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