Eighteen directors from around the world took time out from screening their films at the Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF) in early January to discuss filmmaking issues and climate change at the Annenberg Retreat At Sunnylands.
Over the course of a day and a half, the assembled filmmakers talked about their craft in broad and intimate detail and converged on the second day for a morning session co-hosted by Connect4Climate (C4C) under the auspices of the World Bank, the Italian Ministry Of The Environment and the Global Environment Facility.
On that occasion, organised in part by veteran producer Don Ranvaud, guest speaker Marc Forster kicked off the conversation with personal reflections on his career and thoughts on his obligation to create more environmentally friendly practices in his career.
“Ultimately all my movies are about the human condition,” said Forster, whose credits include summer 2013 hit World War Z, Quantum Of Solace, The Kite Runner, Monster’s Ball, Stay and Finding Neverland.
“Hopefully every movie I make is becoming more conscious and better and my craft and becoming more aware of the impact of my core and the way I shoot films and tell a story.”
Lucia Grenna of the World Bank urged the directors to use the power of cinema to tell influential stories. “Sometimes when you look at a problem as big as climate change you need to talk to the people who shape people’s imagination and people’s behavior and those are filmmakers in my view,” said Grenna. “You can make big choices and decide to move forward with a movie that makes a difference.”
Se went on to say, “The power within this room lies within the fact that the change you make with your movies is the power to create a different way of thinking and change behavior.”
However the gathered filmmakers resisted any notion of reverse-engineering messages into their stories and initially expressed reservations about signing a manifesto at the behest of the event organisers.
Indeed Yorgos Servetas, the Greek director of Standing Aside, Watching, declined to participate in the session, citing his unease over the involvement of a bank in a climate change initiative.
By the end of the workshop, most of the directors agreed to put their names to a very general statement of intent that pledged to improve education and awareness of climate change. The manifest calls for filmmakers to support incentives and a ‘Green Award’ encouraging heightened awareness and better practices such as the reduction of carbon emissions.
Hannah Espia, the director of the Philippines’ foreign language Oscar submission Transit, changed the tone of the somewhat lofty conversation when she remarked on the impact of Typhoon Haiyan in her country.
“The people who are affected by climate change don’t even have access to options,” said Espia. “The events that have to be put into developing countries are as important as changing cars. With the recent typhoon it’s really just the tip of the iceberg because the biggest slap in our face is how the government is responding.
“After one month we still don’t have electricity in some places. We talk about cars, but these people don’t even have homes. We’re the ones who are inheriting this planet and it’s up to us to educate the younger ones about issues like this.”
On the first day of the Directors Retreat, overseen as always by PSIFF artistic director Helen du Toit, the talking points revolved around writing, the germ of ideas, dealing with the press and
Andrea Pallaoro, the Italian-born director and co-writer of Medeas who now resides in Los Angeles, explained how he works with collaborator with Orlando Tirado.
“Once we find a concept we’re interested in, we put it aside and start collecting images… the finished product ends up being never what we originally intended.”
Medeas earned Pallaoro best director at the Marrakech International Film Festival and would go on to triumph in the PSIFF New Voices/New Visions competition.
Nabil Ayouch, whose 2012 Cannes Un Certain Regard selection Horses Of God recounts the lives of the suicide bombers who struck Casablanca in 2003 and represented Morocco in the Academy Awards race, preferred a solitary approach.
“You have to be cut off from the outside world,” he said, “but for various reasons I cannot do that.”
On the subject of treatments, Camera d’Or winner Anthony Chen — whose Ilo Ilo screened in Cannes Directors’ Fortnight in 2013 — said he could not write them for toffee. Chris Mason (Test) said an agent had alerted him to the notion of the ‘scriptment’, a more novellised form of treatment.
“That’s what I do,” said Siddharth director Richie Mehta. “It becomes a 30-40-page mish-mash that nobody else will understand. Sometimes it’s very novellistic; sometimes it’s sheer dialogue. I just let it flow.”
Of Horses And Men director Benedikt Erlingsson, whose film became Iceland’s Oscar submission this season, draws inspiration from his previous calling as a stand-up comic.
“I’m standing on the floor playing with characters. It’s a good way to generate material. I come from a rich culture of oral storytelling.”
On the subject of directing actors, Hungarian filmmaker Janos Szasz, whose The Notebook was his country’s Academy Award submission, erred on the “less is more” philosophy.
“It’s not complicated to get a good performance from an actor,” said Szasz. “We choose them because we trust them. We have to be careful not to ruin an actor.
The hard thing for an actor is to be simple. Many directors are afraid of actors, so I began a course in Hungary to put together directors and actors. Finally they feel they are not enemies – they’re in the same boat. It’s very simple – it’s brutal honesty.”
Erlingsson elaborated on the theme when he said, “The worst thing for an actor is when he feels he’s not good enough but nobody tells him.”