Cinematographer Tomas Koolhaas, son of notorious Rem Koolhaas, has shared with us his latest clips from the feature length documentary film, REM. Set to debut in 2013, the motion picture breaks away from conventional approach to filming architecture and exposes the raw, human experience of Dutch architect’s most famous projects. As Tomas describes, REM gives the audience “a rare insight into the reality of the hidden internal life of the buildings”.
ArchDaily had the chance to discuss the film with Tomas. Continue after the break for the complete interview and another small preview of the film!
ArchDaily: What inspired you to film this documentary and how did you first present the idea to your father, Rem Koolhaas?
Tomas Koolhaas: Ever since I was a kid I walked through Rem’s buildings and noticed interesting narratives and interactions happening there. I would see beautiful shots and angles that had never been recorded before. That inspired me initially, but as I got older I noticed that all the films being made, not just about Rem but architecture in general, were focusing only on the intellectual choices behind the work, not the actual events, and human stories that were occurring in and around the buildings. I was seeing lots of talking head interviews with dense architectural jargon but no footage of the inhabitants using the building. It always seemed strange since, for me, it was the interaction with these people that gave the buildings a meaning deeper than just its aesthetic form. I saw one film after another that had only static shots of empty buildings. I always felt that without people in it a building is no more than a giant sculpture.
It was only when I went to film school in Los Angeles that I learned the tools to translate these realizations and ideas into a cohesive strategy for a film. It took another ten years of shooting various projects until I felt ready to tackle this piece and bring the idea to Rem. I had to be sure I was ready because I knew I wouldn’t get a free pass from him. He is not the type of man who would get behind my project merely because I am his son. I knew I had to have a concept that was very different from, and more compelling than, any that had been done before.
AD: It is not surprising that many people are quick to compare REM to Nathaniel Kahn’s My Architect. How is REM different?
TK: I’m not surprised either but I think it’s a bit simplistic to make the assumption that our films will be the same, or even similar merely because they are both about architects and made by their sons. I liked Kahn’s film but my approach is completely different, you could say the polar opposite, as should be clear to anyone from watching the clips I have released. That film was very sentimental, the father son relationship was central to it and the son was a very prominent character in the piece; in my film, none of that is the case. I am not going to be on camera or even provide narration, you wont hear me asking questions in interviews. I won’t be a character in the film. I am staying as inconspicuous as possible, serving only as the eyes and ears of the viewer. I believe that when people watch a film about Rem they want to see and understand him and his work, not me.
AD: How would you describe your style of cinematography? Has it changed or evolved since you began to film architecture?
TK: I think I have an overall style but more accurately I probably have a few styles. I have worked on many different types of projects; music videos that required beauty lighting, very dark dramatic narrative pieces, very stylized short films, art films etc.. Each shoot required a sensibility that was different from the last, but one thing that stayed consistent was a very high level of image quality. I think many people that shoot documentaries fall into the habit of shooting haphazardly and thinking that because the piece is ultimately content driven that the image quality isn’t all that important. I don’t think there should be any difference in image quality between a documentary and a high budget narrative feature. The aesthetic will be different due to time and practical constraints but the effort and thought behind each frame should be the same.
I think my style has evolved during the shooting of REM. I think initially I was still trying to make things look ‘pretty’ which is the instinct of every professional Cinematographer, but after shooting in China a couple of times I realized that the most raw, grimy footage worked the best and was the most compelling. Since then I have tended to shy away from shooting things to look clean and beautiful in favor of a more real and grittier style.
Newly Released Clip: De Rotterdam Complex, NL: Workers / Tomas Koolhaas
AD: The film seems to focus on the building’s interaction with it’s inhabitants, revealing it in the most raw, honest way possible. Could you share some of the most interesting observations you have made when comparing each project? Also, has the presence of the camera or Rem changed this interaction in anyway?
TK: Everywhere I went I saw many compelling interactions at the buildings. One that always stands out for me is the Seattle library. The Seattle library has a large community of homeless people who spend much of their day there. Most people who film the building try to frame the homeless out of their shots. Many reviews of the building online even complain that the homeless get in the way of the other visitors enjoyment of the aesthetic form. I took the opposite approach. I thought that by exploring the connection between the homeless people and the building I could understand how a truly public building is used in the real world.
I spoke to, and interviewed numerous homeless people (watch Seattle Library clip here). Although many of them were unwilling to speak on camera (many of them are on the run, convicts and/or mentally ill) I found one man who was happy to tell the story of his interaction with the building which he called “a haven” for him and other homeless people. What he told me revealed a great deal about how the library is being used. It was interesting to compare this to the buildings intended and perceived use. Most people think of the library primarily as a place to lend and read books, and a place where homeless people can shelter from the harsh Seattle weather, both of which are important functions of the building. It was interesting that for Chris (the homeless man) the two most important functions were communication and artistic expression. He has no cell phone or computer so his only means of communication with his family, homeless shelters, prospective employers, etc.. is the free internet in the library. The library also has a room with musical instruments that anyone (including the homeless) can play. He said that without the ability to communicate and express himself artistically he would have no hope for the future.
I found similarly surprising reactions to CCTV. Although, it isn’t fully in use yet it has already had a large effect on the surrounding community. I filmed in an area near CCTV that would be considered a “slum” in the west but that is still pretty typical in China. One old man didn’t like CCTV, not for any deep political or economic reasons but because he thought it resembled a pair of “big pants.” Another man, a key cutter, was happy because since it had been constructed the increased foot traffic in the area had roughly doubled his business. I spent a lot of time in this “slum” and what I found was surprising and touching. I found the kind of insights I got from watching the lives of the locals and talking to them a lot more meaningful and relevant than the heated political/ideological/intellectual debate that is going on about CCTV in the west.
Rem’s presence definitely changes the dynamic at a building or building site. I find that interesting to explore so I always shoot both with and without him at every location. The most raw and real footage is usually captured when I’m alone (not surprisingly). I don’t just turn up and shoot a few angles like most filmmakers. I stay there for as long as I can, until people start to let there guard down, continue about their daily business. That’s the most interesting footage for me, when people have forgotten I’m even filming and just interact with each other and the building as if I wasn’t there.
AD: What has been the most challenging aspect of creating REM?
TK: I think the biggest challenge for me is trying to end the filmmaking process somewhere. Rem has projects in so many countries at various levels of completion, and not just building projects but AMO has various projects that cross over into some very exciting new realms and territories; fashion, branding, sociology, economics even politics. At some point I have to stop filming and wrap the film up but it’s difficult because I know I will then miss and leave out so many important events, projects and story lines. In a case like this it’s tempting to make a sequel or even a trilogy.
AD: Where do you think this experience will lead to next? Do you have any projects lined up for when you complete the film next year?
TK: I will always continue to shoot various film projects but I am also focusing on other areas too. I have written two fiction novels that I am editing and will complete once the film is released.
I think the main effect of making REM will be that I am going to work on more factually based film projects in the future, having been deeply touched by many of the things I’ve witnessed making this film. I also have still have a deep passion for narrative features which is what originally drew me to film so I think whatever the future holds professionally it will be a combination of all the above types of projects.
REM clips previously featured on ArchDaily:
Tomas Koolhaas Brief Bio:
Tomas Koolhaas was born and raised in North London, England. He worked for Tank Magazine and MTV UK before moving to Los Angeles for film school. After film school Tomas worked in Hollywood for 10 years as a cinematographer, shooting projects of all genres and styles (short/feature length narrative, Music videos, commercials, documentaries etc…). His present focus is on writing and directing; he is currently in production on the feature documentary entitled REM and is editing two fiction novels that he authored.
Stay updated with the film on the REM Facebook page.