Interview with Alex Richardson of The Tiger, April 30, 2009, on getting into the Los Angeles Film Festival.
A: How do you normally get ideas for the films?
S: We have general guidelines for our topics like it has to connect to Arkansas and it has to be between 80 and 30 years ago. We use the National History Day's annual theme for a baseline as well. For instance, last year's topic was Conflict and Compromise. From there we ask some of our historian friends and wait for inspiration to strike. Most of the time we are drawn to a topic because of an interesting story or fact. For Return To Sender, the hook was a story of a woman calling a hospital late at night screaming, "There's a naked Cuban in my tree!" We just had to explore that story further. Unfortunately we were unable to fit it into the narration.
E: We get ideas mostly from the community. Return To Sender and SIS (A Soldier in Skirts) came from the Old State House Museum. We have two historian friends who love to give lectures and are always happy to point us in the right direction. Watching The Waters Rise came from our mother, but that's a totally different and longer story that is very boring.
A: And, once having an idea, how long does research and preproduction take?
S: Research and preproduction can take anywhere from six to eight months. We got the idea for Return To Sender in July of 2007 and finished the narration in January of 2008.
E: Sarah does most of the pre-production. I am an editor, meaning my part doesn't come into play until after most of the research is done, though I can tell you it takes Sarah anywhere from three months to six months to get enough info for the narration. After that, it takes me about three more long months to get interviews lined up and complete the editing process. Movie making isn't for the faint of heart--just the naive.
A: How do you go about planning your shots and the script?
S: Because it is a documentary and not a live action film, there is no planned shot list per say. We just walk around with our camera looking for interesting angles that we can use later. I organize the script chronologically within a topic. For example the Cubans' arrival paragraphs comes before the paragraphs discussing the riots. For the most part though, writing narration is just like writing a detailed history paper except you have to keep in mind what footage you have to go with it.
E: Our script is Sarah's narration, so the research is how we get our base line. The narration gives me a place to begin. I start to listen for good interview segments that tie in and start tagging pictures for as many lines as possible. As far as shots go, mostly our documentaries only involve interviews, but on the rare occasion that we do need other footage we play it by ear. Or in the case of Return To Sender, whoever could get the perfect shot or had the brilliant idea first got to shoot it. At Fort Chaffee, Sarah was the one sitting on the side of the car closest to fort, so she got to get that great shot we used for the credits, but for my favorite picture of the flag, I was the one to get stung by barbed wire while Sarah was yelling at me to get higher.
A: Who generally takes on which duty?
S: I generally do most of the research as well as all of the reading. I also prepare for interviews. I write all the narration and any supplemental papers like bibliographies too. Emma sets up most of the interviews. Anything to do with the camera is her territory as well. We both edit although she is the head editor just as I am the head researcher.
E: Sarah is the writer/head researcher. She collects all the information while I search for visuals. I am the tech/head editor. I worry about the visuals and interviews. I am also the one who has the uncomfortable job of tracking down interviews, despite my numerous horror stories, the highlights of which include me calling a dead woman and calling Senator Pryor Senator Bumpers. Anyway, as I like to say: Sarah makes a paper; I make a movie.
A: What software and hardware do you use for shooting and post-production?
S: I'll let Emma handle this one.
E: I use Final Cut Studios 2 for editing. It is one of the best editing programs around. My camera is a DVX100B Panasonic. I know that probably doesn't mean much to you, but let's just say my camera is COOL. It is a professional grade, rated 9 out of 10, and boy is it nice! All manual... heaven. Two summers ago we worked for the Arkansas Department of Education during the summer and we bought a great Mac and high-end speakers with our earnings. We also have a light set and four lapel mics. Our grandfather and parents have been very generous. We are now proud owners of everything required for making amateur films.
A: How long does post-production take, normally?
S: Again, Emma question.
E: Post-production takes about six months on-and-off. It took me almost a hundred hours to get SIS ready for its first competition, but I'm still fine-tuning it. Return To Sender ended up taking from early January to maybe mid-June before we decided it was a picture lock (no more editing allowed). That was at version 7.2.
A: Which of your films would you say is your favorite?
S: I'd say our newest film, A Soldier in Skirts is perhaps my very favorite in terms of topic and overall production, but I am most proud of all the research done for Return To Sender. When we first started researching, we couldn't find an ending. Our father told us to give up, but we refused. After six months of constant hunting, we found out what had happened to the Cubans. We used multiple newspapers, had nine interviews, and collected over a hundred government memorandums. The stack of research was six inches high.
E: Asking me which is my favorite movie is like being asked what your favorite book is: it's impossible. I guess my favorites include DAREDEVIL, I love Daredevil period and the Director's Cut had great camera angles. LEGALLY BLONDE, (do I really have to explain this one?), LOVE ACTUALLY, SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, and PRIDE AND PREJUDICE - though don't tell Sarah. All those movies are perfect examples of excellent screenplay, directing, acting, shooting, and editing. In other words, perfect examples of everything that makes a film great. Now ask me again in six months and my answer will have changed again.
A: This is your career of choice, I'm assuming. If you have any other ideas, feel free to list them.
S: I don't think I will continue to make films in the future. Currently we are employed as a part time writers/critics for the T Tauri Film Festival. I love critiquing films. One day I would like to be a on-staff movie critic and columnist for a newspaper. I am also interested in becoming a film historian or film producer.
E: As much as I love film, I really don't much care for the actual editing part. Mostly I love pitching and showing our films. I love to give speeches and I love to lecture, so I am leaning heavily toward history professor. I plan to get a Ph.D in European or American history, with perhaps a degree in film and technology, but that all depends on what lies ahead. I do know one thing: I'm not going to be a linguist.
A: Who is your favorite filmmaker, and why?
S: I like so many that it's hard to choose from. Generally I like any really good filmmaker but my favorites might have to be Ray McKinnon (an adopted Arkansan and producer/director/writer/star of The Accountant, winner of the 2002 Oscar for best live action short), Bas Luhrman (director of Australia, Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rouge, and Romeo+Juliet) and Joe Wright (director of Pride and Prejudice 2005 and Atonement). I also like Joss Whedon of the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer:” TV series.
E: Once again, I'm not sure who my favorite filmmaker is. I wish I could answer this, but I'm sure Sarah's given you something to work with.
A: What's your favorite movie, and why? If you have favorites in several genres and want to type a lot, feel free to list them.
S: Again, naming my favorite film is like choosing a star from the heavens. I guess some of my all time favorites are Just Like Heaven, Pride and Prejudice (2005), Persuasion (1997), Australia, Moulin Rouge, and Across The Universe. Each of them are exemplary films that can combine wit, humor, drama, and romance in a satisfyingly round way. They are all examples of excellent film work. One day I hope to be involved in the making of a film just as powerful and wonderful as those six. I will watch any film in any genre as long as it is not horror/thriller. I also don't like anything to do with skipping part of your life like Click. My least favorite films are Twilight, In and Out, Johnny English, and Dan In Real Life. My favorite actors are Amanda Root, Keira Knightly, Reese Witherspoon, Mark Ruffalo, James Marsters, Jason Statham, and Hugh Jackman. My least favorite actors are Ben Stiller, Nicholas Cage, Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Adam Sandler, and Sarah Jessica Parker.
E: My favorite genres are British comedy (not as crude as American), action, superhero, and pretty much everything but horror. I hate horror. It's the only genre I don't watch or care about.
A: Will you be participating in any particular events at the Los Angeles Film Festival?
S: I'm not really sure what we will be doing at the film festival. We will probably do a Q&A session following our screening and maybe go site seeing. There might also be a gala, there usually is at these kind of film festivals. If so, we will definitely be going to that.
E: I am still getting over the fact that we're going to L.A. I guess a part of me dreams about us being on stage, talking about our film and Steven Spielberg, or someone like him, standing up and clapping. But then I remember that's reaching past the moon and into never-never land.
A: What're you most excited about regarding the trip?
S: My father has a gallery exhibition in LA so we'll probably go visit that. I've never seen it so I'm really looking forward to that. But really I'm just excited about going to LA in the first place. I've been to northern California, but never to LA before. It will be a whole new experience. Besides, what filmmaker doesn't dream of going to Hollywood? I mean it's right up there with getting to the Academy Awards.
E: I am so excited, I don't know what I'm more ecstatic about! When I remember starting out with Separate but Equal, thinking it was just a grade and comparing it to what has happened since, I just want to laugh out loud. Who knew?
A: What is your favorite part about the process?
S: My favorite part about making a documentary is the satisfaction that comes from knowing you have preserved something that might have otherwise been lost. Death is such an inconvenience. Every person has a story and every story deserves to be told. The worst tragedy in my opinion is dying without a chance to tell your story. Whenever the stack of research gets too high or the editing machine looms to large over my shoulder and I want to just give up, I ask why I do it, why I suffer, is it really worth it? And the answer comes back to me: yes, it's always worth it.
E: I love to be noticed. Call it ego or call it right, I don't care. I am proud of what my sister and I have accomplished and I love to talk about it. There is nothing I like more than going up on stage and saying, “this is who I am and this is what I do." Just the thought of speaking in front of a crowd of people makes me want to jump in excitement. That's the coolest part. When we first started, I could barely get out a comprehendible sentence in front of my teachers; now I live for giving speeches in front of hundreds of people.
A: Is there any advice you'd like to share with aspiring filmmakers?
S: I started making my first film when I was 11 years old. My older sisters doubted that we would really make a film. They said we were too young. But we didn't hear them. In the past four years since then, I have learned that we were hardly the youngest ones to ever attempt such a feat. I've seen seven year olds win at film festivals, ten year olds try to compete, and eleven year olds beat the best. The truth is, you're never too young to make a film. All you need is the willpower to go through with your dream. Where there's a camera there's a story, all you have to do is find it. It doesn't matter how young or how old you are; a camera has no age limit. Being a youth filmmaker isn't easy. Sometimes you can feel so alone in the world, like you're the only one out there doing what you are doing. But you need to know you are not. Reach out into your community--into your school--I promise you there will be somebody like you somewhere. You are never alone. Finally, submit to every film festival you can. It doesn't need to just be a youth film festival. Every festival you submit to gets your name out a bit more. Every award you win gets you closer to the Academy Awards. Never give up just because of one failure; it's just one judge's opinion anyway. If you know it's a good film, then it's worth the effort.
E: Here's my advice: Don't look before you jump, because if you do, you'll realize you are biting off more than anyone can chew. Expectations are tough, but you have to ask yourself if you want to show your children/grandchildren photos of you when you were young, or a film. So yeah it's a lot of hard work, but it sure feels great when you’re done.
A: What do you think of the documentary, as a genre, I guess? Do you have ideas outside of it, and do you feel limited at all by working exclusively to make documentaries?
S: I like documentaries for the most part. I don't, however, like it when they get too long. I once saw a documentary that was two hours long and only repeated the same fact and example over and over again. I think the perfect documentary is no more than 60 minutes long, preferably less than 45. Even I who love history can't sit down and really pay attention to anything longer. I never feel limited by working on documentaries. For one thing, we don't just do documentaries. We have done multiple promotional films, two television commercials, and three live action films. Truth be told, I feel more constrained by live action than history. When you do live action, you have to think of a plot and plots invariably turn out sounding clichéd. But history is already written for you, you don't have to think of a story line. Besides, there is always a new untold history story just waiting to be brought into the light. It's so much more rewarding knowing you have saved a small patch of our story from being forgotten. Plus I'm rubbish at writing dialogue.
E: Don't get me wrong, I love history, but I wouldn't mind branching out. Making films is not an easy task, and editing actual films - as in live action- is even harder. Maybe one day I'd like to do a feature length film, but for now, I'm happy with what we've got.
On our first day in seventh grade at Horace Mann Arts and Science Magnet Middle School in Little Rock, Arkansas, we entered the Environmental and Spatial Technology (EAST) classroom. The EAST program began in Greenbrier, Arkansas in 1996 and has since spread to 170 schools all around the nation (as of 2009). EAST provides all the technology and support a student needs to go out and help the community. Two years before, a group of students from Mann EAST had made a documentary on the Japanese-Americans interned at Jerome and Rower, Arkansas called Arkansas' Forgotten. We had decided we wanted to make a film also, but it wasn’t until we saw that documentary that it really seemed like we actually could. The documentary wasn't just good; it sent shivers down our spines and sniffles all around the audience. We turned to each other and said, “We have to make a film as good as or better than this.”
We never meant to enter our first film, Separate But Equal, into any film festivals. We made the film just because we could. We entered it into the History Day Competition just because we happened to be in the history club at school. When we failed to advance past the regional level, we planed to simply put it in a cupboard and move onto something new. But our EAST facilitator, Mr. Richard Washam, wasn't going to let us. On March 31, 2006, he came up to us with an entry form for the T Tauri Film Festival (for more information see www.ttaurifilmfestival.org) and told us to fill it out and get it in the mail by that afternoon because it was due the next day. No way were we going to say no to a teacher, so we did as he asked. We got it to the post office five minutes before it closed. We never thought we'd win. When we heard we had, we were dumbstruck. From that point on, we were officially filmmakers and there was no turning back.
We were in the car with our father shortly after we won at T Tauri when, jokingly, he said, “I guess now you will have to start up your own production company.” By the time we had pulled into our driveway, DoubleTroublets Productions had been born.
We returned to EAST as eighth graders. We knew we wanted to make another documentary, but we still didn't have a topic. Our mother had recently completed the book Rising Tide by J. M. Barry. She told us how unknown the flood of 1927 was and how interesting it might be as a documentary. As we had no other ideas, we said yes. That year we got more adventurous. We travelled to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville's library to get most of our information and then traveled to Forest City for, if nothing else, some nice pictures of the Arkansas Delta. We came across the Saint Francis County Visitor Center and thereby the footage by accident. We got lost, saw the sign pointing to the museum and decided to stop there and ask for directions. Inside, we got started talking to the curator, Harvey Hanna. We told him we were there to research the flood, and he said he just happened to be researching a different flood when he came across a German website with all this footage from 1927. He offered to send it to us. We thanked him and left with directions, doubting we would ever hear from him again. Three weeks later, a package from Harvey Hanna arrived with a note apologizing for the delay. The footage he sent saved the film as we had nearly given up from lack of pictures.
After Watching the Waters Rise, our name had gotten out. We were at the Clinton School of Public Service doing a Q & A for one of the documentaries when Mr. Matt Dozier, president of the EAST Initiative, approached us. He had a proposition for us. He was assembling a team of students to make a short promotional film and two commercials for the Arkansas Department of Education's new, advanced school curriculum, Smart Core, during the summer of that year. We said yes. A month later we were introduced to our teammates: Neelam Vyas, a rising tenth grader at Little Rock Central High School, former Mann EAST student, and the “cover girl” for one of Mann EAST's longest running nature projects; Justin Rowland, a rising senior at Bryant High School and an expert in SoftImage and editing; Romero Pleasants, a rising senior at McClellan High School and a proficient music composer; and Lauren Dozier, a rising seventh grader at Mann. Our facilitators were Mr. Washam and Come Early Morning production assistant and EAST alumni Christie Kratz. We were given a two-week crash course in every aspect of filmmaking from filming to lighting to editing. Two weeks later, we began filming. Our main job was lighting, although we all did a little of everything. We used our earnings from that summer to buy our iMac and Final Cut Pro Studio 2.
We started at Little Rock Central High School and its EAST program in the fall of 2007. We had decided over the summer to focus on Fort Chaffee and had already traveled to the University of Fayetteville. However, by the time we returned to school, we still hadn't figured out how the story ended. Our father said he didn't think this subject was possible and we should choose another one, but we said no and persisted. We eventually found the ending in January, four months after we started researching and one month before our first competition. Later our father confessed that it was our best film yet and he never should have doubted us. Needless to say, we don't let him forget it.
For our birthday, in 2007, our grandfather gave us a PanasonicDVX100b camera and a professional lighting set. With those additions, our studio was complete.
In November of 2007, we were asked to travel to Washington, D.C. with Neelam and Lauren to present on EAST and our work on the Smart Core films as keynote speakers at a luncheon at the States Educational Technology Directors Association meeting. Mr. Dozier and Ms. Melanie Bradford, the technology director of the Arkansas Department of Education, were our chaperones. We spent a few days touring D.C. and a few nights getting lessons on how to give a speech from Mr. Dozier. It was our first major speech.
We first heard about the 48 Hour Film Festival in 2007, but our parents decided we were too young to enter. We convinced them to let us the next year. We sent out emails to all our acting friends, but only one was available: Janean Jordan. At the time, Janean was a student at Parkview Arts and Science Magnet High School. We had met at Mann and she had worked with us before on Watching the Water Rise. Although our team was the smallest, we still managed to complete the film in 27 hours. Perhaps it was our inexperience when it came to writing fiction, but the film proved the old saying “slow and steady wins the race.” Our film entitled Just Plain Odd, about an incompetent and talkative cook auditioning for a part on the Abreaction Television Station, won no awards in the competition.
Shortly after the completion of Return To Sender, we got a notice from the T Tauri Film Festival saying that they were accepting applications for four positions as teen net advisors for their upcoming website for youth filmmakers nicknamed “The Galaxy.” We applied and got two of the positions. Our job description included writing reviews of films and websites, writing tutorials based on our experiences, and giving advice to anyone who asked for it (and some who didn't.) We were forced to resign full time work the following fall when school took priority.
DoubleTroublets Productions had taken off after the Smart Core Films. We were hired to make a short film for the Wolfe Street Foundation's annual Oscar Night Watch Party on films with a connection to Arkansas that won at the Academy Awards. The film was called Arkansas at the Oscars and included film clips from Gone With The Wind, True Grit, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Our next commissioned work was two films for The Colon Club (for more information on The Colon Club visit www.thecolonclub.com.) Will To Fight: The Making of the Colondar was a thirty-minute documentary on the history of the Colondar. Stories From The Front was two and a half hours of personal stories from survivors of colon cancer and The Colon Club staff. We worked on those two films from July to October of 2008.
In the fall of 2008, we returned to Central as tenth graders. Unfortunately, we were unable to fit EAST into our schedules that year, but decided not to stop making films. And so we began work on our fourth documentary, A Soldier in Skirts. Perhaps the hardest film to complete as of then in our career, it was finished three months behind schedule just days before our first competition. It was done mostly on the weekends and breaks. Our sisters soon tired of our lectures on women's rights in the military pre and post war. The original idea was actually to follow a set of letters written by an Arkansan in the Women's Army Corps, but upon finding an old, forgotten memoir in a collection at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, we changed the focus. That was in January of 2009.
Our tenth grade year was very active on the film front. Despite no longer being in an EAST class, we remained very close to the program. We became EAST ambassadors, traveling to conferences and interviews with Mr. Dozier to advertise and promote EAST. At the EAST Conference, we were presenters of a presentation on how to make documentary films called “What's Up Doc.?” We gave the presentation again in June of that year at the Arkansas Bar Association meeting. In addition to our EAST work, we helped launch a film club at Central. We were also asked to once again film the Wolfe Street Foundation's annual Oscar Night America Gala and create a seven-minute film of the event.
We will return to Central next year and plan to continue our filmmaking. Our tentative next documentary topic is the establishment of the censorship committee in Little Rock in the 1940s and 50s.