M/M follows Matthew (Antoine Lahaie), a young Canadian trying to make a fresh start in Berlin. Sadly, he’s overwhelmed with feelings of deep isolation living in a strange, new city. When he meets the beautiful and charismatic Matthias (Nicolas Maxim Endlicher), he is immediately entranced. Soon Matthew’s interest escalates, becoming an obsession. He begins to transform himself to embody the object of his desire, cutting his hair, and getting new clothes. When Matthias gets into a motorcycle accident, a unique opportunity presents itself. Matthew can now become Matthias. In a coma, in the hospital, Matthias’ waking life, dreams and memories blur. Where reality ends, the artificial begins.
The project initially started as a series of notes I took about my experiences as a new import to Berlin. I moved there in the fall of 2013 and everything about the city was strange and new and exciting. I threw myself into the thriving gay nightlife scene and quickly found myself meeting (mostly queer) expats from all corners of the world, which I found incredibly inspiring. It was a new world for me. Shortly after, my short film, Rough Trade, screened at Slamdance Film Festival in 2014. One night during the festival in Park City, my producer Karen Harnisch and I were talking about next steps. I told her I’d been making these notes and writing a little here and there, but wasn’t sure what shape it would eventually take – maybe a short, maybe a feature. She told me if I wrote a feature she’d come to Berlin to produce it. So, upon returning to Berlin I began furiously writing M/M as a feature screenplay.
Part of the reason I wanted to make M/M, was that I don’t always connect with “queer films.” I really wanted to make a movie that I felt would resonate with audiences (LGBTQI or otherwise) that wasn’t a coming out story or an advocacy piece. There is certainly a place for both those types of film. I just felt (and still feel) the need to express another vantage point. I find the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Pedro Almodóvar really inspiring. Their films very often revolve around characters who are unapologetically queer. Their struggles are easy to relate to because they are universal human struggles. To me, this is a really important element of M/M. Although it includes a lot of gay sexual content and the story is a reflection of the gay male experience, the struggle the characters go through is also universal: they grapple with identity, desire, alienation. The film is rooted in my own experiences as a gay man. I identify both as gay and queer. The film is focused on the masculinizing force of patriarchal society and how that affects queer people. I think now, more than ever, people of all walks of life can see that society is creating monsters out of men. We are conditioned to behave in ways that are aggressive and damaging for ourselves and for each other. That said, I don’t mean to vilify masculinity, per se. I think my personal relationship to masculinity is more complicated than just focusing on “toxic masculinity.” Like the feminine, the masculine can also be sensual and tender: a positive force in the world. Men’s bodies have soft flesh too, even if we’re encouraged to be hard and unyielding. It’s the performative nature of masculinity that I find fascinating. Humans are constantly performing already. In every situation, whether in front of an audience or alone, we project different sides of ourselves, depending on the situation and how we want to be perceived.
To that end, another really important aspect of the film is the creation of identity. When I moved to Berlin I found myself in an interesting position. I was able to choose how to portray myself to others. Being new in a city full of strangers comes with a certain luxury. This idea became central to the narrative of M/M. I think Berlin is a particularly attractive destination for people that want to find themselves, or lose themselves for that matter. And that means it’s an easy place to reinvent yourself too. A lot of people, just like me, come to Berlin to meet like-minded people and end up creating a persona in the process. I’m interested in this kind of performativity too.
I wanted to take all those ideas that are personal to me and inject them into a film that I would want to watch. So, M/M is my take on a European psychological thriller, specifically with films of the 1970’s and 1980’s in mind. It comes very much from my own personal perspective, which is of course a North American perspective. Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession was a major influence, as were Bad Timing and Don’t Look Now by Nicolas Roeg. Although not European, Robert Altman’s 3 Women was another important source of inspiration. The dreaminess of that film is so well conceived, I thought a lot about it in terms of content and style. I wanted to create a cinematic language that felt contemporary, but held a candle to those films that inspired me.
I collaborated very closely with Director of Photography Ann Tipper and Production Designer Zazu Myers, who were instrumental in creating that style. It’s at once a reflection of contemporary Berlin and also a projection of an idealized space that feels futuristic at times, while other times like it’s occurring in the past. We made this film with an extremely low budget, so a lot of our production “discoveries” came as a result of the limited options we had at hand. We had to be really resourceful. We decided to say “yes” to whatever came our way. Fritz Schiffers, our Costume Designer, used pieces from his own closet, as well as mine, to fill out the cast’s wardrobe. Nicolas wore almost entirely his own clothes. We borrowed props and set pieces from friends, and shot in their apartments, places of work and project spaces. The whole cast and crew were incredibly generous with their time and energy and really pulled together and worked hard to make it work. Without them, we wouldn’t have a film.
About the Production
Production on M/M was wild. If anyone ever really called Berlin the “Wild East” it certainly rang true for us. The weather was cooling down in Berlin when we began shooting in November 2015. What remained of the leaves on the trees were golden and the skies were grey, but despite the chill, we were excited to finally be shooting and threw ourselves into production.
We made the film with a tiny budget, cobbled together with crowdfunding, some small private investments, and the incredible contributions of key crew who were determined to get it in the can. We shot run and gun on the streets and in the subway, shooting in doorways, public toilets and abandoned buildings. We adapted to every situation. True to the DIY spirit of Berlin, we persevered and managed to make the film we wanted to make, begging and borrowing when we had to. It was guerrilla shooting at its finest: a motley crew comprised of key creatives from Canada a group of tight friends who first met as teenagers in film school and a very international crowd filling out the remaining ranks some Swedes, Danes, Italians, a couple of people from France, Mexico, Israel, Lithuania, Czech Republic, and of course a few Germans too. And true to the cosmopolitan nature of Berlin, our cast was equally international, making it anyone’s guess what language was being spoken between different people at any given time.
Our mini model UN worked together to get the job done. And thankfully they were not only amazingly talented, but willing to commit themselves completely to making the movie. That’s the only way you can make a film with such a meager budget. You need a team that is willing to give it their all and spin difficult situations into opportunities. That attitude continued right through post production. We seemed to exclusively find talented and generous individuals who wanted to help us make this thing. Though this film was more than half a decade in the making, hard work pays off. It’s incredibly gratifying to come out the other side with a finished product we can be proud of, especially after years of battling through the making of a micro-budget film.
One of the most fascinating parts of the whole process was the 3-D printing, which we shot after principal photography. While we were already editing the film, I was trying to track down a 3-D printer in Berlin that would be able to print a life-size statue of a human, but at that point to no avail. Sometime during that period, I was catching up with Margaret Hewitt at an art opening. When she mentioned being busy at work, I casually asked her what she did for a living. It turned out she worked for BigRep, a company that designs and develops 3-D printers. I nearly fell down on the spot. So, Margaret came on board and we got in touch with another company in Berlin, called Botspot, that makes 3-D scanners. They were generous enough to make a scan of Nicolas Endlicher (who plays ‘Matthias’ in the film) with a scanner that was being sent to a client in Asia a few days later. We then used the data from that scan to generate a digital composite of Nicolas, so we could print our own ‘Matthias’ at 80% life size (even kneeling, he was a little too tall for the printer) and make him into a hyper-real animation, courtesy of CG wizard Martin Sulzer.
Even before that odyssey, the 3-D printing almost never happened – it was not included in the shooting script. Without giving away any plot points for those that haven’t yet seen the film, we were in the middle of shooting the film’s climax in a derelict space at an abandoned pool, when the police arrived and shut down our production. We were completely stunned at first: fifteen or twenty people standing in the middle of an empty pool, feeling defeated and unsure of how to go on. How should the film end, if not this way? We began packing up gear and set pieces. But while most of the team was carrying equipment and loading the truck, the two actors, camera department, a sound recordist and myself began improvising an alternate version of the scene, trying to shoot as much as possible before the police came back or we felt like our time was up. Eventually one of our line producers pulled the plug and I conceded that it was time to ship out. But we had enough time to shoot the climax that you see in the film as it exists now. Ultimately it was a blessing in disguise. Because of this alternative ending, I began to feel like the film needed a strong visual element to end the film. Eventually, something clicked and I had the idea to scan and print the 3-D statue and make it part of the story, evolving from the art installed at the gallery where Matthias works.
However, this plot-line too almost didn’t come about. Thankfully our production designer, Zazu Myers, convinced me early on in production that the art featured in the scene where Matthias shows his friend around at the gallery should be sculptural pieces that incorporated elements of Matthias’ own face, rather than just being unrelated (albeit beautiful) paintings made by a friend of mine. She was right – and not only did that idea work better for the scene, it provided the framework for the 3-D printing element, which ultimately served to tie in the digital animations of Matthias, which were already scripted.
I think one of the most important lessons I learned making M/M was that filmmaking is an ongoing and collaborative process. Especially when working at a micro-budget level, it’s often necessary to take what comes and transform the project to fit into the conditions you’re working in. I don’t see this process as making concessions, but rather as being open to forming the project around the environment and listening to the voices of collaborators to come up with a more fully realized end product. Like a site-specific art project, it only makes sense to tailor the film to available materials and let it suit the context in which it’s being made.