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Chris Weitz: From 'New Moon' To 'A Better Life'

The director's latest film follows a Mexican immigrant living illegally in Los Angeles who tries to evade immigration officials and the city's pervasive gang culture. It's a far cry from Weitz's earlier films, the blockbusters The Golden Compass and New Moon.


Other segments from the episode on June 22, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 22, 2011: Interview with Chris Weitz; Interview with Christoph Niemann.


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, film director Chris Weitz, is
from a film family. His grandmother was a star of silent Mexican films. His
grandfather was an agent who represented Billy Wilder and Marlene Dietrich,
among others. His mother, Susan Kohner, co-starred in the 1959 film "Imitation
of Life." Weitz and his brother Paul are both directors. They co-directed
"American Pie" and "About a Boy." More recently, Chris Weitz directed "New
Moon," the second film in the Twilight vampire series.

His new film, "A Better Life," is about a single father who is an illegal
Mexican immigrant in Southern California working for low wages as a gardener,
hoping to give his teenage son the opportunities he never had, but the son has
no respect for his father or the work he's doing and is being drawn into gang

In the hope of trying to capture the realities of gang culture in L.A., Chris
Weitz consulted with Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who founded Homeboy
Industries, an organization dedicated to helping former gang members.

One of the paradoxes of the film is that, you know, the father is here
illegally. So every second he's here, he's breaking the law, but yet he tries
to live within the limits of the law and to do things as respectfully as he
can. But the son is on the verge of joining a gang and falling into, you know,
a life of violence and crime.

And the son has really very little respect for his father. He thinks his
father's kind of a chump for working so hard as the gardener in wealthy
people's homes, making very little money and just kind of scraping by.

Mr. CHRIS WEITZ (Film Director): Well, the son thinks that what his father is
undignified and servile. And he knows that the television tells him that if you
don't have a big house and a fast car, you don't really matter for much. On
some level, he also feels that - this is the son - that he's never going to
reach that world, either, that he's stuck in the kind of turf of his
neighborhood. Which is another thing that's forcing him towards gang life.

And Carlos' father, meanwhile, is very law-abiding except for the one obvious
exception. He has a tremendous kind of ethical backbone.

GROSS: When you were casting people who were former gang members, did you do
regular casting calls, or did you just meet them and think oh, they'd be

Mr. WEITZ: We started casting the normal way you would do, which is to find an
actor to play a gang member. And the guys who came in were generally people who
were familiar with the neighborhood and were familiar with the way that gang
members might act but who, you know, made their daily bread by re-presenting to
casting agents and to directors what they thought that they wanted to see,
which is kind of a hyper version and kind of the version that Father Boyle had
an objection to.

And we decided then to do an open casting call at Homeboy Industries not
knowing what we would get. Richard Cabral, who we cast as Marcelo, kind of one
of the tough guys in the neighborhood, just emerged as a kind of a natural
presence and a natural actor amongst that bunch of people.

And it felt eventually right just in terms of who they cast. I think they
brought just - even in the way that someone sits or walks or looks, you get a
sense of authenticity, even if it isn't exactly what you thought it was going
to be.

GROSS: So he is a former gang member?

Mr. WEITZ: He's a former gang member, yeah.

GROSS: I thought he was great. I thought he really had a lot of charisma. I
could hardly understand a word he was saying.

Mr. WEITZ: Well, I think there's sort of a reason for that, which is that in
many cases, in order to portray things realistically, we had to settle for the
fact that the jargon is almost like a different language and to believe that an
audience unused to that world would understand what was going on largely
through tone.

I mean, even when there's a scene with high-schoolers, they are using a jargon
that is relatively unknown outside of that neighborhood. So when they're
referring to police, they're talking about hutas(ph) and that sort of thing.
And when they're talking about marijuana, they're talking about yeska(ph).

But we preferred that over sort of instant translation. And we could have had -
I mean, there's Spanish spoken in this movie. It's about 30 percent in Spanish
with subtitles. And we preferred that to the equivalent of what you see in
World War II movies sometimes, which is actors speaking in funny German accents
when they're supposed to be Nazis rather than speaking German.

But Richard Cabral has the bearing that he learns to have through years of
gang-banging and brought that to the screen.

GROSS: So your grandmother was a silent film star in Mexico. I think few
Americans would know who she was, but some of the actors in your new movie are
people who are movie stars in Mexico. Did they know her work?

Mr. WEITZ: They did, yeah, of course because to Mexican actors, she's something
like Mary Pickford. I mean, other than Dolores Del Rio, there's probably in
Mexico not a more famous old-timey movie actress.

But I should also say she was in some American films, because in the silent
era, it didn't really matter. And that there's a lovely story about my
grandfather wanting to keep my grandmother in America when talkies came along,
and her Mexican accent obviously showed through.

And he convinced Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal at the time, that they
should shoot Spanish-language versions of films shooting in English on the same
sets but starting at midnight, and so there's a Spanish version of "Dracula"
shot on the same sets as the Todd Browning version, but all in Spanish.

GROSS: You know, and I thought about that because I'd known that story about
your grandmother, and I thought about that when you made "New Moon," the second
in the "Twilight" series, which is, of course, about a vampire because...

Mr. WEITZ: The vampire connection, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, there's a vampire - now, you couldn't have had more different
vampires, but nevertheless, vampires they are. Did you think about that when
you decided to sign on for "New Moon"?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEITZ: Absolutely not. It sort of didn't play a role. I mean, I would love
to see a through-line saying this is sort of in some way a tribute to my
grandma, but really what the case was, I had already decided to do "A Better

I knew that doing that would be a sort of a year-and-a-half to two-year process
in which I would be making an independent film and not really paying the
mortgage. And I thought, well, I'm going to have to make a big movie.

And then "New Moon" was offered to me, and I am a tremendous fan of Kristen
Stewart and of the kids who are in that film. And I thought, well, this is
going to be an interesting exercise in style, because I already know that I
want to sort of deliver a very faithful rendition of the book, but I'm going to
take it to a very romantic, wide-screen, old-fashioned place.

And that's how I met Javier Aguirresarobe, the amazing Spanish DP, to sort of
compose things the way that I wanted to, and that's how Javier ended up working
on this film. And part of, I think, the strengths of "A Better Life" is the
outsider's eye that he brings to Los Angeles. He's not conditioned by any
preconceived notions about the city.

GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guest is Christ Weitz, and he directed
the new film "A Better Life." He also directed "New Moon," the second in the
"Twilight" series, and he co-directed "About a Boy" and "American Pie" with his
brother Paul Weitz. So let's take a break here, and then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WEITZ: My guest is Christ Weitz, and he directed the new film "A Better
Life." He also directed "New Moon," the second in the "Twilight" series, and he
co-directed with his brother Paul "American Pie" and "About a Boy."

So I want to play a clip from "New Moon," and this kind of showcases something
I find really kind of interesting about the film. You know, the film is from
the point of view of a teenage girl in high school who's in love with this
vampire, played by Robert Pattinson. And so you have this kind of teenage
version of very, like, hyper-emotion things about, you know, being in love and
saying goodbye and like one soul and all that.

But it's kind of set in this, like, slightly mumbly teenage way, and at the
same time, you have this, like, soaring, old-fashioned Hollywood movie music
behind you. Kind of like you'd hear, maybe, in a Douglas Sirk film. And so this
is a scene where Edward, played by Robert Pattinson, has just told Bella,
played by Kristen Stewart, that he's ending their relationship and leaving her
after she was nearly killed by one of his brother vampires. And she wants to go
with him, but he won't let her.

So what I want our listeners to listen to here is the contrast between, lie,
the dialogue and that - that really contemporary kind of dialogue and that
really soaring, old-fashioned movie music behind it. Here we go.

(Soundbite of film, "Twilight: New Moon")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ROBERT PATTINSON (Actor): (As Edward) Can you just promise me something?
Don't do anything reckless, for Charlie's sake. And I'll promise something to
you in return: This is the last time you'll ever see me. I won't come back. And
you can go on with your life without any interference from me. It'll be like I
never existed, I promise.

Ms. KRISTEN STEWART (Actor): (As Bella) If this is about my soul, take it. I
don't want it without you.

Mr. PATTINSON: (As Edward) It's not about your soul. You're just not good for

Ms. STEWART: (As Bella) (Unintelligible) I love you.

Mr. PATTINSON: (As Edward) I'm just sorry I let this go on for so long.

Ms. STEWART: (As Bella) Don't.

GROSS: And the music is by Alexandre Desplat, who also did "Fantastic Mr. Fox."
He's a really, really good composer. Did you intentionally want that kind of
contrast between, you know, that old-school kind of music and the contemporary

Mr. WEITZ: Well, it hadn't - it didn't occur to me from the beginning that that
was kind of the set of conditions that I had, which is actors who were deadly
intent upon making these characters as realistic as possible in terms of the
cadences of their speech and how they behaved, but I also wanted to make a film
that encapsulated, I think, the feeling the fans had about the books, which was
that they were these great romances.

And being a fan of wide-screen romantic filmmaking, when it came time to
working with Alexandre, who I'd worked with before and who also did the score
for "A Better Life," I unleashed - I told him to unleash his Romantic French
tendencies. And I don't just mean that in a cutesy way. I meant in terms of the
French, you know, Romantic musical movement

GROSS: And he's French, yeah.

Mr. WEITZ: And he's French to boot. So there is a kind of a really interesting
contrast going on, where there's a weird setting. Javier Aguirresarobe's
cinematography is deeply lush and beautiful, and within that, there are people
experiencing, speaking like normal teens except for the fact that they're
talking about being vampires and about their souls.

But I think that the experience of being a teenager and being broken up with
is, you know, often these very kind of mumblied declarations of what seem at
the time to be life-and-death feelings.

GROSS: Right. You know, as I was thinking, wow, this is the kind of music you'd
hear in a Douglas Sirk film, I was thinking, well, your mother was in a Douglas
Sirk film. She was in "Imitation of Life," Susan Kohner. Is it Kohner or
Kohner? How do you pronounce it?

Mr. WEITZ: Kohner.

GROSS: Kohner, thank you.

Mr. WEITZ: Susan Kohner. My mother played Sarah Jane, who's the daughter of an
African-American housemaid who can pass as white. Half of "Imitation of Life"
is concerned with that family story. Yeah, and my mom, although very modest,
was nominated for an Academy Award for that role. And she was part of the
reason that I have this deep fondness and reverence for classical films. Not
just speaking about Sirk, but going back even further is that my family has
been involved in movies for a long, long time.

My grandfather was Ingmar Bergman's agent. He was Billy Wilder's agent, William
Wilder's agent, and so to me these films are very much present.

GROSS: So when you made "New Moon," did you have to get into the mind of a
teenage girl and figure out what is a teenage girl's romantic fantasies like?

Mr. WEITZ: Well, I had the book to guide me, but also I think I'm a bit of a
teenage girl myself, actually.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: In what ways exactly?

Mr. WEITZ: I think I spent most of my late teens and 20s pining after people
who were never going to come back. So I felt - you know, I remember explaining
this to Stephenie Meyer, and maybe she didn't believe me. And everybody thinks
that men are nothing but dogs and philanderers, but I was - you know, I had
read too many 19th-century English novels, and I was very, very romantic.

So having the book, having Kristen, who's an exceptional, exceptional actor,
and then having that melancholic tendency in myself, I think we were okay.

GROSS: And one more thing about "New Moon." There are werewolves in it. The
main werewolf is played by Taylor Lautner, but then there's, like, when they're
actually the wolves, are those, like special-effect wolves? Are those, like,
computer-generated graphic wolves or...?

Mr. WEITZ: Yes.

GROSS: So you didn't have to worry about directing large, unusual animals?

Mr. WEITZ: No, it's - we - it's best not to deal with animals because they
never do what you want them to do. I had a few live...

GROSS: Especially the part where they have to - one of them has to look, like,
longingly at Kristen Stewart.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: The way that a wolf is very unlikely to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEITZ: We could have held out a piece of bacon or something where Kristen
was supposed to be. In "The Golden Compass," we had mostly CGI animals, but I
thought it would be very clever of me if the people who had gone through the
sort of process to separate themselves from their spirit demons, with those
people, we used actual animals.

And then I learned the joy of working with actual animals, especially multiple
animals, which is that half of the time, they're looking for food or

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEITZ: And that wasted a lot of takes. So no, it was all CGI wolves on this
one. That was one of the things I insisted upon, as well as the fact that
they're supposed to be the size of horses. But they had to be photo-realistic.

GROSS: So did you grow up thinking of the movies as the family business.

Mr. WEITZ: Not really. The family business was what my father was doing, which
was design. You know, my father was a designer and also, strangely, a
biographer of prominent Nazis because he had fought in the Second World War. He
had been in the OSS, which was the precursor to the CIA. So his knowledge of
the inner workings of the Nazi Party was kind of unparalleled.

And that - actually I think that's what my father loved the most, and that
would have been the family business for me would be history or writing.

GROSS: I grew up in the '50s and '60s and watched so many World War II movies
on television. And so, like, the Nazis were very present in my life when I was
growing up because they were always on television, and so I grew up, like,
really living in fear of the Nazis, even though that was over.

So with your father focusing so much on Nazi history, and I think - did his
father flee Nazi Germany?

Mr. WEITZ: He did eventually, almost too late. His father had fought on the
Eastern front in World War I, for the Germans, and been awarded an Iron Cross,
and was one of the very assimilated Jews who almost left too late.

GROSS: So did you grow up, like, afraid of the Nazis and everything that they
represented? Did it seem very present to you, as opposed to something safely in
the past?

Mr. WEITZ: It was very present but strangely familiar, because my dad was so
steeped in that culture. I mean, if you can imagine growing up... And my
father's office had a signature of Adolf Hitler in it, which is, you know, in
some ways creepy, but in some ways he knew his enemy so well.

And, you know, I was the guy who organized his library when he was doing his
research. So there were all of these books, in both English and German, about
the Nazi Party. And he was so familiar with the workings of it and so
constantly, I suppose, trying to work out how to still love Germany in spite of
what had happened, that it was a constant presence.

GROSS: Yeah, I understand what you're saying. And I want say, so it doesn't
sound too weird or insensitive what I was just talking about, Nazis in terms of
movies on television. I mean, my parents were also of the generation where
family who stayed behind in Europe never...

Mr. WEITZ: Lost their lives.

GROSS: Yeah, never survived. So whether it was talked about or not, you always,
like, you always knew about that.

Mr. WEITZ: Right, well, actually it was funny when you mentioned watching these
movies on television. It was actually difficult and amusing to watch World War
II movies with my father because he would always spot mistakes in the German
order of battle and uniform errors. And he'd constantly be scoffing at the work
that the historical advisor and costumer had done.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEITZ: So it made it a little less scary.

GROSS: Do you think you'll ever do a Nazi Germany movie?

Mr. WEITZ: I think that for me and for my brother, it would be fascinating to
do a movie of my father's story because it's really extraordinary. He left
Berlin when he was 10 to go to school in England. When he moved to America,
which is when he was, I think 19, he joined the Army immediately and was
recruited into the OSS because of his German language skills.

And he looked Aryan. So he did work towards the end of the war, when Germany
was already essentially beaten, posing as an SS officer who was missing from
his unit. That's why he knew his order of battle so well, in case - lest he be
caught out. And he broke a cell of Nazi resistance to the allied occupation at
the end of the war.

So his story is pretty extraordinary, and to tell that would be amazing.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. WEITZ: Thank you so much for having me. It was a delight.

GROSS: Chris Weitz directed the new film "A Better Life." I'm Terry Gross, and
this is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
'That's How' Christoph Niemann Explains It All

(Soundbite of music)


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Even if you don't know the name of my guest Christoph Niemann, you've probably
seen his work. He's an illustrator and graphic designer who's done covers for
The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Newsweek.

On his New York Times Sunday Magazine blog, "Abstract Sunday," Niemann has
rendered scenes of New York City in legos, detailed his sleepless nights –
we'll talk to him about that one - and showed how he tiled his children's
bathroom to look like the New York City subway map. They love the subway.

Christoph Niemann also writes children's books, one of them is about the
subway. His new children's book is called "That's How."

Neimann is German. He lived in New York for 11 years, but recently returned to
Germany, where he lives in Berlin.

Christoph Niemann, welcome to FRESH AIR. Before we get to your children's
books, let's start with an example of your adult work. This is one of my
favorites. It's called "Goodnight and Tough Luck." And you write: Getting a
good night's sleep is actually a lot more complicated than one would think.

I must agree with that statement.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And I want you to describe the bar graph that you created showing how
complicated it really is to sleep.

Mr. CHRISTOPH NIEMANN (Author, "That's How"): Well, there's a bar graph and
essentially the bar graph is a visual explanation of that phrase: it's much
harder to get a good nights sleep than you would think. And the reason I made
this kind of bar graph, that it just duplicates what I say below it, is that
this idea of sleep, or especially a lack of sleep, is just something that stays
with you the entire day. And I guess especially parents of young children will
be able to relate. It's something that at some point can like infiltrates every
thought of your day and it becomes this gigantic issue in your life and you
start kind of like having all these philosophies of how you could probably ever
sleep again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NIEMANN: And that's what kind of started this whole kind of train of

GROSS: And then the kind of strip goes on and it says: Usually the trouble
starts with my having to use the bathroom. Even though I am 38 years old, I
still find myself hoping the urge will just pass, which it doesn't. And there's
this illustration of somebody in bed. It's just a little like outline
illustration and it's 2:03 in the morning and in the next frame it's 2:07, and
the next frame it's 2:16, and in the frame after that it's 2:33, and it's 2:41.
And then finally, the person gets up to use the bathroom.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NIEMANN: Now it's - what I thought about that, which was really kind of
frustrating, I shared a room with my brother when I was a kid. And I remember
us talking about that, how it would be fun to kind of trade and say OK, I'm
going to give you my candy tomorrow and therefore, kind of like you go to the
bathroom on my behalf. And how that's impossible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NIEMANN: And how I still like haven't come to grasp that, you know, this
won't go away and there's no way of kind of like negotiating your way out of

GROSS: OK. So, next frame: Another terrible nuisance: midnight hypochondria. In
the light of darkness, I have diagnosed many a sore throat as some dreadful
disease that will soon turn my wife into a widow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And there's - you want to describe the illustration?

Mr. NIEMANN: Well, the illustration is how I like sit there in the bed and all
of a sudden this little pimplish thing turns into this gigantic amorphous
monster that's hovering over my head. And again, the lack of sleep is one
thing. But also I feel when you wake up in the middle of the night you just
cannot think straight. And all the sudden you're like a little itching into
your back turns into this monster.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NIEMANN: And you're afraid that, you know, you might die tomorrow. And you
wake up the next morning and you realize you're perfectly fine and, you know,
and just a little lotion and your all set. And that is again something, I've
lived through that so often, especially when you have a cold and you think just
like go back to sleep. Everything will be good. And even though I know it's
been kind of like the same year after year whenever you have a little, a little
cold or a little something, it ruins the night not only because you're cold but
also because you're in this kind of weird psychic mode.

GROSS: OK. So next few frames in this series about the difficulty of sleeping
is a visitor from the kids' room. They start all sweet and cuddly, but their
little bodies become more brazen by the minute. Describe the images.

Mr. NIEMANN: Well, the first is, which we still have, we have three small kids,
so like the older ones they're kind of taken take care of. But the younger one,
every night at some point he stands in front of our bed and you feel sorry for
them. They're sweet and small and they just cuddle on to you and you think, you
know, how could anybody have any problem with that? And they start snoring
quietly. Everybody goes back to sleep. But then in the next image you see how a
child slowly starts rotating.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NIEMANN: We like to call it the helicopter mode. And then like half an hour
later, you wake up with a foot kind of punched into your jaw and then you try
to turn them back and then they kind of keep rotating. And at some point you
realize it's five in the morning and you haven't really slept for the last
three hours.

And I think again, like this is something that probably most young parents are
rather unfortunately familiar with. And then yeah, that's when the moment for
the search starts, how to get these kids out of the bedroom again as quickly as

GROSS: So in your series about the difficulty of actually sleeping, you do
battle with a mosquito. And then you write: The opposite of a mosquito is
spooning: mosquitoes are awful, whereas spooning is super. The one thing I
haven't really figured out is where the person in the back is supposed to put
that bottom arm.

So true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You want to describe the illustration?

Mr. NIEMANN: Well, the illustration again, is a rather scientific chart of two
people spooning.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NIEMANN: And then like the three different options of kind of like trying
to squeeze the lower arm by your ear or kind of like folded on your back like
the, like you're being arrested by the police, or sometimes kind of like
squeezing it down with the mattress is which again, is uncomfortable for both
people. And I know that there is some way to actually make it a pleasant
experience, but that's something that I keep thinking about more or less every
night and I have not come to a proper conclusion.

A lot of people have commented on that and there was no really conclusive
answer to this riddle.

GROSS: Do you do this equation of is this lovely position worth it if my arm is
going to hurt a lot in the morning?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NIEMANN: No. No. We – no, I do not do those kind of things where you try to
fall asleep or that you're waiting for your partner to fall asleep and then you
quickly kind of like release yourself and turn yourself to the other side.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NIEMANN: So it kind of has to be comfortable for both parties involved.

GROSS: My guest is illustrator Christoph Niemann. His new children's book is
called "That's How." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is illustrator Christoph Niemann,
and he has a new children's book, which is called "That's How." He also has
done covers for The New Yorker Magazine, and he has a blog called "Abstract Sunday
advertising, all kinds of stuff.

So Christoph Niemann, we have proven I think that you are terrific at doing
adult graphic humor. Tell us why you turned to children's books as well.

Mr. NIEMANN: Well, initially I remember when I was studying I always felt I'm
never going to do children's books. And then eventually we had children and it
was actually a story, like it was like trying to get the kids to sleep by
boring them to sleep. And I kept rearranging certain words, and all the sudden
they started making sense. And I turned this into my first kid's book and it
was more like really that story came as an accident.

So I had this book, it was called "The Police Cloud," and really enjoyed the
idea of all the sudden having a real book that I could kind of like bring as
gifts to all these birthday parties we were invited to.

And the second thing that also happened when I had this book is, you know, like
three kids are in school. You're invited as a father to kind of participate in
school life. So as soon as the school found out oh, he's an illustrator and an
author, let's invite him in. And so I'm supposed to come there for 30 minutes.

The problem with children's books is you read them for five minutes and then
you're done. What I started doing is I asked for an easel and markers, and more
or less out of desperation, you know, started drawing and just make up stories
and talk to the kids about what's, you know, what happens if you draw a dog
this way with really long legs or with kind of like two heads. And I was really
amazed - and it was not that I had doubted that before but the visual literacy
of children is really fantastic. And I was flabbergasted to see how much they
follow and how much they can really kind of like follow stories that are
entirely visual. And even when you make very subtle changes to a picture they
completely get.

GROSS: Yes. So describe the premise of "That's How," your latest children's

Mr. NIEMANN: In "That's How," we have a little boy and a little girl. The boy
is a little larger, so let's say he's the older brother and there's the little
sister. And they're walking around and they're seeing all sorts of things that
move. They see a truck. They see a train. They see a freighter ship. And the
little girl always asks how does a truck work?

And then you turn the page and you see kind of what's happening inside the
truck. And it's always some utter bogus explanation of usually animals that do
some crazy thing to actually make the truck work. So like in the truck there's
this gigantic lion sitting there on these tiny pedals and he's peddling like
crazy. Or in the - with the freighter ship there's a huge whale and an octopus
just spins the tail of the whale in order to get the ship moving.

And the girl is always like wow, that's really amazing. And then, you know, it
goes on and the explanations become crazier and crazier.

And at the very end they see a little bicycle and then the girl asks how does
the bicycle work? And the boy thinks and doesn't really come, have any idea.
And then the girl says oh, I know how a bike works. And then sits on the bike
and actually rides the bike.

So it's also about this idea of like these kind of like leaps of kind of like
intelligence that kids have so amazingly, how they can think in like all these
different meta-levels. And I was really - I was trying to do - kind of do a
celebration of that.

GROSS: You know, it's interesting to me that so many children's books have
animals in it. Like your book has a lion, an elephant, a pelican, a whale. And
these are all animals that children will probably never see unless they go to a
zoo. And yet, children seem to be so visually literate when it comes to
animals. And I guess I can't figure out exactly why that is, since I don't see
these animals on the street or in their home except for in children's books.

Mr. NIEMANN: Well, I have to say that I try to squeeze as many animals as I can
kind of into business illustrations for like when I do the financial page for
The New Yorker. So I think animals are always, whether for kids or grown-ups,
fantastic tools for telling stories.

And I guess one of the reasons they work so well is on the one hand they're
like humans. They have hand and feet. They can touch things. They can look in a
certain way, have expressions. But on the other hand, they're also not like us.

So we can just, you know, give them one certain characteristic. And, you know,
the elephant is big and strong. When I draw a big and strong person, I -
immediately it's a man or a woman, or it, you know, it's being - he or she is
being dressed this way or that way. An elephant is just big and strong and
nothing else so it really I think helps you establish a story and make a very
simple point by cutting out all these other things that you would have to give
as an attribution to human being.

GROSS: Now you also have a children's book called "Subway." And it's about kids
who just like love being on the New York City subway. You've lived in New York
for several years. You're German. You live in Berlin now. But from – tell me
the three years again that you were in New York.

Mr. NIEMANN: From '97 to 2008.

GROSS: OK. So your kids apparently really loved the subway when you lived
there. Why do they love it so much?

Mr. NIEMANN: Well, the first thing is, of course, that I absolutely adore any
kind of subway, but in particular, the New York City subway. It's huge but it's
also very simple. And I always like from the very first day that I came to New
York I greatly enjoyed riding the subway.

And so as we started having kids, there's always this problem in New York, you
live in a tiny place and eventually it's winter and you have to do something
with those kids. And, you know, if you try to go to the Museum of Natural
History there is like 5,000 other people. So eventually, I just started riding
the subway and I realized all they cared about was not where we were going but
just the ride itself. And it's a fantastic way to kill three, four, five hours.

And even when our middle son was only two years old, he would not last in front
of the television for more than 15 minutes. But in the subway, he would just
sit there and look out the window and eventually he would know the stations.
And I think there was the maybe the repetition, but also it's big, it's loud.
But on the other hand, it's very predictable. It has letters and colors. It's a
very child-friendly system.

And so eventually it turned into this ritual of like every Sunday at least
five, six hours, just going to Coney Island, not even leaving the subway cart,
and just coming right back to Brooklyn or back to Manhattan. And it's something
that, you know, I've done at great length. But the good thing is I enjoyed
every second of it. My wife would not have lasted at that for more than 15
minutes probably.

GROSS: Now, you seem to love the New York City subway map. Especially, you
know, in the New York there’s a lot of lines in the New York City subway, and
each line on a map has a different color so that you can follow the route of
that line. And what - just graphically, what do you love about the New York
City subway map?

Mr. NIEMANN: Well, it's really the idea that every - that you can find your way
just by saying oh, I'm going to take the red to the green to the blue to the
yellow. And it really - it's such a simple system. It doesn't make the, every
train has just one letter or one number. And in London I love the names of the
underground lines. But the simplicity of the New York City subway and the, like
on the one hand the visual simplicity that is representing something so complex
and big and heavy is, the dichotomy is something that I find really

GROSS: Did you really tile your children's bathroom with tiles that would
replicate the map of the New York City subway?

Mr. NIEMANN: No. I absolutely did that and it was surprisingly easy to do and
rather inexpensive. The one problem that I ran into is - so we did this when we
renovated the bathroom here in Berlin and then eventually the kids came over
for the first time and I was really expecting, especially oldest one to just
come in and, you know, like fall to his knees and say Daddy, you're the
greatest person ever.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NIEMANN: And he just took one look at it and he saw that the Brown lines,
the JMZ lines were missing. And I couldn't fit them in because there were no
brown tiles. But also because of the grid, it just didn't fit in there. So all
he saw, he looked at it and said oh, JMZ trains are missing. Turned around and
left. And, you know, speaking of bad clients or tough clients, that was
probably the hardest experience I had so far.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NIEMANN: But alternately, I have to say they seemed to like it a lot and
it’s, you know, again, it's colorful and happy, so I enjoyed being in there
and, you know, we spend a lot of time like with them in there and with the
evening baths and I think they like being there.

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Christoph Niemann. He’s an
illustrator, an artist. And he's done covers for The New Yorker and The
Atlantic. He’s on the - he has a blog called Abstract Sunday, that’s on the New
York Times Sunday Magazine website. And he also does children's books, and his
latest children's book is called "That's How."

Let’s take a short break here and then we’ll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is illustrator, graphic artist,
Christoph Niemann. And he’s done covers for The New Yorker and The Atlantic
Magazine. His blog Abstract Sunday is on the New York Times Sunday Magazine
website. And he does children's books and his latest is called "That's How."

Let’s talk about I think a pretty famous New Yorker cover that you recently
did, and this was the cover after the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown. When
you were given the assignment to do a cover for that edition, what were you

Mr. NIEMANN: Well, at that time when I got the assignment, I think it was
Monday or Tuesday. And since it’s, you know, such a tight deadline, I knew I
was not the only one who was given the topic. It was more like a kind of call
for submissions to a group of I guess regular New Yorker artists. So I knew
like everybody's now trying to come up with, you know, the one image that
illustrates the story. And ultimately, the assignment was about, something
about the earthquake, something about, you know, like this moment of, you know,
disbelief at the size and the intensity of the disaster. And then ultimately,
it was more or less up to the artist to make sense of that and come up with an
image that captures the event.

GROSS: And describe the image you came up with.

Mr. NIEMANN: Well, first of all, like the obvious thing to do at the time was
the tsunami. And overnight the whole situation at Fukushima had gotten totally
out of hand, and it was obvious that this was in a way maybe not bigger and
louder at this point, but probably the disaster that had the much larger and
more long-term consequences. And I felt probably that's really more of the kind
of story that I want to kind of like comment on.

And then the other aspect was also where I was just stuck. When I thought about
the tsunami, I cannot have an opinion on the tsunami. And The New Yorker cover
is really about a statement, when an artist says there's something that happens
and here's my take on it. And what can you say about this like force of nature
that's just purely terrible and absolutely random in its destruction? And I
felt even at this point it was hard to make any sense out of the situation at

I felt at least there's something, we’re humans. It was a human decision to put
a nuclear power plant there and now a disaster of unprecedented scale happened
and now these two things of human action and natural disaster are coming
together. And I really felt there is a story there that enables me to really
make a visual comment. And that's when I had the idea of, you know, showing an
image of a very very quiet cherry blossom branch where like the little petals
are just floating away in the air, and instead of these cherry blossoms, it’s
actually these nuclear - the radiation signs.

GROSS: And also it was spring. And so you have the cherry tree. But what's
being spread around the spring is toxic.

Mr. NIEMANN: Yes. Yeah. And again, some people didn't like it because they felt
oh, it's too much of an important image in Japanese culture. And that's, you
know, something I take seriously. I...

GROSS: What is too important an image?

Mr. NIEMANN: The idea of the cherry blossom. There’s a holiday apparently,
really built around this. And it’s I know that culturally, the cherry blossom
season is something that’s so important as this kind of like, as the most
beautiful woman of the year. And kind of like taking that as a leaping pad for
a visual pun, which ultimately it is, was, you know, it's something I didn't do
lightly. But I really felt that there’s something that, you know, especially
with all of these events happening in the spring, that I gather that this year
the whole celebrations definitely were not, kind of like joyous, or kind of
like, as happy as they would be other years.

GROSS: You’re an illustrator. And for a lot of artists illustration is an
almost pejorative word. A lot of artists would say I'm not an illustrator, I'm
an artist. But it seems to me that although a lot of artists aspire toward like
having their work in galleries and museums, more people really are going to see
your work if it's on the cover of a magazine, or even if it's an ad, because
those are the images that are just all over and you're going to see them
whether or not you make a special effort to go to a gallery or a museum.

I'm wondering what your thoughts are on that and if you ever aspired to have
your work in a museum as opposed to on a magazine cover.

Mr. NIEMANN: Well, it's definitely, among my colleagues, I would say, probably
a majority would rather be acknowledged as an artist in a museum or a gallery.
I'm pretty glad I'm not. It probably makes me a more content and happy
illustrator. But also, I care so much about magazines and newspapers and books.
This is the world that I live in as a consumer and that's why I really care
about contributing to this world. And I get a much bigger kick out of having my
image seen like million times for like 20 seconds and then it ends up in the
trash bin rather than having my image on somebody's like over somebody's sofa
for 20 years.

GROSS: Now we started off talking about the difficulty of sleeping.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And of staying asleep, because you did a really, really funny series of
illustrations and captions about that. So I want to ask you, when you're lying
awake at night and having trouble sleeping, for whatever reason - whether it's
the mosquito or the kid, you know, your son in bed who’s sleeping in a position
that's making it impossible for you to get into a comfortable position, your
fear of, that you have a terminal illness, which is like a pimple or something
- so all of that that keeps you awake. When you are awake, do you think of
ideas? Do you try to use that time productively, or is it a waste of time to
even try?

Mr. NIEMANN: No, I have to say that was something I probably started in the
last three or four years, where I've tried to start thinking of ideas without
actually having a pencil and paper in my hand. I don't know how ultimately
productive it is. But I've done that thing where I said okay, it’s 5 o’clock,
I'm awake, I can't get up, so I'm trying to actually solve, you know, the first
three sketches for the next day just in my head. And, of course, the big
challenge is to actually remember them when you get up five hours later. And
but I, by now I actually have like a pencil and notepad somewhere near me and
it happened more than once that I started scribbling things trying to not wake
up the kid that kind of just fell asleep next to me.

GROSS: Well, Christoph Niemann, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so
much. I wish you a good night’s sleep.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NIEMANN: Thank you very much. It's been a pleasure to be here.

GROSS: Christoph Niemann’s new children's book is called "That’s How." You can
see a slideshow of his illustrations on our Website,, where
you can also download Podcasts of our show.

(Soundbite of music)

I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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