Ralf Schmerberg

To mark the release of Red Bull’s first feature film, HeyUGuys was privileged to have an opportunity to speak with the director of What Difference Does it Make? Ralf Schmerberg.

The Cannes Golden Lion winning director takes us behind the scenes of The Red Bull Music Academy, offering a philosophy of music that is a compelling journey of discovery through complimentary points of view that paint a picture of what it is to live through music.

In an interview full of honest reflections, Ralph spoke about his deep rooted passion for music whilst sharing his thoughts on creativity, the identity of the artist and the process of creating art with an insightful lyricism.

What was the genesis of What Difference Does it Make?

The people who run the Academy had known me for a while, and so they asked me how I would feel about making a movie about music for their 15th anniversary? Music is a part of filmmaking and because of the deep connection and love I have of music I said, “Yes.” The question I then had to ask myself was what do I want to do? I then realised what intrigued me, and what I wanted to talk about was what it means to have a life in music or what it means to live through music.

Music has been called “Food for the soul.” What role has music played in your life and how important is it to you personally and professionally?

Music has two aspects in my life. I started out doing music videos some twenty-five years ago, and of course with anything that you do music is an important element. So music is important to me because it is like adding a narrative to filmmaking which expresses what I was or I am to the world. Music is also a cocktail to my soul for my private life. Music goes along with everything we do, and I have to say that I personally don’t have a specific musical taste; I like the whole musical range. Music is out there in the world, and it doesn’t matter if you meet it in the streets or wherever it is that you happen to meet it.

If I had to describe this film I would describe it as a philosophy of music. At its heart there is a wonderful exchange of ideas of what music is from a range of subjective points of view, each of which complement one another.

I think this is the great thing about the film; it is not about one band. This is about making music and the struggle of making music. What I like about the film is that yes, music is in the background, especially by those musicians of the Academy, but this could be a film about filmmakers talking about film. In the end all of them talk about life, and they use music to describe life, fear, hope, success and their experiences. What I like is that there’s a great umbrella of different people and different life forms, situations and so on. They all seem to speak into the same microphone. But my goal was to make a film about music that you can watch without knowing anything about music.

By moving beyond music the film strikes up a conversation around creativity as the beating heart or nucleus that connects all the various art forms.

That is the passion behind it, and how we try to reach that passion for sharing life that we do not always have in the beginning. But all these people have found their subject to express their passion, and to discover that connection to life and to the world. For me the beauty of the film is that you feel everybody needs music, and maybe if we were to speak about the relationships with their wives and husbands it would be a different film. But for everyone, the making of art is personal and impersonal. This is what I like and you see it in the film. They all have a connection to the world and at the same time they have to struggle for their art.

Whilst you explore the creative struggle, was it your intention at the very beginning to explore the hardships that define a life in music?

When I start a film I never know what I am going to do, although I usually find there is a very loose philosophy around the film. With this film it was clear that I wanted to talk about music, but I have nothing to say about music; I’m not good enough to talk about music with musicians. So I realised that I wanted to talk about life, and what do life and music mean, and how do these people live a musician’s life? I wanted to get sentences from them that a housewife understands in her struggle or me in my struggle, and some of the quotes in the film go beyond music. This for me was always clear. Then making the film day by day, hour by hour, I started to enjoy finding the music, and I started to enjoy capturing a great view of New York at the same time. But whilst all these people are talking about music, life is happening around them making and it is making all these sounds.

But I don’t know beforehand what the film will be about. Something drags me in and then when your perception is changed it offers an alternative point of view of the world; a chance to see the world differently. For me it is mostly the first time, and so it’s new, innocent and naive. Its discovery and this innocent discovery is where my films come from, because I don’t know what I shoot before I shoot it. Like with all the interviews, I didn’t have any questions on a piece of paper or in my mind and so I didn’t know what the first thing would be that I would ask them. I knew I wanted to be a little philosophical in my approach because I thought it would be a good angle with all of these people. But I have no plan. It’s very risky on the on hand but I find it is very truthful. Even when I edit I don’t know what kind of film will emerge. When the film was finished I was pretty surprised by it because I realised that this is a life lecture, but without telling me what to do, with people just sharing their views.

Speaking with you, if I were to describe you I would say you are a filmmaker who embraces your instincts and spontaneity. You are open to the journey of making a film, and so you never plan too much, you just leave yourself open to the moment.

This is a good description. Could you write it down for me for my bio? I’m always trying to put into words what it is I do. That’s absolutely who I am. In a way it is harder to say it about yourself. It’s like when people picture me; a lot of people are surprised by how I have kept this innocent quality of being playful even now when I am forty-nine. It is like when you are a kid in the sandbox – you have no idea what you are going to do in it, but you spend lots of time in it nonetheless.

There’s a point that comes up in the documentary where the link between childhood and creativity is discussed; a need to retain a certain view of the world in order to be creative.

It’s so nice when one guy says that you have to stay vulnerable to create art, because if you lose the vulnerability you can’t make art. I think that is very true, and that’s why when an artist creates, they need space around them. Of course it can easily be broken by a person coming in or by the wrong energy in the space, because they let themselves fall, and they go out there. It’s like if you meet the wrong person on a road trip; it’s a bad trip.

Speaking with a filmmaker recently, they expressed the point of view that you can never be afraid to find out how the film will turn out. It’s a case of for better or worse as an artist.

There is no security and it’s not needed. If you create for a while you will discover this principle. In the beginning as a young artist you struggle with that aspect, but to do it right you know that there is a certain magic that you can’t control, and which you shouldn’t control. Music is the same; nothing comes out any other way. It is just art.

Perhaps the creative should be thought of as a playground, in which people aren’t afraid to either fall or fail. As you say it is handing yourself over to vulnerability.

Yes, but I think what is really needed is independence. If an artist is not independent then he cannot deliver. The Academy who was the client on this project gave me independence. I didn’t have one day or one moment where they told me what to do or how to do it. They offered a discussion when it was needed, but at all times I felt a sense of independence and so this film feels like my film. After all, control cuts the rose bush.

This is Red Bull’s first film. Having worked with them, how do you think they are likely to influence the film world and the way films are made?

They are a great example of where brands might go in the twenty first century. They don’t spend money on advertisements; they spend their money on creating good PR and good content. The Academy is there for such a project as this, and the film is just an aspect of that.

There is a very interesting door opening in the future that can either be scary or not so scary. I don’t know the answer to this, but if companies start to finance film or art, I don’t know what it will take away or give to art. But I have to say that working around the musicians at the Academy, a lot see this whole involvement as a patronage or artist’s patronage that we used to have in the past.

If the record labels or the cinema’s financing doesn’t function any more, then new people will step onto the plate and help to finance people’s output. So there’s something interesting happening in all of this. The key is that their independence needs to be secured, and I have to say in this case as an artist, I got that independence from the Academy, and I don’t look at it that I was working for a company.

You have spoken about film being a journey. How as this documentary changed or influenced your perspective of music?

It didn’t change anything for me. It deepened what is already there; deepened my understanding of music and of making music. That’s a great thing, and it deepened not just what was already in me but in others also. On this trip people spoke out about what they think, and that was something that was nice.