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Straight From the Heart

Interview with Documentary Filmmaker Andrew Levine
by Anup Sugunan

 

One of the most powerful, eye-opening documentaries I’ve ever seen, The Day My God Died, was screened at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (IFFLA). I met its creator, Andrew Levine, immediately after the screening, but was so moved by it, I could barely converse with him. The subject matter is a very serious one and there are many other forums for it. It is outside the scope of this one. However, it is vitally important to shed light on the technical aspects to bring other issues to the surface such as this. Tim Robbins and Winona Ryder were both affected by the topic immensely to be a creative part of its creation.


Image from the documentary's official website.

 

Filmmaker Interviews: First of all, I just want to say that it’s an amazing film.

Andrew Levine: Thank you.


FI: I see the importance of that. And obviously from the crowd [in attendance during the screening] there were a lot of heated discussions, but this is not the forum for that. This is more for other filmmakers, such as myself, who would want to be involved in something like this and just learn the process of doing a documentary such as this. First of all, how do you go about starting a project like this? Say you found an important topic, what is your first step?

AL: I got into this issue because I’d always been interested in human rights. I believed that film is the most powerful tool in the world to influence people for good. I mean, there have been people who have used film to influence for negative effects as well. Most prevalently used was during the holocaust. But I think the power of film is, really in our day and age, is the most powerful way to communicate to mass audiences and for idealistic reasons. I’d always been interested in film and in human rights.

I learned about this issue. And when you learn about something that’s so horrible like this, you can’t turn your back on it. So I thought that I would do a documentary. Excuse me, I thought I was going to write a narrative screenplay and develop it into a feature film. And after doing research for about a year and kind of connecting the dots and reading articles on this issue and calling non-profit organizations in the United States and in Asia and through emails and phone calls, I finally went to Nepal and India to see this first-hand.

On my first day over there I visited with one of the non-profit groups that the film is based on and I visited with the children and heard from their voices the stories that they’d gone through. I realized that the best thing we could do would be to stay true to them and do a documentary film with real stories and real pictures that don’t lie. ‘Cause a documentary, when you see a documentary, you can’t say it doesn’t happen. It’s not fictionalizing it. And the stories from these young children were so powerful I want them to speak for themselves.

FI: You made a ten-minute exposé, The Price of Youth, and clips of it were screened on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Did that help you with this in any way?

AL: Absolutely! I hooked up with Witness which is a non-profit founded by Peter Gabriel. Witness puts cameras in the hands of activists to document human rights abuses around the world. They cut short films and you can see them online at witness.org. So, after kind of partnering with them, they loaned me the spy camera to be able to shoot inside the brothels and document real footage of the atrocities of the living conditions. Because if you’re going to make a film about trafficking of young girls – the child sex slave trade, you got to show some footage from inside the brothels. At least what the living conditions were like – the cages that they’re forced to live in.

So, with Witness, they had an in-house editor and they cut a ten-minute version for me. We kind of worked the script over a period of time. So when we got that ten-minute piece cut, I was able to shop that to other donors – other people that were interested in the cause, because now I had something tangible to show them. That really helped us get rest of the funding for the film. We had a certain amount of money and when we finished that ten-minute piece with witness, I was able to get rest of the money for the film. But one thing that obviously helped is the Oprah show doing a show on trafficking with [the former U.S. Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright. There are very few people that have footage inside the brothels in Bombay, which is the world’s largest red-light district. So, they used footage from our ten-minute short. Since [then], they have used it two other times, so they’ve used clips from our film on three separate occasions. That’s definitely helped with getting future funding for the film.

 

FI: Do you do this full-time? I hear that documentary filmmakers are always frustrated with the lack of funding.

AL: Documentary filmmaking is one of the most frustrating things because you’re heart’s in the right place and you want to help make change, influence people because it’s such a powerful, powerful tool. And you kind of believe in what you’re telling, but there’s little to no funding. And there’s no way to make a living at it. There are only a few people in this country that can make a living at it: Ken Burns, Fred Wiseman – but these guys are old-school and have been doing it for quite a while. Other than PBS and HBO there really are not too many other places that buy independent documentaries. It can be very difficult to stay in the documentary market and the documentary world and dedicate yourself to that over certain amount of years.

It’s been four years now from the time I made the film, including all the research and trying to sell the film and doing the festival circuit. The actual production took about two and a half years. It took about a year of research to just try and bag and scrape up the money. I waited tables in the beginning and then when we went overseas to shoot in Nepal and India, I had to stop waiting tables because I was gone so much filming. It’s a difficult situation because there’s no money coming in and budgets for documentaries are so small that it’s very difficult to pay yourself anything at all.

And then when you sell the film, you certainly don’t get a lot of money selling a documentary film. So, documentary films rarely make money. That’s ok because I didn’t go into making this film thinking I was going to make money. I wanted to help make change. The issue was so powerful; I was kind of drawn to it to make the film. So, any money that comes out of it is definitely a bonus. The good thing, the thing that I’m kind of proud of recently is that because of the documentary, we have been able to raise more funds for the organizations we feature in the film than the film actually cost itself. If that makes sense. More money than it cost to make.

FI: For the funding did you go through private sectors of did you try and do the government funding route?

AL: We just went private – partnered with a non-profit 501.3c so that anyone that donated money or gave us money it would be tax-deductable to them because… they know, because people are smart and know that documentaries are not going to get a return on their funding. Listen, there’s little money in the documentary world, but then when you’re talking human rights documentary, there’s no money. So, whatever money I was able to get for the film, it had to be a donation. And for it to be a donation and to be able to write it off on your taxes, you have to donate it to a 501.3c.

An example of that would be if you donated through the March of Dimes or the Salvation Army, or you donated to a cancer research, or HIV research. Those donations that you write out or that people write out for twenty dollars or a hundred dollars per cause, that goes to a 501.3c. So that makes it tax-deductible. I got a lot of my money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Foundations they can’t give the money to an individual, they have to give it to a non-profit. So, you partner with a non-profit organization and they can help you with that process.

FI: Is that a complicated process or is it fairly simple and straightforward?

AL: It’s fairly straightforward, it’s a little complicated in the beginning because I didn’t have any knowledge of it. You partner with a non-profit and there are non-profit organizations that specialize in doing that. As an example, Film Arts Foundation out of San Francisco, what they kind of solely do as far as I understand is help filmmakers, help documentary filmmakers, do this and they’re a 501.3c. People make donations to a certain film through them, they keep a small percentage – most non-profits will keep between say five and ten percent for their own operating costs and then forward the rest to the filmmaker. Now, you can go that route. A filmmaker can go that route of the Film Arts Foundation or some group like that that specialize in doing film.

What I did was go to a non-profit that specializes in the issue – not film so much, but they worked in the sector of child-sex-slave trade. [They] really wanted to see this film get made, so I didn’t get charged any fee. Every dollar that got donated to the film, this organization forwarded it onto me. So, you can go two ways. I decided to go with this organization that could give me guidance with the actual issue that I was making the film on. But by going the route of the Film Arts Foundations or an organization that specializes in making films, they can give you more guidance in the filmmaking part of it. So, you have a choice either way.

 

FI: At what stage did you approach Winona Ryder and Tim Robbins? I’m sure that added some weight.

AL: Well, Winona Ryder came early on. Her agent called me in the beginning, actually before I even got a grant from the Gates Foundation.

 

FI: Now, this is after your ten-minute exposé?

AL: No, this is before the ten-minute exposé because Winona narrated that. Winona found out about the film and that I was trying to do it. She saw the film proposal, she felt deeply about it, had her agent call. So after that, we had a meeting in Los Angeles. It went from there and she wanted to know how she could help. So she loaned her voice to narrate the ten-minute piece which added a lot of weight definitely to it. It helped us get funding, and in fact, she donated money to the film as well because she was so taken by the issue and cared so deeply about it.

Tim Robbins came on when we had a rough-cut of the feature. I became friends with his older brother David Robbins who scored our film – he’s kind of best known for scoring Dead Man Walking and some of the other feature films that Tim had directed. And so David passed the rough-cut on to Tim and Tim offered to narrate the film. And it was a pretty simple process and I didn’t have to go out and search for him. It was kind of a connection through David, whom I’m friends with. I knew that Tim kind of cares for human rights issues, political issues; he has put his voice out there on many occasions for good causes. So we thought that it would be a good match and I think it worked out well.

 

FI: Now did that get the ball really rolling after they jumped onboard or was it pretty much the same momentum?

AL: As far as sales go?

FI: No, as far as attracting more grants and getting more funding.

AL: It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t hurt. We’d had our funding already, so I didn’t really have to go and get more funding because we had funding from the Gates Foundation and from the Fireman Foundation before that. Well, there were some small grants that we got in, but it definitely helped. The distributors I talked to as far as the people who show films like PBS and HBO documentaries that do films like this and what I’ve learned from them is that it doesn’t make a difference.

FI: It does not?

AL: Having a narrator; it does not. But if you want to get into doing feature narrated films, it certainly helps being able to package big names like that.

 

FI: I remember at the [IFFLA] festival, a group of us were talking about how Winona Ryder and Tim Robbins worked on this project – of course, you’re going in because of the synopsis as well. However, when you see a lot of weight that added to it by these name talents and I saw it bringing in a lot more people than just synopsis alone.

AL: I can’t agree more. I think it definitely does. Absolutely. I think it helped me with getting more funding, absolutely. It’s helped with all aspects of it. I was just told by some certain distributors like PBS and HBO that it didn’t make as much of a difference to them who narrated the film. But it definitely helps with funding. No doubt. No doubt, because if someone like that, like Tim Robbins who’s so well-known for his stance in political and human rights issues, puts his name to something, you would obviously think that it’s a very good cause and a good film. And so, people trust in that and I think it definitely opened up some doors.

 

FI: Moving on to production, can you elaborate more on the spy-equipment? I heard it was through your eyeglasses?

AL: Sure. When you’re making a film of this nature, you can’t just walk into brothel with a big camera on your shoulder and your soundguy [laughs] waving the boom around unless you want to be

FI: Shot! [Laughs]

AL: [Laughs] So in the beginning, the only alternative to that was to bring in a spy-camera and to go into these brothels and kind of sit down and try to film as much as possible. Then just go in and order a drink and sit there. They would press a button and the girls would come out and we’d film them. Maybe we would ask to use the bathroom. Then that kind of granted us access to the back of the brothel a little bit, so we were able to go film back there. Then we would just basically leave and go to another brothel.

The spy-camera – it’s a pinhole lens that’s set in the bridge of a pair of eyeglasses. So it’s undetectable. The wires go down a pair of croakies and there’s a harness around your chest and a tiny digital recorder that kind of goes under your arm on your side.

FI: Digital meaning that it’s recording to a harddisk or RAM or something?

AL: MiniDV or DVCAM. So now that was three years ago, two-and-a-half years ago, so technology might have changed. But that’s kind of the setup [we used]. You could use eyeglasses, or it could be a button on a shirt, it could be a pen. There are different places to put the camera lens itself. Then you could put the camera in a backpack. We decided to go with the eyeglasses and kind of put the harness around us and you got to just wear a baggy shirt or a jacket on top of it which sometimes can cause a problem because while we were filming, it was about a hundred degrees, hundred-and-five degrees in the brothel areas of Bombay. There’s no air or anything. So you could stand a little out of place look a little out of place with a sweatshirt and a jacket on top of that [laughs] covering up the camera gear.

 

FI: How big was the crew? Was it just you?

AL: The crew basically consisted of a cinematographer, a soundguy and me and on one of the shoots we had one other person. So the crew was three or four people at the most. And then we would tag along with the non-profit organizations and they would have people there as well. From the time of going from the United States, there were usually three or four of us going over and then we would hook up with a non-profit. We had an associate producer over there, a co-producer in Nepal that helped arrange things. So there was usually a few more people over there. But, I tried to keep the crew a minimal as possible. I tend to believe in minimalistic approach to filmmaking – if you want to call it guerrilla filmmaking.

FI: When you go to a brothel, like you said, you can have a sound guy, so how does he work in the picture?

AL: He just has a microphone wired in his shirt that comes through from the camera through the shirt that you can’t see. And you just get as good a sound as you can get. I mean that’s total guerrilla filmmaking. But going overseas and filmmaking in the rice paddies and out in the middle of nowhere, a lot of the times it was basically me, the camera guy and the sound guy and that was it. We would try and do as many of the interviews outside in natural light as possible. We never brought a lighting package anywhere with us. One time we did an interview inside a hotel room. We went out and bought an extension cord and rigged a light bulb to the end of it and hung it from the ceiling behind the interviewee for a little backlight. That was as complicated as we got.

I purchased one of the smaller DVCAM cameras I could get. It was a Sony PD100A which was before the [PD]150, which is out now – a small camera. And one of the reasons was that I was in the middle of Nepal and India and a lot of the children we interviewed really never been around cameras before, so I didn’t want to have a big camera right in their face. I wanted them to be as comfortable as possible. We used a small camera and I always had the camera as far back as I could and used just a little bit of the zoom. Because these children, it’s so hard for them to open up as it is and then to have a camera right in their face doesn’t lend itself to the possibility of them opening up, so I tried to make them as comfortable as possible by doing that.

FI: How many trips did it take to go to Nepal and India?

AL: We went three times. The crew went to Nepal and India on three occasions. Each trip was a month long. The first trip was mostly doing research and a little bit of filming. On the other two trips, we primarily filmed. We filmed, including spy-camera footage, about 60 hours of footage which isn’t a whole lot. So people probably think it’s not enough. We were able to cut a 65-minute film from that. Including credits and all that, the film comes out to be 70 minutes exactly. And we had about 60 hours, but I’ve known filmmakers to shoot about 150 hours and cut it down to a one-hour film. It just depends on your cinematographer and how you like to direct. I don’t like to shoot a lot of extra stuff just for the sake of shooting. I personally don’t believe in that format. It might work for other people, but when I saw that documentary films are made in the editing room... It took us a long enough time to cut the film from 60 hours down to just over an hour. So if we had two or three times that we would’ve even taken longer and we didn’t have the big budget.

It’s expensive to edit, to be wasting, going through tapes and that sort of thing. Then nevermind just logging all the footage. That’s usually the most miserable part of the documentary filmmaking – just logging the footage and transcribing all the interviews. When you think about transcribing something, you can just give it to a fast typist and she can listen to it and write it down word for word. But we had an extra step there in that our interviews for the most part were in Hindi, Nepalese, or Bengali. To try and find someone that speaks all three languages is a feat upon itself. And when you find that person, she has to translate word for word with the timecode next to every single sentence so you’ll know when you’re in the editing room that you’re cutting the right thing. So then when you’re done with that, then you can do the English transcription, which isn’t as bad. But it just takes months upon months upon months to transcribe another language. Spanish or German or Italian would’ve obviously been easier because many people speak those languages. But to find a translator that speaks three Asian languages is definitely not easy.

 

FI: Where do most of the expenses go? Post-production? Traveling?

AL: For a documentary film, most of the expenses definitely went to the editing room. Absolutely! It took us about eight months to cut the film. Preproduction is the smallest and the production, probably 35% – 40% and then post [production] would be the big chunk because editors are expensive and the editing equipment is very expensive and you’re doing it for so long. If you’re bringing a cinematographer over and your taking two or three trips and each trip’s a month – maybe you have the same cinematographer each time or maybe you have someone different – and they’re able to go over to Nepal and you can work out a deal. I had a good friend who was a cinematographer. He was willing to give me a really good deal on what he was going to charge to go over there and he’s a great cinematographer. But when you’re talking about editing for eight months, you can’t ask an editor to work for free for eight months. To hire a good editor in Los Angeles is definitely not cheap – never mind all the equipment, onlining it and backing up, I mean every single tape that we shot, we’d have to back up – we’d have to get it transferred. The price is expensive and then you have the music, that’s expensive. There’s a lot more pieces to the pie.

It’s definitely not cheap to take a crew of three or four people to India and Nepal, but when you’re adding up the prices of music composing and scoring and editing machines and an editor for eight months, it definitely adds up quickly.

 

FI: That’s surprising because I thought traveling was going to hit you financially, but I guess not.

AL: Well, you can break it down. One roundtrip ticket to Nepal, you’re looking at about $1500 and so you take three trips with three or four people. That adds up, but when you’re editing a film and you’re paying an editor a couple of grand a week or you’re renting an avid for $1500 a week and you’re doing that for eight months or half a year to a year, it definitely can pile on.

I mean definitely the cheapest way to do it is if you have your own system and you’re an editor yourself and then you can save a lot of that money.

 

FI: Basically, I’m editing on an laptop with some firewire drives and with how cheap the harddrive prices are nowadays… is that something you considered or was that just too much work for you?

AL: A lot of professionals had recommended us to cut on an Avid, because what I was told – and I’m not an editor, so I don’t know, but I heard that Avid can handle long format a lot better. It can handle a lot more… depending upon your storage and depending upon the harddrives that you have. In addition, my editor was trained on an Avid, but she could have just as easily learned Final Cut Pro. I think there’s a few more bells and whistles with Avid, but I’m not an editor. We got a great rate on what we were able to get the Avids for. We got a lot of it donated, so we ended up going on the Avid. So whether I cut on a Final Cut or an Avid, the editor would have cost the same amount per week to hire.

FI: What are some of the pitfalls that you will definitely avoid next time around?

AL: It’s a huge learning curve for someone who’s never made a film before – never made a documentary film before. With documentaries, there are so many different issues. Specifically, the most important is your story. A lot of people work five or ten years on a documentary and so to do it in two and a half years, though it seems long, isn’t so bad. I would be more realistic time-wise, with the time-frame. And how much footage I’d have to shoot and how much b-roll, I’d have to shoot – you can never have enough of that. I can’t stress enough on really trying to focus on your story. On who your story is going to be told through. Other simple things like budgeting. I thought the film was going to cost half of what it did. I was naïve to film-cost at that time, including the editor and cinematographer and the equipment and the travel. It’s always twice as much as you thought. It definitely proved to be the case this time.


FI: Can you disclose the budget or is that confidential?

AL: That’s fine. The budget is right around $300K – just under $300K. I’d originally budgeted $150K. I, when making this film, never budgeted any money for myself to earn a living on. That’s one thing if you want to be taken seriously, taken as a professional filmmaker, then you’d have to treat yourself as a professional. And that includes paying yourself and paying the people you hire a good rate. Now, because I didn’t have a lot of funding, I had to get really good deals and bargain with people. And I was not really able to pay myself much. So I would definitely try to raise more money next time – try and put together a bigger budget so there’s no stress in my personal life. You’ve got bills to pay. I just heard a distant friend of mine who made a documentary film just recently who was in New York City. She sub-leases her apartment on the weekend and stays at a friend’s to make money to help pay. [Laughs] That’s the life of documentary filmmakers! [Laughs]

FI: Wow! Talk about dedication!

AL: So, she spent years and years making her film and came out with a beautiful, beautiful film. But I think it’s just being realistic. And another thing that I’d learned is that I’d tried to sell the film on my own and so forth. One thing I realized is that it’s so worth getting a good sales rep to take care of this for you. I had no understanding once the film was done how to market it, how to sell it. I didn’t understand that world. I spent all my time trying to make the film and not enough time trying to figure out who I’m going to hook up with to sell this film. So, I spent six months, my producing partner and I, planned to do it on our own. Well, that’s a full-time job and we’re not professionals. I’m a professional filmmaker, not a professional sales rep for documentary films. I can’t stress enough the importance of hooking up with a good sales rep that believes in your vision and that believes in you and your film and your future. And they’re definitely worth their weight if you get hooked up with a good one.

Now some sales reps will try to charge you money upfront to pay their expenses - that’s a no no. Never pay anyone upfront. If they believe in you and your film and your vision, then they’ll take a risk on you. It’s a large percentage, it’s somewhere between 25% - 35% of the profit, but you got to believe that they are going to negotiate a higher price than you would have been able to in the first place. It’s a full-time job to try and do what they do. If I made another documentary, the sales-rep would have it the second it’s done.

And film festivals. It was a full-time job for me just entering the film into film-festivals – never mind traveling to them all and trying to get sales that way. It’s a huge job in and of itself.

FI: What was your strategy with the festivals was it mostly invites or submits?

AL: In the beginning no one had heard of me or the film, so I just sent the film into film festivals that I had heard of. We got into a lot of them and we got turned down from one or two of them here and there. We would just keep sending them to more and more. You keep parlaying the bigger festivals upon themselves. So when you get into a big festival, you tell the other festivals and they’ll learn of that and they’ll invite you. So after doing a few months of doing festivals and getting some notoriety attached to the film and getting some press written up on the film, then we got invitations to a lot of them. Then people were calling us and sending us emails to invite us.

Also, we didn’t have a lot to be paying entry fees and to travel to the festivals. So I made a rule from the beginning that we were only going to go to festivals that were going to pay our way – you know that paid for our hotel and for our airfare. It’s a mixture – a lot of them do and a lot of them don’t. But we were lucky and we got into some great festivals and just parlayed that which helped us get into even larger ones.

Festivals are strange because you’ll never know who’s going to be screening your film when you send it in. We got into some big ones and we got turned down from some small ones. I’ve had friends who had won the Sundance Film Festival, but then got turned down for some tiny film festivals that don’t even have that great of a reputation. And the same thing happened to us. We got into some big ones. We got into Tribeca, we got into Hong Kong and Lacarno, Miami, Santa Barbara. Then there are little ones that didn’t take it. You just never know who is going to screen your film and it’s hard not to take it personally,... especially when you gave it your heart and soul for so long. But it’s all in the eye of the beholder and just got to kind of keep believing in yourself and the film and keep plugging away at it and sending it out to everyone that’s possible – every festival that’s out there that you’d think would be a good fit.

 

FI: I heard from a reputable source at IFFLA that they actually got threatening emails regarding your film and the short before yours, Shilpa Gupta’s When The Storm Came, stating to not screen it. Have you had any threats regarding this?

AL: No, I’ve never had any threats. I’ve met a few people that didn’t like the film. But you know, not everyone is going to like everything that you do. I’ve only met three people that didn’t like the film of the thousands of people that have seen it. Because it’s an issue – people go see this film because it’s about the child-sex slave trade and they want to be educated and they want to be interested in the subject. So it’s hard to go see a film like that and say that you didn’t like it. Even if you didn’t like the style of it, the issue itself is interesting and educating and enlightening. But as far as threats, no we never had any threats.

I had heard that the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles said that there were going to be some people there that might stir a little controversy but it never ended up happening. I mean there was one guy in the audience that was ranting and raving, but he was coming from a whole other angle. He actually liked the film, I think. He twisted it into a whole other…

FI: ...the political thing…

AL: [Laughs] You were there. That didn’t have anything to do with anything. I don’t know where he was coming from. I think he was more angry at the United States and where their belief fits on the whole war in Iraq and Afganistan which has absolutely nothing to do with the film. I guess he knew he had an audience of 250 people and the thought that he would take advantage of raving for five minutes.

 

FI: The second I saw your doc, I was thinking: narrative feature. You were initially going to do that. Are there any plans for that?

AL: Yeah, I mean, that’s my goal right now. I have a writing and producing partner and we’ve been trying to develop this story into a feature film. And one of the great things about the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles is that they gave me an opportunity to pitch it to a couple of production companies and meet with agents. So we’ve been trying to get that off the ground. So we’re still working on that and I also have another idea for a documentary film.


FI: Thank you very much. You pretty much summed up everything. It was an awesome interview.

AL: Thanks.

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