An Interview with Joachim H. Böttcher About Alex
Tell us how you became interested in cinema. What made you want to be a screenwriter and where did you learn to how to write scripts? What did you work on before writing Alex?
These questions I could potentially talk about forever. Key triggers where a Tuesday evening club, I, my brother Andreas and my two cousins Christoph and Thomas attended regularly when I was a teenager. Money was tight, but Tuesday was cinema day at a cinema nearby and it was affordable for us to go there. And luckily, my cousin had a car and driving license. I virtually sucked in all these wonderful stories. At this time I became publisher of my school’s magazine “Le Papillon”. At this time, my co-publisher and good friend Harald Dobmayer and I made a trip to High School for Film and Cinema Ludwigsburg (Germany) to interview Roland Emmerich, who had just released “Moon 44” and interviewed him and his sister. Roland Emmerich was just about to move to Hollywood by this time. A few weeks later we visited German actor Armin Müller-Stahl at his home on Northern Germany and did the same. I think those were the initial sparks, the moments when it started. I even suggested to my parents to go to High School for Film and Cinema in Germany – but my father clearly was against it. Today I know, that I should have followed this dream right from the start.
Before I started writing screenplays I wrote crime novels. Volker Pleil, still my closest brother in crime, suggested that I should consider turning them into movies. So I went to Felix Meinhardt’s film making seminars in Munich and decided that my focus always had been and still is on writing. Consequently, I focused on writing screenplays. For my formal education I went through Urs Bühler’s screenplay writing seminars in Zürich (Switzerland). Urs worked in Hollywood for many years. He is a truly gifted writer and – most importantly – a phantastic teacher and coach, when it comes to the question, how to write good and dramatic screenplays.
Reflecting now, I have to admit, that I always had this hidden talent for writing and telling stories. But somehow I lost track for a couple of years – I think, I am not alone with that. And I sincerely hope that my story someday will inspire others to get back on track again as well but even earlier.
When I started working on “Alex*”, I wrote and directed the eleven minutes short movie “The Ticket to Be” (“Der Schein zum Sein”). Originally, this truly was intended to be a zero budget, sole fun project. But it turned out to be quite successful and the whole pack of people involved drew quite a lot of attention around our work. I am still grateful, that I got so many committed supporters, e.g. Volker Pleil, Anita Stenke, Katrin Klug, Christina Venus, Bülent Budak, Matthias Kraus, my sister. And the female football team of FFC Frankfurt e.V., who acted in “The Ticket to Be”. Some of the ladies play in Germany’s national soccer team and, trust me, they really have fully packed agendas.
Just before “Alex*” I worked on “Lisa-Marie” a 90-minutes X-Mas-family movie with some funny mystic elements in it. I am still looking for a production company to realize that. Prior to that, I supported “Avaritia”, a 100 minutes film by German director Patrick Roy Beckert as a script doctor. The film is ready to see the screens but its publishing date was postponed due to Covid 19.
Who are the filmmakers or screenwriters that influenced you and your work?
Not an easy question. One screenwriter definitely is Lee Hall for his amazing work “Billy Elliot – I will dance”. When I had to select filmmakers and directors, I think, two, who’s perfection at work really impacted me a lot, are Miloš Forman (“Amadeus”, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, “Hair”), Francis Ford Coppola (“Bram Stoker’s Dracula”) and Wolfgang Petersen (“Das Boot”, “Outbreak”, “Enemy Mine”, “Troy”, “Air Force One”).
Another one definitely is German actor and film maker Till Schweiger, as he showed me that you should believe in yourself and that you should stick to your dream, regardless of what others think or say about it.
What are the themes you want to incorporate into your scripts? What are the concerns you try to reflect in your works?
Families or persons living in conditions, where money is tight. “Social injustice” in its many forms always concerned me a lot. Be it refugees being rejected by the new society they want to live in, dedicated musicians or artists whose works get refused by a greedy industry that does not see enough dollar in their work and does not understand that it destroys the dream of a lifetime of a fully committed band or person. Stuff like that really.
Where did the idea for Alex come from? How long did it take to write it?
Many of my ideas, even the ones for my horror books, are dreams or nightmares I have at night. When dreaming or being a little drowsy, I seem to be most creative. It’s always been like that. A while ago, I met Mx Pips Bunce from London at an event in Zürich. When Pips spoke about, how it is for her/him to be a person living openly as a transgendered person, I was deeply impressed. Mx Pips Bunce goes to work either as a man or as a woman, whatever he or she feels up to and whatever suits her- or himself best at the very moment.
When I was looking for a new topic after my work on “Avaritia”, I first wanted to do something about transgendered people. Then I read an article about intersexuality, conducted some research and combined elements from both worlds. Finally, I came across the Indigenous model of so called “two spirits” an umbrella term used by some Indigenous North Americans to describe people with a third gender in their communities. This term broadens the Western binary implications, such as implying that such people are both, male and female. Namida, one character in my script, a partially native Indigenous lady, actually is a sort of an homage to that.
The rest was easy (laughs). It was just having many, many drowsy moments and some good nights of sleep, with extremely inspiring dreams, which needed to be written down.
What are the challenges that independent writers face in having their works produced? What are your plans to turn the script into a film?
I think, we independent writers suffer most from not being patient enough and of lacking a sufficient network to get access to producers or production company looking for new scripts. As a newborn independent writer it is quite difficult to navigate your way through all these stakeholders and to get attention of the right people, e.g. literary agents. Attending film festivals would have been a road to hook up with producers. However, Covid 19 suddenly appeared as a pain in the ass road-blocker here.
During the Covid 19 pandemic, I – usually a very impatient person – learned my lesson to be more patient. While I still find it difficult to wait for responses, I simply started using this waiting time working on my next script and book. One thing I still find difficult to cope with is, if another producer wants to read my script at the same time as it is with another production company. Then I learned that transparency always wins. I informed one producer that another producer want to have a read of “Alex*”. When someone says, you should not submit your script to any other company at the same time, it starts to become a bit more difficult, because that cuts down your chances to be finally produced.
I got better and better along during the process I learned a lot more about the business with each new encounter and how important it is to make sure, any script such as “Alex*” is the best as it can possibly be. And I learned to be patient (oh, yes!) and kept going. I had my rejections and kicks in my face as well. But I did not and will not give up until I see “Alex*” on screen!
How ready is the world to face and accept sexual problems? Are governments and organizations the ones not allowing change or should we find the reason in our traditional ways of thinking? How can we overcome these problems and make people understand each other better?
It depends, one of my favorite answers to questions by the way. Why is that? It depends on which part of the world you are talking about. In the Western world we recently got a little further. One may be thinking that distinguishing biological maleness from biological femaleness surely is a simple matter. You just need to conduct some hormonal or DNA testing, throw in a physical examination. And you’ll have the answer. Most people simply don’t know that there are many cases, when it is simply not that easy.
In the future, I think, we need to differ between sex, gender, and sexuality. Let me give you some examples. When filling out a document such as an application for an ID or university registration form you are often asked to provide your name, address, phone number, birth date and sex or gender. Usually, sex and gender are the same. But it can be different, even impossible to make an honest statement. Sometimes by birth, when you are born with male genitalia but female set of XX-chromosomes. Or sometimes by choice, for instance, the experience of transgendered people demonstrates that a person’s sex, as determined by his or her biology, does not always correspond with her or his gender. Sex and gender are not interchangeable. A boy born with a penis will be identified as a boy. As he grows, however, he might feel happier identifying more with the female of his culture and vice versa – still lovable people though, aren’t they?
To me, it’s all a sort of traditional and cultural thing. And we can only overcome such obstacles by deciding on ways of tolerance, compassion and empathy – the way of love in short. Finally love wins – as always!
There are many script contests and festivals available worldwide. How do you think these festivals and contests can help screenwriters? What are your own experiences of participating at film festivals and/or script contests?
Actually, I participated in several of these contests. Participating in such contests and festivals first of all sets you deadlines, as you need to hand in your work professionally formatted, plotted, paced and so forth at a certain time. While pressure for some is stress, to me this sort of pressure sometimes can add to the creative process as such. This alone helps to propel my stories forward, I dare say. Until now, my experiences of participating in film festivals and script contests is overwhelmingly good. I never lose. Even if my work gets not selected, I learn how to do better next time. Learning is so important to me. It somehow keeps me going.
How did you decide to develop the character of Alex into what he is in the script? Are there many people like Alex out in the real world?
Essentially, Alex, the hero of my story, goes on a classical hero’s journey and comes back as a changed person, who accepts both the male and female components as equal parts of Alex.
When it comes to Alex as a character, I wanted to show, that intersex people actually are people like you and me. They have to cope with their everyday lives just like all other people. Many of them hide their intersexuality for fear of a society that only assigns and knows two genders.
As soon as Alex was born as an intersex child, the parents lack professional advice and support. They are urged by a doctor to take gender reassignment measures. Alex had to undergo cosmetic operations with mutilation, sterilization – castration even. This kind of mistreatment traumatized Alex’s physical integrity and the emotional self. In addition, the topic is taboo with the serious consequence that Alex believes, he must hide his whole life. This goes hand in hand with the fear of potential discrimination, especially in the job. Alex believes that if the intersexuality is exposed, he will lose status and the job in an old fashioned Swiss private bank. And Alex is right with the assumption, as Alex immediately gets fired by the boss once the intersexuality is made public. Alex does not accept the own feminine component. Therefore, Alex betrays his environment and on purpose pretends to be a man in his professional and private life. Alex is quite extrovert but immediately gets shy, when it comes to nudity and intimate sexuality, because here he would have to reveal the secret of being an intersex person.
Finally Alex accepts what Alex truly is: a kind and lovable intersex person. And Alex learns a lot about the own self. Everyone, whether man, woman, intersex, whether "straight", LGBTQ+ or anything else. Ultimately everyone only wants just one thing – being loved for who you are.
Dialogues seem to be the strong point of your work. Tell us about your process of getting the dialogues right, as it might help those who are interested in becoming a writer. How do you decide on the dialogues, and how many times do you edit and revise them?
In a nutshell? It’s all about reducing things to the max. Whenever I write dialogue – and I think, this is the hardest part to write good dialogue – I have the overarching golden questions, the key to someday – in my case hopefully great – screenwriting, in mind. How can I simplify it even further? What can I delete, that doesn’t affect the point of the scene? Is this particular word really necessary here? Can I show it, replace it with a visual element instead? Does the character have to say anything at all? Or would it add to the subtext, if the character remained silent? To me, silence actually is one of the most creative elements in art – be it film of music.
What are the next steps in your career? Are you currently working on another project, and if yes, what will it be about?
Currently, I am in close contact with Zürich based film director Caro Wloka and her company Cine Royal Productions. She is really interested in turning the script into a movie and bringing it to the screens. And the love of her live, DOP Kim Howland, whose team received an Academy Award for its short movie “Toyland”, has also committed to the script. But in the end it might as well be a question of finding the right people with sufficient budgets (sighs).
Just recently I was approached out of the blue by Swiss based film makers Stephan Saschko and Beat Schmid. They contracted me to write a 110 minutes cinema movie mainly for the Swiss but also German and Austrian market. It’s likely to become an action-romance story about a refugee, who is confronted with xenophobia and a lot of further resentments, when he tries to resettle and bring his talent in in Switzerland. As I was born and raised in a family of world war II refugees myself, I guess, I am perfectly suited to write this story.