Lights Film School Online was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to interview two independent documentary filmmakers. Dawn Mikkelson and Melissa Koch told Lights Film School about their recent feature documentary project entitled “Red Tail“. Our interview and the documentary’s trailer can be found below.
1. Can you introduce yourself and your project as well as tell us how it all came together?
Dawn: My name is Dawn Mikkelson and I am the Executive Producer and Co-Director of The Red Tail. Living in Minnesota, Northwest Airlines was one of the big hometown companies. Everyone knows someone who has previously or currently works for NWA (now Delta). When the mechanics went on strike, it was a unique time for this company in that the hometown public had grown sick of this airline taking taxpayer dollars, making big promises for jobs, and then letting its top management walk off with millions of dollars while the workers were making less and less. I started the film in the fall of 2005, wanting to look at NWA as a working example of what appeared to be happening across the country to the working class. It started as a film that was much more about a company, with the workers as secondary characters. I met Melissa about 6 months into production. She joined me as an intern whose father was a striking mechanic. Through conversations I learned that she had footage of her father and the first few critical weeks of the strike. As Melissa and I got to know each other better, it became clear that her family’s story was a much more compelling way of approaching this overall situation of the working class. We decided to join forces and she and I share the directing role in The Red Tail.
Melissa: My name is Melissa Koch and I am the Director, Producer and Editor of The Red Tail. I started this project in August of 2005 when the AMFA mechanics went on strike against Northwest Airlines. I saw the story of my father (an aircraft mechanic for 38 years) and his fellow mechanics struggling to keep their jobs in the face of outsourcing as a microcosm of what American workers, and many workers globally are dealing with — a global economy that prioritizes profit above human and social costs. I think it is often true that the strongest and most effective films are those that deal with issues the filmmakers have a genuine personal connection to and a very nuanced understanding of. I couldn’t pass up the chance as a filmmaker to look at the some of the most pressing issues of our time — capitalism, the global economy, outsourcing, corporate ir/responsibility, declining power of unions, and everyday people taking a stand — through the lens of my own fathers experience.
2. At one point in your filmmaking process you had two documentary teams join into one team with a similar goal. Can you explain how this came about? How did you divide up control and responsibility? Or was that even an issue?
Dawn: I think any time you have two creative, passionate individuals working together, you are bound to have conflict. But you are also going to create a film that is much more nuanced and full than what either would have had on their own. As I said above, we decided to do this together about 6-8 months after my production had started. We did a lot of emotional and storytelling check-ins to make sure that we were both moving in the direction we wanted to go. The reason I have the additional title as Executive Producer is that I have more experience and connections, so I was able to pull together resources for the project that may not have otherwise been available. The Red Tail is my fourth feature documentary and Melissa’s first. I also have a production company called Emergence Pictures that makes doc-style videos for primarily nonprofits, so many of the equipment resources and such came from my company. In terms of creative control and such, we did our best to hear one another and make all big decisions together. During the edit we had an external drive that we would shuttle between our two homes, so we would each take stabs at the edit and then come together periodically to tackle the bigger questions.
Melissa: Dawn started working on The Red Tail shortly after I started working on a film about the strike. She was approached by a flight attendant that wanted her video production company to make a film about all the Northwest Airlines work groups — the flight attendants, mechanics, & pilots — and what the company was doing to them. I saw one of Dawn’s fliers advertising that she was raising money to make a trailer for the film. Knowing that Dawn had more resources and experience, I contacted her to see if I could assist in production in hopes that we could forge a creative partnership down the line if that made sense. After interning for her for a while, I proposed we change the direction of the film to follow an aircraft mechanic to China to meet the workers who are doing the outsourced work. Dawn agreed that the film needed both a more personal and more global approach, so we moved forward from there and eventually decided to share the directorial role. This process was complicated at times because we had varied levels of experience and different creative visions initially. Over time I think we came to a shared vision for the film, and I am certain the The Red Tail would be a very different film had one of us done it alone. I think uniting our different strengths elevated The Red Tail both creatively and technically.
3. Ethics in documentary filmmaking is a widely discussed topic. Based on the subject matter and locations of your film this issue was sure to come up. What were some of the biggest ethical decisions you needed to make as you progressed through the film? Did you learn anything about your own standpoint on these issues as you went through this process? Did you ever feel uncomfortable with a decision you were making and how did you deal with it?
Dawn: This is a big question with many potential directions to pursue. Some of the big ethical decisions had to do with the question of interviewing workers in China on camera. There is a sad history of documentary filmmakers interviewing Chinese workers, leaving the country, premiering their film, only to learn later that their subjects have “disappeared”. We did not want to be one of those productions. Because of this, we concealed the identities of our interview subjects. We were dedicated to speaking with average workers and to do that we needed to respect the fact that they had no desire to become international representatives of the Chinese Airline Mechanic.
The other main ethical decision was the choice to enter mainland China covertly with Tourist Visas versus Journalist Visas. Technically, we were not tourists, but as a documentary filmmaker, I NEVER identify as a Journalist either. Journalist visas also require that you have a government representative travel with you. We didn’t feel that that situation would allow us to do the work we needed to do, nor would our subjects speak frankly with us. So we crossed into China at the largest land crossing in two groups. Myself and Adrian Danciu (our Director of Photography) going first with most of the gear, then calling Melissa and Roy when we got in and letting them know it was safe to cross. We had many safeguards and plans for what to do if we were detained at the border or anywhere on the journey, but luckily this was not a problem. Upon returning to Hong Kong, we were told by union activists that there were two other film crews that went into mainland China at about the same time with Journalist Visas and both groups had their gear confiscated at the border on their way into the country. This said to me that we did the right thing by going on Tourist Visas.
Melissa: Of course, The Red Tail presented a multitude of ethical questions and challenges. Every documentary film does and should. The first ethical challenge that came up for me was how to deal with the racist and xenophobic discourse that surrounds so many conversations about outsourcing American jobs to China while making a film about outsourcing to China. Part of my vision for The Red Tail was that it would break down some of those myths and have real conversations between workers on both sides of outsourcing about what challenges each are facing in the context of these country-hopping jobs.
4. Is the trip to China based in the need for confrontation or understanding? How did this experience change from the beginning of the journey to the end of the journey?
Dawn: China was about understanding. The Koch family never blamed the Chinese workers for the situation they faced. And they got what they went for . . . .and then some. I also think it was about creating closure for Roy to really see where his job had gone and to take that journey with his daughter, which brought them closer together. It says a lot when your child really cares about what you’re going through and is willing to go to these lengths to honor your journey.
Melissa: My Dad has never expressed blame towards Chinese workers, but instead has always directed his frustrations towards the company he worked for and a government that allowed that company to outsource his job. The trips to Hong Kong and mainland China where never about confrontation. They were about connection, understanding and really becoming informed about workers perspectives who are part of the chain of outsourcing from the US, to Hong Kong, to mainland China.
5. How have you gone about getting press for your film? Are you your film’s own publicists? And what types of publicity have you found work best so far?
Dawn: We are our own publicists. We’ve been targeting the mainstream and indie media in every town the film screens and have had wonderful press opportunities. Through those opportunities, other press have learned about us including the Huffington Post, which was a great review and validation for us. We are currently focusing our energy on bloggers and organizations that are passionate about union, working class, globalization, and outsourcing issues, as well as professional organizations for teachers and librarians with the hope that this will lead to college/university screenings and DVD sales, as well as screenings and DVD sales to individuals.
Most beneficial is hard to answer right now, as we’re still in the thick of it. It seems that with every good review and quote that we can put on our website and other materials, the more receptive potential partners are to wanting to collaborate with us. So it is kind of a snowball effect. Locally, I have relationships with many of the indie and mainstream media and those relationships make it easier for me to pitch stories and get the publicity we want, but nationally and internationally, all bets are off. So any time we can get someone locally based to speak on our behalf to the media, the more likely we get press.
6. On your website you have “view / host a screening” link. Can you tell us about this feature of the Openindie network?
Dawn: OpenIndie is still in it’s birthing stages, but essentially it’s a resource where audience members can request a screening of a film and when you as a filmmaker see that you have reached a point where you could get a good crowd in a certain city, you post your screening and everyone in that zip code is informed of the screening. They are also working on the capability of individuals holding screenings by paying a certain fee and having the film download onto their computers and then they can screen the film wherever they are. I look forward to this being fully functional. Ultimately, we would like to have audiences more involved in what they want to see and use the film for creating community dialogues.
Outside of OpenIndie, we just had two screenings in the Detroit area last week, hosted by AverageJoeInc.com, a online community of thousands of flight attendants. Most of them work for Delta. They rented a theater and coordinated logistics (including a truck with a big billboard promoting the screening that was parked in the airport employee parking lot for weeks). I attended the screenings and sold DVDs, which covered my travel costs. I look forward to doing more screenings like this around the country with AverageJoeInc.com and other organizations.
7. There was a considerable amount of travel required for your documentary. You mentioned that many of your flights were donated. Did you manage to find companies with the same interests as you, and did you use that to your advantage? How do you recommend other documentary filmmakers approach this strategy in their quest to get both finances and resources to support their vision?
Dawn: We had $0 from companies. Our flights were donated by airline employees from NWA and United, called “buddy passes”. This is a huge question about getting finances. In the case of this film, we had fundraising events from house parties to an evening of music with local bands at a large theater in south Minneapolis. Ultimately we functioned like a nonprofit in this venture.
I have used the same model in previous films as well.
8. You also mentioned that you found funding with “hundreds of individual donors”. Did you use a crowd funding model to finance the documentary?
Dawn: We did not use crowd funding, as it wasn’t really in use as widely when we were raising our main cash in 2005 to 2008. That said, I would consider trying it out now. We also raised money through online appeals to Facebook fans and an email list that is currently around 1000 people. Half of which were interested from my previous work and the other half that came on board specifically for this film.
We had a ton of community support, from donated places to stay to grassroots momentum around our screenings. People really wanted this story told.
Melissa: We raised the bulk of our funding in two ways. The first chunk of money we raised was through online donations on our website. Many strikers and other NWA employees donated, and we also contacted hundreds of organizations that have something to do with labor unions and working class issues and asked them to put a banner add that if clicked on would direct users from their website to The Red Tail. This directed a ton of traffic to our site and helped boost our online donations. Another successful fundraiser was an event we had with a silent auction, food & drinks, a preview of the The Red Tail, and several local bands who are part of the soundtrack of the film. That proceeds from that event covered our costs for the trip to and production in mainland China.
9. I notice that you’re using Amazon Video on Demand. How well has this platform serviced your needs as documentary filmmakers?
Dawn: Honestly, so far I’m not terribly impressed. It took MONTHS to process on their end, we get a very small cut of the proceeds, and we have no way of knowing where people learn about the film, where they were referred from, etc, because Amazon/Create Space keep this information from us. That said, it is one of the only online pay platforms that the general public knows about and so it was worth the experiment.
10. From a distribution standpoint what is some of the best advice you could give aspiring documentary filmmakers?
Dawn: At least half of your work on your film will be in distribution and the odds are that you will be doing this on your own, so you might as well learn to enjoy it. Here’s an article I wrote for MovieMaker Magazine on that topic.
Melissa: Create a distribution plan as soon as possible. If you can, do it before you start shooting your film. Independent distribution is exciting and tedious and the more solid your plan is ahead of time, the better position you will be in when you wrap post production and try to get your film in front of audiences. While it is important to have a film festival strategy, it is also important to screen your film as much as possible in front of audiences (sell them your DVD’s!), press press press, link up with organizations and individuals who are passionate about your project, research all different distribution platforms and utilize them, create a great website that is active and participatory, say yes to as many opportunities as you can because they will likely lead to more opportunities.
11. How long did this documentary take you to complete
Dawn: Aug 2005 to July 2009. So 4 years.
12. What was the budget for this documentary?
Dawn: Actual budget was around $230,000-250,000. That would presume that everyone got paid for their work. Actual cash that paid for travel and a few additional expenses . . . More along the lines of $35,000.
13. You have quite a few theatrical screenings. What has been your film festival strategy?
Dawn: Thank you. Started with the top 10-20 international film festivals and waited for a premiere. That said, we did sneak previews at ones before then that made sense for our audience, such as Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival (NWA hometown) and Reel Work May Day Labor Film festival in Santa Cruz. We’ve been active in contacting conferences and gatherings of our target audience and some of those contacts have paid off. And again, this is like a snowball. Once you have a couple, festival programmers and organizers listen to each other and the media.
One thing I will say, festivals are great for creating buzz, liner notes, good press, etc. These things all help you sell your film down the road. But I think one of the biggest mistakes young filmmakers make is to presume that a festival is the end of the journey and that some big distributor will then whisk them off into the world of success. This is rarely the case and shouldn’t be your only plan. Odds are that festivals are just the beginning of a long journey of distribution.
14. Both of you seemed to have very different ideas about how to approach your documentary’s story. Dawn seemed to want to use NWA as a case study and a jumping off point for a larger discussion on the topic of globalization. Melissa on the other hand was working on a story about her father that really humanized the documentary. From a narrative storytelling standpoint it seems that Dawn was focused on the film’s plot and Melissa was focused on the film’s characters. How important do you think it is to humanize these large political, social and economic stories?
For example, one of our students wants to start filming a documentary about food production methods, but he’s having a difficult time balancing “issue” with “character”. I cautioned him about not having a character (or characters) to embody on a personal level, the conflict your discussing on a whole. Can you talk about the pros and cons of using this method of story telling?
Dawn: Historically, all my films revolve around 1-3 central characters navigating their way through a larger social issue. From the ordination of a lesbian minister in THIS obedience to illuminate the struggle over sexuality and religion in mainline Christian churches to the intimate stories of Cree and Metis residents about how their lives have been devastated by massive flooding from a large-scale hydroelectric dam in Manitoba in Green Green Water. The Red Tail was no different. I was really struggling with The Red Tail when Melissa and I decided to merge visions for that very reason, as the film didn’t have those characters yet. This film reminded me of the importance of this approach.
Ultimately, my approach to documentary filmmaking is an emotional one. I believe that documentary film’s largest strength is its ability to impact an audience on an emotional level and that is the level where we make our big decisions, if we’re honest with ourselves. Sure, we need facts and intellectual arguments to help us along the journey in deciding how we feel about an issue, but ultimately this decision is made when we FEEL the answer. The impact of personal stories and experiences is the best way to get to that emotional answer.
I would imagine you advised your student that there is danger in having any character “embody” any conflict, as it ultimately impacts that person quite a bit. It is a lot of pressure for your subject, especially if the film does well, to be considered the working example of an issue in the public eye. That said, the way we constructed The Red Tail and the way I construct my other films it is clear that these characters are just one example of multitudes of individuals. After screenings, the biggest comment I hear is how Roy’s story reminds the audience of their own story or of the story of someone they love. They see it for what it is, a small representation of a universal experience. This is all presuming that the character you focus on is someone with much personal integrity and someone the audience will likely relate to. Obviously the opposite effect could occur if you have a character that has little integrity representing an issue.
Bringing me back to The Red Tail. Until I met Melissa and Roy, I hadn’t found that person that could really represent this story the way they do. They are a family of honest people, who really don’t want to be the leaders of a movement, and reflect the type of folks you would want as friends and I am happy to say became my friends . . . The other great benefit of documentary film.
Melissa: As a filmmaker, I am drawn to deeply personal stories that give audiences an emotional access point to larger social and ideological conflicts. I think it vitally important to have a character/s that can bring an audience through a story, personalize larger issues, and make a documentary more compelling. If I take The Red Tail as an example — The story of Northwest Airlines outsourcing work, cutting labor costs, breaking unions, filing bankruptcy while giving huge bonuses to executives, and merging with Delta into the largest airline in the world is certainly an important issue, but for me it doesn’t make for a film on it’s own. Following my father’s process with a labor strike and then his journey to meet the worker that replaced him is the heart of the story. Without him as a character, not only would people not watch the film as much, they wouldn’t get as much out of it. His emotional journey and the struggle of the striking workers are what shed such blinding light on the larger “issues”.
We tried to take a somewhat narrative film approach to the structure of The Red Tail. We actually consulted with narrative writers and filmmakers more than with documentary filmmakers because we both felt that the more we could structure the film like a narrative, the more accessible and compelling it would be.
To your student who is interested in making a doc about food production methods, I would ask — What is your story? Is it someone who works in food production who is impacted by the methods? Is a consumer who is being effected by processing methods? Is it the small local farm/food processor that is doing it a different way and why? Is your character someone who is fighting to change food production methods? Find your story — and hopefully you will find your character/s with it.
Purchasing & Screening Information:
* To buy DVD’s, schedule a screening, or learn more visit http://www.redtailmovie.com
* The best way to hear about things as they happen with The Red Tail is to be our fan on Facebook. http://www.facebook.com/theredtail