The Eagle Huntress might be the perfect documentary, but it almost didn’t happen.
It isn’t hitting theaters until next month, but much has already been written aboutThe Eagle Huntress. (We even did a podcast with one of the film’s cinematographers after its Sundance premiere earlier this year.) And it's no surprise that this movie has people buzzing. It’s a documentarian’s dream: incredibly charismatic protagonists, majestic landscapes, underlying social issues, and a classic David and Goliath tale. The film features a 13-year-old girl tackling the powerful and violent act of hunting game deep in the mountainous Kazhak wilderness—a tradition which has not been taken on by any other female in its 12-generation history. Part of the film’s better-than-Disney magic comes from the fact that its protagonist's (Aisholpan) father, a champion Eagle Hunter, trains her despite objections of the community elders.
When I finally saw the film at TIFF 2016, I had to find out for myself: How did this remarkable documentary get made? How did the crew shoot in subzero temperatures without destroying their equipment? And how did a first-time filmmaker get the likes of Daisy Ridley, Morgan Spurlock, and Stacey Reiss behind his project?
No Film School sat down with the film’s charming helmer, Otto Bell, to find out.
"It took up my entire life savings of $80,000. I actually went in debt with the bank for another $12,000."
No Film School: How does someone who is making their first first film get Stacey Reiss, Morgan Spurlock, and Daisy Ridley on board?
Otto Bell: It sort of ballooned. I actually dragged the film about two-thirds of the way through production, to just after the [Eagle Hunting] Festival. It took up my entire life savings of $80,000. I actually went in debt with the bank for another $12,000. After the festival, it was clear that we had to go back for a winter hunt, but everything I had was gone. It was actually quite a dark time. “Sleepless nights” gets kicked around a lot but, for me, it was a real thing.
What I was able to do was cut together 10 minutes. I had Morgan Spurlock's email from years ago, so I cheekily sent him a link to it. I also printed out [protagonist] Aisholpan’s photographs and physically posted them to the Warrior Poets' office. [Spurlock] called me back that day. He said, "It's fantastic. I've never seen anything like this. How can I help you?"
"In retrospect, it was the biggest gamble I've ever taken."
He really helped. He brought such professionalism to the project. Truly overnight, he introduced me financiers. He got me a place to edit. He introduced me to Stacey. He saved me. He saved the film.
NFS: You just had to have some good old-fashioned chutzpah.
Bell: Oh, it was the biggest whim of my life. The hardest thing I've ever done in my life. In retrospect, it was the biggest gamble I've ever taken.
Well, I mean, Aisholpan is amazing. When you see this little girl in pigtails, with a pink ribbon in her hair scaling a mountainside, I knew I had something. I just didn't know how to get it finished.
NFS: How did you find these dream characters, Aisholpan and her amazing dad? I imagine they don't watch a lot of media, so how did you convince them of what you were trying to do?
Bell: I found her through a BBC photo diary by an young Israeli photographer called Asher Svidensky. He had stumbled across her in the outside mountains of northwest Mongolia. I saw his spellbinding work, and was like, "There's got to be a film behind that photo." I contacted him on Facebook, we Skyped, and very quickly we decided to head out there and talk to the family about making a film.
There isn't much in the way of media out there, but they are used to cameras. A lot of adventurous tourists will come along and spend a night or two with them and take lots of photos. It's a nice way they supplement their base income of herding. There's a certain pride in their identity and this ancient tradition, so they quite liked exhibiting it. Except I'd stayed longer than their average tourist. I didn't go away.
NFS: Some documentary filmmakers embed ourselves in a situation, and others go in and out. Your story takes place in the middle of the wilderness. It’s not like you could stay in a hotel. How did you do it?
Bell: We lived together. We'd sleep in the ger [traditional Mongolian nomadic tent] at night, like ducks in a row. We ate together. For weeks at a time. We probably did seven trips.
NFS: They just opened their home to you?
Bell: They're a very hospitable people. When you're a nomad out there, you can go for days without seeing another soul. Having guests has a true intrinsic importance to their lives.
"We took about 700 kilos [1500 lbs.] of gear, about 28 Pelican cases. A lot of things broke. Especially in the winter."
NFS: How did you physically protect yourselves and your gear in those freezing conditions?
Bell: We couldn't really protect our gear. A lot of things broke. Especially in the winter. We set aside about five days to film that final act [in which Aisholpan and her father go alone into the deep wilderness to hunt fox]. It ended up taking about 22 days.
NFS: You were out in that winter tundra for 22 days?
Bell: Yeah, we drove back to the village every night right on the border there between Mongolia and China. We figured out we could only really film for about three hours a day. Of course, finding a fox took forever. Thank goodness we had Agalai, the father, because his understanding of the landscape and of nature is almost preternatural.
He would basically point to where we should set up. He's like, "There's a fox in these hills—it's likely going to come down through this gully." I think if we didn't have him and that understanding of the landscape, we'd probably still be out there trying to shoot, trying to finish it.
NFS: Tell me about the crew set-up. It must have been small if you were all sleeping in the ger.
Bell: We never had a crew of more than three or four people. We took about 700 kilos [1500 lbs.] of gear—about 28 Pelican cases—because we wanted to do justice to the landscape and to the characters as well.
"It looks like 30 people shot it, but in reality it was only three of us."
My cameraman, Simon, is a bit of an inventor as well. He built this nine-meter crane that folds away into a snowboard bag and weighs only 25 kilos. It looks like 30 people shot it, but in reality it was only three of us.
The other thing that helped us, and I think makes it feel almost like a narrative, is that Aisholpan and Agalai were training a lot. By the very nature of training, there's a lot of repetition.
NFS You started to learn what to predict.
Bell: Exactly, yeah. We knew they would do things five, 10, 20 times until she got it right. That gave us time to move around them, shoot multiple angles, which you can then cut together into what feels like a very slick sequence.
We had a Ronin Steadicam, and we had these crappy old Russian vans. They're called bread loaf vans because they look like a bread loaf. We would rope the door of that open and then have the Steadicam in the side door, and that was how we did our tracking shots to see when they were galloping down across the tundra in the snow. We were just blazing alongside them. You never want to stop them. It's not like you can really direct, either; you can't be like, "Go back to one." The language isn't there. They're busy. They're intense, and they're determined to hunt. The challenge was always to stay ahead of them.
NFS: Were you ever on horseback yourself?
Bell: Yeah, absolutely. I grew up riding in school.
NFS: Can you speak to some more of the gear that you used?
Bell: Actually, we had so much, we had to leave about 200 kilos in Ulaanbaatar [Mongolia], the capital city, in a locked room in the airport. The little twin propeller plane that flies up to their region twice a week physically couldn't take off with our bodies and all of the gear that we had. One of my biggest expenses—truly, of my life savings—was excess luggage.
We shot the film principally on a RED Epic in 5K. We had a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera on the DJI S1000 drone. And a GoPro sometimes on Aisholpan. Anybody who could carry a camera, did. Martina, who shot lots of lovely verite and lived with the family for a few weeks to kind of get a texture of everyday life, shot with a C300.
“Anybody who could carry a camera, did.”
NFS: So you had several different cameras? How did you make it look so seamless?
Bell: When we did get money and things started to take off, we flew Simon over to sit with the colorist for a week and do the final mix. The pair of them have done a fantastic job. It feels seamless despite having GoPro, C300s, and Epics.
NFS: The music also really helped tie everything together as a story.
Bell: It’s a big score. This was deliberate; it helps younger audiences track along. It's different for film critics or sophisticated cinemagoers, but we did want it to be a film for young people and their families. So, the idea of having Daisy for about five minutes of narration through the film, and having that big, directional score, is to kind of help kids orient themselves. If they maybe can't read lines and lines of subtitles, this gives them little hand-holds to help navigate the film.
"There is always a way to finish your film. Move heaven and earth."
NFS: What do Aisholpan and her family think of the film?
Bell: They saw it for the first time at Sundance. There was a lot of tears and a lot of happiness. They were very grateful. Aisholpan loves it, which is good. She’s the most important critic.
You might notice how it's got a dedication at the end. That's to Grandpa. He passed away between Sundance and Telluride, so we dedicated the film to him. I've never really seen Agalai, the father, get that emotional. It blew my mind because can you imagine if your father passed away, seeing his mannerisms on screen, hearing his voice so loud? He was weeping. He was whispering, "Thank you, thank you, thank you,” so of course I started crying as well.
NFS: That's awesome. What would you say to other filmmakers who find ourselves in the position that you were in, like, “Shit. What am I doing?”
Bell: Find a way to finish. There are plenty of people out there. If you are determined enough, there are people out there who will help and want to help. There is always a way to finish your film. Move heaven and earth. Just make sure you finish it. I guess. I don't know. It's my first film.