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WALTON CREATES A MODERN ROMANCE BY FLIPPING THE GENDER ROLES IN “THE DATING RING”

Boxers are tough. They are visceral creatures who are quick to physical action and known for few words (with the possible exception of Muhammad Ali) and disconnected from their emotions. The antithesis of this type of person is the calm, well learned, and eagerly helpful librarian. Those who find themselves in this profession are soft spoken professionals who appreciate a good razor for their beard. Wait…were you thinking of a female librarian and possibly a male boxer? Sarah Walton was likely hoping you would make this mistake when she wrote the screenplay for the film The Dating Ring. This film flips the gender roles that we have come to expect. Exploring the dynamic of a relationship between a female boxer and a male librarian, Sarah wanted to challenge both herself and the audience to see these characters as unique and not just another gender assumption. The Dating Ring won worldwide acclaim and was an Official Selection for the Lumiere Film Festival, Italy (2015). Romantic Italians loved the idea which Walton presented that every female/male relationship should be considered at face value; a lesson we’d all be better off learning. Sarah has a pedigree which includes many romantic comedies but The Dating Ring presents its action with a goal of making the viewer ponder just as much as being entertained. The ultimate question asked by this film is, “What is strength?”

When Sarah went through a bad break-up and experienced a betrayal, she did what all artists do…she created. She saw her own dating experience as combative and took the pugilist metaphor to a literal place in her screenplay. To make a clean break from her normal romantic comedy method, she wrote the initial draft without dialogue to challenge herself. This approach gave her a radically different tone for the film and exhibited a fresh approach for Walton. The gender role switch of the two main characters might sound odd on paper but works amazingly well on screen, no doubt due to the incredible performances of Emily Goddard (Shayne) and Nick Farnell (Benji). Shayne is a thirty-three-year-old female boxer, bred by her retired boxing champion mother to be a fighter but it was never Shayne’s passion. She has a maternal mother inside her dying to get out, but her tough exterior and mannerisms belie her true desire for intimacy. Benji is a gentle and compassionate man in his mid 30’s, raised by his strong single mother and two older sisters who taught him the importance of strength and compassion after they escaped from his con artist father. His Achilles heel is being lied to because he watched his mother cry herself to sleep night after night as a result of his father’s lies. He wants true love, not a ruse. Walton states, “In society, the pressure for males and females to focus predominantly on their masculine or feminine traits can be psychologically unhealthy for us as individuals, our self-expression, and the way we interact with one another. Gender role reversal in film challenges this division and promotes equality for the sexes. Within a melodramatic film it’s difficult to stray from the traditional expression and repression of female characters in stereotypical feminine behavior, in which non-diegetic music plays a role. A way of solving that problem is gender role reversal. Steering away from the historical portrayal of masculine and feminine in film will allow us to challenge stereotypes and potentially ease the pressure for men and women to feel limited by their genders in society.”

Donna Hensler (Supervising Producer on The Dating Ring) Recognized the magic in Sarah’s script immediately. She recalls, “As soon as I picked up the script for The Dating Ring I was captured by the voice of the lead character Shayne; a female boxer struggling with the trials and tribulations of love. Sarah’s writing, though commercial and mainstream, is extremely honest and original. She thinks outside the box and isn’t afraid to take a risk. Sarah is a passionate story teller and her stories reflect her unique view of the world and positive view of humanity which is perfectly suited to the romantic comedy genre.”

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The core of The Dating Ring is designed around fighting. The reveal of the plot is that what you think you are fighting for may not be what you really should be fighting for. With 10 years out of the dating game, Shayne gets back in the ring. She’s training for a big fight and she’s losing her game, so focus is imperative. Her boxing coach mother lets her in on the family secret to winning championships…sex the night before the fight, because it will help her loosen up and focus on the game. Shane meets a male librarian named Benji to whom she is surprisingly attracted. The fact that he’s a male librarian and has a child (she thinks children are the devil) intimidates her, causing her insecurities to flair. She struggles to break the ice with him and finds herself acting out and screaming obscenities like a Tourette’s syndrome victim. Before she knows it she has a fist full of lies to cover up and she’s in too deep. Her fighting increasingly suffers culminating in a choice between the sport she’s loved her whole life and the man of her dreams. When they kiss for the first time Shayne reveals her true self. Benji, hurt that she lied, breaks into tears. She does what any woman in her position would do…she runs off to the boxing ring for the big game. Shayne finds herself in the ring and set up for the wining punch but she can’t do it anymore. Her love for Benji has changed her and she feels compassion for the first time in a long time. She throws in her boxing gloves right then and there with the realization that gentleness is strength.

Just as profound as the role reversal for this story is the idea presented that we cannot judge ourselves by the way that others see us. For Shayne, it is her judgmental and pushy mother who envisions an idea of what her daughter’s life should be. Discovering your sense of self is a thread that runs through much of Walton’s writing. Consider this piece that she penned about other well-known romantic comedy characters of present times; Sarah wrote, “Bridget Jones perfected the art of imperfection.  We love watching her and characters like Carrie Bradshaw, Nina Proudman, or Ted Mosby take chances, put themselves out there and fall down (often literally) because when they make mistakes it makes us feel better about our failures.  It reassures us that it’s okay to be flawed. Mistakes and failures are merely learning curves and opportunities for growth.  Bridget and her fellow imperfectionists show us how making mistakes can lead to happiness because they always succeed in the end.  But what if happiness isn’t at the end of the film or T.V. series.  What if happiness is right now?  Not when we get that dream job, lose weight, finish a degree, earn more money, find a partner, have a baby or move house… but right now. If success is happiness and we can only achieve true happiness through mistakes and failures, then surely we should be welcoming and celebrating failure rather than trying to avoid it?  I know I’ve made a million mistakes and I’ll make a million more.  And I wouldn’t change a single one because they are part of what has gotten me here… And here is pretty great.”

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There is a deluge of romantic comedies to choose from if you want to be entertained and feel good. If you want all of the former as well as to be challenged to consider who we are as individuals rather than easily categorized tropes, watch a film that was written by Sarah Walton.

Young Ambition Leads to International Success for Duarte ‘Duda’ Figueira

Duarte 'Duda' Figueira
Production Coordinator Duarte ‘Duda’ Figueira

Whether it’s being in the right place at the right time, unceasing ambition and unwillingness to slow down after hearing a dreaded ‘no,’ or a combination of the two, some people discover their dreams and go to work paving the way for them to come true much earlier than most of the population.

Like the inspirational and semi-autobiographical story Cameron Crowe brought to life in the Oscar Award winning film Almost Famous, which follows a talented teenage journalist who joins the band Stillwater on tour in the 70s and covers the journey for Rolling Stone, music industry aficionado Duarte ‘Duda’ Figueira experienced a similar rise to success back home in Portugal at the ripe age of 16.

Today Duda, as he is known affectionately throughout the industry, is known for his impressive achievements as a production coordinator and major force behind some of Portugal’s best known artists such as reggae/dance hall singer Richie Campbell, the rapper Regula and producer Lhast, to name a few.

Duda, who is now 26, took a leap of faith in his early teens and reached out to Lisbon’s leading reggae promoter at the time, Fernando Cabral, with an e-mail pitch that would come to change his life forever. Duda knew the market for reggae music in Portugal was huge, but he felt that the information about reggae events was not reaching the country’s fans as effectively as it should– so he offered himself up as a flyer boy. He was immediately given a one-time job postering the cities with flyers about an upcoming concert featuring the bands No Joke Sound, Stepacide, and the one and only Gregory Isaacs who sadly passed away in 2010.

“My mom drove me there. I got a chance to meet [Cabral] and the rest of the partners, and I was given a bunch of flyers and posters, and a guarantee of having a free ticket for the show. And that was great!,” recalls Duda.

The following week what began as a one-time job turned into much more when, fuelled by a rare level of confidence for someone his age, Duda decided to pop over to Cabral’s office to thank him for the ticket, have a chat about music, and ultimately offer his services on the public relations side of the business. There he was introduced to the members of the band No Joke Sound, who were on site recording a live set.

“As an aspiring Selector and MC, bumping into them was kind of a ‘star-struck’ moment,” admits Duda. “The moment I walked in Fernando said to them ‘this is the kid that sent the email!.’ They were surprised.”

The band members’ understandable surprise at seeing a kid so young walk nonchalantly into the country’s leading music promotion agency with big ideas of how they could better reach their target audience quickly faded once Duda began to speak about the music industry and what fans were looking for, but not necessarily getting. Duda exchanged contacts with No Joke Sound member Bernardo “Ben” Miranda, who subsequently invited him to come along the following week to the No Mercy Soundclash, Portugal’s first ever reggae soundclash event.

“I met Ben’s cousin, Gonçalo Leitão, also known as ‘Krpan.’ After the event, we went to Ben’s house, and inside of his kitchen, Ben looked at both of us and said: ‘You and you! You are going to have a sound system together.’ And the rest is history… From that week until today, Ben has been my ultimate mentor. He was the one who pushed me to have a career in music,” Duda recalls fondly.

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Krpan (left), Duda and Lhast (right) of Fyah Box Sound

At only 17 Duda, along with Ben’s cousin Krpan, created Fyah Box Sound, a reggae/dancehall sound system, which is a style of music collective that originated in Jamaica and includes a DJ,  MC and engineer. Duda geniously developed the “Triple Threat” concept for Fyah Box, a series of weekly videos that include everything from artists freestyling to debut song releases. Upon inception the concept helped make Fyah Box a huge success in Portugal, and it has since become a leading source of music for reggae and dancehall fans across the world.

Building Fyah Box Sound up from the ground floor, Duda created a recognizable name for the collective by bringing in world-renowned artists such as Anthony B, Ikaya, Richie Campbell, Regula, Short Size, Blasph, Dillaz, Xeg, JLZ, Kristoman, DJ Nelassassin and several others to collaborate. What started as a reggae/dance hall collective quickly turned into a cross-cultural music platform thanks to Duda’s decision to open the collective to other styles of music such as  R&B, rap, and hip hop.

Now, a decade later, Duda has definitely carved out a prominent position in Portugal’s music scene as a highly sought after production coordinator. Considering the extent of what he does for the artists and projects he oversees, which includes everything from working as a booking agent, manager, fashion advisor and lead A&R man, Duda’s production coordinator title is the only one that fits, as he coordinates literally everything that goes into both the planning of a production and the artist’s overall career.

A year after starting Fyah Box Sound, Duda began working as the production coordinator for Portuguese artist Richie Campbell, who started the band Stepacide and was also a member of No Joke Sound prior to going solo. With Duda production coordinating everything from planning releases, coordinating events, deciding on singles and album art, and crafting his image and musical approach, Campbell has been met with incredible international success as a solo artist.

Richie Campbell’s manager Bernardo “Ben” Miranda explains, “Duarte is someone we know we can always count on for both the creative and strategic process as well as the execution. Over the past 9 years that we’ve worked together it was a joy to see him grow into the person and the professional he is today. His ambition, creativity, commitment, loyalty and organization make him one of the most desirable professionals in the Portuguese music industry.”

Duarte 'Duda' Figueira
Duarte ‘Duda’ Figueira (left) and Richie Campbell (right) in Berlin

As Campbell’s A&R and production coordinator, Duda has played a major role in the production and release of each of the artist’s albums since 2010, including “My Path,” “Focused,” and “In the 876,” as well as Campbell’s 2010 EP “Richie Campbell” and the album and accompanying DVD “Live at Campo Pequeno.” Fans across Portugal went wild upon the release of Campbell’s 2015 album “In the 876,” which quickly topped charts and became No. 1 on the digital store sales chart within a few hours of its release– something that hadn’t been seen in the country since the release of Beyonce’s 2013 self-titled album.

Over the years Duda has also production coordinated a slew of high-profile events featuring Campbell, such as Campo Pequeno 2011 and 2013, Sumol Summer Fest 2012, which pulled in 25,000 people, as well as Sudoeste 2013 and Festival do Crato 2013, which each had more than 50,000 people attend– astronomically large numbers for Portugal!

Duarte ‘Duda’ Figueira

In 2016 Duda was the A&R man on Campbell’s hit song “Do You No Wrong,” which has garnered over 10 million views on YouTube, and earned a Gold and Platinum Award on the Portuguese market. A major hit in Portugal, “Do You No Wrong” was produced by Lhast, who Duda also works with as a production coordinator. Duda also coordinated the release of the artist’s 2017 single “Heaven,” as well as the music video, which has garnered more than two million views since being release at the tail end of April.

Campbell says, “What I appreciate the most about working with Duda is his versatility as a career advisor/manager and the way he can balance a deep understand of the current music business while never forgetting that an artist needs to be in touch with his audience. This enables him to provide great input on how an artist should work the business aspect of his career without ever jeopardizing the relationship with his fans.”

In 2014 Duda formed Bridgetown Talent Agency with Bernardo Miranda, Afonso Ferreira and Richie Campbell. Today Bridgetown Talent Agency, which has become one of the most successful booking agencies in Portugal, represents a wide range of artists including Dengaz, Mishlawi, Curt Davis, Plutonio, DJ Dadda and the comedians Luís Franco-Bastos and Pedro Teixeira da Mota.

In 2015 Duda also started DGF Agency, an imprint agency that handles counseling, A&R, management, releases, PR and promotions for its artists. Some of the major artists Duda oversees as a production coordinator through DGF include Lhast, Karetus, Krativ and Andre Melo. He is also working as a lead production coordinator and A&R man at Rebeleon Entertainment where he is handling the release of several upcoming albums, EPs and a few highly anticipated singles for artists such as La Santa Cecilia, Gloria Trevi, Alejandra Guzman, Mon Laferte, and Enjambre.

A well-known name throughout the U.S. music industry, Rebeleon Entertainment partnered with BMI last year to produce the 6th Annual ‘Los Producers’ event in Las Vegas during the Grammy Awards, which included performances from Latin Grammy nominees and music from other trendsetters in the Latin music industry.

After 10 years in the industry Duarte ‘Duda’ Figueira has not only managed to rise to the top of the music industry in Portugal and make his name known across the world, but he continues to bring the same level of fervor and adept skill to every project he takes on.

In the end Duda says, “I would love to look back to my career and feel proud of the work that I have put in, the results of it, and the impression that it had on society. Hopefully someone can feel inspired to create more and take some energy out of my experiences.”

 

JOHN ALBANIS BECOMES A GLOBAL SENSATION WITH HECTOR AND THE SEARCH FOR HAPPINESS

There are times when you hear about someone taking on a task so difficult, so trying, that you wonder, “Why would you put yourself through this?” Mind you, we’re not talking 127 Hours/James Franco difficult. The film Hector and the Search for Happiness (starring Simon Pegg as Hector) is truly a global experience in terms of the action on the screen and the filmmakers journey to create it. A virtually army of professionals (numbering nearly 600) shot on four different continents, dealing with differing time zones, languages, and currencies to create this masterpiece. To coordinate as well as lend creativity required a very special producer, which is exactly what John Albanis defines. The film’s director, Peter Chelsom, brought John onto this project because of his practically inhuman ability to coordinate and facilitate, all while lending an artistic eye. In order to keep the integrity of the script, a number of producers contributed financially to the film while Albanis’s role was to be the “boots on the ground” in charge. Attesting to the accomplishment of the film’s intact vision are the many awards and nominations it received. These include: 2015 nominated for a Canadian Screen Award, 2015 Leo Awards – nominated Best Motion Picture, nominated Best Production Design in a Motion Picture, nominated Best Musical Score in a Motion Picture, and many others (including a win “Jury Prize” for Peter Chelsom at the Monte-Carlo Comedy Film Festival and a win for Best Foreign Comedy Trailer by the Golden Trailer Awards). A truly stellar cast including: Simon Pegg, Rosamund Pike, Toni Collette, Stellan Skarsgard, Christopher Plummer, Jean Reno, and others was required to deliver incredible performances. Peter Chelsom was required to direct and guide the performances while Kolja Brandt captured them on camera. All of this would have been for naught if John Albanis had not set the table perfectly for all of these artists…and the table required was massive!

When Chelsom requested Albanis to join the film as a producer, it was primarily because of their successful work history (the two have worked together on multiple feature films). When you are about to spend a year of your life biting off more than you can chew, you want someone you trust sitting next to you chewing even faster than yourself. Proving that he was much more than a coordinator or purse string guardian, the relationship between John and Peter would be based on encouraging and advising creatively. Albanis notes, “I had a history of working with Peter and by this point, we’d also become close friends. I wanted Peter to bring more of his personal artistry into this film. I’m a huge fan of his early two films, which were European indies: Hear My Song and Funny Bones. His direction is masterful in those films because the tone is so unique to him. The films he’s made in Hollywood are also fantastic (and certainly financially successful), but they didn’t showcase everything that Peter was capable of achieving. For Hector, Peter needed to get back to his roots and be more creative. This mandate spilled into every decision we made. A lot of the more creative aspects of the film were brainstormed between us early on. A good example of this is the treatment of Hector’s travel journal, which we decided to animate because it afforded us some wonderful thematic and editorial transitional opportunities.”

It’s impossible to separate the diversity of stories in Hector and the Search for Happiness from the diverse situations in which the production was placed to create it. The essence of the story is that Hector (Simon Pegg) is a psychiatrist who feels disillusioned by the mundane nature of his life and emotional experience. On a quest for his own happiness, he seeks out what it is that cultivates this emotion in others. He travels the planet, interacting with and experiencing lifestyles and people completely unlike himself…only to discover that the source of happiness was always with him. The filmmakers were insistent on not using soundstage trickery to “resemble” the feel of each location, meaning that the production travelled to each location, spanning the planet with John Albanis leading the charge. Because he was in charge of scouting locations, this meant that John travelled the globe twice for this film. He explains, “We felt it was crucial to the film’s success to physically go to each country to follow Hector’s journey. And yes…we all wanted to prove it could be done. Hector was an extremely ambitious project with a modest budget — yet we still managed to film across 7 countries and 4 continents including: Vancouver (Canada), London (UK), Johannesburg (S. Africa), Shanghai (China), Los Angeles (USA), Ledakh (India), and Germany. From the very beginning, we viewed it as four indie films that made up one larger story.” A larger studio may have requested a different tone for the film so, rather than rob it of its heart…multiple entities were called upon to aid a financial hand to the artistic integrity. Ultimately, London’s Bankside Films understood the filmmakers vision and agreed with it.

Travelling to exotic destinations with world famous actors may seem glamorous, and it is at times. Producing is a demanding job that requires a clear head and split second decisions at times, especially when in foreign lands. Sometimes the situation calls for a calm demeanor in the most troubling of circumstances. Relating a particularly unsettling experience during the filming of Hector and the Search for Happiness, Albanis recalls, “There’s a section in the film where Hector travels to a Tibetan monastery. We were originally going to film the monastery sequence in rural China. During my initial scout, I sourced the most beautiful monastery in the remote Kangding, Sichuan region of China, which we’d planned to shoot immediately after Shanghai. However, upon arriving at the location, there was unrest between the local monks and the Chinese military police (unrelated to us), so we could no longer film there. This was disastrous for the film and a horrible way to end the production. We went on a hiatus for a few months to game plan how (and where) we were going to film the monastery sequence, which was pivotal to the story. Ultimately, we discovered similar-looking monasteries in Ledakh, India. However, by this time, due to budgetary restraints and cast availability, we were unable to get our entire crew to India. So we decided that I would go to India to produce and direct all of our wide exterior shots, working with a 100% Indian crew and casting a double for Hector (Simon Pegg). I then met back with the rest of the crew along with our cast in the Bavarian Alps in Germany to shoot the interiors, mid-shots, and close-up shots. Coordinating how these shots worked together was quite complicated and each shot had to be precise and storyboarded in great detail.”

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Hector and the Search for Happiness is a warm and tender film yet; it is also uncomfortable. What happens to Hector and those around him is sometimes joyful and affirming and sometimes frightening and unsettling. The adage, “It’s about the journey, not the destination” is accurate and somehow too simplistic to convey the tempering which we humans need to be forged into thankful creations. If the experience solidifies a sense of self, then John Albanis might be the most actualized producer in the film industry today as a result of Hector and the Search for Happiness.

ALEXANDRA HARRIS HAS AND DOES NOT HAVE “MISSED CONNECTIONS”

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Sometimes when things go wrong it can be very right. Consider Alexandra Harris. By all accounts people who know her consider her to be very positive and upbeat. There’s no implication of a duplicitous nature in regards to Harris but, opposites can play very well in cinema. As an acclaimed actress in a wide variety of productions, she exhibits all of the acting skill of the notable peers in her industry. The filmmakers of Missed Connections wanted to use Alexandra’s inherent goodness to drive a less amiable character in this production. Missed Connections is a Zero Film Festival Award-winner and was screened at esteemed events like the Raindance Film Festival and Cannes Film Festival. The protagonist of the film is Jamie (played by Joseph Cappellazzi), a man who gets ruthlessly dumped by his girlfriend Sophie (played by Harris). The fallout and aftermath leave him incredibly heartbroken and bitter. In an attempt to get back at the world (and to satiate his friends who tell him to start dating) he begins responding to the “Missed Connections” section of the paper, showing up to dates pretending to be the desired person…with less than fantastic results. Through this process, Jamie actually meets a girl he likes, Emma (played by Rebecca Perfect), and then has to come clean about what he’s done. Even more conflict arises when Jamie must decide whether he’s going to keep trying to get back together with Sophie or move on with someone new.

As Sophie, Jamie ex-girlfriend, Harris is cold but not completely unrelatable. Jamie has some maturing to do and the inherent likability which Alexandra possesses makes the audience question whether some of the blame falls upon his shoulders. It’s precisely because of this quality that Rory O’Donnell (casting director on Missed Connections) was adamant that Alexandra would bring depth to the character of Sophie. O’Donnell professes, “I knew she’d be a great fit. Here we were in London, with all these serious Brits and this bright bubbly American (yes, yes, I know she’s Canadian) came bouncing in and just sort of blew us all away. As a casting director, that’s what you hope for. She’s just very, very good, and very easy to work with. It’s quite simple really. She doesn’t make the production about herself and is able to roll with whatever punches may come her way.”

   Sophie has left Jamie bitter and heartbroken but instead of taking responsibility for his part in the failed relationship, he goes about trying to blame other people. Understanding that her portrayal could easily sway the view of Sophie in the eyes of the audience, Harris took care to present her as someone whom the audience could project their own ideas onto. She relates, “I saw Sophie as one of those girls with a five-year plan. The type of girl who knew where she wanted to be and was constantly evaluating herself and those around her to make sure she was on her way to achieving it. There’s nothing wrong with that but I think sometimes it makes people less flexible with the those who are in their lives. Sophie would describe herself as ‘career oriented’ for sure.”

While her performance is magnetic in Missed Connections, there were a few substantial hurdles for ALexandra to overcome in being cast for the film. It seemed highly unlikely that she would be Sophie in this production. Chris Presswell (writer and director of Missed Connections) confirms, When Rory O’Donnell (our casting director) read the script, he thought Alexandra would be great for Jamie’s love interest (Emma), however, I wanted to keep the cast British as it was supposed to be a British comedy. When Alexandra came in for a read through, I knew I wanted her in the film somehow. She’s such a talented actor, and also a genuinely good and decent person; the perfect combination. Rather than Emma, I liked the idea of her for Sophie (Jamie’s ex-girlfriend) because I knew she’d bring some vulnerability and depth to her. While Sophie’s technically the bad guy of the story, it’s boring if the audience flat out hates her; casting Alexandra was the perfect solution to that. It’s pretty hard to hate her. She’s also very fun to have on set and all that positivity was needed when shooting during the British winter as it gets dark at 4pm!”

To hear Harris tell it, the audition wasn’t as much of a cinch as the director implies. It is a testament to her abilities that an early misstep during the audition did not derail Presswell’s desire to use her in the film. It’s often said that bad choices lead to great stories and this aptly applies to Alexandra’s initial choice in the audition. Ever self-effacing, she reveals, “When I was called in, it was for Jamie’s love interest, Emma. Rory had told me it was supposed to be a British dark comedy, so I thought ‘Right, I’ll be British then.’ Keep in mind, I had only been living in the UK for about 6 months and was still under the impression that all British people sounded like Hugh Grant. I’d also never performed with a British accent (I played an American in The Last Man, which Rory had cast me in pretty much as soon as I arrived in the UK). I went in and did THE WORST British accent. It was cringe worthy. Chris was so polite and kept a straight face but I remember Rory just looking horrified. He was nice enough to take me aside and say gently ‘Why don’t you try it with your American accent.’ which I then did. I immediately felt the energy in the room change. Both Chris and Rory relaxed a lot! That experience is something that the two of them still tease me about to this day. The positive result was that I started taking accent work seriously, studying with a teacher and performing as a Brit towards the end of my time living there. I remember being so proud to invite Chris to my performance of ‘The Cherry Orchard’ where I was playing a British Charlotta and afterwards I questioned him and he just looked at me and said “Well, Alex, I’ll give it to you, for a second I thought you were British, but I’ll never forget your Emma”. It’s true what they say, first impressions are real!”

Missed Connections was Alexandra’s first time shooting in London and second time filming in the UK. Her first British film, The Last Man, was shot in the woods outside of London in Essex. Filming in London proper is a much different experience than in Essex, her Canadian homeland, or even Hollywood. The Brits are some of the best actors in the world and Harris took every advantage to soak up the experience of the unique British approach. UK productions are more grass roots and unpolished compared to other film centers, on purpose. The feeling on UK shoots of “we’re all in this together” permeates all levels of production. This lack of hierarchy was something to which Harris was unaccustomed but welcomed. This however does not mean that it was any less challenging. The actress notes, “Chris [Presswell] is soooo British. When I say that, I mean that he doesn’t’t suffer fools and really doesn’t overpraise. When he offers a compliment, it’s genuine and it means a lot. We were on the same page from the beginning so we didn’t’t have to talk about the character too much. I would say ‘I’ve been that girlfriend’ and he would say ‘I’ve dated that girl’ so we knew where to go from there. We knew we didn’t want Sophie to be a bitch but rather someone who was at their ropes end.”

The short days and the brutal London winter temperature were unsuccessful in squelching Alexandra’s well-known positivity. Through her performance and a shrewd stroke of casting, she presented Sophie as an emotionally complex character. What might have originally been a secondary antagonist for this film became a stand-out character which captivated audiences. Mentioning how being different was a prominent facet of her character and her involvement in Missed Connections, Harris recalls, “It became the running joke on set that I had to be called the ‘evil American’ because Canadian’s can’t be mean; however, I think my character proved them wrong.”

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Anja Ellam captivates audiences with her writing of new film “The Woods”

There is one thing about her that shines above all else: she is an entertainer. She is extremely multi-talented, and uses her writing and acting skills to captivate audiences around the world, whether through film, YouTube, or various social media platforms. There is truly no limit to what she can accomplish.

Ellam has tens of thousands of followers on her Instagram, with a strong impact on Twitter as well, and as an influencer has helped many companies and shows gain a following and audience. Working with AwesomenessTV, both her writing and influencing skills have boosted the show to have millions of views. With the extremely popular app, the ArsenicTV Snapchat story gets over 500,000 views daily, and as a host and influencer for the show, Ellam is a large part of that. However, it was with the film The Woods where Ellam’s impressive natural writing talents became truly evident to worldwide audiences.

“Relationships between siblings can be complicated, especially if they’re teenagers. I wanted to show why the older sister in the film was so angry, because this is a common conflict between sisters,” said Ellam.

The Woods tells the story of two sisters at a party, who get lost in the woods while leaving. The film is about two sisters who get lost in the woods while leaving a party. They quickly realize they’re lost and will have to work together to get out, and push through the fighting and angst between them.

“I wanted to do something simple: two characters, one location,” Ellam described. “The sisters’ relationship is based on my sisters and my relationship.”

Ellam wrote the film entirely by herself. Originally, she wanted to experiment with her writing and work on a project that her friends could be a part of. She wrote the script while trying to think of the simplest way to make a short, but the story developed the more she wrote.

“The story is all dialogue driven which is a fun challenge for me as a writer. I also ended up directing it, which is something I’m not familiar with but my team believed in me, and I did know the script and the vision, so I hope the viewers can see it too,” she said.

Viewers definitely see the vision. The film has gone on to be shown at several prestigious international film festivals.  After premiering at the UK Monthly Film Festival, Ellam won the new filmmakers award at the Mediterranean Film Festival (MedFF). It also was just selected as a semi-finalist for the Miami Epic Trailer Festival.

“It’s a really amazing feeling that the film has been so well-received. It’s one thing to write something that people like ,but actually making it and still having people want to watch it is really cool. I know that sounds weird to say, but we did this on a very small budget with only one shooting day. It’s nerve racking because if something doesn’t work it’s almost like you can’t redo it. I’m glad people think we were able to do a good job. It’s had to get your vision across so I’m glad people saw what we were going for,” Ellam said.

All those that worked with Ellam on the film immediately saw that she was an extraordinary writer, and all of the success that the film has received could never have been possible without the vision and talent she brought with her. Maxwell Peters, a Los Angeles based Screenwriter, Director, and Producer, produced The Woods. He says her commitment to the film made it the success that is it.

“Over the course of the past two years I’ve worked with Anja on multiple projects. Most recently I produced her short film The Woods, which she wrote and directed. Anja is easy to work with and had a firm grasp on what she was doing. She worked with her actors with ease and was able to get wonderful performances out of all of them, aside from that she was able to work with crew in an effective and efficient manner,” said Peters.

Even without all the accolades and awards, the experience of writing The Woods was unforgettable for Ellam. She knew what she wanted to do from the beginning, and using her creativity, she was able to make something unforgettable for audiences as well. The film even has a twist ending, which was just plain fun for Ellam to write.

“I liked writing the ending the best. I didn’t know how I was going to end it at first, but I knew I wanted it to be unexpected. I had a lot of fun experimenting with different ending options,” said Ellam. “I took this ending honestly because I think happy endings are boring. I considered having them not make it out but I thought leaving it a little more open ended was a bit more surprising. I love twist endings.”

Be sure to check out what happens to the two sisters by seeing Ellam’s fabulous work in The Woods.

VISHNU PERUMAL: EXPERIMENTING WITH EDITING

Vishnu Perumal loves editing. In fact, he loves it so much that he is constantly challenging himself. Yes, he challenges himself to do better and better work on each project but it goes much further than this. He is constantly seeking out new ways of using editing in a production. He is vigilant is this approach. Sometimes a unique idea comes from pondering and sometimes simply by coincidence. You have to keep your eyes open in order to spot your opportunity and Perumal has his eyes wide open. The old adage “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity” aptly applies to Perumal as he is constantly in search of differing ways to force himself to think outside the norm and how both he and the community view the role of an editor. Because of this, he often uses his work on smaller film productions to create an approach that he can access for larger ones. For this professional who has numerous award-winning productions vetting his abilities, complacency is a dirty word.

Something as mundane as listening to a friend describe a time when she accidentally hit the no tip button on her phone after getting a Lyft ride home sparked an idea for Vishnu. The discussion evolved into a debate on the virtues of tipping. Recognizing a universally relatable experience, Perumal decided to approach some of his fellow filmmakers and use it as a challenge to create a one-minute short. Vishnu would take a short story and condense it to a two act structure like that of a joke: setup and punchline. This was presented to a number of festivals that had a category for one minute films (like the Miami Short Film Festival). The film, titled Tipping Point, was a hit and proved that sometimes smaller is better.

The action of Tipping Point starts at a restaurant with a man and a woman in mid-conversation about the virtues of tipping. The man explains that he rarely tips, to which the woman begins to lecture him on the importance of tipping. The man begins to throw out scenarios on which no tipping may be fair, and mentions an outlandish one involving a horrible Lyft ride. Unbeknownst   to him, she had experienced that exact same scenario and in the end reveals to have accidentally pressed the no tip button after sneezing. Comedy, conflict, and a surprise reveal at the end…all within one minute! The impact of the performances cannot be communicated (a trait it shares with full length feature films) by a simple description; yet, what stands out here is the idea that Perumal is on a staunch search for ways to hone his craft.

Vishnu confirms that even in a film this, being succinct is a virtue. He states, “Brevity is a useful tool in editing short films, especially comedic ones. As in “Sexcapades” [the award-winning series on which Vishnu served as editor], brevity was used in this film to cut out all unimportant aspects, lines, moments, etc. When a film is stripped clean of all the fat and the spine of the narrative is laid bare, it becomes easier to add on moments and embellishments. Unlike “Sexcapades,” this film did not have the luxury of adding awkward moments. It was solely focused on getting the joke out as cleanly and efficiently as possible.” In a revealing statement about his constant quest for improvement, Perumal mentions, “If the story and concept of a film is simple and straightforward enough, you will be able to cut that down to however short you want it to be. Thinking back now, I may have been able to trim this one-minute cut to an even shorter 30 second cut.  This film was a really positive experience in my editing techniques and ability to focus on brevity. It has helped me identify how to trim the fat when editing pieces that seem too long winded or excessive.”

In a much darker subject matter, Vishnu utilized his talent on The Devil I Know. Inspired by a Jim Jones video (the infamous cult leader how led his followers of the People’s Temple to a mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana) the film saw Perumal using his editing skills to present the life of Jones in an anachronous order. In an approach similar to “found footage” the whole aspect and style of editing was instrumental in underlining the plot of this film. The result was a visually challenging story with an engaging narrative, leaving audiences mesmerized.

The film begins with the preacher amongst his congregation in the beginning of his sermon. As the sermon ramps up we witness cuts to a later point in his life where he meets up with a woman from the street. The two leave to an undisclosed location and make love. It is revealed (when the action returns to the original setting) that the woman is actually one of his congregation members. When the woman attempts to leave, the preacher won’t let her. As she fights back, the preacher becomes violent and strangles her to death. As the preacher stands over her body, the words from his sermon play in the background.

Vishnu comments, “The intention was to juxtapose the preacher’s private life with his public life, creating an initial sense of confusion for the audience. I wanted the audience to look through this initial sense of confusion and come to realize and identify what it is they are watching. By presenting the events out of chronological order, I also wanted to emulate the message that things aren’t always what they seem as well as the main character’s duplicity. Having the film told out of order also enabled a significant reveal of the female character as one of the congregation members.”

For those who wish to excel and succeed, constant self-assessment is a requirement. The professionals who are very good are challenged by the industry; those who are great challenge themselves and the industry. It is apparent which side of this Vishnu Perumal resides on.

ZHEN LI PRODUCES BRILLIANCE WITH WIT IN “GENGHIS KHAN CONQUERS THE MOON”

Genghis Khan photo for press articles 1

Genghis Kahn Conquers the Moon. The title of this film sounds…well, eccentric. Even its producer Zhen Li admits to being uncomfortable at first with the title and premise. He comments, “At the beginning, I though the idea was a bit bizarre, then I decided it was wacky instead of bizarre. It’s very bold to do a project about a well-known historic figure doing something against the historical fact. However, after reading the script and understanding what the metaphor implies, I abruptly changed this opinion. The story is special and unique with wit, humor, and intellectual sarcasm.” You don’t have to take the word of Li though; the achievements and recognitions of this film speak volumes. Genghis Kahn Conquers the Moon was an official selection at the Cannes Film Festival (France) 2016 (Short Film Corner), Sci-Fi Film Festival (Australia) 2015, Camerimage International Film Festival (Poland) 2016, The London International Festival of Science Fiction and Fantastic Films 2016, Los Angeles Independent Film Festival Awards 2015, Taipei Film Festival (台北電影節) 2017 Nominated for Best Short Film, Los Angeles Independent Film Festival Awards 2015 [Best Actor], and a 20th Century Fox Visual Effects Fellowship 2015 Recipient, and countless others too numerous to list. This diverse list of accolades attests to both the exceptional story and production as well as its universal appeal to different cultures spanning the globe. Celebrated actors James Hong and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa perform as the two main characters (Kahn and the wizard) in this film and bring the weight of their impressive Hollywood resumes to this production. Zhen Li’s confident and experienced presence is felt in every aspect of this film from the performers onscreen to its presence on the film festival circuit.

  There is no denying that VFX has created a situation in modern cinema that takes any idea a filmmaker might have and manifests astonishingly believable imagery. This eliminates the need for the viewer to suspend their belief as a courtesy to the storyline; the actions are clearly visible and believable for all to see. One bit of reality that VFX has not suspended is the truth that budgets still exist in filmmaking and it is the role of the producer to figure out what fits into the financial constraints and what does not. Because the premise for Genghis Kahn Conquers the Moon was finalized pre-budget, Zhen Li was faced with a great idea and cast but in need of ways to pay for this. Utilizing crowd funding, studio sponsorship, and other sources, Li created a plan and budget that would allow the film to possess the desired production value. The impressive look of this film allows one to easily understand that the VFX budget was both sizable and well worth it.

Revealing the evolution of his approach, Zhen states, “Our original plan was to shoot scenes in Death Valley with the spectacular landscape of an apocalypse. After some research, we found it will be over 130 degrees Fahrenheit and thus impossible for us to shoot there.  We luckily found Lucern Dry Lake which has a similar look to our vision. It was still extremely hot in summer, as there was no cloud and trees, only with direct sunlight. We rented 4 RVs and had huge fans blowing cool air off of giant ice cubes to cool down the crew.”

While this took care of the Earth scenes, the moon was the actual VFX challenge. Rather than constructing a large scale lunar surface, Li had a miniature of the moon’s topography built with a gradually-changing scale ratio. Scenes were shot on a green stage with the moon’s surface as a plate. These were then composited together in post-production. VFX supervisor Gene Warren III (whose credits include: Hellboy, The Expendables, Resident Evil: Apocalypse, Underworld, The Simpsons) professes, “Genghis Kahn Conquers the Moon is an ambitious project of impressive imagination and great execution. As a producer, Zhen Li did an incredibly amazing job, which allowed us to be able to make Khan land on the Moon.” When a film has a premise that is asking a lot of the audience, the images are often the tipping point for them to invest completely in the story.

 

It should go without stating that what is paramount to every production is the incredible performances of the actors. For Genghis Kahn Conquers the Moon, Li procured a cast of minuscule size but immense impact. Most notably of these were Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (as Kahn) and James Hong (as the wizard). The credits of these two actors spans many of the most beloved films and TV productions of the past thirty to forty years. The gravitas and levity that they brought to this film is evident from the moment they first appear on the screen. Zhen discovered that this is well founded. He notes, “They are both so established and recognizable from their many Hollywood large-scale studio productions; even so, they like to work with younger filmmakers who tell unique stories and experiment with different styles of performance. Working with these experienced actors, their devotion and enthusiasm touched me. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa had to wear the Genghis Khan costume including the helm, armors, and leather boots. The costume was more than 20 pounds and he was wearing it in the insanely hot weather. He was sweating like a fountain but he never once complained. He kept working until the sweat ruined his makeup and then we would have to re-do it. The improvisation between these two lead actors brought a great deal to the film.”

  Genghis Kahn Conquers the Moon was an official selection at the Cannes Film Festival; a festival so notable and respected that even those with no knowledge of the film community understand what an achievement and honor it is to have your film selected to appear there. Cannes is more than just recognition; it opens a window of opportunities to both show films and see films from the most talented filmmakers all over the world. It is a community of the upper echelon and provides inspiration and a springboard to future projects. While in attendance at Cannes to support Genghis Kahn Conquers the Moon, Li’s film attracted crowds and garnered him invitations to some of his favorite directors’ screenings, such as:  Woody Allen’s Café Society, Pedro Almodovar’s JULIETA, Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman, Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, Paul Verhoeven’s ELLE, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, and many other internationally lauded productions.

Perhaps the highest indicator of the quality of your work comes not from the critics or the box office but rather, those whom you work with in the industry. James Hong (Daytime Emmy Award-Winner and Genghis Kahn in this film) states, “It’s great to work with this young talented producer. Zhen Li will soon be known as the driving force in the film industry.”