The Doc Doctor's Anatomy of a Film: "Kiran over Mongolia"

About this new column: Many filmmakers ponder in anguish, How do other people—celebrated people—do it? Am I taking too long to make this documentary? Does everybody spend as much money as I am spending, or am I spending too little? And when filmmakers share their lessons learned in interviews in the glossy trade magazines, their tales seem to follow the arc of otherworldy heroes rather than real documentary makers, i.e. human beings like you and me. So starting this month, the Doc Doctor decided to go out into the world (this real world) of filmmakers who are successful and find out how they made it. Each month, her “anatomy” will be a chance to learn from their hits and misses in real life examples. —Fernanda Rossi, story consultant a.k.a. the Documentary Doctor

Case Study No. 1

Kiran over Mongolia, produced and directed by Joseph Spaid

Running time: 86 minutes

Film Vitals

Logline: Young man retraces grandfather’s steps into Mongolian mountains to learn the ancient art of hunting with eagles.

Location: Shot in Mongolia, edited in New York City.

Length of shoot: Spaid shot the film in two installments that lasted a combined 3 and a half months

Length of editing process: 4 months.

Length of time from pre-production through locking picture: 4 years

2 years in distribution and counting

Money Talk

Total budget: Spaid describes it as in the “upper mid-five figures” although that total excludes P&A (publicity and advertising).

Mainly self-financed, with some private and in-kind donations.

Most money was spent on travel, gear, production costs on location, and on lawyers.

Filmmaker’s History

Joseph Spaid came up with the idea for the film while he was traveling in Asia.

Film school: Yes, School of Visual Arts in New York City.

Other studies: Design, animation, acting, screenwriting.

Beyond academia: Global travel. All things water: Surfing, scuba diving, fly fishing, boats, oceanography, meteorology. Dogs. Spaid can say “thank you” in over 30 languages.

Survival strategy: Working as a special effects artist for TV commercials and TV shows.

Previous films: Spaid has written two narrative feature scripts, made one short film, produced a half-hour documentary, and DP’d several shorts and one feature.

Smart Move

Spaid needed a compressed shooting schedule that he could both wedge between freelance projects and afford. He formed his crew by contacting only very experienced adventure travelers who had film skills, since he knew that shooting in the most remote corner of an already remote country—without electricity or running water, where temps regularly drop below –25 Fahrenheit—could be a challenge to say the least. The DP was from Canada, the editor from Switzerland, the production manager from Sweden, the sound designer/composer from Iceland. Spaid’s second smart move was making sure he had two of everything in terms of equipment, so that when the inevitable happened (and it did), there was always a backup. The resulting film is a beautiful universal story of a master and an eager apprentice in vérité style, with no talking heads, just the characters interacting as they go about their daily chores, with the dramatic vista of the Mongolian steppe as a backdrop.

Never again

Finding an interpreter to translate the extremely obscure dialect spoken by the eagle hunters was a challenge even while shooting in Mongolia, let alone trying to subtitle in New York City, matching word by word. In addition, a lack of clarity in a contract term brought some headaches. Always read the fine print with a lawyer. Additionally, a facility locker holding his 52-minute version master was demolished during the company’s renovation, and the master had to be re-created from scratch. That tape is now housed with all the camera masters at home in a fire-proof safe. Money well spent.

Film’s Successes So Far

Kiran is that type of film that creates curiosity when pitched but amazes when watched. Its true beauty can best be appreciated on screen. No wonder then that it has been shown at over 25 film festivals worldwide including Dubai, Avignon, Santa Fe and many more. The film won awards in Estonia and Georgia. Based on that exposure, Spaid landed an educational distribution deal with Cinema Guild. Home use DVDs are available at www.kiranovermongolia.com.

Most Memorable Moments

“Walking on the red carpet with Morgan Freeman directly behind us at the Dubai International Film Festival accompanied by the two subjects of the film,” says Spaid with a twinkle in his eye. “I had promised them a trip one day.” The twinkle in the other eye is because he ended up marrying his sound designer and the composer of the film, Anna.

Will Relapse?

More films? “Of course! I live for problems worth having, and interesting films definitely fall into that category”, says Spaid who is completing the second draft of a dramatic feature dealing with immigration, cancer, horses, and unlikely love. Since finishing Kiran, Spaid has forayed into producing with a documentary about surfing in New York City. Aloha New York had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, and is now touring the world festival circuit.

Related Links:

Watch the trailer for Kiran Over Mongolia.

Read Fernanda Rossi’s past columns, like this one, on what to do if nobody “gets” your film.

Attend one of Fernanda Rossi’s signature workshops on structure and trailers in Los Angeles on November 10. For details, visit www.documentarydoctor.com.

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