Monday 26 December 2011

26 TechTalk (Eki´s new blog)

First off.  Eki taught me everything I know about tech stuff . When we first started working together I didn´t have a clue. Now I can take a decent shot and use the interview equipment. But this is kid´s stuff compared to his new blog: HALSUGRIP It´s way, way over my head. Still, I can see that it´s a gold mine of information.

Halsugrip motion control head parts
When He sees a problem he manufactures a solution. And then gives clear instructions so the reader can do it too. The illustrations and easy-to-read text make the process look like fun. He makes you want to send for the parts, dig out your tools and go to work creating useful objects. And he´s good at answering questions if you get in trouble.

Eki and I have worked together for about 18 years. Mostly, he has had the patience of Job. I don´t know how many times he´s had to say, “It´s rendering” when I sit there looking bored. He has also been very patient explaining the editing process to me. And a lot of other stuff as well. Now he´s sharing his technical skills and inventive solutions on a worldwide basis. We couldn´t have a better teacher.

Lesson 30: when you need it and don´t have it, make it

Next week: 27 The Interview

Monday 19 December 2011

25 Flips Flops & Failures


FLIPS: projects not completed

“10,000 Years of Finnish History” was one of our few flips. We thought, it was  a catchy title and that we could tell a compelling story. A hip, hot (and photogenic) history professor came on board. We made a plan, wrote a synopsis but somehow the project never caught fire and we dropped it. Then at a wrap party we came up with an alternate one minute version based on the country´s high alcohol use: a man (dressed in appropriate costume) with a bottle of Finlandia vodka goes from the present day back 10.000 years. The next day when we sobered up, we decided to shelve it. At least for awhile.

FLOPS: projects completed but not a complete success

“Back in the USA” was the first of what we call our homemades – projects I shoot and Eki edits (and straightens out my shots). Before I left Finland he taught me how to use the audio equipment. It was heavy as hell and I had to cart it all over the place. But when it came time to do the interviews I was spooked by all the little lights and buttons. “Back in the US” turned out to be a very well-done home movie. You can bet that when I came back to Helsinki I listened and learned.

FAILURES: projects completed that fizzle

Little Margie productions has been lucky, most of our projects have been commissioned, have got support funding from various foundations and have been well received.  “marihuanaland” was an exeption – it was financed by us and has still not been placed. But it was something Eki and I believed in. And even if it sat on the shelf forever we would always think it was a big success.

Lesson 29: sail right through flips, flops & failures - they´re part of the game

Next week: 26 TechTalk (Eki´s new blog)

Monday 12 December 2011

24 Out to Lunch

Photo by Eki Halkka
In Colorado, checking out a couple of new projects for development. Staying on the Western slope of the Rocky mountains in the high desert. Surrounded by gorgeous John Ford scenery (he made movies on location two hours South of here in Moab, Utah), with fabulous sunny weather and miles and miles of unspoiled empty space, the area still manages to be a mecca for fastfood. Since we´re on the road a lot, we´ve eaten in almost every FF joint. The following is a rundown of a few.

McDonalds: after eating McDo´s cheeseburgers in Finland and in France, sad to report that the American version (at least in this part of Colorado) doesn´t compare. The bun is like a sweet sponge – it squashes down to a flat pancake before you´ve finished. And the filling tastes generic – in other words tasteless. Since the initial disappointment have given it a pass.

Denny's: a chain, but newly opened in this area. Serves food 24 hours a day, everyday (except for major holidays). At the beginning there were long waits - the out-to-lunch crowd pouncing on a new choice. Dennys has a huge breakfast menu (with senior portions). And healthy bland choices like grilled chicken salad with apple and cranberry. But a couple of times we fell for the traditional turkey dinner (served during the holiday season). The first time we ordered it, it looked like the photo in the menu. But the second time it looked like an accident - with glue-like gravy covering the body. After a few more visits the bland food began to taste like a school canteen.

Wendy's: poor Wendy´s – it´s right next store to the new and popular Dennys. The day we were there it was empty, although their parking lot was full with the overflow from their busy neighbor. The staff and manager were trying to put on a brave front, but no people means no business. Happy to report that they make good chili.

TacoBell: we´re hooked. And almost always order the same thing: two crispy tacos with extra salsa. It´s cheap, cheap - two can eat for about 7 dollars.  And it´s clean. It´s fast. The food is simple, satisfying and tastes good.

Chipotle: according to an article in the Wall Street Journal weekend magazine this chain is the Rolls Royce of fastfood. Everything is organically grown and locally sourced (whenever possible). It´s Tex-Mex at its best. You pick and choose from a variety of options. And the stuff doesn´t stand around for hours getting stale – they make small batches several times during the day. More than twice as expensive as TacoBell, the restaurants are designed to look like the Wild West meets Scandinavia.

Palisade Wine Country Inn: we needed a break from FF and decided to treat ourselves. PWCI is a proper restaurant – small, cozy and inviting. And it´s only a couple of minutes by car from my sister´s vineyard. We ordered the dish of the day – salmon with a caper butter sauce. Jesse Wilson, the young chef served us himself. It was delicious. We asked him where he learned to cook. He said his dad taught him. We thought: what a good thing to pass down to your kid.

Lesson 28: when you´re on the road take some fruit

Next week: 25 Flips, Flops & Failures

Monday 5 December 2011

23 StarStruck

Frank & Alvar (2005)
My big weakness is celebrities. I want to film them because they´re famous for a reason. The star-chetect Frank Gehry and I had a history together (although Frank didn´t have a clue). Before I moved to Finland I lived in Venice Beach right down the boardwalk from his Life Guard Station house. It was such a witty take on a mundane everyday object that I fell in love. When we built a house on an island near Helsinki, I called it Frank Gehry Far North.

So when I heard he was coming to Helsinki I thought we just have to get him on film. After multiple phone calls to his PR person in LA the answer was a big NO.  Frank did not want to be interviewed. But one day I was talking to Juhani Pallasmaa, a Finnish architect. He said he was having lunch with Frank at Alvar Aalto´s house. I said, “That has to be filmed.” I used Juhani´s name (with his permission) and the deal was made. I´ve told this story before, but it´s worth repeating:  when I ran into tell the team that we were going to get to film him they both said, “Who the f*** is Frank Gehry:”

Esa-Pekka Salonen was my next target. At the time he was conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. When we interviewed him for “Frank & Alvar” I pounced.  I told him that we wanted to concentrate on his work as a composer. He vaguely accepted. Then the hard work began. Countless phone calls and emails trying to arrange meetings for shoots and interviews. A whole list of demands from his people followed. At one point I was ready to give the development financing back to the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE). Our commissioning editor wanted to know why we had got involved in the project in the first place. I said, because I was hopelessly star struck but that this doc had cured me.

That was until we got to Oakland, California to shoot “marihuanaland”. There I chased down everybody who had anything to do with the cannabis business. Richard Lee, founder of Oaksterdam University said, emphatically, that he did not want to be interviewed. I told him we didn´t want him to talk about the school, but about what the school had done for Oakland. We got him. Steve DeAngelo was another tough nut to crack, but we got him too. His PR person made the appointment and added that we had better bone up because Steve didn´t appreciate stupid questions. He turned out to be very nice and gave a good interview. The Discovery Channel found him too. They´re currently running a reality series filmed at Harborside Medical Dispensary: Weed Wars. Check it out.

Lesson 27: To get an interview know your subject and find a fresh perspective.

Next week: 23 Out to Lunch

Monday 28 November 2011

22 The Subject is 90%

image by porah /
Even when we´re in development, or in production on a doc project, we´re on the alert for the next big idea. That means talking to people.  Checking film festival programs. Reading a lot of publications. Watching what´s on the tube. Finally, and most important, what catches the team´s attention. 

little margie productions has for the most part concentrated on Finnish culture: architecture, music and design. The projects sort of fell into our lap. “marihuanaland” was a big switch. We liked the change of direction and are on the look-out for what´s next. The following are some categories that we and any film team should consider.

  1. Human Rights: a big audience and grant application pleaser (the George Soros Foundation). “Pink Saris” is a good example: the story of a young Indian girl who is married off against her will.  She escapes from her cruel in-laws and becomes a champion for beleaguered women in the same boat.
  2. Kids (especially if they are poor).  Kids can be a nightmare for a director. It´s better to frame the story around an adult who can take direction and help to get them to do what you want.
  3. Love & Sex: one doc filmmaker did a series in which she traveled around and told different people about her dysfunctional love life. And they told her their stories. It was a big hit.
  4. Food: from distant lands, esoteric menus and restaurants (El Bulli), home-grown, regional, ethnic, absolutely anything, including some stuff that would make most people throw up if the actually had to eat it.
  5. Music: all categories, (except conductors, composers and classical - they can be a hard-sell). It helps if the subject is famous (and died young). But there are often horrendous copyright fees to contend with. 

It was Ansel Adams who said that the subject was 90%. That might apply to documentaries too. I´m not certain. But at least it´s a starting point.

Lesson 26 Choose a subject that excites the team but stay objective

Next week: 23 StarStruck 

Monday 21 November 2011

21 Film Festival Folderol

“marihuanaland” is in the can.  To get some international exposure , Eki and I chose five film festivals we thought might be good for this kind of a doc. The first thing we did was fill out an application on withoutabox. Every independent filmmaker should be au courant with this site.  You fill out one application and then are good to go to almost any festival. But it´s not easy. They want a lot of information, clips, etc. It took us the better part of an afternoon to complete. They have a useful feature where you can match up your project with the right festivals. You also receive, on a daily basis, info on FF. It seems almost every city, however small, has one.

Image by kinsum /
Little Margie production docs have been in a couple of FF. And I have to say it was kind of a high. First to get accepted and then to win. We won “Best Architectural” film and “Best photography” at the Milano Doc Film Festival for “Frank & Alvar” (about architects Frank Gehry and Alvar Aalto). I went with our story editor to Milan. It was great to see it on the big screen and in the catalogue. And from there it traveled to a lot of places, including India.  But we didn´t get any distribution agreements or sales out of it.

“10 Finnish Architects” was in an International Art & film festival in Montreal. I went to that too. The big hall was packed and the docs were well received, but again, no new revenue. “Posh Poor & Middleclass BRITS” was shown at OXDOX in Oxford, England in the city´s oldest cinema. That was fun. The audience asked cheeky questions and thought it was nervy for an American to take on the class system in Britain, even if it was in a minscule “fly-on-the-wall” kind of way.

“Sundance”, the holy-grail for independent filmmakers, gets thousands of applications and most of them are rejected. But I read about one doc filmmaker who had entered 400 FF and was turned down. On a lark he applied to Sundance and was accepted.  He was gobsmacked and didn´t believe it. He thought someone was playing a joke on him. But it turned out to be true and he got a lot of publicity. Whether it morphed into cash in the coffers is another story.

Lesson 25: Unless you have big bucks to spend stick to 5 FF.

Next week: 22 The subject is 90%

Monday 14 November 2011

20 Let´s Eat!

Ask producers what they think is the most important part of a film project and they might say, “Financing.”  But ask crew members the same question and he/she will shout out loud, “The catering!”  I don´t know what it is about a film set or being on location but you´re hungry all the time.

Maggy's army marches on it's stomach - image by leonardobc/
Some companies have unlimited budgets and the catering is five star, first class.  I was invited to watch an Anne Bancroft shoot on location on the outskirts of Mexico City.  All the food was brought in refrigerated trailers from Los Angeles. They circled the set like covered wagons waiting for an Indian attack. The cooks prepared a hot meal (steak, baked potatoes, vegetables) for at least a hundred people.  In between there were snacks and desserts. Coffee, tea and soft drinks were on tap all the time. But to watch poor Mexican peasants waiting on the outside of the circle for leftover scraps made you loose your appetite.

Our crew usually eats on the run wherever when we´re shooting.  But we make up for it at night. We never stint and always (unless we´re dead beat) have a good time. Once we did an informal survey. Eki and Antti loved the breakfasts at the Double Tree hotel in Santa Monica. A chef was on-hand to cook eggs anyway you wanted. And there was an abundance of anything else you might want to start the day. The guys loaded up so if we had to skip lunch they were fortified.

We all liked Milan for the great food and service. About 6 o´clock, after a hard day we´d go to an outdoor restaurant and have aperitivos. They always served bunches of delicious salty snacks so that you would drink more prosecco. We happily fell right into the trap.

One time in Los Angeles when we were filming at the Walt Disney concert hall, the union guy who was our guide, took us to a barbecue joint that only a native would know about. They cooked the spareribs outside that were authentic and delicious. But I think our all-time favorite place to eat is the TrashCan café hidden away behind a non-descript building near SpaceWhale, Eki´s studio (we´ve written about it before). Anne-Marie is there everyday cooking fabulous food.  I always love it when we work on Friday. It´s meatball & mash potatoes with lingonberry sauce day.

Lesson 24 Great catering makes for a happy hard-working crew

Mext week: 20 Film Festival Folderol

Tuesday 8 November 2011

18 What´s It Called?

Eki always laughs at me, but whenever we start a new project I have to name it. Sometimes we change the title. For example: “Chasing Esa-Pekka” started out being called “Wing on Wing” (one of composer/conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen´s compositions). But the project was so long in the making and he was so hard to pin down that I was literally (by phone and email) chasing him from Los Angeles to London to Helsinki. When I complained to Eki he said that´s what we should call it. And suddenly the whole project came alive.  

Image by jaylopez /, modified by Eki Halkka
Sometimes the titles have visual meaning as well. We were developing  LUCIA: patron saint of light.  Celebrated on the 14th of December, in addition to the modern day story, which Eki found a bit boring and banal, we wanted to convey the bloodiness of the 3rd century virgin Christian martyr who died for her beliefs. With red nail polish I dribbled out the name “Lucia.”  on an off-white card.  In the doc I open a book to tell the story. The title page looks like it was written in her blood. We wanted to convey the dark, pagan, violent side to this yearly celebration that usually features a bevy of young, pretty blond girls. 

Naming a project also helps us to organize the story. “El Gaucho de Högsåra” was a natural. Here was a young Argentinian guy with long dark curly hair living on a (mostly) Swedish speaking island in the Finnish archipelago. It was like he rode in on a horse and brought all his cheerful high-octane Latin energy to the island. He made even the most taciturn old-timers laugh. And somehow you know it won´t last and he´ll ride out again. 

“marihuanaland” just happened.  We tried a bunch of titles but nothing stuck. Then we decided to show how the cannabis business had helped to accelerate Oakland California´s revival. And we made the city part of the story. Someone suggested that we call it “Tokeland.”  But I´m happy we stuck to our guns. Now we´re looking into new projects. We´ll know it´s right when we name it. 

Lesson 23: Name it and the project will have a life of its own. 

Next week: 19 Let´s Eat!

Monday 31 October 2011

17 "marihuanaland" Preview Party

We invited 12 guests for 6:30 and had prepared a lot of food and wine,with brownies for dessert. My sister and brother-in-law´s studio/barn was perfect: big with a big screen TV. Around 7:00 we showed “marihuanaland.” There were whoops and hollers and laughs in all the right places.  The problem was, we all agreed that cannabis should be legal, so there was no one to give us the other side. But everyone wanted to know why we spelled marihuana with an “H”*.

image by sphaera /
Hard to believe that a year ago we (the film team) were in Oakland, California to shoot “marihuanaland”.  The night we showed it there was an “Occupy Wall Street” riot in the city. Very strange to see streets on which we shot with protesters and police obscured by tear gas. But then I remembered that they expected the same thing when I was there doing leg-work. The stores were ready. They boarded up the windows and the center almost looked abandoned. Oakland is used to riots and the police are prepared. Still there were a couple of serious injuries.
Like last year a vote is coming up. Only this time it´s in Palisade, Colorado. There´s a proposition on the ballot to close the only medical marijuana dispensary in the region. Grand Junction (40,000). the biggish city nearby has closed all of their´s, although medical marihuana is legal in the state of Colorado. One of the guests was the owner of the Palisade dispensary – she was quiet and thoughtful about the future. She and her husband have worked hard to build their business, comply with all the laws, pay their taxes and serve the area. But it might all go down the tubes. The vote is tomorrow. No one is taking any bets. I remember last year in California.  Everyone we talked to thought it was a sure thing. But Proposition 19, the initiative to make small amounts of pot legal lost by 7%. 
*As far as we can tell, the original spelling.
Lesson 22: When you show your doc live be prepared for questions.
  Next week: 18 What´s It Called?

Monday 24 October 2011

16 Back in the USA

Back In The USA (2010)
It took one train ride and four flights to get here, but it was worth it.  My sister Elizabeth and her husband Bob Nelson have a small (paradise) vineyard in Colorado´s wine country on the Western slope of the Rockie montains. Palisade, Colorado, the town nearby, has 2,300 inhabitants, 12 churches, a local newspaper, a couple of restaurants, several bars and the only alternative medical marijuana dispensary in the region (other towns in the area have voted to close them, although they´re legal in Colorado).
November 1st the locals will go to the polls and vote on whether to keep the marijuana dispensary or close it. Before that, on October 27,  we´re going to show “marihuanaland” for the first time in the Nelson´s studio/barn. We don´t have any pot, but we´ll serve wine and food to go with the doc. There will be brownies for dessert.
The town is also the Peach capital of the state, if not the country and a great place for biking. Mostly sunny all the time, the scenery is gorgeous – a lush valley surrounded by mesas. The New York Times reporter had such a good time he wrote three full pages about it, its vineyards and the biking. And that´s what I´ve been doing. When I saw the open flat roads and beautiful views I bought a bright red, sassy bike with a comfortable seat.
I think Eki must be happy:  “marihuanaland” is in the can and I´m approximately 7,000 miles away. I might not be able to call as often, but thank god for the internet so I can badger him with “if it´s Monday it must be Maggy” emails.
Lesson 21:  Before you go hit the road check your gear for all the bits and pieces.

Next week: 17 "marihuanaland" Preview Party

Friday 30 September 2011

Lunch at the TrashCan café

Eki and I are working at SpaceWhale on the final, final cut of "marihuanaland". One of the best things about it is the TrashCan café. We start there. If it´s Friday I always order the same thing: meat balls (at least 10) and mashed potatoes with lingonberry sauce. Delicious!

We´re checking the doc for last-minute mistakes.  Especially the credit list - a minefield.  Tomorrow night the crew (4) will have a wrap party.  It starts off with a showing of "marihuanland" and ends up at 4:00 am or thereabouts. This is a short "on the road" blog.  I´ll be back in three weeks reporting on the ups and downs and highs and lows of making documentaries.

Monday 26 September 2011

15 Questions & Answers

01 How did you get into the movie business? 

American Quilts: a useful art (1991)
I wanted to make a short video: “American Quilts: a useful art.” The audio/visual department at Helsinki University recommended Eki. He was a 25 year old hippie with long hair. He asked me what I had in mind. I said I´d like to make a 20 minute documentary. Without blinking he said, “Make it 10.” After we finished, I told him making movies was my kind of madness and I wanted to do another. We´ve been working together for 17 years and he still cuts everything in half. Or more. 

02 How did you name your company? 

After Eki and I finished our first project, I told my husband Klaus,“I haven´t had this much fun since I´ve been five years old.” He said, “Well you better call it little Margie (my name before I became a designer). I thought it was brilliant. But got a bit of a shock when a guy I met told me he thought it was a porno film company. 

03 Where does LMP get ideas for new projects? 

Werner Herzog tells students at his Rogue Film School, they have to read newspapers and magazines. An article in the Economist about Oaksterdam University (the trade school for the study of cannabis) caught our attention. Then we read a second article about the founder, Richard Lee, in the same publication a couple of weeks later. He was responsible for getting Proposition 19 on the California November 2010 ballot. If it had passed it would have made small amounts of pot legal for recreational use. We thought the idea of presenting medical marihuana in a calm, business-like way and the excitement of the election had legs and decided to go for it. 

04. What LMP project had the most pitfalls and setbacks?

“Chasing Esa-Pekka” without a doubt. It took us three years. Our commissioning editor changed in the development stage, we got turned down on our first application for funding from EU Media Programme Development and had to re-apply. And although Esa-Pekka Salonen couldn´t have been more congenial, his PR people fought for him to have access and approval of all the footage. We finally said “Enough!” and they calmed down. But we were inundated with emails with long lists of “requests for changes.”  Unless they were legitimate errors we stuck to our guns and the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) supported us. The shoots, on location in different countries were great. But the post went on and on (we had 51 hours of footage). Eki and I were both done-in by the time we said that´s it, and turned in the final cut. 

05 What project has had the biggest impact on LMP? 

“10 Finnish Architects” (10 X 10´). When we pitched this project to the Finnish Broadcasting Company, one of our commissioning editors said, “But Maggy, that´s a 100 minutes of film.” We told her, “No. It´s just ten ten minute films.”  She laughed and signed the contract. Altogether it took more than two years. About a third of the way through my husband Klaus died.  I called Eki a week later and told him I wanted to come back and start again. It was an especially cold dark blizzardy winter in Finland. Eki saw me through the worst. He was tough as an old boot. We slogged away and wondered if we would ever get to the end the series. But 10 FA was a hit. It has played (and still re-plays) on Finnish TV and was sold internationally to countries as diverse as Norway and Brazil.  It was our breakthrough project and became our calling card. As far as personal commitment, a close second and even an equal, is our latest project: “marihuanaland.” 

Lesson 20: when a project is in post have at least one in development.

PS: Last week I wrote about my favorite locations and left out one of the best shoots of all. 

El Gaucho de Högsåra (2000)
Högsåra, Finland (“El Gaucho de Högsåra”): It was high summer in Finland – light until eleven. We shot a doc about a young guy from Argentina who lived with a family (our friends the Örnells) on this island in the archipelago. We filmed all over the place for a week. The tall ships were in port and the Mexican captain put up his sails coming in, especially for us. The place was jam-packed with sailors and celebrators. We stayed up late every night, ate huge quantities of delicious food, drank cases of beer and laughed a lot. Eki played the guitar till all hours and was grumpy in the morning when we had to start shooting at 8:00. That´s when I learned never to talk to him until 10:00. I thought, if this is making movies then I found the right kind of job. We were sad when the week was over. And vowed to come back and make “The Return of El Gaucho de Högsåra.”

Littlemargiedoc-blog will take a three week break while on the road.

Monday 19 September 2011

14 Action!

On location is a bit like sailing: one/third euphoria, one/third boredom, one/third terror. Our team has had its share of all three. Eki and Antti might have their own list, but the following are some of my favorites.

Marihuanaland (2011)
Oakland, CA (“Marihuanaland”): one of the five most dangerous cities in the US, people asked why we were going there.  I said because it´s the capital of cannabis in the US if not the world.  Or more specifically, Oaksterdam University, the trade school that teaches you everything you need or want to know about marijuana is. O.U. was the bait that got us hooked. I was there for three months setting up interviews and locations. The guys came for a week.We met everyone we wanted to meet in the cannabis business, loved shooting the beautiful art deco city, the locals couldn´t have been nicer, we weren´t scared once and the crew had only one serious spat. As usual we kissed and made up.

Chasing Esa-Pekka (2008)
London, England (“Chasing Esa-Pekka”): the budget included a car and driver, so we buzzed around all over the place. We got to work with the BBC, shoot at Royal Albert Hall and from the top of the giant ferris wheel on the South bank. We interviewed composer/conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen at his favorite pub. It was August, the weather gods were on our side. Not a drop dropped. One day, while waiting for Eki and Antti, a cute guy asked me if he could buy me a cup of tea. I thought, this is my kinda town.

Frank & Alvar (2005)
Los Angeles, CA (“Frank & Alvar”): it was amazing to shoot Frank Gehry´s Walt Disney concert hall when it was almost brand new. We also got to film at his studio, which for me was a real high because he´s my favorite architect. But best of all we filmed my old house (before I moved to Finland) in Venice Beach. 

10 Finnish Architects (2003)
Noormarkku, Finland: (“10 Finnish Architects” – Villa Mairea): The house that Alvar Aalto designed for his friends and one of his most personal works. We got to roam all over the place (a big estate with lots of other buildings that belong to the family). Today it´s a museum and loaded with the couple´s works of art: Degas, Picassos, etc.  They looked so natural in their setting that we kept asking ourselves “Are they real?” After the shoot (it was a hot day in August), the crew stripped and dived into the pool to cool off. We felt like lucky squatters swimming in a work of art.

Lucia - A Christmas Story (2008)
Helsinki, Finland (“Lucia”): Eki was totally blasé about working on this project, until I told him the story of the young virgin in the 3rd century who gets burned at the stake because she refuses to marry her pagan suitor. He said, “Now that´s a story that interests me.”  We decided to intersperse the modern day celebration (14th of December) with a silent film (in the style of a silent 1930s movie. We filmed the action in front of a blue screen (first time for LMP) and later Eki computer animated the 3rd century Roman backgrounds, including caves, where starving Christians were hiding out. It was like a giant party. There was a constant supply of coffee, cold drinks, sweets and the lasagna lunch was first-rate.

Passion Fashion (1993)
Summer Islands, Finland (“A Useful Art”, “Passion/Fashion” and ...):
We filmed “Useful Art” about American patchwork quilts, indoors and outdoors at my house on an island not far from Helsinki. It took one day and was our first project together. It was so much fun I told Eki I wanted to do another.  By this time he thought I was nuts. “Passion/Fashion” about a vintage clothes and car collection took two days. It was catered by my husband Klaus, who thought Eki was a smart guy when he heard him say “Shut up Maggy!” (it became his mantra). The third (un-named) project never got made. It was an elaborate three day shoot, with a real film star. The crew partied till the early hours. And shot their own “Blair Witch Project” in the woods. Eki: “Where is that footage?”

Lesson 19: To keep the crew happy & hard-working serve good grub.

Next week:  15.  Questions & Answers

Monday 12 September 2011

13 Story is King/Style is Queen

Passion Fashion (1993) - the Queen wins.
When Eki and I first began to work together we always had the same fight: what´s more important story or style. We winged it until “10 Finnish Architects.”  But that project was a fact-based series and we had to get the facts right.  We wrote as we edited.  I had the idea that you should check the footage and then write the story. Wrong. It took awhile but I finally got the picture.

A script editor came on board.  She helped me to learn the rhythm of writing a script. She said think of connections: lots of little stories tied together, with as few dead spaces as possible (example: a person driving a car with voiceover). Music is the most difficult of all the arts to film. It was her suggestion that when we made “Chasing Esa-Pekka” we go to several locations connected to composer/conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. So we hopped around from Helsinki to Milan, to Los Angeles, to Stockholm, to London and back to Helsinki. And even shot one scene on a Finnair plane. Each place had a special meaning to Esa-Pekka and we tried to pin it down. Chasing him is the red thread that runs through the story.  

Chasing Esa-Pekka (2008) - the return of the King.
We write about twice as much narration as we need. For “marihuanaland” (52´) we had about 20 pages and ended up using 10. The ratio we use is about one page per minute. In most of our docs I do the voiceover: our style is calm and low-key. Even high-octane themes like cannabis get a laid-back treatment. But we work hard to dig up fresh details, especially if the subject is famous and gets interviewed a lot.

To do this you have to walk a fine line: ask cheeky questions that in no way demean (or alarm) the subject. Again, a low-key style helps. The whole crew (3) gets involved. Eki (and our other team member Antti Hacklin) are masters at this. They are quintessential Finns - low-key is part of their DNA. In places like the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles where there are film crews all the time, and the staff mostly hates them for their arrogance, Eki and Antti were a hit. They got to shoot in off-the-wall places and also got off-the-cuff info.

Style – what about it?  Before I moved to Finland I was a designer in Los Angeles, so part of the fun for me is the “look.”  When we were shooting “10 Finnish Architects” we asked the live architects (and subjects) to wear clothes that fit into the series and were timeless. And we weren´t above smurfing the sets even though Eki growled, “This is a documentary not a fiction film.”  In “Marimekko” we got the whole staff to wear the designer´s famous striped t-shirts during lunch in the company´s cafeteria, to celebrate the owner´s birthday. The pay-off came when our commissioning editor at the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) said she loved the way our docs looked. Then I said to Eki, “See, story might be king, but it´s the queen who check-mates.” He looked like he meant me when he said, “Off with her head!

Lesson 18: Make sure a red thread runs through the story.

Next week: 14 Action!

Monday 5 September 2011

12 Pitching the Project

Image by kwschenk /
Pitching is the beginning, and often the end, of film projects. Steven Spielberg said you should be able to pitch one in three words. That might be an exaggeration, but commissioning editors are busy. They want a quick overview and details later, after you´ve caught their attention. A CE might ask you to email a synopsis first. The synopsis we write is usually one, maybe two, single-spaced pages (Times New Roman). We try hard to get it right: edit, re-edit, and make sure there are no typos. We wait a couple of weeks and then get back to them by email (never on Monday or Friday).  If they´re interested they make an appointment. The following are some of the rules we follow.

 01 Be on time: only a force majeur is an excuse.

02 Be prepared: we make a portfolio, which at minimum includes a designed cover page, the synopsis, the budget, a list of “sources of financing” and contact info. Our portfolios are always the same:  black plastic covers with clear plastic sleeves.  We remove all the sleeves that aren´t filled. One CE said when she saw it, “First impressions make all the difference.”

03 Dress like you mean business: neat, pulled together, good posture.

04 Be poised and confident: better to be quiet than make nervous small talk.

05 Be concise:  Know your project well enough to tell the story in as few words as possible. Be prepared to answer difficult questions. CE´s are masters at pointing out flaws but usually give good advise.

06 Don´t try and sell your project: if the CE says “No”.  Accept it and say you´ll contact him/her again when you have another idea.

07.  Follow up with a hand-written note (never an email)amazing how few people think to do this when it´s such a simple and effective way to make a good impression and be remembered.

When I read these rules they sound preach-y, but then I remember stories from CE´s about hopefuls who tried to sell their “Big Idea” without in-depth preparation. They usually flopped. During one Nordic Film Festival I was an observer at the pitching sessions. CE´s from Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland were there to comment on projects and make suggestions. Some of them were very tough. A Lapp presented a project in his national costume. They came down hard on him when the way he was dressed had nothing to do with the story. They pointed out weak spots in the structure of the projects and hammered away. One of our CE´s was there.  I couldn´t believe the questions she asked, because when we worked with her it was always so congenial.  Eki says in addition to a good idea, attention to detail, organization and preparation are the keys to catching the attention of a CE. And best of all: if the project gets the go-ahead it saves MONEY.   

Lesson 18: Follow the above rules

next week: 13 Story is King, Style is Queen

Monday 29 August 2011

11 Money, Money, Money!

A young guy, keen on working in media, asked me what I thought was the most important thing he should know about making movies. I said, “Money!  He thought my remark was downright cynical. But I was dead serious. Financing is a universal headache for filmmakers.  And even famous auteur/directors such as Orson Welles have been known to spend years searching for money to fund their projects.

Marihuanaland” was financed by us because we wanted to schedule the shoot in California to coincide with the November 2010 election, which was part of the story. But now that the project is almost finished we´re looking for other sources of financing.  After the fact it is a much tougher proposition. But it did have one big advantage: we had all the freedom to do the doc exactly the way we wanted. Because of the content, we can´t go to our usual sources for funds such as the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. So we´re investigating sites like KickStarter. To qualify you make a short video explaining your project, the amount of money you want to raise and the time you expect it will take.  If accepted, you wait and hope it catches the attention of enough people to meet your goal.  

The more conventional  (sane and solvent) route to finance a project is the way we funded “Chasing Esa-Pekka.”  First we pitched it to the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE).  They commissioned it, which amounted to about one/sixth of the budget. But their support made it possible for us to start looking other places.  Next we filled out the (100 page) application for EU Media Programme Development. It failed the first time, but they liked the subject (composer/conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen) so suggested we re-apply.  We made major changes to the application and it passed. 

Now we had enough funds for development. Plus “Letters of Intent” and all the information we needed to apply to several Finnish foundations for the rest of the financing.  From start to finish the project took three years.  Eki and I were ready to kill each other at the end. We said, “Never, ever again.”  But after we saw the finished program on prime-time we decided it was worth the pain. Then we kissed and made up and said, “What´s next?

Lesson 18: Be bold, confident and prepared when trolling for funds.

Next week: 12 Pitching the Project