Looks like we made it… – Barry Manilow
Today marks the 250th review of Celluloid Breakfast! Thanks again to everyone who visits the site, regardless of how often – you have given me the drive to keep going and to discover cinematic gems from all over the place. Lately I haven’t updated as frequently as I would like, but rest assured I will work on this, with particular focus on more recent films.
So what next? Well, you are more than welcome to read review #250, which discusses Med Hondo’s sharp-tongued Soleil Ô, but in celebration of this milestone, I have a very special post to contribute. Harry Dehal, director of independent low-budget feature Oceania (reviewed on this blog here) has graciously donated his time for an interview, discussing his film work and the future for independent filmmakers.
Let’s begin with your film Oceania. The story deals with two teenagers who are at odds with their home lives, and both seek some form of escape. This project was your first, and your tender age during the film’s production combined with the intimate shooting style suggest that it is a very personal piece of work. Would you say that making Oceania has given you your own escape?
I would not say it was extremely personal, insofar as all of us who were writing it were actually going off personal experiences – we were not for the most part. The personal touch that was there however was a lot of that teenage angst and that grim, depressed view of the world that a lot of (young) people tend to share at that age. I think a lot of us who did work on the film have cheered up a bit since then!
In a way then, the film is your send-off to adolescence?
That sounds reasonable. We were trying to film and create a world around the limits of our lives... We had our own homes and local neighborhoods to shoot in, so we tried to get as much bang for our buck in terms of drama. While I wanted to put our teenaged feelings out there, I also wanted the film to come across more seriously.
You open the film with a François Truffaut quote: “I have always preferred the reflection of the life to life itself”. Should cinema always be a fantasy?
Well I've always thought that the best films are those that bring to light the human condition and show reality, not fantasy, at its darkest hour. The types of films that make you feel angry, happy, fulfilled, disappointed, fearful, etc. Oceania was not one to fit in that category. Quite honestly, I dislike "fantastical" or fantasy films.
I should admit that during the time I was filming Oceania, I was very much into David Lynch amongst other directors, which may add into the fantasy element of the film.
There is definitely an illusory quality to the film which could be described as 'Lynchian'. I'm thinking in particular of the dream-like sequence where Steve drives through the night, which also harks back to Truffaut and the escapism of 400 Blows. Which other filmmakers had a strong influence on the production of Oceania?
I'm trying to remember. I know my biggest influences back then were Wong Kar Wai and the cinematographer he usually works with, Christopher Doyle. I think the cinematography and flow they produce together is phenomenal, so I really tried to focus my own photographical efforts with their style. I also recall my starting to follow Hou Hsiao-hsien with his film "Millennium Mambo" in terms of stylism and story. It's still a favorite of mine today. There was also the trilogy by Krzysztof Kieślowski… But I feel bad about dropping all those names, because my film doesn't come out nearly as meaningful as I would hope for it to be. At the time I was young and I was watching all these great directors and cinematographers and I was overwhelmed. I was trying to learn how to shoot my own film while also trying to make all those references. It was a unique learning experience, to say the least. Perhaps trying to juggle too many things at once. That's a common mistake, I've learned, for young filmmakers. To want to make references.
Do you feel then that these references detracted from the personal aspects of the film?
Well, because the film wasn't extremely personal to those of us who were making it, I'm not sure it was too negative of an effect. I think it was worst during the writing stages, where we wanted to incorporate a lot of references and "ah-ha" moments, which due to our crazy shooting schedule (filming was spread out and took about a year), never really panned out. There are still a few of those moments, but things ended up being more subtle. I still think references are important. So much has been done in film for decades, it's hard to be original, but I feel the biggest thing I've learned is that the strongest opportunity to be original comes in writing the story... which is something I'm trying to work on improving in the future.
In light of the current state of Hollywood, what is your opinion on remakes? Do they serve any purpose beyond making money?
Well, I shouldn't comment on Hollywood because I'm certainly not a part of that picture, and I don't have any experience there. As a cineaste, I have to say sometimes it bothers me that great films that may be foreign end up being remade. Examples include Shall We Dansu?, which is one of my all-time favorite Japanese films. It was butchered. In recent news, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is going to be remade. But if you want to see how mixed my feelings are about the state of remakes--David Fincher, of all American directors, will be remaking it. I've always regarded him as a genius of sorts, and I've loved his films since I was a child. (Though I did love the Swedish version as well and thought it was perfect. I wouldn't change a thing personally, but we'll have to see what happens).
At the very least, it should be interesting to see Fincher's take, given the positive reactions to the book and the film. How about the recent craze for 3D? Do you think it is possible for a 3D film to reflect adequately on the human condition, or is it just one big special effect?
I've actually avoided seeing any 3D movies. I remember reading a debate on the state of 3D and how Hollywood is trying to push it. A lot of people say it's because they can command higher ticket prices. A lot of other people rather-mockingly argue that the naysayers would have said the same thing about Technicolor or the transition to sound/talkies from silent films... I think it may as well be considered another tool. If a filmmaker is adept at pushing forward the story with 3D, I think that's great. One thing that does worry me is that the gap in technology ALMOST closed in the past 5 years. Independent filmmakers have suddenly been able to shoot on cameras costing anywhere from $1,000 USD to $10,000 USD which absolutely compete in terms of quality and picture with the big-boy cameras that Hollywood uses which start in the $100,000s. But with 3D, it will become yet another technology that is expensive and difficult for independent filmmakers to breach. It'll widen the technology gap a little. But that's only if it picks up in a more mainstream fashion and becomes the status-quo. Fortunately, I don't think that's going to happen on a large scale anytime soon. (Which is good. I think independent filmmakers love keeping that technology divide as small as possible!)
Continuing your point about the closing gap in technology... in addition to high-quality cameras becoming increasingly available to the public (the Canon 550D is a recent example which I'm personally trying to get my grubby student hands on), there is also the internet, which has clearly been of great use for you in terms of recruitment and gaining exposure. Do you think the internet will help to close the gap between the indie filmmaker and the Hollywood producer?
I think the Internet has changed things quite a bit. When we were filming a few years ago, we certainly used the Internet to recruit actors. And since Oceania did not get distribution, I ended up releasing the "DVD" version online and it's afforded me an audience I was never expecting. I think the number of downloads for the film is at the 25,000 mark as of now. I recall when we were filming, we would have been ecstatic if we could get even a few hundred to watch our little film. There are even more tools out there now. I'm sure you've heard of Kickstarter and IndieGoGo amongst other sites. They're basically "crowdsourcing" money to artists and helping raise money for projects. I feel like an old man because "back in the day," you had to work, go to school, take the bus, and still count on friends and family for money and donations, and you'd STILL go into debt and lose money to make your film. Which is what happened to me with Oceania. Nowadays you post your project online and you can raise upwards of $10,000 easily. I'm extremely jealous of that aspect. It would have made my life a lot more easier, and perhaps, the film a lot better had I not needed to worry about the money. But it's just another aspect of how the Internet is democratizing independent film. It's certainly a good thing. I'm not sure Hollywood or producers will get entirely cut-out of the scene--certain independent filmmakers have been saying that for decades now, but the Internet and new technology (like using DSLRs to shoot movies) is allowing more voices to be heard.
Are you likely to use a similar scheme in the future?
I was actually planning on using Kickstarter to raise money for my next film, but I'm still worried. It seems like a lot of people have beat me to it, and that things are getting saturated. I may still consider it in the near future for my next project.
I've been planning and writing my "next project" since Oceania got out of festival play. So about two years now. It's supposed to be a drama about the Indian diaspora living in United States, specifically the San Francisco Bay Area. I think one of the weakest aspects of Oceania was the story--it wasn't as personal and thorough as it should have been. For this next project, I am focusing on what I know, and this will be more personal and autobiographical, and I'm trying to use my experiences to craft this story.
I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for it. How did you approach the distribution stage of Oceania?
I'm not entirely sure the film was distributable through traditional means. The film was intended to be 90 minutes in length, and we shot the footage, but in editing I cut it down to its current state, slightly under 60 minutes. So traditional means were out. At the time there weren't many films that were released legitimately through BitTorrent or other p2p methods online. So I assumed the best way to reach the widest audience possible would be to give it a fairly liberal Creative Commons license and allow people to share it… and so it went.
Was this how it came to the attention of Cinequest Festival?
Cinequest was a local festival. I was living in the Bay Area and they were a prominent festival, and they were really receptive of the film and were impressed that we were just a group of high school students who put it all together. We ended up screening, and we sold out our last night. We got a lot of people who enjoyed the experience (and even some who did not). But I don't think any Internet-related distribution method could replace that... just the question-and-answer sessions with the audience alone were memorable.
Harry, thanks a lot for donating your time, you've been a joy to talk to.
One last comment about the François Truffaut quote: "I have always preferred the reflection of the life to life itself" ... I should elaborate that it does tie into the film in a particular way, but one of the actual "personal" reasons I put it in was because at many times during my life, I've much preferred going to the cinema and getting lost in the film in front of me than with the details of my own life. There are of course, exceptions, but I think a lot of cineastes deal with this problem... This love for the cinema. I think it's because films have this magic to them – anything is possible.
Harry’s film Oceania can be downloaded from his website at http://www.hdehal.com/filmandvideo.php.