Alexa Karolinski lives in the hills above Hollywood with her husband Basil and dog Lupa. Their home is a serene Shangri-La in a neighborhood filled with secret staircases and giant cacti. It’s the California Dream realized. Epic views of the Hollywood sign and the Capitol Records Tower are a constant reminder of Tinseltown. Originally from Berlin, Alexa continues to maintain strong ties to Germany while living in the States and working as a freelance filmmaker.
Best known for her first feature documentary ‘Oma & Bella’ that made it into the Berlin Film Festival in 2012, Alexa’s diverse range of projects have included directing projects for ARTE TV and working for VICE Berlin. Over chocolate biscuits, Alexa talks about her latest collaboration with New York-based cult fashion label Eckhaus Latta, pickling and what it means to live in Los Angeles.
I came to Los Angeles because I married Basil Katz, who is from LA. We were living together in New York and decided we were either going to move back to Berlin, where I’m from or back to LA, where he’s from. We thought we’d give LA a try. We’ve been here for one and a half years.
Your home is a paradise. How did you find it?
We came out from New York and gave ourselves a week to find somewhere to live. We looked in a million places. We didn’t want to go West of Hollywood or East of Downtown. We weren’t having much luck so we started searching Craigslist for places without photos, and this place popped up. We were the first people to see it. I now know how lucky we were. I’d been to LA with Basil on more touristy trips. I knew it smelled good when the sun set, but I had no idea what it meant to live in LA. We did a lot of work to it. The whole place had this old, white grimy carpet. We stripped the floors and put up bookshelves. We did a lot of little things. Basil works for a design construction company called Cinnabar that builds awesome museum exhibitions.
Do you work from home?
I work from home exclusively – unless I’m shooting. My desk is my workspace. One of the biggest differences between living in New York or Berlin and LA is where you take a break. In New York or Berlin, you step out into the city and get a coffee. When I need a break in LA, it’s a nature walk.
You were born in Berlin, studied in London, lived in New York, and now you call LA home. Do you plan to stay?
We are planning on staying in LA. It’s working, and we have no reason to leave. I am still in Berlin a lot. I imagine a dream scenario of finding a middle ground where we live in both places. When we left New York, we really wanted to leave New York. That might happen here too. I work really well here, and I know how nice it is. I’ve never lived in a place that is this connected to nature, and I had no concept of being in a place where your free time consists of enjoying things in nature. It’s so different than living in Berlin or New York. It becomes really difficult to imagine life without it.
Why do you work so well in LA?
I think I work really well in LA because free time is valued here. Much more than many other cities. I think that’s made my work better. As a freelancer, you need to be really good at scheduling and to-do lists. You need to structure your life yourself. And then, you need the kind of mental breaks that are real breaks. Not going to an overfilled coffee shop, but instead going on a hike. Having this kind of time makes it easier to focus. Also, LA feels disconnected from the Western World. There’s a nine hour time difference between LA and Berlin, so by 4 or 5pm, the emails get less and less frequent. Ultimately, I get up earlier and end my day earlier. Meaning, there’s time for nice dinners. In New York it’s hard to imagine anything outside of New York. I think that’s what New York does to you. It really does feel like the center of the world. You don’t feel like it’s the center of the world in LA. It’s totally ok, and it gives you perspective.
What are you working on now?
The next Eckhaus Latta collection video is about to launch. The Museum of Art and Design in New York is doing an exhibition that Eckhaus Latta is a part of. Instead of exhibiting clothes, they are going to install all of the videos we’ve done together. All of the collection videos have one word titles. The first is ‘Uniform’. Then, ‘Dinner, Family, Friend’ and the new one is ‘Guest’. It’s the first one we’ve shot in LA. I just recently got back from Berlin after having made a video with Ingio Niermann that we screened at the Berlin Documentary Forum. It’s called ‘Asking Joshua’. We interviewed a seven-year-old about life and death. This particular seven-year-old was so smart. Asking children about life things is more interesting than asking adults.
Why the one word titles?
The one word titles started organically. Our first film shows Chinese ladies in New York doing their exercises in a park wearing Eckhaus Latta. We took a rack of Eckhaus Latta to the park and they styled it themselves. They were obsessed with the idea of uniforms, and so the first film was subsequently called ‘Uniform’. We won a styling award at the Diane Pernet Fashion Film Festival. There are a few fashion film festivals around the world. Diane Pernet is probably the most relevant. She starts with screenings at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and then takes it on a tour from Barcelona to St. Petersburg and Tokyo. They have been such loyal supporters of Eckhaus Latta. We produce two collection videos per year, and we give them one for each festival. We went to Paris last October to see the festival and to be a part of it. It came together really nicely.
Tell me about your film Oma & Bella and the cookbook!
The film was my thesis film at the School of Visual Arts (SVA), New York. The project started out as a cookbook. I never intended it to end up the way it did. I really just wanted to learn how to cook. Who better to teach me than them: My grandmother and her friend Bella. My natural inclination was to start writing down everything they taught me. I was freelancing in Berlin, and I wasn’t working as much as I wanted to. It gave me the time to work on the project. Then, I moved to New York and put it on hold. When it came time to decide on a thesis film, it was so obvious that it had to be them. I took a video camera to their apartment. They loved the camera so much. I had watched a lot of films that deal with the Holocaust and I started to think what kind of film would I make about it. Then came Joana Avillez. She’s an amazing illustrator. I saw her work and thought, “she needs to do the illustrations.” The film got into the Berlin Film Festival. To premiere it in my home city, to have Oma and Bella come to the premiere, to have the whole cinema filled with people I had grown up with – it was incredible.
Talk a bit about your adventures in the kitchen.
Cooking comes much more naturally to Basil. He worked in kitchens for years. He’s much more professional about it. You think you have nothing to eat at home, but he can take these three things and whip up something amazing. I don’t enjoy making things where you have to be exact. I made a bolognese yesterday. It cooks for hours and hours and you can honestly add things and taste. I hate the pressure of precision. Basil’s whole family is really into pickling. The Katz’s pickle a lot of stuff. I make pickles because of my grandmother.
You did a film with sex blogger and writer Karley Sciortino with food of a specific color.
I really wanted to shoot a video with Karley. Something really simple that I could do in a day. Slutever was blowing up on VICE and on her blog. I wanted to do something with her that wasn’t just obvious in a sexual way. I really love Cheetos, and I thought what if it was just yellow and orange foods? I loved the idea of juxtaposing the sounds of a slimy mango and the crunchy Cheetos. We needed something to pair with the Cheetos and I chose macaroni and cheese because that’s my favorite food. I love the work of Chantal Akerman. Her subjects – mostly women – do mundane things in front of the camera. The idea came from Warhol’s screen tests even though it’s not a screen test in the way he did them because I edited the piece. The Andy Warhol Screen Test, by definition, has no edit points. What I did is not a Warholian screen test. That’s just how I filmed it. I filmed it like he did, but then chopped it apart.
What’s your favorite place to eat in LA?
Carousel, an amazing Armenian Lebanese restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard and, it’s a bit fancier, but I really love Angelini Osteria. The tacos everywhere are so good. There are no decent tacos in Berlin. Someone should do that.
What are your favorite places to buy groceries in LA?
Fish King for fish. There is also the Hollywood Farmer’s Market every Sunday. There’s a flower vendor who only sells one kind of flower, but every week it’s different. He’ll have ten buckets of just the one flower. There’s also a goat cheese stand. I don’t like goat cheese, but they always have newborn baby goats to hold. Buying meat in the States upsets me. Accessibility to good, high quality meat in Berlin is not a luxury. Here it is and that upsets me. I love making schnitzel, but it’s very difficult to get veal. I have found a good butcher at the Farmer’s Market in the Grove. He sells the veal you need for schnitzel.
Do you have a favorite thing in your closet?
It’s always changing but right now it’s a yellow, mustardy shirt that belonged to Basil’s Dad. It’s vintage Yohji Yamamoto. I wear it like a dress. Alexa, thank you for a lovely afternoon and such a nice walk with Lupa. To find out more about Alexa’s work, visit her website here.
Photography: Claire Cottrell
Interview & Text: Claire Cottrell