How Director Peter Chelsom Made His BMW-Sponsored Short Film Feel Like Art, Not an Ad

Berlin, I Love You features stars like Keira Knightley and Helen Mirren

Jim Sturgess has a special relationship with his BMW 850CSi in the film. Independent Media
Headshot of Diana Pearl

The cast of Berlin, I Love You boasts a number of recognizable faces including Keira Knightley, Luke Wilson, Helen Mirren and Jenna Dewan. But a leading role in one of film’s stories doesn’t have a face. Said character is a BMW 850CSi car, which plays a starring role alongside actor Jim Sturgess in an 11-minute narrative that was directed for the film by Peter Chelsom.

Berlin, I Love You is the latest addition in the “Cities of Love” film series, following movies set in Paris, New York, Tbilisi and Rio. Each of the movies in the series is done anthology-style: as a collection of short stories through multiple 15 minute (or less) segments. Berlin, I Love You is centered around the German capital.

The short film that Chelsom, whose commercial work is represented by Independent Media, created for the movie, Berlin Ride, was sponsored by BMW. And yes, though the BMW 850CSi features prominently in the narrative, this is no average instance of product placement.

Berlin Ride tells the story of a man, Jared, in the throes of depression. His fiancé has just left him for his brother, and he’s in Berlin on the trip that was supposed to have been his honeymoon. His human interaction is mostly limited to his eccentric neighbor who stomps around all night and speaks in odd voices. One day, he decides to buy a car—the aforementioned BMW 850CSi—but is informed that he can’t until “Vanessa” makes her decision.

It turns out, Vanessa is the car. And Vanessa talks—she provides counsel to him, and perhaps most importantly, stops him from driving the car off a bridge in a suicide attempt after he finds out his ex-fiancé and brother are getting married. The car helps him to recover from his heartbreak, and sets him up for the next chapter in his life: A relationship with Rose, the eccentric neighbor whose lovable side he begins to discover throughout the film.

“It’s a car that saves someone’s life, and brought that person back into focus and helps him find his passion once more, and reassures him and prepares him for the metaphorical road ahead,” Chelsom explained to Adweek.

In creating the segment, Chelsom was faced with a challenge: How to keep BMW in the story in a poetic way, and have the film truly feel like a film, not an ad. To do that, one would think you wouldn’t place the sponsored item in question at the center of the story, alongside the lead character.

But Chelsom saw the car as more than just an inanimate object, but as an instrument of protection. “Cars are our friends,” he said. “They protect us, they cocoon us. We have relationships with them.”

That thought informed his portrayal of the car in the film, putting it at the center of the story, as the thing that pulls Jared from the depths of his despair and pushes him into the next phase of his life. “It’s almost like it shifts his reality,” he said. “Sometimes it takes one thing to turn your perspective completely up on end.”

Though Jared and Rose may have gotten their happily ever after, Chelsom said he thinks Vanessa’s story has the potential to continue. “I’ve had more inquiries about seeing the car’s continuing story, saving different people’s lives,” he said. “And when you make a short story, it’s a good sign when people long for the longer story.”

It’s a sweet spot for BMW to be in. The brand isn’t just featured in the film, but it’s portrayed as something that’s able to make you see the world in a new light. In giving the car a voice, Chelsom essentially gave BMW one, too. Because of this, he admits that: “In terms of BMW’s image and what they want to portray, it couldn’t have worked better.”

Chelsom credits the ongoing collaboration between himself and BMW that occurred during the making of the clip with the successful branding combined with a real story. He called it the difference between “an excuse for a car and a reason for a car.” By putting the car at the center of the story, there was a real reason for it to be there.

“It’s a them and us, and it doesn’t need to be,” he said of the experience of collaborating with a brand. “If the communication is open all the time, both parties can be happy.”

Berlin, I Love You is in theaters now.

@dianapearl_ Diana is the brand marketing editor at Adweek and managing editor of Brandweek.