“We didn’t always agree, but we did agree that disagreeing would make for a stronger film.”
Lights Online Film School recently had the privilege of connecting with award-winning documentary filmmakers Tony Gerber and Maxim Pozdorovkin.
They’re the directing and producing duo behind The Notorious Mr. Bout, a fascinating new film about the career of the internationally known arms smuggler, Viktor Bout.
Lights readers are in for a treat, as Tony and Maxim are masters of their craft:
Tony directed Full Battle Rattle, winner of the 2008 SXSW Special Jury Prize, and is a two-time Emmy recipient. He has written and directed over a dozen documentaries for National Geographic that have taken him to some of the most remote regions in the world. He founded Market Road Films, a New York City-based production company, in 2005.
Maxim’s documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, where it won a Special Jury Award. It was shortlisted for a 2014 Academy Award and released theatrically around the world. Maxim holds a PhD from Harvard University for a dissertation on found footage filmmaking and the history of information technology; he also works as a media curator in New York City.
For its part, The Notorious Mr. Bout premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. It went on to screen at the 2014 True/False Film Festival as well as on the BBC Four Channel in the UK. The film was picked up by BOND360, a leading strategy and marketing firm for independent cinema, and is recently available on demand.
Before we jump into the interview, let’s take a moment to watch the film’s trailer:
Hello, Tony and Maxim! Thanks for taking the time to discuss your latest film with us here at Lights. The Notorious Mr. Bout is a fascinating dive into the life of a man known to some as a supervillain “Merchant of Death”; to others as a victim of conspiracy. You don’t shy away from the moral complexities, which lends the film great depth!
First, I’m curious to hear why you chose this concept. Why tell the story of Viktor Bout? What drew you to it specifically?
When I first heard Viktor’s name, he was described as an uber-villain, a criminal mastermind, with multiple passports, different identities and various shell companies that enabled him to operate in the shadows and deal arms to dangerous regimes. He was, in short, The Merchant of Death.
The legend went on that it was impossible to catch him because he meticulously avoided being photographed. Then came the revelation from his wife Alla that Viktor carried a video camera with him for the better part of a decade… A decade of tremendous change and upheaval in the world, which saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of globalization.
Here was a cognitive disconnect: if the legend was true, that the only known image of him was taken surreptitiously by a photographer at risk of death, how was it possible that the same man filmed hundreds of hours of home movies and didn’t mind sharing them? It was a compelling question that drove the desire to tell his story.
Viktor’s case was high profile – it even sparked a Hollywood movie, 2005’s Lord of War. Yet your access throughout the film is incredible…!
In addition to Viktor’s home video footage, you accompany his wife, Alla, around the verdict’s pronouncement in New York City in 2011. Friends, family members, and acquaintances speak openly in your interviews. How did you gain such intimate access and inspire such trust?
Max immediately earned a certain level of trust from Alla because he is Russian. As an American, I had to work a little harder.
Alla was very isolated in New York and quite alone. We drove her and her daughter Liza to Pearl Street where the trial was taking place. This was a good opportunity to talk and eventually film in the car. We often took them out for Thai food in Chinatown. When Alla came to my office we invariably ordered Japanese take-out and drank lots of wine. This forged a relationship and Viktor appreciated that we were supportive of Alla during the difficult period of his trial.
What was it like digging through the footage, associating with Viktor’s inner circle, while trying to maintain some semblance of objectivity? Was objectivity even a goal?
The home movie footage was a treasure trove of surprises. We tried to organize it chronologically but some of the tapes (which came in various different formats, some totally obsolete) were unlabeled.
Discovering the footage of Jean Pierre Bemba (who would later be on trial in The Hague for war crimes) was a total surprise; and then the footage in Rwanda of Viktor’s combat training facility and his voice over intoning “Shoot this! It’s the strangest and funniest part of our film!” was a total treat. Then there was a partially erased tripod-shot (selfie) of Alla and Viktor in bed… one can only guess what was erased!
The spirit of this material was that of two adventurous young spirits eager for new experiences. What happens to this spirit as they age, start a family and navigate a changing world? That’s where the interest was for me. Their early spirit together (on and off camera) made me think of a French New Wave film or Bonnie and Clyde with a video camera.
As for objectivity, I believe it is rare and nearly impossible in filmmaking, and maybe at the end of the day not that interesting.
For me, more interesting than “objectivity” is complexity. I believe our film is nuanced and complex because we listened to both sides (and each side believed they were acting in the absolute correct, moral and legal way). This makes for fireworks and a splendid dialectic. At every stage of the process it was important for us to maintain a dialectic.
Fascinating. I sense an undercurrent of sympathy throughout – did this spring from discoveries you made along the way, or was it a starting point that informed your approach?
Empathy and sympathy are two different things. Sympathy means to me, “I’m on your side.” Whereas empathy means, “I understand your side… but I don’t necessarily agree with it.”
When Viktor uses the “postman defense” and says that it wasn’t his responsibility what was onboard his planes – he simply provided a service, transportation – clearly there is plausible deniability, and within the confines of international law, he was correct.
The question of morally right and legally right are two different things! As are empathy and sympathy. I am empathetic, not sympathetic.
Well said! So what were your first steps? The Notorious Mr. Bout weaves the Bouts’ home video footage, interviews, animations, archival broadcasts, and present-day coverage into a complex, colorful tapestry, and the story these elements tell unfolds at a breakneck pace. How did you even start?
We spent several months cutting trailers for pitch forums where we sought international broadcast partners, but it wasn’t till we had all of the home movie footage in the edit room that we could really begin to envision a shape for the entire film.
What sort of preliminary research was involved? Did you create a treatment to help determine focus?
A timeline of the events of Viktor’s life was a very important tool yet surprisingly difficult to create. There has been so much misinformation disseminated.
The process of putting together the definitive timeline was a forensic process that required cross referencing, photos, interviews, historical events and home movie footage when there was a timestamp.
Wow. Did you start by going through the home videos to determine what was what, or by conducting interviews first?
The process of interviewing subjects was concurrent with the process of delving into the home movie footage. The footage arrived in several batches over several months. We collected the majority of tapes (from Hi8 to mini DV) when we were in Moscow to conduct interviews with Viktor’s family and colleagues.
There’re just so many moving parts working to tell Viktor’s story within its historical and political context. How many hours of home videos did you have to process?
Nearly all of the 200 hours were processed but not everything was subtitled. Max would screen first and if it was promising he would pass the tape onto an army of Russian speaking interns to create a transcript and eventually to subtitle for the editor and myself.
There were a lot of kid’s birthday parties, the type of things you’d expect from one family’s lifetime of home movies. Whenever and wherever Viktor appeared on tape, this was a top priority. We knew if the tapes didn’t contain any footage of him, this would be a problem for the film.
What was your assistant editing workflow, using what software? How did you keep track of everything?
We created a database in Google Drive. The film was cut in Final Cut 7.
In light of your joint experience and Maxim’s background in found footage filmmaking, I know our readers would love to hear about the pros and cons, the challenges and pitfalls – both technical and ethical – of working with found footage. What principles should documentary filmmakers consider when approaching a project with found footage?
Ethical? Hmmm. Maybe there would be more of a dilemma if the footage wasn’t provided by the subject, or if the subject was no longer living.
Working with home movie footage, you do feel like a voyeur, this is true. Found footage… Home movies in particular become a fascinating, interesting window on a life. You can fast forward from marriage to middle age. Also compelling are the moments that Viktor considered important enough at the time to commit them to video tape. Here, too, was insight into his character.
It was conceivable that if Viktor was always filming, he’d never be in the footage. Fortunately, Viktor had enough of an ego that he wanted to document himself and would set the camera up on a tripod, or hand it off to Alla or an associate. He had a notion that he was doing important, historical things and wanted it documented. This thought process and an acute awareness of the camera provides an entire layer of meaning throughout the home movie footage.
Generally speaking, it was very important to us not to treat the home movie footage as B-Roll, in their words used to merely illustrate some pre-determined point, but rather to let the home movie footage breathe and drive the film.
The analogy I like to use is of a jeweler working with a gem stone: the setting must be an aesthetic response to the inherent qualities of the stone.
Beautiful. How much, if any, post-processing was applied to the home videos? For example, additional sound effects, color correction, shuffled sound bytes, etc.? What is the line between “acceptable” manipulation and manipulation that oversteps its bounds?
We decided to maintain the original aspect ratio on the home movie footage (4:3). This was important for us. We wanted to celebrate the amateur quality of the material and not pretend it was something else. Max and I both love the degradation of the older footage. There is a beauty to it and a sense of transience which to me underscores the tragedy of this story (that is why the film begins at the end; one of our themes is fate).
Of course, there was some color grading to the original footage, but not a lot. As for sound enhancement, we did very little but in some instances we created a subtle sound mosaic to accompany image. The home break-in in South Africa is an example of that. We had to be resourceful to story-tell effectively.
I’ve heard it said a documentary film is directed in the edit. To what extent did you find this to be true? What were some of the editing challenges you faced?
Absolutely. Challenges? Telling a coherent story with the materials at hand. Dealing with hundreds of hours of material that required subtitling.
How long was your first cut, and how did you decide what to eliminate to trim it down?
Oh, I think the first cut was 140 minutes. We were just holding onto everything we loved in the home movie footage. We had to “kill a lot of babies.”
Our target length was between 90 and 100 minutes. The challenge in biography is to find themes and to develop them. There is a danger in telling the story of an individual’s life of picking a bunch of incidents in chronological order and saying, “there, I’m done.” You’re not done. Biography is only interesting when there is meaning generated that goes beyond the quotidian.
So, if a scene didn’t support or advance a theme, we cut it. With Viktor, early on, we decided that he was like Icarus of the Greek myth (the analogy of flying is obvious), who flies too close to the sun on wax wings. Victor’s story is about hubris or excess of pride. He didn’t believe he could fail. There’s a kind of naïvety to him.
Fascinating. I especially love Viktor’s closing monologue – it’s a profound encapsulation of his story and the themes. When you found it, did you know right away that it would factor into the film’s conclusion, or was this a moment that emerged later in the edit?
We were looking for an ending that would resonate with all the themes that we were weaving and this sound bite was perfect. The end resonates with Icarus. We found it much later in the edit process. It was one of the last sequences we worked.
Turning to production, why did you choose a studio-esque setting for the interviews?
The “set” was inspired by the sound-tight roomed used by the MI6 agents in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. We felt that it resonated with the Cold War. We knew that we would be shooting interviews all over the world and this traveling set was a way of creating the illusion that everyone was in the same space; a space free of judgment.
There is something inherently artificial about a sit-down interview to begin with, so why not celebrate that fact and make something that has additional layers of meaning? The reflective glass table visually supports the theme of meanings refracted, reflected and distorted. The honeycomb foam is like a padded cell or a congressional hearing chamber with the (non-working) mic on the table. It feels like a space to dig into ideas and testimony.
Totally. I love the dramatic lighting, too – what was your lighting setup? What cameras did you use, covering what angles? How did you record sound?
It was a simple setup because it had to pack to travel. I used a 1X1 bi-color light panel with a chimera hood for the key and two divas for the background.
Sound was run directly to camera. We didn’t have the luxury of a sound recordist. We used the Sony F3 and EX-1 for the secondary angle. They matched decently.
What camera did you use when shooting Alla, both while she watches home videos and while she navigates New York City? How did you record sound?
Again, the F3 and the EX-1. Max and I were our own crew.
The verite footage is the Sony EX-1. Alla is wearing a Sennheiser lavelier (radio) mic run directly to camera.
How much of “the look” of the present-day footage was accomplished in camera versus created in the color grade? How did you describe the direction you wanted to take the look to your colorist, and why? How much did they contribute creatively to the process?
The look is pretty much an in camera look with some adjustment for levels. Our colorist was one of our editors so he already knew the film and what was important to us about it. We discussed the look often as we were editing.
Why did you decide to include a voiceover from time to time? How did you cast your voice actor? Who wrote the voiceover script, at what stage in the filmmaking process? How did you balance the needs of getting from beat-to-beat in the story with staying true to who Viktor is in real life… Was there ever a conflict, there?
Throughout this process, we maintained contact with Viktor through the correctional systems email server (corrlinks). His personality was revealed to us in surprising ways through this correspondence.
At one point I asked him what music he liked and received a multi-page reply… He was a self-taught ethno-musicologist with a special love for the band Chicago!
We tried to get permission to interview him in prison but were denied each time. We always imagined that Viktor himself would narrate the film from prison (as Alec Guinness does in Kind Hearts and Coronets). We decided to use his prison correspondence as the narration. The words are all Viktor’s.
Ideally we would’ve had him read them in the film, but this proved impossible, and by then he had been sentenced and moved to Marion, Illinois, to the “communications management unit.”
As for casting his voice, this was difficult. We wanted fidelity (a genuine Russian accent), but we also wanted to suspend disbelief… It was important to us that the audience wasn’t thinking about an actor reading Viktor’s words. I’m not sure how successful this was. We auditioned various voices and went so far as to make an offer to a celebrity. In the end, we went with a Russian actor based in Europe who had his own in-house recording studio. The accent was real and he took direction well.
I love that the words are Viktor’s. On a different note, there are some great animated sequences throughout the film illustrating geography and courtroom proceedings, presumably to orient the viewer, communicate the reach of Viktor’s business, and visualize events for which only audio existed.
At what point in the filmmaking process did you decide to use animation to bring clarity and help fill these gaps? How did you settle on a style and communicate it to the animator? How many iterations were involved?
We knew early on that we wanted animation in the film. Our initial aspirations were too great for the budget we were able to raise, so we were scrappy and resourceful.
A lot of the animation (maps, language cards and brochures) were created by Stephanie Gould in my office. With more time and money we could have done more with the courtroom. This was the greatest challenge and the area of greatest need. We had to bring these courtroom moments alive and had only trial transcript to work with.
It really works. I was struck by your score, too; there’s a “lounge music” vibe to it that helps suggest the absurdity, the provocative blend of comedy and tragedy, that characterizes the rise and fall of this larger-than-life man’s empire.
I’d love to hear about your collaboration with your composer. How did you come up with the music’s direction? What was your working relationship like?
The composer is Will Bates and he’s great. We had very thoroughly scored the film with temp music… lots of Lounge Lizards and Moondog. Will used these temp tracks for inspiration and brilliantly built and expanded on their spirit.
I shared with him Viktor’s email about the music he loved, and Will said that this piece of musical insight helped him hugely. Max and I always imagined the score should feel like Viktor’s record collection. Will wrote the score very quickly and we love it.
Speaking of collaboration, can you talk a bit about your experience as co-directors?
Max and I met at trial. We hit it off and realized we had a common sensibility and loved many of the same filmmakers. Neither of us was interested in perpetuating the “Merchant of Death” legend, although that was what brought us both initially to Viktor’s story.
In some ways, Max and I embody the dialectic that we hoped would be borne out in our film. He brought a Russian sensibility and worldview and I brought an American one. We didn’t always agree, but we did agree that disagreeing would make for a stronger film.
Haha. Well said! Why did you decide to make this film together? What did your collaboration look like during pre-production, production, and post? Were there ever any creative disagreements? If so, how did you navigate them?
If we were ever at a complete stalemate to the detriment of moving forward, we gave the tie-break vote to our editor.
Max had a certain expression that drove me crazy, and it was: “Listen to me, I’m right.” Personally I don’t think there’s such a thing as right or wrong in the edit. So we had our differences, but I love and respect him, and that is the only way to collaborate successfully.
How long did it take to make The Notorious Viktor Bout? How much time did you spend in pre-production, production, and post? How did you balance the demands of documentary filmmaking with the demands of real life? – we’ve heard from many that it can be a consuming process.
It was about 3 years start to finish. I was working on other films the whole time in order to survive, to pay rent on the edit room and to pay our editor.
Max began working on Pussy Riot with Mike Lerner about one year into Bout, and that took him away a bunch. I think I directed 3 TV films for National Geographic in the time it took us to complete The Notorious Mr Bout. Each of us had other commitments, between family and work. It was helpful to be able to tag team the edit.
If you don’t mind my asking, what was the film’s budget? Where did the funding come from? More generally, any advice for aspiring documentary filmmakers in search of grants and other outside funding?
We made a handful of TV pre-sales notable BBC Storyville and VPRO (Netherlands), SVP (Sweden) and DR (Denmark). We had a Sundance DFP grant, support from Rooftop Films, and a special research fund from Harvard. We were super frugal. The film cost well under half a million.
You’ve partnered with Bond360 in your film distribution strategy. How did you find Bond360? What have your collaboration and process been like so far? What are your responsibilities, and what are Bond360’s responsibilities?
Bond 360 is great. They are the hardest working team in show biz. They put energy and resource to the exact place it is needed; no more, no less. Elizabeth Radshaw at Hot Docs was a major advocate for Bond360. I am grateful to her for the advice.
Any closing words of wisdom for indie filmmakers who have a completed film they’re ready to share with the world? What steps should they take?
Go out and do it. Don’t be scared of making mistakes. There’s no such thing. Replace judgment with curiosity.
Again, well said! On behalf of our students and readers, thanks so much for sharing your time and perspective with us here at Lights, guys. Fascinating insights into a fascinating film!
Michael Koehler, with
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