Producer Ted Leonsis‘ “Nanking” (directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman) tells the story of the Japanese invasion of Nanking, China, in the early days of World War II. As part of a campaign to conquer all of China, the Japanese subjected Nanking, which was then China’s capital, to months of aerial bombardment, and when the city fell, the Japanese army unleashed murder and rape on a horrifying scale. In the midst of the rampage, a small group of Westerners banded together to establish a Safety Zone where over 200,000 Chinese found refuge. Unarmed, these missionaries, university professors, doctors and businessmen, including a Nazi named John Rabe, bore witness to the events, while risking their own lives to protect civilians from slaughter. Leonsis is Chairman of Revolution Money as well as Vice Chairman Emeritus at AOL. In this interview he reveals what drove him to undertake the project as well as learning the filmmaking process by doing… ThinkFilm opens the film in limited release Wednesday December 12.
What attracted you to filmmaking?
I believe in the power of film to catalyze social action. Shining a light on tough subjects–activating discussion; generating charitable donations; accelerating volunteerism– and helping to right a wrong is what attracted me to filmmaking and to “Filmanthropy.”
How did you get involved with “Nanking” and what inspired you?
I came to this film through a very inspirational manner–I read an obituary of an author–Iris Chang who had taken her own life. The obit and her photo haunted me. I then researched her life and found that she had written a book called the Rape of Nanking. I bought the book, and within it, there were a few pages about a “Safety Zone” that provided life saving services for 250,000 people and was managed by Westerners.
I knew nothing of this story and wanted to shed a light on the history of war and occupation and its effects on innocent civilians while also showing that ordinary people can rise up and do heroic actions to save lives.
This is an anti war film, This is an inspirational film about ordinary people doing extraordinary things to save lives for moral justice and their stories deserved to be told.
Elaborate on your approach to undertaking the project, and how did you finance the film?
I conceived of the story–put together the team–led by co-director Bill Guttentag and paid and financed for all aspects of the film and its production personally. It was a true labor of love. I worked on every part of the film, which was my first foray into filmmaking–from going on location in China and interviewing survivors to working on budgeting and all legal matters. [I also] recruited actors [and] negotiated the deals with ThinkFilm, Fortissimo, CCTV, the Chinese Minister of Culture, CAA, and HBO.
I went personally to more than 20 film festivals and have led the marketing and distribution and new media work related to the film. I even spent significant time in the editing bay. It was total immersion for me, and I have learned a great deal about filmmaking and the industry. [I also] believe I can now add some value as my knowledge of the new media industry will now allow me to create a new and better way to distribute documentary films via the Internet.
How do you define “independent film?”
Independent film to me is all about tackling and exploring subjects that are meaningful and that are deeply personal and controversial. The film should help create a platform of communications and the content should be digitized and made available through traditional means such as theatres, cable television, network television and DVD, but perhaps more importantly–it should be made available via widgets on the Internet, It should be syndicated via blogs and Facebook and My Space, and it should all tie into a way to allow viewers to interact with one another and to donate their time and money to help a cause.
What is your next project?
I have just completed my second Filmanthropy project– a film called “Kicking It”–it deals with the subject of global homelessness– and how teamwork and sports can transform and reclaim lost lives.
What are some of your interests outside of film?
I have many interests outside of film making. I own professional sports teams– The Washington Capitals, the Washington Mystics and part owner of the Washington Wizards. I am an investor in web 2.0 companies and now serve as Chairman of Revolution Money. And I continue as Vice Chairman Emeritus of AOL.
What are some of your all-time favorite docs?
My favorite documentaries of all time include “Capturing the Friedmans,” “When They were Kings,” “War Dance,” “Riding Giants,” “Supersize Me” and “Hoop Dreams.” In fact, I have become very involved as a mentor and a donor to a charity inspired by the film here in DC called Hoop Dreams.