Christian Ditter loves surprises, so much so that when he saw what was happening on the set of “How to Be Single,” as stars Rebel Wilson, Dakota Johnson, Leslie Mann and Alison Brie were taking what was on the page for the comedy and coming up with too many sharp one-liners of their own to cram into the film, he consulted with producers and the studio marketing team to protect some of the big punchlines while making use of everything his actors had given him.
“I find nothing more annoying than going to a movie and knowing the best jokes already, so we selected things that didn’t make the film for the trailers so that audiences would still have a fresh experience,” said Ditter, who with his editor scoured through hours of improvised takes and scenes where the camera might’ve started to shake because the person behind it was laughing too hard for the footage.
It was the element of surprise that drew Ditter to the film in the first place, finding it refreshing that the adaptation of Liz Tuccillo’s bestselling novel brought “a sensation of a whodunit to the romcom – you never know who is going to end up with whom, if at all” and appropriately enough, the call to make “How to Be Single” wasn’t the least bit expected for the German-born director, who was asked to helm after New Line was considering Lily Collins, the star of his last film, “Love, Rosie,” for “Single” and liked what they saw behind the camera as well. Indeed, Ditter brings considerable energy and a new perspective to the New York-set romantic comedy, which revolves around four women who, unlike most films in the genre, aren’t necessarily looking for love, but for some sign of personal satisfaction, whether that is a relationship as it is for Brie’s Lucy, a baby for Mann’s Meg, the perfect party for Wilson’s rowdy Robin or in the case of Johnson’s Alice, something she hasn’t quite figured out after she takes a break from her longtime boyfriend.
However, in the Big Apple Ditter envisions, possibility is around every corner and on the eve of the film’s release, the director spoke of how he created such a vibrant world for the characters to inhabit, filming in a number of famous New York landmarks, and adjusting to the size and scope of a major Hollywood production while making something that ultimately feels intimate.
The film has this sense of discovery about New York City and I’ve read you actually only had been there once before filming this for a couple weeks. Did your experience bleed into the film?
Absolutely. I was first in New York a few years ago as a tourist for two weeks and I basically did nothing but walk the city everyday with my camera, capturing it all. I was fascinated by all of it with a big sense of wonder and also admiration because it was, and still is for me, a city of dreams. It felt strangely familiar although I had never been there just because I’ve seen so many movies that are set there. When we started this project, I sat down with the production designer and my [cinematographer] Christian Reins and those photos [I took were] a starting point for our conversation about where we want to go visually with the film to capture that same sense of wonder and coming to the city wide-eyed, like the main character Alice does.
There’s a very kinetic quality to the way the camera moves in this film – like you really are swept up in it – how did that style come about?
It’s interesting that you say that because I never analyzed that so much myself, but I’m always starving for something more interesting visually in terms of camera and composition, [while] telling the story and the intention of the scene most efficiently. Some scenes allow for that…
There’s one shot in particular, outside the breakfast place where you start out from mid-air and then swirl around Dakota and Rebel Wilson’s characters in a 360-degree shot, that seemed like it must have been tricky.
This was a shot that we wanted to give a sense of hung-over, disoriented feeling, so I just thought let’s literally translate to the screen that her head was spinning and have them spin in the opposite direction, so that camera can spin to give a sense of them having to find their way, then when they do set on the direction they’re going, that’s when the camera stops, so it was a translation of the scene’s intention basically.
You also are able to create a very lively atmosphere with the lighting. Was there a general scheme to how you approached this?
We wanted to have it very natural, so we took a lot of photographs in the original locations — we shot the entire film on location [in New York]. To make it feel real, I also made a list of things I don’t want to do in this genre in general, which included not front-lighting faces. Sometimes there’s a window behind a person talking to the person gets the front light naturally, but I wanted to stay very flexible to allow the actors to improv and we lit a lot of things with natural light. The [cinematographer] and the production designer worked very close together in terms of where practical lamps would be on the set and how we’d block the scene. We planned for everything – Rebel Wilson, for example, had blocking diagrams and half of it we threw overboard because if you have people like Rebel on set, they come up with new stuff every five minutes, so sometimes that makes it difficult to pre-plan. But our intention was to keep it natural. We looked at everything from the exterior. We would say, “Okay, what’s the mood of the scene? Is it a sunny day? Is it an overcast day?” We lit the set and the faces, accordingly from the outside, so that it looks real from the inside.
As you mention with Rebel, when you have cast like this that would seem to come to the set with their own ideas, how did you want to work with them?
We had a very fun script to start with, but if you have comedy talent like Rebel and Leslie Mann, and also Alison [Brie] and Dakota [Johnson], who are very funny and very smart women, I try to get everything that I can no matter who the source of the idea is. I try to put myself in the position where I have the option later to choose the funniest bit. We would always film the scene as it was scripted. After that, I encouraged them to go a little bit off the rails and sometimes when they went a little bit further off the rails, I needed to put some back in, but some of the funniest bits of the movie happen from improvisation. I always encouraged that. As I mentioned, our lighting technique gave us flexibility so that the actors didn’t exactly have to hit their marks, but that we could follow them somewhere else, which is one of the reasons why we did a lot of handheld work, just to keep up with them and give them the freedom to be in the moment and have fun with it.
Was there a specific moment that came as a surprise that you were happy ended up in the film?
Yeah, one of the first things we shot with the ladies together was when they’re arriving at the hospital in the yellow taxicab. Basically, [the script called for them] to get out of the cab and walk towards the entrance. But it just took forever and quite frankly was a little bit boring, just for the three girls to file out of the taxi, one after another. In my head, I had already cut around it, like okay, the taxi’s going to stop and we’ll cut to the hospital, so I said to Rebel, “This is not exciting enough. I think we might need to cut it, let’s do one more take. Just try to get out of the cab faster or in a more interesting way.” When we did the next take, which is the one that’s in the film, as the cab stops, the door doesn’t open at all. I was just about to say “Cut,” but Rebel rolls down the window and does this whole thing with climbing out the window and then pulling Leslie Mann behind her through the window. Then Dakota says, “Robin, it was locked” and she’s opening the door. It’s also something that Dakota came up with in the moment, just riffing off what Rebel started.
Was there a particular crazy day of shooting?
Every single day was a crazy day. I came to this whole thing with a certain naiveté I guess because when we make in a film in Europe and we want to shoot on the street or that railway station or this airport, it’s a fairly simple thing. It’s a little bit more than documentary crew, but not much more. When I came onto the project and we went to New York, there were quite a few scenes in the script that were written as bar or restaurant scenes and I’ve seen so many restaurant scenes in this genre and we had the gift of being able to shoot in New York, so I wanted to pull out of interiors as many scenes as possible and put them onto the street. For example, if there was a bar scene, I put it into a real bar, but the doors would be open, so you could feel the street on the outside or you can travel in and out of the bar with the camera. Even the scenes that could have been [shot in a] studio, I wanted to be on the New York street. In Germany, we had to do it like that because we just can’t afford to build all these sets.
Obviously [for “How to Be Single”], I picked the hot spots, like Fifth Avenue and Meatpacking District for party scenes and Central Park and Grand Central Station, and I had these 20 people just staring at me, asking, “Are you sure you want to shoot this here?” I go, “Yeah, it’s much better than some restaurant.” Nobody said no, which was amazing. When I arrived on set, five blocks before we reached the location, I saw all the trucks lined up, and I understood that compared to Europe, you have to lock down an entire section of the city just for parking spaces because everybody has a trailer and there’s truckloads of technical equipment. I thought, holy shit, what have I done? But I’m very happy with the result. it was worth it to shoot where the things are actually set.
Since this was your first Hollywood film, was the overall process any different for you?
The work itself, if you’re standing on the set next to the camera or in front of the actors, is pretty much the same. Everything that comes with it is just so much bigger. The scenes are so much bigger – there are so many more people and it’s a much bigger apparatus that needs to be steered. When I make a film in Germany, I always just have the producer and the distributor and me, so it’s basically the three of us making a movie. When decisions needed to be made, it was very easy and quick to get the everybody on the same page because it was just a three-person conversation. There’s also the writer on my German projects. But a lot more people are involved in a Hollywood production, so that was really interesting to me and also fun. I learned a lot in the best possible way. It was a good experience.
Recently, you were hired to direct the Netflix series “Girlboss” and judging by the Variety announcement, it would seem I’m not the first to notice you have a knack for these strong, independent female characters. Is that something you actually gravitate towards or has that been happenstance?
It just happens because when I choose projects, I go by gut, not some metric. I’m not very specific about it. First and foremost, I just see what grabs my attention. If I can relate on an emotional level, it makes sense for me to take on a project. I am aware that these are strong female characters but I do think that over the last few years female characters have become stronger and in general, movies have been catching up with reality — for example, look at the “Hunger Games” movies. In my life, the females surrounding me, like my wife or my sister or my daughters, are certainly equally strong and opinionated as the males. Maybe sometimes even more.
What’s the last week been like for you? It appears your travels have taken you back to New York as well as England in whirlwind time.
It’s a blur already. I just literally got off a plane in Berlin where I’m doing two days of press. Before that, I was in New York promoting the film and doing a lot of interviews, more than I’ve ever done in my life. It’s crazy and also rewarding. The best part about the New York premiere was that my wife was there with me and we met a lot of people we became friends with during the shoot. We had such an amazing crew and having all them there [felt] like a class reunion. Then in London, a lot of my German friends and my family came. No matter how many people have seen the film already or how well we know it plays with test audiences, I’m still very nervous when I show it to people I personally know and whose opinion I value. It becomes very personal when friends and family are there and it’s been great.