The missing link: Gedeon, by Catherine Rubin, writer/producer
Cultural difference is very real. Although partners in a co-production may share a language, basic assumptions about how to do business – or even tell a story – can vary greatly from country to country.
Rio La Venta was a partnership between three different countries: Italy, France and the u.s. Although there was sometimes tension between the two production companies (Italian and French) about methods and budget, all in all the production went smoothly. And though the structure of the coproduction increased the amount of work, it also enabled us to invest more in the quality of the film. The most visible benefits of the coproduction are the spectacular shots made with a motorized hot-air balloon.
The project was initiated by Paneikon, an Italian company which held the rights to what promised to be a fascinating expedition. Originally, they planned to make an adventure story, with a Mexican cave specialist as the main character. Stephane Millière, president of Gedeon, was debating joining them in a coproduction, but felt the film should focus more on archaeology. I was hired by Millière to do the research and write a proposal.
After the trip to Mexico where I met the archaeologists, it was clear that there was a wonderful science/adventure film to be made. Thomas Lee, the American archaeologist, was passionate, charismatic and a wonderful storyteller. The Italians would have liked to see the story of the cave specialists in the foreground, but when nova picked up the project, the matter was settled.
At this point, Antoine de Maximy was hired to direct the film, and I was to work to with him as writer/producer. As a French-American who has spent an equal amount of time in both countries, I think I have a solid understanding of both cultures and the different ways of thinking and working.
It seems to me that the main difference between French and American documentaries is the narrative element. Americans invest much more in research and development to ensure a compelling story will emerge from the material. The French tend to prioritize cinematographic aspects more, such as the quality of the image and imparting the sensation of what it’s like to be there.
Antoine was not keen on research, and I was happy to take over this aspect of the film. As a team, we were very complementary. We worked together closely in the development of the script, preparation of the shoot and in the editing room. There were times when I would insist upon something and Antoine would look at me as if I were crazy, but he’d always try it, and if it worked, he was always happy to put it in the film. If Rio La Venta is a success, it’s due not only to Antoine’s talents as a filmmaker, but also to his openness. He worked hard to understand the logic of American storytelling, and did a great job in utilizing the best of both the American and French documentary styles.
Once we had a rough cut of the French version, we went to Boston for a week to do the nova version. It was interesting to see all the back and forth between the two. In the end, the differences are not really that significant. Initially, there was a sense that the structure of the nova version would change a lot, but, once in the editing room, the nova producers began to see the logic behind what we had done. Antoine and I had spent a lot of time reworking the story based on the rushes: unexpected discoveries had been made during the shoot.
In Boston, many of the sequences were tightened, the pace of the film was quickened and interviews with Lee were added. A lot of improvements were made, and many were later brought to the French version as well. Antoine ended up adding interviews to the French version which he initially didn’t even want to shoot. In France, interviews in a foreign language aren’t encouraged; the feeling is that you might as well say it in the commentary. But in this case, they added another dimension to the film. The bottom line is that a good story almost always crosses cultural boundaries.