Ulli Gruber interview

A New Kind of Leading Lady

If you’re a longtime LNGFRM reader and you also happen to live right here in NYC, then you’re probably already familiar with the large number of artistic types who flock to the city.

They come from all over to make a name for themselves and create work from a unique perspective.

Or at least that’s the best-case scenario, and it’s definitely been the outcome for filmmaker and photographer Ulli Gruber, who moved to New York from Austria in the late 90s, when the city was on the up-and-up.

She was already a photographer at the time, but when she fell in with a larger artistic community over in Brooklyn, she quickly found that many of those skills could be easily translated to the medium of film and video.

Ulli Gruber interview
Photo Credit: David Meade

And nowadays, it’s difficult to assign Gruber just one title or label. Her photographs have appeared in many galleries, and she’s won multiple awards for her film work.

She’s almost constantly working on something new, which at the moment includes a short documentary that will focus on restaurant servers in New York and the stories they’ve gathered throughout their careers.

Gruber also has an ongoing photographic project that involves documenting bikers in upstate New York.

And in fact, Gruber stays so busy with her work that we played phone tag for a few days before settling on a time when we could have a conversation with her about her career and her artistic motivations.

But when we finally got to sit down together, Gruber’s inherent energy and excitement were obvious. She was smiling wide from the very start, eager to tell us more about why she loves this kind of work and why she feels it’s so important to evolve as an artist.

We ended up talking for a good long while. The discussion was delightful, and it gave us a window into the New York filmmaking scene.

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What are some of the challenges of working as an independent filmmaker?

Gruber: Telling a story visually is the most important. Everyone has a cell phone taking photos and videos and posting them online. YouTube gives everyone the chance to have those videos seen worldwide, which is amazing.

Producing a film requires a good story, equipment, and a crew and actors who need to be paid. Budgets for independent filmmaking are shrinking considering the technology now available, but crew and cast still need to make a living, which is a real challenge.

As the internet became a platform of distribution, it changed the film market similarly to how it changed the music market. Free online distribution is great for introducing a project but it is a challenge to earn money from something that people can watch for free.

Formats change fast and I find it a real challenge to make sure that every contributor to the project has the hardware and software they need to work together smoothly.

I produce most of my work myself, and I feel very fortunate for all the support I receive once projects are completed. Every single screening, grant, and award is a true blessing that lets me keep shooting. I’m most grateful for all the help I’ve received from the immediate community.

Ulli Gruber
Photo Credit: David Meade

So what was it like to photograph bikers in New York? Was it an exciting experience?

Gruber: I truly enjoyed chasing after motorcyclists with Michael Wiechowsky as my captain. He owns a 1400 Kawasaki with a sidecar that we built into a mini production studio.

It is very exciting to be taking photos and video while everything around you is moving so fast. I met Michael, a former motorcycle-racer and a doctor, back in 2014 and we started working together immediately.

Taking photos out of a moving sidecar feels a bit like being an airplane gunner and takes a tremendous amount of trust. Michael follows all traffic and safety rules while I’m hanging out the sidecar taking amazing images.

Right after the shooting sessions, we pull over to edit and print large-format photographs. I’m grateful that I’ve met so many wonderful people and experienced such great stories on the road. The immediate satisfaction of our motorcycle project is a thrill and we are fortunate to get invited to special events and rides from the biker community. We are planning to bring our moving production studio to Europe this summer. Its unique design puts smiles on everyone’s faces.

It looks a bit like something Batman would ride, and it always draws a crowd. Once riders find out that we are looking for them, we get right back on the road together and shoot. I’ve met some very interesting people who wear a suit all week and show off their tattoos on the weekend. Being a passionate motorcyclist myself makes this project a very exciting experience.

Who are your sources of inspiration in the world of filmmaking?

Gruber: I’m mostly inspired by music and the stories and environment around me.

That said, I do have my personal list of favorite filmmakers, which includes Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, Akira Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock, Vittorio De Sica, Stanley Kubrick, Werner Herzog, and many, many more. Each one of them changed visual language with their work. They produced a tremendous body of work and I see them as warriors of the light. The films they made decades ago are so rich in every way that they have outlived their creators.

Their stories are about human behavior, which has not changed. Love, fear, greed, and death are real and everybody has their own struggles.

I should also mention Uli Seidl and Hubert Sauper, who are filmmakers from Austria that I hope to meet and personally thank for their films.

I also value comedy because it allows me to come up with creative and fun ideas for stories, sets, props, and costumes. Watching Charlie Chaplin, Monty Python, Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat, or Rowan Atkinson as Mister Bean is most inspiring as well.  

Ulli Gruber interview
Photo Credit: Mark Higashino

When photographing, do you prefer to shoot digital or on film?

Gruber: Film and digital, I like it all! I shoot mostly digital now but enjoy taking my film camera for a walk. Film photography forces me to think a lot more before I release the shutter.

When shooting digital, I tend to shoot more images and spend time in postproduction to look for that perfect moment. I don’t really miss the chemical fumes of developing film, but I still love the organic feeling these images have when I hold a print.

Digital images have a different nature and it’s like I have to decide chocolate or vanilla, CD or vinyl. Almost everything is digital now and even when I shoot film it gets digitized in post. It’s amazing how quickly technology has advanced. I also enjoy mixing media and I believe it creates nice textures.

Can you tell us about some of your upcoming projects?

Gruber: “Confession of the Server” is my current project. It’s a collaboration with David Meade. NYC is a melting pot for all cultures and I hope to get the project started right here. Many actors here are servers and we could not find a better place to make this project since there is no shortage of funny stories and settings. We are casting now, so if you’re a server and have a story you’d like to share with us, feel free to contact me at: ulligruberfilms.com.

A film I made about “Peter Piper the Balloon Meister” is a piece I would like to extend to become a feature-length film. I have been following Peter Waldman’s work for years and I’ve seen the influence he has in people’s lives. While he twists a balloon for a buck he shares his philosophy, which is priceless.

There will also be more motorcycle photography. In August, Michael Wiechowsky and I plan to shoot in our production-cycle in Austria and Italy!

I’m also planning an exhibition in Brooklyn for early fall to present photos of the great bassist Dave Holland in different band settings. Over the years, I’ve shot photos of many wonderful music recordings of his. There are some great moments and images that need to get out of the hard drive so that they can be viewed by an audience.

When making a film, do you prefer to use natural light or a traditional three-point lighting set-up?

Gruber: I love working with natural light, chasing it and using reflectors. Traditional lighting is most important on an interior shoot. The lighting depends on the nature of a project. It is most important to me since you can’t have a great photo without good lighting.

I do plan lighting in the pre-production phase, and I like to use only a small lighting package. When I shoot in a music recording studio, it’s most important for me not to interfere with the performers and the sound equipment. Less is more in those situations.

Even on big film and commercial shoots, I’ve noticed that lots of lights are ordered and very few of them are used. Most DP’s over-order to have choices. I prefer to make my choices ahead of time. Having less equipment allows me to work with a smaller crew. It’s much easier to move fast with a small crew.

Ulli Gruber
Photo Credit: David Meade

Do you have a specific method for choosing crew members to work on your films?

Gruber: I call all my people for help!  I have crew members that have worked with me on many projects and on every shoot, someone new comes in. When I work on others on film shoots and like the way someone works, I get their contact info. I have a contact list with people to work with.

During a film shoot your crew and cast is family and no matter how tired or stressed everyone gets, there has to be respect. It’s important for me to trust my crew to handle equipment with care so that everything is returned in perfect shape.

All crew members have to be sensitive to the actors in front of the lens so they can perform in a safe environment.

Mark Higashino is part of almost every one of my projects here in the USA and we have been working together since 1997. I also get lots of crew support from the Japanese-American community in NYC and truly enjoy the high professional level that they brought to set.

When I was a film student, I had a notebook where I wrote down the names of my classmates that showed up ten minutes before class got started, every day. I still have this book and call them my dear friends now, and we help each other to finish our shoots.

We all meet at the School of Visual Arts and support each other by sharing ideas, crew members, equipment, and laughs. Chad Gardella and David Spaltro are award-winning independent filmmakers now and a true inspiration to me.

On no-budget films, I pick a very strong key crew and ask everyone available and willing to help out. To my surprise, I have had amazing results this way. Everyone is eager to learn quickly and grasp how to move on a set.

A good crew is most important because everybody brings all their knowledge and experience to contribute to the project. I’m open to adapting to new ideas that everyone brings to the table and picking my crew very carefully, since working together is very intensive.

Lighting, Costumes, Make-Up, Editing, Music, and all other departments need to have a full understanding of what it is you’re trying to make, and I’m grateful that everyone tends to give more than I could ever dream of.

When screening a movie, do you usually feel nervous? How important is audience feedback?

Gruber: It’s always exciting to find an audience to share my work with. I’m always nervous before events, but it’s a good kind of nervous. To finally see my work in a gallery, cinema, or on TV is very rewarding because then I know it’s really finished.

Viewers always have interesting comments in the sense that they are experiencing the films in their own way. When working on a film, it becomes very difficult to be subjective about the material until the editing is finished.

Every time I see my work in a public setting, it’s like I’m seeing it for the first time, too. The feedback from an audience keeps me going.

Ulli Gruber interview
Photo Credit: David Meade

Do you prefer to work with others on artistic projects or do you prefer to work alone?

Gruber: Collaborating with good people is a true blessing! There is only so much you can do on your own, and most projects are a collective process that require a team. If I compare it to music, a solo record is very special, but having a band allows you to play music you could not play alone because every instrument added brings in a new flavor. The same is true when working in a crew.

Every crew member adds flavor to the film, and when I watch a film I can see if the crew was part of the success or just used as puppets to make the director’s vision possible. I prefer collective effort since I hire people I think are the best at their individual jobs.

When working on a film project, there are so many tasks and, for example, I’m not going to tell a sound designer how to design sound. I’m open to suggestions and all I do is describe a mood I’d like to have.

I find teamwork rewarding and it makes me feel connected to the human race. The only way to become much larger than yourself is to be surrounded by creative people.

I do need alone-time at the beginning of a project, during the writing process, and after a shoot, I’m happy to be by myself in the editing studio. It is an art unto itself to find a balance in working with others and making what’s in my heart. What goes around comes around.  

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