FEATURE: 22 FEBRUARY 2011
Event Summary: Conceptual Collaboration, 22 February 2011, Auckland
How does a filmmaking team establish a collaborative environment where writer, director and producer connect at a conceptual level and work through the filmmaking process together to ensure they’re all making the same film?
Script to Screen Executive Director Esther Cahill-Chiaroni welcomed the audience to the first session of the 2011 Writer’s Room series, introducing a panel of well-seasoned collaborators who spoke with honesty and passion about their collective experiences.
Producer Matt Metcalfe’s latest film Love Birds was due for theatrical release later in the week. Matt began making short films and award-winning music videos before moving into feature film making, collaborating with director Toa Fraser to make the wonderful film Dean Spanley.
Writer director Toa Fraser started his artistic career as a playwright, achieving wide recognition and critical acclaim with his plays Bare and No.2. The latter was successfully adapted for the screen and won the Audience Award at Sundance.
Director Katie Wolfe cut her directing teeth on Shortland Street and was an establishing director on the popular series Go Girls. Two of her short films have screened at Sundance and other international festivals and Katie’s telefeature, Nights in the Gardens of Spain, aired on television recently.
‘In the beginning, there is the team…’ and Esther asked the panel how they went about choosing their collaborators.
“How long is a piece of string?” Matt replied. “It’s gut feel. I am often asked why I chose Toa to direct Dean Spanley and to me it was the most obvious choice in the world. In fact it was painfully obvious why I would ask him to direct. You approach writers and directors because you like their work, the way they take ideas and run with them. The sad truth about being a producer is that you are not the talent. You are the appreciator of artists and talent. I compare it to the All Blacks. I don’t play on the field during the game – I’m more like the coach that sits in the stands, doing my best to see that the team sticks to the agreed plan.”
Liking each other is not always a prerequisite, but it helps. “What really matters is that you respect each other,” said Matt. “Making a film is rather like a lifelong marriage or relationship. You go from a period of wonder, and then you dislike each other, end up liking each other again and finally grow to appreciate each other. As long as there is respect you will make it through the journey.”
Toa said he had always aspired to make feature films. The success of No. 2 gave him the opportunity to realise his dream but the road to that point had not always been easy. Toa’s first play Bare enjoyed considerable acclaim in the late 1990s. He had just finished university and was working as an usher at the local movies. An Auckland production company wanted to buy the rights to Bare and Toa signed the deal, using the money he received to buy a stereo. “I still have the stereo.”There is no doubt that the humble stereo offered a reminder to Toa to keep the rights to his play No. 2 in his grasp.
No. 2 tells a story close to Toa’s heart, that of a Fijian family living in Auckland’s Mt Roskill. He wanted to take full responsibility for that vision. “I had to make sure that I found good directors and producers to work with. That is the most crucial element of filmmaking. You have to surround yourself with good people.”
Toa met a number of producers who loved No. 2. He was young and susceptible to the offers they were making. “They saw me as a writer and wanted to buy the rights to the film but they didn’t have the vision. At first I was too shy to say I wanted to direct it myself but after talking to so many people I said I would.”
Katie came to the discussion from the director’s perspective. When asked how she creates her teams, she said her collaborators are often colleagues she has worked with before – and female! “I enjoy working with women and have a pattern of choosing all female teams. Film making can destroy friendships so when I work with people I know well, I approach projects carefully because I don’t want to damage those relationships. Film making is an arduous process so I am careful who I work with. You don’t have to be friends with your collaborators but they do need to be people you can talk to very clearly and openly.”
Recent statistics from the US Writers’ Guild West indicate that only one out of every 10,000 scripts makes it through to a feature film. Matt said that while NZ cannot boast such high numbers the proportions are similar and he said there has to be an idea or something in the script that inspires him to make the film. “I’ve made four feature films. Two were entirely producer-driven where I commissioned a writer to write the script and the other two were scripts brought to me at an early stage. What I bring to the project is the drive and a plan to get the film made. If I am to commit money, my heart and soul to getting it made, I need to know I have a plan to make that happen.”
A writer usually prepares documents needed for funding approaches but a director will often help. Toa said it was a job he disliked but one that taught him a valuable lesson. “It’s a lesson in learning that the process can be the reward, not the end result.”
Katie said she found the director’s treatments difficult. “I had to do two for This is Her because I was an unproven director. It was like sticking pins in my eyes.” Coming to the funding process as a director, Katie said she has developed a cinematic language strong on images and this is reflected in the treatments she writes.
When it comes to sourcing funds for films, Matt said the domestic environment differs markedly from the international situation. “In New Zealand, we write applications to the NZ Film Commission and NZ On Air. They are the holders of public money so there is a strict and defined process that must be undertaken by all concerned. Offshore, that type of application process means nothing. Toa wrote wonderful documents for domestic use but when we were dealing with Paramount and other overseas financiers for Dean Spanley, not one image or piece of paper was shown beyond our shores. Out there, everything rests on the script, conversations and meetings. Things are sold on the spot.”
Toa added that offshore, movies are made on the power of the personalities involved, not on the basis of documents. “It’s based on the initial encounters you have with people around the world. You have to get good clothes and stuff.”
A career highlight for both Toa and Matt was the collaboration on Dean Spanley with writer Alan Sharp and the immense acting talent of Peter O’Toole. Toa felt he had been given a unique privilege when asked to direct the film. “It was a real example of me being thankful that two people who are very good at what they do (Matt and Alan) asked me to come on board.”
A clip was shown from Dean Spanley and a most obvious question was asked after the viewing: how was it working with Peter O’Toole?
“It is difficult to answer,” said Toa. “It was a privilege and it was humbling. Matt and I met at a cocktail function in 2006 to meet the director of the James Bond film Casino Royale. I was burned out from travelling and attending parties and could hardly get a glass of champagne to my mouth but Matt saw that and still had the confidence in me to direct this film. Both No. 2 and Dean Spanley are about heads of families, matriarchs and patriarchs, who are bored and have a deep problem they need to resolve. It is a classic archetypal story we see recurring in myth: a bored King and Queen who have to confront or acknowledge their unconscious voice. Both films happened at a time in my life when I wanted to turn and confront a shadow that was speaking within me. Peter O’Toole has always been one of my heroes. It was a life affirming thing for me to work with him – not to drink together! – and to earn each other’s respect.”
Maintaining good relationships under pressure is an art in itself. “Once you pull the trigger on the camera,” said Matt, “the referee’s whistle is blowing and the team is on the field. You just have to let them get on with it. If you’re doing your job well as a producer, that’s when you start to let go, hand over the baton in the relay. By the time we reached principal photography I couldn’t do any more except believe in the decisions I had made, get behind them and give all of my energy to the person I was handing over to.”
And how does the writer fit into the game at this stage? “When a film is going into production we don’t see much of the writer,” said Katie. “We’ve already had all the discussions with the writer during the lead up to the shoot. In production, the director is working with other creatives – DOP, designers, actors. That push through to kicking off the shoot is a very pragmatic time. Once the shoot is under way, the writer enters the picture again. Shooting can be a chaotic time but when you see the rushes, you’re able to see the beast, the animal that you’re making.”
The audience enjoyed a clip from Katie’s film Redemption and Katie offered some background to the making of the film. “The film is based on a short story by Phil Kawana. Adaptation can be one of the most nerve-wracking things. Phil made me articulate very clearly why I wanted to make his story into a short film. Redemption is an experimental piece. It was funded through a raffle I won at Sundance so no public money was used. Tim Balme wrote the first drafts and Renae Maihi and I wrote the second. When I read the short story, the beauty of the love between Zig and Jaffa, I wanted to experiment with taking the visceral nature of the story into film. The filming style is out of focus and I tried to create a 3D effect onscreen with lighting. I wanted to experiment with Redemption but doubt I’d ever be able to do that again. The short story writer was pleased with the result and felt we had taken his story further so it was a risk that paid off but not a pattern I would replicate. In this industry you have a lot of responsibility towards the writer and the script and of course to the money you are using to make the film.”
Esther opened the floor for questions and the first asked about the all-important funding for Dean Spanley – how did it all work out in the end?
“The King’s Speech was funded in an almost identical way to Dean Spanley,” said Matt. “I think they stole our financing model! To finance a film you have to understand how money comes together. You also need to understand the currency of film, the weight and value of individual elements and participants, essential knowledge if you want a career in film. Dean Spanley was not developed with a funding model in mind but I knew I wanted it to be a UK/NZ co-production. It was an English story but I wanted New Zealanders to make it, so we worked from there.”
When asked how he came across the material for Dean Spanley, Matt said it all began over lunch one day on Kawau Island. “I was given a very short script written by Alan Sharp, based on the book by Lord Dunsany. Alan had written it just because he wanted to. I’d only made two short films at the time and didn’t do anything with the script because I just didn’t have the skills. Go forward eight years … in the middle of the night, I sat up and thought ‘I want to make that script into a film!’ tore the house apart, couldn’t find it, finally tracked it down and was disappointed. It was only 40 pages long. I contacted Alan and so began a multi-year process of trying to convince him it should be a feature film. He kept saying, ‘it’ll never work.’ I kept asking him to do a little bit more over the years and he did and progressively, that’s how it came about. There was another lunch on Kawau Island which led to Peter O’Toole.”
Toa was asked how he felt about the ownership of No. 2 coming to him from ‘day one’ compared to Dean Spanley where he came in later as director.
“The process of writing drafts and drafts of screenplays is solitary and takes many years and can be as boring as hell but I’ve re-kindled my passion for it. I’ve made peace with the process and for the last two-and-a-half years I’ve been working on a screenplay. The question of ownership goes back to the ‘how do you put people together?’ issue. You must respect each other. When Matt came to me with the idea, the thought of working with him and Alan was inspiring and it was a matter of me giving something to the process. There is so much anxiety over the final cut and ownership. The voice of each individual is in the story because film is such a collaborative medium. For a film to succeed there must be a single authoritarian voice but that voice is made up by heaps of people. I stand in the middle of a group of people with an incredible range of skills – and every skill on earth comes together to make this piece of magic. At every stage of the game, one person must have a clear idea of what the film is about.”
Matt’s latest film Love Birds has a trailer that sounds distinctly American – was this intentional?
“Every story needs to be centred somewhere and Love Birds is centred in Auckland. The fact that it takes on an international feel is purely a reflection of its marketing through Icon, a major international company. The trailer was made for international purposes and is being used in many countries worldwide. Love Birds has been sold in 30 countries and counting: Australia, the UK, Germany and South America to name a few.”
The stresses of making a film are enormous and the panel was asked to describe some ways they recharge batteries and let off steam during the film making process.
Toa said effective development is all about keeping the energy and momentum going, ensuring each person supports the other. “At development time, it’s all air and imagination; there is nothing concrete so it’s important to keep the momentum going.” Katie said sometimes it’s an organic process. “With the feature I’m developing now, I was struggling with the script last year so we all organically just stepped away from it. We instinctively knew that was the right thing to do. I was left alone for a while and when I’d figured it out, I got back in touch. There were no such luxuries with Nights in the Gardens of Spain. There were times when we needed to re-charge but there wasn’t time. We had to keep pushing through. I have to say that seeing a really great movie can put a spring in your step again.”
Successful collaborative relationships hinge on a fine balance between careful planning and consultation measuring up against old fashioned intuition and gut instinct, tested by multiple drafts, the incredibly hard process of film making and the vagaries of time.
But the common denominators are respect, honesty, heart and total commitment to the vision.
“Writing is really hard,” said Matt. “Every movie I’ve ever made didn’t really get going until draft eight or nine. Alan wrote 13 or 14 drafts for Dean Spanley so let me say this to all the writers out there. It is very hard but take heart. Every draft you write is one step closer to a film being made so don’t give up. It’s all part of the process.”
Written by Jane Bissell for Script to Screen