Lights Film School recently had the opportunity to talk with the filmmakers behind the documentary Tchoupitoulas. They discuss how they approached dramatic structure, licensing music for their film, fundraising and much more. The interview can be found below.
Hello guys and thank you for taking the time to sit down and talk with the Lights Film School Online blog readers.
Congratulations on completing your feature length documentary entitled Tchoupitoulas and premiering it at SXSW to incredible reviews. You’re also in the final days of an incredibly successful kickstarter campaign (See their campaign here). Documentary filmmakers stand to learn a lot from your experiences with regards to creating interesting documentaries, running successful funding campaigns, getting exposure and hopefully being brave enough to just get out there and tell the stories they want to tell. As you guys say yourself, you’re drawn towards “chasing shiny things” and you go out there, equipped with your camera, and film the things that catch your eye. Tchoupitoulas is testament to that. As you describe the film on your kickstarter page:
“Tchoupitoulas (pronounced “chop-ih-TOOL-us”) follows three young brothers from the West Bank of New Orleans as they cross the river on the ferry and spend one night in the shining, peculiar pleasure island that is the French Quarter. Music propels them down the streets as we witness the bewildering sights through their eyes, spending time with everyone from burlesque dancers to oyster shuckers to street musicians. Our hero, 11 year-old William, a budding novice at the flute, is particularly drawn to the sounds that emanate from the bars, the clubs, and the sidewalks — all places we roam in Tchoupitoulas. In short, it’s a movie about the feel and sound of New Orleans at night — all night — through the eyes and ears of a kid.”
Before we jump into the interview, let’s allow our blog readers to watch the trailer for your film below:
Can you begin by telling us a little about the title for the film?
As Bill & Turner explain it, Tchoupitoulas is a signifier of a place, nothing more. It’s a word that only means something in a very particular place, New Orleans. Just as their last film was called 45365, which is the zip code of Sidney Ohio, and thereby only significant there, these films are portraits of places, it’s only appropriate that they have titles specific to that region or community or area.
Are you concerned that a difficult name to pronounce will hurt your marketing efforts?
On the contrary! I believe people will be drawn to the film because that word looks so fascinating and like a challenge to pronounce!
Let’s talk about music clearance rights. The film is finished but you can’t release it because you need to clear the music first. However, you’ve already started to screen your film in the festival circuit. Can you explain what the rules surrounding a film’s festival run and what music clearance rules are?
Unless you’re going to a film festival that is attended entirely by record label executives and their legal counsel, film festivals don’t usually present issues as far as this stuff is concerned.
Are you primarily trying to clear music that exists within the scene (diegetic sounds) or are you trying to clear music you’re adding over top of the images (non-diegetic sounds)?
Good question. Both is the answer! If you record a performance incidentally (ie on the spot, diegetically), by fair use laws, you are in the clear — BUT, you still need that band or performer to sign a release, AND, if it’s a cover they’re performing, you still need rights to that song. This happens in our film (In New Orleans, everyone covers everyone, so this gets complicated). Also, if you’re recording on the spot, and you cut to something else, even if it’s in the same environment and just for a second, you just used that incidental recording as an editing element, and it is no longer fair use. This happens in our film. And then, yes, there are some songs that are non-diegetic editing elements, that we feel are irreplaceable where they are in our film. These aren’t particularly well-known or expensive songs, so we’re not being stubborn divas here. But they add up.
Can you explain the process of music licensing in a little more detail to our readers? Once you’ve identified a song you want to use in your documentary, what are the next steps you need to take to be able to legally use that song in your production?
Well Joe Rudge, our music supervisor, is much more qualified to talk about this than I am. As I understand it, Joe will then look up the information on who owns the various rights to that particular song, in some sort of special secret database that geniuses like him have access to. He’ll then contact the record companies and talk to them about the use in the film and assess what it will cost to have the proper license or clearance.
What are some of the things you’ve learnt about music licensing that you didn’t know before you shot Tchoupitoulas?
That it can cost a whole lot! Also we’re getting an intro to the particulars of fair use law, which is actually pretty interesting.
What is the average cost of a song? What are the top and bottom price ranges your finding as you try and secure your film’s music?
We’ve just done some estimates at this point. But in our estimates, a cue could cost as much as $5000 and as little as $500… Some kind-hearted musicians are nice enough to let you use the song for free.
Are there any distribution limits imposed on your film through the music licensing process? For example, do you pay on a sliding scale based on how many people see the film? Are you limited to only screening the film in certain countries or can you show the film internationally?
We won’t really know the answer to this until we go through the whole process of delivering a film, with insurance, to a distributor. As far as I know, there is no sliding scale.
Do the copyright holders take into consideration that you are a group of independent documentary filmmakers when they are establishing licensing prices for you?
Well that’s part of Joe’s job too, is to get them to understand that we have a totally shoestring budget here, and that this film will not be put out by a behemoth Hollywood studio, in a blockbuster release where billions of people will enjoy their music without any benefit to them. In fact a lot of our cues would be a way to introduce less known artists to new audiences. You’ll see that one of the prizes on our Kickstarter is an unofficial soundtrack or Tchoupitoulas music mix. So to answer your question, yes we would hope they would!
You’ve determined that you need $38,000 to clear the music that is absolutely necessary to the film. If you make more money you can clear more music. How many songs does $38,000 clear?
That would clear about 7 or 8 cues. There are more than double that many in the film.
How long did it take you to fund the film? I see you’ve received a Cinereach grant. What other funding sources did you acquire to get this film made? What was the film’s production budget (roughly)?
The film’s only resources have come via the massive generosity of Cinereach, or donors who have donated through our fiscal sponsorship at San Francisco Film Society. It’s hard to calculate the production budget, because it’s not as if we raised the money before Bill & Turner started shooting. So there were many personal costs that went into the production. But to give you an idea of how expensive music is proportionally, that number I gave for the absolutely necessary cues will comprise more than a third of our total budget. And the whole process of music clearance, if we get enough money for it, will probably come to more than half our budget.
Indiewire wrote about your documentary film saying it “doesn’t feel like a documentary…. It’s more of an experience, a sensation, a mood that washes over you”. When you set out to make this film was having an unconventional narrative structure something that you planned on?
We usually begin with a general idea of what the film needs to be, needs to look like – but the conceit of this film began with the residual emotions of our youth in New Orleans – of our sense memories and dreams. It’s a rather ephemeral idea – and something very difficult to articulate – but it drives the search for images and sounds and characters that eventually inform the content of the film.
How did you approach the use of these different narrative tools when you were filming? 1. Building and releasing conflict 2. Working towards a climax 3. Character arcs.
The real life ‘characters’ create their own arcs – it’s up to us to be present. While you can debate the definition of documentary that we’re presenting, the ‘reality’ of these moments is inherent. We don’t direct or contrive the moments we capture. In the end, we use what we’ve found to convey a comprehensive sense of that experience.
You hear a lot of documentary filmmakers talk about “knowing their ending” before they start filming. They often have a clear idea regarding the trajectory of their film. Even if they can’t predict the ending, they know that their protagonist will either fail or succeed at accomplishing their goal. When you began filming did you know the “end” or the “goals” you were working towards?
It’s an awfully difficult thing to predict the future, so we try to avoid that. Going in to an environment with preconceived notions creates a one dimensional experience. We try to approach our worlds with an open mind – see what wanders in. We caught the end of our film in passing – and didn’t even realize it until much later in review. It’s honest – and it’s the only way that we could leave the story.
The film will probably be called “experimental”. How do you feel about having your documentary classified under that banner?
We experiment all the time. People can say whatever they like – it’s humbling to have a dialogue being conducted in your absence. That said, we’re really not trying to make genre films. We’re making the films that we need to make – to express from within ourselves and for each other. Whatever mode best captures and articulates that experience – we’ll use it… But for now, full immersion into real lives and stories is the most captivating.
You’ve spent two and half years working on this film, so let’s talk more about the production process. It’s one night from 3 boys point of view. However, you shot for many more months. Tell us a little bit more about your shooting process. How did you intertwine the boys’ story with the footage from the other months you work on this film?
We’ve been calling this our year without sunlight. Every night we were out in the town, immersed in it. The environment that we built – the superstructure of the film – was composed during 8 months of those nights. We were very present, and it took its toll… The filming with the boys came much later in the process and is based around one epic night.
How did you meet the boys you eventually ended up following in the film? Tell us a little more about how you approached the idea of collaborating with them for this film.
We knew for a long time that we needed to find the perfect kids – in the end, they found us, literally. We were sitting outside discussing the future of the film and they walked right past us. We started filming that night. They needed no prompting, just an audience, someone who would listen… and we did.
How many months in total did you shoot for?
Eight long nocturnal months…
What were your first couple days of shooting like? Did you feel lost at the beginning?
Honestly, I have no recollection. It was a situation where we dove right in. Having a previous knowledge of the town we were pretty well adapted to the environs before getting started. It just kind of happened…
I love the artwork on your kickstarter page. What inspired that design? I see you’re using different artwork on your website. Have you decided on your DVD design and overall branding for your film yet?
We’ve got to get the deal first! But yes, we always have artwork and ideas at the ready. What you see on the pages there are actually thumbnail sketches I did for potential poster designs. Bill’s really into Russian propaganda art – stark and graphic. I studied painting before getting involved with film. The collaboration usually ends up somewhere in between.
The trailers give an impression of the film – they say a good bit without saying anything at all – just like the title.
What are your distribution plans for this film? Are you hoping to get a distribution deal? DIY? Or some hybrid model?
We’re in talks with some distributors. Our hope is with one, or a couple of them, to be able to show the film to as many people possible in as many different formats: digital, DVD, and of course have as much of a theatrical run as we can. We’ve already had some theaters in a couple cities reach out to us with interest in playing it.
It had its world premier at SXSW and captured some great reviews. You’ve also had the film in HotDocs. What do you see the main purpose of film festivals being for independently created documentaries?
Well in some cases these festivals are the place where an independent film gets seen by the most people it ever gets seen by. So it becomes its own little theatrical run. But as far as a purpose? Film is a community experience and always has been, so the screening of any film anywhere brings people together. At a festival, a lot of those people happen to be filmmakers or part of the film world themselves, so what happens as a result of them being together can facilitate more production — in whatever facet that may mean. It may mean raising funds, it may mean finding a new D.P. to work with, it may mean a writer finds a director, it may mean the formation of a company… etc.
You’ve been running a very successful kickstarter campaign. During the time we’re writing this you have 10 days to go and you are only around $1500 away from your $38,000 goal (Update: They have reached their goal). What are some of the major takeaways that filmmakers could learn from your kickstarter campaign?
Make sure where the money would go is very clear. People like to know their money is going somewhere definite. Come up with a plan of who you’re going to share the campaign with when. Account for the fact that most campaigns slow down a lot in the middle. Make your video engaging, and with a sense of humor. If your directors are two fellows who are easy on the eyes for a lot of ladies, PUT THEM IN THE VIDEO. Everyone involved in the film should sit down and write down what networks they have and could utilize. Networks have different purposes: there’s family, there’s friends, there’s creative allies who believe in you so much that they’d email their own networks, there’s press contacts, there’s any school you ever went to or the listserv of any place you used to work. And be creative with how you facebook or tweet about it. Tag your friends who have given; it gives a sense to the rest of your network that this is something they should be a part of.
What have been the most valuable ways to spend your time and energy on your campaign?
Definitely seeking advice from Kickstarter themselves, specifically the Director of Film there. Also, taking time to craft good emails for your various networks. Most of your donations will come from these personal emailed appeals.
What have been the least valuable activities the spend your time and energy on during your campaign?
Tweeting. Very few donations have actually come in this way. Especially if you or even your more followed allies tweet a lot, there’s no premium on the tweets, and they’re gone quickly after they’ve showed up.
Is managing your kickstarter campaign a full time job?
A well managed Kickstarter campaign will take up a lot of your time, yes. But there are a lot of variables that will make your campaign easier or harder to catch on & thereby affect how much you work you have to do: what stage you’re at in your film, the reach of everyone’s combined networks, any press you get, etc. I worked hard on ours, but there were also a lot of lucky factors that happened to line up for us.
In other successful kickstarter campaigns, it’s not uncommon to hear about filmmakers using their kickstarter campaign to form distribution partnerships. So besides just licensing the music for the film, are you thinking about the potential future impact this campaign could have on your release or are you more “present thinking” in the campaign?
Certainly. The Kickstarter has generated its own press, and plenty of people that aren’t from our own networks have gotten their eyes on it at this point. And yes, a few new partners that we’re very excited to be working with have come forward as a result. These relationships are very promising for future projects as well.
Filmmakers are always curious about the technical specs of a film. Can you tell us the following?
What camera was the film shot on?
2 Panasonic DVX’s.
What microphones were used to capture audio?
Senheiser Lavalier mics
What software did you edit the film using?
Final Cut Pro.
Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and insights with us. If any of our blog readers want to help with this production or get their name in the credits of this amazing film you can visit their kickstarter page and donate here.