Laughs bring director Christian Ditter to ‘Girlboss’
With his recent list of films and TV productions, Girlboss director Christian Ditter seems eager to be the only guy in the room on his projects.
Not so, the German director of “How to Be Single” and “Love, Rosie” says. But he doesn’t mind at all. He is the only male executive producer for the female-centric “Girlboss,” which is based loosely on the book “#Girlboss” by Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso.
The show tracks how a fictionalized 20-something Sophia, played by Britt Robertson, rose from unemployable retail worker to e-commerce fashion boss. Ditter worked with exec producers Kay Cannon, Charlize Theron and Amoruso herself to develop the 13-episode first season set in San Francisco in 2006.
In a recent phone chat, Ditter, who with wife Maria has two daughters and a son, talked about the making of the series, how he picks his projects, and what he thinks “Girlboss” and “Back to the Future” have in common.
“Girlboss” currently is streaming on Netflix.
I’ve noticed that whenever you’re photographed you have a group of women surrounding you. What’s up with that?
[Laughs.] That’s a very funny observation. I don’t know, it just happens that way. I’ve been doing female-driven comedies recently, and I guess that’s where a majority of the photos come from.
What is it about female-driven stories, I guess, that interests you? Or do you just sort of fall into these projects?
You know what? It’s just kind of happened that way. I don’t choose my projects by gender. I choose by what I find interesting. Also, maybe the conflicted characters [draw me]. These just happen to be women at least 50 percent of the time or maybe more.
I gravitated recently toward these stories. But I don’t sit down and go, “Oh man, this is a fantastic script. Shame it has a male protagonist. Let’s drop him!” That’s not how I operate.
What was it about “Girlboss” specifically that interested you?
I read the script overnight when Kay Cannon, the show runner, gave it to me. I knew her from a previous project. And what made me fall in love with the script was that I had to laugh out loud, literally, when I read it.
But it also really touched me. My favorite film growing up was “Back to the Future” actually. And what really stuck with me was that message of “Back to the Future,” which is if you put your mind to it you can accomplish anything.
I felt that “Girlboss” is a modern version of that. It’s inspiring in that way. Also, it’s inspiring that it’s not just a fairy tale version of success, but says that at least half of [success] is failure. The show says it’s OK to fail as long as when you fall down, you stand up again and keep walking. That struck a chord with me.
So “Back to the Future” was your inspiration growing up?
Oh yeah. My God, I’ve seen that countless times. Like, countless.
Is that what made you want to get into the entertainment industry?
If I would have to name three films that made me want to get into film they would be “Back to the Future,” “E.T.” and “Cinema Paradiso.”
They made you want to be a director, and a producer? Not an actor?
I never wanted to be an actor; that never crossed my mind. I become kind of awkward when the camera is turned towards me, so I think I wouldn’t be very good at it.
And you know what? I didn’t grow up saying, “I want to become a filmmaker.” It started out as a hobby. I made short films with friends when I was a teenager and everything. But I wasn’t really aware at the time that that’s a career choice that might be open to me growing up in small-town Germany.
But when I won some short film competitions and then got into Vienna film school, that became more of a realistic option. I had a career in Germany before I moved to the United States.
You’ve done both TV and film in Germany, and now both in the U.S. How is it different working on an American set?
My job as a director—my work with actors and with the DP of production and others—is actually quite similar. The main difference would be that you have more resources here, which translates in time. You can do things a little bit more thoroughly here. And it translates also in just toys, like in a technical way. So you have more money to have different cameras and stuff like that. In terms of directing actors and everything, it looks very similar. It’s just a different language.
Was it different for you filming a show that you knew that people would be able to binge? Does that affect even the writing or the structure of each story?
Well, the dramaturgy of it all was mainly [showrunner] Kay Cannon’s work. We discussed things, obviously. What we knew is that people who binge usually binge two to three episodes in runs, so we always try to make … three episodes into a mini movie.
That was the goal. The interesting thing about Netflix or streaming services, too, is you don’t have to necessarily screen every episode into a certain pattern. So what happens is that our episodes turn out to be very different from each other, which I find exciting. We have more traditional episodes, but we also have a flashback episode, or we have an episode that follows another character, not Sophia but her friend. We did little experiments like that because we could, and I found that exciting.
What made you decide to be an executive producer and direct?
When I originally signed up, I signed up to direct the pilot, or the prototype as they call it. So the first episode, basically. Then out of technical reasons I ended up directing the first three because they were cross-boarded, so; we shot them at the same time. It just makes sense to direct all three.
I kind of just stayed on because I was there and we did the casting together, the locations and everything together. So we brought the thing to life together based on Kay’s writing. I just felt like, “I’m part of this now. Why not fully commit and stay around for everything?”
Obviously the technicalities about contracts are a little bit more complicated, but on the feelings side, this is what happened basically.
So then you ended up directing five episodes, right?
I directed the first three and then I came back for the last two. And I executive produced the ones in the middle.
Were you just having so much fun you said, “Hey, I’ll do the last two!”?
It wasn’t the plan. But after directing the first three or maybe in the middle of it, they asked me if I would also do the last two. I really had fun doing the show. It was great work, and amazing actors, and great crew. So I said, “Sure, why not?” It happened on the run basically.
Each episode seems to have a different feel. How do you decide how much of the overall story sticks in each episode? I know Kay wrote it initially, but how much do you add to the feel of the episodes?
The mastermind behind all that is Kay, for sure. And the conversations we had were more like, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to do [this kind of] episode?” This is how Episode 103 happened—the one where they walk through San Francisco. It was important to us to make San Francisco a character, because it was just such an important part of the real Sophia’s life and business.
We had discussions like that, but then really how to divide that into the episodes and everything, full credit to Kay. I was just adoring the way she wrote and handled that with the other writers. Yeah, that was all her.
San Francisco has been in a lot of movies. How did you decide how it should look this time? What did you do in a different way, I guess?
I always come from character in a way that I thought, “So what did, specifically, Sophia’s San Francisco look like? And what were the areas of the town where she hang out and that meant something to her specifically?”
When I met Sophia Amoruso, the real Sophia, I asked her if she could provide us with photos that she took back at the time, back in 2005 or 2006, when our series starts. She’s a photographer so she actually had a lot of pictures. She sent over, I don’t know, 100 pictures at least—maybe more. This was our starting point where we then sat down with Kay and Laverne and Charlize and said, “OK, this is what I feel, or what we feel as a group the show should look and feel like.”
We selected some of these pictures. Then we opened the discussions with the department heads—costume department, production design, cinematographer—and said, “This side of San Francisco we would be interested in showing.”
This is mainly around The Haight and where all the rich shops are. And then in 103 we opened San Francisco also to the more touristy places that was were brought in by the Shane character. …
San Francisco has changed massively over the last 10 years, so it was really interesting, also, to research that as somebody who hasn’t been living in San Francisco 10 years ago.
Sophia in the show is such a free spirit despite initially seeming like just another whiny millennial character on TV. I think a lot of people can relate to her feelings. It’s not that she doesn’t want to work, she just wants to work at something she loves. I can relate to that! What themes did you think would resonate with viewers?
So first of all, I never start with message. I start with what’s fun or what’s entertaining, what’s thrilling. But then obviously there’s another layer; message is important.
The message here isn’t gender-specific, at least for me. Many would want to be the boss of your own life. And a lot of people don’t want to be…, which is totally fine. As a filmmaker I’m a freelancer myself. I think the important theme for me is that if you want to be the boss of your own life, you can. I think that’s a core message, which I think is for everybody. It’s not just for girls, or not just for millennials, but for anyone.
It all sort of goes back to what you were saying about “Back to the Future,” doesn’t it? You put your mind to it, you can do it.
I don’t think I’ve ever liked Britt Robertson in a role as much as I do in this one, and Sophia is sometimes hard to take. What was it like working with her?
She is amazing. And this is not the typical actors-need-to-be-praised-in-interviews kind of thing. She’s so humble and a really hard worker. The atmosphere on a set is always determined by the No. 1 on the call sheet. The lead, basically, because if she’s nice then the set is a happy place, and if she or he is nasty, the set is not such a happy place. Our set was a very, very happy place. And she was not just a great actress, obviously as everybody can see, but she was also a great colleague.
I was so impressed by her because after three or four days she knew everybody’s name—and not just the people that are in direct contact with her like the director, DP, costume designer and so on. She knew the name of every electrician, of every crew member. No matter how far away from her on the set, every PA, every intern. When she came in the morning she greeted everybody by name. This was 100 people, and she respected everybody. I was so impressed by that. It was great. Britt was great.
And she managed not to break her ankle in those way high heels that she was wearing.
[Laughs.] This is like a total nightmare. But no, she didn’t complain, she didn’t whine.
Did she get the real Sophia right?
From the get-go we said we are not making a documentary about the real Sophia, but a fictionalized version of her. We said please don’t imitate the real Sophia, but get inspired by her and then own it in a way that you develop your own version of that.
So we get Sophia Amoruso on set and Britt met her and they went shopping together. While they have a lot of similarities, I do think that Britt’s interpretation of Sophia is different than the real Sophia, as is the writing of the show. It’s inspired by Sophia, but it’s not a copy.
Well, as the opening title says, it’s really loosely based on real life.
Yes, it is. We had to make adjustments because ultimately you don’t want to watch a show where somebody sits in front of a computer screen most of the time, so obviously that needs to be a dramatization.
Do you wear only vintage clothes now?
[Laughs.] No, I don’t. I am very simple. I don’t know if I could make those choices.
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