Mark Monroe came to the 2013 Sundance Film Festival as the writer of three distinctly different documentaries–“Sound City,” “Who is Dayani Cristal?” and “The Summit,” which opens October 4 (trailer below). The writer of Oscar-winning “The Cove” and this year’s Oscar-shortlisted “Chasing Ice” is proving to be a valuable asset. Not every documentary filmmaker is a writer-director like Alex Gibney, who brought “We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks” to Sundance 2013. Some filmmakers need help organizing complicate features, such as Nick Ryan of “The Summit,” “The Cove”‘s Louie Psihoyos or “Chasing Ice”‘s Jeff Orlowski.
That’s where broadcast journalist Monroe comes in. He’s also a filmmaker, but he’s proving so adept at helping others realize their projects that he’s got writing gigs lined up like airplanes at La Guardia.
Check out the new trailer for “The Summit,” after the jump.
Anne Thompson: Give me, from your end, the calls from people telling you that one movie after the other was getting into Sundance. How did that play out?
Mark Monroe: It was…beyond surreal.
AT: Which one did you think would get in?
MM: I thought the Dave Grohl film [“Sound City”] would get in. It’s a big, splashy doc, it’s entertaining as hell, so I thought that would get in. Getting the call about “Who Is Dayani Cristal?” was amazing, because Marc Silver and Gael [García Bernal] had put so much of their heart and soul into this thing and we felt like it had come such a long way. It was extremely special. But “The Summit,” I have to tell you–we had so many arguments in our own camp about whether we had made the right film, and we didn’t even actually submit it to Sundance at first, because some people were down on the film and we thought, ‘maybe it’s not the film we thought it was.’
AT: Like who?
MM: I can say we were second-guessing ourselves so much with “The Summit.” So to get that call, and the way it’s turned out…
AT: It was one of the first sales of the festival, to Sundance Selects.
MM: Twenty-four hours of emotion in the first two days of the festival. We just went from zero to hero. I can’t tell you how proud I am of Nick Ryan and Ben Stark, the editor, and all those people who worked on that film.
AT: So who has distribution on world cinema opener “Who Is Dayani Cristal”?
MM: I know that the film will find a home, and it has (Mundial, the new joint venture with IM Global and Canana).
AT: And what is the “Sound City” distribution?
MM: That is through Dave Grohl’s management, and he’s an artist who wants to get his work to the people as soon as possible. They made a deal with Gravitas before we ever came to the festival, so you can get it on iTunes as of January 21st.
AT: So how did you wind up at Sundance with three movies?
MM: Apparently with documentaries, I don’t really say no. In order to stay alive, I juggle a lot of things. I have a small company, Diamond Docs, with two other guys and we set out to make documentaries ourselves, and we have. But we launched it right when the economy tanked and through word of mouth and people I know I started getting phone calls, and we realized there’s a business model that’s not about starting documentaries from scratch but to help other filmmakers realize their dream.
A lot of these documentaries are first-time filmmakers; they take years to do, years to develop. A lot of times it’s just people who find themselves next to a story and begin to chase it, and then they become filmmakers. So I started on the side, besides chasing my dreams, taking on these projects that seemed to need a form or a structure or a way to turn hundreds of hours of footage into ninety minutes. So that’s how it began.
AT: That’s an editor’s skill, too?
MM: It is–I’m an editor, too. I learned early in my career.
AT: Did you go to film school?
MM: No. I was a journalism major–I went to CNN for five years after college and was a news writer for anchors. I kind of burned out on that and eventually made my way to Los Angeles, made a lot of one-hour documentaries on television. When the reality TV boom hit, I did a little reality TV for a few months and it was not for me. And so I stuck with this biography form and that’s translated somewhat into film. The first film I worked on was with the guy who’s my partner now, Paul Crowder. He and I made a bunch of Behind the Musics. I made a bunch of Beyond the Glories. Paul made a bunch of television with Stacy Peralta and ended up editing his films, and we got a reject, basically. Someone had approved Stacy for a film that had been started, and Stacy didn’t really see the value in it–it wasn’t for him. So Paul was like, ‘I’ll do it,’ and he dragged me into it, and that’s how we made a film called “Once In a Lifetime,” about the New York Cosmos soccer team, America trying to buy soccer. It was so much fun, I thought, ‘I can do this.’ And it started from there.
AT: Which of the three Sundance films did you do first?
MM: I got involved first with “The Summit.” From the beginning, from scratch. A great friend of mine and the man who gave me my first credit, John Battsek at Passion Pictures–I wouldn’t have a career without him; he refers me to people who come to him–he referred me to this Irish filmmaker who he had talked to, Nick Ryan. He was connected to this story, he knew people who were on the mountain (K2) that day and he was interested in the sherpas. He had made some short narrative films and done some documentary work, but he wanted somebody to help him with the story–it was very complicated and complex. So I wrote a treatment with Nick. We Skyped from Dublin and we talked about it for a few weeks.
AT: How did you know what the story was? What access did you have to the material? So many times, documentaries are found as they go along. They change, they morph, they evolve.
MM: All documentaries are found as you go along and as they morph. The art of writing a treatment is to ask someone for money. If I can be honest with you, that’s what it is.
AT: This is what you want the “The Summit” to be.
MM: Right. This is what we can see right here, from this position. And that movie had a lot to do with (mountain guide) Pemba and this untold story of the sherpas and how they had been lost in the shuffle of the Western media’s response and the 24-hour new cycle’s response to a tragedy on K2. (Nick) had contacted Pemba and had many conversations with him, and through Pat Falvey and another executive producer who’s a climber himself in the film, he had contacted Wilco. We had articles and different things like that in order to write a treatment.
AT: You helped the filmmaker focus on the story; so many documentary films get lost in the details, in the woods. Were you there throughout the filming? A documentary is all about structure–what’s the time frame, when are we revealing what information? Do you work with the filmmaker and the editor?
MM: Yes. Initially, it’s a lot of work with Nick, because he’s going to interview all these people. So I help him with questions. From the very beginning, from the treatment even, we wanted to jump into the story. We didn’t want to explain ropes and names and tents and everything for forty minutes before everything happened, we wanted to be on the mountain within ten minutes and to have someone fall to set it in action. So we knew we wanted a complicated structure to go with the complicated movie.
AT: And so you were also figuring out who was the focus of the movie?
MM: Ger (McDonnell, the first Irishman to make the climb) became a focus very early even though it was initially Pemba and the sherpas. Nick interviewed Pemba first. He held long interviews with everyone; some of the interviews happened very quickly after the incident. We interviewed some people subsequent times.
AT: You would be the one who said, we really need to get this person? Are you functioning as a researcher/detective, journalist/reporter?
MM: To a certain degree. What you do basically is you get an interview and you get a transcript and you begin mining it for material so you can ask other people.
AT: That’s what a journalist does.
MM: This is why I love documentaries–they’re all about individual truths. You’re asking people about an event and they’re telling you their truth, the way they know it, the experience they have. And most of the time there’s some divergence in the story–we’re human, that’s the way it works. In this story it was widely divergent.
AT: Very much so: “Rashomon.“
MM: Yeah, “Rashomon.”That was attractive to us–it made it more mysterious and tragic in a way. You have a handful of people on a mountain experiencing the same thing and all of them have wildly different views of what happened and none of them have the whole picture. And that whole picture, we knew, was unattainable. So it’s kind of a movie about stories. About the way these events shape your life going forward. So once we did all the interviews I went to Dublin for a week and spent exhaustive hours with Nick, reading the transcripts to each other–especially the transcripts of the sherpa–trying to timeline and figure out the important pieces and find out what happened to Ger. By then we had gotten to Ger.
AT: Who is so charismatic. So part of it was finding the footage. Who had the movie camera?
MM: And we got to review the footage. Well, there were several on the mountain. Wilco had one. Streng, the Swedish guy who turns around early, went there, I think, primarily to shoot a documentary and not to summit.
AT: Which is why he saved his own life.
MM: Probably. On some level, that’s my take on it. But you really have to be 100 percent in to get to the summit, and I think he was divided by his want to make a documentary or shoot footage of it. So that week, we discovered a few things, particularly from the photographs and the pictures. The fact that the sherpas in the photographs, from their clothing, you could tell one of them was a rescuer and one was someone who needed to be rescued. Knowing that was a huge key. It’s complicated to explain but he couldn’t have gotten from there to over here unless some helped him do it. And the only person we could see, logically, that could have helped him do it, was Ger.
AT: As a writer, are you the one who says, ‘OK, we’re going to give this piece of information as a video, we’re going to give this piece of information as a narration, we’re going to give this on the screen as a map?’ You and the director and editor?
MM: We figure it out together. The way it works is that once we did that, I began writing the film, we had an editor on board, and we began working on scenes of the film. I work on paper, my own little format that I use, and it’s very much just structuring scenes. This person says this here, this person says that here, let’s show the map here, here’s a piece of information. And that’s interpreted by an editor and by Nick and it’s picked apart. I’m like the guy with the machete and there’s the fresh jungle–I’m just cutting the first path. It doesn’t mean that’s the road we’re going to take, but I’m just the one making the first decisions, based on a plan that the director and I have already agreed on.
AT: So in this scenario, it would be different if you were a writer-director, you would be doing this yourself. But you’re working with directors who in effect are not writers.
MM: True. On “The Summit” Nick wrote the recreation scenes as a screenplay himself, based on our discussions. What I would do is I would pull out all the relevant transcripts about a particular scene that happened, everything that everyone said about it. I would give it to Nick and tell him how I think it played out, and he would write in Final Draft, like a screenplay, the recreation. And he did all of those himself because as a director, he needs to know exactly what he’s trying to accomplish. For him to create those, I think, was the best way for him to do it. And then Pemba was there and it would change as we were doing it. He would say, ‘Ger was there, Ger was not there, Ger was here.’ Nick wrote those recreations.
AT: Where did they shoot them?
MM: In the Swiss Alps. He had fifty-by-fifty-foot green screens up 4000 meters on a mountain. It was insane. In fact, it was part of our struggle, because he does all the CGI himself and there’s a load of shots in there. It’s time consuming. We had a cut of the film that we thought was pretty strong but it was loaded with green-screen shots, so when you show it to an executive, they’re like, ‘mmmmm, I don’t know,’ and we’re sitting there going, ‘no, it’s going to work!’
AT: How did you get to do “Sound City”?
MM: That’s one you can never say no to. I got a call through Paul Crowder, my partner at Diamond, who was a touring musician for 15 years and started out life as an audio engineer in a recording studio. Through Behind the Music from years ago, someone knew that Paul had done the Peralta films, so management for Dave contacted Paul and we had a late night drink with Dave Grohl, and in five minutes we knew what he wanted. He wanted a movie that inspires people to play music together. He had this wild story and it was personal. People say, Dave Grohl, first-time filmmaker, but Dave Grohl is a long-time storyteller.
AT: He’s made music videos.
MM: That’s what I mean. Through a different art form. It’s a little bit like Louie with “The Cove”–Louie was a National Geographic photographer. Both Dave and Louie are very competent human beings, who are decisive, they know what they want, they’re encyclopedic about this story they want to tell. No, they may not know what to do next or how to structure a scene, but if you show them stuff, they’re like, ‘yes’ or ‘no, I don’t like that, it needs to go more like this.’ So it came together quick. We started editing in maybe March, and at the same time Dave was doing the part of the film that was recording live music with these people who lived the history of the recording studio. So while we’re making the film, I’m giving Dave questions for people to make sure certain things are covered. I interviewed Dave, which is a joy and an amazing experience, several times. And then he would be doing the recording sessions while we were cutting the history.
AT: With “Chasing Ice” you’re not only relying on the iceberg calving footage and the extraordinary difficulties of achieving that footage, but this passionate man, James Balog, at the heart of it, which takes it to a whole other level.
MM: I’m so proud of that film, primarily because it’s a young man, Jeff Orlowski, who made it. This is a guy who was maybe 26 when he started making that film. I agreed to do it, probably against my better judgment at first, because I flew to Boulder to work with Jeff, and the first day he took me into the basement of his high school friend’s mom’s house–we got fed mac and cheese, there were Van Halen posters on the wall–and I was like, ‘what am I doing here?’ But the footage was incredible. When you meet James Balog, it takes about five seconds to know what he’s about.
AT: He’s a hero. That shot where he goes flying out down over that ravine, and his knee is busted!
MM: He is. In a large way, though, you let not just James’s pictures but Jeff’s pictures tell the story for that film. We went through a few incarnations on that film for many reasons, and the only guy who may have as much perseverance as James Balog is Jeff Orlowski. That kid just kept at it and kept at it for four plus years to get it to Sundance.
AT: And the Oscar shortlist.
MM: Yeah, which was again just incredible. Some of these films, from where you begin them to where they end up… I knew we had a lot going for us but it was a complete overhaul from a year ago, and just to get in you think, ‘oh my gosh!’