Archive for the ‘Top Tips’ Category

 

“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?”

FilmsThree 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].”

In CannesSo 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.

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Continuing from last week’s interview with Olly Lambert, filmwatch.org will be delivering weekly Top Tips from a variety of people in the film industry, either speaking directly to filmwatch.org or as a summary of notes gathered from events and masterclasses.

One World Media ran the above event at London College of Communication on 3rd February as part of the International Student Film Festival.

Here are some top tips from the two speakers on that day.

Dominique Young (Al Jazeera English) – Dominique is a Senior Producer at Al Jazeera English, commissioning documentaries from Africa and the Middle East, for broadcast in the channel’s flagship documentary strand “Witness”, which showcases the work of established and emerging talent from around the world. (Bio from oneworldmedia.org)

  • Watch the channel and especially the slot in which you propose to show your doc: is the subject appropriate? Witness is about characters and individual stories, not issues; ie a doc about drought wouldn’t be appropriate, whereas a doc about a family’s life during drought would be. Also consider that a pitch announcing “my 19 minute doc” will be rejected if there is no 19 minute slot (Witness has a 30 minute slot).
  • Can the viewer recognise themselves in the persons depicted? The audience must be able to relate. It also takes years of experience to recognise a good, strong character and this is, for best or worst, a matter of trial and error.
  • Has the story been told before? If it has, you must be presenting it under a new angle.
  • When pitching by email: a commissioner doesn’t have the time to read 20 pages. When composing your pitch, think of a TV listing which draws in its audience in no more than two sentences. Include an attachment of your detailed proposal (one A4 page max).
  • When contacting a commissioner, you must know and be able to explain how you’re going to film.
  • If you’re a first time director, you’re unlikely to get a budget from a commissioner. It’s judicious to approach a production company that produce the same type of film and are more likely to take you on board; this also ensures that you’re not personally legally responsible for the budget.
  • A commissioner must trust your experience and background, and that you can deliver on time. Young herself worked as a researcher for years before commissioning.
  • When choosing whom to approach, consider that TV docs and festival docs are very different material: a festival audience wants to be there watching your doc; a TV audience might just be channel surfing. Global warming as a subject, for example, is appropriate for both, but will be treated in a different manner: for a festival doc, you might use a nice 5 minute opening shot (we don’t have to know what the subject is straight away); as a TV doc, if the intro lasts 5 minutes the audience will be likely to have switched channels.

 

Brian Woods (True Vision Productions) – Brian is a filmmaker who co-founded the highly regarded production company True Vision. He has directed and worked on a string of award winning films, covering human rights stories from around the world. His films have won numerous Baftas, RTS Awards, Emmies and One World Media Awards. (Bio from oneworldmedia.org).

  • Know where to look for stories. When Robb Leech’s brother converted to Islam, it was “a nightmare for him, a dream come true as a filmmaker” (My Brother the Islamist – BBC3, 2011). Another example is of a filmmaker who had kept in contact with a hospital’s press officer and heard that the first stalker clinic was being opened in the UK: she mentioned the idea and was commissioned straight away to develop it into a film.
  • Know who to pitch your stories to. There are several platforms for emerging talent, such as the 2008 BBC3 documentary scheme Fresh or Channel 4’s First Cut (Channel 4 Commissioning Editor Aysha Rafael has recently commissioned 12 new films under the scheme).
  • Keep up with current budgeting. Dispatches‘ 60 minute slot has been reduced by 30 minutes due to budget cuts. The average budget for Al Jazeera’s Wtness is between £23,000 and £30,000 for a 30 minute slot (this affords about 10 days of editing max). Commissioners don’t generally ask for a cost report, though some do! Bear in mind here is little money or no money when it comes to international development: rather approach NGOs.
  • Experience is key. Commissions are often based on the track-record of filmmakers. Commissioners will also more often select ideas from people they’ve worked with.
  • If you have little or no experience, there are three things you must have: a great idea, a great character, and actual access to that character (evidence of access is generally necessary, such as video footage of that person). A 3 minute taster should be all it takes to convince a commissioner: if a character requires a 45 minute taster introduction, they’re probably not such a great documentary character.
  • Persistence is key: even as a filmmaker of renown, it sometimes takes years for a good story to make the screen. Zimbabwe’s Forgotten Children (BBC4, 2010) was first pitched in 2004 and eventually commissioned in 2009. It went on to win an AIB Award and a Peabody Award.
  • Once you do have the attention of several commissioners, a good way to urge competition between them is to present a “letter of interest” from a different broadcaster. Make them fight for the rights to broadcast your film.

 

Next week: Notes from Sorious Somura’s masterclass

“Personally, I’m not as interested about filmmaking as I am about being nosey.”

Olly Lambert is a London-based, Grierson Award-nominated documentary filmmaker, also Journalist of the Year as awarded by the Foreign Press Association in 2007. His latest film, My Child The Rioter, aired on BBC2 on 31st January 2012.

The following interview took place in January 2011. His insight and advice are just as pertinent and useful now as then.

His top tip? Setting yourself a 10 minute window each morning browsing through broadsheets spotting stories that make great documentary material. (I’ve dutifully practised every day and the fun hasn’t worn off, though I have learned to become more selective: a student arrested during a bulldozer getaway after hurling a puppy at a bunch of Hell’s Angels might be the best headline of the decade, but it stops there.)

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Walking down the corridors at Uncle studios in Soho’s Livonia Street, I feel nearly as nervous as when I first approached documentary filmmaker Olly Lambert to ask him for an interview. But as I finally locate his editing suite, I’m greeted by a multitude of screens and a director who smiles as warmly as after the Q&A where he noticed my “loitering with intent”. Any remaining apprehensions are dispelled as he leads the way towards a comfortable set of sofas slightly removed from the hustle and bustle of the desks, and offers me a cup of tea and a very affable “How can I help?”

The edits he has overseen as series director are the final cuts for Series 3 of The Family, which aired on Channel 4 throughout November and December [2010]. The seven-part documentary follows the story of the Adesinas, a Nigerian family living in Hackney, through a system of fixed cameras – the rig – installed in their home for a period of eight weeks. I marvel at the logistics involved:  28 cameras, 40 microphones, resulting in 4000 hours of raw footage. And The Family is not the only documentary to be currently produced following that format: “Virtually every editing suite in this building is a rig show.” Cameras are being installed in hotels, modelling agencies, A&E departments – and curiously, in a house full of dwarves doing a pantomime. Still, despite the creative nature of the projects being commissioned, he doesn’t think the rig is the “silver bullet”.

He explains that while this system affords an omnipotent, multiple-angle view over a scene that may capture moments a cameraman couldn’t, he’s wary of the paradox between director and subject:

“I find it allows people to perform in a slightly unnatural way, that wouldn’t happen if there were a cameraman present. It’s definitely double-edged. I think what will happen in a year or two is the rig will become just one more weapon in an armoury of how to film documentaries. In a strange way it’s been one of the most unrewarding experiences ever as a director.”

If he has any misgivings about his latest project, it’s because he’s got his own armoury of accredited films to run it against. Since his 2001 directorial debut Four Weeks to Find A Girlfriend which saw him nominated for a Grierson Award, he’s been commissioned to direct documentary after documentary, scooping up another nomination in the process for Sky1’s Ross Kemp: Middle East. A surprising path, it may seem, for someone who originally studied English with the intention of becoming a theatre director. “There were no plans for it. I got a job as a runner at a company called Middlemarch and thought, I absolutely loved it, I’ll go for this.” He worked his way up from being a runner, researcher, and assistant producer, and has been working as a freelance director ever since. Is he surprised at the turn his career has taken? “Personally I’m not as interested about filmmaking as I am about being nosey,” he candidly asserts. “Filmmaking is a tremendous passport into people’s lives, it gives you access to the world in a way you wouldn’t normally have.”

True to his professed curiosity, his films focus exclusively on human subjects, from traffic wardens in London to tea-selling boys in Gaza. He doesn’t feel, he muses, that he’s found his voice as a documentary-maker, and instead defines himself only as interested in ordinary people in extraordinary situations. His passion for the mundane colliding with the terrifyingly unfamiliar is such that in 2003, while filming in Kuwait for Channel 4’s science department, he abandoned the commissioned project to focus instead on the humanitarian disaster taking place, resulting in the critically-acclaimed Festival favourite Battle Hospital – a “much, much more interesting story” than the restrictive subject of medicinal practice in war zones. “Luckily, being in the desert, I didn’t have an executive producer breathing down my neck,” he confides. “But the story is kind of, you know, the king. Without a story, you haven’t got a documentary.” He quotes playwright Tom Stoppard’s son, who told him over a drink one day: “If a story’s good, you can shoot it on toilet paper.”

And what does he make of aspiring filmmakers’ current trend of using online platforms such as YouTube to publish their work? “It’s kind of a huge positive, that anyone can make a film for under a thousand pounds. The sooner you make your mistakes the better. But that’s a red herring because films are not made with gadgets and buttons, they’re made with ideas and relationships.” He ponders ways of standing out when so many hopefuls are walking around with cameras and competition is fiercer than ever. The way he did it, he offers, with a hint of unapologetic brazenness, was to pester directors on a daily basis for an opportunity to work alongside them. “And also,” he stresses, “you’ve got to start fine-tuning your antennae for what is a good story. There’s a handful of people I keep an eye on, thinking, ‘They’re gonna make it,’ and the way they mark themselves out is they’re the people who are thinking all the time, ‘Where’s the story, where’s the story?’”

So what’s the next story for him?

“What I’m dying to do next is go completely the other way and do something that has far less managerial roles, far less expectation. We’re all a bit knocked today because we found out the third episode only got 700 000 viewers, which is tiny for a 9 o’clock Channel 4 slot.” He gloomily surmises the reason behind poor ratings might be the show is up against I’m A Celebrity: Get Me Out Of Here.

But if he seems disheartened by audiences’ attitude, he certainly won’t be losing interest in the people who compose them anytime soon. “You’re only a good director if you are extremely human and sensitive to people’s stories, to what the difference is between what they might present and the reality underneath. It’s the most important part of the job, I think, to be human.”

For more information about Olly’s films or to contact him visit www.ollylambert.com