Alexa Karolinski"I have a tendency to sound very negative because I'm German. I feel like here in the States, you're trained to be super optimistic and positive about everything."
Alexa Karolinski makes movies that are so consistent in their vision, I feel like I know her when I don't. Her videos so far are mostly short: she's made four fashion films with Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta of the label Eckhaus Latta and one for the brand 69, as well as a sweet ad for the Berlin cosmetics brand uslu airlines and a scrumptuous short starring Karley Sciortino. Her latest is like a moving fashion editorial, a spin on Star Trek featuring model-artist Britta Thie and clothes by Nhu Dong, Anna Sophie Berger, and Arielle de Pinto. Alexa, a German-Canadian, lives in Los Angeles with her American husband Basil Katz. This interview was conducted via Skype video, with Alexa in her home--in her garden, then her bed--in LA.
Where in Los Angeles do you live?
I live in Hollywood by the Hollywood Bowl. And it's really nice. I love LA.
When did you move?
I moved a year and a half ago, January 2013. LA is everything that people say, both good and bad. It took awhile but I can’t imagine living anywhere else right now. I got a dog.
What kind of dog?
A Korean Jindo dog. Basil's cousin found her on the street. So, I guess, she’s--what do they say? She's a rescue. In LA, you have to have a rescue dog. If you have a new dog, you're not going to get a lot of respect at the dog park.
Do you have a favorite place in LA?
Underneath the Hollywood sign, like literally the closest point that you can get to the Hollywood sign, there's this park. Grassy, not that big, and technically for humans, it's a beautiful park. People use it as a dog park, and that’s my favorite place in LA. If you had come here for the interview, I would have taken you to this park. I go almost every day at sunset. The echo, the soundscape, is so weird. You can hear everybody's conversation; the industry talk is the funniest. Yesterday, when I went, there was a bulldog event.
An English bulldog event. There were about thirty English bulldogs, running around and snorting, and their owners.
Did you take pictures?
I took a little Instagram video.
Cool. So one theme that I’ve picked up on a lot of your work that I wanted to talk about is long distance intimacy and intimacy through technology.
Really? That's cool that you see that.
And that we're Skyping this interview seems emblematic of that. Do you have many long distance intimacies?
Yeah, I mean, that's my life. My whole family lives in Berlin. And now my second family, my best friends, live in New York and Berlin. I wake up at 7am, so I can still get people through Skype or on the phone who are ending their workday in Berlin. That's just a reality that I've had to come to terms with. It's a nine-hour time difference to Berlin. That's the new normal.
I find often my relationships become stronger with some distance because we're forced to create new ways of being together.
Well, the problems become different, the older you get. I feel like when I go back to Berlin and I have my three-hour long drink with a friend who I haven't seen in a long time, our catchup is different than it used to be. You get to the deep stuff and to the problems real fast, like it needs to be deeper because there's less day-to-day conversation and less time.
Your videos are to me like a salve to the schizophrenia and alienation of online. I feel like I'm sharing in an intimacy, especially with those you've made with repeat collaborators, like Eckhaus Latta. How did you meet Mike and Zoe?
I met Mike and Zoe about two years ago in New York. I was just finishing SVA, and I really wanted to make movies, but I needed to find a way to how I could be hired as a commercial director. Since I didn't have musician friends who needed videos, the easiest thing for me to start with was fashion video, as I somehow mostly knew people connected to that world. I was doing videos for this an online magazine for a while, I Like My Style. The people who ran that, Eva Munz and Adriano Sack, are friends from Germany. I Like My Style were among the first to feature Eckhaus Latta. And then I asked my friend Emily Segal to introduce me to Mike and Zoe since she knew them from Providence. I met Mike and Zoe to talk about making videos for them. They hadn't really done any videos yet, and I remember we had this magical, epic, four-hour long brainstorm. We still talk about it. Because it was beautiful. Back then, their studio was in Williamsburg; we sat there for four hours talking about what lacked in fashion video. By the end, we had fifteen ideas for a video, although we never ended up executing any of those.
When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?
It was a gradual process. I went from studying art history, to working for Vice Magazine in Germany, to working for culture television, writing reports about other people's art and work. With time, I just felt I wanted to make my own films.
Do you have favorite filmmakers?
They change all the time. The three women first come to mind are Agnes Varda, Vera Chytilova, and Chantal Akerman. And a filmmaker I really respect, since I'm already name dropping, is John Walter. John Walter is a New York-based filmmaker, and he was a bit of my mentor while I was living there. He's both a director, and an editor extraordinaire. When he makes films, he spends years on them, and then they're perfectly told. You should see this documentary, Theater of War, that he made about Bertolt Brecht's exile in California. When a documentary is good, like really good, no narrative film can compare.
Your latest fashion video is inspired by Star Trek. Did you watch the program as a kid?
It was on television, but I wasn't a Trekkie. I've been watching so much Star Trek with Basil in the last couple of weeks to prepare for this and it made me realize that I'm married to an insane Trekkie! I had no idea. Britta Thie, who's the captain in the video, is also the most intense Trekkie ever. Britta will walk around Berlin in a silver latex onesie. She’s seen every single Star Trek, every series, every episode, like at least four times. We did this video in collaboration with the Star Trek Fan Club Berlin. They meet there every Saturday and do role-playing in this youth center where they created their own version of the Bridge. Members of the fan club play the crew in the video.
Is Britta a member?
No. But when we went to this place for the first time, Britta cried. She was sitting in her future captain chair in this place and crying. She said that her whole life is coming full circle right now. And it was beautiful.
I love Star Trek for its inclusivity. The ethics of show are really inspiring. Did you talk to your collaborators on this video about that?
Oh, yeah. We spoke about it a lot. We did it with a German Berlin-based Star Trek fan club and we were thinking that if this was done with a club in the States, these people would probably visualy reflect the show's diversity more; it would not just be white, blonde, blue-eyed people, but that's the reality of making anything in Germany. In the video, we tried to create different tribes around the different fashion designers featured, so for example, we have Nhu Dong as part of the "Aggro Minimal" tribe. We put the three people in the bridge in Anna Sophie Berger. We also used Don't Shoot the Messenger, an amazing Berlin designer, and Arielle de Pinto for the jewelry. Julia Burlingham did a fashion editorial photo shoot while we were making the video.
Do you set limits between commercial contacts and personal work? Even your commercial contracts, like the nails video for uslu airlines, are so personal.
Yeah, that's the struggle. I feel like there will hopefully be more and more of a difference, a difference so extreme I don’t need to think about that compromise, or, more ideally, they become one thing. I know that, in the commercial world, I need to do things a certain way, there's very little creative wiggle room. You just need to see the ads that exist to understand that that's just how it is: you need to place your own artistic vision within a brand’s or a client’s vision for themselves. I think the most important thing will be to always have other projects that are all my own, like the kinds of projects I've been doing until now, where you just work for yourself or with people who also just believe in making really cool things. But most people don't like things like that, I don't think.
I don't believe that!
Commercially, I mean. Just look at everything. I could rant for a long time about what I think about videos that exist online: "browser friendly" commercial videos designed to be played in a browser in the background, catered to your being able to do five things at once, to skip forward or backward; they're always made of unengaging, beautiful images, like a cooking or travel guide show aesthetic, pretty being the only measure of form. Like Instagram filters. Do I sound too negative?
I have a tendency to sound very negative because I'm German. I feel like here in the States, you're trained to be super optimistic and positive about everything.
Yeah and that's why so much in our culture sucks: because it's a "yes culture." It's anti-intellectual and pro-industry. There's so much media out there.
Well, that's the real problem. And that poses a real challenge sometimes for my work, because right now everybody's realizing that video is an absolutely necessary part of everything, of online, but most people don't yet know what that means or what they want. Internet video is its own thing. I often hear people talk about "short attention spans." But what do people mean when they talk about other people's attention spans? They want short videos with many cuts. I think the whole dialogue is wrong. I watch things that I get extremely bored by, and I don't believe this has to do with my "attention span." I believe, rather, that I'm not engaged with it, and that's because it's not for me. Something can be really well shot and beautiful, all the elements are there, and I don't know-- I know I don't like something if I feel empty afterwards. A lot of internet video leave me feeling super empty after. Like after watching a ton of advertising.
What do you mean by "internet video"? How it is different than other forms of film or video.
I think the answer's in distribution. You can make things that go to television, to film festivals, etc. Internet videos are videos that are made for and featured on the internet, and that can be any kind of platform, whether it be for a magazine or your Vimeo page.
Are you working on anything that's not designed for the internet first?
Yeah, I am writing a narrative feature script and starting a new documentary. Both ideally not for the internet, or at least not at first.
Last thing -- I wanted to talk about food, there's so much of it in your work.
Yeah. I'm very domesticated. That's why I like living in LA. New York often felt, I don't know...
I eat salad from a box here, too often. What's your go-to dish?
Annie’s Macaroni and Cheese. And when I cook-cook, chicken soup. My favorite thing is -- I can't believe I'm saying this out loud as it sounds incredibly cliche -- but I love sitting and eating and drinking with my friends. That's what I love doing more than anything. I don't really go out much, I don't party. Even when I was living in New York, I didn't really go to many of the parties. I would much rather just drink wine, smoke cigarettes, and talk about stuff.