Producing The Descendants: a Case Study Made Available Thanks to Sheri Candler and Twitter
Marketing and publicity specialist Sheri Candler, who is no stranger to mentorless, was also there to talk about Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance and live tweeted the conference as well as The Descendants‘ study case.
If you are not following Sheri Candler yet you should, she is at the epicenter of the current independent filmmaking movement, moving all over the country to attend panels and conferences, and tweeting about it as often as she can.
Below is a transcript of her live tweets.
I particularly recommend The Descendants case study as Jim Burke shared a lot about pretty much every steps taken to make the movie happened and some of them might surprise you.
” The Panelists are Jennifer Steinman (Motherland), Jim Burke (The Descendants), and Nekisa Cooper (Pariah). Each film has a social issue as its heart and exposes ideas that aren’t often covered in film. They are challenging.
- Pariah had the universal message of coming of age, but also deals with coming out, homelessness, the family dynamic.
- The Descendants had indigenous land rights as an element of the story and they wanted to weave it in. But it isn’t centrally about that.
- Motherland has grief as an issue at its heart. Steinman was drawn to exploring how people overcome grief. She wanted to test the theory that volunteering is a coping mechanism for grief and that you heal through giving. She sees doc filmmaking as paying attention, letting the story develop. Not going in with a predetermined story.
- Question to Jim Burke: why Hawaii? Couldn’t it have been somewhere else?
Answer: Burke said this question came up from financiers too, mostly because other states have better tax breaks. But the story was based on a book, Hawaii was a character in the story. They wanted to be true to that story. Burke was drawn to the story because he is like the main protagonist. Suddenly single father story, scared of raising a daughter. It is rare to find a support group for single fathers raising daughters. When this script explored that, it drew him, but everyone who worked on it saw a different element.
Nekisa Cooper next film is a documentary on elderly sex workers in Mexico. It is set around a ‘home’ where they all live and how they are each other’s support network.
Pariah is on DVD April 24, still in some theaters, also on VOD and iTunes. Finally questions on how they got people to see the film. Pariah wanted to spark the dialog. Ultimately Focus did its work. They have access to wide media that spurs the attention from a wide audience, but Cooper believes that the way the story unfolded helped to keep people in the seat when they watched it.
Steinman says people don’t want to be told what to think, social issues film do that too much. It’s a delicate balance entertainment/message.
- Question: challenges of producing over the years?
Answer: Burke says he started focusing on movies he personally would go to see. More success found.
All make specialized films. Means they roll out gradually, usually more challenging, must be handled very carefully. They aren’t specifically wide audience movies, they don’t open wide from the start. Budgets are much smaller, carefully handled.
Steiman talks about finding the right character for her documentaries. Takes a development period to figure that out. Sometimes doesn’t. Very important in documentaries to have a good ‘character’ to follow in the film. Someone dynamic, mesmerizing. In narrative you need to make that character up, in docs you actually have to find the real person.
- Question: Why make films that cover social issues rather than focusing on making money/sustainability?
Answer: Cooper admits she doesn’t have a biz model. She pieces together a living from other things in order to tell these stories. Steinman relates that one producer says people make films because they can’t help themselves, not for money, not for sustainability. You make a conscious choice to live as an artist. If you don’t want that, you shouldn’t do this. Burke says sometimes you have to do some films for the Man, just to keep going with what you love. You will have to balance projects to make money and projects YOU need to make no matter what. Producers work at the intersection of art and commerce. Burke says there are two people: problem identifiers, and problem solvers. Work with the solvers. It is also necessary that the team is all making the same film.
Sheri Candler: I will add to the art/commerce talk, if you are a director who is also producing, understand the commerce, not just the creative.
The Descendants, a Case Study:
Question #1: How did you find the story?
Answer: The story came to him from a literary agent as an unpublished manuscript who knew the kind of films they make. No aliens, no big stunts etc. Intro’d to him as a film set in Hawaii. he felt it was an adaptable book that could be honed down to a manageable story for the screen. There were other bidders for the option. They have a relationship with Fox Searchlight and pressed them to act quickly. He wanted to option it to make it, not option to consider it. Clooney wanted it too for his own company but when Burke’s company won the option, Clooney did not get involved immediately.
They interviewed a lot of writers, settled on Rash & Faxon, and commissioned them.
Question #2: How did you find them?
Answer: They looked at other examples of their work saw they could crack this kind of story. Stephen Frears also became attached as a potential to direct, but when he got further into it, he felt weird about it. He bowed out. Then many other directors became interested. They finally coaxed Payne into the director’s chair.
A lot of time the scripts you think are air tight, but when getting on set you realize things don’t work and you have to adapt. The film was financed by Fox Searchlight from their relationship with that company. Payne went to Toronto to pitch Clooney, then sent the finalized script and Clooney accepted. The deal with Clooney was worked out after he said yes. Got the verbal, then put it on paper.
The Descendants was made for $23 million. The pre-production took them to Hawaii to really find out how it ticked. They lived there for a month. They wanted to show this film was set in Hawaii, not in Hawaiian resorts, but the real life.
The production lasted 52 days and Clooney was there the whole time. The hardest role to cast was the youngest daughter, the girl they picked had never been in a film. It was quite a learning curve for all of them. Several cast members iPhone auditioned first before coming in to read.
Answer: Burke sees his work on set as a life guard. It helps if the directors know what they want and how to get it done on set.
Answer: Payne knows exactly what he wants, actors should not riff, he has artistic confidence. His confidence breeds confidence in everyone, not just the actors. Clooney was always prepared and respected the director. Even though he is a director himself, he does not try to do that on set. He made a bet with Ed Helms, who visited the set that The Descendants would win the Academy Award. He had to pay up.
There was no scrore, all previously recorded Hawaiian music. No score meaning no originally composed music for the film.
Question #5: Marketing and Distribution?
Answer: They were involved in it but didn’t win most battles on this film. Their version of the trailer would have been different. They are not guaranteed a number of screens. Searchlight decides this when the film is ready. It spent a long time in post. Did lots of test screenings, made tiny edits along the way.
The original idea was to debut in Cannes, but they felt it would be too long in the world before the official roll out. It debuted at Telluride.
Studio sometimes waits to decide how much marketing they will do until they see it screen in front of an audience. Did lots of ‘word of mouth’ screenings, rely on that to get the momentum going. Ultimately the Box Office worldwide is $171 million and it played domestically on over 2000 screens.
This success never means it will be easier to make the next film.
Question #6: Does Burke negotiate with the Studio on release date/roll out?
Answer: Yes, they do negotiate, but studios have more data to make decisions. They intended to roll out to be around the holidays. As this is an adult film, adults mainly see films in Q4, not the summer.
Sheri Candler: my note: films made specifically with an eye for awards usually release in Q4. It is a Weinstein engineered strategy.
Question #7: Can you equate a $23 million to a $10,000 film?
Burke: Need a great script, need to have a great plan, winging it rarely works. The plan is project specific, there is no magic formula.
Question #8: Test screenings?
Answer: Good to have a crowd that isn’t rooting for you. You need to feel the energy of the room, their reaction. It helps you gauge what needs to be improved. Sometimes people don’t know why they do or don’t like what they saw.
Question #9: Do you think these kinds of films will continue to prosper in the digital/online space?
Answer: Yes, there will always be a market for a good film.
Hopefully this is the first of many more great live-tweets.
To Be Continued…
check the archives for a taste of it.