of things, I wanted to have somebody fresh, so Season and Erin suggested Fil Eisler, who’s the composer of Empire, the TV show. He’s a cool guy and wrote a very original score for our film. So, very happy with that.”

Were there any technical challenges with the shoot — production or post?

“No, the biggest challenge for us was to actually select what ended up in the film and where to make the cuts because we had a lot of stuff and we didn’t want a two-and-a-half-hour movie.”

Did the film turn out the way you hoped it would?

“Yes, it did. The film feels like I wanted it to feel and as funny as I wanted it to be. I’m really happy with it.”