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New Talent: Raphael Ghobadloo

London, UK
Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg student on his brilliantly dark comedy spec ad for Mercedes-Benz and how it was particularly timely thanks to Donald Trump
Raphael Ghobadloo spent much of his childhood in front of the camera, acting in German films from the age of four up until around 15. But working with Oliver Hirsch, a director that Raphael says “really cared about what he was doing”, at the age of nine left him inspired. Fast forward 21 years and Raphael is a student at Germany’s prestigious Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg. His latest project, a brilliant spec ad for Mercedes-Benz filled with wicked dark humour, was particularly timely due to some combative words from President Trump. 

LBB’s Addison Capper chatted with Raphael to find out more. 

LBB> Where did the idea for The Last Wish initially come from?

RG> Andi, an author from my film school, hit me up one day and told me he had an idea for a spot laying around in his drawer and that I should use it before it goes to waste. I instantly loved it. That same day I told my DOP Julian C. Steiner and producer Hannes Höhn about it. They also liked it and so together we worked on the concept all night, tweaking it a little until it was ready to be shot.

LBB> There was poignancy to the timing of its release, due to Trump’s threats to German automakers. Can you tell us more about that?

RG> I’d love to say that we had this whole debate in mind while shooting the spot but the truth is that we just got lucky. I was sitting in the editing room with my editor when I read about Trump’s threat to put tariffs on European cars. We joked around at first saying that the scenario we described in the film could now actually happen. And that’s when I realised that the timing of the release was going to be impeccable to accompany this debate.

LBB> Tell us about the production - how was it? What were the trickiest components and how did you overcome them?

RG> We had a little trouble getting started because since I study ‘directing for fiction’ at the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg it wasn’t that easy to convince them to let me shoot a commercial. They have a special course only for directing commercials. So, Hannes and I had to come up with a way to convince the principal to green light the project. In the end the concept convinced him and we were allowed to shoot it as a ‘special project’, which meant we were able to use the school’s equipment but had to finance it ourselves.

After that everything went great except for the casting process. I really wanted to tell the story of an authentic American family so it was crucial for us to cast native English speakers. But we just couldn’t find them in Germany and although it meant we had to dig deeper into our own pockets we decided to cast the mother in the UK. This turned out to be the best decision because Christy Meyer carries the spot’s authenticity. Sometimes you just have to go all in to make it right.

The shoot itself was the best I ever had. All the departments were really professional so that Julian and I could completely focus on our work, which isn’t a given on a student set. I really have my two producers Magda [Wolff] and Hannes to thank for that.

LBB> Death isn’t an easy thing to make comedy out of - but when it works it’s great! Why is it something you wanted to attempt?

RG> To be honest it all had to do with the idea. I fell in love with it and knew this was something I wanted to tell. I mean it’s already really funny when you see one of those shiny, new Mercedes hearses for the first time and I knew the twist would work. Now it was just important to tell the first part in the church as authentic as possible, and so I met with a priest, an undertaker and even a veterans’ club to do my research. All of them thought the story was funny and gladly supported us - so by that time I was totally convinced it was OK to make this joke. And although I know that death is a delicate topic it really didn’t feel like a spot about death but more about a guy that wants his last adventure.

LBB> I lived in Germany for two years and there’s quite a bit of debate around comedy in German advertising and the lack of it. What are your thoughts on that?

RG> The nice thing is that as a student I didn’t really have any corporate restrictions and could just focus on telling a funny story without any consequences. But judging from all the positive feedback we get from around the world and especially from other Germans I think the industry could really dare to use more provocative comedy in their commercials.

LBB> Your work is quite varied - there’s comedy, a short about a child drug dealer, something quite experimental. Would you say you have a directorial style?

RG> For me it’s all about telling stories. It’s the story that dictates the setting and the genre and I love to follow it there and to see where it ends up taking me. I enjoy doing research to really explore new milieus, customs and cultures and that’s why when it comes to working in fiction I do have a passion for the classical crime and gangster stories. I would hate to only limit myself to a certain genre though because there are just too many good stories out there that need to be told. The look is also an important factor in my work because no matter what I do, I always try to have a cinematic feel to it, especially in commercials. But if I had to point out an element that connects them all, it’s humour because no matter how dark the story is, it always needs funny moments that give the audience room to breath. I guess because most of my films are somewhat darker I really enjoy making funny commercials.

LBB> Tell us a bit about your childhood. Where did you grow up and what kind of kid were you?

RG> I was born in Berlin to a German mother and an Iranian father and pretty much spent most of my childhood in Berlin, except for three very formative years that my family spent in Ireland due to my father’s job at the time. I really loved it there because we lived in the countryside and that was a big change coming from a city like Berlin. Through coincidence I got cast in a film when I was four years old. Apparently I did a good job - or they thought I was a cute kid - and so I ended up playing in quite a few German films until I was about 14 or 15. Although I always enjoyed being on set and acting, I suddenly realised that I didn’t want to do it for the rest of my life and quit. At that time I just wanted to spend more time with my friends and to go skateboarding.

LBB> What was it that inspired you to pursue a career in directing?

RG> When I was nine I had my first lead in a film called Baby Rex, which was directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel the director of ‘der Untergang’. Now I didn’t really take the whole acting thing too seriously as a kid, but working with Oliver changed it all because he really cared about what he was doing and deeply inspired me. I knew then and there that I wanted to do the same thing as an adult. And now, after a lot of work, here I am 21 years later.

LBB> What are you into outside of filmmaking?

RG> Living in Berlin doesn’t really make it that easy to get away from filmmaking too much because most of my friends have something to do with it, and so I really enjoy spending time with my old high school buddies. Other than that I like motorbiking, travelling, trying to find time to go to the movies and cooking.

LBB> Who are your creative heroes and why?

RG> This is a really though question but right now it’s definitely the Safdie Brothers. Their recent film ‘Good Time’ is an emotional roller coaster ride that hooks you from the very first moment. It’s an authentic, character driven gangster film with an incredibly well directed Robert Pattinson. On top of that it’s beautifully shot and has a banging soundtrack. It’s just top notch storytelling and the authenticity is what gives all their work such an incredible power. Seeing the film inspired me to work on a feature based on the story of a friend of mine which takes place in a similar setting. 

Another hero was Abbas Kiarostami, who, in my eyes, was one of the most important filmmakers ever. He stands in a class of his own when it comes to the magic of weaving together reality and poetic visuals. If you haven’t seen ‘Close Up’ or ‘Taste of Cherry’ I really encourage you to do so. They will blow your mind.
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