Behind The Screens: Rolling Out Berlin's Red Carpet

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Cathrin Schaer, a New Zealand journalist living in Germany, blogs from the 61st Berlin International Film Festival.

One of the biggest film festivals in the world started in Berlin Thursday evening with a screening of True Grit, the latest film by directors Ethan and Joel Cohen - the Western was recently nominated for ten Academy Awards and is proving a huge hit in the US already.

But before they got changed into their ball gowns for the red carpet première in the wintry city, several stars of the film - Jeff Bridges, Josh Brolin and 15-year-old Hailee Steinfeld - as well as the sibling directors were on hand to answer questions from a rather warm room full of over-heating journalists and camera people.

"I didn't really like the movie," a correspondent from India murmured in accented English. The interviewees were already twenty minutes late and he was fiddling with one of the nifty translation devices that were being handed out at the conference: The questions and answers are translated immediately into English, French and German by translators sitting in the booths behind him. Still, the critic made himself heard above the dozen or so different languages ping-ponging across the large room dedicated to press conferences inside the Hyatt Hotel: "There are so few actors with charisma these days," he grumbled.

And it seemed, so few journalists with sensible questions to ask. One German children's television presenter insisted on asking the bemused male stars what sort of food they liked best on set (their answers: a sarcastic Brolin, "rattlesnake" and a friendly Bridges, "a good, healthy protein shake") and then presented Steinfeld with a teddy bear after enquiring after her favourite colour sweet.

Um, she's 15, not five.

Other reporters had obviously been to one too many film theory classes. Referring to the fact that Steinfeld's character Maddy is good with money, another amateur analyst asked if this might be an oblique reference to the current financial crisis? "Uh, that might be over reaching a bit," Joel Coen laughed.

The stars and their directors also had to keep fielding questions about the original movie, True Grit released in 1969 that starred actor John Wayne. And they also had to keep repeating that their movie wasn't actually a re-make of that one. "It came out in 69, we were just kids," Ethan Coen noted. In fact, their True Grit had more to do with the 1968 novel written by Charles Portis, they said. It was the book, they had based everything on, not the John Wayne movie.

When the actors had arrived, there had been loud whoops and cheers for Steinfeld and also for Jeff Bridges, who has a cult following among film buffs due to his role in the Coen's The Big Lebowski, which was the last film the directing pair screened at a Berlinale, 13 years ago. But it was Josh Brolin - poor guy, he didn't get any whoops when he was introduced - who made the smartest, and funniest, comments by far.

"I spent a lot of time with the guy. I really loved his political beliefs," Brolin was deadpan, as the John Wayne questions kept on a'coming (Wayne was a noted conservative). However Brolin did admit there was no way to remember the first True Grit without remembering John Wayne. But, he added seriously, "Charles Portis created his own vernacular [in the book]. And they [the Coen brothers] were finally very loyal to the language, which is a very interesting, very American vernacular, whether it's fiction or not."

And finally, when asked what they considered to be "true grit" in this century, Brolin cracked another joke: "This," he said throwing his arm out to indicate his co-stars and directors; "this is true grit." And nobody could quite tell whether he meant the press' persistence with the John Wayne questions or his colleagues, for sitting through them all with such good humour. Then again, heck, maybe you get that at press conferences.

And there are going to be a few more to get through. The Berlinale goes from February 10 until February 20 and over 380 films will be shown during that time. This will include the latest blockbusters, art house movies, some fascinating documentaries and the latest crop of 3D extravaganzas with a difference.

Twenty two of those films will be competing for the prestigious festival awards, the silver and golden bears and actress Isabella Rossellini heads the jury making those decisions. And no doubt the crowd of autograph hunters that haunt the rear entrance of the Hyatt, where all the stars shuttle back and forth between the red carpet and press conferences will be kept plenty busy too: Also expected during the week are William Hurt, Vanessa Redgrave, Liam Neeson, Harry Belafonte, Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, Diane Kruger und Ralph Fiennes, among others.

And from the South Pacific? New Zealand will be represented in the "coolest city on the planet," as the Hollywood Reporter recently put it, by three short films that have been selected to show here. Also making an appearance will be representatives of the New Zealand Film Commission who are doing what Germans call "ze business" here, two up-and-coming New Zealand film makers who are attending the Talent Campus workshops and talks here and by ubiquitous, jet-setting director Taika Cohen, who has been asked to do the prestigious job of judging the films in the Generation section this year; Cohen's film, Boy, won a Grand Prix prize in Berlin in 2010.

Stay tuned. When we're not watching something interesting on the big screen (so we can tell you all about it), we'll be catching up with all of the above this coming week.

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