What the Hell Happened between Summer 2012 and Spring 2013?

As a contemporary online writer, it is my duty to inform The Dear Reader of what the hell happened.
Nothing bad, really. But: A lot did happen, and that’s why I didn’t have time to write about it until now. Even now, so much is happening, that writing this means sacrificing sleep and the progress of other ongoing projects. To be quite frank, this will be the case until I can slow down a bit – now, I have too much on my plate, and it’s awesome; it just takes a specific amount of precious time to get to water all my precious flowers that I have arranged in all corners of the garden.

Speaking about flowers, I am not writing this article from smoggy Los Angeles, but from rainy Berkeley. Berkeley, which has a great view on the San Francisco Bay. Berkeley, which has some heavy hitting presence in public education in the USA. Berkeley, the first of all Universities of California, where the Manhattan Project started, where the Free Speech movement had its big sparks and where more than half a billion dollars is converted into research every year.

Chasing the O1 Visa during my OPT

“OPT” stands for “Optional Practical Training”, and it is the holy grail of us international students with higher aspirations: It allows you to work for one year in the U.S. after completing a degree. There’s a whole section about OPT on U, S, and Toby 2.
Then again, the holy grail only goes so far: After that year is over, the work permission is over, and working becomes impossible. So, you have two options:

  • GTFO (not so wise)
  • Find a new Visa (not so easy)

Since I had no intentions to do the former, I was looking for an alternative means of staying in the US. I applied to USC, UCLA, CalState Long Beach and UC Berkeley as a Plan B, and hunted the O1 Visa as a Plan A.
“O1” stands for extraordinary abilities. That translates into extraordinary self-absorbedness, because the only way to get this visa is to become incredibly pretentious and collect press about yourself, work with people more for their celebrity standing than their integrity, and self-hail yourself to pieces in order to convince immigration that you are a worthy fellow to be “stealing American jobs” – only extraordinary people can steal American jobs and get away with it, that’s how the immigration law is designed. I worked like a horse all through the summer, prepared a ton of material over the fall, then went on a documentary trip to Canada (2 Weeks in the woods with lumberjacks – it was quite mindboggling), returned to the US and got my lovingly hated paperwork together; around 100 pages of nonsense about how great I was and how great the people were that I worked with. I was ready to face my ultimatum: Talk to a serious immigration lawyer, and find out if I was ready or not. This is what I posted on facebook about 5 hours after the meeting.

A Change of Mind and Heart: O1 Visa for Cinematography and Berkeley

13 December 2012 in Los Angeles
‘YESTERDAY, MY LIFE WAS HEADED IN ONE DIRECTION. TODAY, IT IS HEADED IN ANOTHER”. – Cloud Atlas .
This holds incredibly true for me and my life. In these past 3 days, my life took a major turn – hence this long, long status update; I feel the need to explain. . As many of you know, I was chasing after the O1 Visa for Cinematography for 2 months. A lot of people helped me, with recommendation letters, articles and so on. Two weeks ago, I felt closer than ever to getting this visa – and that’s when my Option B, which I had abandoned by default (going to Berkeley) became more and more intriguing. I started being torn between two options; if you had asked me a month ago what I wanted, I would have said “O1. No doubt. None.” – but if you asked me three days ago, I couldn’t have given you a definitive answer. . I felt bad for even doubting and questioning my options, since I got so much support from my friends and colleagues with the O1 visa; many of them gave me hours of their life to support my endeavor. .

This Thursday, I met with an immigration lawyer in Santa Monica, in a firm I trust (Wolfsdorf). I spent two months preparing a fat folder of newspaper articles, recommendation letters, reviews of these newspapers, IMDBs of my recommenders, past projects, future projects etc. – all circling around my wannabe-extraordinary abilities as a cinematographer. . The lawyer looked at my stuff, was not really convinced by my past work, was impressed by my press, my speaker panel, my recommendation letters and the projects I had potentially lined up for 2013 and 2014. He told me: “Look, this is not the strongest O1 Application, but it definitively passes the ‘Laugh Test’, it passes the 50:50 mark, and I would say: Chances are, you’re going the get the O1. I’m willing to take on your case.” . That made me stoked. I had told him before that I had to make a decision between the O1 and Berkeley.

“Tell me, what do you really want with the O1 Visa? Just stay? Become a better cinematographer? Why do you want the visa?” I would have never expected this kind of soul searching from a lawyer. What followed was ten minutes of conversation about my life goals; he showed me a few alleyways of opportunity that I had no idea about… bottom line of what he said was: “If you get an F1 for a Bachelor’s program, you can apply for a work permit during the summer break, and work up to 11 months during your 2-year Bachelor program. And you can apply for the O1 any time while you are in school; if you get it, it’s free for you to choose if you want to take it or leave it; if you get rejected you’re at least on an F1 visa and can continue studying. Conversely, if you apply for the O1 now, and you get denied, it will be much harder to get a visa waiver, an F1 Visa and ultimately do another O1 application.”. .

And that was it for me. That made it so much easier to make the decision. I had the O1 right in front of me, with, say, 65/100 estimated points, but the margin of error was just enough that it’s a real possibility to get denied, and I wanted anything but being stuck in Limbo back in Europe and waste my time. . SO: 0) My life changed this week – forever, in many ways.
1) I will be going to Berkeley starting at the end of January.
2) I’ll commute to LA on weekends for short projects.
3) During the 3 months of summer, I’ll get a work permit and am good to go for shooting larger projects like features. If something massive comes along or Berkeley ends up sucking, I can apply for the O1.
4) I am going to sell my car, my beloved Yellow Pontiac Firebird.
5) My room in Culver City becomes Vacant.
6) Thanks to everyone who supported my quest for the O1.

I couldn’t risk the half-year limbo in case of a rejection, and I realized that day that I’m going to work as a DP for at least 30 more years, and I don’t want to wake up one morning with wife and kids and a settled life and feel regret about not having gone to Berkeley; a lot of my life goals as a filmmaker are grouped around the idea of making films that will be commercially successful and change people’s minds and hearts, and for that I need to spend some years of research, and a good time to start is now. I’ll never again have the opportunity of going to school full-time. . I also realized that the O1 Visa was a short-term goal, a satisfaction I would have experienced as part of the semi-instant gratification generation. For what I want to do in life, I cannot follow my short-term urges and wishes; I need to think about what I want to build in the next 97 years. Hence, two years spent studying in a great research and development environment becomes an insignificant amount of time spent working less than I could. . So, if you want to grab me on a project in 2013, I’d love to – just plan ahead for weekends or the 3 months of summer. And if you haven’t yet, watch “Cloud Atlas”. It might just throw you a line that will become an unforgettable building block in your destiny. .
“I feel like something … important … has happened to me.”
And I know that, in my case, the decisions made this week will majorly change me; I will never be the same again.

.

And that was that. I accepted my application to Berkeley, sent in some remaining paperwork and scraped the deadlines with my fingertip. I gladly accepted my parents help to pay for Berkeley’s tuition, as I would have never ever been able to afford it myself (for international students, it is $36.000 per year – more than I have probably earned in my entire lifetime). Just like during my time at Santa Monica College, guilt plays a certain role in this financing process: How do I deserve the luck to have parents that can help me by paying for my higher education; education I could get in some sort of sense in Europe for 1/500th of the cost? How is it fair that I can go on this journey while others can’t?
One of my biggest concerns was that the entirety of my blog articles in the last five years was based on the idea of creating a pathway for future generations, a detailed instructional guide to a career in – so it turned out to be – film.  Now, this guide can’t just be followed any more; “read this book” is entirely different than “go to this incredibly expensive university”.
All of these thoughts played a role in my decision process, which is depicted below – my most intimate thoughts, my life’s structure. Why do I share this? Because I believe, I have a gut feeling, that others can benefit from this. Where would we be if the minds of the past – our grandfathers, our Einsteins, our stone age ancestors – would not have shared what they discovered in life? It is this absolute intimate essence that makes us so different and diverse. Clearly, My Dear Reader, you will have a different mind and life of your own, you will have different motivations than myself – but I have a gut feeling that what I learned from my decision process might influence yours – and will take a lot of the fear, pain and uncertainty away that these kind of life-changing decisions bring with them.

A Mind Map I drew in order to figure out if I wanted to pursue the O1 Visa Application or go to UC Berkeley for two years.

A Mind Map I drew in order to figure out if I wanted to pursue the O1 Visa Application or go to UC Berkeley for two years.

Following my well-thought-through decision, I took some time off; the first real holidays since quite a while. I spent an entire five days in Vienna staying with my best childhood friend Ronald – we hadn’t seen each other in one and a half years-, playing Minecraft next to each other for 16 hours per day. My god, were we unproductive in real life. If this was not a vacation, I would have probably gotten diarrhea from chronic nonproductivity – but since this was a limited timeframe with a certain mission in mind, my ethics cut me some slack and my digestive tract collaborated. I tanked some healthy relaxation (something I did not really have during my 365 days of OPT) visiting family and friends in Austria and Germany – Vienna, Upper Austria, Bavaria, Bremen and Munster – and off I flew once again, heading to the US, passing immigration while bathed in sweat (Ever talked to these guys? They are quite friendly yet very intimidating through suspicion by default).

What about UCLA, USC and Long Beach?

I applied to a total of 4 schools/universities as a Plan B. [I didn’t apply to AFI or NYU by the way because first was way too expensive, and second was in New York, and I wanted to stay in Kahlifohnia.] Berkeley was more like a joke-application, because A) I wouldn’t get in anyway, and B) it had nothing like the film programs of UCLA, USC or Long Beach, and the whole reason why I would even want to do Plan B, was to still pursue film.  That changed, in a way, because:

  • UCLA: Hiroki and me were so busy with working on our company that we totally zoned out and handed in our applications late. Their selections are somewhat cryptic anyway (I only know one guy that got into UCLA, and he was  in no respect “better suited” than the other people I knew at SMC. UCLA would have been great for writing and getting involved in Graduate Thesis projects (these are massive), but – shit happens.
  • USC: I went to an undergraduate thesis screening at USC together with Hiroki in mid-2012. Apart from a film that a friend of mine made (which was pretty cool), the rest was total shit. Very wonky storytelling, wrongly placed production values, shitty writing, bad directing, poor flow. After we got out from the screening, everyone was shmoozing each other and smearing really thick butter on each other’s breads. How would I ever learn quality control and internal criticism if all my colleagues tell me about my piece-of-crap film  “oooh duuuude that was such a great movie”? Nothing. And then, USC kept sending me requests to see my bank account before they wanted to to tell me if I was good enough for their program. That was a huge turnoff – all other institutions I applied to (incl. SMC) first told me their admissions decision, and then asked me for the federally required proof of liquidity. Hiroki liked the school anyway though – he’s got more of a Samurai mentality, less vanity – so he’s going to USC now. Maybe I can get him to write a guest article about his experience there, and then see how wrong I was in my judgment…!
    The graduate program at USC is a lot higher in its quality and merit, but I don’t have time to think about a Master’s 😀
  • Long Beach: Had some great premises (very rebellious, rogue) – but when I was thinking “I will spend two more years of my life studying – that is a huge investment of time”, then I think it would have been foolish to go for Long Beach instead of Berkeley. Nevertheless – CalState Long Beach is by far the best bang for the buck, since it’s about 2-3 times cheaper than all the other options above.

Starting at Berkeley

I flew up  LA>SFO for three days, took a small hotel room five blocks from the Pixar headquarters – right in the middle of Ghetto McArthur (Oakland has its shady sides) – and looked for an apartment. I encountered some nice guys with chill places, some scary lady with a million rules and the cheapest rent ever (the money did not justify the prison-like restrictions) and looked at six places off craigslist in total. I had one day left, and by coincident spotted a “room for rent” banner on a house with a pirate flag. One step inside, and I was in love. The house is made of wood in its most parts, looks like an Austrian mountain refugium, has dark wooden walls in the living areas, a dedicated “War Room” and looks like a fraternity without being one. I mean, what else would someone my age and state of mind want.

The Pirate House at Berkeley - it was imperative to move in.

The Pirate House at Berkeley – it was imperative to move in.

San Francisco, as seen from the airplane - a breathtaking impression compared to the incredibly spread out, decentralized LA.

San Francisco, as seen from the airplane – a breathtaking impression compared to the incredibly spread out, decentralized LA.

The Pirate House from the Inside - without a fog machine!

The Pirate House from the Inside – without a fog machine!

One of the study libraries at Berkeley, nicknamed "The Living Room".

One of the study libraries at Berkeley, nicknamed “The Living Room”.

I said goodbye to my friends in LA, and we all met for a nice little goodbye brunch - quite exquisit.

I said goodbye to my friends in LA, and we all met for a nice little goodbye brunch – quite exquisit.

A class at Berkeley: Could be anywhere in the world. Good that my film classes are about 10-30 people, so overpopulation is not a problem for our major.

A class at Berkeley: Could be anywhere in the world. Good that my film classes are about 10-30 people, so overpopulation is not a problem for our major.

I didn’t even care that I had a shared room with very little space for the same rental price that I paid in LA for a big room by myself – my new roommate was Yijing, a totally relaxed young guy from China, and I have so little knowledge of China that this was my chance to get up to speed with the Eastern Empire.
Classes started, and I started exploring: Reading assignments are all nice and fine, but nothing in comparison to just walking around campus, entering random buildings and asking people what they are doing there. After getting some weird expressions and estranged faces, I got some gold. Highlights include:

  • I met a guy who researches sperm cells – to be precise, their ability to find the egg. If him and his team figure out how the sperm can “smell” the progesterone of the egg, they could develop a substance that would confuse the sperm and disable it – which is essentially the holy grail of birth control – the pill for men.
  • A Swiss professor showed me a research project, in which a beetle got its scalp removed and a microchip connected to its brain and wing muscles; with a remote control, the researchers could steer the beetle in mid-flight. Absolutely mindblowing.

That’s what I call inspiration. And this is pretty much it – that’s how my life turned at the eager age of 23, and I got back to university although I wanted to do nothing more than work in the film industry. But sometimes “what you want” and “what you know is the better” is not the same – and it takes a clear-minded long-term decision to take the right fork of the path.