Producers help directors navigation overseas challenges

Eye on the Oscars 2013: Foreign Language

On the surface, the five Oscar foreign-language film nominees couldn’t be more different, including the story of a girl soldier in a central African state (“War Witch”), a political intrigue with a forbidden romance (“A Royal Affair”), the end of a regime seen through an ad man’s eyes (“No”), an intimate drama about an elderly couple (“Amour”) and a high-seas survival tale of epic proportions (“Kon-Tiki”).

Varied as the results may be, each of these projects exists because dedicated producers fought to get the pics prepped, finished and out to the public, working out finances and logistics that allowed the various directors to tell their stories.

For Canada’s “War Witch,” Marie-Claude Poulin and Pierre Even of Item 7 faced the challenge of overseeing a shoot in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Poulin and Even each spent one of the two months of shooting in the unstable African state.

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“Nobody could go anywhere on their own,” Poulin says. “We had to have drivers available for everybody and make sure people lived in a safe place.”

Even says during one day of shooting, just before leaving a poor location, the crew’s last truck was blocked by a large crowd of people gathering. At the advice of the driver, they threw money to buy time and get out.

Overcoming a different set of challenges, the producers of Denmark’s “A Royal Affair” succeeded in financing a stunning 18th-century drama in a relatively small country. Although the average budget for a Danish-language production is approximately $3.5 million, this period piece cost $8.5 million, per Sisse Graum Jorgensen of Zentropa Productions.

The film came to life thanks to a co-production agreement with Sweden, Germany and the Czech Republic, where most of the film was shot. Also a producer on 2010 Oscar winner “In a Better World,” Jorgensen headed the financing effort for “A Royal Affair.” Meta Louise Foldager developed the project, and Louise Vesth got the film finished and out to audiences.

The success of “A Royal Affair” reps a particularly impressive accomplishment for Denmark because of the genre. The market for European period pieces is incredibly competitive, “especially when you are a Dane,” says Vesth. “We don’t do these films that often.”

While “A Royal Affair” explores a moment in Danish history over 200 years ago, Chile’s “No” depicts events many locals remember from their lifetimes. Producing with the aid of L.A.-based Daniel Dreifuss, Juan de Dios Larrain (brother of director Pablo) tackled unique logistical challenges working on the account of the 1988 campaign to oust dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

The pic seamlessly combines fictional material, shot on a 1983 U-matic video camera with archival footage. The Larrain brothers’ company Fabula had a team to ensure the filmmakers had the proper licenses and permission necessary to use the real images from the period, resulting in hundreds of hours’ worth of material to sift through.

“We had footage from France, from the United States, from Chile,” says Juan de Dios Larrain. “We didn’t know who shot some of the footage, so we had to figure out who did and contact them.”

In addition to their archival video research, the filmmakers also interviewed individuals involved in the actual No campaign. Knowing Chilean auds would bring their own perspectives on the events to the theater, both brothers wanted to be as educated as possible.

The subject matter of Austria’s “Amour” was also tricky for its producers. Margaret Menegoz found that some elder moviegoers and broadcasters did not want to see or show a film dealing with the death of a loved one: “A French TV station was afraid to broadcast the film,” she says. “Normally old age and illness are taboo, so I had to fight with them.”

Menegoz produced Michael Haneke’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner with Stefan Arndt, Veit Heiduschka and Michael Katz. She has worked with the writer-director for 12 years, including on the 2009 Oscar nominee “The White Ribbon.”

She enjoys her close working partnership with Haneke, saying her job as a producer is “very easy because he knows exactly what he wants to do.”

On Norway’s “Kon-Tiki,” the project originated with producer Jeremy Thomas, who started developing it in 1996 when he contacted Johan Stenersen, the Norwegian publisher with the rights to Thor Heyerdahl’s story.

Thomas originally envisioned a Hollywood epic with big stars and a $50 million-$70 million budget. But a decade later, he recast the film as a Norwegian production with the help of the distributor Nordisk and producer Aage Aaberge. Thanks to European funds, advances in visual effects and a smart production plan, they were able to make the film for just $15 million — still high by local standards.

“I couldn’t have made the film for the price, but the Norwegians make films a very special way,” Thomas says. “I’ve had people seen the film, great directors who are friends of mine, and they don’t believe how much it cost.”

Getting “Kon-Tiki” made was especially important to Thomas because of a promise he made to the real-life scientist and adventurer.

“I promised Thor Heyerdahl, before he died, that I would make a film that would have a worldwide audience. His wife (Jacqueline Beer) reminded me of that when I spoke to her on the phone just last week.”

Though it is typically the director who accepts the prize, as in Oscar’s best picture category, these achievements also reflect the contributions of their producers.

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