We Need to Talk:
Kian Soltani and Gunnar Fuss in Conversation

International soloist, Persian-Austrian cellist Kian Soltani told us about his fascination with cinema and film-making, so we hooked him up for a conversation with acclaimed director of photography, Gunnar Fuss. A cross-disciplinary talk took place at the lovely showroom of Central Berlin.

Kian Soltani: I’m curious, your specific field is called “director of photography” [DOP], am I right? How do you see the difference between your work, and the work of a director?

Gunnar Fuss: Well, it’s a big difference actually. I’m basically a supporting act for the director, who is the mastermind of the film. The director needs someone to visualize the film, put it into images. At best cases, the director and the DOP find together ideas for translating the script into images, then it is my job to execute the result – get the best crew for the project and decide on the right equipment. Together with the director we go into the pre-production phase. We plan ahead various details, such as locations, set-design and visual style, so that on set, when we shoot, we don’t need to talk much: I do the lighting, design the images and choose the colors. Then we rehearse the scene, we shoot, we discuss corrections and move on. When a director trusts me it is all very easy-going. Fortunately, that is the case with many directors with whom I’m working. It’s a creative process, so of course we discuss different choices, but usually I’m the one in charge of the images and together with the director the movie is done.

KS: I could see a parallel to my world, with the director being the conductor, and you, the DOP, being the soloist. Because what you do in pre-production with the director is basically what I do with the conductor when rehearsing. We meet, in best cases we are on the same page, we know what we want and that is more or less the same thing, we work and rehearse – that is our “pre-production”. Then we go on stage – parallel to your shooting. The conductor has an overall idea on the piece and an overall control on the orchestra, but the actual sound comes from the soloist and from the orchestra, respectively. So it’s the same actually – what you record with your camera is eventually what people get to see.

GF: It’s a team’s effort, everybody is important because none can do it alone. You can’t do your part if you don’t have an orchestra. How do you rehearse, always with the orchestra? Or do you sometimes rehearse alone with the conductor?

KS: I think it is pretty much like you work – first I meet alone with the conductor, I play for him, we talk about the piece, get our ideas sorted out, because in rehearsals we won’t have much time. It is probably the same for you – there is a very limited time frame. Most orchestras have a strict schedule and if it’s even two seconds over time they might stand up and leave, though luckily I did not have such negative experience so far. You have the time that you have and nothing more, so you need to prepare well. You also need a good conductor who knows how to use the time wisely; I guess that’s also similar to the work of the director in your case. You cannot waste any time and that’s why you need to meet before.

GF: Do you play in the States sometimes?

KS: Yeah, slowly, not regularly yet.

GF: Is it different than playing in Europe?

KS: The countries are of course very different, but music is the same. There is this cliché that music is a universal language…

GF: Is it a cliché?

KS: No, not really – I mean, it’s true. It doesn’t matter where you go, once you play the same piece, the same music, it’s just as if you were always speaking the same language. Maybe for you it’s harder because you always have the language barrier –

GF: Not at all. Fortunately, I had opportunities in my early years when I shot commercials and documentaries all over the world. I never met such problems. I was doing projects in the Arabic world, in Egypt, in the Emirates… in one project we counted how many nationalities we had on set and reached twelve – it worked out just fine. English is familiar to everyone and our professional vocabulary is quite small, we use the same terms to describe what we are doing, so language is never an issue.

KS: A good example for this would be a project of which Daniela [Daniela Shemer, Editor-in-Chief of MOUNT DELA] knows a lot about – the West Eastern Divan Orchestra, which brings people from Middle Eastern countries to play music together, allowing us to communicate beyond political conflicts.

GF: Well, good music obviously has a good effect on one’s nerves system; it’s interesting, I was just reading about it. Maybe you are yourself a good example for that – you are a really relaxed and nice person…

KS: Well, I know many musicians who are neither relaxed nor nice…[laughing]

GF: I had once the experience with Harry Belafonte: I was shooting a commercial and was both the director and the DOP. It was for UNICEF a couple of years ago, he was already 80 years old, I think. He was such a nice guy! I thought to myself, this is a guy who lived with music his whole life.

KS: Well, what I also noticed, is that really great musicians are never bad or negative people. The truly great musicians always have an extreme positive energy inside. I guess that cannot be a coincidence. I imagine that if you are really fulfilled from what you do, happy and satisfied, and if you are really searching after the core of your work, you can only get a positive experience. But of course there can be a lot of frustration, in any field and in music as well – because it is a business. Once you choose that music is what you would earn your money with it can get difficult, because then it has to work. If it doesn’t work what do I do? What do I eat? Obviously it takes away a bit of the magic and it’s our job to keep this magic and not let industry overcome art itself.

GF: But when I see your career – you are pretty young, it looks like it is fluently going up, and going really well. But I guess it’s a lot of hard work.

KS: Well, in my case I was just extremely lucky, I guess. I had never any bad experiences, nor did I ever have to push aggressively to get something. But it could have gone in a completely different direction. I could have been homeless now. Of course I worked very hard, but only for the music. I did not, in anyway, go out of my self to get anything, it just happened. Of course I like to talk to people, maybe that has something to do with it. I try to be friendly – but I have never done any of that to get something, I just try to be myself. I guess I am lucky that the person who I am supports the path I want to pursue. That’s why I feel very comfortable with where I am right now, because I never felt I had to become anyone else to arrive at this place. But a lot of hard work, of course, when it comes to music-making… I practice a lot, many hours.

GF: There is also the issue of competitions, right?

KS: Yeah, for musicians, I don’t know how it is for you – maybe you can tell me after – for young musicians competitions are a big part of their lives. Of course there are many examples of great artists who never did any competitions and still made it, but the majority of the great soloists nowadays have had at least an experience with competitions or have made their big jump through them. I wouldn’t say I made my big jump this way, but I’ve done a lot of competitions in my youth, until I was 20. I’m 24 now. It was actually a very clean cut – starting with 8 years old I did many competitions, and stopped exactly when I turned 20. The good thing is that it never felt like a competition, it was just like meeting your friends who you anyway see at the music school, you all play for your families and at the end get a diploma. It all started in a very friendly atmosphere and was always a positive experience. It always pushed me to practice more than usual because I wanted people to like my playing. Of course later it became more and more professional and I started doing international competitions. You meet people from everywhere and you suddenly see where you stand compared to an international level. But I was again extremely lucky to be able to stay relaxed. In the moment when it really mattered I was able to show my best. I don’t think anything can really prepare you for that. Of course I practiced so much and harder than ever before, but if you go on stage and you are suddenly nervous and uncomfortable, it’s hard. I was lucky to be on stage and not be nervous.

GF: Did your parents help you with that?

KS: With mental preparation? No, but my parents are also musicians so I was always surrounded with music and playing an instrument was very natural. But still, the situation of a competition is always unnatural. You are sitting on stage and suddenly there is a panel of people with pens and papers, judging your playing, which is not even possible – how can you judge someone who is making music? I mean, music is such a subjective thing. It’s not measurable in numbers or rating, so it’s such an unnatural thing to do. Still, I think it worked for me to compete because it made me practice harder than ever. I would say I made the most progress during these years when I was attending competitions. You get this kind of direct feedback which in my case was always positive. Of course my teacher was extremely critical in preparation for competitions – only a positive feedback is not a good thing. But after competing I always felt rewarded and that it was worth it. It gives you a certain confidence once you see it worked. Then again, I think it is important to find that moment when you say, OK, I’ve done enough competitions, I don’t want to stress myself anymore with these kind of situations and I don’t want to turn something which was so far only a positive experience into a negative one. It only takes one negative experience to turn the whole thing around, and I didn’t want to risk it. So at some point I decided to close this chapter in my life. I’m so happy I did that.

GF: Do you have favorite pieces with which you start rehearsing?

KS: When I start practicing? I’ve been taught by my very strict, Russian teacher, to always begin my practice with scales. It actually burnt itself into my brain and I really do that every morning. For me it’s almost like a morning prayer – cleaning your ears, clearing your head. If you played a scale a couple of times in tune, then you have the whole repertoire of notes for the day ready at your disposal and you are now ready to start practicing your pieces.


© Tom Trambow


KS: Can you ever enjoy a movie simply as a relaxing thing? Or are you constantly looking to see how the film was done?

GF: I think I can’t really switch off the professional observation. But I can enjoy and be very moved by a film nevertheless. When I watch a film I always have a very clear perception of what is going on in terms of lighting and cameras. Of course I’m thinking about these things because it’s my job, but it doesn’t disturb or ruin the illusion, not at all – if the movie really touches me, I’m touched anyway.

KS: How do you get your ideas for shots? Does it happen when you, for example, walk around the city and see a scene which you like, and then memorize or write it down? Or do you prefer to sit alone in your room with closed eyes? Or do you search through different movies and directors which you respect and like?

GF: Actually there is a big archive in my head because I’ve seen thousands of movies and I’ve done a lot of different projects. It depends also on the location – I can sit at home and think of great shots, but it doesn’t make much sense if I don’t have the location and the possibilities to execute them. The visualization starts once we choose our location and know where we are going to shoot. A funny thing – when I walk around, I often notice what the sun is doing: sometimes it is reflecting from a window somewhere else, looking totally unnatural. Very often I look at the sun and think – this looks so artificial! But it’s real sunlight! This always encourages me to let go and do whatever I feel, not thinking about whether it looks natural or not. I care less and less about authenticity. Because authenticity is individual – it’s how you perceive it. You might think one thing is authentic and I might think something else is. It’s all about my interpretation of the moment, of the scene, of the script. Maybe it’s a bit like you – when you are playing a solo part – it’s your interpretation.

KS: Yeah, with us it’s the same – one prepares the score and acquires information – if you preform Bach, you play it differently than how you would play Brahms or Beethoven. But then again, who said you have to?