How Three Genre Pictures Made It to the International Market
"I was standing around in the cell with these guys, all ex-cons, doing improvisations for the film," says Johan Philip Pilou Asbaek, the star of Danish prison drama "R." "In character, I flicked a lit cigarette at [one]. Immediately, he and all the other guys started beating the crap out of me. They couldn't separate acting and the survival skills they knew inside."
It's rare that making a film proves so hazardous to your health. But going out of one's comfort zone is a must -- especially for the international producers of genre movies that are a staple of the American Film Market, like this year's "R"; Chinese martial arts actioner "Wuxia"; and the German vampire movie "We Are the Night."
"Night" dawned 12 years ago.
"We had the idea, let's do a vampire movie set in Berlin," recalls producer Christian Becker, speaking of himself and director Dennis Gansel. "We thought it would be easy enough to get financed."
It wasn't. The film -- then called "The Dawn" -- became "one of the most rejected screenplays in movie history," Gansel says. "There was hardly an agency or distributor we didn't offer it to. But Christian and I always believed in it."
The filmmakers argued they were reclaiming the vampire genre for Germany, connecting with classics like F.W. Murnau's "Nosferatu." "The first vampire films were made here," Becker notes. "But the last German vampire movie was Werner Herzog's 'Nosferatu' remake [in 1979]."
By the 1990s, however, comedy, not horror, was the German genre of choice. Financiers also pooh-poohed Gansel's combination of Dracula and romance.
"People kept telling me, 'You have to choose: It's either a love story or a vampire film,' " Gansel says. "Three times, we almost had the financing together and it collapsed. The last time was in 2006 and it got rejected again."
Along the way, Becker and Gansel went about establishing a track record with hits like "Girls on Top" and "The Wave." By 2008, they had managed to get backing from German distributor Constantin, production partner ARRI, world sales agent Celluloid Dreams and the confidence of state funding bodies the FFF, FFA and Berlin's Medienboard.
There was only one problem: Gansel's German script -- involving a human falling in love with a vampire -- was now uncomfortably close to the plot of the brand new "Twilight." It's ironic that, without "Twilight" they'd probably still be looking for money; with that phenomenon, though, they had to rethink their plot.
After bringing on screenwriter Jan Berger for a rewrite, the main characters and much of the story shifted focus. Instead of a romance, the script, renamed "We Are the Night," became a vampire origin tale.
"What I wanted to show was how a young woman becomes a vampire," Berger says. "Every superhero movie has an origin story. That's usually neglected in vampire movies. But in this case, we're along for the ride [when] a bite transports Berlin party girl Lena [Karoline Herfurth] to a new world, as the thirst for blood awakens in her and her body mutates."
Becker and director Gansel embedded this mutation in the realities of Berlin nightlife and German cinema history. They shot on Teufelsberg (Devil Mountain), a 380-foot-high mound, man-made from the rubble of 15,000 bombs that flattened Berlin in WWII. They braved Berlin's icy winter -- including temperatures dipping to minus 4 degrees -- to shoot in the ruins of the East German Broadcasting building.
"Berlin is predestined to be the set of a horror movie," Gansel notes. "Right in the middle of the city you've got the Spreepark, sort of an old Disneyland, completely abandoned. Where else can you find something like that in a big global city? I'm reminded of what Fritz Lang said when he went to Hollywood: That he missed the darkness of Berlin."
With the film now completed, Becker is obsessing about how to launch it. "We started the promotional campaign a year before the release," he says. "We had to build the idea that this a genre film, a vampire movie, from Germany."
The German bow for "We Are the Night" on Halloween weekend is a slot typically reserved for U.S. horror titles. Both at home and globally, the film will be an acid test of whether genre fans will accept a German vampire movie.
Putting together the financing for "Wuxia" in China's booming film market was nothing like the challenge "Night" faced. Rather, its producer, Peter Ho-Sun Chan, had to deal with issues of control.
Chan was also facing pressure to match the success of his last film, the ensemble cast historical thriller "Bodyguards & Assassins," which became one of the most successful movies of Asia's 2009-10 year-end holiday season. That film, made for $23 million from multiple backers, grossed nearly $43 million in China alone.
A veteran director behind hits like "Comrades, A Love Story," "Perhaps Love" and "The Warlords" in his native Hong Kong, Chan tackled producing "Bodyguards," by director Teddy Chan (no relation), with a view to exploiting every possible channel for publicity.
"Wuxia" tells the story of Liu Jin-xi, a reformed killer-turned-papermaker and family man living in a remote village with a wife and two sons who are unaware of his past. Liu's sins start catching up with him when a detective grows determined to bring him to justice and reveal his astounding martial arts skills.
For the $20 million film Chan decided to raise the money through his own company, We Pictures, in order to retain control of the copyright. This is crucial, he says, because China is gradually opening its distribution market to competition, after domination by the state-run China Film Group and Huaxia Film Distribution.
Chan had his work cut out for him.
While "Bodyguards" was an ensemble film, "Wuxia" is more star-driven, featuring action hero Donnie Yen ("Ip Man I & II"), Japanese heartthrob Takeshi Kaneshiro ("Warlords") and "Lust, Caution" starlet Tang Wei. On "Bodyguard," above-the-line costs were roughly 25% of the total budget; with "Wuxia," they are more than 40%.
As lead investor, Chan brought in Stellar Megamedia, whose CEO, Qin Hong, he calls an old friend. Shooting near the Burmese border ("the end of the earth," he says), Chan was asking Qin to risk his money to make a big-budget picture shot in an area of China with extremely limited infrastructure. Halfway through the shoot, Chan reported smooth sailing, but noted nervously that the tons of equipment being shipped in was subject to the region's unpredictable weather, which could cause mud slides and create major delays.
Still, that was nothing compared to "Bodyguards," where Chan had to find a way to draw press for a movie without A-list names.
"We were telling everybody that the stars were big, but people experienced in film marketing knew that our cast was not an all-A-list cast," he says. Then inspiration struck: He decided to fly in the 1-to-1 scale model set of 1906 Hong Kong. "There may only have been 150 people at the press conference, but the magnitude of the event translated into word-of-mouth and buzz and hype."
With "Wuxia," Chan had to reassure investor Qin Hong that the action, the story and the star power would be unlike anything seen in China. So, unlike "Bodyguards," where every production development Chan strove to publicize, he told Qin: "We won't be releasing news about it every other day, but rather keep everything under wraps."
Chan, who started shooting "Wuxia" in late August, expects to finish in late November and will rush the film for Cannes. "We'll take just a little footage to AFM. But we can still launch it right: It's all about how you launch the film."
For Michael Noer and Tobias Lindholm, the co-directors of "R," launching their film was easy -- their $1 million budget was easy to secure.
Authenticity was a whole other matter. How do you make the first-ever Danish prison movie and not appear to be a mere copy of U.S. or U.K. jail films?
"It was a challenge because we never had a prison film in Denmark before; it is a very American genre," producer Rene Ezra says. "We needed to convince the audience this was real. We didn't want to make a fiction; 99% of what you see in the film occurred in real life in that exact prison where we shot it."
"It was hard because we didn't really have any idea of life in a Danish prison, or we had the wrong idea," Lindholm says. "There's an expression in Denmark that prison is like a vacation and that's the image I think we had. It only changed when we started doing research, starting talking to people who had been inside."
Early on, the directors developed a mantra: Reality rules.
"We decided, in order to be authentic, we had to show things exactly as they are," Noer adds. "So we made a rule writing the script that only things that really happened would make it in and we'd show them in the real way they happened."
Ex-con consultant Roland Moller provided them with the film's pivotal plot point when he explained how he smuggled drugs from one wing of a Copenhagen prison to another, using the jail toilets and dope packed in the plastic balls that come with Kinder Eggs chocolate treats.
"It was the most disgusting, degrading thing, really but it was also brilliant and Roland invented it," Noer says. "It made Tobias and me realize that no matter how creative we are as writers, we could never think up stuff as good as what these prisoners did, who had nothing but time to think and to plan."
The directors were so impressed with Moller, they gave him a major role in the film. They did the same with other ex-cons and prison guards. Except for the two main characters, Rune, played by Asbaek and Rachid (Dulfi Al-Jabouri) -- the two "R" figures from the title -- virtually everyone on screen has worked, or served time, in a maximum security facility.
"It was a strange experience, because we shot in the [decommissioned] prison where many of the guys had been incarcerated," Asbaek says. "I remember one day, I was working on my lines and there was a guy standing at the prison gate, just stepping in and out, in and out. He did that for an hour. Just in and out. Because he could, you know?"
Now that the movie is finished, its makers already know they've reached their most important audience: The prisoners themselves.
"The directors and I did the premiere screening of 'R' in a new jail they built to replace the one we shot in," Ezra says. "Our audience was the inmates of the first jail who'd been moved there. It was the toughest audience we ever had. But their reaction was out of this world. They said they knew [main character] Rune, that we showed prison as they knew it."
and "We Are the Night," "R" was made with the local audience in mind,
but in trying to create authentic twists on popular AFM-style genres, all three films have a shot at global success.
"We already have U.S. and U.K. distribution, which was something we couldn't have even contemplated when we started this," Ezra reflects. "But the audience response around the world has been the same: The genre gives them a way in. They understand the story. It has let us bring this first-ever film in the Danish prison film back to the U.S., the birthplace of genre films."