In an era of infotainment the producers of the award-winning Up the Yangtze have figured out how to finance social issue auteur docs: They call it the do-it-yourself model.
Rather than hire outside editors and other post-production professionals at union rates, Montreal’s EyeSteelFilm relies on a core group of roughly a half-dozen employees — all of whom are ambitious filmmakers in their own right — to complete many of its projects, explains co-founder Daniel Cross while sipping coffee at a restaurant near his office on St. Laurent Boulevard.
‘We have around five or six projects going at the same time and everybody works on everyone else’s films,’ says the director/producer, who is also an associate professor at Montreal’s Concordia University.
As EyeSteel’s president, Cross says he’s simply applying a method he learned at film school in the late 1980s: ‘I found four or five serious people who would do anything to help me — and I felt the same way about them — and we helped each other.’
For example, cofounder Mila Aung-Thwin learned documentary filmmaking by working on Cross’s film S.P.I.T: Squeegee Punks in Traffic, a portrait of street punk Eric ‘Roach’ Denis. Aung-Thwin (Music for a Blue Train, Bone) also co-directed Chairman George in 2006 with Cross. After picking up a camera during the filming of S.P.I.T, the film’s principal subject, Denis, decided to become a documentary filmmaker. He has gone on to make two other films with EyeSteel: RoachTrip and Punk the Vote!
Brett Gaylor, who also learned how to use a camera at EyeSteel, has been on staff for six years as a music supervisor, editor and director, working on a number of the company’s projects. His film, RiP: A Remix Manifesto is expected to make a splash for the company when it is released in the coming months; it generated a great-deal of buzz when it debuted at Montreal’s Festival du Nouveau Cinema last month.
‘Basically we all want to be filmmakers,’ says Aung-Thwin.
‘We look for people who will do anything to tell their story,’ adds Cross.
Are their problems with so many directors working together? ‘It can get pretty dysfunctional,’ admits Cross.
EyeSteel’s ultimate goal, says Cross, is to make auteur docs in the decades-old tradition established by the National Film Board. ‘Because TV had taken over as the delivery model, films are now made according to the journalistic process. But we are more old school and these kinds of films take time.’
EyeSteel is able to make time-consuming films on the cheap because they don’t rely on much outside help, says Cross. ‘We don’t have to spend much on post-production because [the staff] know how to do it,’ he says.
The company also relies on broadcast and international sales and partnerships with organizations such as the National Film Board, which coproduced Up the Yangtze, says Cross. Chairman George was produced in association with CTV, BBC Storyline and TV2 Denmark.
But the pay at EyeSteel, it appears, isn’t great. ‘We have to convince people they haven’t left film school yet,’ quips Aung-Thwin.