Armed with an AF100 & a CineSlider, Director Andrew Mudge Makes First Feature Set in Lesotho
Have you ever considered making a film in a country that's not your own? How about writing and directing a script in a language you don't speak? In the interview below, Andrew Mudge talks to No Film School about doing just that in the awarding winning film The Forgotten Kingdom and touches on anything from why he gave up on DIY dollies to the inherent love/hate relationship a director has with a film.
In 2003, Andrew Mudge first saw Lesotho on the map before he visited his brother there on assignment with the Peace Corps. A few years later, after spending time collecting material in Lesotho for the script, he started production on his first feature film, and the first feature ever to be shot in the country. This past year, the film won numerous audience awards at prestigious festivals, not to mention the Haskell Wexler Award for Best Cinematography. Preparing to get on a plane to return to Lesotho for an African road tour of the film, Andrew sat down with No Film School to talk about The Forgotten Kingdom.
NFS: How did you get the idea that you would make this film?
Mudge: When I came to visit, I discovered a majestic land of waterfalls, mountains dotted with thatched huts, and blanketed men traveling long distance on horseback. I really connected with the place, it reminded me of how I imagine the American frontier used to be. The images wouldn’t let go of me, as well as a certain mystical quality that I felt would translate well into a film. Lesotho itself is a place of magical realism. I was flat out amazed that a film hadn’t yet been set in this country, and I became very excited by the challenge of being the first person to do that.
NFS: The visual style really motivates the tone of this film. Almost every shot is static or a slow moving dolly shot of sorts. Why did you made those choices, and how'd you achieve them?
Mudge: I wanted the film to have a slow, lyrical feel to it, where you feel movement most of the time, but just barely. Even the shots that you think are static, if you look close, you’ll see that the camera is moving ever so slightly. For those shots, we often used a 3-foot CineSlide track. For the longer dollies we used proper dolly tracks. I used to go a bit cheap on dollies, using skateboards, wheelchairs, or even pulling the camera across the floor on a rug. And then I had a real dolly and I realized how smooth it looks. A huge difference! I can’t go back to the DIY dollies anymore, simply because they end up wasting more time than they're worth. One of the biggest lessons in indie filmmaking is that you often get what you pay for, and cutting corners comes back to bite you in the ass. That happened to us a lot.
NFS: What did you shoot on? What camera, what lenses, and why?
Mudge: We shot on the Panasonic AF100, with Zeiss and Nikon primes mounted on a PL and 3/4 mounts. We recorded to an external recorder to get a higher bit rate. This step is a must with these HD cameras that shoot on lousy SD cards. We chose the AF100 because at the time, it was the hot new camera, and seemed our best option.
NFS: Were you able to get film supplies there?
Mudge: In some parts of Lesotho we couldn’t get so much as a AA battery. In other parts, we used coffin packing Styrofoam for reflector boards. So no, there was nothing in the way of film equipment in Lesotho. Fortunately not too much broke down on us. We did have some days where our microphones sounded like crap, so we had to ADR those scenes. Which ended up working anyway, so I was happy with that.
NFS: The film is in Sesotho. Do you speak Sesotho? How did you write the script?
Mudge: No, I only speak a little bit of Sesotho. I wrote the script in English and had it translated. A subtitled film was all part of the design, not the other way around, which is how it’s usually done -- a film made in another language, and then subtitled to English as an afterthought. The advantage to doing it my way was that I could be really particular about what was said. If it didn’t translate exactly into Sesotho, we’d find a more lyrical way to express the same meaning in the native language.
Mudge: Lots of rehearsals, and trying to keep things fresh and interesting on the set. Also, most of the work is done in the casting. Not only choosing the right people, but having a thorough audition process. Ours was exhaustive, but worth it. We had several rounds of auditions for nearly all the roles, so by the time the actors were offered the part, they already knew the story very well. As for the film being in a language that I don’t speak, that was never a problem when it came to directing. You don’t have to be able to understand a language to know if a performance is honest or not. It’s intuitive, and really has nothing to do with the words, and entirely about the person’s presence.
NFS: What was the exhaustive audition process like?
Mudge: In Lesotho, all of our actors were non-actors. Some were people who had never seen a film before. We had open auditions in Maseru, where we saw about 1500 people for 14 speaking roles. For the role of the boy, which is one of the main roles in the film, we traveled around to 17 schools, and met with close to 800 kids. We’d have round after round of auditions, until we came to our final five, and then chose the one boy we wanted. It was like American Idol in Lesotho!
NFS: The film is so rich in color - what did you do in post to enhance that effect?
Mudge: One of the most positive experiences in making this film was that the best post-production house in South Africa invested in the film with their in-kind services, so we got to spend a lot of time in color grading. We went with the digital linear process, rather than TrueLight. On a general level, we warmed the tone (a bit more yellow, like in the movie Last King of Scotland), and we also increased contrast. I really think it’s worth it to get the best color correction possible done on any film, especially if it’s a film with lots of exteriors, and landscapes.
NFS: I saw you a couple of years ago, and you seemed a little skeptical about how well your film was doing. Now, you’ve had this tremendous festival tour, winning top-notch awards. How do you feel now?
Mudge: We had a rough start, as we were rejected by most of the A-tier festivals, and that was heart-breaking. It made me quite depressed actually, since here I was with this film that took me 7 years to make, all the money I could find on Earth, and places like Sundance, Toronto, and Tribeca were passing on it. I had to pull myself up from my bootstraps and focus on the festivals that did want it. I sorta let go of all expectations whatsoever, and since that, it’s been fun, and we’ve won some awards too. I’m honored and proud about that.
I think that generally, as the director, you never believe your own film is doing as well as people say or think, because at certain moments -- you think it’s a rotten film. At other times, you might actually think it’s the best film ever made in the history of cinema. It’s this love/hate relationship, where you can never again be objective. I imagine it’s like having a kid!
NFS: You are about to go back to Lesotho and do an African road tour with the film. What’s important about doing the tour?
Mudge: The tour will be about a month, and we’re going to screen the film on a giant blow up screen -- on soccer fields, hillside sheep pastures, in town centers, and in churches. These screenings, all free and open to the public, are a lead up to the official theatrical release, which will begin in South Africa/Lesotho in April. Our mission with the roadshow is to share this film with people who likely won’t be able to go to the cinema. The logistics are going to be an adventure. This may be the first time a high-definition video projector and 1,000 watt speakers have ever been strapped to the back of a donkey! We started a Kickstarter campaign, you can check it out here.
Take a peak at their Kickstarter pitch video, and some fun details about the 6-year long production:
NFS: You've made short films, but this was your first feature-length narrative film. What would you say is the most important thing you learned that you can share with us?
Mudge: Be prepared to wear a lot of hats. If you are a director who is also raising money, you are also going to be the main producer and executive producer, whether you like it or not. Your baby is your baby, for better or worse. Try not to do more than three takes of any shot. Your insecurity will creep in, you’ll think “one more take won’t hurt anyone”, and before you know it you’ll be 17 deep, but you actually had it in the first three takes. Shooting video allows us to do almost unlimited takes, but it greatly wears the cast and crew down, which you may only notice in post. And it eats into your day like you can’t believe. This happened to me a few times. Wear comfortable shoes, definitely not sandals. Feed your crew well, always. Follow the advice of witch doctors. Hire people you trust. Be nice. Something bad happens, like you lose an actor, and you feel like it’s the end of the world, but it’s not. Take time to enjoy it! God, I feel like Dr. Phil. Over and out.
Thank you, Andrew! And best of luck on the road tour.
If you'd like to be a part of Andrew Mudge's Road Tour, or score an advanced copy of the film that the Examiner called "one of the best films of the year," there are a few days left to do that through The Forgotten Kingdom's Kickstarter campaign. (Want a postcard from Lesotho along with that DVD? Yes please!) Take a peak at the crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for the road tour.
Have you worked on a film in a place that's foreign to you, or where making a film is a foreign concept? What must-have items would you bring on the production?