There’s a big bowl of lollies on the front counter at the hotel where Wellingtonian filmmakers Mark and Louis are staying in Paris. They’re obviously not for eating though – after rifling through to find the good flavours, the receptionist gives me such a hateful look I almost apologise and put them back. Almost.
In true Kiwi fashion, Mark and Louis are late. When they do arrive, it’s all big smiles, “Kia oras,” shorts, tee shirts and jandals. This is funny because I was told to wear a suit. They’re trailed by an official-looking French girl who isn’t quite as amused as I am. She mentions a number of times that they need to go upstairs and get changed. They do so. Five minutes later, they’re back downstairs in black suits and black shirts.
Mark and Louis are here in Paris for a special invitation-only event celebrating short film directors who have won prizes in their home countries (our boys took out the Qantas Media Award for The Six Dollar Fifty Man). The group’s a ragtag bunch of misfits from all over: New Zealand, Australia, Mexico, Ireland, Spain and Sardinia. All men, all chattering like old mates, all total film geeks. Three are former Academy nominees, one a winner. Mark and Louis have 13 awards under their belts, 10 for The Six Dollar Fifty Man, three for Run. The Oscars are next.
I once heard somebody define a comedy as a tragedy told in a funny way, and that’s as good a description of The Six Dollar Fifty Man as I can find. It’s the story of a young outsider. An odd little boy who lives inside his own head, bullied and misunderstood by his peers and teachers, shown kindness by one beautiful girl and his eccentric school principal. It’s engaging, heart breaking and utterly relatable no matter where you grew up.
Tonight’s schedule is thus: a very short stop off at the screening, where each of the directors will introduce themselves and their film; then a mad dash across town to the UNESCO building where the French Film Commission is hosting a dinner to introduce the directors to local film stars. We’re late.
Like multi-ethnic sardines, we’re jammed into a minivan. As we fly past Paris monuments (the Arc de Triomphe, Grand Opera, Galleries LaFayette), Mark tells me about making The Six Dollar Fifty Man. “It took several years to write, seven days to shoot and eight weeks to edit.” Oscar Vandy-Connor, who plays the title role, was cast first, then the hunt was on for his leading lady. “Oscar liked Selina straight away. There was immediate chemistry. He thought she was pretty hot,” says Mark. The attraction lasted a day. “Selina got annoyed with Oscar because he was on set the whole time and Oscar was annoyed because Selina got to hang out in the green room.”
Our van gets stuck behind a rubbish truck collecting individual bins on a one lane street. The Spaniard begins to panic. A snap decision is made. We run. In true Kiwi fashion, Mark and Louis walk. Regardless, we arrive 15 minutes early.
These festivals are paramount to the success of a film. A good hit rate raises the chance of a distribution deal, and assists in the road to Oscar nomination. Many of the larger events are recognised by the American Academy and a certain amount of awards is required for Oscar eligibility. Mark and Louis need one more win. Their main focus right now though, is starting production on their first feature.
Titled Shopping, it’s Louis’ autobiographical story of life as a teenaged shoplifter in a small town on the Kapiti Coast. They’re on a funding tour right now, and they’re looking for 10% more money than the traditional New Zealand feature. “We want to workshop the script with the actors before we start,” says Louis. “It makes for a more expensive film budget, but it really pays off in the end.”
Arriving at the UNESCO building, a mere stone’s throw from the glittering Eiffel Tower, we’re escorted through metal detectors and x-ray machines by large men in blue security uniforms. In true Kiwi fashion, Mark and Louis greet them with a gidday. But this is serious business, their smiles are not returned.
Up on the seventh floor, there’s a sign-in list and four or five paparazzi standing in front of a yellow backdrop. The crowd is a who’s who of French actors, actresses and producers, but none of us have ever seen them before. The purpose of dinner is for the directors to be courted by the French film fraternity in the hopes that they will one day incorporate some of the local talent in their projects.
I’m seated next to Louis, and our table includes the 20 year old male lead of French comedy hit LOL, a couple of smooth looking producers, an agent and two ladies from Renault, one of the more generous supporters of French cinema. Mark is at the next table over, surrounded by four ridiculously attractive actresses.
All the French conversation surrounding us gives me a chance to talk to Louis. What is it that makes The Six Dollar Fifty Man relatable to people from such different backgrounds? “Children are universal,” he tells me, “and so are stories. All around the world people get stories. The story of a young kid struggling is universal. People either experienced it or they saw it happening. They’re either empathetic or they’re sympathetic.” What are the ingredients that make a film work? “The success of a film is based on three things – great subject matter, a strong narrative and compelling characters. If you’ve got those three things, you’ve got a good shot.”
It’s a David and Goliath scenario – a couple of New Zealanders taking on the world. But in true Kiwi fashion, their zealous ambitions are summed up in one modest sentence. “We just want to tell stories,” says Louis. Judging by the success of their first two efforts, one can only assume they’ll be stories the world will want to hear.
(This article was originally printed in The Dominion Post.)
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