Production News: Non-fiction to go

September 1, 1999


Row, row, row your boat…

Although warned to not try it at home, one Mississippi-born writer ignored good advice and decided to find out what it was like to be a Viking by doing it himself. Hodding Carter IV dressed up like an ancient Norseman, built a replica of an ancient sailing vessel and rowed out into the Arctic for a four-month re-creation of the 1000-year-old voyage of Leif Eriksson from Europe to Newfoundland.

Compass Light Documentary of Maine did the shooting for this coproduction between Boston’s wgbh (intended for their science strand, nova), Galafilm in Montreal, and Sweden’s Sverige TV. The producer’s planned ten-day shoot evolved into a five-month odyssey, with experiences that ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Expected to be ready for spring 2000, Searching for Leif is a critical and quirky look at historical re-creations, examining what they do and don’t offer in the way of true insight. The one-hour film has a budget of US$390,000, a portion of which was covered by Lands’ End Inc., an American clothing manufacturer.

Under siege

In an effort to stem the tide of an impending Allied invasion of Fortress Europe, Hitler built what he thought was an impregnable defensive wall in order to drive the invaders back into the Channel. The Atlantic Wall, as it was termed, stretched almost 6,000 km, from Norway to Denmark, south through Holland, Belgium and the British Channel Islands, before continuing into France. Fritz Todt, Hitler’s architect, created this series of bunkers and strongholds to oppose the Allies, but also fought strong opposition from important Nazis, namely Goering and Hess, who thought the efforts of the Reich were best served in other places.

Atlantikwall, is a 52-minute production from Belgium’s Turnkey Productions, in association with Cinemedia and avro in The Netherlands, ndr Germany, as well as VRT and Fonds Film Vlaanderen in Belgium. The budget for the hour will be in the US$250,000 range, with the delivery date for the project some time in June 2000.

An arm and a leg

Vancouver, Canada’s Red Storm Productions is hard at work on a new one-hour documentary aiming for broadcast next year. Island of Shadows tells the dark tale of a little-known chapter of Canadian history – the D’Arcy Island Leper Colony, which existed off the coast of British Columbia between 1891 and 1924.

During that time, D’Arcy Island was a place where men went to die, living in squalid huts with no medical support. (Every three months, a ship would come from the outside world, bearing food, clothing, opium and coffins.) Nothing was done about the situation until the outpost was closed. Was it because these men were lepers, or was it because they were Chinese immigrants, that no government wanted to take responsibility?

Island of Shadows has a budget of about US$110,000, with the first window in Canada being shared by both ctv and Vision TV. Additional funding is coming from Telefilm Canada, B.C. Film, and the Canadian Television Fund.


Here snakey, snakey…

If you needed a reason to get out of that camping trip in Brazil, check out Deadly and Dangerous: The Snakes of Central and South America. This one-hour production from California’s Tomwil Entertainment and coproducers Discovery (the hour is intended for Wild Discovery) will give you all the ammunition you need.

With shooting to begin in Costa Rica at the beginning of August (and moving on to Brazil in December), the hour should be wrapped up for June 2000. The special will be hosted by William Lamar, an expert on the venomous snakes of South America. The special will be shot on tape in a 16×9 format. Although the producers had originally intended to shoot on film, they later decided that tape would better facilitate the night shooting required during the project. (Sure. Go looking for venomous snakes in the dark. Go ahead. I’ll wait for you here.)

The hour largely came about due to Discovery’s success with Tomwil’s previous serpent story, Anaconda: Giant Snake of the Amazon. Both snake shows have budgets in the mid six figures.

The Bayer facts

Wolfgang Bayer, one of the world’s foremost wildlife filmmakers, will soon be available in high definition. Wolf’s World is a new 90-minute production offering viewers a chance to see what happens on the other side of the lens during a wildlife film shoot. The production is entering its third year, and follows Bayer, his family and crew to such locales as Borneo (to film orangutans), Kenya (for the flamingoes) and the Arctic (for the ice floes).

Location shooting will wrap in March 2000, with the rough cut ready for Wildscreen in October 2000. A final delivery date is set for the end of next year. The project is from Wolfgang Bayer Productions in Wyoming, and is being represented by fellow Wyoming-based filmmaker collaborative, Safari Network.

So far, the crew has shot over 200,000 feet of Super 35mm, with the final project to be formatted for widescreen high definition. A theatrical release is still being considered. The estimated budget for the project is US$2.7 million.


A titanic achievement

The largest movable man-made objects in the world, ocean liners are mechanical marvels not many people have taken the time to consider (except when they sink…). California’s Thomas Horton Associates has, however, and they’re working on a one-hour special for The Learning Channel which should wrap by the end of the year. Cities at Sea is budgeted at just under US$350,000 and will consider the technology that makes them work, their design and construction, and how something so big manages to stay above the water line and not kill the 5,000 people aboard.

Seeing eye dog

Have you ever wondered what your dog thinks you look like? Most normal people haven’t, but France’s Son et Lumière and coproducer Off the Fence of the Netherlands have. The Savage Eye (w/t), is a 4 x 60-minute series considering how animals perceive the world. The producers want to give, as they put it, a birds eye (and mammal’s, and reptiles, and insect’s) view of the world, in habitats as diverse as downtown Paris and the jungles of Indonesia. The series will be delivered some time in either late 2000 or early 2001, with a budget of around US$350,000 per episode. French and German partners are almost on board, but have yet to be announced.

You are here

Paris-based VM Productions is hard at work on a couple of projects tackling stories from the beginning of time.

The Living Stones is a 13 x 26-minute archeological series that circles the globe, telling stories about the founding of civilizations. The budget for the series will run to about US$140,000 per episode. Living Stones will use a blend of 3-D reconstructions and real footage.

Coproducers on the project are Explore Vision in Montreal, Canada, and Paris-based architectural firm, Alpha Line. The series will be in development until the end of the year, with filming planned to begin in January. The series is expected to wrap the following January. So far, Voyage and Odyssée in France, as well as TVO in Canada are the broadcasters involved. Discussions are on with a major Asian broadcaster as well, although they had not confirmed their participation as of press time. Should they participate, the series will be shot in high definition.

Also from VM comes The Dancing Universe: From Creation Myths to the Big Bang. This 3 x 52-minute series considers the questions of whether we’re getting any closer to the truth about the origins of the universe, or if we’re actually any further ahead than our ancient ancestors. The first hour will review ancient creation myths from around the world. The second will tackle the age-old debate about the shape of the universe. The final hour explores the ideas of some of the greatest scientific minds, from Newton’s laws, to Einstein’s theories, to Bohr’s quantum mechanics.

The series is being produced for about US$460,000 an hour, and so far PBS is the only broadcast entity to join in.


Down the drain

Have you ever had one of those days where you get in your car to drive home and the next thing you know you’re up to your ashtray in a fast-moving river? Well, help is at hand. All you need to do is call the Swift Water Rescue Team.

Swift Water Rescue is a one-hour special being produced by Santa Monica-based Barbara Liebowitz Productions, with the Discovery Channel in as coproducer. The hour is being distributed by Los Angeles’ Solid Entertainment. Swift Water follows emergency rescue professionals as they put themselves on the line to save lives. The special will also take a detailed look at their training procedures, as well as profiling the people who have chosen to make this kind of dangerous work their lives. The special will be available in the late fall, with an estimated budget of US$325,000.


His and hers and his and…

What do you do when she wants an open marriage, but he is only interested in monogamy? No, it’s not a flashback from the free-loving ’60s; it’s a one-hour film called When Two Won’t Do, produced by Picture This Productions in Quebec, Canada, with Arnie Gelbart of Montreal’s Galafilm in as executive producer. The filmmakers pitched the film at the Banff Television Festival earlier this year.

The film reflects the turmoil in the two filmmaker’s lives, as they try to explore alternative forms of love, relations and marriage. They embark on a quest to discover as many forms of non-monogamy and polyamory as they can, in an effort to solve their own problem and discover how relationships are faring in society. The underlying question remains: how open can a relationship be before it tears apart?

Ready for spring 2000, the production has a budget of about US$270,000. So far, Toronto’s TVOntario and Alberta’s ACCESS Television are the broadcasters involved as of press time.


Coffee, Tea or… never mind

by Simon Bacal

‘Hopefully, we’ll see more of the disgusting videos that everyone loves to watch,’ says Danny Wolf, producer of Busted on The Job: Part 4, the latest offering in a series of one-hour specials highlighting video clips of employees misbehaving in the workplace.

‘Chefs and cooks spit, sneeze, cough and urinate into food. That type of video gets the most attention since people like to see these things brought to life. No other TV show offers such disgusting and strange clips.’

Currently in production at Los Angeles-based Termite Art Productions, the new Busted (budgeted below US$1 million), will air on Fox Television during the November Sweeps.

‘We receive many videos from private investigators,’ Wolf explains. ‘Clips which come from the United States, Russia, England, Australia and Canada, are sent to us by district attorneys, sheriffs, police departments and ordinary citizens who watch the show.

‘We don’t mention names, we often change the location of an event and we blur faces. After all, if someone is stealing $400,000 from a cash register, their identity is unimportant – their action is the crucial element.’

The show also features interviews with a selection of people who appear in the video clips. ‘We interview the original coffee pot urinator who debuted in the first edition of Busted on The Job, [which aired May, 1997].

‘His co-workers set up a pin-hole surveillance camera and caught him urinating into the coffee pot – he was actually prosecuted for third-degree assault. Initially, he had declined interviews with most shows, but I wrote him a very nice interview request. He will remain anonymous, but we want America to hear his side of the story.

‘Basically, he urinated in the coffee pot because a co-worker was spreading some lies and rumors about him,’ Wolf adds. ‘Since they were the only two people working on a Saturday, he thought that his action would be a good joke. He simply wanted revenge against this particular guy, but the person who set up the camera claimed that he had urinated in the coffee pot on a few previous occasions. People who drank the coffee apparently complained that it tasted strange and looked murky. However, the urinator insisted that he had pissed in the coffee pot on only one occasion.’

Wing and a prayer

by Simon Bacal

Exploring today’s cutting edge flight technology, Wings to Come is a series of three one-hour specials from Vision Films, a production company based in Sherman Oaks, California.

The US$300,000 series is a follow-up to the company’s Test Flights: Beyond The Limits, a three-part series which covered test flight pilots who risked their lives in order to advance flight technology. That series recently aired on The Learning Channel.

Production on the latest project is expected to continue until March 2000. Stephen Rocha, Vision Films’ head of production, is confident that this new offering will air during the middle portion of next year. The series has sparked interest from TLC, Discovery International and PBS.

Filmed at Dryden Flight Research Center, nasa’s remote flight research center in the California desert, the series enabled Rocha and his camera crew to secure camera access during test flights.

‘Test Flights was such a wonderful experience that I wanted to do additional [flight related] shows,’ says Rocha, who formed Vision Films in 1989 with Lise Romanoff, the company’s managing director.

Entitled ‘Space Planes,’ the first chapter explores the technology which will eventually enable planes to journey into space. The X-33, for example, is equipped with an advanced heat protection system and lightweight materials, which could enable it to fly to and from space sans external rockets.

The second episode, ‘Highways in The Sky,’ covers the changing face of commercial, private and business aviation.

‘Air travel is expected to increase three-fold within the next 20 years,’ says Rocha, ‘so nasa and industry partners want to build the next generation of reliable, safe and economic planes. For example, Boeing would like to build a jumbo jet capable of carrying 800 passengers for the same amount of money required to build a jet which holds only 400 people (approximately $300 million). Additionally, business jet manufacturers are building supersonic business jets. Aside from the Concorde, there are no supersonic transports. However, the Concorde is not very economical or environment friendly since it’s 30 years old. As a result, businesses are now designing jets capable of transporting industry executives around the world within a few hours.’

Meanwhile, air wars and other forms of military planning are the focal points of ‘Fighters of The 21st Century,’ the series’ third segment. This special includes a look at uninhabited combat air vehicles (ucav) – remote-controlled combat planes.

‘Piloted aircraft is in for a major shake up,’ Rocha reveals. ‘The Pentagon is currently developing these vehicles, which will be weapons platforms or recognizance vehicles in areas plagued by anti-aircraft fire. So this type of aircraft, which can theoretically be operated from a separate aircraft or boat, will be able to fly 600 miles and return to base without endangering the pilot.’

The rise and fall of middle America

by Simon Bacal

The world of controversial syndicated shock radio host Tom Lykis is explored in the documentary Blow Me Up – The Tom Lykis Story, a new offering from Los Angeles-based 44 Blue Productions.

Production on the 90-minute documentary, estimated to cost US$50,000, is expected to last until mid fall. At press time, the film had not been sold, but exec producer Rasha Drachkovitch and director/producer Brian Gallion hope that their project will be grabbed up by a cable network or feature film distribution company when their brainchild enters its full marketing phase later this year.

‘Brian brought the project to the company,’ Drachkovitch, CEO of 44 Blue recalls, ‘After listening to Tom’s daily show, I realized that Lykis and his fan base could make a very interesting and compelling documentary.’

Part of Lykis’ appeal involves `Flash Friday,’ a portion of the personality’s Friday show. ‘A male motorist who’s listening to the show will flash his high beams,’ says Drachkovitch. ‘Meanwhile, a female listener, who’s driving from the opposite direction, will flash her breasts at that particular driver. So potentially hundreds of women could be on the roads flashing their breasts at male motorists at 5:15 p.m. every Friday. That’s pretty hysterical.’

Besides entering the homes and cars of callers during actual calls to Lykis’ show, Blow Me Up explores the personalities involved in the live broadcasts, which occur in bars in such cities as Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland and Las Vegas.

‘They’re basically massive frat parties,’ Drachkovitch explains. ‘About 300 people, who are pretty liquored up, attend these things. As one might imagine, pretty outlandish events usually unfold. In Seattle, the bar was shut down because female fans were baring their breasts for Tom to sign, while another lady was arrested in a Redondo Beach (California) bar for exposing herself in public.

‘We also interview two sisters from Seattle. One sister believes that Tom is an integral part of her life, while the other sister can’t stand the guy, and tries to persuade her sibling to forget about this guy and get a life. It’s a real interesting debate.’


Pitched as ‘more than a good-looking, skinny guy touring through Italy,’ Toronto-based Catalyst Entertainment is teaming with Rockhead Productions on a travel/cooking series called Avventura: Journeys in Italian Cuisine. Host David Rocco (an Italian-Canadian and the principal of Rockhead) tours the regions of Italy, sampling local culture and cuisine at each stop. One of the unique features of the series is what Catalyst calls the ‘simultaneous translation,’ meaning bilingual Rocco can talk to the chef-du-jour in Italian and fill the audience in on what was just said. Now in production, and aiming to pre-sell at mipcom, the initial 26 half-hours cost about US$33,000 to $40,000 each. Catalyst Distribution is repping the project internationally (other than in the U.S., which will be handled by Catalyst’s subsidiary, Gullane Pictures). The Travel Channel is on board in the U.K., as is Canadian specialty channel, Prime. A potential second-tier window in Canada is being negotiated. As for ancillary markets, the requisite video deal is in the works, with Catalyst hoping to produce a companion travel book outlining the primo places to eat in Italy. Mary Ellen Armstrong

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.