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

Monday, 22 August 2011

10 Back in the Belly of the Beast

So there we were.  In SpaceWhale sitting in front of the computer.  Eki said, "Let's look at it all the way through."  We started seeing small things that needed to be changed or modified.  He said, "Make a list."  At the end there were 13 minor things (the music was too loud, or there should be a pause) that needed fixing.  But then I said, "I think we forgot to mention medical marihuana at the closing."  But neither one of us could believe it, so we looked again.  We had.  And there was nothing to do except to re-write and re-do the closing narration.  And then we went to lunch at the Trash Can cafe.

Ari Ylä-Anttila, commissioning editor from the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) was coming in the afternoon to see it for the third time, so we wanted it APAP (as perfect as possible). When he arrived the first thing we did was have a cup of coffee.  Nothing important happens in Finland without coffee (Finns drink more per capita than any country in the world). Ari seemed to like "marihuanland" a lot.

"Marihuanaland" is the first project we've done where we're not just filming the action and telling someone else's story.  In this documentary we're more personally involved. After interviewing doctors, a patient and people connected to the cannabis business we say that the case for medical marihuana is solid (although so far only 12 people in Finland have been given permission by the National Board of Health to take cannabis based medications). And that recreational pot should be considered as an alternative to alcohol. We hope that when people see the documentary, they might at least consider that cannabis should be legalized, taxed and regulated. It's almost, but not quite, a wrap.

Lesson 17 :  Before the final, final-cut let your doc rest at least a month.

Next week: 11 Money, Money, Money!

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

09 It´s All in the Cut

When I sit in on the edit, Eki and I work at SpaceWhale. On his own he does a rough, rough-cut (for “Chasing Esa-Pekka” we had 51 hours of tape for a 51´doc). My two-cents comes in when it´s time to fine-tune the project. Over the years I´ve learned not to blab when Eki is concentrating. Or if I do, he might say,“Shut up Maggy”. If I ask the same thing five or six times, he´ll say, “Tell me once, tell me twice, but if you ask me again we won´t do it.” And since I once tripped on a cord and broke the hard-drive after all the footage had been taken in, I watch my step. But now at least, when I sigh because nothing seems to happen, he doesn´t have to say,  “It´s rendering”.

To see what at first looks like a mish-mash, come alive, make sense and begin to tell a story is a real kick. No wonder Martin Scorcese said “The art of the documentary is in the edit.”  But it can be boring too and there´s lots of repetition. For example: we look at the same scenes over and over, then after the umpteenth time see one that doesn´t look right, or fit in and has to be cut. When we disagree, Eki usually pulls rank and says  he´s king of the edit room. But if I really, really, with a capital B, believe in something he listens.  

Then there are those perfect moments when the cut is brilliant and I love to watch it over and over. In “marihuanaland” former district attorney from San Francisco, Terance Hallinan, tells us why he is in favor of decriminalizing pot. He gives several examples of the terrible things that happen to people when they get caught with even small amounts, and why he thinks it´s wrong. He ends by saying, “Most of all the broken hearts.”  The cut is from him to a freight train at night slowly passing through Oakland, CA. The audio is a long and mournful toot. It´s only a few seconds but those few seconds tell a lot. 

Sometimes there is something Eki and I would kill to keep in but our commissioning editor (rarely) asks us to take it out. When we interviewed Esa-Pekka Salonen for “Chasing Esa-Pekka” we knew we had a problem: he had already been the subject of several documentaries, and had been interviewed a lot. People get lazy, take the easy way out and tend to tell the same stories.  So we tried to come up with some off-beat questions.  One was: You seem to have lived a charmed life (he got famous overnight when he was 25), have you ever had any bad times? His answer made us want to jump out of our boots.  He said, “Well, (after that night), I was in all the magazines, there were lots of girls and I was eating, drinking and f****** around.”  We thought it brought this famous composer/conductor down to earth. Eki and I were almost 100% sure Esa-Pekka would not have minded if we had left that line in. But his “people” – there to protect him from people like us – went ballistic. So for the TV program we deleted the F-word and the scene lost its punch.

Now I’m heading to Helsinki for the home-stretch on “marihuanaland”.  Soon it will be locked in, nothing more to change, cut or add. That´s a weird moment: happy/sad. It´s why you want to have a wrap party so that you can get a bit snockered and forget that you won´t be coming back to that particular project anymore, except to promote it. But that´s another story.

Lesson 15:  Kill your little darlings.

Next week: 10 Back In the Belly of the Beast

Monday, 8 August 2011

08 What should I wear?

Nothing dates a documentary (or a fiction film for that matter) like clothes (and hair). When little Margie productions got its first big commission in 2000, to make the series “10 Finnish Architect: an outsider´s view” (10 X 10´), it was such a big job for a small company we made a five minute test film.  We decided that I would do the narration. When our commissioning editors at the Finnish Broadcasting company (YLE) saw the test, they liked it and told me to be the “outsider”.  They also said they wanted the series to be timeless so that they could show it in 20 years.

Edith Head, former long-time designer at Paramount Pictures and Universal Studio said, “you can have anything you want in life if you dress for it.”  She wasn´t the greatest, most creative film costume designer in the business (for example, the glamorous, eye-popping clothes Audrey Hepburn wore in “Sabrina” were designed by Hubert Givenchy), but she had staying power. Between the two studios her career lasted non-stop for 58 years until her death. She knew how to make a statement and stick to it. With her severe slicked-back hair, dark horn-rimmed glasses and sensible suits, her clothes and accessories oozed authority. Fashion wasn´t her forté.  But she knew how to be timeless and still stand out from the crowd.

When we were developing “10 Finnish Architects” I asked myself what could I wear that was distinctive enough to set me apart from the other people in the docs. But that would be classic enough to be anytime, anyplace. For years my everyday uniform was the traditional blue and white striped t-shirt that French sailors have been wearing for eons. Then I came across a photo of Coco Chanel in Biarritz in the 1930´s. She was wearing the same French sailor shirt with navy-blue trousers and a straw hat. We figured since Coco wore the “look” 70 years ago that constituted timeless. It was a nice coincidence that it also looked like a Marimekko, the iconic Finnish design company famous for their striped t-shirt. We thought we had found a neat solution. At the last minute, just before we started shooting Eki said, “Wear the straw hat.”

Lesson 14: Clothes count: style your doc for a long shelf-life.

Next week: 09 It´s All in the Cut

Monday, 1 August 2011

07 Is He Dead?

Whenever a new project begins to have legs, Eki and I start thinking about the audio. We look up tunes to find out if the composers are still alive. Or better: how long they have been dead. Or better yet: if the music is in the public domain. Little Margie Productions is lucky because Eki is a musician.  So are a lot of his geek pals. Sometimes we say, let´s try something in of style of… And Eki sits down with his guitar or his drums and fools around with different themes. One thing we´ve done in a couple of documentaries is to use the same tune played in different styles. We did this in “Posh Poor & Middleclass BRITS.”  At the opening “Rule Britannia” (copyright free) is traditional. But then Eki changed the tempo – sometimes jazz, rock and roll, blues, etc - to suit the scene.

Copyrights are a minefield. Making a documentary about a musician is the worst. When I got all star-struck about Esa-Pekka Salonen  (“Chasing Esa-Pekka”), the Finnish composer and, at the time of the shoot, conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra, we faced two obstacles. One: filming a conductor is daunting because it´s a bore for most viewers to just see him waving his arms around. Two: we knew the rights would be horrendous.

We wanted to use his music throughout and make videos of three of his pieces: Wing on Wing, Foreign Bodies, Insomnia. The first thing we did was call Deutsche Grammophon and told them they had to let us use the CD free of charge. They agreed. But we still had to pay Esa-Pekka 11,000 Euros for composers´rights.  Non-negotiable. And 6,000 Euros to the BBC for 10 year rights to one minute of their archive footage. The total was a big chunk of our budget. In “10 Finnish Architects“ we used archive footage and music from the Finnish Broadcasting company (YLE). They let us use the clips and music free but that meant we owned the rights together. When we found out that some clips we wanted to use in “marihuanaland“ were in the public domain we popped open the beer (Dos Equis XXX) to celebrate. When we can afford it, we pay all the fees and retain all the rights.

Duke University has a Center for the Study of Public Domain. They´ve published (online and in hardback) a comic book about copyrights: Bound by Law? It´s a Must Read for any small independent filmmaker because the tiniest mistakes can get you in a whole peck of trouble. One example from the book: in a key scene a teacher and his students were listening to a song on the car radio. The tune was relevant to the story but had to be deleted. Even though there was money in the budget to pay for the rights, the owners refused to give their permission. If making movies is like a giant jigsaw, copyrights are like white pieces in a white puzzle.

Lesson 13:  Check the domain of every piece of music, clip, photo

Next week: 08 What Should I wear?