“All my life I have been fighting to get films on screen and now it’s more and more complicated.”
– Kees Kasander on why it’s important to keep makeup artists happy and your location manager drunk.
Make no mistake: film production may involve numbers and budgeting but Kees Kasander is just as passionate about his vocation as the next art director. His Netherlands-based production house, Kasander Film, has released nearly 80 titles since 1981. Andrea Arnold’s 2009 Fish Tank won the Jury Prize in Cannes the same year and the 2010 BAFTA for Best British Film.
Speaking at a Goldsmiths University event “Producing in 50 Questions” in London on Wednesday, he delivered a string of no-bullshit sound bites and pearls of personal wisdom that provided a delighted audience with an insight into the idiosyncrasies of both master and craft.
Kees Kasander likes diligence. He likes music, editing, and working with the same team. He doesn’t like the sound guys. (“Maybe it’s because they think with their ears.”) He avoids spending time on set. The cutting room, on the other hand, he spends as much time in as possible: “I like to sit and see if it comes together, and maybe I can be useful. Every film is too long, that’s the first problem. Every director wants to put more into a film than the audience wants.”
So he enjoys problem solving? “No, it’s part of the job. It’s a stupid job, to be honest, film producer. If the film is good it’s because of the director, if it’s bad it’s my fault.” When asked how he likes to spend time off from this stupid job, he prompts a question of his own: “What is time off? Why should I take time off from something I enjoy?”
Three decades of allegedly continuous work notwithstanding, experience is not what Kasander values most: he even calls it “a dodgy business”. He has fired people when they insisted they had done things differently on a previous set. In Kasander’s eyes neither film school nor a five year stint as assistant are a guarantee of success; after all 99% of scripts never make it onto the screen.
As if to dispel any feelings of gloom or outrage his abrupt honesty might have caused, he meekly offers: “We made some films that were not very good, but interesting. You have to pick the right one, the one to your taste.” Kasander’s personal taste (and against a certain consensus in the business) favours writer-directors: “It seems it works better because it’s so personal.”
From a producer’s point of view, however, there is much more excitement to be found in the non-fiction arena of documentaries. Kasander draws no division between documentary and film, contending all a film needs to qualify as such is an interesting director and an interesting idea. In fact with documentaries “you are making a film while you are making a film. You have to use your brain: [fiction] film is more like bookkeeping.”
His passion for this particular art form is clear: “Documentaries are like one big contingency. You have so much money left, how are you going to use it? You start it and you don’t know how it’s going to end.”
One might surmise his partiality lies in a certain artistic licence that, ironically, is harder to exercise in the production of fiction. With the wild variety of constraints imposed by individual countries, one simply cannot make a film to be distributed around the world. In India, kissing is forbidden on screen. In Japan it’s pubic hair. “Silly idea, not even Japanese, it’s American. I can’t be bothered with that sort of nonsense.”
As an example of the challenges that can arise from cultural differences and filming abroad, he quotes a film crew that shortened a 10-week stay in Japan by a whole nine weeks because “they just didn’t know how things worked”. Hence the necessity of skillful management when it comes to leading crew members: “You don’t have a location contract, you have a location manager, so if he goes missing you suddenly have no location. You have to keep giving him alcohol.”
The location manager is not the only person Kasander covertly collaborates with. When something is wrong “the first person an actor will complain to is the makeup person, they never come to me, so I have to have a good relationship with everyone. It’s almost like football in a way. You have 11 people on the pitch. If they all do their job, it’s a dream job. If not it’s a nightmare.”
He acknowledges that very often “different people are shooting different films” and mostly with the best of intentions: “Everyone wants to make the best possible film. You just have to make sure they’re fighting for the right reason.”
It naturally follows that he should favour small teams. “I had 10 people once and I was working for those 10 people. Instead of making the best possible film I was working for an office.” An independent-minded man, Kasander professes that “the first thing I’ve learned is to control my own budget and control my own schedule.”
Controlling one’s budget seems the crucial element here: “You have to make sure there are many partners, otherwise they control your film and before you know it you are working for them. It’s the hardest thing, staying independent. Even if you are 32 years in the business they can still tell you what to do. And you need to be 100% financed before you get any money [to start shooting].”
So when does the budgeting start? “When you read a script, you start financing a film I believe. I need to know by the end of it how I’m going to do it. Sometimes you read a script and you think it’s fantastic but I don’t know where to get the money.”
Other than issues related to budgeting, which nominally are the core aspect of a producer’s calling, in this day and age distribution presents a much bigger challenge. “The most problematic part of filmmaking is getting it out to the audience.” Festivals might remain the best remedy to anonymity but even in Cannes “you get a lot of attention but not a lot of sales. Everyone wants to talk to you, it’s nice.”
If such a remark is anything to go by, Kasander places a bigger stake in the audience’s verdict than his peers’. This is where the World Wide Web steps in. “How will you find out if a film is good? On the internet, I think. I don’t think it’s from Time Out anymore. There’s a different relationship now with audiences.”
Internet distribution may still be in its early days “but in five years’ time all my films will end up being distributed on the internet rather than in a cinema – we are thinking of putting our films for free on the internet because then at least people can see them – unless I’m making Batman 5 because that will always be released in the cinema.”
Does he bear a grudge against houses that favour blockbusters over independent productions? “If I were a cinema owner I would play Skyfall because there’s money in it, so I understand.” And there is an upside to the public taking distribution into its own hands: “I’m very famous in China because of The Pillow Book. They sold more than a million copies. Illegal copies.”
On the equivalent success of Fish Tank in Britain, he muses: “You never know who your audience is before you start. Was it the right film at the right time? Nobody knows.”
Kasander’s appraisal of his favoured directors – along with the Goldsmiths audience appraisal of Kasander – seem to suggest that the answer is to be found, quite simply, in talent, perseverance, and a flair for damn good filmmaking.
To attend the Masterclass of Editor Nicolas Chauderge, editor of Fish Tank, on Monday 10 December reserve your free ticket here. For information about more weekly events at Goldsmiths visit the university’s website.