Source: The Hot Button DP30 Series
Did you like The Master?
Rose Lagace | @artdepartmental
Source: The Hot Button DP30 Series
As a new contributor to Art DepartMENTAL, I will be covering the Art department scene in Los Angeles in greater detail as the months go on. Rose and I thought it would be a good idea to start off with a little bit about myself and my work in the art department through a Q&A. So without further delay, Rose asked and I answered…
I work in Los Angeles. Currently working on a television program for TNT / Warner Brothers at the Paramount Pictures lot in Hollywood. It’s a union show and lasts almost all year, which is a blessing in this town and in these times.
The Los Angeles production scene is complex, and still saturated with people from all over the world who want to work in show business. Every day, there are union shows, non-union shows, student film projects, commercials, videos, web series, art films/projects being shot in our streets, businesses and homes. Everyone in entertainment seems to possess many tiers of activity – a personal project, a project with or for a friend/business contact, a day job, a “filler” job or temporary job and probably another incarnation or creative endeavor on top of all of this activity. The competition for work is extremely high in LA, because there are a ton of talented (and not-talented) people here and not enough well-financed projects to sufficiently hire all of these people. A lot of people matriculate to other cities to find film work, or they simply put together their own project and find financing (or use up all of their savings/trust funds).
We all comply with the hard work that production life demands: long hours, time away from family, friends and lovers, erratic work schedules, variance in pay rates, camp-like daily life in diet and work spaces, etc. There is a definite sense of “us”, the crew who lead the crew life, and “the rest”, the civilians who have jobs that have no ties to the entertainment world. The irregular timing of this lifestyle also ensures that LA is always bustling – there’s no real “dead time” anywhere. Some people are on 14 hour work days, while cohorts have the next 3 days off and can be found at the gym, at coffee shops, shopping or whatever.
I’m part of a generation of art department professionals that came into the craft via film work, not theater production. Many of my teachers, mentors, superiors and co-workers began in theater production, because that’s where set building is expected and began. They learned set design by turning an empty black-painted stage into a set, using flats, furniture, props, lighting, etc. Low budget and student film-making rarely have the budgets to finance set builds, but some do, and every film project needs an art department, so there are people who get into the art department and flourish.
I got into USC film school thinking I would pursue cinematography or visual effects. But I quickly realized that I had little experience with still photography, and I wasn’t a total fixer/tinker-er of machines and such – I was a painter, an illustrator and general art room nerd as a kid. When I realized that art department required a fine artist’s temperament, and should be a person who loved to decorate and create, I found my calling. I took every art department crew position I could manage while still in college and during the summer vacations. I was pretty sure that I wanted to do art department work forever. But then I also took classes at USC that let me meet agents, managers, producers and other above-the-line people, and they intrigued me too.
After graduation, I took some advice from some successful USC alumni and got a job with a talent agency. This is one of the strongest recommendations I got, and one I’d pass along to anybody interested in entertainment at all – try to get a job in the mailroom of a respectable agency or management company, and move your way up to an assistant level at least. Even though it’s a completely different world, very corporate and “suit”, a good long phase in an agency as an intern, a mailroom employee and definitely as an assistant will give you the bearings and skills you need to survive the fast-paced, high pressure work environment that is Hollywood. Agency life humbles you and also stirs the embers of your ambition, if you’re doing it correctly. Also, you are forced to learn every working and important person/name out there, giving you a general but informed sense of how business is moving and where it may go.
I wasn’t that interested in the business representation of actors or directors, but I was/am interested in directors of photography, production designers, editors – crew department heads whom I felt akin to. I wanted to know how they got work. I wanted to know WHO was working, why, how they were like, what kind of money they made, what kind of projects they got attached to, all of it. I was still curious about the “suit side” of Hollywood and wanted to see how I could get along in it and with it, and still be close to production people aka “below the line talent.” At least, I could get a few important phone numbers for the next job – agents and managers have all the contacts in the business, and a good relationship with your agent or agents could segue into a good relationship with a client, which could mean your next big job.
The latter is exactly what happened to me – I became friendly with a production designer client, and when the time was right, my boss/agent let me move on and get a job in the art department with this designer client. I worked my ass off for that agent and for that client. They rewarded me for it and helped me with the Next Big Step. I went from the trenches of the agency bullpen, and straight into the production office and set life (in a different city too! I moved out of LA in a whirlwind for this new job). After that first job, I got into the IATSE 871 union in Los Angeles and began my television career as an Art Coordinator. I kept freelancing in union and non-union shows and projects. Last year, I got into the Art Directors Guild, a goal of mine I’ve had since school!
Difficult doesn’t begin to describe this type of life and work life. You can reference the old stories about artists and entrepreneurs trying to eek out a living, trying to hold onto self-worth while no work arrives, trying to face parents and friends when no paychecks are coming in, when the dreams become muddled and are sometimes lost. Motivation to continue can be punctured by too many disappointing moments and news.
Honestly, the poor state of the economy allows “civilians” to feel the sporadic, desperate, unstable life that many artists and filmmakers experience. But if you keep trying, keep applying, keep making, the work usually arrives.
I’ve talked about this life choice with many people – film life is a marathon. You just have to keep running. You’re the one who decides to stay in or to tap out. You have to do something extraordinary to get thrown out – we all know how many crazy, insane and offensive people work in entertainment and get away with it! So if you have the stamina to keep going AND the talent to back it up – you will most likely succeed.
It’s pretty simple – I love movies. I love motion pictures. I love being part of something that can tell a great story. We get to be kids and somewhat savants – we have to use our imagination and learn complex skills to execute good filmmaking and “tricks.” Succeeding through imagination and hard work is rewarding, socially and creatively speaking.
Union and Non-union are different planets that use the same language. Union work, despite its shortcomings and small injustices and often lackluster product, is the way to go. Going Union means benefits, usually decent pay, and having some protection from producers/companies that can overwork and underpay crew members. Union jobs guarantee that the office kitchen is always stocked and you get paid on Thursdays. There are a lot of older people working on Union jobs, which is beneficial since you are working for and with experienced filmmakers. However, there is a lot of bickering, complaints, lack of care and disillusionment among seasoned crew members – studios and companies tend to take advantage of people, wearing down the morale and passion in many. The competition is also more traumatic because you can go from making upwards of $1200 a week with benefits when working, to nothing, if you miss the opportunity to hop onto another project. The up-and-down lifestyle can wear a person down, especially someone who has a mortgage, children, debt and other expensive, permanent hard costs.
Non-union filmmaking is the wild west. A good non-union crew understands the fundamentals of film-making, and by that I mean they know the BASICS: call sheets, meal times, sufficient and identifiable crew positions, set protocol, and hopefully the knowledge that a project needs a decent budget. You learn a lot on a non-union job and quickly recognize the innovative hardworkers. You learn how to do things the wrong way, and then the means to create a solution out of the problems. You do more than what’s expected and you can pleasantly or unpleasantly surprise yourself. Getting the job done under strenuous conditions makes you the hour’s hero and everyone gets his/her turn to shine. The creative energy tends to be high and complex because you have people who just want to create things with the little they have. That ambitious, dreamers’ energy is fantastic to participate in.
The union world is cushy and sometimes corporate. The non-union world will beat you up and give you that tough skin you’re supposed to have.
Everyone serves the story. If one dares to serve the ego – the personal or collective ego – then the entire work experience can be marred and ruined. If you fail to tell the story because you are distracted by power, budget or entitlement to comforts, then you fail as a filmmaker.
Also, if the crew life is too hard for you, take a break. Or be honest and stop pursuing this line of work. There are a lot of people out there who want a chance to try to succeed in entertainment production and they shouldn’t be held back by disgruntled, ungrateful workers.
Every moment is about how to make something. Art department is focused on “making it real”, making tacit environments and objects that help tell a story – directors have space to navigate, cinematographers have something to film and actors have area to perform. As part of the Art department, you create the make-believe world that other people can only imagine.
I grew up on movies and television shows. I was always in love with the “worlds” that motion pictures could create – fantastic other-worlds, or simply a different view into someone else’s life, someone who could be living in a nearby apartment that is completely visually different from my house. Art department is in charge of manifesting these ideas. We build huge playgrounds so everyone on set and everyone who watches can believe they are somewhere else. We get the first real pass at suspending disbelief. That’s pretty magical.
Dante Ferretti was the only winner to thank his crew, let alone any below-the-line crew. Films get made on the backs of their crew and I was so pleased to see that Dante respects his crew enough to thank them. It was lovely to see him win his 3rd Oscar for his staggering work on Hugo which topped my list for best production design this past year. For once the Academy had it right. Below is Dante Ferretti’s acceptance speech:
“Thank you to the Academy for this prestigious award. A great thank you goes to the producer Graham King and Tim Headington. To all my art department. But the most of all my very special thank you to a eccezionale of director who guide us through this wonderful journey, Martin Scorsese. Thank you, thank you, thank you very much. Grazie, Martin.”
– Dante Ferretti, Production Designer
“This is for Martin and for Italy.”
– Francesca Lo Schiavo, Set Decorator
For a list of all the nominees and winners of the 84th Academy Awards, click here.
[UPDATED FEB 26th: Winners listed with an * in red below]
At 8:30am EST this morning the Academy Award nominees were announced. Hugo led with 11 nominations followed by The Artist with 10. Noticeable snubs included Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling and Michael Shannon among others as well as their amazing films Shame, Drive and Take Shelter. Most shocking of all was the Best Picture nomination for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close as the film has not been all that well-received.
I personally was sad to see The Tree of Life snubbed in the Best Art Direction category as I think Jack Fisk brings with the goods each and every time and still hasn’t won an Oscar for his beautiful and restrained work but it was such a tight category this year. Overall I’m pleased with the craft categories but they really missed the mark with the major categories. They do this every year so I’m not sure why I’m surprised. I like to look at the positive though: At least Robert Stromberg will not be winning an Academy Award this year and with any luck nobody will pull out a hat to put on their Oscar. I could not have handled a threepeat.
I was also very pleased to see French Canadian film Monsieur Lazhar nominated for Best Foreign Language Film as well as Polish & Canadian co-production In Darkness in the same category. I don’t say it enough but I am very proud to be Canadian.
The 84th Academy Awards will be presented on Sunday, February 26, 2012. Here is the full list of Oscar nominees:
BEST MOTION PICTURE OF THE YEAR
The Tree of Life (2011): Nominees to be determined
BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
BEST ACHIEVEMENT IN DIRECTING
BEST WRITING, SCREENPLAY WRITTEN DIRECTLY FOR THE SCREEN
BEST WRITING, SCREENPLAY BASED ON MATERIAL PREVIOUSLY PRODUCED OR PUBLISHED
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM OF THE YEAR
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM OF THE YEAR
BEST ACHIEVEMENT IN CINEMATOGRAPHY
BEST ACHIEVEMENT IN EDITING
BEST ACHIEVEMENT IN ART DIRECTION
BEST ACHIEVEMENT IN COSTUME DESIGN
BEST ACHIEVEMENT IN MAKEUP
BEST ACHIEVEMENT IN MUSIC WRITTEN FOR MOTION PICTURES, ORIGINAL SCORE
BEST ACHIEVEMENT IN MUSIC WRITTEN FOR MOTION PICTURES, ORIGINAL SONG
BEST ACHIEVEMENT IN SOUND MIXING
BEST ACHIEVEMENT IN SOUND EDITING
BEST ACHIEVEMENT IN VISUAL EFFECTS
BEST DOCUMENTARY, FEATURE
BEST DOCUMENTARY, SHORT SUBJECT
BEST SHORT FILM, ANIMATED
BEST SHORT FILM, LIVE ACTION
While enjoying the Toronto International Film Festival I had the incredible luck to speak with the very talented Production Designer Matthew Davies, of Take This Waltz which had its red carpet World premiere here in Toronto this past week. Sarah Polley herself spoke on high about her Production Designer at the screenings and as you can see below she had good reason to champion her designer. Below Matthew speaks about his move from architecture to production design, the UK to Canada, and his production design process from conception to completion.
How did you get into production design?
I originally studied architecture at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University of London (UK). My profs would always accuse me of being too derivative, of being obsessed with cosmetics; finally one day my tutor told me I might as well go and design film sets if I had no personal statement to make. He intended it as a criticism, but for me, it was like a light going on inside my head…
How is the art department and film industry in the UK much different than here in Canada?
A few too many subtle differences to name.
Notably, however, Set Dec supplies everything to Props in the UK, rather than having two very separate departments. There is always a standby art director on set to represent the designer’s interests, as well as a ‘swing crew’ to shift dressing. By comparison in North America, there’s usually just an ‘on-set dresser’ which is way too much responsibility for a single person. Additionally, shooting crews in the UK usually include a standby painter and carpenter. Essentially, the Brits put a lot more care and attention into what the camera sees. On the plus side for Canada, Graphics is a much bigger component and I love the potential of graphics…
When did you make the move to Canada? What made you decide the Canadian film industry would be a better fit for you?
I was born in Canada and have 4 or 5 generations of Canadians in my family tree so it really felt like I was returning to my ancestral roots. London – after a decade of living there – was also getting a little much to deal with and when I came to compare the quality of life in both cities, Toronto won hands-down…
What do you love most about the nature of your job as a production designer? Adversely, what do you least like about the nature of production design?
I love the fact that only production designers get to work in almost any period and every genre of design. We also get to design for character which is so more interesting than conceptualizing an empty-box space. As for my greatest dislike, well, I wish there was more understanding of a designer’s job description; assumptions about the ‘glory’ of building in studio, of always prioritizing the technical over the creative agenda, and the general belief that imagination ‘costs’ – all these issues make my skin crawl.
Who or what inspires your design aesthetic most?
I have amassed a couple of thousand reference books over the years, so these always come in handy. Websites like flickr and google maps get pretty addictive too.
You have had the great opportunity of working with many celebrated directors such as Guy Maddin (The Saddest Music in the World), Fernando Meirelles (Blindness), and now of course, Sarah Polley. What do you look for in a director when deciding to take on a project?
I’ve been very fortunate in the past (and unluckier than you might imagine with regard to all the jobs I didn’t get…) Sadly, I don’t think there will ever come a time when the designer ‘chooses’ the director. Certainly, the collaboration of the DOP is fundamental to me, so this is usually the first question from my lips when I’m interviewing…
You’re absolutely right, you don’t get to choose but I think what I’m wondering is, as a production designer, what you look for in a director that makes the collaboration between filmmaker and designer enjoyable and fruitful?
I’d say a good director is one who champions his or her creative team, and remains open to the unexpected influences of a great location, a happy accident or a random co-incidence. In other words, shooting a movie feels to me as much about ‘documenting the moment’ as insisting on a singular outcome. Some of the most intriguing directors I’ve worked with spend more time watching and listening than actually directing…
How did you get involved on Take This Waltz?
I had originally been attached to “Away from Her” but in the end, scheduling made it impossible for me to come on board. The Canadian industry is (lamentably) rather ‘compact’, so Sarah was obviously on my radar pretty much from the day I arrived in Canada.
From your perspective what is Take This Waltz about and how did you go about expressing this?
The film is really about so many things, though at its centre is the indecision of Margot, torn between two different types of love. Toronto was itself also a major character and strangely, I felt more apprehensive about expressing my home town than anything else.
Can you speak a bit more about the practical side of your design process. Once you and Sarah discussed the design concepts for the film how did you go about expressing and executing that plan?
Sarah was adamant that it should be a location-based shoot (though we did build a couple of interior sets in studio for purely practical reasons like access and lighting). The art department was sharing space with Sarah during Prep so every day she would have to dig her way through all our detritus to get to her desk. We pretty much made it impossible for her to ignore us. That and the fact she’s a human sponge.
When the key locations were secured, we prepared boards of every paint colour, wallpaper, finish and texture and brought them to each space for the DOP to photograph. Dressing ‘boards’ were prepared of every idea and object in consideration and again divided out according to location. Later, we allowed plenty of time on-site to create all the prescribed layers of human history (which also required stills-shoots with our actors for all the incidental graphics). Sarah had a specific interest in the work of Canadian artist Balint Zsako, so we made an approach and asked him to generously donate a good part of his time to the art department cause. Finally, we introduced the actors to their respective spaces during the rehearsal window, allowing them to make their own tweaks and refinements.
What was Sarah’s approach in regards to the design of the film? Did she give you much freedom to explore your own visual concepts or was she very specific with her vision of the film?
Sarah had prepared her own initial look-board for the film as well as a concise yet meaningful visual synopsis. Her own off-hand reference to a ‘bowl of fruit’ was perhaps most helpful in defining the project’s aesthetic parameters. Yes, she invited experimentation; and yet she always had a very strong sense as to what would either work or not work in context. Her contribution was ongoing, always respectful and ensured that all departments kept a close communication throughout.
What was your favourite thing about designing Take This Waltz?
I loved the chemistry of the crew, the unbelievable commitment of my art director, set decorator, in fact, the entire department! Right up the line to the producers, it felt like finally, this was as good as my working experience could ever be… Sounds corny, but it’s true.
Lastly, given your many experiences in both film and television, what advice would you give to young people embarking on a career in the art department?
In the wake of the ‘digital revolution’, the internet and our obsession with ‘docu-drama’, the film and television business is still very much alive and thriving. Budgets may be lower, but with the proliferation of new media, there are more and more films being made and more ways to apply our creative energies.
In short, now is as good a time as any to jump into it. You’re pretty much guaranteed to have some unique experiences to look back on…
You can see more from Production Designer, Matthew Davies on his Vimeo account: http://vimeo.com/10711987 and on IMDB:
Take This Waltz had its World Premiere here in Toronto this past week and will continue its festival run at the Vancouver International Film Festival, Friday, September 30th.
The Teaser Trailers for Take This Waltz
Sources: Matthew Davies, Joe’s Daughter Inc. Used here with permission.
All photos, video, and content are copyrighted 2011.
Tomorrow the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival officially starts its 36th year fully settled in its new home, the TIFF Bell Lightbox. This year it is 11 days from Sept 8-18 and will showcase 339 films- 258 features and 81 shorts. It is the largest public festival in the world and I would say second in popularity only to Cannes. Even the Guardian thinks Venice is scared of Toronto’s new found prowess.
I have been attending the festival for the past 8 years and every year I look forward to it more and more. This is the first year I will be going to TIFF as an Industry member and this has me more excited (and nervous) than ever before. I’m looking forward to networking and continuing my journey to learn this business inside and out. I know a lot of you out there have never been to TIFF or any film festival like it and do not understand all of the hype and hoopla associated with the festival. It’s hard to describe it but it’s sort of like an amusement park run in celebration of the beauty and transcendence of the moving image. To those who love cinema it’s Christmas in September. One film after another of the very best this World has to offer not to mention the electric vibe the city of Toronto has when it’s glowing in the TIFF spotlight.
Like last year I will be live tweeting again (@artdepartmental) from the festival and be sure to follow the TIFF hashtag #TIFF11 to get the inside scoop on what’s hot, what’s not and what’s being bought.
New this year, I will be posting a daily TIFF Diary for the 11 days of the festival letting you know what’s happening at the festival and my general experience as I attend approximately 40 movies in addition to panels, seminars, and parties. To stay updated you can bookmark Art DepartMENTAL, like us on Facebook, or you can subscibe via email or our RSS feed. As always I will try my best to cover the very best of the fest in production design glory. I hope you will come along for the ride!
My Hot Docs marathon continues this week and I just wanted to make sure that short films got their fair shake as well so I made sure to catch a bunch. Here are some of my thoughts on six of the short films playing at Hot Docs this year.
TWO’S A CROWD
Directed By: Jim and Tom Isler | Country: USA
Runtime: 19min 41sec
Synopsis: The key to Allen and Collette’s midlife marriage has been keeping separate apartments, 20 blocks from each other, in New York City. But when financial pressures force Allen to move in with Collette, issues of privacy, independence and bathroom usage call into question the viability of relationships in the modern age. A docu-comedy about romance and rent control.
Review: Two’s a Crowd is the type of film so funny and lovable you wish it were a feature. We meet two people, Allen, 56 and a Libra, he let’s us know, and Collette, 55 with a strong sense of independence, who have seemingly walked out of a Woody Allen film onto the screen. The film catches this couple who have been married for four years but have never lived together just as they are about to make the move. As the economy came crashing down they realised they would have to move in together for financial reasons and reluctantly brace to live together- in the same space- until death do them part. The most interesting thing for me was how much their individual spaces define them and they just can’t let go of that need for separate togetherness. I don’t want to spoil the film so I’ll just finish by saying that this is honestly one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen at the festival largely due to the unique, quirky and comic couple at the heart of the film. It’s a shame it’s only 20 minutes but worth the price of admission.
Playing with: MATCHMAKING MAYOR
Directed By: Zaheed Mawani | Country: Canada
Runtime: 26 min
Synopsis: Three Walls traces the development of the office cubicle since its inception in the late 1960s to its current status as the dominant form of office furniture in North America. More than a bit of social history, this documentary captures the melancholic absurdity of the modern day office and examines the larger issues surrounding the shifting nature of white-collar work.
Review: Three Walls allows us to understand the nature of the office cubicle and its entrapment of the every day office working individual. The film quotes the inventor of the office cubicle, Bob Propst, “One of the dumbest things you can do is sit in one space and let the world pass you by,” which plays as a thesis statement to the impending film. Every thing after this proves that exact point. The film goes on to interview many people who work in office cubicles as they discuss their spaces intertwined with footage of office cubicles being made and an interview with a representative of Herman Miller which first put cubicles or ‘systems furniture’ on the market and their intentions by doing so (120 degree angled separators- not cubes). While all of this sounds pretty boring the cinematography and the hints at visual humor along with some quirky office workers propel the film to a level you wouldn’t think a doc about office cubicles could go. A must-see for anyone who works in an office.
Playing with: MAIDS & BOSSES
Directed By: Sara Nesson | Country: USA
Synopsis: Sara Nesson’s Oscar-nominated debut follows Iraq War veteran Robynn Murray’s harrowing battle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. A one-time poster girl for young women in combat, Murray’s raw emotion devastates and inspires in this impassioned journey towards healing and self-discovery.
Review: Poster Girl follows Robynn Murray’s journey to reclaim her youth while dealing with the pounding after effects of war. She suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a direct result of the horrors she witnessed in Iraq as she vividly describes her time there spliced on screen with photos of the war. We see Robynn on her good days and on her bad. Some days she struggles to contain her rage and others she can barely contain her sadness. On a good day the best she can do is be hopeful that her future will not be as bad as her past. I am glad the film also shows the lack of social assistance she receives due to illness and the struggle to even receive a dime from the military two years after they were done using her as a weapon. I had slight problems with the end being a bit cliche but overall it was a very well told eye opening documentary.
Playing with: MELISSA- MOM AND ME
P.S. YOUR MYSTERY SENDER
Directed By: Benjamin Wigley | Country: UK
Runtime: 9 min
Synopsis: Sir Paul Smith Jr., the English fashion retailer known for creating classically tailored menswear with a characteristic twist, has an anonymous benefactor. For 20 years he’s received a series of highly imaginative gifts in the mail: unsigned, unwrapped, uncanny yet perfectly charming. Who is responsible?
Review: P.S. Your Mystery Sender focuses on creativity in a most unusual form. Paul Smith has been receiving random objects from a total stranger unknown to him since the early eighties. These gifts range from a volleyball to a wagon to a traffic cone, to an E.T doll. I agree with Paul Smith in that there is something very beautiful about this act of randomness. Each object is sent not in a box but with the stamps thoughtfully placed and the address written directly on the object. Even the colour and placement of the stamps are well thought out. What Paul has ended up with over the years is now a diverse, interesting and oddly beautiful museum of random objects. I have mixed feelings about the pace of the film due to some poetic narration that breaks into scenes and some reenactments of the story but overall some of that works in its favour. This part of the narrator’s hypothesis particularly intrigued me, “Objects live too… they travel like hard souls…” This mystery sender has brought new life to seemingly banal objects and changed the nature of which these objects were originally intended.
Playing with: RESURRECT DEAD: THE MYSTERY OF THE TOYNBEE TILES
Directed By: Andrew Moir | Country: Canada
Runtime: 6 min
Synopsis: Tobacco farmer Joe Vanden Elzen was happily tending the land, just like the five generations of farmers who’d come before him. But in 2005, in an effort to curtail the tobacco industry, the Canadian government requested that hundreds of farmers relinquish their crops and say goodbye to their livelihoods forever. Joe was among those who signed the deal and lived to regret it.
Review: Uprooted delves into a family’s regret over taking a government buyout and relinquishing their farm and their livelihood. While I think this documentary is too short and doesn’t give quite enough detail or history on both Joe’s ancestry in farming and why the government was buying out tobacco farms in the first place I think the cinematography saves the day. Almost every shot could be screencapped and hung up on the wall as a beautiful piece of photography showcasing farming life in Canada. The shot inside the tobacco farm is particularly stunning. An astoundingly beautiful film but ultimately lacks depth in some areas.
Playing with: THE CHOCOLATE FARMER
Directed By: Tim Travers Hawkins | Country: UK
Runtime: 9 min
Synopsis: Welcome to Surprise, Arizona, a study in irony. Make yourself at home in a master-planned, gated community of strict standards and rigorously maintained bylaws. Finally, a community for people who think the grass is greener on their side of the fence and the rest of the world should keep out.
Review: Surpriseville is a quiet doc that lets you make your own opinions but also (in my opinion) visually mocks a gated community in Arizona. Surpriseville, Arizona is a cultivated community founded on the idea of community safety. The community is a mish mash of people from all over basically escaping the realities of the real world. Their goals are to keep the community protected, safe, garbage-free, regulated, ‘beautiful’, and ‘enjoyable’. “I’m very happy to sometimes never leave here. We just don’t think about it,” one woman says. These people believe themselves to be among the happiest in the world but I see them as the saddest people in the world. It’s surprisingly (pun intended) comic actually when one father says that kids get snatched up in vans “quite often” in the real world and his wife ironically states, “Fear is what keeps people from being productive. I mean it’s stifling.” It begs the question who is the one living in fear? Me or her in her gated community. Also just wanted to mention- who created these houses in ‘Paradise’ because they are particularly drab and ugly if I do say so myself. Just sayin’.
Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival starts off shortly with Morgan Spurlock’s documentary, POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold about the quantity and persistence of product placement in television and film all while selling branding rights in order to finance that very film. Also playing tonight is Michael Tucker & Petra Epperlein’s documentary, Fightville which gets to the heart of the MMA fighting world in which fighters condition not only their bodies but their minds and souls in order to be the very best.
I had a chance to see a lot of the films receiving early buzz including the two films mentioned above. Check out my thoughts below on what’s hot and what’s not.
Directed By: Cindy Meehl | Country: USA
Runtime: 88 min
Synopsis: The Horse Whisperer may be the stuff of Hollywood legend but the charismatic horseman who inspired the novel and the film is very real. For Buck Brannaman – a true cowboy who is also part guru and part philosopher -horses are a mirror of the human soul.
Review: In this Sundance Audience Award Winner Buck Brannaman, a famed horse whisperer, proves that almost any horse can perform as an extension of oneself if given the proper training. The magnificent thing is that it is not the horses that need the training- it is the humans. Through intermittent discussion of Buck’s own abusive childhood we come to learn what Buck has been through with his own father which in some sense gave him the unique ability to understand a horse’s fears so he could become one of the best horse trainers working today. Buck is the type of film easy to fall in love with as it gets to the heart of why horses are gentle and soulful creatures by nature; it is man who has the ability to turn a horse wild, like a father with his son. There is no need to be a ‘horse person’ going into this film- Buck’s modesty will charm you into leaving a grand admirer of both horses and Buck Brannaman himself.
Directed By: Billy Corben | Country: USA
Runtime: 101 min
Synopsis: The Limelight was one of New York’s most famous nightclubs, but beneath its glamour and celebrity was an underworld of drugs, betrayal and murder. In Billy Corben’s latest documentary, we follow Limelight creator Peter Gatien through his career and the business of clubbing that nearly destroyed him.
Review: Limelight documents Peter Gatien’s humble beginnings in Cornwall, Ontario, Canada and his meteoric rise to the top with clubs in Atlanta and later ‘Limelight’ in New York City. It just so happens that his rise to the top coincided with the rise of the drug Ecstasy which became popular with the generation of club kids that Peter Gatien worked hard to create and populate throughout his clubs. Now while all of this sounds well and good in terms of entertaining subject matter, think again. This doc is a mess- from story-telling to tacky graphics I don’t know where to start. The first half doesn’t know where it’s going or frankly if there is a story arc to be had. Eventually they get to the point near the middle of the film which is the court case against Peter Gatien accusing him of knowingly turning a blind eye (no pun intended) to the drug culture he created which ultimately led to his deportation to Canada. The worst part is the film is so one-sided it feels like a Pro-Peter Gatien propaganda film. In the end it’s interesting subject matter told atrociously with no new details. I wish I could say it was better.
Directed By: Michael Tucker & Petra Epperlein | Country: USA
Runtime: 85 min
Synopsis: In a small gym in Louisiana where competitors mop up their own blood between battles, Dustin Poirier and Albert Stainback are two young fighters with potential and a dream. Through their trials, the nuanced tactics and extreme self-discipline of MMA become apparent. This is a brutal sport but there is a surprising grace and spirituality to it.
Review: Fightville follows two fighters who want to be the very best in the MMA fighting world in order to get signed by the UFC. While violence may dissuade some viewers I think that the film is very respectful in what we see on camera and never shows us brutality for entertainment’s sake. I just want to reiterate that this is not a sensationalist telling of a bloodsport. I really appreciated fighter Dustin Poirier’s passion as redemption from his past and the channeling of his energy into what is now a very well managed and regulated sport. We come to see that the most important thing is not just the physical conditioning these men receive in training but the technical and mental conditioning. This is proven in one of my favourite scenes where Albert is unprepared and coming up short after he lets life get in the way of his goals. In the end you will leave understanding these men, what they do, why they do it and how they’ve come so far in a sport so often misunderstood.
Directed By: Constance Marks | Country: USA
Runtime: 76 min
Synopsis: This Sundance Special Jury Prize winner is heart-warming and fun for the whole family. Being Elmo is the inspiring story of how a shy nine-year-old Kevin Clash pursued his dream of becoming a puppeteer on Sesame Street. Raised in a low-income community, Clash’s talents were evident in his homemade prototypes and the puppet shows he staged for his mother’s daycare kids. But it was after his first gig on a local children’s TV show that he was truly on his path.
Review: Being Elmo is the story about the man behind the muppet. We meet Kevin Clash, a.k.a ‘Elmo’ who shows us his humble beginnings in a low income black community and how he stumbled upon puppeteering at a very young age. He saw his dreams come true so quickly he could barely believe his luck. What becomes very apparent during the film is that this wasn’t just luck, it was single-minded determination and supportive parents not to mention the puppeteering pioneers such as Jim Henson who took him under their wing and nurtured his innate talent for bringing these characters to life. The film also reminds us that every success has its price and certainly Kevin has had to sacrifice his relationships and his time in order to allow Elmo to ‘love’ the masses. However if you’re looking for a feel good doc to make you feel all warm and fuzzy this is most definitely the documentary for you.
THE BULLY PROJECT
Directed By: Lee Hirsch | Country: USA
Runtime: 94 min
Synopsis: The Bully Project follows five kids and families over the course of a school year. Stories include two families who have lost children to suicide and a mother who awaits the fate of her 14-year-old daughter who has been incarcerated after bringing a gun on her school bus. With rare access to the Sioux City Community School District, the film gives an intimate glimpse into school buses, classrooms, cafeterias and principle’s offices- offering insight into the often cruel world of children.
Review: The Bully Project stands up for every kid whose ever been bullied and brings their story to the forefront in a heart-wrenching and beautifully weaved portrait of the bullying crisis in America… and YES- it is a crisis. The filmmakers go in from all sides including child suicides due to bullying. It continues to show us what is and isn’t going on between teachers, principals, students and most importantly their parents. Among the case studies, we meet Alex, age 12, who is picked on and abused almost daily but when his parents finally find out and talk to the principal they are treated with general ambivalence. What’s frustrating is that the teachers, counselors, principals and parents are trying but it takes the parents of the offending child to also appropriately take action. We are made witness to the fact that there are no easy answers, but also understanding that the ‘boys will be boys’ excuse is not an acceptable response and open dialogue in communities will help to create solutions. From the end of the film: Text ‘BULLYPROJECT’ to ’30644′ to help make a difference.
Directed By: Morgan Spurlock | Country: USA
Runtime: 90 min
Synopsis: How can a documentary become a blockbuster? Observing that all big Hollywood movies rely on product placements to generate mass awareness, Morgan Spurlock and producing/writing partner Jeremy Chilnick set their sights on the advertising world for their new project, a doc-buster built on branding. Spurlock buys into marketing mania to tease out the myriad methods by which products are woven into the fabric of corporate entertainment.
Review: Morgan Spurlock does it again with a documentary as entertaining as it is informative. Morgan’s goal as he starts out on his journey is to make a film funded by product placement about product placement. Along the way we the audience learn about brand collateral and brand personality and how the film and TV industry sell out daily in order to market their films better and get their project to the masses. While all of this may sound dry and boring the film is largely a comedy about a man on a mission to get a film made come hell or high water while remaining completely transparent as he ‘sells out’. By the end of the film, as we become inundated with advertisements, even Morgan starts to wonder, “Have I sold out?” By trying to exploit big brands (in a matter of speaking) has he gone to the dark side? I will say that working in the art department, this film gave me unique insight into how I myself am affecting the viewer every time I pick up the phone to add product placement to a project. I will think twice.