After directing five theatrical features and several TV series in his native Germany, filmmaker Christian Ditter makes his American debut with his first comedy, “How To Be Single,” offering audiences a fresh and hilarious take on the genre. It’s no longer about finding Ms. or Mr. Right, but about making the most of today’s single lifestyle in the most fun and outrageous ways imaginable. The film features an awesome ensemble cast of comedic talent that includes Dakota Johnson, Leslie Mann, Rebel Wilson, Damon Wayans Jr., Anders Holm, Alison Brie, Nicholas Braun, Jake Lacy and Jason Mantzoukas.
In our roundtable interview, Ditter revealed what it was like transitioning from German action-adventures to a full-on American comedy, why being funny takes a lot of work, how he corralled his powerful comedic cast, Wilson’s wild improvisations, the infamous sauna scene, his first day shooting with Mann and her perfect baby scene, why he wanted to make a film that’s as much about New York as the characters, the complicated shooting schedule, shutting down Times Square for Wilson’s disco scene, how his amazing crew made it all possible, his upcoming projects, and why he’d be up for an American action-adventure.
Check it all out in the interview below:
QUESTION: This is your first comedy?
CHRISTIAN DITTER: Yes, it’s the first comedy I’ve done. I did several films in Germany before, but they were more like action-adventure stuff. They had funny scenes, but this is the first full-on comedy I did.
Q: What was the transition like and how did you find that experience?
DITTER: That’s an interesting question. I wanted to make a full-on comedy, so it was something I was looking for. I thought it was going to be a lot of fun, which it was. But it was also a lot of very hard work, because being funny takes much more work and effort than anyone could ever imagine. But I loved it, and I learned a lot, and we had these amazingly talented and creative actresses and writers. It was just such a great collaboration between all these people that, for me, it was more a job about bringing everybody on the same page about tonality and about the intention of the scene and the context. And I could choose from all the really great options that got thrown at me. So, it was a great experience.
Q: You have a pretty powerful cast. How did you corral all that power and comedy?
DITTER: I have no idea how I did that.
Q: What about Rebel Wilson? How do you corral somebody like her?
DITTER: Rebel is just amazing. Okay, here’s the thing about Rebel. As just an example, we had a scene where she comes out of an elevator together with Dakota. It’s a very small scene. We filmed that scene. We did a take. And then, Rebel came to me and said, “Hey, Christian, can you get that extra over there to walk towards me for the next take?” and I was a little bit afraid for the extra. So, I said, “What do you want to do?” and she says, “Ah, nothing.” And so, we did another take. She walked out of the elevator, that extra walked past her, and she smacked the guy on the butt, which is super funny, and it’s even in the trailer now, and it’s in the film. And that’s Rebel. She comes up with stuff all the time, which is a great gift. She’s awesome.
Q: We heard the sauna scene was all improvised.
DITTER: Oh yeah. We could actually cut an entire movie just of the sauna scene. Seriously. She kept going on and on and on. I’m so happy we shot digitally and not on film because we would have run out of footage. So, if you see the movie, and if you see certain trailers for some markets, they’re all different from each other. We said we can’t put everything into the film, because then it would literally be like a half-hour scene, but we used that for other places.
Q: It’s hard to believe that it’s not a CGI effect when we have the little scene with Leslie collapsing with love for a little baby and changing her mind about having children. We were like is that a real baby? It can’t be. It’s too perfect.
DITTER: Thank you. It was a real baby. We had several babies on that day, because filming can be stressful for a baby. I didn’t want to be responsible for traumatizing any child.
Q: But it’s for a film!
DITTER: Exactly! So, it’s worth it. Right? So no, we had several babies. It was my first day with Leslie. Obviously, she’s Hollywood royalty, and I’m just a German guy. So I said, “Leslie, you have to be really patient today, because it can go really fast, but it can take a long time to do this.” And it did. I was really afraid that it was going to be my first day with her and my last day on the job. She was very lovely, and I have to say that all the credit for that scene goes to her, because you can’t direct a baby. She basically did that with her performance. She captured the baby’s attention, and the baby was basically mimicking what she was doing. So, she was taking the lead on that. Sometimes we reversed it a little bit in editing, so that what in reality she did and the baby mimicked we cut the other way around, so that it seems like the baby does it and then she does it.
Q: Were there twin babies?
DITTER: There were twin babies for that scene. Yes. They were girl babies. I don’t know the exact age, but I would say around six to eight months maybe. They couldn’t walk yet, but they could already sit. And all the credit goes to Leslie. She did an amazing job. I just let the cameras roll on it.
Q: What are some of the differences that you found doing an American film as opposed to doing German films?
DITTER: It’s all much bigger here.
Q: Is Craft Services better?
DITTER: We also have very good Craft Services in Germany, just not with that much. Here, you have Vegan options. We don’t have all that, but we have some good selections. We don’t have all these things in Germany, but no, seriously, I’m happy that I came from Germany and approached it with a certain naivete, because things are much smaller in Germany and budgets are much smaller. If you shoot a film in Germany and you’re out in the street, five actresses share a trailer and you have three parking spaces for the crew and that’s it. I’m exaggerating, but it’s along these lines. But here, when we prepared the film, I wanted to make it a film about New York as much as about characters. So, I said I want to go to real locations. I want to take the film out onto the street. Why is this scene in a café? I want this scene on Fifth Avenue. Why is this scene in a restaurant? I want it in Central Park, because I wanted to see the city. I was very naïve about it, and everybody was just … I think they didn’t want to contradict because I’m that weird German guy with the crazy accent, but also the director. Sometimes some people said, “Are you really sure you want to take that scene out onto the street?” I said, “Sure. Why not?” And then, on the day I showed up on the set, and already five blocks away from the set I saw our trailers and trucks. We literally closed down an entire section of the city. New Yorkers don’t like that.
Q: Where were you shooting?
DITTER: We were in Times Square with Rebel when she comes out of the disco. We were everywhere I wanted to be. Nobody ever said no to me, which is also very different from Germany. When I would make a request like that in Germany, people would go, “Are you crazy?!” And here, people go, “Sure,” thinking I’m crazy but not saying it to my face.
Q: That’s America though. Get it done!
DITTER: They do get it done. Actually, we had the most amazing crew and they do get it done. So, there was a very big difference.
Q: What about the bar scenes with all of those extras and the party going on, on the roof, before Josh and Alice have their moment on the fire escape, which made me very nervous?
DITTER: Me too.
Q: It looked really high. Was that fire escape CGI?
DITTER: No, it was all real.
Q: Did you really put Dakota in the Grand Canyon at the end?
DITTER: We did. Nothing is CGI there. We have a lot of CGI in the film, but all the location work is real.
Q: They really did say yes to you all the time, didn’t they?
DITTER: Yeah! It’s a weird thing, but they did. The Grand Canyon part went into the script a little bit later. It wasn’t there in the first rounds, but we wanted to visualize her arc a little bit and then came up with the Grand Canyon.
Q: Were there any moments where the actors or the writers had to explain to you the humor of what it was? Or did you get most of the humor even with the cultural differences?
DITTER: Here’s the thing. I always said, if the guy from Germany, if I get it, everybody else will get it. So, there was always a criterion for me that I said I have to get it without any explanation.
Q: How many movies had you made in Germany before this American debut?
DITTER: I have made five theatrical features and some TV series in Germany.
Q: And how old are you?
DITTER: I’m 38.
Q: I see you are married as well.
DITTER: I am married.
Q: So, how did this film speak to you about being single and your memories of those times when you were single?
DITTER: Well, when I read the script, I wished somebody had shown me that film when I was single. That was also part of what made it very attractive and it hasn’t been done before. I think it’s a film for everybody that either is single or ever has been single, which is like all of us, I guess. I related to it a lot because I think so much about all the fun of it and all the surprises it has and also the challenges the characters face with being single. A lot of that felt true to my experiences and also the experiences of my friends.
Q: Is there a nightclub party culture in Germany the way there is in New York City?
DITTER: Yeah. People fly over to Berlin for partying from all over the world. We have a lot of party and club culture and stuff. So, in that way, the countries are more similar than one might think. Germany is not the same as it was 50 years ago.
Q: Are you from Berlin?
DITTER: I’m from Munich. So, I’m based in Munich. I’ve worked a lot in Berlin so I know the city quite well.
Q: You have a nice combination of serious scenes with the really hilarious scenes. Was there a decided difference on the set the days that you wanted to get serious?
DITTER: No. I just always wanted the scenes, even the most hilarious ones, to be anchored in emotional truth, and that made it come through automatically, I think. And there just happened to be scenes that don’t have as many jokes as other scenes obviously. But, for me, it was not like, I didn’t say, “Okay, this is a joke scene. This is a thoughtful scene or whatever.” For me, it was always like, “Where’s the character right now? What’s the context? What’s the intention of the character and does he get it in a fun way or a more serious way?”
Q: Because you have basically four different leads, did you do two weeks of the bar scenes with Alison Brie and Anders Holm, and then go on to two weeks of Rebel Wilson and Dakota Johnson?
DITTER: Yes. Our shooting schedule was extremely complicated. I’m so happy that it’s not my responsibility to stick that thing together, because all our actresses are in very high demand, and they all have other stuff going on. And so, we had to shoot like that. Yes. So, we didn’t shoot chronologically. But we went let’s shoot all Alison and Anders’ scenes that they have together. The other week we shot all the scenes with Rebel and Dakota. Then we shot all the scenes that also had Leslie in them. Rebel was out, and then we shot Leslie and Dakota. So, it was like a big puzzle.
Q: I’m curious about the scene with Damon Wayans’ character when he shows his young daughter the film of his wife and their baby. That seemed to be the same baby but much younger.
DITTER: Yes. It was a much younger baby. So, what we did is we cast the kid that has the actual scenes with Damon, and then we tried to find a look-a-like.
Q: You did a good job. That’s a detail that would be a last minute thing, but you really pulled it off.
DITTER: Thank you.
Q: The movie’s going to do well in North America. How do you think it will do in Germany? Do you think it speaks to a certain culture there?
DITTER: Yes. I think that the experiences our characters in the movie have are quite universal. I’ve been to quite a few countries. I have the feeling that people my age in Western cultures have very similar experiences. So, I think it will do very well. I hope it will do very well in Germany.
Q: Are American actors very different from German actors in the way they approach their roles or work on set?
DITTER: I wouldn’t say so. We have very good actors in Germany and there are extremely good actors here. The actors of our movie are special in that they are comedy geniuses and that they have a lot of experience in that field and bring a lot of ideas to the table, which I’m sure Germany comedy actors will do, too. I just haven’t worked with them yet so I haven’t had that experience. For me, it’s not so much about nationality but about what are the chops of that actor and what does he bring.
Q: You speak English better than I do, so I was wondering how you learned English so well?
DITTER: When I was at film school, I lived in a small flat with five people and one of them was an English fellow. He and I were best buddies, so we spoke English most of the time. Also, in our flat, we had this Spanish girl and we had a Greek guy and the German and the English guy, so English was the common language we spoke in.
Q: What are you working on next? Is there another American film in your future?
DITTER: That’s also a very good question. I have several interesting options which I am very fortunate to have. So, when this is all over, I will have to sit down and take a closer look and see what attracts my interest the most.
Q: Maybe you’ll do a big action-adventure here?
DITTER: Oh, that would be awesome. I’m up for that.
Q: What one word would you use to describe this movie?
DITTER: Hah! One word?
Q: In German, if you want.
DITTER: In German? I would say it’s in the best sense “unterhaltsam.”
Q: And what does that mean?
DITTER: Unterhaltsam means “entertaining on various levels.”
“How To Be Single” opens in theaters on February 12th.