4 Conversations with Filmmakers from the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival

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The 2010 Tribeca Film Festival marked a significant moment in the world of independent film: for the first time a selection of the festival's feature-length films were made available online at or around the same time as their world premieres.  Some of these titles, including Climate of Change, Road Movie, The Infidel, The Trotsky and sex & drugs & rock & roll are now available for rent in the YouTube Store. We asked some of the directors of these films about their festival experience, the future of movies in the age of digital, and the effect of distribution strategies on the creative process.

What was the inspiration for your film?
Brian Hill, director of Climate of Change
The inspiration for the film was a desire to move on from the kind of environmental films that had showcased the science of climate change and the perilous state the earth was in.  I’d seen and very much liked An Inconvenient Truth but felt that there was room for a film in which we heard from ordinary people around the world who were concerned about environmental matters and felt that they could offer something.  So in a sense the inspiration for the film was the belief that all of us can make a difference.
 
Jacob Tierney, director of The Trotsky
I always loved high school movies... and Leon Trotsky. My parents sent me to therapy to cure one of those things. It didn't work.
 
Josh Appignanesi, director of The Infidel
The Infidel, about a Muslim who finds out he was born a Jew, was inspired by a number of things - not least David Baddiel's (the writer's) experiences growing up. Of Jewish origin, he was beaten up on two spearate occassions: once for being thought Jewish, once for being thought Pakistani. Then there was Omid Djalili and his stand up - the first of the "2nd generation" standups to really mine the prejudices and presumptions of the post cold-war identity politics - east vs west, Muslim vs Christian, middle east vs Jewish and what have you - in an inclusive and enabling way.  There's something very warm and non-misanthropic about his humour and that was a necessity for our subject matter.  I too have a mixed background, actually a transatlantic one, hence an American Richard Schiff's character as the Jewish "buddy".  I loved the idea of colliding of a kind of 80s body-swap high-concept comedy idea with the most vexed politics of our era... There's low-status British comedy combining with American indie and screwball lineages, so with the form as well as the content I wanted to bring together different cultures. 
 
Dev Bengal, director of Road, Movie
I’ve always wanted to make a road movie. It’s a genre I love and one I thought was also so quintessentially Indian and at the same time universal too.
While I was at NYU I saw Preston Sturges' "Sullivans Travels" and loved every bit of it -- the writing, the humor and the theme in the movie which stayed with me for long. Sturges was also one of the first writer directors in Hollywood which was really inspiring. And then there’s the Travelling Cinemas of India. A truck with two film projectors and a box full of film travelling into the wild. It’s one half road and one half movie. Here was a film waiting to be made. I found of these cinemas and I called the young 24-year old man who was it and asked to meet him. I drove 6 hours outside Bombay to an open barren field, where I met him. I waited for him to set up the cinema but he seemed in no hurry. After a few more hours of waiting I began to think nothing was going to happen. I asked him, “what are you waiting for? Aren’t you going to set this up?” He shook his head and said he’d wait. “And what if no one comes,” I asked in despair. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “I’ll drive elsewhere.” I looked around. It was barren, deserted and empty. There was no chance in hell anyone was going to appear. I began to get restless and annoyed; I’d driven 6 hours out for nothing. It was a wasted trip. But something made me stay on. Till today I don’t know what it was. At around sunset I saw a few people in the horizon. The young man responded quickly. He  stretched a large bedsheet out which became a screen and set up the cinema. By 9pm there were 3,500 people who had gathered. I was speechless. He began screening movies through the night. At some point around 4am I fell asleep. When I woke few hours later there was no one in sight. Everyone had disappeared. There was not a trace of anyone. What I saw and went through was all so real and yet in the morning it felt like I’d been in a dream. And somewhere at that moment the film came to me.

Mat Whitecross, director of sex & drugs & rock & roll
The inspiration for the film came from Ian Dury's life and from his music - his family and friends were instrumental in communicating that to us. On top of that, we unearthed a huge amount of period research in the form of interviews and documentaries - and YouTube clips of Ian's performances and interviews were instrumental in me deciding to come on board the project at the start. Aside from that, there were a few films that we drew on - not directly - but that we could talk about as general influences; above all 8 1/2 and All That Jazz.
 
At what point in the process of making your film did you start thinking about your distribution strategy?  Did it have any affect on your creative process?
 
Brian Hill, director of Climate of Change
I don’t think I ever consciously thought that much about a distribution strategy.  What I did think about was how a film about the environment might impact people and draw in an audience and I thought that the best way to do that was to concentrate on the ordinary and everyday experiences of people.  So in terms of the creative process I wanted the film to be simple in structure and feature great characters.  And I was also, right from the start, determined to make a film that looked and sounded great.
 
Jacob Tierney, director of The Trotsky
Beyond securing Canadian distribution (which we need to get financing), all I really wanted was to make the best movie I could. I figured that would give me the best chance of getting my film seen.
 
Josh Appignanesi, director of The Infidel
We had to consider distribution from the start because even with a small indie movie in the UK you can't get finance up front if you don't have a distributor.  From the start there was a lot of distrust of whether the idea would work comedically or whether it would cause too much controversy, yet on the other hand there was great demand for the idea, from international pre-sales and just people responding to the script. You have to walk a line between something that's too cartoony, that has no teeth whatsoever, and something that is inclusive rather than exclusive or alienating, a kind of humor that is non-misanthropic rather than setting out to offend. Within that gentleness, we looked at the comic stereotypes we were using and tried extra hard to subvert them.  And actually the most subversive thing is perhaps simply presenting a family who happen to be Muslim but are essentially everymen, everypeople.  The son doesn't become a suicide bomber, the dad doesn't become a fundamentalist, they're just an ordinary rather flawed family, vaguely religious but not in any thought-out or political way. Muslim and Asian audiences have really embraced that - the normality of that.  We always talked about creating a "muslim Homer Simpson."
 
Dev Bengal, director of Road, Movie
I was fortunate to have an incredible studio, Studio 18, support me on this journey. They loved the script and believed in the film. I also had the most incredible sales company - Fortissimo come early on board. The screenplay was an official selection at Cannes in their Atelier du Cannes section. So the filming process was a relaxed one. But getting US distribution was a distant dream. When we heard about Tribeca Film taking my film - it was like that moment with the travelling cinema! It’s a historic moment for us- it’s been a long-long time since an Indian independent films has got US distribution.  
 
Mat Whitecross, director of sex & drugs & rock & roll, with producer, Damian Jones
We intentionally financed the film’s budget out of the UK as initially the subject matter  seemed to exclude international monies. Once film was complete and our UK release was underway, we obviously wanted to maximize its appeal globally and believe we had a universal story that was not dependent on any prior knowledge of the man or his music, focusing o the father / son relationships in the film. This had indeed been an early creative decision for the film to reach a wider audience, otherwise we might as well have made a niche documentary.
 
Can you tell us a bit about applying to festivals?  What advice would you have for a filmmaker who's getting ready to submit his/her film for festival consideration?
 
Brian Hill, director of Climate of Change
Climate of Change was actually rejected from a number of festivals before being accepted at Tribeca.  I think that’s because there is a certain kind of film that is seen as a “festival film,” a film that people in the industry like and want to promote.  What was great about Tribeca was a recognition that festivals can become inward looking and solipsistic and that to be really effective they should broaden their remit and attract a wider audience than industry professionals.  In other words, take the films to regular people.  So my advice would be to choose your festivals carefully.
 
Jacob Tierney, director of The Trotsky
There's not a lot to say about applying to festivals. Make sure you apply to the biggest and brightest first, because you don't want to end up premiering at a little festival, and have your film deemed ineligible to go to a major (festivals are getting more and more political, and more and more obsessed with "premieres").
 
Josh Appignanesi, director of The Infidel
Submit widely and don't take the knock-backs personally! 
 
Dev Bengal, director of Road, Movie
It's easy to be tempted by the big names. They are seductive and cool to be a part of. But one runs the risk of getting lost. I’d suggest looking at the smaller ones, the specialist ones. That’s where my first film was discovered. Your first public screening is a special moment and a nerve wracking one too. So choose a festival where your film will be cared for, loved by the team, understood and given the right platform to be seen and your voice as a filmmaker heard.
 
Mat Whitecross, director of sex & drugs & rock & roll, with producer, Damian Jones
Look at deadline applications and time the completion of your film to the most realistic both in one’s own domestic territory and in foreign markets. Look at criteria as festivals are strict on length.
 
What did you learn about your film watching it with an audience at the Tribeca Film Festival?
 
Brian Hill, director of Climate of Change
I learned that there is an appetite for documentary and that people want to watch films that don’t preach to them or patronize them.  My best experience at Tribeca was a screening we had for 500 New York schoolchildren.  They were enthusiastic and receptive and it made me realize that you can’t second guess an audience, you can’t really say for certain who will like your film or why they will like it.
 
Jacob Tierney, director of The Trotsky
That New Yorkers want more socialism!
 
Josh Appignanesi, director of The Infidel
Putting comedy in front of an audience is more brutal than any other genre: you know when it's working, and when it's not. I was curious to see how it would go down with a US audience - the cultural specificity of some of the gags - the different weighting of the terms Muslim and Jew here for example is a little different - but more importantly the overall sense of whether it entertains. The film mines a vein of humour which you could call American Jewish - hence Richard Schiff's character - and New York is a city that better than any other understands both the anxiety and the comedy that comes from groups of immigrants clashing. So I had high hopes. And if anything, the festival audience enjoyed it more whole heartedly than at home. Perhaps New Yorkers are just less repressed than Londoners. 
 
Dev Bengal, director of Road, Movie
It’s the best film school I could ever go to. The Tribeca audience taught me stuff no film could ever. It was like being in a Directing Master Class. Story, Story, Story. Pacing, Rhythm, Performance, Subtlety, Directness, the list is endless. That’s what I learned. The things that worked in my story and the bits that did not. What I could have done and what I should be doing for my next one.
 
Mat Whitecross, director of sex & drugs & rock & roll
We were 50% excited, 50% terrified about showing the film at Tribeca. Would people know about Ian's life? If not, did it matter? In the event, we had a fantastic mix of die-hard Blockhead fanatics, and new recruits to the cause. All of them embraced the film enthusiastically, which was such a relief. There's nothing like an NY audience to tell you what they really think of your film.
 
Where do you think independent cinema will be in 5 years?
 
Brian Hill, director of Climate of Change
I think independent cinema will be healthy in five years from now as long as it moves with the times and embraces new ways of reaching people.  In that respect, Tribeca is way ahead of the game compared with other festivals.
 
Jacob Tierney, director of The Trotsky
In 3-D. And blue.
 
Josh Appignanesi, director of The Infidel
I don't think anyone knows. The fear is that between 3D tentpoles in the studio system and internet piracy and alternate entertainments the indie sector will just be squeezed nearly out of existence. We'll see. I think there'll always be cineastes and creators who'll struggle to see their visions realised in this incredibly powerful medium; the question is how far they'll be able to go with what remains, despite the supposed benefits of 'digital', a very expensive medium. I wonder to what extent broadcasters and public service could come to play more of a role again. I'll be keeping my eyes open...  
 
Dev Bengal, director of Road, Movie
In five years, Indie cinema will have swamped everything else. Look at it now- in terms of numbers I think it beats everything else. I’m a never say die person. I don’t see the independent spirit disappearing - EVER. In fact,You Tube and other online forums are the new screens where new voices are born by the hour. There’s such incredible work being created here it’s jaw dropping. A few years ago no one would have ever imagined that something like this would exist.
 
Mat Whitecross, director of sex & drugs & rock & roll The optimist in me would like to think they'll be a new renaissance in indie cinema over the coming years, in the same way there was during the '80s and '90s. The internet and home cinema will open up a new audience to these movies and enable low-budget filmmakers to connect with them in a way that simply wasn't possible before. The new initiative by Tribeca and Amex - to proactively take festival films into viewers' homes - is at the forefront of that movement. I'm very excited about the future...




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