Monday 30 January 2012

31 Check It Out

Whenever Eki and I get an idea for a new project, the first thing we do is google it. If there´s a lot out there on the subject it doesn´t mean we drop it. Instead we try to develop the doc with a little Margie production slant. When we began to get serious about doing a production about pot, we found a lot of stuff on the subject. For example: “Marijuana Inc” produced by MNBC had over 40,000,000 viewers on cable and over 350,000  on Youtube. And there was tons more.

That told us a whole lot of people were interested in marihuana. The MNBC angle is high drama. We decided ours would be low-key. “marihuanaland” is told from an outsider´s point of view (a Finnish film team) and zeroes in on the cannabis industry in Oakland, California: how it operates within the state law and how it has affected the city. 

Chasing Esa-Pekka (2008)
When we were developing “Chasing Esa-Pekka” for the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) they gave us all the docs made about the composer/conductior Esa-Pekka Salonen. Because people who are interviewed a lot tend to repeat themselves, we were able to see in advance what Salonen had said before.

When we interviewd him we tried to ask questions that steered him into new directions. We also decided that watching him conduct all the time would be boring, except for the most dedicated music lovers. Our solution was to film him in different situations in several locations: Los Angeles, Milan, London, Stockholm, Helsinki. It was a new way at looking at Esa-Pekka and his work.

Lesson 35: It´s all been done before but…

Nest week: 32  S´not Fair: copyrights

Monday 23 January 2012

30 Who´s Boss?

Best boss mug from NBC store
Little Margie productions is essentially a two person company, but Eki and I have our spheres of influence. My job is to secure the financing, usually pitch the project to our commissioning editors, arrange the travel, hotels, etc and fill out the dreaded grant applications. Eki orders the equipment, is chief photographer, king of the editing room and does the music. We both direct, write the narration and plan the schedule (by phone or at a meeting in a café).

It all sounds cut and dried. But it´s more like a loosely related family. When Antti (our steadicam operator and sound man) is with us he puts in his two cents too. Sometimes like big brothers Eki and Antti gang up on me. Or they speak fast Finnish and leave me in the dark. But most of the time there´s a lot of camaraderie and we all have fun together.

When Eki works he is totally focused on the job at hand. And hates to be interrupted. I like to take a long time on a project, be completely prepared and organized. We´re a good team. We´ve been together working on projects for around 18 years. And have established a balance of power (terror?). By now we know what buttons not to push and when to be quiet. Most of the time.

Lesson 34: The boss should never be above making coffee for the crew

Next week: 31 Check it out

Monday 16 January 2012

29 Rants & Raves

  • Rant #1: people who say they want to see your doc and then talk, or worse, don´t watch. When we show a doc to our commissioning editors there is dead silence all the way through, including the credits. Then they make their comments. Once, when a group from the American Womens Club in Helsinki asked to see a couple of segments of “10 Finnish Architects” they kept saying things like, “Hey, Delores, remember when we went to Finlandia Hall, the acoustics were terrible.” Very disconcerting for the director.
  • Rave #1: When the music fits the doc perfectly. When we were doing the audio for “Lucia” Eki took the old worn-out Santa Lucia song and jazzed it up. At first it sounded a bit strange, but it gave the doc a whole new twist. We used the technique for “Back in the USA” and “Posh Poor & Middleclass BRITS”, It worked every time.
  • Rant # 2: commissioning editors who see a project at several stages of development and like it. Then can´t find a spot in their schedule for the finished production.
  • Rave #2: the help Kerstin Degerman from EU Media Programme Development gives to filmmakers when they´re trying to fill out the EU MPD´s horrendously difficult grant application – around 100 pages of dense information. When I first looked at it I said, “My first language is English, but I still don´t understand it.” Kerstin reassured me and said, “It´s like eating an elephant bit by bit. Together we did it and little Margie productions got the money. I think since we applied (three times, once it was rejected and we had to re-apply) they´ve simplified it.
  • Rant #3: missing a spectacular shot. Like “amen” in church, during every production, it seems like a great one always gets away. You don´t miss it in the final cut but when it happens it is hugely frustrating and disappointing. Especially in docs, when most of the time you don´t get a second chance.
  • Rave #3: during the production when there´s an impasse or something horrible happens and Eki says, "I´ve got an idea."  Those are magic words, and they usually break the log-jam.

Lesson 33: Try to keep the ratio of rants to raves about 1 to 4

Next week: 30 Who´s Boss?

Monday 9 January 2012

28 Monkey Sees Monkey Does

When Eki and I work at SpaceWhale and need a break, I usually make coffee and he picks up his guitar or sits down at his drums. Then he really looks happy. When he scored “Back in the USA” he and Era (who shares the studio) played guitar and we all sat down and sang “The Old Gray Mare” together. It was a hoot. Like sitting around a campfire on a warm summer night. But when we played it back I let out a shriek because I was so off-key. The two guys over-ruled me and it went in the doc.

Image by tanli /
Now I´m in the wild west and decided it was a good time to take guitar lessons and learn how to sing on-key. My old pal Billy Clewlow from Venice Beach days has been playing and singing ever since the eighth grade. He emails me country western tunes by Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, David Allan Coe, Woody Nelson and others for inspiration. He also advised me on what to buy: a ¾ size instrument with steel strings.

Went to the music store and a very nice man sold me a Crafter. Just the right size for me to handle. He also recommended a teacher, Sharon Riggen.  She looks like the grandmother you always ever wanted. But you can tell she´s a pro because she makes playing look so easy and has a voice like a young girl. Sharon sat me down, put a big wooden block under my right foot, gave me a shocking- pink pick and told me to play my first chord: G7. Then a C.  After a couple of practice runs she said we´d sing “Marianne” together. The forty minute lesson flew by, but my pressing finger was on fire. She said it would take about six weeks to toughen up. Oh yeah.

Lesson 31: Practice, practice, practice, practice, practice, practice,

Next week: 29 Rants & Raves

Monday 2 January 2012

27 The Interview

Image by ilco /
Getting people to talk on camera (and reveal themselves) is an art. Mastering it is an on-going process. But at least I´ve learned (with Eki´s help) not to interrupt the subject. The following are three type of interviews with some hints on how to conduct them.

01 Just Folks: people with no claim to fame but who have something to add to the doc. Some subjects are shy but we´ve found that most them like to be filmed if you approach it in a relaxed way. Our rule in most cases is to keep the interviews to ten minutes and sharply focus the questions.

Hint: Make it fun, a kind of on-camera game

02 Semi-famous: Esa-Pekka Salonen, Finnish composer and former conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic falls into this category. Well-known enough to have handlers who earn their keep by trying to control people like us. He was hard to pin down, but once we got him he gave us a long and fresh interview (without his minders). Sadly, we had to delete one of his best lines because he used an innocent four letter word and they went ballistic.

Hint: Dig deep for fresh insights. People who are interviewed a lot are lazy and tend to repeat themselves.

03 Famous: little Margie productions has never interviewed an A-list celebrity, but I read everything I can about people who do. One reporter from USA Today wrote a cheeky article about interviewing Kate Blanchett and Russell Crowe. They all met at a posh hotel in Beverly Hills. The two old pals from Australia spent the first five minutes catching up on Aussie gossip and acted as if she were invisible. But she got her revenge when she wrote about it.

Hint: Don´t be intimidated, no matter how famous the subject is.

Lesson 31: Avoid a “puff piece” like the plague

Next week: 28 Monkey Sees Monkey Does