Award – winning producer Verena Gräfe-Höft was a former journalist before she started her career in the film business. She has a Masters in Journalism, Anthropology and American Literature. In 2008 she graduated with her second master’s degree from ‘Hamburg Media School’ in creative producing. Her films won national and international awards and are screened at A-festivals around the world such as Cannes, Berlinale, Toronto, and CPH: Dox.
She is the co-founder of WIFT Hamburg (Women in Film and television), member of the Hamburg Media School (HMS) board and Alumni of EAVE and the European TV Series Lab. Since 2013 she is a lecturer in film production at the HFBK film studies set up by Wim Wenders. In 2017, she was selected by the board of German Films, for the ‘Producers on the Move’ – a programme at Cannes Film festival.
What attracted you to Inside Pictures?
Inside Pictures was on my radar, but I knew I needed to allow myself time to do it. This year I felt it was now or never. I’m really, really happy that they took me on and I had the chance to be with some amazing people in this independent film community; people that can help you; people who can help you grow. Development programmes, like ‘Inside Pictures’ or ‘Producers on the Move’, offer great value because of personal growth and building an international network of like-minded film lovers.
What aspect of the Inside Pictures programme has had the greatest impact on you so far?
Coming from a non-English speaking, European country, it was really interesting to learn about the differences for financing and packaging a film for UK and USA productions. Plus, to learn about those systems from high profile professionals within the film business – that’s been really key for me.
In addition, getting to know my co-participants on the programme – to learn from them, dream with them, about what films and TV we will make, and if we can collaborate or how we can support each other.
What could you say to encourage other film professionals to participate in the 2020 programme?
It is crucial to allow yourself some time to reflect on what you are doing and why you’re doing it. Normally, when you’re a producer, you’re too busy wrapped up in the work.
Being on Inside Pictures, it forces you to take time out to consider and reconsider what are you doing, why are you doing it and what should be the future for the business you’re running, or the business you’re in.
How did journalism lead to a career as a filmmaker? What skills did you bring with you that are still useful to this day?
As a journalist you always have to think ahead and be creative. You have to come up with new stories. But also know what would/could be interesting for audiences tomorrow. I think these abilities I learnt as a journalist, I pretty much took into filmmaking.
I would also say that I often look out for pioneering films and projects that include out of the box thinking – maybe everybody thinks this about their projects. I want to try out new things. For example with PELICAN BLOOD (2019) I am the first German producer to work with the collection agent – BIG COUCH, from the UK. They are building up a business using Bitcoin film tokens, and their ambition is to create more transparency in the process of recoupment. I feel this new approach is an interesting move for the whole industry. So I wanted to try that out. In a sense, I want to do things a little different, not just in a story sense.
How important do you feel a successful festival run is to indie filmmaking and an indie film’s success?
For me, film festivals are a great opportunity to see films that I might not be able to see because they might never make it to the German market, or are only in cinemas for a short time.
They play a key role in spotlighting arthouse, indie films. It motivates new filmmaking talent to not give up. When Katrin Gebbe and I screened NOTHING BAD CAN HAPPEN (2014) at Cannes in Un Certain Regard that really was a huge lift for us to keep going and believing in ourselves.
I think film festivals have a great responsibility. I really do appreciate all the work and effort they put into finding and programming interesting films.
You lecture in film production on the HFBK Film Studies course set up by Win Wenders…
a) What new challenges are the next generation of filmmakers facing that you didn’t have to?
The whole film industry is changing so rapidly, that being flexible, is even more crucial than 15 years ago, but there’s also so much more opportunity today for young filmmakers. Content is king, and it’s wanted.
b) What was the last thing you learnt from your students that you were able to take into your professional life?
To stay open, be flexible and not feel too safe in what you’re doing. And I really like that. That’s also the reason why I honestly love to work with first time filmmakers and I want to keep on doing that; helping them find their voice in filmmaking.
Which of your film projects are you most excited about right now?
I have three films in different stages that I’m excited about.
One is PELICAN BLOOD (2019), which I premiered summer 2019 in Venice and we have our theatrical release in Germany in April 2020. Right now, we are still on the festival round. I loved working with everyone on it. Katrin Gebbe (writer/director) and Moritz Schultheiß – the director of photography – they’re great filmmakers, friends of mine and we went to film school together. I’m really happy that we continue to make films together. I’m happy to see this film coming alive and reaching an audience. For me this is always a very exciting period of the filmmaking process.
The second project, I’ve just finished, is an elevated horror genre film called SCHLAF (translation – SLEEP). It’s a debut film by writer/director Michael Venus – we also went to Film school together – and stars Swantje Kohlhof (NOTHING BAD CAN HAPPEN). I’m curious as to what journey we will have with this film. The third project will be my first English language project. It’s also the project I’m presenting at Inside Pictures. It’s called DESIRE OF THE PREY and is written, and will be directed by, Carly May Borgstrom – a Canadian filmmaker, based in Hamburg, and former student of Wim Wenders. I want to shoot it in Canada and we are currently setting up the package/finance plan as an international co-production with Canada.
And a more medium term view… What are some of your specific aims and ambitions for Junafilm and your slate?
I would really like to build my slate and do more international projects/co-productions, on a bigger scale.
I would also, like everybody, I imagine, to move into TV series production. I think financing indie feature films and TV, they have a lot in common. So I think I can build on my experiences to date.
Thinking about the last ten years as we approach 2020, what film from the last decade did you go and see and think, damn, I wish I produced that?
That is a damn hard question… It’s really not easy to answer… When I see a great film, this never crosses my mind. I’m always so happy for all those indie filmmakers and producers to simply exist and that they bring great films to our world. When we were on our festival tour for NOTHING BAD CAN HAPPEN, Katrin Gebbe and saw Ragnar Bragason’s Icelandic film METALHEAD. We really liked that film, not that we wish we had done it, but that wow, that was really great storytelling.
A German film I really enjoyed this last decade was Valeska Grisebach’s WESTERN (2017).
One of my favourite films is also ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF A SPOTLESS MIND. (Laughing) The problem is, by naming those films, I miss out on so many other films that I can’t think of at the moment.
If you were in charge of Germany’s national film policy, what would you advise the government to do to ensure more people across the globe saw German movies.
There’s not enough support for the development process. I wish that that would be more acknowledged as a hell of a lot of independent producers are taking great risks to develop their slate, obviously you’re supposed to do that, but as months turn into years, the pressure to go into production too early – to trigger producer fees – makes it difficult to allow enough time to create the bold films that will get the attention of people in other countries.
There is currently no national support in the German system like there is in other countries, where you can apply for financial support/grants when attending programmes like Inside Pictures. It should be acknowledged more in Germany that this is important – especially for independent producers. It’s crucial for the German film professionals to be able to reach out, co-produce, meet people from other territories, bring their projects earlier to market, and get feedback from around the globe.