No name Restaurant_ARRI Rental_ARRI_ALEXA Mini Title

Shooting "No Name Restaurant" in the desert with an ARRI ALEXA Mini

ARRI Rental supports cinematographer Holger Jungnickel on the latest film from directors Stefan Sarazin and Peter Keller.

Oct. 9, 2022

It took writers/directors Stefan Sarazin and Peter Keller, along with producer Fritjof Hohagen, many years and multiple attempts to shoot their passion project "No Name Restaurant." But it was worth it in the end. The finished film was awarded numerous prizes even before its cinema release, including the Producer's Award at the Bavarian Film Awards, the Fritz Gerlich Award, and the One Future Award.

The film tells the story of Ben, an ultra-orthodox Jew from New York (Luzer Twersky) who gets lost in the Sinai desert on his way to Alexandria. Bedouin tribesman Adel (Haitham Omari) finds and takes care of him, and on their adventurous journey through the desert, these two men of different religions slowly get to know and appreciate each other. The moral of the story: prejudices can be overcome.

In this interview, DP Holger Jungnickel talks about the desert shoot, for which ARRI Rental provided the ALEXA Mini and Zeiss High Speed lenses.

What was it about this production that caught your imagination?

The story was extraordinary, the screenplay well written, and filming it was an adventure in itself, so the project was right up my alley. The fact that there was as good as no budget didn't bother me too much, because I had only just finished my graduation film at film school and wasn't done studying yet. "No Name Restaurant" was a great first project for outside of college. At the time I couldn't have imagined how long it would take before it would make it into cinemas.

You filmed in Palestine, Jerusalem, and Jordan in 2019. Two years previously, the team around cameraman Alexander Hasskerl had already completed a preliminary shoot in Haifa. Did that leave you with enough creative freedom?

My premise was that I was fully free in the visual realization, and the material that had been filmed did not restrict me in any way. We re-shot some scenes in part or in full because the Bedouin character Adel was recast, with Haitham Omari stepping into the role. In the Passover meal scene at the end of the film, we combined takes: the ones facing the congregation were filmed by Alexander, while the ones facing Adel are from me. And we filmed it on another set, but of course I tried to integrate the new sequences into the existing material as best I could. We shot the rest of the film much differently, but it all comes together wonderfully as one concept: the film is quite static in the Alexandria scenes, which we shot in Haifa, but when Ben arrives, the camera frees up more and more, especially when he gets into the desert.

Are there films you used as a visual reference?

We shot much of the film in the Wadi Rum reserve in Jordan. Quite a few great films have been made there over the last century. Of course, "Lawrence of Arabia" came up repeatedly in our preliminary discussions. We dedicated one shot to that film. And at least one of the two directors was greatly inspired by Aki Kaurismäki. Now that the film is done, it would interest me how much the viewer feels that. I didn't have a specific film that I wanted us to emulate, but you always get inspired and influenced by the things that surround you during your preparations.
For me, it was all the different cultures and places that I encountered when we were researching locations and casting. That was the basis, and then the predictably crazy filming conditions led step by step to the ultimate visual style. It was important to me to be physically close to Ben and Adel. I wanted the images to be as intense as the preparation work had felt to me. Since we didn't want to go handheld and the budget didn't allow for a Steadicam, we used a gimbal. Dolly and tracks were unrealistic in the desert, and they kind of lead to an inherent physical distance anyway.

Why did you choose the ARRI ALEXA Mini?

When you're filming largely in the desert, you don't want to be carrying around any additional weight. And a compact camera was desirable because of the frequent gimbal use. Ever since the ALEXA Mini has been on the market, I've hardly ever shot with another camera. And it was once again the perfect choice for this project, too.

Which lenses did you use?

Alexander Hasskerl used the ALEXA XT with Ultra Prime lenses for his scenes. The bigger camera with dolly and stuff weren't such a problem during the preliminary shoot in Haifa. We shot in the desert and could have used the Ultra Primes in the compact setup there too, but they didn't seem to me to have enough character for the film's look and feel. ARRI Rental in Ismaning let me test and compare the available lenses for two days, to help me find the right set of lenses for the project. I teamed the ALEXA Mini up with Zeiss High Speeds -- a classic product among film lenses. They ultimately offered the right combination of look, lighting strength, and compactness, and they provided a lot of character, especially in Open Gate mode. Thanks to a stop of T1.5 at 1600 ASA, it was possible for our gaffer Benedikt Haas to "light" some depth into the desert in the night shots with two ARRI M90 HMI fixtures.

Were there any difficulties unifying the results of the different shoots with the different cameras and lenses in postproduction?

When grading on the big screen I was surprised just how different the two combinations of ALEXA XT with Ultra Primes and ALEXA Mini with Zeiss High Speeds felt. But with a great deal of hard work and attention to detail, our colorist Lukas Wanderer was able to collate the material really well. And there were also two or three ultra-long shots from a test shoot with cameraman Rene Richter. They had been filmed many years ago really simply with a Canon 5D and photo lenses. Integrating them seamlessly was quite a challenge.

Do you have a favorite scene in the film?

For me, the scene in which the camel pulls Adel and Ben out of the well has a very special magic. It wasn't planned, and we hadn't thought it would be possible for them to just climb out on that rope. We were all surprised and the camera kept rolling for a few minutes until the end of the scene. With the gimbal I was able to spontaneously capture the improvised moments with the two actors and the camel. That lends the images an authenticity that you'd like to have in every scene you film, but that you can't always generate.

How was the support from ARRI Rental for you?

The people at ARRI Rental stood by us with everything they had on this project. And they allayed the concerns I had about the weather extremes in the desert. With their help I had found the right combination of camera, lenses, and accessories before filming started. What more can you want?

Did the camera equipment work well in the desert?

The camera equipment functioned perfectly the entire time. That's why I love the ALEXA so much. There are just more important things to be dealing with on set than camera issues.

I'm sure that's particularly true in the desert. Can you give us an impression of what it's like to film there?

There were sandstorms that you could only see in if you were wearing ski goggles. Swarms of locusts destroyed the glass shields and the burners in the lamps. Filming in Wadi Rum we had neither radio nor telephone reception, and of course no internet. And there are no roads, streetlights, or road signs in the desert, so in the evening when we were done filming for the day, the only person who could lead us safely back to camp was the head Bedouin, Mufleh -- all in a big convoy behind him.

There was no day on which we just filmed like on a normal shoot. But it was precisely this that fascinated me and kept me on the edge. Despite the difficult circumstances, we could feel that we were making an important film, and the whole team gave our all, right up until the very last day. It was the creativity, kindness, and tenacity of each and every individual involved that kept me going and smiling, even when the going got really tough.

The Bedouins were part of the team. Just like in the film -- their support was crucial.

Yes. I remember we were using old Toyota Land Cruisers from the 70s and 80s, driven by Bedouins, to transport all the equipment in Wadi Rum. One morning I came on set and said "Hi" to a young Bedouin boy who was helping unload camera equipment. I congratulated Michael Schneider, my 1st AC, on his new apprentice, only to be corrected that this was the new driver of our camera truck. This 14-year-old boy was easily as good at navigating a truck through the sand as the drivers from Amman -- sitting on two cushions in order to be able to see over the dash.