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Tribeca ’09 Interview | “Shadow Billionaire” Director Alexis Manya Spraic (World Doc Competition)

Tribeca '09 Interview | "Shadow Billionaire" Director Alexis Manya Spraic (World Doc Competition)

Editor’s Note: This is one of several interviews, conducted via email, with directors whose films are screening at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival.

“Shadow Billionaire” (World Documentary Feature Competition), Feature Documentary, 2008, 86 min., U.S.
Director: Alexis Manya Spraic
Producer: Sasha Alpert
Executive Producers: Jonathan Murray, Gil Goldschein, Josh Braun
Director of Photography: Jon Aaron Aaseng
Composers: Luke and Holly Rothschild with String Theory Production Company: BMP Films
(Biography, Mystery)

Synopsis: When DHL founder Larry Hillblom disappeared following a 1995 plane crash off his Micronesian island home, dozens of would-be heirs from the Philippines came out of the woodwork to lay claim to his mega fortune. Within the framework of the fantastic legal battle, Spraic’s debut doc slowly uncovers the stranger-than-fiction life of this eccentric billionaire. (Description provided by Tribeca Film Festival)

What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?

Like a lot of other filmmakers I became really fascinated with film at a young age and it didn’t take long for me to pursue that interest, first by consuming as many films as I possibly could and by the time I was in junior high school, experimenting with making my own. I also got very interested in theater, writing, directing, and stage-managing plays at my high school and local theaters. Although filmmaking was always my long-term goal, I opted not to go to film school because I felt that I would grow more as an artist and a person expanding my interests beyond film, which was quite an obsession for me at that point.

I ended up studying Philosophy, Economics and Non-Fiction writing at Columbia University, which was extremely gratifying and has really informed the types of films that I want to make and how I approach doing it. Because I was going to college in New York City, I was lucky enough to apprentice myself to several established and seasoned filmmakers to develop my production skills in the field and spent much of college working on narrative and documentary features. Towards the end of college, I made my first documentary and it was through making that film that I really learned to produce, shoot and edit. Although, I never exploited the film publicly, it did help me break in to documentary editing and I have been fortunate enough to have been editing, producing – and now directing – films ever since.

What prompted the idea for “Shadow Billionaire” and what excited you to make it?

My father went to law school with Larry Hillblom, the subject of my film, and so I was aware of him and his work founding DHL prior to his disappearance, but it was a 1998 article in “California Lawyer,” telling the story of the unlikely hero of my film, David Lujan, the lawyer for one of Hillblom’s potentially unacknowledged children that put the idea in my head for a film. The article told a great David and Goliath story that played as an allegory for American Imperialism. At the time I was in high school and simply put the article in one of several binders I have been filling with stories that have captured me over the years.

I did not re-visit the article until years later when I was picking a project to develop and raise money for my first directorial effort. I was reminded of the article and knew it was the one. I felt passionate about the subject and felt it was marketable because of the timeliness of a story involving corporate greed and entitlement under the umbrella of American hegemony. On a creative level, I was also inspired by the challenge of making a thriller/mystery documentary that could allow me to play with some of the stylistic and expressionistic techniques that I had been developing while editing other films.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making your film.

My approach to filmmaking is very collaborative and much of the film developed out of my collaboration with several key people. Sasha Alpert, the producer of the film, worked with me on a daily basis pushing me and the material as far as possible. I think some of the strongest aspects of the film emerged from our continued dialogue and experimentation. Josh Braun, an executive producer on the film who has been involved with the project since its inception, helped me put together a saleable pitch reel that really became the blueprint for the style and tone of the film.

There is typically a pressure on documentaries to live up to rigid standards of journalism and recount as objective and precise a truth as possible. This is a great approach for a lot of films, but certainly not this one. One of the most striking things that I encountered during my research was that no two people told me the same version of the story; in a sense the more I learned about Hillblom and his probate case, the more questions I had. I wanted the style of the film to underscore the elusiveness of the subject-matter and to be suggestive and haunting, rather than straight-forward and fact-driven. I got the idea of filming everything, aside from the interviews–which were shot in HD and on the RED, on Super 16mm and Super 8mm, which helped to convey the enigma of the story and to allow the film to offer a more subjective experience. Some of the most evocative material we produced through this approach was our aerial and underwater Super8mm.

One of the other crucial elements to achieving this was the music. I was lucky enough to bring on composers I have collaborated with before, Luke and Holly Rothschild and their group String Theory. We worked closely from the beginning to find the sound of the film. The scoring was not an afterthought: much of the texture of the film emerged from hearing a piece of their music inspired by the story and building around it.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?

The biggest challenge by far was getting some of the world’s most high-powered attorneys to sign releases for their participation in the film. I will definitely think long and hard before I take on another film featuring so many lawyers!

It was truly an adventure filming in so many foreign and remote locations with a very small crew and all of the equipment necessary to shoot in multiple formats. Phone reception, electricity, internet and intense heat and humidity were daily impediments for several months. But on the flip-side, being immersed in these little-known island cultures was an opportunity to understand Hillbom and the probate case from a vast set of cultural perspectives and make a film that was uninhibited by a singular or limited perspective.

Both Larry Hillblom’s life and the probate case catalyzed by his disappearance are unelievably complicated and so developing the film meant making a lot of difficult choices about what to include and exclude in order to distill it to an engaging and fluid story. One of the big hurdles was that so many of the crucial aspects of the story: the history of the shipping industry, the setting of a remote U.S. island territory, etc… are not widely known and I was always fighting the possibility that the film would get weighed down by exposition. The solution that I came up with was to make sure that the exposition was inserted at the last possible moment, at the moment that the story had finally sparked the question that it would be answering in the viewer’s head, so it satisfied their curiosity rather than becoming more information to make sense of or save for later.

How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?

When I started out, I imagined there was some magical moment when you finally “made it” and people unequivocally trusted your vision and financing came easily, and there would be an audience for your work. But I quickly learned that there is an intrinsically precarious component to working in the film industry no matter who you are and what you have accomplished, so I’ve adjusted my expectations accordingly.

I feel very successful just in virtue of the fact that I have been consistently working on films that I am excited to get up and work on every day. When I decided to pursue a career in film, it was because it was something that I loved doing, and that is my goal: to continue to love doing it – otherwise it’s hardly worth the instability of free-lance and the uncertainty of not knowing if your work will be seen and how it will be received! I am confident that the work will continue to be fulfilling as long as I can work on projects that I feel passionately about and collaborate with people who are supportive and inspiring.

What are your future projects?

Well, my immediate plans are seeing my film premiere at Tribeca! But I’ve also begun editing Tamra Davis’s new documentary on Basquiat, which I’m having a great time with. I have two feature documentaries in development and I am planning to start shooting one of them this coming winter.

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