Breaking the Waves of Paperwork

Producers share their secrets about putting together a successful international co-production, Creation, February 1997, p. 36 - 38.

Whilst the Stone of Scone was on its way home, the Scots were already preparing for yet another battle. Just then, less than a stone throw from the gloomy moist walls of the Edinburgh Castle, and in the relative comfort of the Holiday Inn Hotel they gathered all possible allies interested in fighting for their fair share of the European cinema.


Knowing that the struggle for the independence of film making is better approached with strong partners, Pauline Muirhead and Barbara McKissak established the ‘Sharing Stories’ co-production conference five years ago. Starting as a regional initiative to support Scottish-Canadian collaboration, the event has since grown to become the world’s largest gathering of filmmakers who are interested in a consistent approach sharing their cinematic stories beyond their own national and cultural boundaries. With the help of a ECU 80.000 grant from the MEDIA II programme, this year’s conference was able to attract a number of speakers and delegates from the continent, with an emphasis on Germany and France. Altogether more than 200 delegates from 26 countries, including Mexico and Australia, came to Edinburgh.


Co-productions made by partners who met at previous conferences include the 1995 Locarno winner ‘Margaret’s Museum’ with Helena Bonham-Carter, the Media supported development of the British-Irish comedy ‘Loggerheads’ and the British-Canadian horror thriller ‘Sweet Angel Mine’ starring Oliver Milburn. A partnership arranged during last ‘Sharing Stories’ between RTE in Ireland, FR 3 France, CTG Gaelic TV, as well as The Children’s Channel and the BBC came back this year to present the finished production in a workshop on double shooting with a bi-lingual cast.


Producers Robin Crichton from Edinburgh Film and Video Productions, Claude Lefevre from FR3-owned Mediteranée Films and Patrick Deschamps from Vision Age shot this 6 x 30 children’s drama from both English and French scripts ‘back to back’. The accents of the characters did not interfere as they made the story more authentic. Their shooting time increased about a third compared with a conventional shoot, hence the budget became 25% higher. The English language side contributed altogether FF 6 million, and the French FF 7 million, leaving a deficit of FF 1 million which will be covered through foreign sales, particularly since a 90 minute version is made available to buyers. This year commissioning editors Vivien Marx from the French-German channel Arte and Jacqui Lawrence from the Independent Film and Video department at Channel 4 came together in a commissioning seminar called ‘Two in a Room,’ which includes a competition for the best pitch at the end of the conference. The initial briefing session showed the difficulties of finding the flexibility necessary for collaboration in a rigid transmission schedule that is ruled by commercial and political concerns. The threat of politicians exerting influence over Channel 4’s future in the current debate about privatisation may be relatively new for the British station. Broadcasters on the continent, however, are used to working in a context where schedules have to satisfy the concerns of committees - particularly in a channel like Arte, which is by nature a political venture. But there is also some common ground. Last year’s winner of the ‘Two in a Room’ session ‘Naval Warfare on Muscle Beach’ became a co-production between La Sept/Arte in France, the Corporation of Public Broadcasting in the US, and Channel 4.


Dieter Kosslick, head of the Filmstiftung Nordrhein-Westfalen, lends more than £ 15 million a year to film and TV production in order to attract a substantial audio-visual industry to a region that previously relied on coal and steel. His witty speeches are famous for observations like ‘German films are the ones famous for going into production on first draft.’ Promoting the view that crisis in industry as well as politics can be approached by public initiatives such as this conference, he believes that ‘co-productions are a substantial part of building a European Film Network. Sharing Stories is a great opportunity for producers, writers and financiers to create a common European identity.’ Sally Hibbin, who presented Ken Loach’s ‘Carla’s Song’ in Edinburgh, has previously produced many of Loach’s films with foreign partners. This film tells the story of Bobby, a Glasgow bus driver who falls in love with a Nicaraguan girl. During their visit to her home country Bobby realises the cruelty and terror of the CIA initiated civil war.* He is played by Robert Carlyle, who worked with Loach on ‘Riff-Raff.’


Hibbin confirms the necessity of meeting places like Edinburgh to find like-minded partners and believes that such international collaborations help to keep essential human rights in place. These financial structures also imply a freedom of speech she considers vital for the production of her films, and which may not be possible in the context of a national or a commercially-oriented Hollywood cinema. She concedes ‘co-production has become an integral part of film and TV production. This is not only for financial reasons, but for cultural reasons as well. It’s a way of avoiding the Americanisation of films - co-production within Europe helps to keep Europe as a cultural entity. Ultimately, it is about having the freedom to make the films you want to make.’


In this new generation of co-production deals, the script and the acting package become less important. This reveals a strong trend that producers really mean ‘co-financed with my pals,’ when they talk about co-production. Hibbin condenses her experiences of financing ‘Carla’s Song,’ uniting 15 different money sources: ‘The most important aspect of a co-production are your partners. They should be of the same size as your company and have a similar way to work. Above all they should have the same interests and ideals, only under these circumstances is it possible to develop the trust and confidence necessary.’ For ‘Carla’s Song,’ Hibbin was able to call on the experiences - and the partners - of ‘Land and Freedom.’ Problems arose when no bank accepted the wide variety of funding sources, and the production had to be cashflowed by its investors whilst the lab deferred its payments until after delivery.


The first research trip, which helped the initial idea to mature into a project, was only made possible through the Incentive Funding Scheme of the MEDIA programme, hence the film illustrates the importance of both an international development support as well as the foreign relationships that are vital for a MEDIA application. The Scottish aspects and therefore the support from the Glasgow Film Fund came only much later. Hibbin points out: ‘No regional fund would have paid for our recce. Only the Incentive Loan of the European Script Fund mate this initial trip possible.’


The German partner was Wim Wenders’ producer Ulrich Felsberg, who brought a quarter of the total production budget of £2.7 million from ARD German TV and Kosslick’s Filmstiftung-Nordrhein Westfalen. Amongst the 160 films which Kosslick has invested in over the past five years are 70 co-productions. For him, collaborations like ‘Carla’s Song’ are part of a strategy for cultural survival: ‘We need co-productions to see the real world, not just the romantic comedies that are currently so popular in Germany ... Whilst US partners often hijack a project from the producer, European money will not corrupt its artistic vision.’ Apart from providing funds, Felsberg’s company Road Movies arranged the post-production in Nordrhein-Westfalen where 150% of the Filmstiftung money needs to be spent. Also when Hibbin found herself stuck in Nicaragua without lights, which Mexican companies claimed they were unable to ship across four different customs areas over the Christmas period, Felsberg hired trucks in Cologne and shipped them from Hamburg for the lights to arrive in Nicaragua just in time, and still cheaper then driving them across from Mexico.


European producers find it problematic to attract funding particularly when their projects fail to provide the desired economic effect for a regional film fund, or when they don’t seem relevant to a national TV audience. Last year’s Palm d’Or winner ‘Breaking the Waves,’ however, defies the widely held prejudice that a production needs to show regional or national attractions in order to attract money. The film plays, and its exteriors are largely shot, on the Scottish west coast - though it had no British interest amongst its 28 investors. Channel 4 did not like the script, whilst the Glasgow Film Fund argued that ‘locations were too far away.’ British Screen’s repayment schedule was regarded as too rigid, hence it did not agree with the rest of the finance structure. Cashflow was arranged through a local Danish bank, who admittedly may not have been aware of the risk they were taking. Vibeke Windeløv, the producer at the centre of deal making for ‘Breaking the Waves,’ confirms that the personal relationship between production partners is a determining factor for the quality of the film. “I lost a lot of time with people who never came up with the money and contract they had promised.” In order to find a common approach and to survive the setbacks and the adventure of a multinational co-production, Windeløv believes that the right mix needs, apart from a concise negotiation strategy, some kind of emotional element: ‘It is important to have fun together, to like each other, and perhaps even love each other.’


Windeløv is very enthusiastic about French Arte commissioning editor George Goldenstein, whose engagement in her view made the film possible. ‘Goldenstein liked the script, and he has a real passion for movies.’ He not only agreed to an arrangement abandoning the exclusivity of his license, which is unusual for continental broadcaster, but also promoted the package with the French Canal Plus and German ZDF, who took different license windows to enable each partner to show the film without transmissions clashing. On the other hand, Windeløv is disappointed with German WDR TV, who bought a German license window for DM 700.000 only to sell it on to German Arte for DM 800.000 the next day.


Negotiations were less complicated in Europe, where contracts are drawn up ‘in case anything goes wrong.’ The collaboration with US partner October Films, however, shows a different approach of a transatlantic partner. October Films cut their investment by half once Helena Bonham-Carter withdrew her commitment to play the lead role of Bess. Still, it took 6 months until endless contracts were drawn up, ‘which cost about as much as the US contribution altogether,’ Windeløv remembers. Particularly in the context of the complex deal structure underlying ‘Breaking the Waves,’ Windeløv sees one of her main tasks in protecting her director, Lars von Trier, from outside influences. She recalls her strategy: ‘We started shooting with only half the money in place, and shot the material for the panorama images 15 month before principal photography to keep the confidence of our financiers. Suddenly everybody had the feeling that something is happening ... But Lars had no idea how bad the financing was.’ It was relatively simple to keep investors expectations at bay who had to understand that, given the high number of partners, the producers could not consult everybody on the shooting script, ‘or let them walk around on set ... The central point is that the production is about the film Lars wants to make, not about the film co-producers want to make.’


In both Hibbin’s and Windeløv’s productions the creative influence of co-producers was limited, but such arrangements were only possible through the universality of their respective stories: The European part of ‘Carla’s Song’ could have happened in any other large city, and ‘Breaking the Waves’ was initially written for the Danish mainland, then Norway and Belgium, until it finally happened on the Isle of Skye.


If Hibbin’s and Windeløv’s approach to production becomes more popular, and Europeans manage to share their stories without breaking them into nationally specific parts, there may be more partnerships coming out of Sharing Stories that will re-capture audiences for a popular and relevant European cinema.