Independent Movie-Making: An Interview with Sarah Lotfi
by Catherine Jewell, Communications Division, WIPO
Making a career as a film-maker requires painstaking determination, resilience and vision. It can be a tough road to travel. Film directors are typically hired on the strength of their track record making it very difficult for aspiring youngsters to get a foothold in the industry. The only way in which young filmmakers can build up a portfolio of work to attract potential producers and investors is to start off as an independent filmmaker. The award-winning writer, director and producer, Sarah Lotfi, shares her insights and experiences as one such filmmaker.
How did you get involved in film?
I have always been fascinated by film. Growing up, movies were my window on the world.
So far I have made four short films that have gone on to film festivals. Menschen is by far the most successful. As a student, in 2009, I made The Last Bogatyr, a surreal piece that gave a Russian perspective of the Front in WWII, which was successful on the film festival circuit and helped me really make my name as a young filmmaker and gain credibility among crowd funders. The film was a regional winner and national finalist in the 2010 Student Academy Awards film competition run by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Building on my experience in making The Last Bogatyr, I continued working with what I call historical re-enactors, that is, people who explore new perspectives on historical events, to make Menschen. Given my interest in the WWII movie genre, they advised me to read memoirs of the Wehrmacht. The WWII genre is well developed and I was searching for a new perspective. Drawing on my own experience as the sister of two siblings with severe developmental disabilities, in Menschen I explored what happened to those with severe developmental disorders under the Nazis, and instead of focusing on their tragic treatment, I wrote a positive story of hope and humanity amid institutional brutality; a story, which moves beyond stereotypes and which I hope will have a lasting impact. Menschen has also made it possible for me to draw public attention to these disabilities.
As much as film is about entertainment, I believe it is also about empowerment. Conor Long, who plays Radek, has Down’s syndrome. By casting him in this role we were able to reach out to disability advocacy and support groups. I had a wonderful experience at a film festival recently when a young woman with Down’s syndrome came up to me with a beaming smile to tell me she saw herself in the film.
Filmmaking offers a huge opportunity to create awareness and really touch people. It is such a powerful form of communication. I find it incredibly invigorating to write a story and to see it transformed into an audiovisual work. I think any creator will tell you the same.
Why did you film Menschen in German?
I believe filmmakers have a responsibility to be authentic. In a period movie, this means being as true as possible to the identity of the characters represented. That was why we chose to make the film in German. We even engaged a dialect coach to make sure we got the accents right. This will ensure the film is credible among European audiences.
How long did it take to research and make the film?
From pre-production to locking the cut it took just 9 months in 2012. I am very ambitious as a filmmaker and want to get things done as quickly as possible. Menschen was a large undertaking for a short, independent film. On our first day of filming up to 80 people were on the film set for our largest action shot. Shooting elaborate action sequences takes a great deal of detailed planning and coordination. Even the editing is a lengthy process.
What were the key challenges in making Menschen?
Securing funding is always a challenge for independent filmmakers, and is especially difficult when it comes to small film projects, such as Menschen. We opted to crowd-fund the film, dividing our funding campaign into three phases. This enabled us to raise smaller amounts of money at different stages of the production process and helped ensure we had a constant flow of cash. Crowd-funding has been used to great effect by iconic filmmakers such as Spike Lee and Zach Braff. It also offers unknown, small independent filmmakers like me, an incredible opportunity to realize their projects.
Filmmakers need to know and build their audiences, and crowd-funding is a useful way of doing this. When you make a film like Menschen that appeals to specific audiences, those niche groups are drawn to the film and help build its success.
Independent filmmakers often find themselves in a “catch 22” situation. For example, you negotiate for named talent but the named talent does not want to sign on to your venture because you don’t have the financing in place but the financiers will not commit without the producer bringing assets, such as named talent, to the table. So it goes round and round. That is why crowd-funding is such a blessing for the independent world because you can start building an audience that really believes in your project and this gives you something to really negotiate with, even if you are crowd-funding for smaller amounts and not your whole budget.
Independent filmmakers strive to get known talent involved in their work. This opens doors for them to get their work screened not only in a theatrical setting but also on the film festival circuit. It is becoming a trend among “A” list actors to get involved in independent film projects. Some see an independent film with a good script as an opportunity to play outside their type cast and to play characters they would not normally get with a more commercial production. If it fits in with their schedule, they may take a lower rate of pay to embark on a potentially interesting venture.
Why is copyright important to you as a film-maker?
Copyright is critically important to filmmakers and to the filmmaking process. Filmmaking is a collaborative endeavor and copyright keeps that collaboration flowing. Having produced Menschen as a short film, we are looking to expand it into a feature format. If we didn’t own the copyright in it, we wouldn’t be able to do this. Copyright protects the interests of creators and prevents others from using a work without the creator’s permission. Unfortunately, in our competitive world people don’t always respect the creator. Copyright gives creators the means to defend themselves against the unauthorized use of their work.
What is the role of film festivals?
Film festivals enable filmmakers to promote their work with in the industry. There are many different types of film festivals, some focus on international and domestic releases, others focus on different film genres or subject matter and others just celebrate films. At the end of the day, I am just happy to have my work screened in a setting where people can enjoy it. That ultimately goes back to why copyright and licensing are important. For example, if you have a license to use a piece of music in your film but you only negotiated that license for use in the film festival and then you suddenly find you are negotiating a deal for distribution, having to go back to the source to renegotiate the license for that piece of music, can be costly and hinder negotiations. When negotiating licensing deals you want to secure the broadest coverage so you don’t have to go back and renegotiate a deal.
What is the future of film?
Transmedia is becoming a big thing. An increasing number of are projects using content to create a more interactive viewing experience across multiple media platforms. The possibilities for exploiting creative content are limitless and offer huge opportunities for reaching new audiences and actively involving them in a story. Take for example, Lance Weiler’s short Pandemic 41.410806,-75.654259 which unites film, mobile and online technologies, props, social gaming, and data visualization. The film was a central part of an interactive transmedia Pandemic 1.0 experience at the Sundance Festival in 2011, during which the audience actively worked together to stop the spread of a fictional pandemic over a period of 120 hours. Interest in this kind of interactive experience is being fuelled, I think, by the video-game generation. Video games have become such a major part of youth culture and the industry is really expanding.
What message do you have for pirates?
I understand why piracy exists insofar as films are not always simultaneously available in the desired formats in different parts of the world. The industry is working hard to address this. But as an independent filmmaker it is so hard to create a film and make a living from it. Our IP rights are the only way we can make a return on our investment and respecting these rights is the only way industry will have any chance to grow.
It really saddens me to see people with camcorders going to theatres, recording movies and putting them online. These recordings are nothing close to what the artist intended. As much as I want people to see my film I really want them to actively support the film economy and that will only happen if piracy goes into decline.
Not so long ago, the only way to experience film was at a theatre, but with so many new viewing devices available today, a trip to the cinema is considered an expensive indulgence. That said, as a filmmaker I want people to see how I envision my work. Seeing a film on the big screen with the proper sound equipment is a completely different experience from watching it with ear buds on a phone.
Can you say something about the collaborative nature of filmmaking?
While the concept of a film comes from a single artist or group of artists, filmmaking is a joint effort. Different groups of people come on board at different stages of the process to bring the project to completion. It is impossible for a single person to make a film. Orson Wells said a writer has a pen and a painter has a brush but a filmmaker needs an army. He was absolutely right. Directors are only as successful as their ability to work with the film crew and cast. The role of director is exciting, but can be intimidating because there can be so many obstacles to overcome but there is something incredibly validating as a human being to know that you are collaborating with others and that together you are creating a great piece of work. I think that’s why I like it.
Is digital technology and opportunity or a threat?
Digital technology is always an opportunity because it makes it possible to create quality work at an affordable price. For example, the digital cinema package (DCP) format makes it possible for filmmakers, like me, to exhibit our films in a large theatre with surround sound in 2k resolution (the equivalent of a film print). The cost of converting digital film to film stock is prohibitive compared to the cost of converting into DCP. Without such advances, low-budget filmmakers would be unable to get their work seen. Digital technologies are lowering entry barriers for new filmmakers and fuelling a boom in our industry.
Who are your favorite directors?
What I like most about the medium is its versatility. No film is perfect. There will always be films to enjoy and to learn from. I really like what Joe Wright did with Atonement, Hanna and Ana Karenina. From the classic pantheon of filmmakers I like Ingmar Bergman’s work especially The Seventh Seal and Fred Zinnemann’s A Man for All Seasons.