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!