June 25, 2019

I Started This Film With Zero Dollars and It Ended Up on Netflix: 'Paris is Us'

Paris is Us
It began with a simple observation.

Each year, more than 220 French feature films find their way to theaters but amongst them, very few actually move me. Though France has one of the most productive film industries in Europe, we lost the experimental curiosity and the creative freedom that defines our rich cinematic history.

There is a saying, "be the change you want to see in the world."

So I decided to make a film outside the box.

In 2014, I gathered a small group of talented individuals (actors, a screenwriter, technicians, musicians) and started shooting in realtime in the streets of Paris... without money.

Also, without a producer or a script.

We had no certainty about what this would become, we just followed our instincts.

Five years later, on February 22nd, Paris is Us was released on Netflix and is now accessible in 190 countries.

I didn't go to film school. I learned what I do know from reading books, watching films, and spending hours on websites like No Film School. There were many times when I doubted myself but today I am so happy and honored that I can report back what I have learned to the community that helped develop me.

A feeling and a minimal setup

The creative process definitely began with a feeling. I wanted to make a film about the confusion I think my generation experiences. What does it feel like to be a young adult today? What is it like to feel lost in this world? From there we decided to use the chaotic political and social setting of present-day Paris to make an intimate film about deeper thoughts and inner life.

Paradoxically, starting out with no money was our strength. We defined some production rules that would help us transform our limitations into creative energy.

  1. Shoot with the lightest crew possible: Director/DP (me) and a sound engineer.
  2. Shoot outside: this helped avoid having to set up lighting.
  3. Learn to adapt to context rather than the opposite: we used current events as the background setting, so we shot during protests, concerts, or mass events.

To fit these requirements, I decided to use the smallest available camera set-up that wouldn't compromise quality: BMPCC Pocket Cinema Camera 4K and a gyro-stabilizer (Nebula 4000).

It was so low profile that nobody batted an eye, meaning that we could infiltrate any space without attracting attention or causing disturbances. We loved that this configuration freed us from the inertia of a classical film crew, therefore, allowing more creativity around how to imagine the scene.

I decided not to write a traditional script but instead to create room for a story that would evolve along with the shoot and the editing. I set the actors free, allowing them to use their own words and to improvise around story guidelines we had established. The cast was also really small: only 4 actors among which the Swiss actress Noémie Schmidt (Versailles) had the lead role.

A long process

Shooting this way wasn't fast.

We shot the film over more than 3 years (from 2014 to 2017). We shot about two or three days a month because we adapted to everyone’s schedule as well as to the socio-political context going on in Paris at the time.

We started editing in 2017, while we were still shooting and it took us more than a year to finish it.

Three editors worked on the project. We had to dive into the scattered material with faith that our story would emerge, and that the path we carved for the characters was embedded within. It became more intuitive than intellectual. 

"If you have an idea and a camera you can do it."

At the same time, we were also searching for how to finance post-production. So, we started sending emails to a lot of producers in France, but it didn't get us anywhere.

We were frustrated but never gave up.

That’s when decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign, to raise money to finish the film. We wanted to explain the project and how we did the film to our potential backers, so we made a little video.

Going Viral

You can never plan for this sort of thing, but it happened.

The video went viral and it has been seen more than 4M times. It brought a lot of visibility to the project.

We aimed for 10 000€ (a little over $11K) and got about 90 000€ (a little over $102K).

Suddenly producers contacted us to work on the film.

But since we already got this far, we thought we could go further. Most importantly, we wanted to stay in control of the artistic choices.

So we used the money that people gave to us to complete full post-production: we recorded the soundtrack with an orchestra, did  ADR and Foley, added some VFX and colored it in theater conditions. Thanks to the visibility of the crowdfunding, we were approached by Laurent Garnier, a French electronic music pioneer, who composed three originals tracks for the film.

Our first intention was to release the film in theaters. As it is a sensorial film, theatrical conditions would have been ideal to immerse the audience inside Anna’s character.

But after the viral video, we got contacted by a dozen of French distributors and Netflix. We showed them Paris is Us.

The major distributors turn down the offer. Maybe it was too different from the French cinema they are accustomed to.

From the first edit, Netflix enjoyed the experimental side of the film. So they agreed to buy it as it was, leaving to us total artistic control.

It was a big decision that we felt not only concerned producers and the director but also the rest of the crew. So we actually gathered the entire creative team to discuss.

We all wanted the audience to have access to the movie as easily as they had access to our presentation video.

But Paris is Us is an experimental film, that really did interest arthouse cinema distributors.

This type of distribution would have been too limited and as a result, it would have excluded many of the types of people who donated to the film.

Our audience was young and unaccustomed to frequenting arthouse cinemas. We wanted this movie to reach them, and honestly as many people as possible.

Netflix was the way to go. As film lovers, we discovered tons of masterpieces outside theaters. For us, cinema is an art form not restricted to one type of space.

Facing critics and criticisms

The last step was maybe one of the most difficult we experienced.

Netflix is not an easy distributor for a first feature-length film without the major festival pedigree. Even if the film was short-listed in major festivals, it wasn’t selected. It had no festival legitimacy. Plus, the French Press wasn’t very kind to it since it was coming from outside of the institutionalized system. 

The film was fragile and different.

Netflix offers high visibility and that means it also comes with lots of reactions and comments both good and bad.

A film like Paris is Us, is more sensorial than narrative; it’s based on feelings. That kind of cinema is not so easily accessible.

People want to understand what you're up to, and if they don’t, they feel insulted and they send back their frustration. So, when the film was released, we understood that it would be wise to follow the release from afar and just make room for both the positive and negative reactions flow. There would be plenty of both.

The film also received an outstanding marketing campaign: tons of posters in Paris, trailer in theaters and lots of press. It was really impressive for a no-budget film.

We’ve received tons of messages from people, and impressive reviews from all over the world. But perhaps best of all, people from everywhere were inspired by the way we pulled it off.

Paris is Us taught us that we don’t have to wait for money or validation to make a film.

If you have an idea and a camera you can do it. You have nothing to lose to be free, to challenge both the industry and audiences alike with new content, and fresh ideas. The amazing thing is nowadays it can actually work.     

Your Comment

12 Comments

This is absolutely amazing and inspiring. I don't have a Netflix subscription, but after seeing a trailer I want to get one, only to see the film. The shots reminded me of a lot of Terrence Malick's movies. I have only one question. How did you approach Netflix?

June 25, 2019 at 2:35PM, Edited June 25, 2:38PM

1
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David Ibragimov
Director
16

Self distribution is becoming more viable by the day. Even without connections, you can go through an aggregator like Distribber, and they will pitch your film to Netflix. Jim Cummings (twitter.com/jimmycthatsme) is a pioneer when it comes to self distribution. My first feature, Mr Misfortune, is in its festival run now. I'm hoping for the best, but also planning a self distribution and guerrilla marketing strategy. Congrats to Elisabeth for completing your feature and getting it out there!

June 25, 2019 at 3:54PM

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Rick Caplan
Writer/Producer/Director
86

This is all very cool and inspiring. However, I’m confused by the fact that the film was supposedly shot with the BMPCC 4K when that camera did not start shipping until fall of 2018. The movie was shot between 2014 and 2017. Did they mean to say that they used the original BMPCC or something?

June 25, 2019 at 3:36PM, Edited June 25, 3:36PM

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Yeah, I'm pretty sure they meant the original BMPCC - for the reasons you noted, plus you can see it in the Behind the Scenes on their Kickstarter video.

June 25, 2019 at 10:00PM

3
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BMPCC RAW 1080P footage upresed to 4K looks great.

June 26, 2019 at 9:39AM

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Marc B
Shooter & Editor
552

OK.

Be inspired people. Very important.

I am sorry for the director because I respect the job done, and I saw the film hoping that it will give me a "ouf" of relief...It was not. Never loose the step of "writing" because this film is the exact example of a scriptless project. The excuse of a "fragile" movie...more sensorial than narrative...you can do something sensorial with some depth.

We live in a very special world right now. We have the chance to change everything, and we have all the equipment for that... but it's a challenge, more than ever now, to be creative and never loose the depth. Where is the depth ? It's a film on it's time: a copy of a copy of a copy...

Hope it will give Elisabeth (or the people behind this supposed pseudo) the opportunity to make a project with more sense, more script than this one.

June 26, 2019 at 3:26AM

2
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Seb Houis
Director
17

Amazing! I am so happy they pulled it of. I had the same idea, filming for a long time waiting for events to happen and built a story out of it. The big problem was that I need a team that stayed until the end. That is really difficult! Congrats for this big team effort!

June 26, 2019 at 6:55AM

1
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Didier Nativel
Director, editor
16

great share!

June 26, 2019 at 8:41AM, Edited June 26, 8:41AM

1
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David Jackson
Web Developer.
155

If you want to do anything. You can do If you do hard work. I have inspired now.

June 27, 2019 at 12:54AM

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indie
128

Congratulations to all involved. It's great reading indie filmmaking success stories like this.

June 27, 2019 at 6:20AM

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Paul Erskine
Director, Writer
8

Congrats! This is great to hear and really inspiring for sure (and obviously I'll put it on my list in Netflix). Best for future endeavors as well!

June 27, 2019 at 4:49PM

0
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Douglas Bowker
Animation, Video, Motion-Graphics
398

I am sorry for the director because I respect the job done, and I saw the film hoping that it will give me a "ouf" of relief...It was not. Never loose the step of "writing" because this film is the exact example of a scriptless project. The excuse of a "fragile" movie...more sensorial than narrative...you can do something sensorial with some depth.

We live in a very special world right now. We have the chance to change everything, and we have all the equipment for that... but it's a challenge, more than ever now, to be creative and never loose the depth. Where is the depth ? It's a film on it's time: a copy of a copy of a copy...

July 9, 2019 at 5:38AM

0
Reply