Monthly Archives: February 2015

SXSW Preview: The Last Man On The Moon

March’s South by Southwest in Austin will host the North American premiere of The Last Man On The Moon, a stirring biopic of astronaut Gene Cernan, which needs to be seen on the big screen. In the film, Cernan looks back on his eventful life, and the highs and lows of being one of the first NASA astronauts – and the ensuing decades in the media spotlight.

Having sold out its world premiere screenings at Sheffield Doc/Fest, where it proved one of the most popular films, The Last Man on the Moon is sure to draw a great deal of interest when screening in Cernan’s home state of Texas. British director Mark Craig is a regular guest speaker for my documentary film students. They always are particularly moved by his short Grierson-award winning film, Talk to Me, where he tells the story of his life through twenty years of answering machine messages.

mark craig
Mark Craig

Last time Mark spoke to my class, I grabbed him for a few minutes to talk about The Last Man on the Moon:

What was it like getting Cernan on board?

It was tough, because you’re talking about a guy who’s at an elderly stage of life. He had had so many cameras shoved in his face for so many years, and asked the same questions again and again and again. He didn’t really feel the need to invest so much of his time on a project, I’m assuming. But we slowly managed to convince him that we wanted to do this in a much more vivid and immersive and emotive way. I didn’t want to dwell on all the history of the science and all the other stuff — I just wanted his personal story. And he began to see it as a legacy that he could offer up to future generations that weren’t around when he did go to the moon, or weren’t even born today.

Gene Cernan on the moon

What was he like to work with when he did come on board?

He is the most dynamic, energetic charismatic old man – if I can call him that – that I ever worked with. His energy levels were incredible. The filming day can be a very long one, and it starts before the sun comes up. He was a real trooper – he gave and gave and gave, of his time, of his energy, of his emotion and of his access.

The film has really stunning cinematography. Can you talk a little about the visual approach to making it?

Because we always knew that it would be a cinema documentary, I was always keen to get a cinematographer with movie credits, and a movie approach more than anything. I wanted it to really work on the screen. I had seen Tim Cragg‘s work in another documentary, at a previous Sheffield Doc/Fest. I could see he had great movement with the camera. He could really follow the action and had a great fluid panning style. Straight away he was just cinematic, and I thought he’s the man for me.

Was it liberating making a film without television money?

It was. In TV there is a lot of guiding and steering and mentoring from the channel, from the execs, to make it fit the remit of that channel. You’re always serving the requirements of that channel, of that slot, the ad sales, etc. So it was very liberating to be free of that and just be faithful to the story, and the character and tell that story in the most interesting and engaging way that one could. We didn’t know where it was going to end up, we just wanted to make it as pure a film as possible.

Who has funded it?

It was a mixture of private investors. A lot of whom came from contacts that our executive, Mark Stewart knew. Without him and his company MSP getting involved in the project I’m not sure the film would have ever happened. Certainly not at the scale it ended up being. After we then had a rough cut which we then began showing to people in the space community, a couple more investors emerged who were very keen to make sure it got finished to the standard we wanted it to be.

Gene Cernan and Mark Craig
Gene Cernan and Mark Craig

It’s got some great archive. Can you tell what it was like plowing through all the sometimes iconic space archive from the 60s?

The thing about Apollo and going to the moon, it was very well documented at the time. Hundreds of hours was shot over a whole decade. And a lot of that was being used in many other documentaries. But we didn’t want to just rehash the same old second or third generation stuff you see on TV. It was fantastic to be able to discover stuff that we hadn’t known of before, and that meant a lot of research, going through logs and liaising with NASA’s archive, and then a lot of time was spent making sure that archive was beautifully transferred and graded and woven with the stuff that we shot along with some animation and visual effects. So hopefully it’s a very rich mix of material to view and tell the story.

SONY DSC

What’s been the most exciting moment related to LMOTM for you so far?

I so enjoyed the process of meeting some of these legendary characters. Inevitably there comes that moment where you take your film and show it to an audience for the very first time. And that’s always a big moment of excitement and nervousness. It just so happened that the first time we showed the film was on the occasion of Gene Cernan’s 80th birthday, and a surprise party was organised by his family. And we the filmmakers were invited to be part of that. So we all assembled at the Johnson space center in Houston and showed our film. And in the audience was not only Gene Cernan and his entire family, but three guys who had walked on the moon, Jim Lovell of Apollo 13, flight director Gene Kranz, and some extremely top brass NASA management. I was thinking: ‘Oh God, I really hope we’ve got everything right’. Thankfully they gave it the thumbs up and were quite moved by the film, and were glad that it had been made. We left happy – that was a big night.

The Last Man On The Moon screens Friday, March 13, Saturday, March 14 and Wednesday March 18 at South by Southwest.

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Poland’s Wondrous Double Bill of Oscar-Nominated Documentaries

On a Sunday morning last June, the second day of the Sheffield Doc/Fest, a few dozen festival delegates showed up to watch two short films from Poland. With most of the rest of the festival either still in bed, or attending one of the many other offerings going on elsewhere, the large cinema had more empty seats than full. They don’t know what they were missing.

joanna in field
Joanna

I was excited to be there to see the films and moderate the Q&A after the screening, and looking forward to meeting Aneta Kopacz, the director of Joanna, at 40 minutes, the longer of the two films. I had seen Joanna in my batch of films I watch as one of Doc/Fest’s previewers. In eight or so years of previewing, it was the film that has probably stood out the most. I had watched it on my IPad in bed, knowing nothing about it other than its title, and found myself gripped – and very moved. It’s a beautifully rendered portrait of a young woman dying of cancer, and trying to enjoy her last days with her husband and son. Although I learned later that the subject was a well-known blogger, that information to me was not important to the story which unfolded on screen, and I left it out of my write-up for the festival. It was simply a universal story of love and life, wondrously filmed by Ida cinematographer Łukasz Żal. When I met Aneta she was lovely and articulate about the film, but torn about the fact that she was missing her own young daughter’s birthday to discuss a film all about making the most of the short, precious time you have with your children.

Aneta
Aneta Kopacz

The second film screening that morning, Our Curse, was a total unknown to me. Having met the director, Tomasz Śliwiński, briefly before the screening, I settled in only to find myself watching Tomasz and his wife on screen struggling through the shock of their infant son Leo being diagnosed with a serious incurable disorder. Any parent who has been launched into the horrifying world of a sick child will marvel at how Tomasz had the wherewithal to make it. It very much evokes the exhaustion and shock that dominate those early months, as they bring their son home and learn how to live together as a family very different than the one they had expected. It’s also a wonder of a film, beautifully made, and humbling to watch.

Tomasz and his wife
Tomasz and his wife Magda in Our Curse

Although they were made very differently – one purely observational, the second autobiographical – both films reflect profound, universal themes – and are crafted with artistry and sensitivity. They are my favourite kind of films. During the Q&A afterwards, both filmmakers spoke movingly about their films, and the difficulties of filming in such emotional settings. I emerged from the session, as I’m sure others did, feeling I had experienced something really quite profound in this double bill of films probing at life, and wishing that more people could see them.

our curse
The couple with their son Leo

All these months later, I seem to have got my wish. To my amazement, both films have received Oscar nominations for short documentary. I was staggered when I heard – two Polish docs? This isn’t the foreign language category after all. But I’m delighted – and particularly pleased to see that the New York Times has made Our Curse available as part of its Op-Docs strand. Please watch it, and share. Films like these, which humanely honour life in all its messy wonder, deserve to be seen.

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One Rogue Reporter in a Tabloid World

Disgusted at some of the tabloid shenanigans he undertook as a reporter on the Daily Star, and the paper’s ongoing anti-Muslim slant,  Rich Peppiatt quit – only to find his resignation letter go viral. His departure coincided with an extraordinary period of scrutiny for the British press, as a scandal involving rampant phone hacking bled into the drawn out Leveson Inquiry. Four years on, and Peppiatt has made a documentary poking at the British tabloid press, and the culture which he claims all too often allows truth to be jettisoned for the sake of newsstand sales.

One Rogue Reporter is in the vein of documentary provocateurs like Michael Moore and The Yes Men – men pulling off outrageous comical exploits to make a larger point about injustice. In the film, Peppiatt conducts a series of stunts targeting some of the biggest names in the tabloid press – who Peppiatt found to be particularly egregious in their Leveson testimonies – including former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie and Mail Online editor Martin Clarke. Providing the commentary in between the capers are a range of interested parties, from the Guardian’s Nick Davies, who broke the hacking story, to actor Hugh Grant, a leader in the campaign for press reform. Combined with some brilliant Hollywood archive, it makes for a combination usually very difficult to achieve in documentary – entertaining and thought provoking. It’s a film marked clearly for the general population, aiming to make some serious points about press hypocrisies, while having some fun along the way. It seems to be succeeding – one fan has seen the film seven times since its world premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest in June.

At a recent screening of the film at Somerset House, running as part of their Unorthodocs strand, it quickly became evident that Peppiatt gives good Q&A. Together he and co-director Tom Jenkinson kept the diverse audience entertained in a session lasting nearly as long as the film. Here’s what Peppiatt had to say about the making of it, and the unique, often poisonous climate of British tabloid journalism:

The whole Leveson inquiry was quite academic and insular  – media types all navel gazing about their own industry. And we wanted to try to make  a film that was a bit broader than that, that our mates down the pub who were not in the media would watch, because it’s got me putting a dildo on a bloke’s doorstep. So you can have a broader audience watching because it’s funny, and then along the way you can have stuff with hopefully some information. Like with kids where you put the peas in their mashed potato, or something.

One Rogue Reporter - Still 3
Peppiatt and Mail Online Editor Martin Clarke

There was a lot of interest (in broadcasting it), particularly from Channel 4. The cuts that they were going to need wouldn’t make it the same film. So we were like, well do we want a film which is a poor imitation of the one that is out at festivals, or do we want to give it a life online and things like that.

American fair use law is a lot more friendly than British fair use law, which is why the film is copyrighted in America, and our lawyers are American, and our company, Naughty Step productions, is based in Delaware.

It’s very difficult making documentaries to come out the back end and line your pockets. It’s a tough gig. But we never went into it to make money. We just wanted to make the film.

Every TV channel says, ‘we really want to do that stuff – punching up at the powerful’. And the minute you then say, ‘right this is what we are going to do’, they go – ‘you can’t do that’! News organisations are the same – they all say they want really strong stuff that is going after people.

We’re not worth suing, but news organisations and TV channels are a lot more cautious because they know they are worth suing. So it does make it difficult to do in a way that is sustainable for us, and allows us to make a living, and to be able to do the type of journalism that we want to do, at the same time, which is going hard, which isn’t pulling punches. We are working on it, but it is difficult to strike that balance.

We certainly had Murdoch in our sights initially. But every time you see Murdoch, you’d be outside his house, you’d get three Landrovers. He’s in the one in the middle and there are seven ex-Mossad blokes with huge necks surrounding him and hustling him into the house, and you go ‘at what moment there do I throw a dildo at him?’.

Tom Jenkinson and Rich Peppiatt at Somerset House
Tom Jenkinson and Peppiatt post Q & A

The Leveson Inquiry was a great opportunity in my mind. Journalists like to talk loudly about how they like speaking truth to power, and they are fearless and brave, and this that and the other. And in the inquiry, a once in a generation opportunity comes up to speak up…and say these are the things going on. And how many did? Very few – everyone kept their heads down and pretended everything was hunky dory. I thought that was very disappointing.

It’s a tough place to work on tabloid newspapers. And if you’re the sort of person who hangs around there for 20-30 years and crawls your way all the way to the top, I think you’ve got issues. You’re not going to be a very nice person.

The argument that the pound on the counter of the newsagent is the only moral answer we need doesn’t stand up. It’s not a logical argument. If I was to go out there and grab a paedophile and hang him up a lamp post on Westminster Bridge I would probably gather a massive crowd and people will cheer along. It will be quite popular. I’d make it a weekly event. Does it make it right? Well no because we are in a civilised society, just because people want something doesn’t mean we have to give it to them. That’s why we don’t have hard core porn on BBC1 at 6pm in the evening. Just because there is a market for crap doesn’t mean you want to take that crap and serve it up and call it journalism.

Peppiatt and Kelvin MacKenzie
Peppiatt and Kelvin MacKenzie

Tabloid is not a dirty word. I’m not anti tabloid. I don’t pretend I’m some veteran of Fleet Street. They’re not going to erect a statue of me. But this is my view of the industry during my time. I don’t pretend it’s the whole story and I know everything by any means.

What we’re planning at the moment is doing a film in America, following the 2016 election from the perspective of how TV covers it – being on the campaign with the press pack.  From my research, the relationships that exist between people in politics high up in the Republican and Democratic party – are married to the news anchors – and the links are amazing showing just how close knit this world is. There is no holding power to account – the media political nexus of New York and Washington is so tight knit that the rest of America is really not served at all. We’re quite at the beginning of that journey.

One Rogue Reporter is available on ITunes, Amazon and Google Play – see the website for links.

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