Archive for March, 2009

Yesterday I attended the first public showing of a doco I’ve been working on for the last five years, editing and producing. It’s the story of a play about NZ poet James K Baxter, and the group of people who defied the odds to take the play around New Zealand and to the Edinburgh festival.

The doco weaves together the failed dreams of Baxter to establish a community, and his haunting presence with the cast and crew while they, 30 years after his death, sought to bring his message back to life. The making of the documentary had been beset with various difficulties, not the least of which being a certain cameraman who managed to record over the irreplaceable tapes of the journey.
Nevertheless, yesterday was the launch of the 60 min film, and it was an outrageous success. I was prepared for many reactions, but not the enthusiastic endorsement of it which came from audience members.
I found it very affirming. Especially seeing I was cringing throughout the screening, aware of all the glitches and shortcomings. It renewed my belief that story is king – that if there is a narrative heart to a film, the audience will be very forgiving.
The title, Next Year In Jerusalem, is a play on words. Baxter’s community was in the small New Zealand town of Jerusalem. But the phrase is also a refrain from those caught up in the Jewish diaspora, and represents their profound and enduring dream. The doco examines the role that people’s dreams have on their lives, if in a somewhat tangental way.
The filming of The Insatiable Moon is a seven year dream. At many times it has seemed an impossible dream. Yesterday’s screening has helped me to maintain the hope that the cameras will roll this year.

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City of My Youth

Ahh, Dunedin… it’s not the city of my youth actually, but that’s a James K Baxter poem and I couldn’t resist the title. I love Dunedin. It’s a city of only 120,000 people, and yet there’s so much going on in the creative sector – more so than in much bigger cities.

Last night was at the opening of the DocNZ festival in Dunedin. Great night out. But alongside that, the Dunedin Festival of Film & Television Craft begins today, and the Fringe Festival also kicks off. So everyone with a vaguely creative bone in their body is racing around in circles… I’m down here to do a premiere of a doco which has been 5 years in the making. It’s a real Dunedin story and no better place to launch it.
Off to a seminar this morning run by NZFC about making short films as a pathway to features. This is a time-honoured pathway, but I wonder how often it is followed? There’s a huge step up from shorts to features – almost might as well be a different sphere altogether. While shorts hone skills, it’s a big ditch to jump to get into the world of features.
Meanwhile, out into the streets of Dunners…

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Yesterday I did one of those very difficult tasks – trawling my networks for potential investors. Like most people, I hate mixing friendship with money. But where else to start raising NZ$500k for this end of our equity investment?

Fortunately I had some very positive responses. I tried to phrase the covering email as gently and graciously as possible, and was surprised at some of the enthusiastic replies I had within hours of sending it out. Time will tell if these bear fruit in terms of investment.
I had one over-scrupulous lawyer who implied I might be in breach of securities commission regulations. Yada yada… Fortunately we have NZ’s leading film attorney representing us, so no concerns there.
Being a producer is about making decisions – many of them difficult. It’s also, as one of my friends says, about not looking down! Anyone who has seen Man On Wire will appreciate this sage advice.
A mad scramble today trying to get a final copy of a doco I produced ready to screen in Dunedin this weekend. My friend and sound man missed the courier last night, and so his son is driving the soundtrack down from Auckland!
Ah the life of making films…

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More on Adaptation

Been away in Nelson for a few days – back into it today.

Let’s talk about adaptation. The funniest and most insightful commentary on this is the Kaufman’s film Adaptation, about the process of writing a screenplay based on the book The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean.
Early in the script, Kaufman (a character in the film) says about transforming the book:
“I just don’t want to ruin it by making it a Hollywood thing. You know? Like an orchid heist movie or something, or, y’know, changing the orchids into poppies and turning it into a movie about drug running, you know? … I don’t want to cram in sex or guns or car chases. You know? Or characters learning profound life lessons. Or growing, or coming to like each other, or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end. You know? I mean, the book isn’t like that, and life isn’t like that. It just isn’t.”
Which is pretty much a description of exactly how the movie ends up.
When it came time to adapt my own novel, two things were necessary. The first was enough distance from it to be able to look at it as a story without feeling overly protective toward it. The second was the willingness to travel in new directions with characters and subplots. Fiction can meander, and the reader enjoy the distractions. In a film people will begin to drop off the narrative, and suddenly you’ve lost your audience.
And the hardest thing to get used to is an army of people reading your work in draft stage, each with their own bright ideas as to how it could be improved. Some of these insights, or ‘notes’, can be helpful and make for a stronger story. Some are so dumb that you just need to keep your lips pursed and think of England.
In the end, the screenwriter must live or die by their own sense of what the story is, who the characters are, and how the whole thing holds together. No one else in the team can take that responsibility, not even the director. A film is nothing if not an original insight into the human condition.
The trick is to recognise you’re performing a heart transplant, and not just doing a precis of a book. Writers, like heart surgeons, struggle with the issue of rejection…

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Script Lock

Yesterday I sent out the scene numbered and locked script for preparing budgets and schedules. There’s still a bit of work going on between director Gillies and me, which will involve a few tweaks further down the track. But this is a major step along the way.

In discussions with the NZ Film Commission about the possibilities of an application for production funding at their June meeting. A great deal of documentation has to be collated before we can get to that point. Deadline is mid-May, just before I head over to the UK to consult with our partners over there.
Some discussions taking place with potential distributors – interesting how the resolve to make the movie seems to attract interest.
I’m enjoying the broad mix of production tasks, though at times I forget which hat I’m wearing. But I’m a firm believer in writers learning production skills and being aware of all aspects of the filmmaking process. It helps to soften the feelings of lack of control…

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The most difficult part of getting a feature film up is of course raising the finance. Making a movie is, unfortunately, a very expensive business. Currently the market is as tight as the proverbial, with some of the studios having taken big hits, and distributors about as risk-averse as it’s possible to get.

One of the concerns in such climates is that people retreat to what they imagine to be ‘safe’ – genre movies following tried and tested patterns. Bread and circuses to distract the masses from the difficulty of their lives. What suffers in such circumstance are the truly original and creative projects, which by their nature take audiences down unexplored paths.
The Insatiable Moon is one of those films. We’ve had to be extremely creative about our finance plans in order to get it moving. One of the necessary steps was to pare the budget to the bone. Another is to trawl our contacts for equity investors. We’re looking for people who are willing to take the risk of investing in something which has no guarantees, but is one of those instances when money works for the good of life.
Perhaps the current ‘recession’ is a useful reminder that life is not completely summed up in financial terms. Certainly that’s something which Arthur, hero of The Insatiable Moon, would want to get across…

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A great time up in Auckland over the last few days, making steady progress. I met with several people, and managed to secure another major location in Ponsonby.

Also a good friend of mine, Mark Pierson, brokered an introduction to an extremely helpful and inspirational Ponsonby businessman, who was full of enthusiasm for the project. As a result, we have secured a production office and shoot base, been offered links with the local business community, and introductions to potential investors.
If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a city to make a film! So much of the process relies on relationships and networks, with everyone bringing their own energy to the project and working together to realise a dream.

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