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The Gold Mine of Uncomfortable Social Interactions: Ted Fendt on Outside Noise

Outside Noise

I distinctly remember precisely where I was when I watched my first Ted Fendt film, his 2011 short Shattered Sleep. I can very easily envision the room (not my own) and where the laptop (also not my own) was positioned. My experience watching it is also very clear. I remember feeling somewhat befuddled at first—where did this film and filmmaker come from?—but soon that befuddlement turned into amazement. The work was funny, weird, genuine and utterly original—rare qualities then and even rarer qualities now. Since that fateful night, I’ve been thankful to share noodles, tacos, unending pastries and even an apartment with Ted, all while watching his films shift and change in the most beautiful ways over the years. 

His latest feature, Outside Noise, could be defined as a departure—he moves the action abroad to Vienna and Berlin and spends his time mostly with young women—but if you look and listen closely it becomes clear that the mechanisms of the film, and circumstances of the characters, are actually very much in line with his earlier cinematic adventures. Like his previous work, Outside Noise is a film that delights in spending time with people who are a bit lost, and pleasure (and sometimes pain) can be found in watching who and what they grab onto in the hope of finding their way. Here, Daniela and Mia and Natascha wander around the European cities and hang out in a variety of living rooms, attempting to contend with insomnia and, not to be too dramatic, their existence.

I have personally found it quite meaningful to watch Outside Noise over the past two years, my introduction to it coming from a link a few days into lockdown. It’s a film that grows with each viewing and I was happy to have an excuse to write to Ted (now taking part in a residency in Stuttgart, Germany that finds him living in a castle) about it. I could have asked him questions for forever but instead we decided to end our talk somewhat abruptly—a hard cut if you will—on the topic of awkward social interactions. Outside Noise begins its US theatrical premiere run tonight at Anthology Film Archives.

Gina Telaroli: Your films have always come together partially as a result of people you know and having an idea of how those people might make sense in a specific set of circumstances, i.e. a movie. I’m curious about the genesis of Outside Noise, which, while it does feature people you know, is also your first film with these particular people. And, of course, it’s also your first film not to take place in your hometown area of New Jersey or Philadelphia.

Ted Fendt:  The films I made up through Short Stay were, to a large degree, a way of coming to terms with my relationship to where I grew up and the idea of staying there or moving away, and the character of Mike became a perfect, concentrated embodiment of all my social anxieties. In Classical Period, I had wanted to make something using my more bookish sides, and Cal [Calvine Engime] was a great vessel for that. There were things about Mia [Sellman] and Daniela [Zahlner]’s personalities that may have spoken to a certain restless feeling I was beginning to feel but could not really articulate at the time. Not to overemphasize a biographical reading too much (though, hey, I’m the author, so it’s hard not to!), but I see a parallel between the trips to New York and Berlin made by Daniela’s character in the film to my own trips to Vienna and Berlin in 2016-17.

Telaroli: I’d like to hit one more (possibly) biographical point if it’s OK. One thing I love about your films is how the title connects to what happens. In your short films, the titles function as a small joke, but here it almost feels like a response to something? I know that a lot of this movie came to be while you were working as a projectionist here in New York. You were sitting in an enclosed dark space for long 12-hour shifts, which is to say, there was a definite lack of outside noise, light and people. I’d love to hear if there is any connection between this film and your work as a projectionist and also, how the title fits into the equation?

Fendt: The story of the title does involve a projection booth. On New Year’s Eve 2017, I was sitting waiting for a DCP to be over so I could go home and, to pass the time, I was listening to a French radio program on philosophers and insomnia. One of the moderators mentioned Emmanuel Levinas and his book Existence and Existents, and another friend of mine had mentioned Levinas a few years before, so it seemed worth checking out. The chapter “Insomnia” in the book begins: “The impossibility of rending [pulling away from] the invading, inevitable, and anonymous rustling of existence manifests itself particularly in certain times when sleep evades our appeal.” This spoke to my mood. Maybe the title’s slight abstractness can push the movie away from the realistic depiction it seems to be at first glance.

Telaroli:  I love that quote and also the idea of the title, its function as a phrase, pushing the film towards something beyond what is depicted on the surface. This brings up something I’ve thought a lot about each time I’ve watched it. In its construction—the rhythms of the editing, the softness of the 16mm images, how dialogue is utilized—it can appear to be and feel like a very fleeting film. But the film is actually full of things that are much deeper in nature—conversations about trauma, for example. Can you speak to this contradiction or how the film may or may not be something slight, something fleeting?

Fendt: I can see this fleeting quality too, and think it may be a side effect of both the shots not being attached to a strong plot and something else I was interested in. I was into the idea of presenting the places and the people in a way that had less mediation than is typical in a narrative film. So, rather than framing a shot of a street in Berlin as “Berlin,” just showing the shot and maybe that way allowing it to be experienced without the filter of a fiction, despite its being arranged in a sequence. This is why the first shot of Mia is cut to so abruptly, or Stefanie’s character in the last scene. I thought this would be a more direct way of experiencing the shots and also leave everything more open in terms of how someone could respond to the moods. The scene where they’re discussing trauma therapy comes up suddenly, but of course it’s a subject on these characters’ minds and retrospectively would inform what has come before as well as after.

Telaroli: I’d love to talk more about your relationship with your collaborators. Perhaps a good place to start, since you were just talking about shots, is your cinematographer Sage Einarsen, who has shot all of your films—shorts and features. How has your relationship evolved over the years and what is your working process like? I’m especially interested in how you both work with 16mm and what it means to both of you.

Fendt: Sage and I met in an NYU freshman sound class where we were assigned to make a (now lost?) radio drama together. He told me how much he loved Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A few years later, a mutual friend suggested he shoot one of my final year projects and, until I needed to turn to another person out of necessity in Berlin for Outside Noise, I never thought of asking anyone else to do the camera. Sage has always been up for working with the very limited equipment I offer and without any vanity, supporting and contributing to how I want to film and use light, and he’s always gotten along easily with the casts. Having Sage around has really made making these films possible; he’s always been ready to work on the next film. Up through 2018, we were both using the NYU library as a kind of working studio and shared many lunches and coffees, would bring each other cake from Moishes (RIP!) and had an ongoing conversation about films and photography.

Usually on set, I will describe what happens in the scene and propose a camera position, then Sage will watch, look around, maybe propose something else, then we’ll discuss it and go with one of these ideas or find a third idea. Since Sage is hardly ever asked to shoot other peoples’ projects, his main relationship to cameras is via photographs (he is an amazing photographer and some of the 3D photos he and Britni West shot on set are now on display at the Anthology Film Archives lobby), so I feel like he never has doubts about what can be done with the film stocks, as professional DPs who primarily shoot digitally seem to have. He’s also never misloaded a roll!

Telaroli: We’ve already discussed how this film marked a change for you in terms of cast, and also how the conception of your films has a lot to do with knowing who the actors in the project will be. I’d love to hear more about working with Mia and Daniela on set and how they directly or indirectly impacted your writing experience. I’d also love to hear more in general about your writing process?

Fendt: This changed over the course of filming. In Berlin, we were working with a script that I wrote alone but with their feedback in English. At that point, they’d only met twice before and were still getting to know each other on set, as they were also trying to translate the dialogue into their own words in German. They are performers and artist-filmmakers but had not been involved in this way in this kind of project before. We shot a lot more than is in the film, and far too much for the few days we had, so it felt quite rushed. Afterwards, we spoke a lot about how to make the writing experience better and wound up sitting down over a week in Vienna with a script draft I’d written and going through each scene, discussing what should instead happen and what the characters would talk about. Mia and I repeated this later in Berlin with Natascha [Manthe] and by the time we were on set in Vienna, each scene had an informal list of the topics they would talk about, and they knew the characters well enough to come up with dialogue on the spot while we staged and rehearsed the scene.

This was a writing process I had wanted earlier but only figured out how to achieve gradually, with each film getting closer to this kind of collaboration. In Short Stay, I still wrote a lot of the dialogue myself or based on my experiences, but in Classical Period it is much more of a mix between my words and ideas, and the words and ideas of the cast. Certain things come from our personal experience; others are stolen from things observed. Mia’s narration in the beginning came out of my journal. It was Daniela’s idea to film in the Favoriten neighborhood in Vienna, as a parallel to Schoeneberg in Berlin, two neighborhoods which are amazing but somehow not on many people’s maps. And all of the places you are seeing in Berlin are the places I was hanging out when I was in Berlin in the fall of 2017.

Telaroli: To round things out, I’d love to hear your thoughts on comedy, on how you use it in your films but also what kind of comedy do you enjoy? I love how you balance things that are subtly funny, like when Daniela says, “So there is no wallet?” with things that are unexpected and absurd, like when Daniela throws the sandwich on the man in the next scene.

Fendt: It’s funny you mention that particular line, because it is a joke that loses something in the translation. Daniela asks about the wallet using the Austrian word Geldbörse and Manu [Bäuerle] replies using the (to Austrian ears silly-sounding) German word Geldbeutel, so when Daniela says “There is no wallet” she sarcastically uses the German word to express her contempt for Manu. I am personally much more a fan of the German spoken in Austrian, so I wanted Austrian words used when possible. There are a couple of lines in the Vienna section that would be hard or maybe impossible for some Germans to understand (like the slang word Daniela uses to ask for a cigarette after the party).

I see lots of humor in all of my films, even if I’ve preferred it to be a bit more subtle these past two films. Maybe I’ll ramp it up more again sometime soon? I think throwing food at people is inherently very funny to watch, especially since the person covered in food can’t really do anything in response without looking silly. The Döner that they’re eating is actually my favorite in Berlin (Sufi at the Kleistpark U-Bahn entrance). Uncomfortable social interactions, which I feel like I witness or experience first-hand all the time or most of the time, also seem like a goldmine for humor.

I could also point out in this regard that I find abrupt shifts in moods in films both moving and often quite amusing as well as true to my life experience. So, there are some cuts that are rough and perhaps unexpected: for example, the mood of the Ingeborg Bachmann scene with the deep, shifting shadows followed by the tilt down from the church to Mia taking photos of it and repeating the dialogue from the opening scene.

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