Thanks to a mishap on Amtrak, Fatih Akin arrived over two hours late at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station from New York City. Now, in a hotel room, the 37-year-old writer-director is scrambling to move furniture around, so interviewers can find their place in a cramped hotel room to ask him questions.
“And I am supposed to be the director,” he jokes.
But Akin, a man of Turkish heritage born and raised in Hamburg, Germany, is used to scrambling. That’s the nature of independent filmmaking throughout the world.
And that’s even if you have received international praise and won awards at prestigious film festivals, as the amiable Akin has. Head-On, his heady 2004 mix of tragedy, comedy and social commentary told of the unlikely marriage of two psychiatric patients: a suicidal 40-year-old widower and a twentysomething drug-and-alcohol-addicted woman who wants to get out of her strict Turkish household. It also announced a major filmmaker arrived on the scene. The director’s 2007 effort, The Edge of Heaven, tackled three different, intense stories, shifting time and countries, and delving into the lives of such characters as a Turkish freedom fighter, an elderly man and a young prostitute. Along with taking many European awards, it won Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the festival’s coveted Golden Palm Award.
The filmmaker’s latest is a striking departure. The buoyant comedy Soul Kitchen is much lighter in tone, and centers on a Turkish-Greek man with a struggling restaurant in Hamburg, a serious back problem and a girlfriend who just took a job in Asia. While American soul music blares in the background, the joint is hopping with memorable eccentrics like the man’s shady brother, a comely waitress, an alcoholic chef and a determined tax collector.
In a brief but enlightening conversation, Akin talked to MovieFanFare about Soul Kitchen and his career.
MFF: Can you tell us about how Soul Kitchen came about?
FA: It actually goes back to 2003, after the editing of Head-On. I was broke and I had to become a producer to control the film and do it the way I wanted to do it. I had to pay the rent. I desperately needed the film. I had the naive idea to write something fast, and I was producing it very fast with Adam (Soul Kitchen star Bousdoukos), who was my friend and had a restaurant, so we would shoot it in the restaurant. That was the first kick in a way. In five days we had a script. I went with my partner and producer to an island to write it.
But then I won the Golden Bear Award (for Head-On) at the Berlin Film Festival. I became, overnight, an internationally reputed filmmaker. I was too young for that. I got very confused and I had the pressure to confirm this reputation. So, I didn’t trust the script of Soul Kitchen anymore. I put it away. I kept rewriting it over the years. I did (the documentary) Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul, which was easy to finance. That was the project that saved us.
MFF: So when you continued with serious films like The Edge of Heaven, did you ever think to go back to the lighter Soul Kitchen?
FA: The Edge of Heaven, I thought, was the right film after Head-On. I never gave up on Soul Kitchen. It went in different directions and it got worse. I wanted to produce the film, but not direct it. And then Andreas (producer-partner Thiel) died during the shooting of Head-On, and he wanted me to do Soul Kitchen. He said, “Don’t be a slave of your success. Do what you want, man.”
I was very exhausted after The Edge of Heaven. I took all eleven drafts of Soul Kitchen and took the best moments of all the scripts and created it with Adam. I needed a comedy.
MFF: How did the movie change over all of those years?
FA: Because of my success, it became “Can we do it more political and more important?” But finally, we went back to the first draft. Most of what was in the film is based on the first draft of the film. We said, “That was not that bad, we should do that.” It changed mostly on details, and after a while I had to bring Adam into it for the storyline. He had the restaurant and he knew all about it.
He said, “There has to be something about money.” I am an artist and I don’t know about money. He said, “You should put all this in.” At first I didn’t know why or how, but I realized this is material for conflicts, to keep pressure on the hero, and not avoid conflict but focus on it. Whenever there is a conflict, go to it.
MFF: Soul Kitchen reminded us of a film Robert Altman may have made, with its parade of colorful characters, anecdotal nature, loose feel and centralized location of a restaurant. Was the process different making Soul Kitchen than your other, more serious films? Were you more apt to allow improvisation?
FA: I always do rehearsals before we shoot. Take time for three or four weeks and read the script and change it and rewrite it with actors. We had a vision for the lousy sound (in this film). But this film was really choreographed. It was actually more disciplined than the other films I did. I had the desire and wish to control the timing. On the other films, I don’t control the timing. The characters have their own timing and I follow them as a director. There is a stream and I follow that. Here it was not like that. Here I had to create rhythm.
MFF: Do you think that’s inherent in making a comedy?
FA: Definitely. It has to be more disciplined in the writing, too. Like the way Billy Wilder worked. The sentences are “POM-POM-POM-POM,” well choreographed and very much in the right moment. I never knew what was the right moment for each sentence. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. That’s why it became more complicated and bigger and bigger. So we’d try another take and I’d say (to the actors) “Say the sentence a bit earlier, then a bit later.”
So usually (in my other films), I had three or four takes and that’s it. Or maybe if it’s complicated, seven or eight takes. Here I used 20 or 30 takes. Just because I knew timing was very important. Wilder didn’t use so many shots—he had a lot of master shots. He didn’t cut so much. The timing which is great in his work…it’s so fast, it came from the actors. And he gave the actors the space for that. I’m not that far that I can control it. Let me make a shot, then another shot, and close up, and let’s do it also from another angle. I had to control that. You learn.
MFF: The music is an essential element of the film, and your soundtrack is quite eclectic: Kool and the Gang, Curtis Mayfield, Quincy Jones, Zapp and Roger. How did you decide what songs to use and where to place them in the film?
FA: It was never meant like, here I am as director and I am creating my favorite tracks. The material was asking for a certain sound. We wanted to find the sound of the city. Hamburg is a soul town, much more than Berlin. Berlin is an electronic center or punk rock. We also have that, but Hamburg is specifically soul music. The Beatles rose from there in the 1960s.
If you wanted to go out to soul music in Germany, you must go to Hamburg. If this is a movie about the city, soul music must be dominating. I don’t mean this politically, but there is a strange identification for people with Greek, Italian, and Spanish backgrounds to identify with African-Americans. They are a minority in Europe, and African Americans are a minority here so it’s not the same history, but there is an adoption of certain cultural things. So it made sense to use the R and B tracks of the ‘60s and ‘70s and even the ‘80s.
We collected the tracks in 15 months and we changed it, like the script process. We kept track of the cost, too. Music is an emotional center of your film and when you have the chronological order of a film, you have an emotional map of the characters and you decide later if you need the music in the right places.
MFF: Do you think there is a connection between running a restaurant and directing a film? After all, in both cases, you have to be in charge of all of these people and the work they do, and your goal is to get the best possible results from the ingredients you have.
FA: This is my film about filmmaking. I don’t think I will ever do one (distinctly about movies) because it is boring. You have to know the world (a film is based in) and to most people outside, they don’t know the world. The best film is Fellini’s 8 ½. There’s nothing wrong with those pictures about filmmaking. They’re there. But the world of the restaurant has common things with filmmaking. I am the producer and Adam is the owner of the restaurant and somehow we are equal. I discover his problems and he discovers mine and we are equal. The chef is like a director. This one (in the movie) is like Sam Peckinpah–always drunk. And audiences are like customers. Dishes are like films and are eaten up very fast and you have critics, too, in both worlds.
Here’s Irv’s review of the film: