Catching Up with Petoskey Filmmaker, now Berliner, Emily Manthei
What this wunderkind is making now.
By Ross Boissoneau | July 27, 2019
Catching Up with Emily Manthei
Petoskey native began making films in the sixth grade. We tracked her down in Berlin to see what this wunderkind is making now.
By Ross Boissoneau
Emily Manthei was hooked at an early age. Growing up with an interest in classic films, she fell in love with movies: film noir, Hitchcock, Star Wars — it didn’t matter.
But the northern Michigan native wasn’t satisfied to simply watch and appreciate films. She began making her own while in middle school, then went on to create her own film festival while still in high school.
“I spent my entire senior year at Petoskey High School making movies — I think we made around a dozen, including narrative shorts, commercials, music videos, anything I could get my hands on,” she told Northern Express back in 2006.
Since then, Manthei has gone on to make films in Hollywood, Bangladesh, Central America, Romania, and other locations around the globe. Currently based in Berlin, she spends time in Los Angeles, but is most often on the road, following and finding her passion: stories. Perhaps not surprisingly, she’s also a writer. In addition to her screenplay work, her journalism has appeared in the Huffington Post, U.S. News & World Report, Medium, the Daily Beast, and more.
Northern Express: Berlin, Bangladesh and South Africa are worlds away from Petoskey. What do you get from traveling abroad that influences your filmmaking? And why those particular locations?
Manthei: Actually, it’s not that I love traveling so much, it’s more that I follow stories. I am a curious person, and if someone invites me to Dhaka to follow an NGO and tell their story, I’ll go. And I might end up going back five more times because the people I’m making the films with are even more interesting, and they have their own inspiring and comical and devastating and manic lives that I want to follow up with.
If you asked me a list of places I’ve traveled, I wouldn’t tell you the cities and countries, I would tell you the stories I discovered. I once interviewed an ex-gang member who went to prison for murdering someone as a teenager in El Salvador, and came out training to become a priest. He inspired a script I wrote about how gangs in Los Angeles fueled the Central American refugee crisis on the country’s southern border.
After meeting an adopted Bangladeshi woman on the streets of Dhaka who almost got kidnapped, I started writing about adoptees returning to their birth countries to seek out their families. The first time I traveled to Berlin, I stumbled into a 1920s party, and then went back, only to hear a dozen people say they were sick of talking about the past. This inspired a story about the mental time warp of the mind of any German born in the 20th century. And of course there’s Los Angeles, the home of storytellers. It’s hard to tell an original story there, because it’s just a place made up of storytellers. So. Maybe I don’t have that much imagination after all.
Express: Technology has grown to the point where you can almost make anything from anywhere. So why not Michigan? Why not Petoskey? Or why not Hollywood?
Manthei: Why not Hollywood? See above. I lived there for 14 years and, although Los Angeles has visually dynamic architecture and art to recommend it, making films there is kind of a slog. If you don’t have a healthy amount of ruthless narcissism in you, or an agent or manager that has that kind of narcissism for you, it’s pretty hard to do anything, full stop. I found myself enjoying filmmaking a lot less in “Hollywood.”
And why not Petoskey? The answer is really, I’m a city person. I love the way cities pack so much diversity into such a small space, and really just force such chaotic, random, spontaneous interactions. Urban solutions are incredibly inspiring, too. Any city is made up of its own special atmosphere that draws a certain type of person there. The city has a meaning to each person who lives there, but it also takes on a collective belonging. In Berlin, that capacity for collective solution-making is so creative and powerful and strong, [this] city’s story is one of survival instinct, built out of solidarity.
That’s true of the creative community, too. There are loads of collectives who create work together, nurture each other’s art, and are actually building self-sustaining communities. Instead of competition, collaboration is the backbone of the Berlin artist community, and that’s what I really love about living in Berlin and making films here. Technology is really only a small part of filmmaking, and, yes, it’s widely available. What isn’t always so easy to find is meaningful collaboration. Cities, which draw a lot of people with common values, are great for finding the right artistic synergy for filmmaking. Because it’s not something you can do on your own.
Express: What do you seek to tell in your films?
Manthei: I’m always looking to expose myself — and viewers — to a different point of view, or some sort of change or reversal of the status quo. I think by seeing people who are different from us, we learn more about ourselves and our own motivations. And ultimately, we can learn compassion, and empathy: “Maybe if I was in that circumstance, I would do that too.” Maybe we could also learn some critical thinking.
I’m also seeking connections (maybe even clashes) between people, places, cultures, values, viewpoints. A great danger is to believe that you are really alone, really independent, because in the end we’re all connected to each other, and one person’s self-limiting beliefs will spiral into chaos for those one is connected to as well. While that makes for great stories, it can have devastating consequences if we live like that in reality.
Manthei’s films showcase some quirky sensibilities. In the debut episode of her 2015 noir/comedy web series, Just Plain Dead, the overacting is intended and obvious. So obvious, in fact, that the female detective lead calls her potential client on it. In Manthei’s most recent work, 2018’s Voice Over, which she co-wrote and directed with Jörn Linnenbröker, an American actor’s voice is being dubbed in German. But the actor in the film doesn’t take kindly to it, reacting against the dub work, while the voice actor doing the overdubbing is seemingly the only one who sees and hears the comments. Voice Overhas been featured in several film festivals since premiering at Boddinale, a community film festival in Berlin.
Express: What are the commonalities in your work?
Manthei: I am really interested in loneliness and community. I think a lot of my characters are isolated, or different, or “fish out of water” in some way, and I’m interested in the way someone who feels different can find a way to connect or to create a different reality. So there’s always a little bit of a magical reality in my films, whether it’s a stylized world with a rather mundane scenario, or an ordinary world that someone just a little out of place steps into. I’m trying to create a tone that has a sense of humor about it, but you don’t have to laugh out loud.
Visually, I like to introduce action into a frame rather than use cuts to create action. My favorite thing to do is build scenes with one shot. I think that very classic mise en scéne is a pretty specific stylistic choice that I’ve been using for a long time, and I really admire filmmakers who do that exceptionally well.
Express: What are your favorites among the 20+ films you’ve made?
Manthei: It really depends on what mood I’m in, but these days I really like comedy. I made a film last year called Instant Family, inspired by a story I read about how you can rent a family in Japan. So I made a little film about it as a 48-hour challenge. It’s not the best film I’ve ever made, but I do think it turned out very cute and sweet. I also really love a film I made in university, As If It Were Nothing, about a woman who goes out searching for an autistic man she met in a coffee shop. I think it’s really special to make these small connections with people. I am also still obsessed with this former the gang member from El Salvador, whom I made a documentary about. That one will always be close to my heart.
Express: What is your end goal?
Manthei: End goal? I don’t have an end in mind.
Follow Manthei’s filmwork, writing, and travels at: www.emilymanthei.com
We asked Manthei to share some of her favorite films made by others. Here’s what she told us:
Notebook on Cities and Clothes
Salt of the Earth
Wings of Desire (“The ultimate Berlin film.”)
Most Wes Anderson’s films (“[Most] fall short in some emotional way, [but] I still love his style of filmmaking and I would say he’s a pretty big influence for me.”)
Lost in Translation
I See Red People
Touch Me Not
13 Conversations about One Thing
The Lives of Others
Chinatown Don’t Look Now
Alaska is a Drag
Call Me by Your Name
The Edge of Heaven
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari