The first ever Georgia-UK co-production just wrapped its six week shoot in Georgia and is now in Frankfurt, Germany for the final leg of principal photography. Film and Music Entertainment co-founder and producer Mike Downey spoke to Maria Sell about the project.
In the comedy a confused, washed-up American director (played by Matthew Macfadyen, who most recently starred in Anna Karenina as Oblonsky) accepts an invitation by a nascent state to make a national Epic in the obscure (fictional) Caucasus Republic of Karastan. The country is led by an enigmatic, if corrupt, benign dictator (portrayed by German actor Richard van Wyden).
Based on an original screenplay by director Ben Hopkins and Pawel Pawlikowski, the script was, according to producer Mike Downey, “inspired by their experiences travelling around the world to obscure film festivals in emerging and post-Soviet countries […], which they then brought together to create a larger more cinematic experience, better than the sum of the individual parts.”
All three have stories about attending film festivals where faded stars walk the red carpet to “recycle former glories”. Additionally, themes of “national identity, myth making and ethnogenesis” play a role, “which are key to understanding a large part of this post-Soviet world”.
Downey knew Hopkins from a previous project they had joined forces on – a film about artist Joseph Beuys – but which had been put on hold due to rights issues, and as he points out “Sam Taylor (co-founder of and producer at F&ME) and myself have always been a bit fearless in shooting in places other producers fear to tread”. Thus, within six months of coming on board, a draft had been finished and prepping started by visiting various post-Soviet Caucasus countries for potential shooting locations. The BFI also backed the development of the project .
When the team arrived in Georgia they knew they had not only entered a unique and beautiful country, but also a highly suitable shooting location. “The main characteristic that identifies Georgia from other countries is the sign posts, which are in Georgian script and look like nothing else in the world […]. If your only problem is covering up signs […] then that’s quite an easy problem to solve.”
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Shooting location chosen, F&ME then followed a “Euro-centric rather than Anglo-centric” financing strategy. With a “collaborative rather than colonial” partnership in mind, they were keen for any Georgian partner to be full associates and not just minority players. In co-producer Vladimer Katcharava of 20 Steps Production and Tamara Tatishvili, head of the Georgian National Film Centre, they found the kind of strong partners they were pursuing.
The Georgian Ministry of Culture and Monuments also played its part by “wrangling in the Army and security forces to make their contribution” (after all a film featuring a dictator needs a bit of ammo). Additionally, Germany’s Zuta Filmproduktion and Russia’s Metrafilms joined the production.
Considering Russia’s and Georgia’s complex history, and the resulting “delicate post-war situation”, the former’s involvement in the film could have been a tense experience. Georgia has proven since its independence that it can live without Russia, and as Downey notes “Russia loves Georgia , […] for its brilliant food, amazing music, the long summers of their youth, […] for its creativity, for its artists, for its soul. They just have an uneasy relationship with the Georgian state.”
However, Artem Vassiliev of Metra Film “has been just brilliant at negotiating that co-habitation, and bringing in much needed equity finance”, says Downey. Thus, the collaboration went smoothly and “whatever else goes on between Moscow and Tbilisi, we know that there is a will, a taste, and an appetite for intense cultural exchange, based on mutual respect for the creativity of each country.”
Further financing came from Germany’s federal state Hessen (HessenInvest), Cineplus and German-French TV channel ARTE.
Downey continues singing Georgia’s praises regarding obtaining funding and indicates it is more straightforward than in some Western countries. “A deal was a deal, a handshake, was a handshake, the commitment was there from the very beginning. There was no trickery and no you’ve got to play by this rule.”
So instead of having to constantly worry about the effects of the film on a region, the team was able to fully concentrate on the film itself as “the Georgians knew we are going to bring something to the region but they were fully committed to helping us make the right film”.
Nevertheless, Downey describes the shoot in Georgia as a rollercoaster with Taylor and himself staying in Tbilisi for almost six months, during which they lived through arctic conditions as well as the elections and resulting change to the government. Furthermore, with three different languages spoken on the set, including the fictional language Karastani some “interesting situations” arose.
But working with everyone who was involved in the making of Epic certainly proved one of Downey’s highlights. 2011 Screen Star of Tomorrow, Myanna Buring stars opposite Macfadyen as the festival representative Chulpan, while Noah Taylor has been cast as a washed-up, Australian movie star, Xan Butler.
All three were offered the roles without any auditions and Downey is nothing but complimentary towards them. Shooting of the film certainly also left its mark on the cast as Buring reflects: “We shot this scene, which will stay with me, I think, for the rest of my life – cause if you had asked me, 2 years ago even, if I would believe that one day I would be in a scene where I would watch the fantastic Noah Taylor pretending to hump the wonderful Matthew Macfadyen’s leg, I would have told you that you were crazy, but I now have witnessed this. And it’s possibly one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in my life, and I’m very grateful to Epic that I got to experience that.”
Epic is finishing principal photography this week. Stealth Media is handling international sales and Piffl Medien will release in Germany.