I’m Your Man: Behind the Scenes

 

CODING THE “GIRL” AND THE “ROBOT-BOY”

While Tom is a facsimile of a future man, Alma is a woman of today. The futuristic elements of the film are limited to the Terrareca company with its peculiar employees and its products, of which Tom is a prototype. Schrader says, “This decision makes it easy to identify with Alma. She has no head-start in terms of experience, she knows no more about the future than we do. Her encounter with Tom is as new and foreign to her as it is to us.”

For the first time, Schrader was creating a character not entirely unlike herself. “I might call Alma my first alter ego—someone located in Berlin, in my age range, a working woman. Of course, I fed Alma’s character with parts of myself.” But who would be Alma? Prior to the casting, Schrader says she had no idea which actors would be ideal for the role.

Casting began in early 2020. “I know all the German actors my age, and I’ve shared the stage or screen with many of them. But I didn’t know Maren very well before,” says Schrader. “I simply fell in love with how she approached the role—there’s some mystery to it. She’s a brilliant actress, and she’s completely different in how she approaches scenes, compared to Dan Stevens. Maren is an actress who enters so genuinely and openly into a scene, who is so adaptable and capable of change that she draws out Alma’s humanity in the best possible sense. It is through her that Alma can be at once smart and helpless, funny and strict, unsteady and disciplined, carefree and discerning—a complex, lovable, loving, beautiful and imperfect human.”

German actor Maren Eggert, who won the first gender-neutral “Silver Bear” acting award at the 71st Berlin International Film Festival for her role in I’m Your Man, says the script resonated with her from the start. “I loved it right away, and then we met up for casting. This part of the process was before the pandemic started, so we could indeed act and talk without any restricting rules, which now seems to be so far away in time.”

To portray Tom, Schrader sought an actor who would be less well known to German audiences. And the screenplay calls for Tom to be particularly appealing to Alma due to a slightly foreign quality. “We don’t help the audience much in presenting Tom as a machine, so it’s more interesting if you have an actor who brings a certain foreign flavor, and someone who is less recognizable in my country,” says Schrader. “We collected a list of brilliant actors who look like the ideal man, and who can speak German well. Tom is programmed to speak German with a British accent to please Alma, so we couldn’t have an actor stumbling over his lines.”

Dan Stevens recalls encountering receiving the project. “I was in the thick of pandemic lockdown, and the project came through my agent in London. They were looking for a foreign actor who could speak German. The script was in German, and none of my representatives could read it. So I was sent this thing out of the blue, like, ‘We don’t know what this, is but you read German, take a look at see what you think.’ I scurried away, got out my German dictionary, and got on with it.” Stevens studied German in school and practiced the language on trips to Germany to visit family friends. While he’s not the only English actor fluent in German, “I think there are about five of us. It’s a short and very distinguished list,” he laughs.

“We spent a long time looking abroad for an actor who can speak German well enough not to despair of Tom’s complicated lines, who is as precise as a machine, handsome but not without self-awareness, and who is such a great actor that you never forget that Tom is a robot and yet still you fall in love with him,” says Schrader. “I could not be happier that Dan chose to realize this part. He is an incredibly prepared and precise actor. He really strongly responded to the part of Tom and was fast to develop the ways by which Tom is visible here and there as a machine. It was great fun to develop this together.”

“With his incomparable mixture of precision, emotion, and elegance, he has truly been a stroke of good fortune for us,” says Blumenberg.

“There were some conversations in pre-production about Tom’s look,” Stevens recalls. “We wanted to get a slightly artificial texture to his skin, and also the hair color—just something that didn’t look too natural. And playing with those moments when Tom’s algorithm feels that he’s got it down—there are things that he feels are naturalistic movements that look so artificial in his deployment of them. As the film goes on, you seem him getting better at them.”

By contrast says Schrader, Eggert “seeks for the true moment, of something happening to her emotionally within a take. She’s much more uncontrolled, driven by instincts and emotions.”

Eggert adds, “Dan and I had to find two characters who couldn’t be more different from one another. Playing a robot, Dan would not react in a way I expect from a human partner. Sometimes that made me feel like living alone on my own private island. This feeling meets with my character Alma. I admire Dan for his performance.”

“Maren is an incredibly human and a naturalistic actress and has wonderful instincts,” says Stevens. “There’s something incredibly warm and natural and human about all of the casting around Tom which really served to point up the differences. [Schrader] has a great eye for that, including Hans who plays Alma’s ex—just a wonderfully warm, funny, awkward human actor. It’s an interesting counterpoint to Tom, all of them are.”

THE ALGORITHM

Big questions abound in the intimate film, including the paradox of human desire. “The script breaks genre boundaries,” says Blumenberg. “It tells the complex love story between an intellectual romantic and a humanoid robot, but it is also a melancholy comedy which at the same time asks the really big questions with intelligence, insight into human nature, and polished dialogue: What is man? What is love? The result is a unique mix of philosophical depth, humor, and drama.”

“Is it inherent to the human experience never to attain that which we want?” asks Schrader. “What would it actually mean to have the perfect partner? A partner who analyzes our needs and wishes so precisely that they can fulfill them before we have even formulated them to ourselves? And what would it imply, to know that this is not an act of love but simply a work of programming? What is the difference between love and a highly complex algorithm?”

“The film is very much about loneliness. The wish to end loneliness or find an answer to questions of longing for a companion in life is very understandable to me,” says Eggert. “But I still believe we can find love and companionship in other human beings. Of course, this decision is a very tough one when someone like Tom walks along though.”

As a fan of sci-fi, Stevens says, “It’s an endlessly interesting field. Particularly this past year, I can tell from a personal point of view but also generally, there has been a great deal of introspection, a lot of big questions flying around about where we are, where humanity is at, and our huge reliance on technology. I was struck by not only how those themes were brought up in the script, but its lightness. It’s something that seems peculiarly German, taking on very big philosophical questions in such a straightforward but playful way, with a sprinkling of humor. I thought it was very beautiful. Humanity is a mass of contradictions. And trying to predict our contradictions—what this person is going to want next, what this person will want to buy—is what so many of our enterprises are now engaged in. The film manages to lace all these questions into what is essentially a romantic, screwball comedy.”

Eggert says, “The film combines modern screwball elements with an intellectual game that leads us down to the roots of human soul—a very fascinating and rare mixture. In my thinking, my work as an actor is not that different from being a scientist who is trying to find the answers to big questions of human beings: Why am I here? What do I want? Whom do I love? And why?

Stevens found the translation praiseworthy. “A successful set of subtitles has to stay true to the spirit of the screenplay—a literal translation of some of our lines would not have worked. And with Tom especially, some of his linguistic faux pas, they don’t translate directly—so finding those idioms was an interesting challenge for somebody, and I think they did a great job with it. Whoever did the translation for the subtitles, they did an excellent job of retaining some of that linguistic playfulness that Jan and Maria enjoyed writing the thing. It has wit.”

THE SETTINGS

Working with director of photography Benedict Neuenfels, production designer Cora Pratz, and costume designer Anette Guther, Schrader looked for a certain timelessness in the look of the production, particularly in the costumes and in Alma’s apartment. “During the first rehearsals I was reminded, by the speed of the dialogue and the enthusiasm of the actors, of the films of Katherine Hepburn, James Stewart, and Cary Grant,” says Schrader. “It quickly became clear that the scenes worked best with fairly classic camera work and an elegant simplicity in the mise-en-scène. We wanted Alma’s apartment to have a beautiful view, an urban romanticism, but we also wanted it to be a bit chaotic and not too chic.”

One unexpected silver lining of shooting during the COVID-19 pandemic was the opportunity to build a set. Alma’s apartment is entirely built on a soundstage, and it was a line item not found in the original budget. “All of a sudden with COVID, no one would give us his or her private apartment, and since this is the main set and we shot almost half the movie in the apartment, a soundstage provided us with social distancing. We had a 5,000-square meter space, and we could control light and day and night. That was actually luxurious.”

COVID would influence the production in multiple ways, from a pared down complement of crew to rigorous testing protocols. “Since the risk is on the shoulder of production companies, I call myself lucky to have had daring producing partners who said we will be among the first ones to take on the work again,” says Schrader. Few productions of any kind were underway in August 2020 when production began. There was precious little experience to draw upon for navigating a production at this time. But the production team made a commitment to shoot the film as written, without compromising the story’s intimacy.

The film’s first scene, a ballroom full of partner dancing and couples at tables where Alma is introduced to a glitching Tom, was shot on the final day, and was one of the unique nods to the unusual global circumstances. Real life couples were cast, and the dancers on the dancefloor were all people who shared households or pods. “You can imagine that is such an extra effort to it to put this together, and it worked. Entering the ballroom, I was really touched. It was almost an unseen image. We’d been in COVID for half a year, and then suddenly I was in the middle of party with a band on stage. It was it was really beautiful.”

“It was really sweet. It added a nice atmosphere,” says Stevens. “Everyone was tested up to the eyeballs, but we saved that sequence until late in the shoot. People had been on lockdown, and it was the most populated room that most people had been in for several months, so there was kind of a celebratory atmosphere as well. We were constantly remarking how lucky we were, that we got through and nobody got sick. And in a way it focused us on the work, and a lot of the peripheral stuff went away. We were able to get down to the nuts and bolts of it.”

Shooting in pandemic conditions “was a huge task for the production managers in the first place,” says Eggert. “They did such a good job, that I, as an actor, even sometimes forgot about COVID while acting. But of course, the risk that we might need to stop shooting due to irregularities was always there, like Damocles’ sword. The whole team was so glad and happy that we managed to finish our work.”

“In the at times bizarre conditions of the pandemic during the hot COVID summer of 2020 in Berlin and Denmark, it was a particular challenge for me and everyone involved to preserve the very special charm, intimacy, and lightness of the story,” says Blumenberg. “Special thanks go to Maria Schrader, production manager Martin Rohrbeck, DoP Benedict Neuenfels, set designer Cora Pratz, costume designer Anette Guther, and the entire top-class team. This film was a very special journey for all of us.”

I’m Your Man is Schrader’s fourth collaboration with editor Hansjörg Weißbrich, “who sculpted the scenes with a rare feeling for the actors’ interplay and rhythm,” she says. “The music had the difficult task of conveying feeling without commanding too much attention and of finding a voice of its own for the film, which Tobias Wagner has succeeded in doing.”