Taking on any film project is a commitment. Taking on a feature film project is a huge commitment. Seeing an independent feature documentary through from concept to completion? You’ve just decided to subordinate your day job, free time, finances and personal relationships for the next three to five years in order to translate an amorphous vision into a reality that you hope other people care about as much as you do. You do this because you are a filmmaker and if you didn’t you’d question your purpose in waking up every morning.
At least that’s how it is for me when I decide to make a film. The question of how to choose the topic to invest so much of myself into isn’t easy, and I find the process to be almost as challenging as making the film itself. Let’s take, for example Veverka Brothers’ newest endeavor, Passfire.
Passfire is the story of the world’s most amazing fireworks, the passionate people who make them and the various cultures that shape them. The term “passfire” is used in pyrotechnics to mean passing flame from one part of a shell to another, but it’s also a metaphor for passing love for fireworks around the world.
We just started production in October, 2012, and we have already picked up an endorsement from the National Fireworks Association (NFA) and signed on two fireworks industry veterans, John Werner, President of the NFA, and Harry Gilliam, President of Skylighter Fireworks, as executive producers. We have an expanding Facebook page chronicling the film’s progress and we will be reaching out on Kickstarter next month to raise money.
From fireworks enthusiasts-interviewees and fans-the excitement is palpable and it feels great to be working on a project that so many people are getting behind; I mean who doesn’t love fireworks? Looking back it seems like an obvious subject for a film, but choosing it wasn’t easy.
The first issue was genre and funding. For better or worse, in today’s documentary film environment, most filmmakers find themselves thinking in terms of social issues. In fact, the documentary genre has become so synonymous with them, that when I mention Passfire I sometimes get asked what deep, dark secret of the pyrotechnics world we are trying to expose.
The answer is none. We aren’t doing this as a social issue. That’s right, we aren’t going to be talking about some hidden problem that would shatter your happy childhood memories of fireworks if you ever found out about it. Everyone knows fireworks carry a certain level of risk, but so do sky diving and mountain climbing. Yes accidents can happen, but pyrotechnicians work methodically to minimize them in order to bring us something so beautiful that it can literally bring tears to our eyes.
That’s one reason we love this topic, it’s celebratory rather than activist-but that does make fundraising harder; many organizations that fund films tend to focus on social issues. So in choosing Passfire, we have made a decision that could potentially affect our funding options, and funding, as every filmmaker knows, is what it’s really all about.
Another issue was passion. After finishing our last feature, we spent a lot of time thinking about our next big thing. During my search I had gone to China to work in a public high school. I was interested in the rapid internationalization of China’s school system and I thought it would make an interesting topic for a doc. I worked out a deal where I made promotional videos for the school and in return I got the access I wanted.
There was no question it was eye opening, and after a semester of bringing my camera into the classroom I had a lot of great material for, say, a 30-minute program on contemporary Chinese high schools, but the fact remained, I hadn’t found our next big thing.
Then it happened. While chatting with a co-worker I learned that just one town over was the capital of fireworks production-the world’s capital of fireworks production. It was like the volume of all the competing ideas buzzing around me went down and as clear as the crack of a Silver Salute was the sound of what I wanted to do next: fireworks.
As a kid I loved fire. Not because of a crazy bug of destruction, but because I loved its beauty and strength. Then I discovered firecrackers and my world would never be the same. On a scale of the good things in childhood, there were snow days, then LEGO, then Christmas, and then there were fireworks. My father even gave me a book called Pyrotechnics and I used to read it every night before I went to bed.
I decided to start with an article so I pitched a very supportive editor I know at CNN Travel about a piece on this fireworks capital, Liuyang. I got the go ahead, but immediately ran into another big issue that comes up when choosing a topic: access.
Language barriers aside, I didn’t really know anyone in the industry. Thus a long process of reaching out to people in both China and the US began. It was slow going at first and without my rabid fascination with fireworks I might have been tempted to give up, but many months and several trips later I had finished Liuyang: Where the World’s Fireworks Are Born. It was writing the article that helped me gain the knowledge and access I would need for the film.
It’s been a long journey to get where we are now and we are only just beginning. We still have a tremendous amount of work ahead of us, including a lot of money to raise, but Jeremy and I know we have found a topic in which we can confidently invest our time, energy and vitality over the next several years of our lives. As they say, good ideas always seem obvious in hindsight.