Joshua Marston's "The Forgiveness of Blood" is about a long-running dispute that turns a young Albanian man into a virtual prisoner. However, the film's producer, Paul Mezey, said he never expected life to imitate art — especially not over something as benign as location scouting.
"If you decide to go to property A instead of property B, you've insulted the person's house you didn't go into. It was a very delicate situation," said Mezey. "It was like a loaded gun that could go off at any moment."
There’s plenty of reasons to shoot an indie movie overseas. Foreign governments often provide “soft money” in the form of tax subsidies, production costs can be lower and then there’s the irreplaceable foreign setting itself.
However, because foreign co-productions are still relatively uncommon for low-budget films, shooting in a far-flung country introduces issues that can leave even the most experienced indie producer slack-jawed.
If you’d like to make films with foreign tax subsidies but without blood feuds, here’s eight tips for how to shoot in foreign countries.
Presume nothing. Some challenges are self evident — language barriers, currency conversions. However, the biggest issues may stem from scenarios that you’d never see coming.
Mezey found that scouting locations in Albania required negotiations usually reserved for high-level peace treaties. “Every action had a negative consequence,” he said. “There was a lot of distrust and insecurity. And the immediate reaction was to defend your honor. And this is where blood feuds come into play.”
So then you decide not to use someone’s house — and that’s when the trouble really begins.
"From renting a car to casting somebody to not being able to fire someone, it was an extreme cultural mindset,” said Mezey. “Think of how humiliating it would be to fire someone and everyone in the community knew you were fired. It could lead to suicide."
Find local guides. Producer Lisa Muskat shot "Look, Stranger" in Serbia with the help of USAID, which helped her locate Belgrade producer Snezana Penev and co-producers Branislav Brana Srdic and Andjelija Vlaisavljevic. They not only knew the territory, but they also understood the American approach to film production.
"I think the initial people you bring on is what's going to set the tone," said Muskat. Their oversight included helping the production integrate into the community, secure locations and find crew (including Serbian sound mixer Nenad Sciban, who initiated what Muskat describes as their "essential and crew-bonding weekly poker tournament").
Take pains to use local crew. Finding a crew that works well together is key whether shooting in Brooklyn or Timbuktu. However, when crews are comprised of people from different countries and speak different languages, it can get much more complicated.
Producer Karin Chien, who made Iranian drama "Circumstance" in Lebanon, and has also shot features in Haiti and the Philippines, acknowledges the risks but says its essential to the process.
"My philosophy is always to hire locally," she says. "We're not there to just make a movie, we're a presence in a foreign land and we want to be respectful, and we have a responsibility to work within their parameters and form a mutual, true co-production."
However, that can also mean relying on untested professionals — or even on amateurs. Albania has virtually no filmmaking infrastructure, so while “The Forgiveness of Blood" had British cinematographer Rob Hardy and Italian production designer Tommaso Ortino, Mezey turned to local film schools and the neighborhood to find the wardrobe department, third assistant cameraperson "Rocky" Elezaj and many other positions, training people for six months.
Adapting isn't just polite. Crew positions aren’t universal; for example, some countries don’t have positions like assistant camera or script supervisor. Shooting in Lebanon and the Philippines, where they don't often record location sound, Chien had to train her crews to understand "quiet on set."
"My advice," she said, "figure out how the locals do it and either prepare your team to adapt to those ways or bring what you need from the States to compensate."
The personal is professional. In America, it’s the film industry and show business; in other countries, Mezey said, "the social relationships are often more important than the film."
When shooting David Riker's upcoming film "The Girl" in Mexico, Mezey said there was a sense that “we’re a family and we're going to have fun doing this." He built a social component into the schedule, whether in communal meals or getting together after wrapping a day's shoot.
Transparency is good for business. In America, budgets tend to be treated as secrets, with knowledge limited to a select few. However, taking that approach in a foreign country can lead to suspicion, acrimony and a crew that makes your life very difficult.
Mezey advocates making sure that everyone knows what everyone else is getting paid on a local crew, and at a fair rate. "You're in a powerful position," he said. "And if they know you're being cheap, it'll be discussed and you'll build a resentment. So not only is it unethical, it's counterproductive."
The same kind of parity and fairness is also necessary when dealing with more experienced foreign co-producers.
"We're talking about films that are well below what most European co-producers are used to," says Parts & Labor's Jay Van Hoy who, with partner Lars Knudsen, most recently shot Julia Loktev's “The Loneliest Planet” in the former Russian state of Georgia with a German subsidy. "They're not going to be motivated by budgets around $1 million."
Hire an accountant. Van Hoy and Knudsen's Parts & Labor knew what it meant to shoot overseas; they made So Young Kim's "Treeless Mountain" in Korea and Braden King's "Here" in Armenia.However, Julia Loktev's "The Loneliest Planet” was its first genuine co-production, partnering with Helge Albers of Germany’s Flying Moon Prods. and receiving 28% of its budget through a subsidy program from the German region of Hessen.
The subsidy required using German crew and equipment, which then had to to be transported to Georgia. While shipping costs added a significant line item to the budget, those expenses were recouped since they went toward the tax credit's spending requirement (Unfortunately, Van Hoy notes, their planet tickets did not qualify.)
An accountant also would have failed to qualify — but with all the elaborate expenses and multiple currencies, Van Hoy says he wishes he’d paid for one. It might have helped him avoid the cash flow gap he encountered in post-production as a result of the tax subsidy's fee schedule.
"We were put in a position where we needed the money to deliver the film,” he said, “but you don't get the last of the money until delivery is confirmed."
It's worth the trouble. While Van Hoy admits there are challenges in foreign productions, he says the process is worth it. Parts & Labor is currently setting up an office in Knudsen's home country of Denmark. In doing so, and setting a precedent with "Loneliest Planet," Van Hoy hopes that foreign coproductions will "become less rare" for $1 million indies.
For Mezey, there's something inherently fulfilling about shooting overseas that transcends tax credits. "Whether making a film about baseball in the Dominican Republic or blood feuds in Albania, the community is so emotionally connected to the topic. It becomes a significant moment in their lives, and there's something so rewarding in doing that.
"It's easy to get jaded in this business," Mezey continues, "but the real joy of film is connecting human beings. And I can't think of a better way of doing that than taking challenging projects where that's the essential component to the project from day one."
Trans Atlantic Partners gives producers the necessary tools and knowledge to maneuver through the complex arena of international co-productions/co-ventures and to overcome the legal and financial barriers.
Cine-Regio is a network of regional film funds in Europe. The network is continuously expanding and today represents 34 regional film funds from 12 EU Member States, in addition to Norway and Switzerland.
European Film Commissions Network has a listing of all European Film Commissions, with links to individual websites and all of the countries film commissions.
Eurimages is the Council of Europe fund for the co-production, distribution and exhibition of European cinematographic works. The website lists rules and requirements for all European coproductions in 36 member states.