Integrity in the making of films.

Creativity, Integrity and commercialism – are there conflicts?

This is guest post from Magnus Dennison.  Magnus is a Cinematographer who, together with his wife, Katja Roberts, runs a film production company in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the North-East of England. Their company is called Meerkat Films.  Magnus writes about integrity in film making.

I am going to write about film producers who have made creative choices to ensure their films are commercial successes. My question is whether these films lose their integrity when the motivation for making them becomes financial.

A little about my background. I am an independent film producer working in the UK and don’t profess to be an expert on these matters; the views expressed here are simply my opinion.

I will start by presenting one of my favourite films: ‘The Lives of Others’ (2006) directed by Florian Henckel von Das_Leben_der_anderenDonnersmarck. The team has, in my opinion, made one of the most powerful films of the decade. But more interestingly, they have made many choices that have preserved the integrity of the story at the risk of reducing commercial viability.

It is obvious why they have done this; they are passionate about the artistry and the integrity of the film, more than the financial gain. The film is very slow paced and the tension builds so gradually you’re almost unaware of it until you are completely engrossed.

Critic Lisa Schwarzbaum, noted that “Some of the movie’s tensest moments take place with the most minimal of action”.

This subtlety and poise of the film distinguishes it from high-budget Hollywood films but most critics have praised it for these very qualities. Selecting Ulrich Mühe to play the main role was probably one of the best choices. An unknown actor outside Germany and a former citizen of the GDR, Ulrich understood the realities of living in the GDR during this period.

Podhoretz describes his performance as ‘so perfect…. that it’s almost beyond words’.  In contrast, it is rare for high profile Hollywood films to cast unknown actors in leading roles as it is as a major commercial advantage to have stars attached to the film.

The second film I would like to present is ‘U-571’ (2000) directed by Jonathan Mostow, using a budget 30 times the size of ‘The Lives of Others’.

Here is a film about capturing the Enigma code machine during the Second WorldU-571_movie War. The true story being that a British Naval crew captured the Enigma machine from a U-Boat in 1941. The adaptation in ‘U-571’ was riddled with inaccuracies. I presume the changes were made to the story for commercial reasons.

The most horrific of choices made by the filmmakers was to change the story making it an American Naval crew that captured the Enigma machine. I cannot think of any other reason that you would alter history in this way, other than to boost the box office sales.

Perhaps I am over simplifying the issue a little. ‘The Lives of Others’ for example, was also criticized for its historical inaccuracies and implausible characters. These two examples are probably close to the centre of a spectrum that is defined at one end being ‘Artistic’ and the other end being ‘Commercial’.

At the risk of generalising, I would say that all films are somewhere on this scale, some more artistic, some more commercial. Some artistic films that appear to be non-starters commercially do become great commercial hits however. ‘The Lives of Others’ actually did very well at the box office. My next two examples are at the extreme ends of this spectrum.

The latest Bond movie ‘Quantum of Solace’ should be an adaptation of the book ‘Quantum of Solace’ by Ian Fleming. Often literary adaptations involve much cutting and adding of new material to make the story work in film, ultimately so it can be a commercial success. In the case of ‘Quantum of Solace’ the choice was made to cut the entire contents of the book and make it all up!

The result, in my opinion, is a very weak story padded out with a lot of meaningless explosions and product placement. I would say one of the worst films I have seen in a very long time, however the film grossed more than half a billion dollars!

At the other end of the spectrum are the films of the Amber Collective in the UK. They produce films of extraordinary integrity and are motivated not by financial gain but by the artistry of the films they make.

Seacoal’ is a film about a community of travellers that lived on the beach at Lynemouth in the North East of England. Although the film is drama the team actually bought a caravan in the community and partially lived there during the 2 years of filming. They also filmed documentary footage of the real community and cut this in with the acted footage.

The resulting film is so realistic that you can hardly tell if it is documentary or drama. Amber has achieved very modest commercial success during its 40 year history but they are highly regarded among film enthusiasts and critics. You can watch another of Amber’s features ‘In Fading Light’ in full online.

For this film the team purchased a fishing boat and all the actors had to learn to work it, to the extent that the lead actor was so convincing that he was actually offered a job as a fisherman. The resulting film has an honesty and freshness to it which is not often found in cinema.

Beyond the obvious financial implication of making films without any concern for the commercial viability of the project, there is also an inherent problem: my passion comes from a desire to share my perception of the world with other people.  If I come across a fascinating story I want to make a film so other people can enjoy this story too.

So, fundamental to my desire to make films is the desire to show them to people, preferably lots of people.

Now the best way to get many people to watch your films is to make them commercially attractive.  You will then be able to sell them to TV channels and theatrical distributors. Herein lies the catch 22, you can make films any way you like, but if they are not deemed to be commercially viable they may not achieve any formal distribution and then your film will be seen by very few people. Make films to be commercially viable and you will get large audiences but you find yourself making compromises in the integrity of your work.

One of my company’s first films was documentary called ‘The Homing Instinct’. It was universally loved by the very few people who saw it. We were actually nominated for an award for it but it was doomed to live in obscurity forever because we followed our artistic intuition and ignored advice that would have improved its commercialness.

The film was a story of two men going about their business breeding and racing pigeons. The allotments where they housed their birds was bought by a local landowner who intended to bulldoze the ground and build houses. We decided to make a poetic film following their lives as they prepared for the big pigeon race of the year and allow the audience to get to know and love the life the men lead while also learning about the injustice of what was happening to them.

The advice we were given at the time was ‘include a voiceover’, ‘make the beginning more punchy and get straight into the story’ and ‘you’re trying to get too much story and character depth into this short film; it will be incoherent’. We ignored this advice.

Looking back I can see what they were getting at (with the exception of voiceover) as the film probably would have been more successful if we’d listened. Especially the opening of the film, it is slow and poetic, (film festivals often watch the opening 2 or 3 minutes of a film and then decide its fate), and not much happens in the first 3 minutes of this film. However, the response we get from people who take the time to watch it is probably stronger than for any other film we have made. The film is also available online.

When embarking on a film project you make decisions along the way that determine whether your film will be a commercial success or not. Hollywood has proved that by following the right formula and ticking all the boxes you can almost guarantee box office success.

My opinion is that the best films are made when commercial viability is of a secondary motivation to artistry and integrity. However, it is a careful balancing act as you can push your project into the realm of obscurity if you go too far. With new forms of distribution such as YouTube it is possible to self-publicize your work outside the mainstream however you are unlikely to benefit financially and also you’re not guaranteed to pull large audiences in.

I hope the distribution industry opens up more in the future to allow for a greater spectrum of films into theatrical release.  With new technology continuing to bring down costs, distributors could start offering screenings of more obscure films and the public may well develop a taste for more artistic content.

Then the mainstream audience might begin to see films like ‘Quantum of Solace’ for what they really are.

Magnus Dennison

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