Recapping the
Big Screen Symposium 2015

FILM
img_bss2015Collaboration and process were front and centre at the fourth annual Big Screen Symposium for New Zealand filmmakers.

I’ve observed the previous two installments of the Big Screen Symposium from the armchair of Twitter, at once seduced by the aggregation of hashtag wisdom and left to wonder what extra value would come from actually being there. Not being the sort to approach celebrities between sessions or to pitch executives over coffee, would I find it worth spending an entire weekend in university lecture theatres, taking frantic notes, making tough choices over what seminars to attend, and mingling with crowds?

Definitively: Yes. Above and beyond the distilled ideas and pithy quotes, there’s an energy to the concentration and focus that the BSS provides, one that’s not just about the event itself but the other attendees. I met Twitter friends, reconnected with filmmakers, producers, and actors I hadn’t seen for years, and came away with a number of useful provocations to reinvigorate my creative muscles, and one formative idea for a screenplay. (And, despite the advice of Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Silva, I’m not sharing it with you. Yet.)

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John Landau with Tom Hern

In some ways, it’s a curious event, as the big tent of the BSS is one that embraces contradictory impulses and motivations. Could a filmmaker learn from both Venice award-winning microbudget filmmaker Jake Mahaffy, who forsook all financial return in order to see his newest feature Free in Deed get made, and Avatar producer Jon Landau[1], who spoke of team-building by way of flying crew members and their families to vacation at his house in the Florida Keys? (I argued yes, to one dubious attendee: we can’t all fly people to the Florida Keys, or even Queenstown, but we can spend time with our collaborators and their families.) I watched tweets fly from a production seminar about the necessity of a business plan for a film at the same time as Love Story director Florian Habicht discussed how he starts shooting before he seeks funding. In his state-of-the-union address, New Zealand Film Commission Chief Executive Dave Gibson declared that one of the NZFC’s next steps would be to work with guilds to define what a successful industry in five years would look like. It’s a good question, and one that’s tough to wrap one’s brain around—what simple statement could encompass Avatar (or the upcoming Avatar 2, 3, and 4) and Free in Deed, or 2015 local box-office smash Born To Dance and Love Story into a single vision of an industry?[2]

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Sebastián Silva

In theory, the focus of the weekend was on collaboration; in practice, at least in my ears, it quickly morphed into a discussion on process. When he wasn’t sharing hilariously troubling anecdotes on working with Christopher Doyle[3], Nasty Baby director Silva charted his progress over five features. “Old ways of making movies have brainwashed us.” He’s moved towards smaller and smaller crews, and for Nasty Baby and Crystal Fairy has worked from well-developed outlines instead of scripts, allowing actors the freedom to find moments and use their own dialogue. While using a similarly open process, Mahaffy has had an opposite trajectory, moving from a one-person film crew to a crew of 12 for Free in Deed, a change that he initially found overwhelming. Mahaffy, Silva, and Florian Habicht[4] all discussed the difficulty of ceding control of the camera, and how much easier it is to get the shots you want when you don’t have to communicate to a DP.

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Rachel Griffiths

But Mahaffy, for whatever traumas he went through, was eager to work again with a similarly-sized crew, and so: collaboration. How you pick your partners and make sure collaboration is successful was on everyone’s mind (except for the guy who kept wanting to know where everybody got their money from, as if knowing the identity of a Chilean funder in 1997 would suddenly send millions of dollars to his doorstep). Rachel Griffiths stole the entire damn weekend with her keynote, based around the four points of wisdom she’d received from her 11-year old son Banjo in how he’d pick collaborators: “Someone not as annoying as shit, someone who’s easy to talk to, someone who doesn’t get too into it and go, like, weird, and someone who knows what they’re doing.” To say that we made a group pledge to be the sort of person Banjo would want to work with probably sounds cheesy and horrible—but we did just that, and it felt pretty damn good, as did participatory exercises revealing a consensus on the least desirable trait in a collaborator: saying no and being closed to other ideas.[5]

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Florian Habicht

Which is its own irony, as for creative, being open to ideas, particularly in the form of negative feedback, was often described as wounding, but always described as necessary. Florian Habicht pointed out that it led him to do re-shoots on Kaikohe Demolition that led to the best scenes in the film. Good ideas come from anywhere, if you’re ready to listen; virtually everybody said some variation of this comment. In this spirit, here are some from the weekend. Take what you need, burn the rest.

Great ideas are never delivered whole.”—Anthony McCarten, whose description of the three-act structure as “a mold into which you can pour your slurry of words” was the most-quoted line of the weekend

Learning opportunities come in the least likely of places.”—John Landau

To go through embarrassment changes your spirit.”—Sebastián Silva

I don’t care about tidy design, I want something real.”—Jake Mahaffy

Never start writing if you don’t have the ending.”—Anthony McCarten

We changed the whole ending in post.”—Jane Campion, discussing Top of the Lake

Plot is what you leave at the theatre, theme is what you walk away with.”—Jon Landau

Shooting this film didn’t feel like a creative endeavor, more like problem solving.”—Jake Mahaffy

It’s important to be comfortable sitting with uncertainty.”—Australian producer Bridget Ikin

You can only give 110% of yourself to so many projects.”—John Landau

Artistic success doesn’t protect from a failure of process.”—Rachel Griffiths

I have a very determinist view. I use anybody who shows up.”—Jake Mahaffy

Don’t work with stressful people.”—Florian Habicht

When you lose fear, you start making mistakes.”—Sebastián Silva

I could do without fear.”—Anthony McCarten

Master your subject completely; know more about your subject than anyone else.”—Sebastián Silva

Write what you don’t know, so that your personal journey is an exploration.”—Anthony McCarten

I don’t care if there’s no smell of me on the project, I just care that it’s good.”—Rachel Griffiths sharing the wisdom of NZ producer Tim White

When you do stuff from the heart, people pick up on it.”—Florian Habicht

Everyone in this room has to be an optimist because nobody’s making any money.”—NZ producer Tainui Stephens

No movie makes sense on paper.”—Jon Landau

You do what you can, not what you want.”—Sebastián Silva sharing the wisdom of Christopher Doyle

There are no rules.”—Jane Campion

Just get out there and do it. Own a camera, it gives you freedom.”—Florian Habicht

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NZFC CEO Dave Gibson

For all the myriad strengths of the weekend, if there’s an elephant in the room at the Big Screen Symposium, one that points to a long-term need for the event to reconceive itself, it’s lurking in plain sight. The very name implies big screens—but more and more, films aren’t being seen on them, and filmmakers are turning to work on the small screen. The television industry, despite the presence of many professionals who work either across both industries or entirely in the former, was almost entirely absent from the proceedings. Dave Gibson noted that “eyeballs,” including television and VOD, were now being used as a metric for successful performance rather than box-office, yet was caught flat-footed when asked if, in the wake of Turbo Kid’s widely reported torrenting, piracy counted towards these numbers. Jon Landau was fiercely passionate about making cinemas a better experience than home viewing could ever be—but what does that mean for filmmakers like Silva, Mahaffy, or Habicht, whose films are unlikely to ever exist in, much less benefit from, 8k 96fps 3-D with 7.1 sound, vibrating chairs, and customized LED screens at the entry to the cinema?

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Jane Campion with Philippa Campbell

It’s telling that the final presentation, from a cheery Jane Campion, focused exclusively on Top of the Lake, her most current work—and a television series. She noted that she only got into filmmaking because she hadn’t found love, and if she ever found love, she’d quit. As Turbo Kid producer Tim Riley prepared for the final farewells, he noted that he won’t wish that Campion finds love, because it would mean she wouldn’t make any more movies. Her reply? “I don’t make movies any more.” For all her smiles, it didn’t feel like a canary in a coalmine succumbing to the fumes; it felt like a miner.

IMAGES
© Soane Tonga 2015, for the Big Screen Symposium.

The Big Screen Symposium is an annual Auckland event. It ran from October 10-11. Other speakers not mentioned in this article include film composer Graeme Revell; screenwriter Duncan Sarkies; documentary filmmakers Chris Pryor and Miriam Smith; producers Chelsea Winstanley, Libby Hakaraia, and Matthew Metclafe; and writer Briar Grace-Smith.

[1] Though I actually am very fond of Avatar, it’s Solaris that I value most amongst Landau’s films, and one that he didn’t mention until I forced the point in the Q&A. He noted that the film shouldn’t have been released on Thanksgiving weekend and they should have made it for 2/3rds the budget, then moved on. Given Landau’s focus on making Avatar sequels for the foreseeable future and his general pride in the number of tickets sold by Avatar and Titanic, I didn’t get the impression he’d be bringing a similar project to screen any time soon.

[2] His proposal—that he could go to a Christmas party with a wide cross section of people and everyone would have seen a New Zealand film they loved in the theatre in the past 12 months—is an intriguing one, albeit unquantifiable.

[3] I’ll skip the one that’s either actionable or libelous (although the first paragraph of this Doyle interview suggests the former), but in the pragmatic realm, Doyle flat-out refused to set up many of Silva’s requested shots. He’d ask for a close-up, and Doyle would reply: “That’s HBO bullshit.” Silva first wanted to fire him, then after surviving the shoot, wanted to move in with him, treating the experience as parental tough love that had strengthened him. (I could write this entire article on Silva’s sessions. He’s fucking hilarious, insightful, and inspiring, and vastly exceeded my expectations.)

[4] I am slightly embarrassed that, at an event that was notable for focusing on and providing voices for numerous talented women, I unconsciously found myself choosing sessions by men instead of women, and thus missed producer Liz Watts (Animal Kingdom, The Rover), What We Do In The Shadows publicist Anna Dean, and director Alison Maclean. Thankfully, key joint sessions featured women, but it’s something I’ll keep in mind for future events.

[5] Jon Landau, relaying his story of going to the producer of Beat Street, on which he was post-production supervisor, along with the music supervisor, and telling him they wouldn’t make a deadline for Cannes, shared that producer’s reply: “I pay you to get it done, not to tell me that you can’t.”

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Doug Dillaman is an American expatriate living in Auckland. He wrote and directed the feature film Jake. He is writing his first novel, edits television for a living, and plays drums for Climate Change.