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Out of a stellar crop of documentaries to have emerged in 2016, one – from a first-time filmmaker – stood out more than most, not just for its astonishing visuals, but because of the hugely ambitious nature of the project.
In The Eagle Huntress, U.S.-based British director Otto Bell tells the remarkable story of Aisholpan, a 13-year-old nomadic Kazakh girl from Mongolia – “the most remote part of the least populated country in the world” – as she trains to become the first female eagle hunter, following in the footsteps of her family while also battling a society where the activity has previously been an exclusive male tradition.
The film, which boasts Morgan Spurlock and Daisy Ridley as exec producers and also sees Ridley lend her narration talents, proved to be a hit in the box office, with an incredible domestic haul of $2.8 million, beaten only by Ron Howard’s Beatles doc last year. It also earned a BAFTA nomination and made the Oscar shortlist (but narrowly missed out on the final five).
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Bell discussed making Ridley cry, coming close to bankruptcy as the film swallowed up his life savings, and his cheeky, near life-saving email to Spurlock.
Where did the story first come from?
I saw some photographs on the BBC on a website. A young Israeli photographer had stumbled upon Aisholpan – he was walking about the Altae Mountains of Mongolia. The people out there are all nomadic herdsmen. You can go for days without seeing another human soul. But she was training with her dad’s eagle and he took some photographs, and those were pulled down off the wire by a BBC journalist called Will Kramer. I was lucky enough to see them the day they came out, so I wrote to the photographer and we had a quick Skype, and a couple of weeks later we flew to Mongolia to meet the family. The first afternoon of filming, we filmed her taking the bird out of the nest. That was the very first afternoon! And that became the first act.
I understand you stretched your personal finances somewhat to make the film.
We didn’t have a budget, so I was making the film with my life savings, which wasn’t very much money. We made it for about $80,000 in the end. I actually took a high-interest loan out from a bank here in America, and I’ve never been in debt before. So that was very scary. But things kept happening to Aisholpan, so we had to keep going back to film various stages in her coming of age. There were definite moments of depression, but not when we were out there filming, that was great. We kept getting this wonderful, wonderful coverage.
How and when did you get Morgan Spurlock involved?
We’d come back from the Golden Eagle Festival and I knew I had to get back out there to film the final act, but by that point I was properly in debt. It wasn’t that I was out of money, I owed money. So I cut together the first 10 minutes, and a friend gave me Morgan Spurlock’s email address. He was the biggest name I knew in documentaries. So I cheekily sent him the first 10 minutes on a link. And, thank god, he opened it and wrote back that afternoon and said, “I’ve never seen anything like this, come to my office, explain to me how I can help you finish this.” And the clouds parted – he found me a place to edit, he found me financing. And that’s when we were able to go back and film the final act, which I thought would take us five days, but we ended up being out there for 22.
What were the logistical issues of the shoot?
Well, it was -50C [-58F] when we got there – absolutely brutal. Nothing works at -50C. Your hands stick to metal, it’s like being underwater. Everything takes four times as long. The animals don’t want to do anything twice. But we figured out that if the sun comes over the mountains it warms up to about -20C/-25C [-4F/-14F] — nice and cozy — which is when the equipment comes back to life. Basically you can film for about four hours.
And how did you land Daisy Ridley for her first film after Star Wars: The Force Awakens?
It was the night before Sundance, and we didn’t land her – she came to us! This is one of the benefits of working with Morgan. He’s got a great sales team at CAA who we were using, and they’ve got Daisy as a client as well. Her agent had sent her the film as a link, not with an agenda, just because she thought she’d like it. And Daisy watched it, cried, called her mother and then called me at Sundance and said the same as Morgan: “I’ve never seen anything like this, how can I help you, I want to make sure that more people see this film.” We said we’d love to have her as an exec producer or something, but as she talked more, I was really impressed – she was picking out corners of the film that I thought only I knew about, she was really sharp about the structure. So I said, how about if we added a bit of narration, because on the Sundance version we had cards. I’d love you just to read those. And she’s been great – she’s been more than a name on the poster. I think she’s lowered the age of entry for the film. I think now if you’re a 10- or 11-year-old girl or boy, you can keep up with it. Because otherwise there’s a lot of subtitles.
Given its success, have your life savings been replenished?
I’m happy to say that I was able to buy a ring and am marrying my fiancée, who stood by me through all this. She’s from Michigan, but I’m bringing her back to the U.K. to get married in July. I’m very grateful to Sony Pictures Classics and Altitude!
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