Stories of life, death and virtual reality

On big screens and small, film-director Marc Forster tells tales both entertaining and meaningful. Technology hugely influences cinema and television, he says, but there is still a major role played by artistry.

Text: ceo Magazin | Images: zvg | Magazine: Life & Science – July 2017

In Hollywood, a place at times smothered by overinflated egos, Marc Forster is refreshingly free of self-importance. No, films are not central to life, he says, most humans who ever lived never saw a moving picture. “Actually, people can survive with very little, and certainly without films.” But deep inside most everyone, he adds, there is an urge to tell or listen to stories. “Even in prehistory, people painted on the walls of their caves. We have an innate desire for storytelling, and our urge for narrative comes alive in pictures – that has never left us.”

The classic narrative themes of life and death haven’t gone away either, especially in films made by Forster. Mortality is central to many of his movies, and not by accident. Already in his early 20s, the now 48-year-old director had lost his father, a brother and several friends. “I encountered a lot of death as I grew up,” he recalls, “so dealing with that became part of who I am.”

“The worlds of cinematic storytelling and virtual reality are starting to blend.”

Not dealing with it, by contrast, has become part of modern society. Forster says that Western cultures have lost what he calls their “deathright”. Instead of recognising and accepting the inevitability – not to mention the fear and the grief – of human passing, they hide it away or act as if it doesn’t exist. “Death is an inevitable step in our journey, but is something that people don’t want to think about.” This, he contends, denies humanity. He argues that society at large “needs to embrace death. We need to accept the come and go, the transience of our own existence.”

Without irony, he points out that by appreciating death for what it is, people enhance their lives. “If we realise that death could come at any time, we allow ourselves to live in the now, to take every moment as a gift – which is one of the hardest things for people to do. If you never experience sadness, through pain, through death, how can you truly appreciate the best in life? Saying ‘we never have any problems’ is a sterile approach to life.”

Is he a) German, b) Swiss, c) American or d) all of the above? Born in 1969 to a German mother and Swiss father in Germany, Marc Forster moved with his family to Switzerland’s Davos when he was nine, after which he earned his “Matura” from the boarding-school Institut Montana Zugerberg near Zug. He went on to attend New York University’s film school in the USA, where he’s mostly lived and worked ever since, directing a dozen major films and one television series. Thanks to this life experience and his accentless mastery of German, Swiss German and English, Forster can go native and feel at home in all three countries. Personally, he is perceived by colleagues in the moviemaking industry as European, but professionally he is very much an American – most of his work is conceived, financed and made in the USA.

Audience participation

Heavy themes, these, yet they come off with a light touch in his films. A moral is always delivered, but through a story rather than a speech. Forster says he aims to entertain as much as to send a message. “A film without an audience is not alive. Only an audience can give a film life. So I always want to entertain and bring the audience into the story, but at the same time I want to deliver a subtext, a philosophy of the way I see the world.”

This is so critical to Forster, he takes on only projects that he can markedly shape. “Off-the-shelf” direction of franchised cinema is not his thing, and he has turned down gigs to prove it. “I have to make stories that breathe my identity,” he says. “I have to be able to find my own voice in a project to incorporate my own DNA – that’s very important.”

Chameleon of the big screen, 20+ years of film success

Aside from its excellence acclaimed by critics, industry prizes such as the Oscars or Golden Globes and massive audiences worldwide, Marc Forster’s oeuvre as a film director is hard to categorise, because it is so broad. His work ranges from quirky fantasies such as “Finding Neverland”, to personal explorations such as “All I See Is You” or “Monster’s Ball”, to action-blockbusters like “World War Z” or one of the James Bond movies, “Quantum of Solace”, and even to a comedy, “Stranger Than Fiction”. Currently, he’s directing a live-action movie about how someone who had a magical childhood come to terms with a less-than-magical adulthood. Based on characters conceived by novelist A. A. Milne and popularised by Disney in “Winnie the Pooh”, the film “Christopher Robin” is expected to debut in 2018.

The message is the medium?

The means of spreading that DNA are of course changing. Traditional lines between film, television and video gaming are beginning to blur, thanks to myriad delivery forms (from cinema to broadcast to streaming) and to the rise of special effects and virtual reality (VR). “The worlds of cinematic storytelling and VR are starting to blend,” Forster says. “Audiences are increasingly being drawn into the centre of the story, not just emotionally but physically as well.”

New technologies such as Oculus “goggles”, Google’s retina scanning and Snapchat’s “Spectacles” are still in unfinished beta mode, but they clearly are the face of film’s future. “There are so many emerging technologies that we’re in a stage of experimentation right now. We’re not just exploring new implications for film, but a new medium of storytelling. There is constant change, and every challenge becomes an opportunity for creativity,” he comments. “What is certain is a breakthrough for the next frontier of storytelling that will bring a new perspective in how we see ourselves and the world.”

“Death is an inevitable step in our journey, but is something that people don’t want to think about.”

While the technology of presenting stories is changing rapidly, that of making them is surprisingly similar in film and TV. In the recent recording of his first television series, “Hand of God”, Forster found the process and equipment almost identical to that for film-making. Where the two media still diverge sharply is in their approach. “For TV,” he observes, “the shoot is done in ten days and the cut finished in two weeks. In film, there is much more time to do the work, change it, test it with audiences and then make changes again. Television is continuous, so we are required to deliver an experience that is ongoing for the audience. There is a greater investment in film, since we have just one opportunity to deliver the experience.” Moreover, the dramatic demands of the media are still quite different. Audience-testing shows that viewers usually want films to end with a resolution: boy gets girl, family solves problem or whatever. TV watchers, by contrast, often are tantalised by indefinite non-endings. Intentionally so – to keep ratings rolling, the broadcaster wants them to watch next week as well.

Innovation survives

And even these distinctions are beginning to blur, Forster says, as cinema, television and gaming continue to morph into new forms. What doubtless will remain are the “story” format plus the serendipitous dosing of artistry that distinguishes the great from the good from the mediocre.

Apropos his non-inflated ego, Forster is modest about his own muse. (Critics are less inhibited, calling him one of the great directors of his generation.) Still, he is unequivocal about the need for creativity. “Film-making is a very collaborative art. There’s an incredible amount of creativity demanded and shared in this kind of storytelling.” Ingenuity, inventiveness, vision – whatever it’s called – it’ll always be a mainstay of storytelling, which will always be central to human life.

Top 5 box office hits




Quantum of Solace
Studio: Sony
Box office worldwide: 586,1 Millionen USD
Release: 14.11.2008



World War Z
Studio: Paramount
Box office worldwide: 540,0 Millionen USD
Release: 21.6.2013



Finding Neverland
Studio: Miramar
Box office worldwide: 116,8 Millionen USD
Release: 12.11.2004



The Kite Runner
Studio: ParV
Box office worldwide: 73,3 Millionen USD
Release: 14.12.2007



Stranger Than Fiction
Studio: Sony
Box office worldwide: 53,7 Millionen USD
Release: 10.11.2006