With his alliterative advice (in his second language), German documentary producer/director Arne Birkenstock encapsulated at the very beginning the contributions of all three participants over the whole session. But it was Sophie Henderson and Sima Urale who provided most of the amusing anecdotes that built on Birkenstock’s enthusiasm and kept the energy flowing for 90 minutes.
There was nothing in either the title of the session, Doing It Right, or in the printed programme, to indicate what the discussion would be about. But the panel members were united in their conviction that to be a successful film-maker in terms of creativity and storytelling, passion and commitment are the essential ingredients. Along with a healthy dollop of luck too, in Birkenstock’s eyes at least.
Simply, according to Birkenstock, without unending and total passion for your story, you’ll never survive the rigours, the roller coaster ups and downs, of attempting (over 5 years or so) to make a feature documentary; and for Urale and Henderson, the same applies to dramatic features.
But when it comes to making a living from your passion projects, forget it. The struggle will always exist between trying to stay true to one’s artistic principles and compromising with the realities of making a living. Learning how to say No to proposed projects that you do not immediately bond with is critical; along with being able to engage in activities such as directing TV commercials or working outside the industry while not selling your soul in order to pay the daily bills.
Birkenstock observed that most successful filmmakers are not geniuses. Investors are not looking for geniuses; they’re looking for people who can deliver what they promise to deliver.
Noting that most first-time films are made for extremely low budgets, with crew and everyone involved working either for tuppence or for free, Birkenstock offered this piece of advice. When you’ve finished your first film, sit down and recalculate your budget. Never say ”I did it for $10,000”; but instead work out the true value of the work, the services, the equipment, etc, that were never properly charged for, and then say, for example, “I did it for $300,000 but $290,000 was donated, discounted or deferred”. Not only should you value properly the contributions of both yourself and of those who have supported you, but you must also communicate that.
Originally the story of Fantail was intended for life as a theatre play. Henderson’s passion to write the story and play the leading role grew out of being sick of working freelance as an actor and forever being offered only wives, girlfriends, and other cardboard cutout characters to play. But for her, the best thing that ever happened was being turned down for funding for the theatre project. The Film Commission’s Escalator scheme was just starting, and it was her husband/director Curtis Vowell’s idea to apply. Henderson credits the Escalator Boot Camp for forcing them to work hard and fast. She was bemused that when she acknowledged that she was learning heaps there, some other participants claimed not to be learning anything.
But as for making money off your passion project, Henderson related that she was paid one dollar for writing the script for Fantail and another one dollar for playing the leading role.
Picking up that theme, Urale spoke about how all creative filmmakers are always so broke – but one upside of having a successful film is that festivals will take you everywhere – and for free! She went on to note that it is such a privilege to be able to tell stories in this form; and to assert that it doesn’t matter what gear you choose to shoot with – what matters is the story and what you’ve got to say.
Urale took another moment to illustrate the old adage: Never mistreat or abuse the runner or the unit slave, because you never know when that person might end up being the producer you need to hire you. On her first TVC directing job, when she turned up on set – female, brown, and looking like a street kid – everyone assumed that she was the coffee runner; and for a while she was happily making coffees and delivering them around the set. When eventually the DoP called her over to the camera the looks on the crew’s faces were something to behold.
Both Henderson and Urale pointed to their backgrounds as actors in the theatre world as having a huge influence on their screen work, particularly their writing; with Henderson pointing out that theatre work tends to be much more experimental and innovative than screen production. Moderator Maile Dougherty followed up by noting that not only were many screen directors able to bring theatre experience to their film craft, particularly their storytelling skills and ability to draw the best out of actors, but also crew often brought relevant outside creative experience to screen work. This led her to raise the question of what will happen when all the older, self-taught film people (from the days before film schools developed in NZ) all retire and the industry becomes populated with film school graduates with little, if any, other life experience?
To conclude, Dougherty asked the panelists what advice they might give to their former 22-year-old selves.
Birkenstock: Follow your heart and your passion. You will only be good at what you like to do.
Henderson: Find your key collaborators and hang on to them.
Urale: Stop crawling pubs, stop smoking, and learn to drive. (She’s done the first two.) While being a creative obsessive is great, always remember the importance of family and friends.
Birkenstock: Remember the importance of luck – and marry someone with a better income.