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Uni Shorts 2014: Passion, Patience and Pragmatism

With this effective piece of alliteration (while speaking in his second language), German documentary producer/director Arne Birkenstock encapsulated the contributions of Uni Shorts final panel discussion.

Writer and actress Sophie Henderson and director and educator Sima Urale provided several amusing anecdotes to build on Birkenstock’s enthusiasm.

Panel members

Panel members (L-R): Sophie Henderson, Arne Birkenstock, Sima Urale

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 filmmaker in terms of creativity and storytelling, passion and commitment were essential ingredients – along with a healthy dollop of luck too, in Birkenstock’s eyes at least.

Birkenstock is in NZ to support his documentary Sound of Heimat: Deutschland Singt!, playing in the Goethe Institut’s German Film Festival. He’s also a two-time winner at the German Film Awards. This year his Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery took the Best Documentary award. In 2011 his Chandani: The Daughter of the Elephant Whisperer won the Outstanding Children or Youth Film gong.

According to Birkenstock, without unending and total passion for your story you’ll never survive the rigours and roller coaster ride of attempting (over 5 years or so) to make a feature documentary; and for Urale and Henderson, the same applied to dramatic features.

As for making a living from your passion projects, forget it. As members of the second panel had also acknowledged, the struggle between artistic principles and the realities of making a living will always exist. Learning how to say No to proposed projects that you do not immediately bond with was critical for the soul; being able to direct TV commercials or work outside the industry was just as important, for the stomach.

Birkenstock admitted he’d taken a third option, marrying a doctor.

He also observed that most successful filmmakers were not geniuses. Investors, he said, were not looking for geniuses; they were looking for people who would deliver what they promised to deliver – preferably on time and on budget.

Noting that most first-time films are made for extremely low budgets, with crew and everyone involved working either for tuppence or less, Birkenstock suggested filmmakers should sit down and recalculate their budgets.

Never say ”I made it for $10,000”, he recommended. Instead, work out the true value of the work, services, 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 filmmakers value properly the contributions of both themselves and their supporters, but they should also acknowledge and communicate that.

Originally Sophie Henderson’s Fantail was intended for life as a stage play. Her 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 NZFC’s Escalator scheme was just starting, and it was her now husband and director Curtis Vowell’s idea to apply. Henderson credited the Escalator Boot Camp for forcing participants 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 hard, fast and frugal as Escalator was intended to be, it wasn’t set up to deliver financial returns for passion projects. Henderson revealed 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 creative filmmakers are always so broke – a theme Max Currie had also commented on during the weekend’s first panel discussion. One upside of having a successful film, Urale noted, was that festivals take you places – and for free! She went on to note that it was a privilege to be able to tell stories in this form; and to assert that it didn’t matter what gear you choose to shoot with – what mattered was the story and what a filmmaker had 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 she turned up on set: female, brown, and looking like a street kid. Everyone assumed she was the coffee runner; 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 Daugherty 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 might happen when all the older, self-taught film people (who came into the industry before film schools were common in NZ) retired and the industry became populated with film school graduates with little, if any, other life experience?

To conclude, Daugherty 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. And remember the importance of Luck.
Henderson: Find your key collaborators and hang on to them.
Urale: Stop crawling pubs, stop smoking, learn to drive. (She’s done the first two.) While being a creative obsessive is great, always remember the importance of family and friends.

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