Category Archives: Film

Film news with a particular orientation towards Australia.

Go West: Seph McKenna on his vision for Screenwest

Formerly the head of Australian production at Roadshow Films, Seph McKenna left
the east coast to take on the role of Screenwest CEO in January, succeeding Ian
Booth.

But the former exec says he’s no stranger to Western Australia. Roadshow has been
involved with many recent films that were shot in the state, including Bran Nue Dae,
Red Dog, Paper Planes and Red Dog: True Blue. It acquired Simon
Baker’sBreath and will distribute upcoming See Pictures film Go Karts, shooting
in Busselton.

McKenna particularly credits regional film festival CinefestOz for luring east coast
distributors and producers like himself into the west’s regions over the past seven or
eight years.

“It woke all of us up in the east to the potential of the west,” he says.
Western Australia has grown as a production destination over the last decade. Ten
years ago it was averaging about one feature-length film a year. In 2015-16,
Screenwest supported a record seven feature-length films to shoot in WA, and in
2016-17, the production of four and the post of two others.

McKenna says that while he was at Roadshow they found their biggest films, in terms
of indie Aussie fare at least, came out of WA.

“Red Dog was the standard bearer there – until Lion came along it was the highest
performing independent Australian film of the last 20 years.

“What we found was because Western Australia is a big outdoor canvas for our
filmmakers, all of Australia really embraces the film. It feels like they are big, epic
Australian films of scale on the big screen, because you have these phenomenal
landscapes. You don’t run into any rivalries between Sydney and Melbourne.

“Films that are made here are just intrinsically Australian, and we found we could
sell that to audiences successfully.”

Vision and new opportunities

Given its varied and spectacular landscapes, WA is a natural home for the outdoor
film, says McKenna.

“If you’re looking for a big canvas to paint on, you can’t lose in WA. And we have
both experienced crews now and post facilities to do everything here.

“I think there used to be this presumption – I used to have it years ago at Roadshow
– that you could do some things in WA, but you couldn’t do everything here. Now
you can do everything here.”

McKenna praises his predecessor Booth, and Screenwest head of development and
production Rikki Lea Bestall, for the uptick in production activity and the growth of
infrastructure in WA.

“Including – and they so often don’t get the acknowledgement because you don’t get
the big splashy roll outs – our documentary producers who are the vanguard of
selling to international.

“Our documentary companies are the bedrock of the Western Australian screen
sector. In the feature land we can learn from what they’re doing because they’re
having such success.”

In his new role, McKenna is keen to capitalise on that level of production nous and
capacity that now exists in WA.

He says his time at Roadshow has left him with a sense of what works in the market,
what doesn’t and why. It’s a skill he believes will be important at Screenwest now
that it has transitioned from a government agency into an independent non-profit
organisation.

“I do think there is a sense of cautious optimism about what the new Screenwest
structure can bring, and it really is on me to deliver.”

Under the new non-profit structure, Screenwest continues to receive funding via the
WA government and Lotterywest. However, McKenna envisions the agency will now
have the flexibility and opportunity to ramp up its production attraction by building
partnerships with organisations in a way that may have previously been in conflict
with government policy or restrictions. This includes market and fundraising
partnerships.

“When I say fundraising, I mean going out and trying to raise funds around either
specific films, helping producers go out and do that, or finding pots of money that
can come in and partner with us in a general slate way – something you absolutely
couldn’t do in government.”

McKenna argues these partnerships will help Screenwest to find potential flagship
projects to “sell the state on” that will play both in Australia and find a home
internationally.

Small screen

While the west has seen a strong upswing in feature production, there isn’t much TV
drama being produced in the state at present – with some notable exceptions like the
ABC’s Mystery Road.

For McKenna, drumming up more is a key focus. In particular, he’s keen to see a fan-
driven drama in the vein of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries that would attract fans to WA to visit the show’s locations – just as they might visit Hobbiton in New Zealand or Highclere Castle in the UK, where Downton Abbey is shot.

“I would not only love to see that, I’m actively looking for a production or
productions that could fall into that category.

“And I think we’re probably more likely to find a television series of scale than we are
to find a movie of scale. But of course we’ll take either, or both.

“But for crews and consistency of work, nothing beats television. Series television is
becoming more and more difficult Australia wide to find, produce and fund. Our
most natural partners in that are the ABC and SBS, and we are working closely with
them.”

Just as CinefestOz was successful in luring east coast feature film execs to the WA
around seven or eight years ago, McKenna says there is more work to do to bring
those working in TV in the east over to the west to show them what’s possible.

“I think once they get familiar with the opportunities, the place and the locations,
they’ll start to see that. So it’s about getting our east coast TV people comfortable
with the idea that you can shoot in the west and that’s okay.

“And we have WAAPA, and WAAPA brought us Hugh Jackman. I think we have the
best acting school in the country here – don’t tell NIDA. But it’s certainly producing
strong students who go off to do amazing things. There’s a wellspring of talent here
and they’re happy to stay here if they can shoot here.”

Challenges and promise

Lotterywest, which runs the lottery in WA, supports both Screenwest and the Perth
International Arts Festival, as well as other cultural activities in the state.

However, The Australian reported in late January that lottery driven revenue was
declining in Western Australia by almost $300 million per year and that $16.5m out
of $25m multi-year grants issued by the state arts department were due to be funded
with revenue from Lotterywest, but a nearly $2m gap opened up between what it was
able to be eventually delivered.

“Younger people aren’t buying lottery tickets at newsagents, they are either not
gambling or they’re gambling online; it’s just a declining source of revenue,” says
McKenna.

“Lotterywest funding is really what has supported the organisation’s funding into
production for quite some time. So that’s a concern to everybody, and everybody’s
well aware.”

However, McKenna says the Western Australian Regional Fund – “purpose-built to
bring work into the nine different regions of WA” – is healthy and been “quite a tool”
for Screenwest.

Established in 2016, the $16 million Western Australian Regional Fund is designed
to support high quality international and Australia feature films, high-end television
series and documentaries to shoot in regional WA. It’s already helped to attract Ben
Elton’s Three Summers, Mystery Road and the upcoming Go Karts to the state.

“Everyone is pretty excited by that because it absolutely has been successful in
bringing in productions,” says McKenna.

The fund does have defined rules – you have to show economic and cultural benefit
to the region, and it has a minimum 2:1 spend – so McKenna says it can knock out
productions that are sniffing out extra funding from any old place.

However, he says for the productions that are aligned to a region, it can be a terrific
fit that can overcome the higher costs that can be associated with shooting in the
west if people need to be flown over. “That’s major for us.”

As for what is working else to attract productions, McKenna says: “We’ve got money,
we’ve got weather and we’ve got locations. That’s the west sell.”

The challenge for interstate or overseas producers shooting in WA will always be the
tyranny of distance, but McKenna counters: “It’s just being away from home, which
is something all producers face as they run around the world for places to shoot.

“The good news for Australian producers that need otherworldly landscapes is you
can find it here in Australia. You don’t have to go abroad; it’s here.”

18 May, 2018 by Jackie Keast INSIDEFILM

How Canada Became a Springboard for Female Directors

Perhaps Australia could learn from the Canadians about how to nurture the careers of our female directors.

This article by Etan Viessing of THR explains the Canadian success. Of note is their support for micro-budget features that have a chance to break through into the film festival circuit.

See below:

How Canada Became a Springboard for Female Directors: Multiple government initiatives are pushing for gender parity in the film business by 2020.
2/12/2018 by Etan Vlessing THR

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau proudly displayed his progressive bona fides three years ago when he announced that his 30-member Cabinet would be the country’s first to represent men and women equally, 50- 50. When asked by a journalist why, he made global headlines with his blunt reply: “Because it’s 2015.”

Roughly a year later — and well before the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements — Telefilm Canada, the powerful, well-funded film financing arm of the Canadian government, followed Trudeau’s lead and unveiled its own ambitious drive to achieve gender parity in the film sector by 2020. The goal was clear: The agency would choose which films to finance based on whether projects were directed by, or revolved around, women (among other criteria).

The initiative already is having an effect: A 2017 Telefilm study shows a 27 percent increase in agency-backed projects directed by women since 2015. And it’s not just Telefilm: The National Film Board of Canada, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and the Canada Media Fund also have unveiled plans to achieve gender parity by 2020.

But with its deep pockets — the agency invests around $100 million annually in homegrown filmmaking — Telefilm is leading the way.

“There are systemic barriers to funding,” says Federal Heritage Minister Melanie Joly, a close ally of Trudeau. “We believe that we should, as a feminist government, have a clear commitment to overcome these barriers.”

The practical initiatives from Telefilm include its Talent to Watch program, formerly the Micro-Budget Production Program. Telefilm renamed and revamped the 5-year-old micro-budget program in November with a mandate to back 50 first-time and, where possible, female-led features annually, with investments capped at $120,000 for each movie.

That in turn led organizers to consider how they could help maintain a young filmmaker’s momentum in the industry after completion of that all-important first project. So, also in late 2017, Telefilm unveiled its Fast Track program, which assures $500,000 in second-feature financing for filmmakers producing internationally recognized first features.

To promote female voices and visions, Telefilm, when considering funding for projects of equal value — determined by such factors as the script, talent attached and the production team — between a male or female applicant, is favoring projects directed and/or written by women. “We want to create a path to success,” says Telefilm executive director Carolle Brabant. “We want to reward the success of the first features by having emerging directors make their second film.”

Take Werewolf, writer-director Ashley McKenzie’s debut feature about youth and drug addiction in a small Nova Scotia mining town. The indie received microbudget financing from Telefilm and became a critical hit on the film festival circuit after bowing at Toronto and screening at Berlin.

Now McKenzie is eyeing possible Fast Track financing as she develops her second feature. “There’s a gap for filmmakers to take the next step after their first feature,” she says, adding that Telefilm has helped to shorten the time she and her producer Nelson MacDonald need to secure financing for their sophomore effort.

Brabant says Canada’s push for gender parity has helped alter long-standing perceptions in an industry where female filmmakers have become accustomed to discouraging barriers to the industry. “It has made women realize, ‘Well, it can happen,’ ” she says. “It’s comforting to know you can get your foot in the door,” adds Sonia Boileau, who leveraged Telefilm investment for her debut feature,Le Dep, to develop her second film, Rustic Oracle, about an 8-year-old Mohawk girl searching for a missing sister.

The push for gender parity has implications beyond Canada. Jordan Canning, who directed more than a dozen short films before completing her first and second features, We Were Wolves and Suck It Up, respectively, says Telefilm’s Talent to Watch and Fast Track programs can help open doors in the U.S. and other foreign markets.

“Once you have two features, you’re hopefully at a level where you can access funding in different countries and team up with international co-producers,” she says.

With the various gender-parity initiatives gaining steam, insiders say the lure of financing is also leading filmmakers to rethink projects from the conception point.

“In the general community at large, people are just hungry to attach women to projects and slates, because it’s smart from a tactical viewpoint. I’d do the same,” says Molly McGlynn, whose debut feature, Mary Goes Round, was produced through Telefilm’s Talent to Watch program.

Toronto-based director Michelle Latimer says the initiatives help female filmmakers avoid “going up against the old guard.” After the success of her documentary short film Nucca, which screened at Sundance and Toronto, Latimer nabbed a yearlong filmmaking fellowship with Laura Poitras’ (Citizenfour) documentary unit Field of Vision.

“[Telefilm] is democratizing the way we secure film financing, and it’s particularly good for younger filmmakers who can’t go the regular financing route,” Latimer says.

The Canadian film sector is also focusing on hiring more women in key positions throughout the industry. Jane Tattersall, senior vp at Sim Post Toronto, who supervised the sound editing on Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, says she’s hiring more women as mixers and editors in a traditionally male-dominated business.

“I’m not being idealistic or doing favors,” she says. “It’s much more selfish — the workplace is more interesting and more normal when you have a mix of women and men.”

Marjolaine Tremblay, VFX producer and supervisor at Rodeo FX, insists that the Canadian industry needs to allow women to move from management and backroom jobs to active creative roles, including overcoming technical VFX challenges. “I have a great employer now that believes in all of my skill sets and supports me all the way,” says Tremblay.

Another point of emphasis for Minister Joly is creating a healthy environment in the Time’s Up era. To that end, she says the Canadian industry now has a zero-tolerance policy for workplace harassment.

“The #MeToo movement for us is clearly a fundamental change of culture,” she says. “It’s changing the way people will interact with each other and make sure there’s more respect between men and women, and ensuring the entertainment-sector workplace, as all workplaces, is much safer.”

A very good year? What the box office figures really say about Australian cinema

Australian cinema has just enjoyed another big year. But scratch the surface and
the picture is far from rosy. Take Lion out of the equation and it would have been a
dismal year financially.

Australian cinema is in serious trouble, although you wouldn’t necessarily know it
from the most recent annual box-office round-up.

The figures released last week showed Australian box office totalled $1.2 billion in
2017, a drop of roughly 5 per cent from the previous year but still the third-highest
result ever (after 2015 and 2016).

As late as November, some players were predicting a 10 to 12 per cent year-on-year
drop, so the total – helped by the $50 million or so Star Wars: Return of the Jedi added in just two weeks – was not too shabby after all. As Motion Picture Distributors’ Association of Australia boss Lori Flekser says, “film is a cyclical business, and it would have been a miracle if it had gone up again in 2017”.

Even Australian releases seemed to fare well, at first blush at least. Their $49.4
million was 4.1 per cent of the total. In 2016, they managed just $24.1 million, for a
1.9 per cent share.

Drill down into the figures, though, and you’ll find the true state of affairs is cause for
concern rather than congratulations.

While there are more screens (2210) than ever before, attendances are on the slide.
Precise numbers are hard to come by, but it’s likely there were around 85 million
cinema visits last year – down from 91.3 million the year before (the figure is arrived
at by dividing total box office by average ticket price, which is around $14.13). Frequency of visits, which peaked at 11.3 in 1996, now sit around 8.5 a year.

We are going to the movies less often despite the fact we now have, in theory at least,
more choice than ever before.

According to the MPDAA, there were 697 new-release films on our cinema screens
last year – and that doesn’t include festival releases, re-releases and carry-over titles
(typically those films released on Boxing Day of the year prior).

But in truth, our choices aren’t as great as those figures would suggest. According to
Screen Australia, blockbusters – defined as movies released on 400+ screens –
accounted for 4.5 per cent of releases in 2017 but they took more than half (50.9 per
cent) of the box office dollars. Wide-release movies (200-399 screens) accounted for
a further 9.1 per cent of releases and 35.4 per cent of revenue.

In other words, our screens are hogged by Hollywood action-adventure, superhero,
fantasy (like Disney’s chart-topping live-action Beauty and the Beast), and animated
family films, with the result that the top one-seventh (14 per cent) of new releases
took a whopping 86¢ of every dollar at the Australian box office.

And that left the rest – about 600 movies in all – fighting over the scraps.

For anyone who still clings to the idea that our cinemas should find space for adult-
oriented and/or home-grown fare, this is terrible news.

There is a clear (though not guaranteed) correlation between number of screens and
box office success. Fifteen of the top 20 films last year were “blockbuster” releases;
the other five were “wide”. For smaller releases, it is now becoming so hard to find
screens that many are doomed to underperform from the outset.

As a general rule of thumb, the narrower the release, the smaller the spend on
advertising and marketing and the lower the likelihood of audiences even being
aware of a film’s presence, let alone of being persuaded to give it a shot.

This dynamic is especially acute for Australian movies, 55 of which (including feature
documentaries and event screenings) made it to the cinema in 2017, according to the
MPDAA. But only four of the new releases made it onto more than 100 screens. The
vast majority were shown on fewer than 20.

Lion, which had the widest release of any Australian film (more than 250 screens),
was the biggest local film of the year, taking $29.5 million. Next was Red Dog: True
Blue, which was released in December 2016 but took most of its $7.54 million in
2017. Three more titles passed $2 million (Jasper Jones, Dance Academy, the
documentary Mountain) but only one more (Ali’s Wedding) topped $1 million.
Take Lion out of the equation and it would have been a dismal year financially
(though not artistically: Killing Ground, Berlin Syndrome, Hounds of Love, Whiteley, Hotel Coolgardie, The Go-Betweens: Right Here and many others had plenty to offer audiences, if only they could find them).

The release-return correlation isn’t a guarantee, of course. Ben Elton’s Three Summers went out on more than 100 screens but took just $792,000 <from a budget of $3.5m>. At the other end of the spectrum, Hounds of Love was on just seven screens, but its $209,000 gave it a better per-screen average than many bigger films. Remarkably, Jennifer Peedom’s documentary Mountain topped $2 million off just 36 screens nationally.

What all this points to is a massive constriction of opportunity for smaller-release
movies in our cinemas. And that’s especially bad news for Australian filmmakers
(and not much comfort for fans of indie fare from America, Britain and the rest of the
world either).

For small-release movies, the competition has never been so great. Screen Australia’s
analysis suggests just under 83 per cent of all films released in 2017 – about 580
films – slugged it out for a combined 9 per cent of the box office. It’s a miracle,
perhaps, that Australian cinema registers at all.

What’s more, that 9 per cent is increasingly fought over by films that are targeting
audiences that a decade or two back didn’t even exist: Chinese-language cinema
accounted for around $14 million; movies from India for more than $24 million;
special event screenings (live theatre, ballet, Doctor Who telemovies on the big
screen) for almost $6.5 million.

In truth, many of the Australian movies getting a cinema run do so only because they
are obliged to as a condition of receiving the producer offset. It’s a requirement that
has, in recent years, been forgivingly interpreted, and at least one of the content
reviews underway in Canberra will surely recommend that it be significantly
amended, if not dropped entirely. That would free the way for many titles to focus on
digital release strategies, a cheaper and potentially more effective approach.

There are of course people who will claim that Australian movies struggle because
they are no good, and it’s true that not every Australian movie is worth seeing. But
here’s the counter-argument: Fast and Furious. Enough said.

Right now, you could go to the cinema to see Warwick Thornton’s excellent outback
Indigenous western Sweet Country, a film that speaks directly to the Australian
experience and which has been racking up awards internationally. It’s on 72 screens
nationally, a decent, though far from massive, release.

Alternatively, you might prefer to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi, a movie that will
surely go down as one of the more so-so entries in the ever-expanding franchise. It
opened last December on 970 screens – almost half of the available space in the
country – and has so far taken more than $56 million locally, and almost $US1.3
billion ($A1.6 billion) globally.

The choice is yours. But, one has to wonder, for how much longer?

Karl Quinn – SMH – January 28 2018

‘EMO the Musical’ snapped up by Netflix

Writer-director Neil Triffett’s EMO the Musical is said to be poised to break even after being acquired by Netflix.

The streaming giant has bought exclusive, worldwide SVOD rights (excluding Australia/NZ) to the high school comedy, which stars Benson Jack Anthony, Jordan Hare, Rahart Adams, Jon Prasida and Lucy Barrett.

Producer Lee Matthews said: “The Netflix deal as negotiated by XYZ Films in the U.S. will enable me to pay off the film’s debts, albeit over a three year period, so thanks to the generous production grant from Screen Australia, the Australian government’s Producer Offset and Film Victoria’s assigned production investment, the film will be able to break even.”

EMO the Musical premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2016, before heading to Berlinale in 2017. The film went on to receive a limited theatrical release in Australia via Bonsai Films, which saw it take $40,640, and was picked up by Madman for home distribution. Australian broadcast and SVOD rights are yet to be signed.

Triffett said Netflix was the perfect platform for the film, which he had always hoped would appeal to a wider audience.

“Particularly because it is a global release, I’m excited to reach our followers around the world, from Berlin to Brazil, who might not be able to access the film as easily otherwise,” he said.

“The film and its themes about identity and difference are most relevant to young people, but they’re not necessarily the kind of audience who watch films at the cinema these days, so Netflix will allow them to access it more easily. We’re also hoping that older audiences who get the film’s offbeat humour, will be able to stumble upon the film along the way. I feel our film and Netflix’s already awesome collection will complement each other well.”

The film will premiere on Netflix February 1.

IF Magazine 30 January 2018

Female-Driven Filmmaking Gave Sundance 2018 a Jolt

The Hollywood Reporter Critics’ Conversation: Female-Driven
Filmmaking Gave Sundance 2018 a Jolt

by Jon Frosch , Todd McCarthy , Leslie Felperin , David Rooney THR

JON FROSCH: Hi, team! Now that we’ve emerged from the slush and sleep
deprivation of Sundance, let’s get down to it. Last year, the festival unfolded in the
shadow of Trump’s depressing inauguration but distracted us with a pretty dazzling
array of films: Call Me by Your Name, Get Out, God’s Own Country, The Big
Sick, Mudbound, Quest, Step, Marjorie Prime, Ingrid Goes West and the list goes on.
A few of those went on to become some of the most widely praised works of the year
— and, not that it’s a reliable metric of quality, major awards contenders. And while
it’s always hard to generalize with Sundance — your assessment really depends on
what you see; sometimes you strike gold, sometimes you strike out — the 2018
edition seemed to me not nearly as strong. Nothing I saw came even close to
heavyweights like Call Me by Your Name, or Manchester by the Sea the year before.
Of all the fests, this one is perhaps the most susceptible to deafening on-the-ground
buzz — most frequently in the form of feverish Twitter takes that may have more to
do with a film’s topicality and timeliness than its quality (remember Birth of a
Nation?). This year, critics seemed readier than ever to forgive or overlook certain
movies’ shortcomings because of their political urgency, their ability to tap into the
passion of movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. I’m thinking of bold and
provocative but wildly uneven films like interracial buddy comedy Blindspotting; The
Tale, an alternately powerful and clunky drama about a woman coming to grips with
past sexual abuse; and Boots Riley’s initially ingenious, then increasingly labored
race-and-corporate-greed-and-who-knows-WTF-else satire, Sorry to Bother You.
I’m not saying titles like these are undeserving of attention; films that start, or
continue, necessary conversations should be seen, no matter their technical or
artistic merits. But I do wonder how they’ll play outside the Park City bubble. [News
came in Friday that The Tale was sold to HBO, which I think is a good fit; stretches of
the film have a kind of expository procedural bluntness that’s better suited to the
small screen than the big.]
That said, credit where it’s due — this is a festival that walks the walk when it comes
to diversity both behind and in front of the camera. My two favorites this year were
from women filmmakers making triumphant returns after long-ish absences: Leave
No Trace, a drama directed by Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone) — about a father and
daughter living in the Pacific Northwest wilderness — that’s a model of unshowy
emotion and intelligence; and Tamara Jenkins’ rich, rewarding, painful
comedy Private Life, starring a peerless Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti as a New
York couple embroiled in an epic fertility struggle.
What about you? General impressions, highs, lows?
TODD MCCARTHY: I can only second your feeling, and that of many critics, that it
was a relatively lackluster year. Unlike at other festivals, there are large pockets of
support in every audience for every film at Sundance that cheer no matter what; you
have to adjust to that. This year I felt that I could “read” the room a little better and
separate out the automatic support factions from the more objective audiences, and I
sensed that reactions were a bit more reserved. It’s definitely true that there were no
real breakthrough equivalents to the several that hit it out of the park last year, and
the nature of the business for what can be called specialized films is in flux; some can
now become hits on the order of Get Out and The Big Sick, but many are left by the
wayside, probably more than before, due to the vast amount of provocative and
original shows on TV. Is anyone going to devote an evening to going out and paying

for Reed Morano’s failed sci-fi film I Think We’re Alone Now (screened in the U.S.
competition this year) when they can watch an episode or two of Netflix’s
brilliant Black Mirror at home?
To rebound on Jon’s point about female filmmakers at this year’s fest, the most
powerful and startling film I saw, the one I can’t shake, was indeed directed by a
woman, and a first-timer at that. However, it isn’t uplifting and I would say that were
it directed by an American woman, it would have been considered too outre, anti-p.c.
and even transgressively pornographic for Sundance. The film is Holiday, a Danish
gangster flick set and shot in Turkey, shown in the World Cinema dramatic
competition, directed by Isabella Eklof and written by her and another woman,
Johanne Algren. The leading character, Sascha, is a twentysomething gangster’s
moll, and Eklof stages an absolutely shocking sequence of hardcore sex between her
and the gangster involving intercourse, then oral sex, then a disgusting bit that is
violent and forced and completely degrading by design. What makes the scene
defensible and essential is that it’s the gangster’s way of bringing her down to his
level and, ultimately, making her a criminal like him; once you are defiled, you can
become a defiler yourself, without remorse or morality. What I loved about it was
that Eklof, by putting this character through the wringer, succeeded in creating a
female version of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley. How far this film can go on the
festival circuit and then into commercial release with that scene intact remains an
open question; in the current political climate, there are bound to be those
vehemently opposed to its showing.

LESLIE FELPERIN: I didn’t see Holiday, but I did see The Tale, another female-
directed film about sexual abuse, which Jon mentioned above. I admired it, with

qualifications. It was certainly the most zeitgeist-y film in the festival, even dubbed
by Slate magazine “the perfect movie for our #MeToo moment.” Part of its impact lay
in the way it explored women’s often fraught, denial-fueled relationship to the
“victim” label — but it was also straight-up shocking to see a 13-year-old girl being
coerced into having sex with an older man in wince-inducing scenes. (The actual sex
scenes were filmed with a body double, but the cutaway shots to the victim’s pained
face show 11-year-old actress Isabelle Nelisse, who plays the role the rest of the time.)
The innovation of the film is the way it blurs lines between fiction and documentary;
all the roles are played by actors, but director Jennifer Fox (played in the movie by a
gutsy Laura Dern) described the story as “100 percent memoir,” a recreation of what
happened to her when she was 13 and was manipulated into a sexual relationship
with her track coach. A striking formal sleight of hand involved using one actor
(Sarah Jessica Flaum), who looks like a 15-year-old, at first, only to have the casting
“corrected” when Fox’s mother (played by Ellen Burstyn) shows her a picture of what
she really looked like at age 13; the scenes are then rerun with younger actress

Nelisse, confronting the audience with how much creepier it seems with a 13-year-
old than a 15-year-old. I agree with Jon that the expository dialogue is clunky as hell,

and the movie gets off to a very clumsy start. But the film’s formal trickiness
reminded me in some ways of documentary Casting JonBenet, the standout of the
fest for me last year.
Overall, I concur that the vibe on the street suggested a so-so Sundance. I did like the
Midnight entry Assassination Nation, a teen exploitation flick for the Trump era
where the four diverse young heroines are up against a town-turned-mob, whose evil
sheriff calls them “very fine people” (echoing a Trumpian phase in the wake of

Charlottesville). It was soaked in blood and pretty amoral, but a blast. Elsewhere,
Amy Adrion’s Half the Picture, a talking-heads-driven exploration of why there are
so few female directors in Hollywood, was full of smart women like Penelope
Spheeris, Ava DuVernay, Mary Haron and Gina Prince-Bythewood being witty, wise
and wound-up by the power imbalance in the industry. I chuckled
at Transparent creator Jill Soloway suggesting, tongue only partly in cheek, that part
of the problem is that film criticism is dominated by men, and proposing that all the
guy critics on the trade publications be replaced by women. (Thanks for the support,
Jill, although heaven knows I’d miss you guys.) Over to you, David.
DAVID ROONEY: I agree that Sundance last year yielded an exceptional crop, so it
was always going to be a challenge for the 2018 lineup to measure up. (Though
paradoxically, last year’s Grand Jury Prize winner, I Don’t Feel at Home in This
World Anymore, a minor quirkfest, disappeared into the Netflix maw immediately
after the festival.) But I did see a handful of beautifully crafted movies.
As Jon noted, a significant amount of attention was generated by Sorry to Bother
You in the Dramatic Competition, with some people calling it this year’s Get Out and

piling on the (I think mostly unjustified) superlatives. The movie has a certain out-
there audaciousness and an infectiously rollicking start, but falls apart and becomes

a bludgeoning experience with an incoherent point of view. Todd mentioned that
sharp television like Black Mirror gives audiences less incentive to settle for inferior
sci-fi, and the same applies to films about the complexities of contemporary black
identity when we have incisively observed shows like Insecure, Dear White
People, Atlanta and even network entry Black-ish on TV. The comparison with the
wickedly smart Get Out is a stretch.
I found much more confidence and a clear authorial voice in Reinaldo Marcus
Green’s Monsters and Men, a symphonic consideration of the ripple effects of a
death in a black Brooklyn community caused by an NYPD officer’s use of excessive
force during an arrest. It’s such a sober drama that it risks passing under the radar,
but I think there’s real maturity in the daring three-act structure, each part with a
different protagonist, and the seamlessness with which the writer-director weaves in
elements ripped from the headlines. It’s also beautifully acted.
The same goes for Sara Colangelo’s The Kindergarten Teacher, in which the titular
character (Maggie Gyllenhaal) develops a fixation on a young pupil she suspects may
be a literary genius. At a time when there’s much discussion of the
underrepresentation of women filmmakers and women characters, this was a prime
example of the female gaze illuminating the psychological complexity of a
dangerously single-minded female figure, shedding light on the encroaching
emptiness in her life as the driving force behind her increasingly irrational choices.
You can’t look away from Gyllenhaal’s understated intensity.
Beyond the competition, Joshua Marston’s Come Sunday was easily his best film
since Sundance breakout Maria Full of Grace 14 years ago. I have to confess I read

the synopsis — Pentecostal preacher has crisis of faith and loses his Oklahoma mega-
church — and glazed over. But this is a fiercely smart, searching movie about faith

that is fair-minded in its examination of a religious man and the beliefs that he
unexpectedly begins chafing against. Chiwetel Ejiofor as real-life bishop Carlton
Pearson gave probably the best performance I saw at Sundance this year. I think for

those of us who tend to define the religious right by their political positions, this is an
important movie that invites us to look at evangelicals as everyday people. It’s also
just mesmerizing drama.
FROSCH: David, I’m with you on Gyllenhaal in The Kindergarten Teacher. I
thought the movie was fine — softer-edged and less powerfully unsettling than the
2014 Israeli drama it’s a remake of — but she’s riveting from start to finish in a
super-tricky role. It takes a an extremely smart, subtle actress to ground that
character’s sneakily outlandish behavior in relatable human feelings and impulses —
in this case, disappointment in how her life has turned out and a gnawing hunger for
that elusive something more.
I also liked Monsters and Men, though maybe less than you did, David. I admired
much about it, including the seamless fluidity of that three-act structure. But I found
its restraint a touch too deliberate and its dramatic beats, as quiet as they are, ever so
slightly on-the-nose. I felt similarly about another strong entry, Paul Dano’s elegant
adaptation of the Richard Ford novel Wildlife. It’s an assured, lovingly crafted
directorial debut, and Dano does a deft job harnessing the star power of Jake
Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan as the unhappy married couple at its center. But the
whole thing felt slightly too harnessed to me, a bit too self-consciously controlled and
cautious.
Wildlife did feature a superb breakout performance from a young actor I’d never
seen: Ed Oxenbould, who makes his 14-year-old protagonist’s stoic decency both
interesting and poignant, without ever pandering to the viewer’s emotions. Two
other young discoveries were Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie in Granik’s Leave No
Trace — it’s the kind of low-key, note-perfect turn that blossoms in your memory —
and the volcanically gifted Helena Howard in Josephine Decker’s latest
experiment, Madeline’s Madeline. Playing an unstable teen actress, Howard yanks

you right into her character’s fraying headspace, aided by Decker’s typically nerve-
rattling interweaving of sound and image. After the Timothee Chalamet revelation

last year, Sundance continues to be a platform for exciting new acting talent.
MCCARTHY: Speaking of promising discoveries, I found two films in the often
venturesome Next sidebar formally quite interesting: Qasim Basir’s purportedly (but
I don’t believe it) all-in-one-take Trump-election-night tale A Boy. A Girl. A Dream.,
which follows a sharp-looking black man and woman who have just met on an almost
dreamlike nocturnal odyssey around Los Angeles; and the far more fully
realized Search, in which debuting director Aneesh Chaganty pulls off a legitimately
suspenseful and involving crime story exclusively told through what the main
character can see on his computer screen.
I want to pick up on Leslie’s mention of Jill Soloway’s remark about the absence of
female film critics. I think Soloway’s comment rather ignores the actually
considerable, and sometimes remarkable, contributions of female critics today and in
the past. Right now, the profession seems inordinately weighted toward men because
the vast majority of geeks and fanboys online (and who populate the Rotten
Tomatoes lineup) are male. But most of these people aren’t hired; they just start
writing and have gotten their stuff out there in the internet era. When I was growing
up in Chicago, it was a four-newspaper town, and two of the four papers had women
as film (and theater) critics. And not long after that, the two most powerful and

influential film critics in New York (other than whoever was at The New York Times,
where the power came by virtue of the position more than the individuals) were
Pauline Kael and Judith Crist. The late ’60s and ’70s saw the emergence of such
notable critics as Penelope Gilliatt, Janet Maslin, Molly Haskell, Renata Adler, Caryn
James, Lisa Schwarzbaum, Carrie Rickey and others, and I’m only mentioning the
best-known and relatively mainstream ones. Also, let’s not forget that the most
famous and prestigious film magazine of those decades, Sight & Sound, was edited
for 34 years by Penelope Houston.
The trades, which Soloway singles out, were without question more dominated by
men for a longer period than more mainstream papers and magazines; this is
attributable to the fact that they were largely published and edited by older men
whose careers dated back to the 1940s and 1950s and who, regrettably, weren’t
particularly thinking about hiring women. But it’s been clear that quite a few of the
very best critics in the history of film criticism have been women.
FELPERIN: I’m sure Soloway’s suggestion about making all trade critics female was
intended to be provocative, and I quoted her in the same mischievous spirit. It would
be remiss of me to not point out that, as a woman critic, I owe my own career in no
small part to the support and encouragement of many male colleagues. That said,
Todd, I think your rebuttal in some ways actually supports Soloway’s and other
feminist critics’ point, one that goes to the very heart of the argument in Half the
Picture. Historically, there was, if not complete parity, at the very least a strong and
sizeable contingent of women film critics, some of them like Kael holding the most
important positions in the field. As film became more and more dominant and
powerful as both an art form and an industry, though, men started to take control,
and the same slow and insidious process spread to film’s ancillary industries, like the
journalism that covered it — until we got to the point where men make up about 73%
of the “top critics” on Rotten Tomatoes, according to a recent study. That’s a better
proportion than directors, and a much better representation than in most of the
technical below-the-line fields, but still we’re very far from parity.
It all comes back, as so many arguments do these days, to whether quotas and
affirmative action-type approaches are an effective tool to combat this disparity. I
heard whispers from some on the ground that this year the programmers at
Sundance felt it was particularly important to give extra weight to female filmmakers
and woman-centric stories in the line-up, a move I applaud personally even if the
quality of such films was inconsistent. All the big festivals have been “trying” to
redress the gender imbalance over the last few years, but the pressure is particularly
acute now in the wake of #MeToo and #TimesUp. If you think of festivals as
universities, Sundance is the U.C. Berkeley of gender-positive programming: an
almost firebrand institution that wants to position itself on the vanguard of
progressivism.
ROONEY: One film that in many ways exemplified Sundance’s progressivism was
the small but captivating Next entry We the Animals, which has been drawing
comparisons to Malick and Moonlight. While you can see echoes of the early scenes
in The Tree of Life, I think director Jeremiah Zagar has his own voice that honors the
prose roots of the material and filters them through an impressionistic canvas. The
movie is dreamy and lyrical but also quite disarmingly frank in the way it addresses
preteen queer awakening.

And, speaking of female-driven Sundance films this year, I can’t end this
conversation without singling out Ari Aster’s debut Hereditary in the Midnight
section, led by the always wonderful Toni Collette in her best role in years. This fest
has been instrumental in the discovery of some truly memorable and original horror
in recent years, like Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook or Babak Anvari’s Under the
Shadow, or even David Lowery’s exercise in haunted existentialism, A Ghost Story,
last year (not to mention Get Out). Hereditary sits comfortably among that group
and may stand a chance of going far commercially because of the degree to which it
also functions as a domestic drama about family breakdown. It kept me glued for two
hours of unrelenting slow-burn tension building toward a climax of operatic Grand
Guignol — and that’s thanks in large part to Collette. She’s the diesel-fueled engine of
a rock-solid ensemble. Then of course there’s also the amazing Ann Dowd adding
another memorable monster to her growing gallery of uniquely scary ladies. Dowd’s
remarkable mid-career ascent in film and TV in the past few years is a real statement
of female empowerment — and in its own way a corrective to years of
marginalization of women in an industry more inclined to have them conform to
cookie-cutter “types.” With five films at the fest this year, she might just be the new
Queen of Sundance.

Hollywood Rerporter 27 January 2018

Number of women directors up slightly in 2017 but still only 11%

This article from Screen Daily by Orlando Parfitt (11 January 2018) indicated that there has been virtually no change in the participation of women directors.

Patty jenkins gal gadot clay enos dc comis

Source: Clay Enos, DC Comics. Patty Jenkins directing ‘Wonder Woman’

Women directed 11% of the 250 top-grossing films in the US last year, rising from 7% in 2016.

The figures come from an annual report by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.

The study, entitled ‘Celluloid Ceiling’, shows that women comprised 18% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films, a rise of 1% from 2016 but unchanged from 1998.

25% of all producers for the top 250 films were women, (up 1%); 16% of editors (down 1%) and only 4% of cinematographers (a decrease of 1%).

The number of women writers was down two percentage points, to 11%.

Once again, the report also flags up that almost all blockbuster films are directed by men. Only one film directed by a woman made the top 20 highest grossing films: Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, the third highest grossing film of the year in the US with $412m.

The next highest was Pitch Perfect 3 directed by Trish Sie, at number 34 in the US chart.

Some more statistics from the study:

  • 88% had no women directors
  • 83% had no women writers
  • 45% had no women exec. producers 28% had no women producers
  • 80% had no women editors
  • 96% had no women cinematographers
  • 30% of films had no or 1 woman in the above roles

As in 2016, no women directors were nominated for a Golden Globe or a Bafta this year.

The Celluloid Ceiling report has been published annually since 1998.

Read more: Baftas 2018 – full list of nominations

3 Female Screenwriters on Crashing the Blockbuster Boys Club: “I Want to See a Female Darth Vader”

You would think that female screenwriters would be in a powerful position to put more female characters in their movies. But since Hollywood is dominated by males, it’s not that simple.

This article by Mia Caluppo in the Hollywood Reporter explains why:

A trio of top writers whose credits include big-budget movies — the ‘Tomb Raider’ reboot, ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘Transformers’ — discuss biased notes, creating great heroines and why Judi Dench should be an action star

Writers Lindsey Beer, Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Amanda Silver are on a mission worthy of any of the other superprotagonists they’ve helped shape: bringing a woman’s voice to Hollywood’s most testosterone-fueled boys club, the big-budget blockbuster. Of the top 100-grossing films in 2016, a mere 13 percent had a credited female writer, but incremental change is afoot.

Beer’s upcoming credits include Doug Liman’s Chaos Walking and the Lin-Manuel Miranda-produced film adaptation of Kingkiller Chronicle; Robertson-Dworet penned March 2018’s Tomb Raider remake and is writing the Brie Larson-starring

Captain Marvel, Marvel Studios’ first female-fronted standalone; and Silver, who works with husband Rick Jaffa, rebooted Planet of the Apes and Jurassic Park and has spent the past year and a half working on Disney’s live-action Mulan.

In between doing their best to bring a feminist bent to interstellar conflict and heavy explosions, they gathered to discuss being members of an exclusive club of women they desperately want to help grow.

From left: Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Amanda Silver and Lindsey Beer

On notes from men about women

GENEVA ROBERTSON-DWORET I got really frustrated with a male director because he kept saying, “I just want her to be a normal girl.” Male executives and filmmakers are still scared to give women warts — to give a woman the same specificity they’d give a male character.

LINDSEY BEER With female characters, I always get the note that they need to be “likable.” They will say she seems like a … well, they won’t say the B-word, but they imply the B-word. A female character can’t have a chip on her shoulder the way a man can. We have so many lovable male protagonists that are the grumpy antihero, but that character as a woman is hard to push through.

On being the only woman in the writers room

AMANDA SILVER I was in a room, and there was this guy, and I don’t think he was a jerk or he was even aware of what he was doing, but every time I started to say something, he would cut me off. So the next time he interrupted me, I called him out on it, immediately. It’s like the bully at school: You’ve got to punch him in the nose.

BEER I am smaller, and my voice is quieter than these men. Geneva and I were in the Transformers room, and we were all pitching to Steven Spielberg over Skype. We were sitting at this long table, and the men had these deep voices he could actually hear.

ROBERTSON-DWORET Oh, God, that was so embarrassing. We had to get right by the camera and mic.

BEER It looked like I was making out with Spielberg over Skype. But he couldn’t hear me, so I was like, “Fuck it. You and me Spielberg — we are going to have a moment.”

On what makes a great block-buster heroine

SILVER Growing up, we all had favorite movies that were made by and starred men, but you squint and take on the male point of view and you enjoy it. It should work in the reverse. The female heroine should be allowed to be just as relatable for everybody, which means she will be flawed. Perfection is boring, man.

BEER Female characters also need to have motivations that aren’t just a man or children. I know a male screenwriter who said he could think of 300 motivations for his male character, but all he could think about for his female character was that she had kids to go save. It’s just a subconscious bias. I fall into the same thing.

ROBERTSON-DWORET I hate the setup [for men] where the nuclear weapon is about to go off, and you can either stop that or save your girlfriend. And they go save the girlfriend! Of course, they also stop the nuclear bomb. But I always think, “Wouldn’t your girlfriend want you to save the city? Or is she the most selfish person ever? Why do you even date her?”

On changing the equation
SILVER You can’t really define the “female perspective,” but simple math tells you

that if more women are writing and directing, a female perspective will emerge.

ROBERTSON-DWORET My first four jobs, I was only hired by female executives at various companies. They took the risk on me.

BEER In general, studios need to be less risk-averse. You give a female a chance, and you get Wonder Woman. You give diverse voices a chance, and you get Get Out.

On industry double standards

BEER You can only get your movie made if you get one of three or four actresses attached to it because there are only so many female stars who are considered bankable. There would be a lot more if we made more female content.

SILVER It’s totally a chicken-before-the-egg situation.

ROBERTSON-DWORET [Male stars] can be into their 50s, but you are going to have a hard time selling the studio on making a $120 million action movie with a 45- year-old actress. You have Liam Neeson, but you would never have people say, “Judi Dench should really star in this action film.”

SILVER I am totally on for that.
BEER It’s the Bond spinoff we really need.

On the blockbuster they would like to gender-swap BEER I want to see a female Darth Vader.

ROBERTSON-DWORET For me, it’s McClane in Die Hard. He is so dry and funny. Female characters in action movies are so serious. They never seem to ever have any fun kicking ass.

11 December 2017 by Mia Galuppo, THR

Phillip Noyce: Man Of Action

Phillip Noyce, one of Australia’s most interesting and inventive directors, is giving a talk next week in Sydney.

FilmInk has posted an article about Noyce here:

https://filmink.com.au/phillip-noyce-man-action/

The article by Philip Berk & Erin Free has some fascinating insights into the workings of Hollywood. According to Noyce, ‘the suits’ have no idea how to make a film and so they leave the director alone until the preview screenings. If those screenings are a success, they keep leaving you alone, but if they were less successful the Hollywood executives jump in with comments.

Noyce suggests that Hollywood has been an even more successful coloniser than ancient Rome, since Hollywood has won the hearts and minds of its subjects while Rome was forced to rule by the swords as its subjects would only offer grudging support.

In the FilimInk interview Noyce explained that his father had been a spy, and that is one reason why he makes excellent thrillers such as The Quiet American (2002) and Salt (2010).

Phillip Noyce will be appearing in The Artist’s Room at Event Cinemas George Street in Sydney on December 13. Mr. Noyce will be live and in person for a one-hour conversation in the cinema followed by a screening of the director’s acclaimed Australian drama, Rabbit-Proof Fence. To buy tickets, click through to the official website.

2020 Vision Feature Film Forum by Film Victoria

Last week Film Victoria hosted an all-day 2020 Vision Feature Film Forum. It was well attended by local writers, directors and producers.

The event provided Film Vic’s take on the current state of the local feature film industry. It was an attempt to encourage filmmakers to ‘go the extra mile’ on script development, as outgoing CEO Jenni Tosi suggested that often scripts go into production before they are ready.

As others have noted such as producer Sue Maslin, this is in part because producers need cashflow to survive. It is difficult for producers to draw cash from government funding agencies during the development phase, which often takes years.

The task for writers in the audience was to take on board the sobering figures dished out over the day and yet remain positive and optimistic enough to put in the necessary work to refine a screenplay to the point where it is as good as it gets.

Over the day, a number of interesting points were made. Kristian Connelly, Manager of the Nova in Carlton, expressed surprise that despite the success of Animal Kingdom (2010), no similar works have emerged. Connelly also thought that New Zealanders have a much more worked-out sense of their national identity than Australians, who struggle with the notion of what it is to be Australian.

The point was also raised that today’s female-dominated cinema audiences are provided with few titles that star a strong female character who drives the action. Of course this is as true of the world as it is of Australia.

My final takeaway was a personal one; coming from Singapore, where the focus is so international, I was surprised to hear only about Australia, with a bit of Hollywood tantalisingly added but seeming somehow far away. The words China and India featured on a single slide, a reference to the number of films from these two countries being released on Australian screens.

No mention of 2017’s gamechanger and my personal fave, Wolf Warrior 2 (2017) directed by and starring Jing Wu, which managed to gross nearly US$900 million at the Chinese box office earlier this year. The film is set in Africa and 20% is in English as it was hoped to do well internationally. However its triumph with its domestic audience more than made up for its lack of international reach (it took only $2 million in the US).

I asked several of my producer films at the session whether they were thinking of approaching the expanding markets of China and India, but they felt that was too much of a stretch. And yes, despite our multiculturalism we are still a predominantly white Australian (and male) industry. But there is also an increasing number of Chinese and Indians who have settled in Australia, and hundreds of thousands more who come here to study. Can’t we access their contacts?

IF’s Don Goves has posted these two articles on the day:

Filmmakers challenged to aim high and know their audience

PG-rated films are increasingly popular in Oz while frequent moviegoers are going less often

 

Luc Besson on the Risks of ‘Valerian’ and That Time James Cameron “Took Me for a Moron”

As the EuropaCorp mogul — and THR’s International Producer of the Year — prepares to release the most expensive film of his career, he opens up about his arm’s-length relationship with Hollywood (“I do ‘Leon,’ they send me four ‘Leons'”) and his lifelong obsession with an “impossible”-to-film French comic book.

Luc Besson was 8 years old when he fell in love with the French graphic novel Valerian and Laureline, about two young adventurers who travel through space and time. Now, half a century later, the 58-year-old French producer-director is bringing his childhood infatuation to the screen. At $180 million, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is by far the most expensive picture he has ever made, with double the budget of his last sci-fi feature, 1997’s The Fifth Element. The STX release (which

opens July 21) is the biggest bet yet from a man who has made a career of them — from directing 1985’s Subway to 1990’s La Femme Nikita (one of the first action flicks centered on a woman) to 1994’s Leon: The Professional and 2014’s Lucy, not to mention producing franchises like Taxi and Taken.

But no matter how much Besson has riding on his new picture, he gives no sign of being perturbed when THR sits down with him in mid-May in the rather impersonal, two-room suite he maintains several floors above his high-tech studio just north of Paris, La Cite du Cinema. (It has an accompanying film school, L’Ecole de la Cite.) This is where Besson spends most of his time when he’s not at home in Beverly Hills, where he has lived for the past three years with his producer-wife, Virginie Besson- Silla, and their three children, ages 11 to 16.

Relaxed in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, music wafting from his iPad, the filmmaker is expansive when talking about his family and personal life, but more reticent when it comes to addressing the business aspects of his career and company, EuropaCorp, in which he’s the largest shareholder. Perhaps that’s because, after years of success, EuropaCorp will post a loss of $136 million in 2016, just a few weeks after our meeting, the result of such misfires as Nine Lives, Shut In and Miss Sloane. Besson leaves talk of business to his company’s CEO, Marc Shmuger.

“EuropaCorp experienced significant losses this past year,” acknowledges Shmuger. “Over the course of the past year, we took necessary measures to strengthen the company’s treasury position. These measures include restructuring our first and second lien debt, a new capital raise from [Chinese production and distribution firm] Fundamental and sales of noncore assets [among them, theaters in Paris].”

They also include bringing in outside financiers to defray some of the cost of Valerian, whose downside already has been covered, he says, thanks to $30 million in French subsidies, outside equity and presales, reducing EuropaCorp’s investment to about 10 percent of the total budget.

The company signed a three-year exclusive (in the U.S.) distribution and marketing services pact with STX in early 2017 after extricating itself from a problematic joint venture with Ryan Kavanaugh’s Relativity Media. In leaving Relativity, it tightened its focus, going from an original plan to have up to 12 domestic releases per year to about four — all at much lower budgets than that of Valerian.

Those projects include another Taxi sequel, a follow-up to Lucy (possibly starring Scarlett Johansson again) and such European productions as Kursk (with Matthias Schoenaerts, Colin Firth and Lea Seydoux) and the horror film Underground (with Ben Kingsley and Peter Franzen).

It is for this prodigious output — and for his willingness to risk so much — that THR has named Besson its International Producer of the Year.

When did you start working on Valerian?

When I did The Fifth Element 20 years ago, the designer Jean-Claude Mezieres was saying, “Why are you not doing Valerian? Why are you doing this stupid Fifth

Element thing?” I said, “Because [Valerian] is impossible.” But then, little by little, the technique went up. I started to write, and I wrote for a couple of years just to see: Was it good enough? Was it worthwhile enough? And then it came to maturation.

How much of your own money is in the film?

My entire salary. [The budget is] not my money, but at the last minute, the financing fell short, so they asked me, “Can you put your entire salary in?” And I said yes.

When you saw Avatar, you threw away the Valerian script. Why?

Because it wasn’t good enough. Avatar was on such a [high] level that [I thought], “You’re not qualified. Go back to training,” like with the Olympic Games. You can’t go and ask for $180 million [without being ready].

Did you discuss Valerian with James Cameron?

He invited me on the set of Avatar in L.A. because I said, “I’m writing something sci- fi,” and he said, “Come and see how it’s working.” Being there, in the middle of the factory with nothing, and seeing the world on the screen — he took me for a moron at the beginning, because it was kind of complicated for me to understand. He looked at me like, “This moron doesn’t understand anything.” I don’t have a computer. I have this, an iPad, with music. Then we went for lunch, and I asked him a lot of questions, and he gave me some tips. He was such a gentleman, so secure. You know, the people who are secure are generous.

Are you secure?

Yes. Now. A little bit. But the first few years, you’re like, “Grrrrr.” You’re going to bite anyone who comes close to you.

When did you first realize you wanted to make films?

My parents worked [as SCUBA teachers] at Club Med, so I was watching shows every night. I started to write at 13, to take pictures at 14. It just came to me, like some people love baseball — me, it was photography and writing. I built my skills without noticing. Later, I said: “Hmm, movies, that’s probably a good way of expressing for me because I’m not good at anything [else].”

Was there a particular film that influenced you?

I never fell in love with films because I was not watching films at all. [After his parents split up] I had a stepfather who didn’t want TV and music at home; he didn’t want any way of expressing art in the house. He was working on Formula One, so it was all about cars. I was kind of frustrated.

Did you ever want to be anything other than a filmmaker?

When I was 16, I wanted to study dolphins, because I was in love with dolphins. And I got in a diving accident and the doctor told me, “You will never dive again.” This

guy broke me in two. He didn’t even realize what he had done because that was my life, diving, dolphins. And the day he said “forget about it” [was as if] basically you want to be a dancer and then you have no feet. I was very desperate. It was my worst moment. You’re 16, you’re in boarding school, and you’re broken by this doctor. I was really, really down. I remember asking myself, “What are you going to do with your life?” I took a piece of paper and I put a line down the middle, and on the left I said what I loved and on the right what I hated.

What did you love and what did you hate?

I can’t remember exactly. But when I read the left column, I realized almost everything was artistic. And it was the first time I said, “Wow, maybe cinema could be good.” And then a friend of a friend was shooting a short film in Paris, and I took the train and went there. And I arrived on the set and fell in love. I stayed two days, I slept on the set to keep an eye on the material, and I went back home to see my mom. I said, “I know what I’m going to do.” And the day after, I came down to breakfast with my suitcase and I said, “I’m leaving.”

Leaving home?

Yeah. Home and school. I came back from the set on a Sunday night, and on the Monday morning I went back to Paris. A friend [put me up] for a few nights. Then I was going from apartment to apartment, living on the couch, eating what was in the fridge — and usually on set they’d always have food. You eat twice a day and then you sleep. I really loved it. But the more you see on a set, the more you see other layers. You think it’s just a door, but no, after the door there are two other doors. I was so naive, I had no [frame of] reference, but I was not blocked by anything. I was like a kid who is not afraid of dogs and puts his hand in their mouths, you know? And I did my first short film 12 months later. I started my first long feature film at 19 [The Last Battle, about humans in a postapocalyptic world]. I turned 20 years old during the shooting. Sometimes we were shooting on the weekend — because when [the studios] have a big film shooting, they don’t shoot on the weekend, so you take the [equipment] and put it back on Sunday night. We did films with nothing, nothing. I was asking my mom to prep food for the team, because I couldn’t pay for the lunch. She’s a very good cook, so they were happy.

Did you ever study film?

No. But when I arrived in Paris at 17, I didn’t have a lot of money, and there was a [bookstore] just for films, near the Champs-Elysees [with anything that] you wanted to find on movies or how to make a script. And I stayed for hours and bought [a film industry version of the Yellow Pages], which was the most practical thing to get. Then I still had 20 francs in my hand, and I said to the girl, “For four bucks, do you have a little something I can buy?” She said, “In this big basket, there are used books.” I took a very small book, a treatise on directing [Notes of a Film Director]. I studied it, and it was quite complicated. I liked the book very much. What I didn’t know was that the writer was [Russian master Sergei] Eisenstein. And the treatise was very pragmatic and simple and clear, which is exactly what I needed at the time. So my basis is Eisenstein.

Do you watch films a lot now?

No. Cooking and eating are not the same job. My job is cooking.

Are there any filmmakers you particularly admire?

Actually, almost all of them, because it’s a hard job. Every time you feel the heart of the guy, I like it. What I don’t like is when you feel the studio too much and you don’t feel the guy. There are a couple of Marvels where I don’t feel the guy. The films are pretty good, but I don’t know who cooked them.

Are you friends with other filmmakers?

I am very friendly with them. I say “friendly” because I don’t see them enough. There’s a couple that I see: Ridley Scott sometimes, Darren Aronofsky. But I can’t say I am friends with them. What’s interesting is, I’ve never felt a [sense of] competition with any director. Never. The directors’ family is very, very friendly. I have a funny story: I had a film, I don’t remember [which one] but I was in New York, and I saw the poster [outside] the theater. There were two screens, and my film was playing [in the theater next to] a Pedro Almodovar film. I went in, just to smell the ambience, just for curiosity. And I opened the door and Pedro Almodovar bursts in. I said, “Oh, my God, Pedro, what are you doing here?” He was doing the same thing as me. We were laughing so much.

You’ve avoided working in the Hollywood studio system. Do they come after you?

I’ve received a script per week for 20 years. I’ve never stayed away from Hollywood. I always answer very politely, and I’m very honored. But no one comes with an Amadeus or something that I would love to do. When I do La Femme Nikita, they send me all the Nikitas — three, four, five. When I do Leon, they send me four Leons. When I do The Fifth Element, they send me all the sci-fi. That’s not interesting to me. I mean, if someone gave me Raging Bull, I would be thrilled.

The Fifth Element seems more of a success today than when it came out. Why?

Maybe the film at the time was too weird. Twenty years ago, there was no internet. And the film was wild. It was not conventional. The hero who saved the world [was] a girl with orange hair who doesn’t speak English. A classical singer extraterrestrial in space. It’s like, what the f— is this thing?

What do you do outside filmmaking?

The biggest thing is writing, in the morning. I love that. If I don’t write for a few days, I feel bad. I’m nervous and I’m not agreeable with people. It’s my gym.

Do you read a lot as well as write?

No, I don’t. Except scripts. I can’t concentrate on a book. You start the book and the guy is talking about a garden — and after two pages, I’m in the garden of my grandmother, and I think about my grandmother and that’s it, I’m out. For me, a book is a house without walls. I get in, and I can’t get out. And that’s what I love about film: You have to follow the thing; you can’t go backward or forward.

Do you enjoy producing as much as directing?

It’s not the same job. Producing is being on the bench and screaming to the players on the field, “Faster!” (Laughs.) Being a director is painful. It’s the hardest job, because you’re responsible for everything, you have people asking you questions every three seconds. You have to manage the emotional DNA of everyone on the set, especially the actors. You have to be the general of an army. And then you’re in the editing room. And you see an image of your film that is not your film, and when you’ve finished, you push the film out to the press, who most of the time kill you. It’s a hell of a job.

What makes a good producer?

I don’t know if I’m a good producer. Because a good director makes a good film, even with a bad producer. A producer is really at the service of the director, understands the qualities of the director and maybe the bad parts, and can tell him, “No, you are lying to yourself here.”

What’s the worst part of being a director?

You need to have an extra sensitivity, permanently, from the morning to the end of the day. It’s almost like you take your skin out and people are touching you all day. I remember going back to the hotel at 10 p.m. and watching TV, and they were talking about the opening of a salon of flowers, and you see some old people going there — and I’m crying. It’s terrible. And it’s terrible because you take the skin out and then every morning you put on armor, because you need both. You need to be absolutely nonsensitive. You need to be a general of an army and at the same time, if a flower [touches] your arm, you scream. It’s painful. And honestly, every time you start to film, you remember that. You say, “All right, OK, I’m going to make the film,” and you take the decision, you accept the pain. You never go, “Oh, my God, it’s going to be great! We’re going to do a film!” You know it’s going to be painful.

by Stephen Galloway THR July 17, 2017