Friday, September 25, 2015

Oh The Places You'll Go: Reminiscing Iceland's Transatlantic Talent Lab

Around this time last year I got on a plane out of Denver and landed in Iceland and didn't get back home until I had set foot in England, and had my eyes opened in Istanbul.

Sarah R. Lotfi

The Transatlantic Talent Lab (now titled the Reykjavik Talent Lab for 2015) was a melting pot of emerging filmmakers like me from around the world and we were both in our own sphere and at the center of RIFF (Reykjavik International Film Festival) at the same time.

Panels, parties, films, and special excursions made up a few whirlwind days on the Nordic island in the Atlantic Ocean. I was there to see my film Menschen screen in The Golden Egg Competition and enjoy the 'filmmaker lab experience'. We had a masterclass with RIFF's honorary filmmaker Mike Leigh who was there with Mr. Turner.

One of my favorite panels was given by journalists for Variety Magazine and The Hollywood Reporter on the future of film theory and analysis coming up against pressure from changes in the industry. The didactic was there for your own voice to ask and add to the discussion.

Another day we saw Reykjavik Visual Effects the post production house that was in the midst of working on Everest.   Saga Film took us on a day trip by bus all around the island giving us a location scouting tour in the mist and sleet to see the southern edge of the island. We stopped at a geyser featured in Interstellar and waterfalls and black beaches that had been used in Darren Aronofsky's Noah.

On the tour bus with Saga Film

Icy glacier that made up the alien atmosphere in Interstellar

Gorgeous ginormous waterfall used in Noah

There was even a party at the President's house, with all of us crowded in the reception hall shoulder to shoulder as the President of Iceland presented Mike Leigh with a Golden Puffin and made a joke about the tastiness of puffins versus the way other Nordic countries regard this notion as sacrilege since it is considered a holy bird there.

President of Iceland

So much about Icelandic culture capitalized on the puffin, vikings, and elves, but everyone was very 'velkomin' to us. I picked up 'tak' (aka thank you) and used it at every opportunity.

One special memory shared with fellow talent lab alumni was our trip to the Blue Lagoon. A man-made geothermal hot spring where the water was literally a lumiscent light blue. Though our time was short, we tried mud facials, saunas, and all around fun in the steaming waters.

By the end of our sojourn in Iceland I was making my way farther West to discover England and meet up with some family in Istanbul, but the life lessons and memories shared with my fellow peers in the Transatlantic Talent Lab are keepsakes in and of themselves and has left me hoping that our paths will cross again in the future. As RIFF kicks off again now I know there is another wave of talented filmmakers going through the panels and films and I wish them the very best in this fun and immersive talent development program.
The Blue Lagoon

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Demystifying the Red Carpet: The 65th Creative Arts Emmys

Menschen director Sarah R. Lotfi on the red carpet.
This year I was invited to attend the 65th Creative Arts Emmys and so the stars aligned and I found myself in Los Angeles again this year. I once spent a summer working on HBO's Cinema Veritae: The Saga of an American Family through the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences National College TV Internship when I first began this blog a few years ago. The Academy's invitation came in the middle of the festival run of my independent film Menschen with screenings in Big Bear Lake Film Festival and First Glance Film Festival the week following the Emmys. So with Menschen's producer Anastasia Cummings at the helm to circumvent any unforeseeable challenge, I packed my gown and got on the plane with a light heart.
   As my guest I invited my old friend "Alex" or Alexandria Olson, now the designer of Hunt Rowe in the middle of launching her first collection in LA's fashion world. Alex wore the crowning gem of her collection and I matched her in color wearing a beautiful black gown from Adrianna Papell. The day of the Emmys we navigated traffic with route specific directions from the Academy, and were ushered through by the identifying car pass we were issued. 
Hunt Rowe's designer Alexandria Olson and Menschen director Sarah R. Lotfi.

Outside the impressive Nokia theater the real wide red carpet awaited. To one side was a seemingly endless row of press with cameras and microphones working in a frenzy behind the barrier. Limos arrived, stars got out, and all of us together traversed down, stopping for social media posting before went in. Just like any high-profile event security was there. I had to open my clutch and walk through a scanner to get in. In the lobby there was a line to the bar and everyone mingled. Alex and I ended up talking to one of the nominees on Killing Lincoln before we made our way to our seats in the orchestra. 

The Creative Arts Emmys honors the wonderfully talented people 'below the line' with awards for casting, editing, costuming, music and more. It was great to see our favorite shows like Game of Thrones, Downtown Abbey, Scandal, Breaking Bad, Project RunwayDaVinci's Demons and Vikings in consideration.  HBO's Behind the Candelabra swept many of the categories. Joel McHale (Community), Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn (Project Runway), Rupert Friend (Homeland / The Young Victoria), Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage (Mythbusters), and Katharine McPhee (Smash) were among the presenters. Celebrities Morgan Freeman, Seth Green, Neil Patrick Harris, and Anthony Bourdain were some of the featured audience members. Like any televised award "show" the crew opened first by capturing footage needed for the cut when the show airs next weekend cueing us to laugh, applaud, and smile for the cameras.

You can view the same show we saw on Saturday, September 21st on FXX at 9PM with an encore at midnight.

Six hours later, Alex and I emerged from the theater and made our way across the street to the bar at the Ritz where we ran into Emmy-winner Heidi Klum herself. The Emmys was an evening I'll never forget, and an experience I was honored to be a part of.
Sarah R. Lotfi, Heidi Klum and Alexandria Olson

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Directing Menschen

Only a few days ago, I wrapped production on MENSCHEN my first independent short film. Compared to my prior films the scale of Menschen was even more epic than the usual costume drama I've come to be known for. The intensive 8-day shoot brought a lot of challenges that the cast and crew overcame at every turn. For my role I had to adapt a lot to direct working with a language I was not fluent in and working with a young actor with Down Syndrome among other things.

Menschen takes place in WWII but it is hard to compare it to my other film from the period The Last Bogatyr (a surreal film which takes place on the Russian front). Menschen is a narrative work of fiction around an Austrian captain in the Wehrmacht who takes a developmentally disabled boy under his wing in his journey to surrender to the Americans. The word "menschen" is German for human beings, a word I'd come across that conveyed the value of the individual regardless of their background. In 2010, Menschen was a concept for feature, a four page treatment and an unfinished screenplay. Two years later, I completely rewrote the script and was foraging ahead into production for Menschen as a short.

I have been really blessed with an array of talented people on board the production, first and foremost my producers Anastasia Cummings and Robert von Dassanowsky. Some of the events were loosely inspired by stories from Robert's own family history during the era, his support and encouragement never allowed me to abandon the concept. Once Anastasia came on board she moved the production along in a big way turning it into something far larger than I could have hoped for.

It was always on my mind to have Menschen in German. I have a great passion for history and as a filmmaker I feel responsible to be as true to the culture and period as possible. The screenplay was translated numerous times to the point of tweaking words on set to make them more true to the Austrian dialect. We spent a lot of time in casting to find German speaking actors who could fill the roles of  Menschen's Austrian and German characters. Our dialect coach Adrian Kadanka worked to perfect the Austrian accent with the actors. During the shoot we were blessed with Anastasia and our own Austrian Director of Photography Peter Wigand who lent their fluent ear to the dialogue as well.

The experience of watching your words come to life is always fulfilling, in my case I was hearing them for what felt like the first time in German. I picked up on key words and the cues in blocking in order to keep up with the action in each scene. For the most part what I had to draw direction from was the actors' body language. If I had to give a note on a line I almost always referred to the english version of the line.

What has always attracted me to directing is the beauty between choreographing the movement between camera and talent--in many ways it is a meticulous and well grafted dance.  I realized when I began working with Peter Wigand he had so much to offer the film. I appreciated the way he had an eye not only for translating the emotional narrative to screen, but also for representing his national heritage on our set. I think in many ways he really enhanced my vision for Menschen. During one of the days while we were in Black Forest, Peter introduced a way to capture the entire scene in a single moving shot. While it sound sounds simple, the move is something I think very few directors of photography could pull off as easily as Peter did. Moving the camera seamlessly from actor to actor and pulling the focus with only his eye for reference encapsulates the beauty from both sides of the camera.

The unique angle in Menschen's narrative was always the film's perspective on disability. Films predominately featuring individuals with disability are rare enough and novel to the WWII genre. Historically they were targeted in the Nazi's T-4 program, in Menschen there is a story of hope of how one such individual was preserved from the purges.  I'm rather sensitive to special needs because my own brother and sister have disabilities. My brother and sister are rather severe, although they have Down Syndrome my sister's Autism has created a lot of behaviors we as a family are still working to manage. When it came to casting the role of the Czech boy Radek, I was searching for an actor with Down Syndrome. When we first saw Connor Long, I was blown away by his performance.

Just 17-years old, Connor has achieved so much as an athlete and leader in his own community. I remember watching him in auditions as he brought the actress reading with him to tears. I thought to myself there is something precious and genuine in his performance that is really going to read on screen. As the production moved on Connor really took the hearts of all those who worked with him. He had a big smile and slick sense of humor.

I really bonded with Connor, whenever I turned around there he was smiling at me and telling me I was beautiful (what girl wouldn't fall for that one). The role of Radek required Connor to really bring out behaviors and trauma in his performance. I'd discuss ideas with his parents that they would rehearse with him at home, then on set I would refine his performance. Connor and I made a game out of it at one point: I became his mirror. I stood off-camera at his eye-line and emoted or moved in the way I wanted him to reflect for key moments in the film. On the very last day shooting we approached his scene in this way for the final farewell and this time I was the one who was brought to tears by his performance.

Looking back I'm still amazed by all we were able to accomplish for Menschen. I had learned from working with WWII re-eanctors and pyrotechnics teams on The Last Bogatyr what to prepare for to direct large scenes with background and visual effects on site. We started off production with a bang (quite literally) with the bombing of the Wehrmacht convoy and we closed the film on just as large a note with an elaborate setup for the American camp and POW enclosure. I am so grateful to the production design team and support from the WWII re-enacting groups for what they brought to the production value of the film. As I prepare myself to enter post-production, I can only sigh and smile for all I have gained from this incredible shoot. A director is only as good as the people supporting them and I am so very proud of each and everyone's contribution to Menschen, it shows in the footage.