Inspired by Margaret MacMillan’s bestselling book, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World, the Canada-France coproduction Paris 1919 takes a microscope to a singular peace treaty in the screen version. The film’s director, Paul Cowan, talks to realscreen about the challenges of making the doc and learning to close the book in order to make the film.
The film originated with the National Film Board of Canada and Montreal-based Galafilms both showing an interest in the book so they formed a joint partnership, acquired the film rights and gained French production company 13 Production as a coproduction partner. A search for the film’s director ended with Paul Cowan, who quickly went to work adapting the book for film.
‘Making the film was actually the easy part. Finding the money was not the easy part,’ says Cowan, who details a long and rocky process where the film would’ve originally cost five to six million dollars with an 80/20 ratio of drama to documentary.
‘Over the course of the next three years or so it became a much different project with a budget of two million dollars or so and became a film which was about 50% drama and 50% documentary,’ says Cowan.
Many broadcast partners also came on board, including ARTE France, TVO, SBS, TV Australia and YLE Teema Finland. ‘Finding a lot of partners is just necessary these days with money being tight and this was even pre-recession,’ says Cowan. He found juggling a number of different interests and finding something that would please various stakeholders to be a challenge. ‘Every partner wanted different things, especially with something like this where many of the countries had a particular point of view of what happened in Paris, and therefore what they would like to be seen in the film,’ says Cowan.
The lengthy tome also didn’t make for an easy translation to film. Cowan learned to adapt a ‘Close the book and just forget about it’ attitude, opting to ‘write a film that’s going to work as a film… In the end, the amount of material you can put in a 90-minute film is probably about 20 pages worth of the book, and [this] book was almost 600 pages.’
The film focuses on the story of negotiating the German Peace Treaty, just one peace treaty negotiated in Paris at that time. Luckily, the team had a wealth of archival material to choose from.
‘We did the archival at the beginning, whereas usually you do it to fill in the holes at the end,’ he says. ‘We found the archival material which we thought would work and then the drama [was able] to flow seamlessly in and out of the documentary sequences.’
Cowan thankfully has all of those challenges behind him now. Toronto’s Hot Docs festival will screen Paris 1919 this week.