Blue Cyrus Media presents…

12 01 2011

Charlotte and I recently registered our new partnership – Blue Cyrus Media – and we’re going through all the honeymoon tumult that you can expect with a startup. Our chosen passions are an interesting mix: Charlotte loves documenting horses and orphans in hot sunny climes (see the trailer in previous post)

and while I’m totally into it, I’m always running back to snowbound northeastern BC to capture the life and tribulations of a trapper who “manages animal populations” (ie kills them when necessary).

We’re an interesting duo to say the least. But the dynamics of a partnership aren’t what I want to explore here.

Starting out a career as a documentary filmmaker sounds great… but HOW exactly do you get there?

For answers, I look to my friend and mentor Magnus Isacsson, whose brain I get to pick on a regular basis. He got his start after producing radio (8 years) and television (6 years) for Radio-Canada and CBC in both French and English – can you imagine? – before he decided to strike out on his own as a filmmaker. Four years after he left public broadcasting he released his first film Uranium (1990), available on the National Film Board’s website (where you can access most, if not all, of the films they’ve ever produced online.) His most recent film Les Super Mémés premiered on the closing night of the Festival de Films sur les Droits de la Personne de Montréal.

And Barry Lazar, the man who actually got me into this medium of telling stories with his class on documentary filmmaking. Barry has also been the route of the working professional – for CBC, on various productions for other broadcasters, and even as a writer for the Montreal Gazette. His latest film won many accolades at last year’s Hot Docs – the fantastic The Socalled Movie – and is now touring the world and out on DVD.

It was almost exactly a year ago that I was sitting in Barry’s class at Concordia University, digesting the fact that I had found a career that would fulfill my passion for telling real-life stories in a format I can live with.

Outside Concordia University Jan 2010: A shopping cart that hasn't yet found its passion.

A year! It sounds like a long time… and it is if you’re measuring your progress by how much others seemingly can accomplish in a year. When I compare myself to these two and other filmmakers, I’m overwhelmed by how far I have to go. I’m tempted to make excuses: “But they’re more experienced than I.” “They already have networks.” “They know what the heck a production schedule looks like!” I think I can excuse their success and momentum of filmmaking by saying they’ve been “in the industry” and they “know people.” But does that really make a difference?

In today’s media-saturated world, in order to get someone to pay attention to your idea, and even more crucially to trust you with funding, you need more than a CV that includes university, stints on other people’s shoots and even a host of films to your name. You need connections.

One filmmaker I’m in touch with who has grasped that idea intuitively is Claudia Pelz, a producer who lives and works in Italy. After 14 years producing for television and doing a few documentaries of her own, she has seen the television market change drastically in the last two years. Most European broadcasters are no longer as interested in funding “one-offs”. They are looking for series and to fill slots in “theme days” with several documentaries at a time.

Claudia says she is keen to network with other producers and directors around the world because “networking is a possibility to serve the market requests… and will help small production companies and film makers with only one or two films about one topic.”

While her advice is crucial for the age we’re living in, some advice remains timeless. Magnus wrote an excellent document with just that: “Letter to a Young Filmmaker” (bottom of the page on left – click to download). I’d like to quote everything but here are a few choice tidbits:

  • It’s gonna be tough: “The most important… is to have something to say, or a story to tell, and a real urge to do it. Because this is not an area of work you’re going to enjoy if you’re not strongly motivated: the conditions are too difficult, and the competition for limited resources too stiff. If you feel like working in the field but you don’t have that drive for getting your own story or your own vision across, you might be better off working as a cinematographer, a sound recordist or an editor. These are all important and very creative jobs, all very challenging and indispensable to good filmmaking.”
  • But if you are determined to go ahead… first get your own experience: “Getting experience doesn’t necessarily mean directing your own film right away. It means doing things, hands on, which will help hone your skills and test your instincts. It could be writing for the student newspaper or doing stories for the community radio, making an activist video or even just a home movie.”
  • Five essential ingredients: “a good story”, “important issues”, “a point of view”, “good characters” and “emotion and drama”.
  • MOMENTUM: “to find all the resources needed to make the film… you need to create a momentum. You need to give your subjects, and the people who will give you the resources the feeling that your film has to be made, and that it will be made, because you are determined to make it. You need to make people feel that while, of course, you’re still a nice person (at least most of the time), respectful of others, saying no to you is not really an option. To quote Luc Jacquet, the director of March of the Penguins (the biggest grossing documentary ever in North America) “Even if you have no money, if you give energy to a film, it will eventually seduce a financial partner.”
  • Talk to the end-users at the start: “The smarter you can be about designing your film so that it will work for your intended audience, the more successful film you will end up with.”

See Magnus’ blog this week for some excellent suggestions on docs to watch about the reconstruction effort in Haiti.

International Support

From the series 'Inside Disaster'. Photo by Nicolas Jolliet. http://insidedisaster.com/haiti/

 

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