The Credits » 2013 » January Celebrating Film and Television's Creative Community Wed, 26 Nov 2014 15:38:50 +0000 en-US hourly 1 How do you Make a Zombie a Sex Symbol? We Speak With Warm Bodies Writer/Director Jonathan Levine to Find out Thu, 31 Jan 2013 15:30:22 +0000 It’s no easy to task to make a zombie palatable (let alone credible) as a love interest in a film. Yet, that’s exactly what writer/director Jonathan Levine (50/50, The Wackness) has done with Warm Bodies, which he adapted from the Isaac ... Read More

It’s no easy to task to make a zombie palatable (let alone credible) as a love interest in a film. Yet, that’s exactly what writer/director Jonathan Levine (50/50, The Wackness) has done with Warm Bodieswhich he adapted from the Isaac Marion novel of the same name. The film centers around the budding paranormal romance between a zombie named R (Nicholas Hoult) and a kick-ass young woman named Julie (Teresa Palmer), who he saves from his fellow undead for reasons he’s not entirely sure of at the time. Little do either of these young would-be lovers realize that their relationship might have major implications for all of mankind.

This unlikely love story sounds, well, preposterous on paper—sure, a novelist can pull this off, what with unfettered access to R’s thoughts (this is not The Walking Dead or 28 Days Later, zombies in this post apocalyptic world still have a flicker of consciousness that slowly, but surely, molder like the rest of their bodies), but to pull this off in a film without succumbing to wink-wink knowingness or by totally subverting the whole zombie genre is a neat trick. Levine pulled it off. In an early scene in the film, the pilot light of humanity can be seen just barely twinkling in a very funny scene between R and his zombie friend, M, played by the reliably hilarious Rob Corddry.

We spoke with the writer/director about finding that balance between comedy, romance and horror the story called for, how The Sex Pistols helped inspired his idea of how R would look, and the trial-and-error of creating the genuinely creepy ‘Boneys,’ the zombies whose flesh has completely deteriorated and who exist in a state of perpetual, violent hunger.

Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer star in Warm Bodies. Photo Courtesy Summit Entertainment

We caught the screening here in New York. People were really enjoying themselves, laughing, hooting…

That’s great to hear. At this point I sort of tell people to stop telling me stuff, it filters back to you so much, and it always gets in your head if it’s negative. But we did test it as we were editing it, and we got great responses. 

Was it difficult adapting Warm Bodies for the screen from Isaac Marion’s novel. 

It’s a bit of a challenge, to adapt a book told from the point of view of a zombie, but Isaac had clever devices that allowed you to build the world out a little bit. Beyond that, one of the great things about the book is that, structurally, there wasn’t that much that needed to be done to it. A lot of people say adapting is harder to do than to write an original screenplay, but I think it’s easier. When a book has such a great structure, it really is a pleasure…and if you get stuck you can always go back to the source material. The other nice thing is you have a level of critical distance form it. When you’re adapting you can see the forest for the trees.

Tell me about the creation of the very creepy Boneys, the supremely non-lovable zombies who threaten to destroy (read; eat) everyone we come to care about in the film (they appear at the 2:14 mark in the above trailer.)

It was something that actually required a lot of attention in pre-production. We definitely worked with our concept artist on a lot of different concepts. In the book, the Boneys are described as skeletons; they’re the result of what happens when a zombie has continued to rot away for many years. There’s some line about how your skin dries up and your flesh turns to dust. My original idea was I wanted to do it like stop-motion skeletons, like a Jason and the Argonauts type thing, and it would have been cool, but, because so much other stuff in the film is irreverent, I wanted the stakes with the Boneys to be real, and people wouldn’t take them seriously as a threat as stop-motion animated skeletons. So we basically did a lot of concept art and once we got a concept that we liked, we worked with our visual effects team to get their movement down. That was really hard, figuring out how we wanted them to walk. At first we gave them a twitch, but that felt too goofy, so we ended on what was most scary, a T-1000 kind of walk [Robert Patrick's walk from Terminator 2: Judgement Day]. Warm Bodies isn’t a movie where the number one goal is to scare people. The tone of the story is much more along the lines of Gremlins than 28 Days Later, but we wanted the Boneys to be credible as a threat. Those are the stakes the movie.

On a plane that R (Nicholas Hoult) has turned into his apartment, Julie (Teresa Palmer) makes a funny-mean comparison. Courtesy Summit Entertainment

How did you come up with the right balance for the regular zombies so they were still clearly and recognizably the living dead, but, not The Walking Dead-level gross so that the love story could be credible?

We did references for them, we looked at images from the depression, and for Nick’s zombie we gravitated towards punk rockers, especially Sid Vicious, who was a pretty dirty, scummy guy but also has degree of sexy danger about him. At first blush, you hear this idea [of a zombie/human love affair], and it does sound preposterous, but we wanted to make sure they felt like zombies and not cartoony, and that they were in line with the traditions of zombies. Then we had to work with the right concept, which was our punk rock idea, and we had a great makeup artist, Adrien Morot, who pushed us as far as we could in the direction of a real zombie without making it seem like no one would ever want to be with this zombie. The other little trick there is as he became more human, we went through different stages of makeup so that the first time Julie sees him, he’s covered in brains and blood, and then we slowly dialed that back throughout movie. 

What were some of the biggest challenges for you pulling this film off?

I think the two biggest things other than technical things were, first, the tone. We wanted to make it as funny as you can without sacrificing the stakes of the movie. And there’s also the arc of their relationship, making that as realistic and believable as possible within this framework that has such a high degree of difficulty. There were days I thought, ‘man, I wish I could do something more straightforward, more simple,’ but those aren’t the things I’m attracted to.

It was a pretty big departure from your last film, 50/50, about 27-year old Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who gets a potentially fatal cancer diganosis. How did your experience on that film prepare you for this one?

There were some similarities with the challenge of addressing tone in that film and Warm Bodies. A lot of what I learned on 50/50 prepared me for this movie. What I do think they have in common is they’re unique and distinct because they can reflect life back to you, and life’s not only one thing. For me, 50/50 was such an incredible experience, getting to meet Seth [Rogen] and Evan [Goldberg], two heroes and peers, and learning a whole new way of filmmaking, which they helped teach me, which they learned from the Apatow school.

What is that way of filmmaking?

It’s incorporating improvisation and just being fluid with the script.

You wrote and directed The Wackness, about a lonely teenager who spends his last summer before college in a hip-hop infused New York City in 1994. Where did the inspiration from that story come?

I was 28, and a lot of it was based on me growing up in New York and wanting to make a film about that time. That was such a great time for music and culture in New York and I wanted to be the first to put that into a movie. I’ve always been really into Cameron Crowe and John Hughes movies, and it came from a personal place of wanting to tell a coming of age story. I had just done All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, and I had met these financiers on that project, and I had the script [for The Wackness] since before Mandy Lane, and since we were able to sell Mandy Lane and get them some money, they were interested in The Wackness and really responded to it. The Wackness wouldn’t probably happen without Mandy Lane, and I don’t think 50/50 happens without The Wackness.

What pieces of advice do you have for aspiring directors? What have you learned that you wish someone told you when you were starting out? 

The kind of advice I have is same advice I heard when I started, which is to keep making stuff, keep writing. And now there’s no excuse, there’s nothing too expensive to make. The other thing is find what makes you special, your point of view, and work on honing that. In film school you find a lot of people who are just trying to sound like someone else, whether it’s Wes Anderson or Michael Bay, but it’s really about finding your own voice and telling a story through your own voice.

What’s on tap next?

There’s two things I’m talking about right now, neither of which I can talk to you about (laughs), I’ll know in the next month or so, both of are so cool. 


Have you ever wanted to know how to properly look and act like a zombie? Makeup artist Michelle Phan and actor Rob Corddry, have you covered:

Featured Image: (L to R) Nicholas Holt, Rob Corddry and Director Jonathan Levine on the set of Warm Bodies. Courtesy Summit Entertainment

]]> 1
Mommy Issues: Making Monsters with Mama Visual Effects Supervisor Aaron Weintraub Wed, 30 Jan 2013 15:30:35 +0000 A father kills his wife and brings his two young daughters to a secluded cabin where his would-be murder/suicide attempt is foiled by one very maternal ghost. Years later, the girls are discovered, their feral upbringing posing the second biggest ... Read More

A father kills his wife and brings his two young daughters to a secluded cabin where his would-be murder/suicide attempt is foiled by one very maternal ghost. Years later, the girls are discovered, their feral upbringing posing the second biggest obstacle to a normal life behind a spirit that, to put it mildly, has become a bit possessive.

Mama may not be the feel-good hit of the new movie year, but it may be its most pleasant surprise, already taking in more than $50 million worldwide—better than three times its budget—while making Andy Muschietti a director to watch. But Muschietti, who also co-wrote the script, was blessed with more than a green light from executive producer Guillermo del Toro. He also owes much of his success to visual effects supervisor Aaron Weintraub and Javier Botet, the French contortionist who brought Mama to (after)life.

Take Andy Serkis, stretch him to seven feet tall and give him flexibility straight out of Cirque de Soleil and you have the actor who plays Mama’s titular character. “He’s very frail and can get his body into all these weird positions,” says Weintraub of Botet, and it is those contortions that serve as a physical manifestation of Mama’s tortured past, as well as the present-day horrors she’ll visit upon anyone who gets close to the “daughters” she’s adopted.

Whether he was shot in front of a blue screen (the cabin where the girls are found) or in an actual environment (the suburban home where they are taken in by their uncle and his girlfriend), the process remained the same. The giant Botet would be put into Mama’s dress, covered in prosthetics and some motion-caption garb, and hung from a wire rig (Mama does like to levitate, after all) while monofilament tied to his limbs was tugged at random times to give his character her trademark jerky movements.

“Every once in a while Andy would shout, ‘Yank him!’” remembers Weintraub. “Javier’s arms would jut in these really strange, unnatural ways that look amazing.” From there, all it took was some mixing at Weintraub’s digital effects studio, Mr. X Inc. in Toronto. “We’d take that and speed it up or run it backwards or mix in bits from other takes to get this really unique performance.”

Even for CG-heavy shots—like a crablike Mama walking up a wall and bending over backwards to reverse course and make a beeline at star Jessica Chastain—Weintraub and his team relied on Botet’s performance, shooting his upper and lower bodies separately and stitching together a composite image to make Mama’s ghostly spine bend at a right angle.

Creating a digital Frankenstein monster made up of two different shots sounds hard enough, but Weintraub points to one surprising effect as his most challenging to render realistically: hair. “Creating computer-generated hair is one of those Holy Grail things in terms of computer graphics,” he says. “It’s a real-world, fluid simulation, and we needed to create a system that was robust enough to do what Andy wanted to do with each shot.”

Specifically, Muschietti wanted Mama’s hair to look like it was floating underwater, a characteristic related (mild spoiler alert) to the character’s death a century earlier. To do it, Weintraub placed a skullcap with tracking markers on Botet, then digitally covered it with hairs perpendicular to Mama’s head in what he describes as “a giant afro ball.”

Then it would be time for a simulation using proprietary software to make the computer follow the laws of physics (think wind and gravity) as well as forces that simulated water currents. (Muschietti would get so specific as to request a tendril cover Mama’s face in a specific frame.) “You let it cook and see what you come up with,” Weintraub explains. Sometime the first attempt was spot on; other times an endless list of variables would have to be tweaked in a system of trial and error that, while time consuming, pays off with some of the creepiest creature effects in recent horror history.

“Creating a system that had that combination of real world physics and fluid simulation while also being directable was something that we spent five, six months getting right in the beginning,” says Weintraub. “As soon as we had those tools in place, it was pretty simple to go through and knock it out shot by shot.”

Millions of sufficiently freaked out moviegoers later, Mama is the first big hit of the calendar year, the end product of a director, producer and VFX man at the top of their crafts. So how did Guillermo del Toro, a master monster maker and director with movies like Pan’s Labyrinth under his belt, take to his new producing gig? “I think he really enjoyed having input but letting Andy take it in his own direction,” says Weintraub, who sees similar monstrous collaborations in del Toro’s future. “He likes producing projects along the lines of his sensibility, so you probably won’t see him do a romantic comedy. But that would be a very interesting romantic comedy.”

Featured Image: (L to R) Lilly (ISABELLE NÉLISSE), Lucas (NIKOLAJ COSTER-WALDAU), Victoria (MEGAN CHARPENTIER) and Annabel (JESSICA CHASTAIN) in ‘Mama”, a supernatural thriller presented by Guillermo del Toro and directed by Andrés Muschietti. Photo Courtesy Universal Pictures

]]> 2
We Welcome Back the NHL With an Infographic Showcasing Eleven Fantastic Films on Ice Tue, 29 Jan 2013 15:30:22 +0000 We’ve missed you, National Hockey League. And we’re happy you’re back. So happy, in fact, we put together this infographic celebrating a sport that has translated into some of the most inspired, strange, and downright funny sports films ever made.

...
We’ve missed you, National Hockey League. And we’re happy you’re back. So happy, in fact, we put together this infographic celebrating a sport that has translated into some of the most inspired, strange, and downright funny sports films ever made.

Click to enlarge image.

]]> 2
Innovation in the Studio: A Conversation With Warner Bros. Tech Ops President Darcy Antonellis Mon, 28 Jan 2013 15:30:56 +0000 To the uninitiated, Warner Bros.’ innovation-focused Technical Operations department–or ‘Tech-Ops,’ as it’s affectionately dubbed–sounds like a futuristic invention from an upcoming J.J. Abrams flick. But Warner Bros.’ flourishing technology department is hardly a work of fiction. The department is ... Read More


To the uninitiated, Warner Bros.’ innovation-focused Technical Operations department–or ‘Tech-Ops,’ as it’s affectionately dubbed–sounds like a futuristic invention from an upcoming J.J. Abrams flick. But Warner Bros.’ flourishing technology department is hardly a work of fiction. The department is devoted to the future of film; whether it’s all things digital, content in the cloud, piracy protection, or game-changing industry advancements like 3D, 4K, and 48 frames-per-second. Warner Bros.’ Tech-Ops Department is the crux of the studio’s forward-looking endeavors, and it’s where the studio goes to work on coming up with the latest and greatest revolutions in film.

The department itself, poised in the throngs of buildings that nestle against the iconic Warner Bros. lot, is a reinvigorating departure from stodgy, corporate workplace culture. Tech Ops employees work in a decidedly ‘start-up’ environment, with access to a ping pong table, communal work stations, a robust snack table filled with retro candy, and a room devoted solely to 3D viewing with stacks of red-and-blue-lensed glasses on every table. Everywhere, movie posters from past and present adorn the walls. Employees gather for meetings around flat-screen TVs displaying lines of unintelligible code with tablets hoisted under their arms. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the future of film, and it couldn’t be more exciting.

The Credits recently sat down with Warner Bros.’ Tech Ops President Darcy Antonellis, to gain insight into the studio’s tech efforts, their vision for the future of film and TV, and to check out the department’s high-tech culture.

A visionary through and through, Antonellis has served as President and Chief Technology Officer at Warner Bros. Technical Operations Department since 2008, where she leads the studio’s forays into emerging technologies, platforms, and social media channels. Her team is committed to making sure viewers can safely and conveniently access entertainment content across the diverse spectrum of viewing devices, while keeping a finger on the pulse–and well ahead of the curve–of emerging revolutions in film production. In addition, Antonellis and her department are constantly working to remedy industry issues from piracy, content distribution, and the always-morphing landscape of media.

Watch our intimate interview with this incredibly accomplished and savvy innovator to see how Warner Bros. is pioneering into the next evolution of film and television content.

And for more insight into the Technical Operations Department at Warner Bros., check out this recent LA Times feature on Darcy Antonellis and her team.

]]> 0
A Meditation on Film Festivals: Unraveling Cinema’s Time-Tested Tradition Fri, 25 Jan 2013 15:30:42 +0000 Sundance is, sadly, drawing to a close. For the last two weeks, the world of film has gone appropriately haywire with around-the-clock coverage of one of the most well recognized film festivals on earth.

One needn’t look farther than a ... Read More

Sundance is, sadly, drawing to a close. For the last two weeks, the world of film has gone appropriately haywire with around-the-clock coverage of one of the most well recognized film festivals on earth.

One needn’t look farther than a film-trade addled Twitter feed to find first hand dispatches from ultra-exclusive parties, critics weighing in on their favorite new films, and gossip mills aflutter with what ‘it’ stars are wearing whilst gallivanting around Park City, Utah.

For those of us who live and breathe cinema, film festivals and their many iterations—big and small, A-list and anti-list, international and domestic—are at their core emblematic of one true thing: a deep seated adulation for the art of motion pictures.

Venice Film Festival on the Red Carpet. Directors Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth. ©La Biennale di Venezia

The Venice Film Festival

The first film festival on record was the venerable Venice Film Festival in 1932, founded by Giuseppe Volpi, whose name adorns the festival’s highest honor, the Volpi Cup Award.

Held on the hotel terrace of the Hotel Excelsior on the idyllic island of Lido, VFF was first rate from the get go. The films that premiered there have fueled cinema textbooks and serious cinephile discourse for years—among them, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein, It Happened One Night, Grand Hotel, and The Champ.

And directors like Raoul Walsh and Ernst Lubitsch milled amongst top-billed stars of the time from Greta Garbo to Clark Gable and Joan Crawford. Yes, even in 1932, film fests incited star-sighting sensationalism; the first VFF attracted nearly 25,000 onlookers.

Quality movies, acclaimed directors, A-list stars, and scores of voyeurs have been intrinsic ingredients for film fests since their inception, but the one thing not present at the very first major film festival? Competition.

While VFF continues to bear the torch as a catalyst for some of the world’s best avant-garde films, countless other film fests have soared to estimable ranks.

Venice Film Festival. ©La Biennale di Venezia

Less than a year after the first VFF, the International Federation of Film Producers Association (FIAPF), was created in 1933. The FIAPF is the organization in charge of regulating the many international film festivals throughout the world, including VFF, Berlin International Film Festival, Tokyo International Film Festival, Cairo International Film Festival, and yes, even Cannes.


Considered by many to be the world’s most prestigious film fest, the “Festival du film de Cannes” opened in 1942 on the coast of France. In case you’re wondering: the Cannes Film Festival was France’s attempt to compete with Italy’s vogue VFF—and it worked.

French iconoclast Jean Cocteau once famously remarked, “The Festival is an apolitical no-man’s-land, a microcosm of what the world would be like if people could make direct contact with one another and speak the same language.” That is, of course, if you’re one of Cannes’ select chosen few.

From its inception, Cannes Film Festival was competitive and swathed in exclusivity (both characteristics would become more pronounced as the festival gained worldwide acclaim). The fest boasted a jury of representatives from each of the selected films’ origins as well as an enviable invite-only guest list.

A social event from the start, the Cannes Film Festival once awarded every film that was shown. But as stars like Sophia Loren, Grace Kelly, Bridget Bardot, and Kirk Douglas began populating theater seats, and luring overzealous photogs, serious competition amongst Cannes’ selected films soared.

The coveted Palm D’Or—awarded to the best film in the competition—is an honor that’s been bestowed to films like Marty, La Dolce Vita, Taxi Driver, and this year’s Amour.

But perhaps most notably of all, Cannes’ Marche du Film—film market—marked the first international commercial marketplace for films. Established in 1957, Cannes’ exchange place gave birth to the contemporary concept of ‘shopping’ films at festivals by providing filmmakers, producers, and studios a proper platform on which to do business.

International Film Festivals

From the very first VFF, the international film festival realm quickly expanded. 1946 saw the start of one of the oldest film fests on the planet, the Czechoslovakian Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, which has prevailed as a pinnacle of Czech film, despite stretches of Communist control.

The renowned Edinburgh International Film Festival was created in 1947. Self-ascribed as “the world’s oldest continually running film festival,” the fest was once exclusively focused on documentaries, but has since expanded to showcase some of the best in UK and worldwide cinema of all genres.

The film festival has also served in the promotion of freedom of expression—and in some cases, political liberation. In 1951, the Berlin International Film Festival launched in the WWII-torn city, as an artistic symbol of ‘the free world,’ and opened with Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. BIFF is, to this day, considered one of the best fests on the planet—and often referred as one of the ‘big three’ festivals alongside Venice and Cannes.

The Moscow International Film Festival, ongoing since 1959, has awarded its Grand Prix to now-classic movies like Felini’s 8 ½. The Cairo International Film Festival, sparked by a critic’s visit to the Berlin fest, incepted in 1976, marked the first international film fest held in the Arab world.

And The Toronto Film Festival—emerging as one of the hottest film festivals of the season—got its start in 1976. Initially dubbed ‘The Festival of The Festivals,’ TIFF started as a festival that sought out the very best films from festivals across the globe (hence, the name).

So where and when do domestic film fests come into play? The U.S. has its own storied past.

U.S. Film Festivals

American film festivals started in 1957, with the advent of the San Francisco International Film Festival. Classic films like Akira Kuroswaw’s Throne of Blood and Satyajit Ray’s Panther Panchali opened the very first SFIFF, where A Farewell to Arms director Frank Borzage, was in attendance, along with a warm telegram from then-president Nixon. The vibe of the first U.S. film festival was decidedly international—only one domestic film, Uncle Vanya, appeared (and it was based on a Chekov play, no less!).

But U.S. domestic film, and the fests to support them, was steadily gaining ground.

The New York Film Festival launched in 1963 with two US films alongside renowned international films from directors like Buñuel, Ozu, Godard, and Polanski, with eight US films shown the following year.

The Seattle International Film Festival, founded in 1976, is, despite what you might surmise from E! television coverage, our country’s largest, in terms of both feature films screened and attendance (though to be fair: at 25 days, it might also be the longest.)

And in 1978, nearly half a century since the first film festival on record, one of the most publicized film fests on the planet descended upon the unsuspecting state of Utah. Sundance would be the festival to put American film fests on the map.


The Sundance Film Festival, now home to red-carpet coverage, exclusive fetes, and international acclaim, is a brand so big it boasts its own television channel and ubiquitous place in our pop culture cache. But the festival had rather humble beginnings.

The first festival, initially dubbed ‘Utah/US Film Festival,’ experienced moderate success. As a symbolic ode to American cinema, the first Utah/US Film Fest was a nostalgic tour de force and a retrospective of exclusively American films—including epics like Deliverance, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Drugstore Cowboy.

The prolific Utah-based actor Robert Redford was the festival’s first chairman (and many attest, the driving force in garnering attention for the film festival). The original founder of what would soon become The Sundance Film Festival was Sterling Van Wagenen, the head of Redford’s company, Wildwood. Van Wagenen would go on to direct Redford’s project, The Sundance Institute, which acquired the Utah/US Film Festival in 1985. That’s the year Sundance became Sundance, with Redford at the helm, as the first nonprofit film fest to celebrate American cinema.

It was a major moment in the evolution of film festivals. With the nonprofit standing, and attention to national film, the fest provided filmmakers with invaluable resources–from classes, panels, and conferences–and a supportive community.

Needless to say, it was also a huge bolster to our country’s independent film contributions. At its inception, Sundance was one of the only fests in the world to pay tribute to American films (the other was the lesser-known U.S. Film Festival in Dallas) and it was the premier fest for domestic independent cinema.

Sundance’s gravitas has garnered attention from some of the world’s biggest studios, stars, and filmmakers (and yes, now the fest boasts domestic and international flicks), the festival is an integral part of American film history.

Hiam Abbass, Alia Shawkat, Bill Pullman, Cherien Dabis, Nadine Malouf and Ritu Singh Pande attend the “May In The Summer” premiere during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival (Photo by George Pimentel/Getty Images)

Film Fests and Their Niches

Today, Sundance has established itself as a highly desirable outpost for remarkable independent cinema from all parts of the world, but its roots point to the importance of film fests as a place to foster niche film communities.

At present, there’s a film fest for nearly every predilection. The Austin Film Festival salutes the craft of screenwriting, with panels, workshops, and presentations by award-winning screenwriters. The anarchistic Slamdance Film Festival espouses being the ‘anti-festival,’ in celebrating films often overlooked by other festivals.

The Telluride Film Festival is known for its emphasis on the craft of acting and performance, and The Ann Arbor Film Festival heralds some of the best experimental films around.

The list goes on. There are over 4,000 film festivals in this country alone. There are fests for short films, documentaries, horror films, green films, young adult films—you name it. There are fests that aim to support and celebrate local communities. It is widely believed, for instance, that The Tribeca Film Festival, launched in 2002, aimed to reinvigorate the devastated lower Manhattan in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

So while Sundance comes to a close, and as Cannes and Venice draw near, let’s recall why film festivals are so important in the first place. Forget celebrities, parties, and sold-out screenings; festivals—no matter how renowned, exclusive, or obscure—share the same principles at their core.

This time-honored tradition of the film festival aims to perpetuate the legacy of cinema, bolster the business of movies, and celebrate the craft of filmmaking. And for those of us who live for cinema, there is no worthier cause.

Featured image courtesy of Venice Film Festival: Joaquin Phoenix signs autographs on the red carpet. ©La Biennale di Venezia
]]> 1
A Q&A With Tugg Co-Founder and Terrence Malick Producer & Collaborator, Nicolas Gonda Thu, 24 Jan 2013 15:30:02 +0000 Nicolas Gonda has had the kind of career that can inspire jealousy if it weren’t for the fact that gumption, hard work, and commitment were the elements he brought to bear to make it all happen.

As a student at ... Read More

Nicolas Gonda has had the kind of career that can inspire jealousy if it weren’t for the fact that gumption, hard work, and commitment were the elements he brought to bear to make it all happen.

As a student at NYU, he interned at Focus Features, where he became involved in Academy Award winning films such as The Pianist and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Not a bad introduction to the film industry. 

Then, in 2005, Gonda began working with one of his idols; the brilliant Terrence Malick, and has since become a key member of the prolific director’s inner circle. He’s worked on  The New World and Tree of Lifeand he’s a producer on all three of Malick’s next features; To the Wonder, , Knight of Cups, and the still untitled Malick Project, based on the Austin music scene.

Yet there is more to Gonda than just these credits. He’s also a co-founder of Tugg, a web-platform that enables audiences themselves to choose the films that play in their local theaters, empowering viewers to have an active role in movie distribution.

We spoke to Gonda about how he managed to go from Malick’s driver to his producer, how to give a film crew exactly what it needs, and what Tugg means for the future of film.

THE CREDITS: Let’s start with how you began your film career at Focus Features?

GONDA: It was around 2003, I worked at Focus all throughout NYU. I’d run from class to Focus and back. I was able to be there at a time of incredible energy—they were the leading indie film movement at the time, and it was probably the most inspiring and educational period for me during those formative years, seeing how Focus was able to pragmatically apply a very idealistic vision for film distribution. I really couldn’t have asked for anything more. I started off in publicity, but, by the end, I worked in every department under the Focus roof.

How did you get involved with Terrence Malick and The New World?

While I was at Focus, and being an idealistic college student, I was really putting myself out there. I had known his [Malick’s] agent and good friend, who was nice enough to make an introduction. I started as a driver on The New World, and I was able to seize opportunities and grow from there.

That must have been surreal, to find yourself on a Terrence Malick film.

Malick’s somebody who first awakened in me a love of movies. I first learned of him when I was in middle school and saw Days of Heaven, it was so mind expanding, the emotions it was able to instill, and I’d always been fascinated by him. And as I was looking for role models in my life and he was somebody I admired as a filmmaker, and, also the way he has paved a very unique path for himself.

As your first producing project, what was the experience of working on Tree of Life like? How was it different than your previous experience working with Malick on The New World?

It was really remarkable, as ambitious as that film was, it started with a small group of us, working off the inspiration of the writing Terry was doing at the time, following up on any opportunity to put another brick in place.

On any Terry film there’s always a different feel, and you realize what you’re working on is utterly unique, and will be remembered for generations to come. There’s always that magical feeling of being a part of making one of his films. On Tree, anytime we were driving across the state over night to do a casting call in a remote part of Texas, there was never a moment when any of us questioned how important that work was, or questioned why the vision required such extraordinary preparation. I just felt very fortunate to be a part of something we would tell our grandchildren about.

How does Malick conduct his shooting days? Is there any difference between his process and traditional shooting schedules? And if so, how does it affect the actors and crew?

One of the great things about Terry is the privacy he requests is really to help protect that process, so I always try to help facilitate that as well. From a high level, [his shooting days] are about discovering moments, not creating them, and it’s evident in the final product, and it’s not something you could write or premeditate. What we did (producer Sarah Green and I) was give people enough resources to work at their best, but not too many that they’re weighed down. Production days that are so predetermined offer very little room to pivot and react, so as producers, we try to enable the vehicle to be lean enough so you can maneuver in the moments.

As a producer, how do you organize the shoot in order to meet Malick’s preferences?

Honestly, a lot of a producers job is about humility, in order to facilitate on this level, we are only as good as the crew that is there to support us and we’re all fortunate to have a recurring crew. Our costume designer Jacqueline West, our production designer Jack Fisk, our cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, we keep the same editors, even the same camera assistant, the same steadicam operator. The point is no single person can make this happen, so as a producer it’s about putting the best team together, then Terry’s inspiration carries all of us. Producers are like chemists, putting the right ingredients in place. You will always be greeted by an abundance of surprise; it’s a matter of being able roll with it.

To the Wonder, Starring Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko.

To the Wonder, starring Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko.

Can you tell us what we can expect from the upcoming To The WonderWe’ve read it’s a love story starring Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko, a couple who meets in France and moves to Oklahoma to start their life together.

The film is so nuanced–it’s just a classic love story–but it speaks of love and shows love in a very unique way. As with all Malick films, so much of the meaning is left open for people to apply their own lives and experiences to them, it can be like a mirror, people can see something about themselves, and that’s what I find so remarkable about his films, and To The Wonder is such a wonderful example of that. We’re so often speaking about love and hearing about it, but he’s crafted something distinct. I think no matter what one’s age is, they’ll have a personal reaction to the story in a very special way.

Tell us about the creation of Tugg.

Tugg came about through frustration. Outside of movie theaters over the last several years, we’ve seen a proliferation of optionality for people to find the content they want and experience it when they want, and you juxtapose that with the movie theater and it was such a stark contrast.

So it was a matter of our team, me and my co-founder Pablo Gonzalez, putting our backgrounds together and really studying the inner workings of this problem and why things were happening the way they were. We spent the first year talking and working with theater partners—everyone from AMC, Regal, etcetera—and spent the first part of that time finding ways to seamlessly integrate solutions so that we weren’t asking them to reinvent the wheel. Everybody was waiting for the same thing; theaters are in the business of filling seats, and filmmakers have been so hungry to engage more directly with the audience. The response has been tremendous.

Tugg is a great platform for bringing movie lovers together. Can you talk about the communal element of the platform?

It’s all about the communal experience. A lot of people were theorizing that because of the ease in which people can experience content at home, movie theaters are less relevant, which couldn’t be farther from the truth.

There’s never been a time where people are as connected as they are to share the things they love, and so you look at movie theaters—spaces ready to host these interests—and it’s matter of engaging local people to make sure what’s being played is connecting to these interests. Social connectivity is the most effective form of marketing. BzzAgent revealed that one piece of word of mouth advertising has a greater impact than 200 TV ads. A friend of a friend saying they love something is richer than any marketing campaign could achieve, and with Tugg, an event only occurs if there’s been enough interest through that word of mouth activity.

Featured image provided by Nicolas Gonda.





]]> 0
The Queen of Casting: Meet Emmy Award Winning Casting Director & Baltimore Legend Pat Moran Wed, 23 Jan 2013 15:30:00 +0000 The plight of the casting director is well known to people who follow the industry—they are crucial, they are highly skilled, and they are almost comically overlooked when it comes to having their contributions to filmmaking recognized (the TV ... Read More


The plight of the casting director is well known to people who follow the industry—they are crucial, they are highly skilled, and they are almost comically overlooked when it comes to having their contributions to filmmaking recognized (the TV world is, however, more egalitarian—they are honored at the Emmys). The gap between their worth to the films they work on and the respect they receive has generated pieces from the likes of and The Wrap, who wonder why the work of such critical collaborators, who can help make or break a film before production even begins, is not highlighted at the Golden Globes or the Oscars. Worse still, they suffer the same fate many screenwriters deal with—the notion that anybody could do what they do (hence anyone can give the writer notes, from the intern to the executive, much like anyone could cast Brad Pitt in a film.) Of course, this perception that anybody could cast a film is no closer to the truth than the notion that almost anybody could write one; casting, like writing, takes skill, patience, and practice.

For the perfect example of the utter necessity of the casting director, we are proud to introduce you to Pat Moran. Admit it, you’ve never heard of her (unless you live in Baltimore, or have tremendous recall from previous Emmys, or, are a huge John Waters fan), but after you watch our Meet a Maker interview with her, you’ll never forget her.

Moran is well respected (and much adored) in the industry she works in. She has been nominated for seven Emmys, winning three of them (two in 2012 alone) for her casting work. In 2012 she won for Outstanding Casting for a Miniseries, Movie or Special for HBO’s Game Change, as well as Outstanding Casting for a Comedy Series for HBO’s Veep.

The Casting Society of America puts out their own awards, the Artios, of which she has been nominated five times, winning three. One of those Artios came in 2003, when she won Best Casting for TV/Dramatic Pilot for another HBO juggernaut, the groundbreaking, sprawling Baltimore-set crime series The Wire, created by David Simon. Moran cast many of the roles with unknown Baltimore based African American actors who helped turn The Wire into a gritty, poetic masterclass in storytelling. The Wire became one of the most critically acclaimed shows of its era, hailed by critics along with The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Mad Men and Breaking Bad as proof positive that we were living in a golden age of TV. In a exhaustive, thoughtful, multi-author meditation (and bracket tournament) by New York Magazine, entitled “What’s The Best TV Drama of the Last 25 Years,” The Wire was hailed the greatest of them all, in a head-to-head matchup with The Sopranos in the finale, no lessPat Moran is a big reason why names like Prop Joe, Omar and Marlo became part of the cultural lexicon—she found the actors who made the names mean something.

Since starting out as one of John Waters’ closest confidants and collaborators, Moran’s career has been steeled by her charm, candor and skill, allowing her to work on a variety of material, very rarely working on two similar projects. She’s had a hand in the serious geopolitical epic Syriana and the blockbuster comedy Wedding Crashers, she helped Barry Levinson cast his seminal Homicide: Life on the Street (where David Simon was one of his writers) to working a slew of the aforementioned Waters cult classics like Pink Flamingos, Hairspray and Cry-Baby.

Moran has stellar advice for actors—“The key to acting is in your ears. That’s it. That’s the best advice I can give to any actors. Listen. Don’t anticipate what the other actor is going to say, listen to what he’s going to say. That’s how it works.” She has great advice for aspiring filmmakers—“You want to know how to make movies? Use your own money…you’ll learn.” And she also has a ton of love for her hometown of Baltimore—“If you’re gonna live in America, it’s as good as any place…just watch where you walk.”

Moran was open, honest, hilarious, and brilliant when we spoke with her. No amount of editorializing preamble will do justice to the woman, so we’ll let her do the talking for herself. What’s clear is if we were casting a film about a casting director, the role would be Pat Moran’s.

Pat Moran’s office, with the legend herself behind the desk

Two of Pat Moran’s Emmy’s

]]> 0
A Q&A With one of Iceland’s Premiere Filmmakers, Baltasar Kormákur, Director of The Deep Tue, 22 Jan 2013 15:30:24 +0000 For anyone living in Iceland in the early 1980s, the 1984 shipwreck of the fishing boat Breki that claimed the lives of five men is the stuff of legend—thanks mostly to it’s lone survivor, a man named Gulli, who spent ... Read More

For anyone living in Iceland in the early 1980s, the 1984 shipwreck of the fishing boat Breki that claimed the lives of five men is the stuff of legend—thanks mostly to it’s lone survivor, a man named Gulli, who spent four hours in forty-degree water until he washed ashore near a jagged cliff of volcanic rock, which he proceeded to scale, and then he hiked for two more hours in 27-degree weather until he found safety.

He went onto become a reluctant national hero and scientific curiosity called “Seal Man” by researchers who concluded that it was his excess body fat that kept him alive for so long.

Though ripe for a Hollywood adaptation, Icelandic filmmakers had never attempted to tackle the story. But actor tuned filmmaker Baltasar Kormákur (he directed Mark Wahlberg in Contraband and the upcoming 2 Guns), had been trying to figure out how to best film the tragedy after a chance meeting with Gulli in a bar…25-years ago. Oddly enough, it wasn’t until Iceland’s epic economic collapse in 2008 that inspiration truly took hold, and the result is a surprisingly quiet and intimate movie that was shortlisted for an Oscar nomination in the category of Best Foreign Film.

We spoke to Kormakur about that serendipitous barroom encounter, shooting in the North Atlantic, and what it was like to become a “human swimming dolly” and literally tether himself to his actor to get the shots he wanted.

The Breki sets off for her doomed voyage, courtesy Focus Features

The Credits: You met Gulli in a bar when you were 21. Does the film feel like it’s a work 25 years in the making?

Kormákur: I think it was in some ways, yes. At the time I wasn’t a filmmaker, I was an actor, so I didn’t pursue it. But it was always a story that I wanted to tell. Shipwrecks are legendary national stories for people in Iceland. It’s sort of like wars for America. We’ve lost a lot of people to shipwrecks in our history, and most people connect to losses their families have suffered to the sea. But shipwrecks are very hard stories to tell if you don’t have a survivor or some form of hope.

And Gulli’s survival is certainly astonishing.

That’s why I wanted to tell this story, to deal with this basic foundation of the country, which is sailors and fishermen, and the conditions they lived and worked in through the years. His story is not different than most peoples. That way of life, working and dying at sea, it built up this very modern country that we have today. Then, in 2005, 2006, 2007, we got away from our roots and we lost our way. When we turned into bankers and Wall Street people, it all collapsed and then it was time to reconnect and put everything back together with the past.

When did you start working on the movie in earnest?

I think after 2008. At that point I’d directed four films, and I felt that I couldn’t keep on making movies without some way of addressing what had happened to the country. Not by directly commenting on the economic collapse, but by somehow connecting that story to something else. I didn’t want to make a story about a banker or someone who was part of the actual collapse, because I think it will take years to do that. When you do something too soon it’s easy for it to feel like a movie of the week. I just wanted to make a metaphor about it.

And that’s when you thought back to Gulli’s story?

We always talk about how in the Icelandic language, every word is based on sea and weather. We have a hundred words for snow and a few thousand words for different weather situations, and we always talk about our nation as a ship, and when the economy tanked, it was the shipwreck of our nation. So I thought back to the Breki shiprwreck and how Gulli put things together and moved on with his life after the boat sank. That’s why the last part of the film, the quietest part of the film, where you see him getting on with his life, was so very important. It’s my comment on what we need to do as a nation.

Ólafur Darri Ólafsson as Gulli, the lone survivor of the shipwrecked Brecki, shoeless and freezing after washing up on a rocky shore. Photo courtesy Balthasar Kormákur

Ólafur Darri Ólafsson as Gulli, the lone survivor of the shipwrecked Brecki, shoeless and freezing after washing up on a rocky shore. Photo courtesy Balthasar Kormákur

When did you decide to cast Ólafur Darri Ólafsson to play Gulli? You’d worked with him before, right?

It had been a while since I had worked with him, when we were both stage actors. He wouldn’t have been my ideal choice then, but he’d been growing a lot as an actor, and when I was about to make the film, I thought he was too obvious, because he looks so much like the real guy. I didn’t think I could cast the first guy who came to mind. But he came to me and said, “I really, really wanna do this. And I said, “If you really want to be in the North Atlantic Ocean for a month, the role is yours.” (Laughs)

Instead of shooting in tanks, for authenticity’s sake, you opted to shoot in the North Atlantic waters where the actual crash happened. How much could you plan out in advance?

Well, let me say, I thought I knew more about how to shoot in water than I actually did. I had to figure it out as I went along, because really, how do you shoot someone swimming for such a long time, get all the shots you need, and keep him in a close-up in the middle of the night with the ocean and all these elements swirling around you? I figured out that I had to go into the water with him and literally tie myself to him, holding him in the frame with a rope under the water that was attached to him and to my waist. I was backstroking just to keep him in the frame. So while the camera was static in most of the shots, I became a human swimming dolly.

Wait, you, the director, were personally were tethered to him?

Yes. I think it helped him greatly, knowing he wasn’t alone in the water, knowing that it was something we were doing together. In some ways I always try to do that with my actors—I want to experience everything with them.

The end result makes for a surprisingly quiet disaster movie.

I really wanted the movie to take on the quiet, unassuming personality of Gulli, so the movie had to have his pace, his earnestness, even his naïveté in someway. He’s totally devoid of any drama, this guy. I wanted to stay away from emotional porno—which is something that’s very easy to fall into when you’re talking about so many people losing their loved ones. He lost five friends, kids lost a father, mothers and fathers lost sons, wives lost their husbands and so on. But it’s too much of a given to use all that emotional stuff. I wanted to stick with him and what he was going through, talking to a seagull to get by. That’s why I tried to shoot it as simply as possible. When he’s back at the hospital with his father, there is only one focus pull the entire scene. The last thing I wanted was to put myself, as a director, between the story and the audience.

How much editing did you do as you went along?

Because I was shooting other films right after I wrapped it, I was actually able to edit this on my own time—and as a producer and financial backer, I gave myself a very good amount of time. It was actually quite a luxury to be able to step away and come back and see what we got. It was like a good wine, aging well.

So some days you had no idea what you had until you went back later?

Absolutely.  You just have to keep shooting when you have an actor in a situation like this. Especially in the cliff scenes. We had to shoot everything we could while he was climbing those awful cliffs barefoot, and push him as far as we could, to keep rolling and make a sequence out of it later.

So no reshoots?

No, that really was not possible. But it’s a little bit like playing chess in your mind. You know what you have and then while you’re doing it, you have to figure out what moves are available to you next, constantly planning, yet letting it evolve as you go along. It’s something you’re constantly doing as a filmmaker, and this was just an extreme version of that.

So in the middle of all that chaos, of smashing seas, yourself tied to your actor, you were able to remain calm?

Yes! The last thing I want to do is lose my character to some emotional bullshit! When you’re going for such a restrained performance, the trick is to stay so close to what’s happening in each moment of every sequence and believe that the sum of what your shooting will ultimately come together. Often when you’re starting out as a filmmaker, you feel like you have to shoot the whole of a movie within every scene, that you need to play out an arc in every sequence, but you have to remember that it’s more of a mosaic, that the pieces will ultimately come together to retell the journey.

Featured image: Baltasar Kormákur, courtesy Focus Features

]]> 1
In Honor of Obama’s Inauguration, A Look At U.S. Presidents’ Favorite Films Mon, 21 Jan 2013 15:30:21 +0000 This year, the presidential inauguration will fall on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day for the second time in history. The first time was former President Bill Clinton’s second inauguration on January 20th, 1997, and this time it ... Read More]]> This year, the presidential inauguration will fall on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day for the second time in history. The first time was former President Bill Clinton’s second inauguration on January 20th, 1997, and this time it is President Barack Obama’s second inauguration on January 21st, 2013.

The symbolism is both significant and apparent. In 2007, then-Senator Obama quoted a line from King’s 1967 sermon, stating: “I’m running because of what Dr. King called the fierce urgency of now.” In an article published one week ago by The Washington Post, Clarence B. Jones—MLK Jr.’s former advisor, speechwriter, and friend, as well as visiting professor at Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute—says that as Obama embarks on his second-term, he “needs some of that confrontational thunder” present in Spielberg’s famed 2012 movie, Lincoln, drawing a clear parallel between the cinematic blockbuster and the current President of the United States.

It’s a correlation that joins a longstanding tradition of linking movies and politics.

In his journal for the Chicago Sun Times, film critic Roger Ebert once wrote about the importance of asking presidential candidates such a question. Ebert explained: “Everybody is making lists of the questions the candidates should be asked during the debates. My question would be: What’s your favorite movie? As my faithful readers all know, the answer to that question says a lot about the person answering […] I persist in believing that cinematic taste is as important as taste in literature, music, art, or other things requiring taste (including food and politics).”

According to Ebert, a president’s favorite movie could very well be an unexpected lens zoomed into the motivations, personal endeavors, strengths, and weaknesses of our country’s highest elected officials. Let’s take a closer look:

Former President Bill Clinton has admitted to having seen High Noon about 25 times. A story of dedication, and heroism in the face of adversity, Clinton explained in a 2012 CNN interview with Harvey Weinstein: “Gary Cooper was scared to death, all alone. He did the right thing anyway.” Weinstein replied: “Did you ever feel, when you were the president, that you also were the sheriff – abandoned and … all by your lonesome?” Clinton laughed and said, “Sometimes.” He then explained how people were against “lots of things I did,” citing Mexico, Bosnia, and Kosovo as concrete examples. He continued: “You have to ask yourself, where is it going to come out at the end? When Gary Cooper rolled out of town at the end [of High Noon], they were happy. They were glad to be rid of Frank Miller and his gang.” And then the final, definitive statement: “It’s the same thing,” concluded Clinton.

Nixon’s favorite was Patton, a biographical movie celebrating the General’s tough personality, vulgar speech, and successes as a leader, which sounds somewhat familiar.

Ronald Reagan loved It’s a Wonderful Life, which he frequently screened at Camp David with his wife.

And Gerald Ford? He preferred Home Alone. Not such an odd choice, when considering his precocious and controversial pardon of Nixon in the wake of Watergate. In presenting the “Profile in Courage Award” to Ford in 2001, the late Senator Kennedy said in his statement the following: “I was one of those who spoke out against his action then. But time has a way of clarifying past events, and now we see that President Ford was right. His courage and dedication to our country made it possible for us to begin the process of healing and put the tragedy of Watergate behind us.” Who represents this sense of victory and vindication better than Home Alone’s young hero, Kevin McAllister?

Former President Jimmy Carter screened the most movies in the history of all presidents in the White House Theater. He watched over 450 movies in his single, four-year term. But those who knew Carter best, knew of his passion for movies—he was even denied selection for high school Valedictorian because he played hooky to catch a movie.

The Philadelphia Inquirer once reported that Close Encounters of the Third Kind was Carter’s favorite movie, and lest we forget: the infamous Jimmy Carter UFO incident in 1969. Keeping in mind his firm belief in extraterrestrials and public resolution to reveal such findings, it could be argued that this out-there behavior contributed to the fact that Carter, who was often described as erratic and peculiar in other areas of his presidency, happened to be the first elected president since Hoover in 1932 to lose a re-election bid.

Is it so shocking that the debonair and rumored playboy John F. Kennedy’s favorites were the James Bond films? He also enjoyed Spartacus, a classic story of a rebel who challenges the outdated political ways of Rome, which might have been influential on Kennedy’s mission to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Meanwhile, George W. Bush’s selections are strong examples of movies that potentially reflect both the former President’s personality and the circumstances of his presidency. A noted prankster during his college years at Yale, Bush is a fan of the Austin Powers series. He once even imitated the classic Dr. Evil move by raising his pinky up to his mouth in a gesture caught on camera during an interview with Politico’s Mike Allen. But after 9/11 and towards the end of his presidency, he preferred the much more somber Saving Private Ryan.

President Barack Obama happens to have his own favorite movies. Among them: Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia, and yes, Lincoln. In a 2008 interview with CBS anchor Katie Couric, Obama said: “I’m a movie guy. I can rattle off a bunch of movies. But that Casablanca, you know.” Perhaps the most classic of classic movies, Obama’s love of Casablanca, a story of war, romance, and heroism, is an apt parallel to the president’s plight into his next term, where he’ll face new hurdles with a renewed determination—and a new promise to fulfill.

Today, President Obama will be sworn into office once again with two Bibles – one belonged to MLK Jr., the other to Lincoln. The symbolism there isn’t vague; both are men who have achieved extraordinary and historical acts of political reform, against all odds. Both, too, have been immortalized in major motion pictures.

It’s hardly any wonder, then, why so many of our presidents are avid film fans. Whether it’s Lawrence of Arabia, Casablanca, or Lincoln, movies encourage us to step into the realm of the unreal and transcend the impossible.  Here’s to hoping President Obama’s final term isn’t just one for the books, but also the big screen.

 **Photo courtesy of Disney: LINCOLN – Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day Lewis) walks through the corridors of the White House in this scene from director Steven Spielberg’s drama LINCOLN from Dream Works Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox. Photo Credit: David James. All rights reserved.
]]> 4
A Q&A With Girl Rising Director Richard E. Robbins About the Nine Incredible Young Women in his Groundbreaking Documentary Fri, 18 Jan 2013 15:30:10 +0000 Academy Award nominated director Richard E. Robbins will be screening a portion of his latest project, the crucial documentary Girl Rising, at the Sundance Film Festival on Monday, January 21st. The film focuses on the story of nine girls from ... Read More

Academy Award nominated director Richard E. Robbins will be screening a portion of his latest project, the crucial documentary Girl Rising, at the Sundance Film Festival on Monday, January 21st. The film focuses on the story of nine girls from nine different countries born into unforgiving circumstances, with each girl’s story framed and written by a renowned author from her native country.

The film includes the story of Ruksana, who lives on the streets of Kolkata, India, where her father has sacrificed everything to send his daughters to school. It introduces you to the unforgettable story of Sokha, orphaned and living in a garbage dump in Cambodia, finding her way to a school where she becomes a star student. It breaks your heart with the story of Azmera, a reluctant 13-year old child-bride in Ethiopia, who does something shocking; she says no to an arranged marriage, and finds that her brother is willing to stand up for her and champion her desire to be educated and free.

Their stories, shaped by the writers who got to know them, creates a structure that does not function like your typical documentary. “We hit upon this idea about trying to pair the girls with writers after our first trip into the field, because it became clear the girls would need help to tell their own stories,” Robbins said. “These girls are almost, by definition, voiceless in the world, they don’t have the education and wherewithal and cultural standing in their own communities to feel entitled to tell their stories, or to believe their own individual story is meaningful.”

Robbins and his team found their subjects in India, Peru, Haiti, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Egypt, Sierra Leone, and Nepal.

Robbins was nominated for an Academy Award for his 2007 documentary Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, which viewed the experiences of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan through the lens of their writing. In an effort to get Girl Rising made, he and his team created 10X10, a foundation of partnerships that is committed to providing life-changing services to girls every day. A portion of ticket sales of Girl Rising will go to support girls’ programs around the world through the 10X10 Fund for Girls’ Education.

Girl Rising attracted an A-list cast of narrators; Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Freida Pinto, Liam Neeson, Kerry Washington, Cate Blanchette,  Priyanka Chopra, Salma Hayek, Chloë Mortez, Selena Gomez, and Alicia Keys lend their voices to the cause.  Robbins is using Gathr, which bills itself as ‘theatrical on demand,’ to get his film in front of eager audiences in markets he otherwise would have had a hard time accessing. If you want to see this film in your home town, Gathr can help you make that happen.

We spoke to Robbins about how he went about finding these incredible girls, what it’s like to shoot in these locations across the globe, and how he found more similarities between these young women and his own daughter than he did differences.

Richard E. Robbins

Richard E. Robbins

The Credits: Tell us about how Girl Rising came into being

Robbins: Our little company includes a bunch of us who used to work with Peter Jennings at ABC, and we got hired to research a documentary about ending global poverty. So I was doing the research and I read the data and reports about the power of girls education, and I was pretty surprised at how unequivocal it seemed, and, how little it seemed to have penetrated into any kind of public consciousness. For a filmmaker, that seems like a good combination—something that’s clearly empirically established, not widely known, and unequivocally important. So I got hooked and couldn’t stop thinking about it. And so we spent years raising money and figuring out what kind of film we wanted to make. We took an early trip in 2008 to Kenya where we did an initial bit of shooting and spent some time in the field, and that informed our thinking about how to go about making it. We were at it for about 18 months in research and development before we did our first piece of shooting, and shooting took about a year.

How did you find the girls? 

We went out into the field and worked with our NGO partners on the ground who are interacting with these girls on a daily basis, and we traveled around to each country and interviewed as many girls as we could find, between 50 and 100 girls on any given trip.  The writers actually chose the girls they wrote about. We weren’t shooting anything on these trips; we were just allowing the writers to have time to learn enough about the girls.

The writers are Marie Arana (Peru), Edwidge Danticat (Haiti), Mona Eltahawy (Egypt), Aminatta Forna (Sierre Leone), Zarghuna Kargar (Afghanistan), Maaza Mengiste (Ethiopia), Sooni Taraporevala (India), Manjushree Thapa (Nepal), and Loung Ung (Cambodia).

What were the mediums the writers did their work in? Essay? Short story? Poem?

Well the pieces of writing ran the gamut, from long prose poem to screenplay to essay, and the most creative and challenging part of my job was figuring out how to take those pieces of writing and bring them to the screen. So we adapted each of them in some way, none were really the same, essentially molding them into a shooting script, and went out and shot them. Sometimes we broke it down with a shot list like you would with a piece of a fiction, and other times we shot it more or less like a vérité documentary, with the writers doing voice over.

Can you tell us about some of experiences shooting in these locations?

Shooting in Egypt was incredibly complicated because of the political situation, and shooting in Peru gives you only a four week window to film, as it snows 11 months of the year (although it snowed every other day we were there, too). We weren’t able to shoot in Afghanistan; we did our inital trips there with our writer and our girl, but when it came to filming the piece, we were concerned because this is a fairly controversial issue in Afghanistan, and we didn’t want to put anybody cooperating with us in jeopardy.

India was fantastic for me as a director, and by far our most ambitious shoot because we knew we’d have great production support because there’s such a good film industry there, with a real crew and real gear on call. We shot in the streets of Calcutta with throngs of people and a 100-person crew, and it was fantastic. I had an awesome DP, originally from Mumbai, and he was a great bridge for me for my non-English speaking crew. Our girl, Ruksana, her two sisters and her parents live on the street, they’re called pavement dwellers, and at the very beginning it felt like there was a gulf between my crew and this family. By the end of shoot, everybody had fallen in love with them. Ruksana is such an amazing kid, and such a good actress, her sisters were great, everybody came to love and respect that family, and I think they had an amazing experience

For Yasmin, our Egyptian girl, we shot half in Cairo and half in Anaheim, because of how challenging it was to shoot in Egypt, both Yasmin and our Afghani girl, Amina, couldn’t play themselves, because it would be too dangerous for them to be telling these stories, so we had actresses play them.

Behind the scenes of ‘Girl Rising’, Sokha Chen, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo by Martha Adams

I loved working in Cambodia, it was the first place we went, and Sokha was the first girl we selected, so she has a special palace in my filmmakers heart. And it’s just an unbelievable story, she went from living in city dump to being a star student, and is now on her way to college.

How were you personally affected by getting a glimpse of these girls’ lives?

The revelation for me was how these girls were so determined and capable and seemingly undamaged by all the brutal things they have lived through in their short lives. I had some expectation that you can’t come out of living in a trash heap at 12-years old and become a great student, but that’s exactly what Sokha did.

And many of girls have stories are like that, our Nepali girl, Suma, was sent away to be a domestic sevant at 6-years old, away from her family, and finally she was liberated and went back to school at 12 or 13. Now, she has become an activist to free other girls.

One of the things that we really focused on in the film is not telling a bunch of depressing stories about miserable places. That was really not the film I wanted to make, and I think the film we ended up with is a film about a bunch of inspiring girls. When you focus on the girls themselves, not their circumstances and troubles but on their characters, the story goes from seeming bleak and depressing to full of hope and joy. They’re just amazing kids, they don’t’ feel sorry for themselves, they don’t see their circumstances as horrific, there is none of that sense of pity or tragedy where they see themselves as victims. It’s one of the reasons I ended up wanting to make the film a hybrid of documentary and fiction, because I think traditionally when documentarians travel to the developing world, you end up with a focus on what’s different about her life from what’s familiar to us. What I wanted to focus on is how much these girls are like our girls, how, ultimately, they’re not that different from my own daughter.

Wadley's Story, film still from 'Girl Rising', production shoot, Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Photo by Nicole Whitaker

Wadley’s Story, film still from ‘Girl Rising’, production shoot, Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Photo by Nicole Whitaker

What advice would you offer someone who wants to get into documentary filmmaking? 

One of the things that I always tell people is to just focus on the craft. A lot of people come into documentary filmmaking thinking it’ll just sort of take care of itself, I mean how hard can be, you’re just telling a story, and I think the truth is, most people can make one film that way, if they find a good enough subject, but I think more than one gets much harder.

The second thing is you have to be sort of pathologically persistent. I think people who succeed in documentary filmmaking are people who generally have trouble taking no for answer. All of us who make these films are told repeatedly along the way it’s not going to happen, it’s not possible, it costs too much money, we’re focusing on the wrong thing, we’re told to stop, we’re told there’s no audience for our film—it’s a hundred variations of ‘you’re wasting your time,’ and you have to believe that’s not true.

Featured Image: India production shoot. Ruksana, 10 years old. Behind the scenes, Kolkata, India. Photo by Dyu D’Cunha.

]]> 1