Project: Hoover Street Revival
Description: Set in south central Los Angeles, this one-hour doc focuses on Bishop Noel Jones, the charismatic preacher of the Greater Bethany Community Church, and the community he inspires.
Executive Producer: Kees Kasander, Kasander Film Company
Director: Sophie Fiennes
Coproduction partners: Kasander Film Company (the Netherlands), BBC(U.K.), Idéale Audience (France), Film Council (U.K.)
Budget: £205,000 (US$300,000)
Long before Hoover Street Revival was even a germ of an idea in Sophie Fiennes’ mind, the London-based director was establishing the connections that would make the project possible. Two of the three major partners on Hoover Street – Kees Kasander and Pierre-Olivier Bardet – are acquaintances who have watched Fiennes’ career develop over more than a decade. Their faith in her was the key factor in their decision to sign on. Says Bardet, ‘When we receive a script from Sophie Fiennes, we read it carefully. We have a principal interest in her work.’
Of course, the power of the story held some sway too. Between Bishop Noel Jones (brother to ’70s diva Grace Jones), whose sermons regularly draw a crowd topping 1,000, and the gospel choirs at Greater Bethany Community Church in South Central Los Angeles, Fiennes knew instantly that she had the makings of a great documentary.
She explains her approach: ‘It’s a film that’s structured episodically, going into very diverse experiences. I was there for five months in total, and I went at three different times – Easter, October and Christmas. I wanted this film to have a ‘present tense’ feel. People aren’t so much telling their stories as we’re experiencing moments of their lives, sometimes extremely brutal, sometimes very mundane. But the conceit of the film is that the church experience is the focal point of the community, and the expression is either through the singing or through these fascinating sermons that work as a counterpoint to their lives.’
1987: At 19, Sophie Fiennes lands the position of location manager for Drowning By Numbers, a film directed by Peter Greenaway and produced by Kees Kasander, and impresses both men. Fiennes keeps in touch with Kasander while continuing to work as Greenaway’s personal assistant through a series of projects including The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and Prospero’s Books. She also makes the acquaintance of Pierre-Olivier Bardet, who later becomes president and CEO of Paris-based producer/distributor Idéale Audience.
1998: Now a director in her own right [Lars From 1-10, about Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier; Michael Clark's Modern Masterpiece (Mmm...), about the British dancer and choreographer], the London-based Fiennes takes a trip to Los Angeles. Not interested in the glitz and glam of Hollywood, she asks a friend to introduce her to a real American gospel church. Fiennes’ friend leads her to the gritty neighborhood of South Central l.a. and the Greater Bethany Community Church on Hoover Street. Without realizing, Fiennes finds herself seated among the congregation of Bishop Noel Jones, one of the four major African American bishops in L.A. Says Fiennes, ‘I was amazed by the experience, particularly the pastor and his sermon, which was incredibly compelling. I thought immediately on the way back in the car that this would be a brilliant subject.’
October 1999: Fiennes returns to L.A. to ask Bishop Jones if he would be interested in a documentary focused on him and his church. ‘I knew there would be a huge amount of work involved to actually realize [the film], so I wanted to make sure he was up to it,’ she recalls. Bishop Jones agrees.
November 1999: After developing the story synopsis, Fiennes approaches Kasander about signing on as the project’s producer. ‘I know that Kees is good at working on films that are left of the field and that have interesting coproduction structures. He’s also someone I like to work with, and I trust his judgement.’
Kasander is hooked by the idea. ‘It’s really magical what is happening there. The church is full of gospel music and life. Every Sunday is a celebration, so it gives you a completely different idea about religion. But, it’s in one of the most complicated parts of the world – [this part of L.A.] is violent, aggressive and full of kids who have no parents.’ He agrees to sign on to the project.
Early 2000: Fiennes has decided on a story arc in which the life of the community mirrors the life of Christ, and so feels it’s crucial to return to L.A. to begin shooting in time for the Easter service. She and Kasander pursue funding from various television sources to no avail. ‘The climate in England is very slot-oriented,’ Fiennes observes. ‘[But] this film doesn’t fit into a convenient slot.’ Kasander puts up the cash to get Fiennes to L.A. He also covers the cost of a second cameraman, Benito Strangio, who assists Fiennes for a week during each of the three L.A. shoots.
April 2000: Armed with a digital video camera, Fiennes departs for L.A. Her choice of equipment is a decision based on both cost and versatility. ‘You can create a huge range of material,’ she says. ‘And when you have headphones on, you’re doing the sound yourself and actually framing the sound as you frame the picture. I’m very photographically driven. I find that heightens your sensitivity to sound, which is a huge part of digital filmmaking.’
Fiennes arrives in time to shoot the massive Easter service, though not at the church. She explains: ‘They staged a church in a sports college. Where the day before there had been basketball practice and hulking basketball players, there was now this transformation into a church – across three basketball courts – with a congregation of 6,000 coming… There was this strong relationship of the world of sports being taken over for the day, with logos painted on the backboards saying, ‘As intense as it gets’, which is meant for basketball, but once you hear the choir sing… it was quite funny.’
In sharp contrast, Fiennes also captures a tragic experience while in L.A. for this shoot. She explains: ‘I was there when a mother is told that her 17-year-old son is dead, that he’s been shot outside in the street. It’s very chaotic, very intense and sad. And, it’s actually not about gang wars, but about a mother whose son has died. In a sense, she replicates the idea of the Virgin Mary who lost her son… In South Central L.A., there’s such a passion for what they call ‘the word’, it seems to fill every corner of life there. You feel that there’s almost a bible that’s being fleshed out into the experiences of people.’
Summer 2000: Fiennes and Kasander meet with Nick Fraser, head of the BBC’s ‘Storyville’ strand and Paul Hamann, then head of docs for the BBC (now creative director of factual programs for London-based Shine TV). After seeing some of the footage, both are committed to the project. ‘Storyville’ comes on board with a promise to cover about 30% of the budget. ‘We had more trust in the financial situation,’ Kasander notes. Fraser also offers to pitch the film at the Forum for International Co-Financing of Documentaries in Amsterdam in November.
September 2000: Kasander and Fiennes contact Pierre-Olivier Bardet about distributing Hoover Street through Idéale Audience International. Although interested, Bardet does not commit.
Fiennes is awarded a £61,000 (US$90,000) fellowship from the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts. Says Fiennes, ‘They basically asked me how I wanted to develop my work and I said I was interested in the relationship between fiction and documentary, and the context in which you experience fiction or fact. In shooting reality using a cinematic language – i.e. no talking heads, not driven by commentary – and then putting it into a cinema…it pushes people’s relationship to reality.’ Fiennes sets aside £25,000 (us$37,000) for a blow-up print, in the hopes of a theatrical run.
October 2000: Fiennes returns to L.A. to film. The newly created U.K. Film Council debuts the New Cinema Fund, which looks promising for Hoover Street. Kasander starts planning to ensure that the project will meet the Fund’s requirements.
November 2000: Fiennes and Kasander join Fraser in Amsterdam to present the project at the Forum. The pitch provokes mixed reactions. Says Kasander, ‘People were nervous about the religious part of it. They were concerned whether the nature of the program would fit their slot or whether it should be financed by another slot within their network… It was slightly hot for most people, but they were extremely intrigued by it. The other thing many commissioning editors said was that at the moment they had too many American programs. We thought that was a lot of bullshit, because it’s about religion and not about American religion. It’s much bigger and much more fundamental than just making a film about America.’
After pitching, the filmmakers walk away with several cards, but no deals. On the upside, Fiennes finds editor Brian Tagg after attending a screening of Kim Longinotto’s Gaea Girls at the documentary film festival in Amsterdam (IDFA), which runs concurrently with the Forum.
December 2000: Idéale Audience signs a double agreement to come on board as a coproduction partner and distributor. The Paris-based company takes all territories excluding the U.K. and the Netherlands, and agrees to cover between 25% and 30% of the budget. Fiennes flies to L.A. for the final Christmas shoot. Funds are running low, but she decides to hire a helicopter to get ‘God’s point of view on the city.’ The decision creates some tension between the director and Kasander because of the expense. Ultimately, Kasander concedes that Fiennes’ is the right choice.
January 2001: The filmmakers submit an application to the Film Council and receive a positive response. Although the onslaught of paperwork will continue for many months, they are effectively assured funds to cover the remaining half of the budget.
Summer/Fall 2001: Editing is ongoing as Fiennes works to cut 254 tapes into a 60-minute feature.
October 2001: Kasander Film, Idéale Audience and the BBC’s ‘Storyville’ present Hoover Street Revival at MIPCOM. The project is expected to wrap by December.