Ricardo de Montreuil (twitter) redefines good worth ethic. At under 40 he’s already accomplished a slew of accomplishments ranging from being recognized by Cannes Lions advertising festival to having his most recent feature film “Mancora” selected by the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. Many of you will know him from his viral short film “The Raven” which can be seen below.
Ricardo de Montreuil was kind enough to chat with Lights Online Film School and our blog readers and give us insight into the mind of someone who’s successfully bridging the gap between indie ideology and studio production values.
You can find his short film “The Raven” accompanied by our in depth interview below. Enjoy.
The first question I would like to ask you is simply “how”. You’re only 37 years old and you’ve accomplished so much already in many different fields. You have experience in advertising and commercials, print, feature films, short films and music videos. Not only that but you’re also Creative Director at the NBC Universal channel mun2. You seem to be juggling a lot of balls at the same time. How do you manage to successfully multitask all of your different projects? There are a lot of filmmakers out there who are also currently working on their film projects while trying to balance other obligations as well. Can you give any advice to filmmakers looking to make the most of their time?
Well, first of all thanks for your kind words. Let’s say that one thing led to the other. Since I can remember I’ve always wanted to direct films, there was never a second option or back up plan for me. My parents realized that I was very serious about it and I was lucky enough that they were able to send me to study film in the states, right after I finished high school in Peru. I studied film and graphic design at the Savannah College of Art and Design
My first job during school was as Art Director for “Contents” magazine, an art magazine published in Savannah Georgia. The editor trusted me with redesigning the whole magazine, at the time I was a big fan of David Carson (Graphic design guru of the 90s and creator of “Raygun” magazine) so I tried to emulate his work. The magazine was featured in Print magazine and won a couple of awards. The cover featured Beck, it was a still of Marc Romanek music video “Devil’s Haircut”. That was the only issue I designed. The magazine stopped being published a couple of years ago, but it always amazed me that they never changed my design and always used the same grid, and after all these years it still looks good.
Thanks to that issue I was hired as a Marketing Art Director for MTV Latin America, based in South Beach, Florida. Because of my film degree, the Creative Director trusted me to direct a couple of small short films or vignettes (The original RAVEN)”. The two films came out great and I started directing promos for the channel on a regular basis. I ended up being Senior Art Director for the channel; I oversaw the brand from Mexico to Argentina for a couple of years. During that time I started directing music videos, which led to commercials, which led me to short films. The producer of my first short film liked the end result and asked me to direct a film, based on a Latin-American best seller called “La mujer de mi hermano”.
It was a small indie film, it costed of $400k. Somehow, before we finished editing, Fox picked the film for Latin America and Lions Gate picked the film for the US. The film performed great in most Latin-American countries and in the States had the biggest opening ever for a Spanish language film. But the studios wanted audiences to think that the project was a studio film and didn’t let us submit it to any festivals; I was only a director for hire, I had no vote.
In the mean time I went back to my job at MTV, when suddenly NBC offered me a job in Los Angeles, to re-launch a very damaged cable channel called mun2. The channel was targeted to young Latinos in the US. I had worked with MTV for 8 years maintaining a brand created by others; this was a great opportunity, to create a new brand from scratch. So I moved from Miami to Los Angeles. Due to “La mujer de mi hermano” I had agents at ICM who where trying their best to get me a film, while I was trying to prelaunch a cable channel from the ground, but I already knew what my next film was going to be.
I wanted to make a movie without compromises, a movie closer to me. I wanted to go to festivals, to have the experience I missed from “La mujer de mi hermano”. As a teenager I used to go surfing to a beach north of Peru called Mancora, the kind of place where you find people from all around the world escaping reality, looking for paradise. Mancora was the perfect setting for my next film.
So I shot it and it premiered in Sundance in 2008. I still remember the text message from the producer saying that we got in, I was having lunch, on a big table, filled with GE executives (As you may know NBC Universal used to be owned by GE) one of them was Jeff Immelt, GE’s CEO, and I couldn’t tell anyone! (I keep my TV work from my film work as far away as possible) they wouldn’t have cared less, so I contained all my excitement until the lunch was over.
“Mancora” did a year of festivals. We went to Edinburg, Sao Paulo, Stockholm, Mill Valley, Bergen, AFI, etc. It was one of the best experiences ever, being able to share your work with peers and audiences, in a fully creative environment.
I took that out of my system and decided to do what I originally intended to do when I came to the states, to direct the kind of films I love. As a Peruvian, I grew up watching a lot of European, Asian, as well as big Hollywood films. Growing up my idols where Ridley Scott, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. They were the reason I was where I was at that moment, but nobody wanted to give that kind of movies to a guy that had only directed 2 dramas. That’s when I decided to make “The Raven”, a short film that could prove that I could direct action and effects.
I think than more than multitasking is keeping your eyes open for opportunities, looking for projects that keep you excited. As I mentioned earlier, one thing led to the other.
Next I’d like to ask you about the correlation between your recognition and the ease of continuing on with future projects. At this point in your career you’ve been recognized by some of the worlds most prestigious film festivals. Not only that, but 20th Century Fox also picked up your first feature film “La Mujer de mi Hermano”. As you mentioned, your second feature film “Mancora”was accepted into Sundance Film Festival. Lastly, I’m not sure if this is the icing on the cake or the cake itself but your first feature film was also one of the most successful films in Latin American exhibition history and it also broke US box office records for a Latin film. That’s not a bad debut! Have you found it substantially easier to get projects off the ground now than before you had this recognition? Do you have any advice to independent filmmakers at the start of their careers who haven’t had a break through project yet?
I believe that you have to go step by step. Start experimenting with short films, using different formats, learning about light, acting, editing, etc; the moment you have a great piece, people will recognize it and the phone will start ringing, probably not for the $100 million Hollywood blockbuster, but most likely for something bigger and better.
I believe in craft, I believe that the greatest artists were masters in their arts, and one can only accomplish that with experience. The better your craft is, the more people will want to work with you, and you will be able to surround yourself with artist that you like and that like your work; this will allow you to get access to a better crew, better equipment and to get better results. This is not a process that happens overnight (at least not to me) but through years of work, focus and dedication. And if you fail, don’t quit, those are the moments to refocus and look for the best opportunities out there.
You are plugged into the world of TV and because of your proven track record you are in a more likely position to receive funds for a project over someone who is new to the world of filmmaking. That being said, you still seem to have your hand in social networking and audience building activities. When I look at the Facebook page for “The Raven” I notice you have almost 5000 fans. Your Youtube video has over a quarter million views and your Vimeo video has close to a half a million views. How important is it for you to build your own audience? How active are you in this process?
This is going to sound bad, but I had no previous experience with viral promotion. “The Raven” was a phenomenon on its own; it was completely unexpected. Once we completed The Raven, I posted it on Youtube to share it with the team, so that they could watch the final product. That was on a Tuesday night, the following morning it had already 50 thousand hits, and it was getting more hits very fast. On Wednesday, I received several calls and emails from different Hollywood producers, by Thursday my agents told me that WB was sending an offer on Monday. That weekend The Raven was featured in Latino Review, Slash Film, Huffington Post, etc. It was insane. On Monday I received the offer from WB, I met wit them and I was ready to sign, when unexpectedly I received a call from my agents saying that Mark Wahlberg wanted to produce and star in The Raven. I met with Mark that week and we decided to partner. That following week we met with the heads of every studio in town, until it landed in Universal.
Justin Marks is writing the feature, and we hope to have the first draft ready in the following weeks.
You’re also working on a short film again called “Metal Soldiers”. Why are you going back to short format after working on successful features?
Back home in Peru, I used to watch the Robotech everyday after school. I’m a huge fan of that anime series and always thought that it could make one of the most amazing film trilogies ever. I found out that WB was making a film version of Robotech, so I requested a meeting with the producers through my agents; because of The Raven I was able to get the meeting and pitch my version, which they liked a lot. The down side was that they asked me to do a proof of concept, since it is a big property and they don’t want to take many risks. Metal Soldiers is a short I wrote a while ago and that I always had in the back of my mind, and that I’ve wanted to shoot for a while and this was the perfect opportunity to bring it to life.
Metal Soldiers was the prefect proof of concept for Robotech. We raised the money through Kickstarter, shot it and now it is in post production, and is looking amazing. I can’t wait to see it finished.
Your kickstarter campaign for metal soldiers was incredibly successful. You raised close to $10,000 for that film. What helped make this kickstarter campaign so successful? You had numerous small donations but you also had many of the larger pledges sell out as well.
Definitely it was The Raven that helped make our Kickstarter campaign successful. We were able to raise the money in a very short time and not because we received several pledges, but because we received a few substantial ones. Most of the pledges came from people interested in having a producer credit. They want their names associated with the project, assuming that it will receive the same attention as The Raven did.
Let’s talk specifically about “The Raven” now. When I was watching it I was reminded of the first feature film by George Lucas: THX 1138. You have this incredibly aggressive and violent police force yet they have these mechanical, soft, polite voices. The words and intonation thinly disguise the true violent nature of the beast. At one point a heavily armored police vehicle even says “Thank you for your cooperation. Have a wonderful day” after it mistakenly thought your protagonist was turning himself in. Was the automation of policing your jumping off point for this project? Was The Raven a sort of social response to something you were thinking about in the real world at the time?
We live in an extremely passive aggressive society, where people don’t say what they think because they are afraid of getting sued, to offend somebody or to be politically incorrect. We develop this amazing way to be in disagreement or to insult somebody by using very nice and polite words, which I find fascinating. At the same time we are living in a time where we are becoming more isolated. Everything is becoming more automated; we interact much more with machines than with other humans, and unless something happens we are destine to merge with our technology, to become one with it. I think that The Raven was a reaction against those feelings and showed a yearning to want to go back to when times were simpler. It was a way of rebelling against the system.
The Raven is a technically complicated short film. Your chase scenes not only require a strong sense of spatial continuity and logic, but they also required some stunts. How strongly did you storyboard for this short?
I storyboarded every shot and then I made and animatic with it, to make sure it worked. I had very little resources and a very limited time to shoot; there was very little room for improvisation and error.
What software were you using for most of your effects?
The Rumblers (the small flying police guards) and the Tanks (the large bipedal robots) were created using Lightwave. The watch-towers and the spy-spider were created using Maya. I used After Effects to composite them to the footage.
How long did “The Raven” take you to write?
Not long, probably a couple of days, but it had a couple of previous permutations. I based the short on a treatment I wrote for a feature a while ago; what took longer was figuring out what part of that story I wanted to bring to life.
How long did it take you to shoot?
Two days. Since most people worked for free, we had to shoot over a weekend.
How long did it take you to edit?
Editing didn’t take long, maybe 1 to 2 weeks at the most. Since everything was storyboarded it was not hard to put it together. Aaron Burns, our FXs supervisor was editing on set, so right after we finished shooting we had a rough edit.
The cinematography is amazing. Cinematographer Andres Sanchez did an amazing job. What was the Director / DOP relationship like on set?
Yes, he did some brilliant work. I particularly admired his fluid camera techniques. Andres and I have been working together for years, we started our professional careers simultaneously and working together. We know each other’s work well; so can communicate with very little words. He knows the kind of photography I like and I know what Andres can deliver; it is a very stress-free relationship. I think we make a very solid team.
Sound Designer Martin Seltzer did an incredible job of designing the soundscape for this film. Did you work with Martin before you started shooting or were the sound elements thought of only after you got the film shot?
Martin works for Filmosonido, a post-production company based in Chile associated with Technicolor. Martin did the audio for my film “Mancora”, so I knew the quality of his work. Martin was involved in the development of the project and read the script, watched the storyboards and animatics before shooting. I had a very clear idea of how I wanted everything to sound in the film, I think I gave Martin a very clear direction of what I had in mind and he did and amazing job executing it.
You did a great job of isolating your subject by using strong foreground objects. This also helped convey the feeling of “hiding” as well as helping you punctuate the visual effect of being in an already small ally. One of my favorite compositions in the film is actually at 4:18 (above). Chris Black is standing and behind him there is a beautiful diagonal line on camera left and a building with patterned windows that creates a strong sense of pattern in the background. Cluttered exterior shots can really hurt the sense of a strong production value for indie films. Yet, even though you shot downtown in cluttered alleys there still seems to be a strong sense of control and a good eye for the design and balance of your compositions. What were your visual considerations when you were picking these locations?
As I mentioned, I studied graphic design and I started my carrier as a graphic designer. Once your eyes are trained for composition and color it is hard not be conscious of it all the time. For me composition is key in telling a story. It defines how audiences will watch and perceive your shots, and helps you accentuating and hiding elements, depending on what you want to communicate in a certain moment.
You also did a great job of getting a strong sense of contrast in your shots. For example at 1:22 (above) I notice lots of interesting shadow which really gives your composition a strong sense of depth. I see this in most of your shots. I’m assuming you tried to shoot so you could get a nice balance of sun and shade, but when you’re shooting in alleys that wouldn’t leave you with much time. How did you deal with scheduling around the sun?
We couldn’t use many lights because we knew that it would slow us down, so we planned the shoot schedule around the position of the sun at a specific moments during the day, basically we constantly used the sun as our backlight and our fills were just reflectors.
Did you light any of your exterior shots with studio lights? What about your close up exterior shots?
We only used small lights for close ups and interior shots.
I notice from watching your behind the scenes trailer that you’re using flags to cut the light on your exterior shots. What were the main tasks the flags were accomplishing?
The flags were used to draw light away from the subject, to create contrast and volume.
You shot this on the Red Cam. Can you tell us a bit more about coming to that decision of using this camera? What does that camera offer you that other cameras can’t?
I think that even though RED doesn’t emulate perfectly film quality, in some occasions it is a great option. RED footage has almost an amber tint to it, it is subtle but it is characteristic of it. It has a rough look, which compliments post-apocalyptic and dystopian-future films amazingly well.
What lenses did you use?
I used Master Prime lenses. I’m a big fan of them, especially when used with the RED camera. I love their sharpness and the cinematic depth of field they create.
It was a complicate shoot. Did you get permits for shooting?
We couldn’t afford having our production to be suddenly shut down; so most of our budget went to city permits, parking permits, and food. Everybody was working for free; the least we could do is make sure the crew was fed and comfortable.
Can you tell us about your casting process for the film?
At the beginning I was looking for an actor and a stunt man to play Chris Black, until I watched a video online, which featured Victor Lopez showing his parkour skills. The clip had a small interview of Victor, he seemed very jaunty and his parkour was amazing. I told that to one of the producers of the short who contacted him. We sent Victor the script, he loved it and that was it, he was in. Victor is a great actor that can do his own stunts; he was the perfect combination to play The Raven.
You shot this film for $5000. You obviously prioritize your spending in a way that helps you achieve the most professional look for a fraction of the cost. What are some of the most important elements to invest in? What areas in big studio feature productions do you feel are financially bloated which gives you a creative edge as a resourceful indie filmmaker?
The reality is that I designed this short to the resources I had available. I knew exactly the crew and equipment I was going to be able to get, I knew their weakness so I tried to maximize their strengths. If there is one thing that will make a big difference quality wise in any production, are lenses. A lens is what makes a picture, not the camera.
Do you have any final words for our readership of ambitious independent filmmakers out there?
The secret to success is perseverance and the secret of failure is trying to please. Do what you love and what makes you excited and success will come. Please nobody but yourself, it is impossible to please everybody. There will always be people who will criticize your work, but there will always be somebody that will coincide with you. Filmmaking is about communicating, expressing yourself, and to do that you have to be honest and truthful to you and your audience.
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