At the RealScreen Summit in February, the first-ever ID Award was presented to Mark Lewis of Radio Pictures for his film RAT. Awarded by the editorial staff of RealScreen, the ID is given in recognition of innovation in documentaries, be it in financing, coproduction management, production technology, narrative style, or just about any facet of development and production. Proposals were submitted by the filmmakers themselves and each tried to sell us on how they had been particularly innovative. JENN KUZMYK charts the winning film from conception to delivery
Published figures from the New York City Health Department state that a person is five times more likely to be bitten by another human being than by a rat. ‘Doesn’t that say a lot about man and rat?’ quips Mark Lewis, writer, producer and director of RAT. Most people revile rodents, yet Lewis has come to understand them on a completely different level. ‘I am in awe of their intelligence, their intuitive and instinctual ability and their extraordinary gift of adaptation. I am humbled by their brilliance. Frankly, I can’t believe how rats have been able to put up with us for so long,’ says Lewis.
After completing award-winning docs The Cane Toads and The Wonderful World of Dogs, Mark Lewis turns his attention to RAT, an idea he has been researching for years. He feels it is important to tell the story from both the animal and the human perspective. As he sees it, rats and humans are ‘the two most successful animals on earth, competing for the same territory.’ In this case, it’s New York City.
Lewis sends out proposals to a bevy of broadcasters worldwide including Channel 4 in the U.K., National Geographic, ABC Australia, CBC in Canada, SVT Sweden, NDR Germany, Canal+ in France and NHK Japan. ‘I sent it to as many people as I could to try and get sales in Europe, America, England, and the Pacific,’ says Lewis. ‘I sent it to everybody I knew who might possibly be interested.’
Channel 4 is the first to commit to the project, and Lewis begins financing discussions with Peter Moore, head of documentaries, and deputy commissioning editor, Charles Furneaux with whom he had worked on previous projects.
Lewis travels from L.A. to the U.K. to meet with Channel 4 execs and hash out a deal. While there, he attends WildScreen and pitches RAT to broadcasters and distribs including future coproducers Anna Glogowski, deputy director of docs at Canal+, and Stephen Amezdoz, executive producer at Beyond Productions. By the end of the festival, Lewis has secured commitments from Michael Steadman, managing director, natural history, TVNZ; and from National Geographic’s Kathy Pasternak, supervising producer Natural History Unit, and Michael Rosenfeld, executive producer of Explorer.
Principal photography commences in New York – five weeks in total. Lewis and his crew begin by filming each of the character’s accounts of their ‘brushes with rat culture.’ ‘I designed a piece of equipment called a mirror box where the interviewee speaks directly into the camera, but sees my face. In the film, this direct contact forms a conscious bond with the audience,’ says Lewis.
Next come the rat re-enactments. ‘It’s pretty hard not to call attention to yourself when you get out of a truck with film equipment and then take out boxes of rats and proceed to let them loose, and film them crossing the street. It must have been quite strange for someone just looking out of their window,’ reminisces Lewis.
One week of night filming on the working tracks inside the subways. Lewis obtains permission from the New York Transit Authority, who also supplies the crew with their own transit workers to signal the trains. ‘We not only had to get permission to be there, but to bring in our rats and let them loose on the tracks. People would stumble into the subway coming home from a party and see us releasing our rats next to the platform,’ says Lewis.
The crew returns to L.A., and the rats go back home to Chicago. Originally shot on a widescreen Super 16mm, RAT is edited off-line, then the negative is cut and re-transferred to Beta, and it is finished on tape. Final set building takes place.
L.A. shoot: three weeks. ‘We built sets for the locations in New York in a shopfront on Hollywood Boulevard. So if we filmed a man lying in bed listening to scratching, we needed to show the rats running around above his head, which meant building floor and attic cavities, tunnels and other locations,’ says Lewis.
Final edit, music and sound mixing. Lewis uses foley techniques to convey a feeling of proximity to the animals. ‘My greatest disappointment with most natural history films is that they just film animals and then put music overtop. What draws you in is when you hear the animal breathing and its feet scratching on the sewer pipe, or the crackle of its teeth as it bites into a chicken bone.’
Delivery of final cut to Beyond and coproducers.
RAT aired on PBS in April, 1998 and on C4 in early 1999. It will air around the world later this year. RAT has garnered numerous awards in addition to the RealScreen ID Award, including: a Prime-time Emmy for Best Achievement in Sound Editing, an Australian Cinematographers Society Award for Best Cinematography, and a Panda Award at the WildScreen Film Festival.