Friday, March 12, 2010

Director's Statement (March 2010)

(NOTE: This director's statement was prepared for a Screenwriting Lab, and part of what I was asked to do was to describe our project status- something I won't go into when the revised version of this statement is posted on the HAPPY FUNERAL website)


I have always been fascinated by how people meet their deaths. I had observed in my personal encounters, and later confirmed in my reading, that often people who are approaching death experience a new sense of inner peace. About two years ago, I began to reflect on what it would be like to have these experiences at a relatively young age. The exploration of these themes evolved into HAPPY FUNERAL.

HAPPY FUNERAL is a window into the last days of a troubled young man racing to mend the broken ties in his life before a brutal neighborhood loan shark-- or his terminal cancer-- get a chance to kill him. At it's heart it is a trans-cultural, trans-generational story of forgiveness and redemption. I drew on my own Persian and Iraqi family and heritage as I developed the character of Sulayman “Sully” Hakim, who became the vehicle through which the themes of mortality and atonement are lived out. While the story is undeniably culturally specific, it is not a Middle Eastern-American story. It is a human story with a Middle Eastern-American protagonist. My goal is to create an honest portrayal of people with a full spectrum of human emotions.

In this regard, the Turkish-German director Fatih Akin is a major influence, who manages in films like Head On to illustrate Turkish characters whose lives are train wrecks, but are also fully human and never mere caricatures. Others filmmakers, such as Ramine Bahrani (Chop Shop) and Jacque Audiard (A Prophet) have served as superb tonal and aesthetic references as I craft the outer world that Sully is journeying through in HAPPY FUNERAL. My aim is to take this restrained, understated neo-realist approach and combine it with the kind of hopefulness and light that permeates films like Europa Europa or Shawshank Redemption.

The audience will also experience the world as Sully experiences it-- both emotionally and also at a subjective sensory level, much the way we see the world through the protagonist eyes in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Sully’s condition causes his brain to misfire, and as a result, harrowing visions, sometimes beautiful, and sometimes horrifying, visit him. These episodes will hearken to the poetic interludes found in the stunning films of Andrei Tarkovsky.

In choosing to tell Sully's end-of-life journey, I realized I was in grave danger of wandering into a vast wasteland of cinema clich├ęs. So I began to do as much research as I could. One of my resources was in my friend Daniel Spurgeon who is a brilliant poet, playwright and hospice physician. His insights were so helpful to me, I was compelled to ask him to become a co-writer of HAPPY FUNERAL. He has proved to be an able collaborator and we are both committed to doing are very best to make HAPPY FUNERAL a film of the highest quality. Towards that end we submitted our film to the January 2010 Sundance Screenwriting Lab for which were finalists in consideration. Additionally we had a table reading with a near full cast of actors to further assist us in our revisions of the script.

In the interest of a smooth transition into fundraising, development and eventual pre-production, we realized we needed to begin assembling our team. It was while I was at Sundance this year that I watched the film Night Catches Us and noted that the name of the Associate Producer and 1st Assistant Director for it, Shahrzad “Sheri” Davani was Persian. I later learned that she has worked as a producer and AD on a number of Sundance favorites, and has also worked with many Indy film powerhouses. Thinking she might connect with the material and that she would also bring the necessary know-how as a producer, I tracked her down and persuaded her to read the script. Happily, she enthusiastically came on board as a co-producer for our film.

As many have rightly pointed out, in the aftermath of the distribution meltdown, it is necessary for filmmakers to integrate a marketing and distribution strategy into their approach from the inception of their project. For this reason, we decided that planning for marketing and distribution needed to go hand in hand with our revision process. For that purpose, I asked my friend Kristy Thomley, a successful young publicist who works under the radar for many filmmakers and production companies, to come on board as the Producer of Marketing and Distribution. Our aim then is to smoothly transition into social network marketing when we have a final draft of the script in Summer 2010, and it will be Kristy who will execute the strategy we develop together.

As we slowly assemble our team, our primary goal is refine the screenplay of HAPPY FUNERAL until its craft and art are as solid as possible. When we arrive at a final draft, we will bear full steam ahead in filling all of the primary roles necessary to make the film a reality. Along with this we will do everything in our power to target niche audiences, carry out our social media marketing and pursue crowdsourcing. First the aim is to raise enough money to create a trailer and shoot selected scenes, and then based on the strength of these samples, continue to build the crowdsourcing community, and also to pursue more traditional avenues of fundraising.

After finishing the script with Daniel, I will continue on as a producer for HAPPY FUNERAL and will eventually direct and edit it as well. I plan to shoot HAPPY FUNERAL on location in Los Angeles. The bulk of the film will most likely be shot on the RED, but Sully's vision sequences will be shot on the Canon D7, both because of it's nimbleness and its beautiful look. However, I must confess that committed as I am to making this film, I'll shoot it on my own HVX-200 if necessary. I project the budget to come in under $300,000, a budget which also reflects costs for marketing and self- distribution after post-production is complete. Fortunately I edit for a living and believe that this skill- set will prove invaluable in making this film as inexpensively and efficiently as possible, whatever the budget or the format that we will eventually shoot with.

Re-reading what I have written about our plans, I must be honest and state frankly that I am daunted by the work ahead. However, I do not know what to live for, if not to strive to make films that bring joy and meaning to our world. At its core, HAPPY FUNERAL is about the human heart’s struggle to find peace with itself and an often cruel and violent world. As Sully makes his rapid march towards death, he rediscovers what it is to live. My hope, above all else, is to create a film where the audience experiences something similar.

-- Samah Tokmachi, Writer/Director, HAPPY FUNERAL

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