So what do you do when you have non-professional film actors and no budget? You embrace the docudrama/neo-realist film making philosophy. When you cannot afford special effects and fancy cameras, you don’t strain your budget. You make minimalism your special effect and you blur the lines between fiction and reality. For a church film, I would suggest a mission’s docudrama in black and white. We’ve seen the docudrama’s success in films (Blair Witch Project), Sit-Coms (The Office) and Reality TV (Jersey Shore). This paper will explore the philosophy behind producing this hybrid genre.
Pre-Production and Neo-Realism
Rossellini, the father of the Italian Neo-Realist movement, had no intentions of creating a movement. He essentially said this all came about from not having enough money to do anything else. This makes pre-production less complicated for independent filmmakers. Behind all the rhetorical tropes, neo-realism amounts to shooting on location, and re-writing the script to fit the real people/ non-commercial actors that are available. In many ways the script is 50% staged and 50% improvisation, this culminates with a very intense sense of reality on the screen.
When Roberto Rossellini released his early film Open City, people were saying how realistic it looked; hence the term Neo-Realism. Andre Bazin, film theorist, was a huge fan of neo-realism and Rossellini in particular. The goal, according to Bazin, is to achieve the totality of life by looking at its simplicity.
Rossellini was able to bring reality back to the entertainment world at a time where the films were getting bigger and more fantastic. Instead of escaping reality, Rossellini made us face it. Instead of flooding us with stunning set designs and special effects, they gave us “fragments of reality” and invited us to take part in piecing the meaning together.
At the time of the war, Rossellini believed there was a desperate desire for truth in film. This is why he attributed a moral position to his filmmaking. No one was reporting what was really happening during the war and he wanted people to know. He used film narrative to expose this truth. There were dramatic stories really happening all around him and he wanted to capture them. It is arguable that The Hurt Locker and Precious could fit within a neo-realist hybrid.
Bazin campaigned for true continuity: deep focus, wide shots and a lack of montage. This would leave the interpretation of a scene to the audience member. The present-day neo-realist does not necessarily uphold to all of these somewhat obsolete standards of objectivity, but the current docudrama approach does strongly encourage a similar interpretation on the behalf of the spectator.
One of the best parts of Richard Linklater’s film Waking Life is when the main character is watching a film where filmmaker Caveh Zahedi and poet David Jewell discuss Bazin’s theory on realism. They highlight Bazin’s Christian belief that every shot is a representation of God manifesting creation. So we are essentially watching a movie within a movie that is talking about film theory. What is even more eye opening is when they employ his aforementioned theories, saying “let’s have a Holy Moment.” What follows is a very creative quest for an elusive filmic aspiration to capture the truth.
Production – Successful Examples
Some argue that fiction cinema has embraced, more than ever, non-fiction aesthetics. Several filmmakers are simplifying there film language.
Blair Witch Project
Myrick and Sanchez’s Blair Witch Project, released in 1999, is one of the most well known hybrid successes. It artificially vacillates between art and life. One of the techniques that I would employ into our film would be using the properties of something like a Hi8 (shaky cam). This technique, like the original neo-realists, creates fragments of reality and invites the audience to peace them together. For example: shaky cam jerks the subjects in and out of the frames, shifts focus in and out, and uses long continuous handheld shots. This style relies heavily on immediacy and intimacy.
In This World
Michael Winterbottom made a film on an immigrant’s road trip called In This World (2002). They took one digital camera, using portability and the journey setting. Although half of the film was staged, the street scenes, crowds and marketplaces were not staged. The visual effects of the real helped to draw us into the scripted journey and human drama that was at the heart of the film. It then reverts to documentary mode at the end by using title cards.
Kiarostami, director of Five, takes five long takes to make his film. This film makes use of the long takes that Bazin identified as part of the neo-realist movement. There were several “holy moments” where director Kiarostami captures fifteen minutes or so of the ocean or the moon in a pond. Kiarostami continues to avoid complicated plot structure and unnecessary artifices in the film Ten.
The Dogme 95 group consists of several people including: Thomas Vinterberg, Lars von Trier, and Kristen Levring. This group sparked neo-realist filmmaking in several impoverished locations. This was a return to the natural feel of filmmaking. The Idiots not only subverts big budget Hollywood filmmaking, but it also calls into question documentary filmmaking. The opening scene draws you into this conflation immediately.
Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad directed a hybrid film called Ford Transit (2002). Using a 16mm camera, Abu-Assad tells the story of a Palestinian transit driver named Rajai. Rajai must transport locals through military check points in Ford minivan. While keeping the camera mounted on the car for the majority of the film, Abu-Assad also manages to keep the tension at an all time high. In 2003, this film won the Best Documentary Award at the Jerusalem Film Festival.
When Abu – Assad’s film was accused of being fraudulent he responded by saying his film is both a documentary and a fiction. Like the film Precious, this film could have happened and did happen. Just because the events we’re watching may be acted out does not mean that they are fictitious.
Like Bazin, we can transition into this filmic style easily because neo-realism does not conflict with the Christian message. According to Bazin, it emboldens the Christian message.
Low Budget Marketing – Post Production
Okay, now we have a product that needs some editing but the big question is how in the world do we get this film in the theater? Did we go through all of that for nothing? Should it just go straight to DVD? Even then, how do we get it out there in the book stores and on Netflix? Straight to DVD is definitely an option. I would like to posit editing a short version of the film and using the rest of your budget on one or all three of these options: book formats, networking or film festivals.
Investing In Your Fan Base
One of the more time consuming methods of marketing your film is to first market it as a novel and gain a strong reading fan base. The documented success of the novel will make adapting the novel into a film, for a big company, much easier. I know one may think this process involves just as much funding but if you get published, it costs you nothing. If you self publish, it still cost much less than making a feature and financing the distribution. At least by doing it this way you have the ability to more readily distribute your product and you avoid straining your budget. This also allows the production value of the film to reach a high quality level when it becomes a feature film. Here are a couple of examples:
William P. Young worked with Brad Cummings and filmmaker Bobby Downes with the initial purpose of witnessing to others about the glory of God, but ultimately Downes and Wind Blown Media wish to turn this book into feature film. How did they turn this story turn into a best seller? After submitting the book to 20 different publishers and getting 20 rejection letters, they decided to print the book themselves. They marketed their book with a $300 podcast and sold their first million copies out of their garages.
A Time to Kill
Christian author John Grisham had 15 publishers and 30 agents reject his first novel. After getting tired of the process he decided to publish the book himself with Wynwood press in 1989. In 1996 it was made into a crime thriller starring Samuel Jackson, Matthew McConaughey, Kevin Spacey and Sandra Bullock. It took in nearly $110 million at the box office and was nominated for several MTV awards.
The makers of Facing the Giants admit that they got lucky when they called Sony and asked for the rights to some of their music. Sony pictures eventually endorsed the film and helped with the funding and distribution. There are several stories like this where Christian departments in Hollywood companies try to network with Christian filmmakers in order to garner the Christian audience.
For example, Sony also signed a production deal with Bishop T.D. Jakes after his film Woman Thou Art Loosed, drew theater goers through grass – roots marketing in black churches. Jakes also fits into the “investing in your fan base” category because he initially self-published a book version of this film. Lions – Gate is funding Tyler Perry who wrote several successful feature length films: Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea’s Family Reunion, Why Did I Get Married 1 and 2. Tyler Perry recently helped to endorse the independent -film Precious. This film was initially headed directly to DVD but has gone on to be nominated for several Academy Awards, including best picture.
Making a short film and submitting them to film festivals is one good way to get distribution and funding for a full – length version. Several film makers have done this to get their films into the theaters.
Billy Bob Thornton and director George Hickenlooper have debated about whether this film was originally a short film. But the facts are these: Thornton says Sling Blade was originally a 1986 one-man play called Swine Before Pearls. Hickenlooper has footage of the short film called Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade. It was shot in a very neo-realist fashion. It was even shot in black and white. It is too bad that they had a falling out because Thornton went on to win the Academy Award for best original screenplay.
He was also nominated for Best Actor in a leading role. He has since been in several successful Hollywood films: Armageddon, Astronaut Farmer, The Apostle. Oddly enough Some Folks, was shot in the same Simi Valley hospital where Terminator 2 was shot.
This was originally a short film called Peluca. Writer Jon Heder and director Jared Hess were college students at BYU with less than 500 dollars. They took some black and white 16mm film stock, which they accidentally over exposed, and went to Idaho to shoot a nine minute film. Although they accidentally over exposed the film, it gave their short an artistic look. Peluca became a hit at Slamdance in 2003. A year later Napoleon Dynamite hit Sundance.
This film went on to aggregate a loyal following and win several awards: In 2005, the film won three MTV Movie Awards, for Breakthrough Male Performance, Best Musical Performance, and Best Movie. This film was rated number 14 on Bravo’s “100 Funniest Movies”. It also won four awards at the Teen Choice Awards: Best Movie Breakout Performance – Female for Haylie Duff, Best Movie Dance Scene, Best Movie Hissy Fit for Jon Heder, and Best Comedy.
Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden completed their full-length script Half Nelson before they filmed a shorter version of it. They intentionally did this and spent their time at odd jobs getting money to shoot a short that would convince financiers and distributors to endorse their full-length script. They pulled together 800 dollars and asked for help from their friends. The 19-minute short won prizes at Sundance and the Aspen Shortfest in 2004. Two years later the feature film was distributed to theaters and won an Academy Award for best performance by an Actor in a leading role. It won several film festival awards for acting and screenwriting.
With the advent of technology, we have the ability to produce and market films better than ever. Francis Ford Coppola prophesied of cinematic democratization. We hear this at the end of the Hearts of Darkness (1991) video. He saw the future of film in the form of ‘some little girl in Ohio,’ and imagined a new apparatus that could enable such a girl to get her vision onto the screen: “To me the great hope is that now these little video recorders are around and people who normally wouldn’t make movies are going to be making them.