14 March 2014
Looking for uniqueness. Interview with Raymond Phathanavirangoon

Interview with Raymond Phathanavirangoon

By Anna Bielak

Raymond Phathanavirangoon is a film producer and an international film festival programmer – currently an official delegate for Cannes Critics’ Week and the program consultant for the Hong Kong International Film Festival. He was a creative consultant for the Asian Film Awards as a reading committee member for the Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF). Previously, he served also as international programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival. Prior to that, he was the director of marketing and special projects for the international sales agent Fortissimo Films. In 2007, he was a member of the Teddy Jury at the Berlin Film Festival. Later on he serves in juries in Antalya, Sarajevo and Vladivostok. His producing credit includes Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata (2008), Pang Ho-Cheung’s Dream House (2010) and Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Headshot (2011). He has spoken on panels at festivals all over the world. Two years ago he was participating in Polish Days and gave workshops at New Horizons Studio – two of the Poland’s top international events for professionals co-organized by T-Mobile New Horizons IFF. During our intercontinental conversation he examines Polish film industry and points out the paths that may lead filmmakers to the international recognition.

You are working on the international film market as a producer and programmer. What attracts you to the Polish film market?

I went to New Horizons two years ago as a programmer on behalf of Hong-Kong International Film Festival, which later on showed quite a few pretty recent Polish films in our Poland Close-Up Section such as In the Name of [directed by Małgośka Szumowska], Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness, The Mill and the Cross by Lech Majewski, animated George and Hedgehog [directed by Wojciech Wawszczyk, Jakub Tarkowski and Tomasz Leśniak], Rose by Wojciech Smarzowski, Bartosz Konopka’s Fear of Falling, Black Thursday by Antoni Krauze and It Looks Pretty From a Distance from Anka and Wilhelm Sasnal – that I really like! It’s quite a strong film.

It’s interesting that you mention that particular title, because it’s not typical Polish film. It is much closer to worldwide recognizable arthouse.

I wouldn’t say that the international quality of the film is of such importance. As a programmer I am looking for something new and different from what I usually see. And let’s be honest – this film is quite unique. Most of Polish films and works in progress I’ve watched during Polish Days convinced me that Poland puts the emphasis on looking back at its’ history. Sasnals did similar thing, but the way they looked at that past was very unusual. They took a lot of risk, but ended up with something really refreshing. For the similar reason we’ll be showing another Polish film Floating Skyscrapers directed by Tomasz Wasilewski at our festival.

Would you say then that Polish filmmakers should be more focused on the film form and structure than they are now?

It’s not up to me to tell Polish filmmakers what they should or shouldn’t do. The important thing for me is to see something original – and this is not dependent on the form only. During Polish Days I’ve seen Little Crushes [directed by Aleksandra Gowin and Ireneusz Grzyb] as a work-in-progress. Now I have a DVD with the film here with me, in Bangkok, because this project seemed innovative enough to be remembered. While in Wroclaw I was also giving workshops in New Horizons Studio and I’ve noticed that lots of Polish filmmakers have their own style of filmmaking. Moreover, what I do like is that they are quite literate when it comes to film. They watch lots of movies and are acknowledged with the history of Polish and international cinema. Yet, having that base, they need to find their own path and go further, do something different. Many of them are determined to achieve this goal. And as a producer you have to understand your filmmakers and be aware of what they want to achieve. I had been producing films in many countries (Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, Japan). What I’ve noticed is that if you’re Polish producer, you produce Polish filmmakers. One shouldn’t look for same country, but same vision.

Do you shape your vision by diversify your cinematic experiences – working as a programmer and producer at the same time?

It is important for me to know what is going on at different markets, what is selected for the biggest festivals and where the film taste is heading. Those things are constantly changing and they influence your taste as well.

You’re head of development in Making Film Production Company, which has branched out into producing films from young filmmakers. Your role is designed to enable the company to evolve as a production house for new talents. What kinds of directors are you interested in working with?

As a producer I have a very close relationship with my directors. They’re usually my friends and I know them really well. We are like family, we may argue on Tuesday and have a dinner together on Friday as if anything ever happened! I may be quite tough as a producer, because I’m very opinionated. As a creative producer I am very much involved in the writing scripts’ process. We talk a lot about what the story will be about and work very hard to come up with something exceptional. I always say to the director that at the end he will have the final word and all I ask is to consider my thoughts and doubts before saying no. I do not like people who listen, but don’t even try to do something differently. Even if at the end they will stick to their initial idea, I will respect this, because they were trying and looking for what is best. As long as we have that kind of relationship, we can work together.

You were a reading committee member at the Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum. What kind of scripts do you consider promising ones?

Honestly, even while working as a head of marketing at Fortissimo Films I was always asking filmmakers: What is interesting about your project? As somebody who used to work in sales I went through hundreds and hundreds of stories and treatments. What I’m looking for is uniqueness, the storyline that is interesting. For few years now I’m co-working with Cannes Critics’ Week and see how many average films are being submitted. You would be surprised if you knew how many people submit projects with ridiculous budgets – way too low or too high! Everything counts. The whole package has to make sense. And there needs to be something within the story that touches people. Personally, what I like the most, are high-concept ideas.

Could you elaborate a little more in that matter?

Usually with high-concept ideas when I tell you a very few details about the storyline, you’ll be intrigued enough to listen more. The great example of high-concept idea is Blair Witch Project. The Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Headshot, that I’ve been producing, was high-concept kind of film as well.

Headshot had been co-produced by Thailand and France. What kind of quality project must have to attract international producers? Should you have originally co-production in mind?

Most of my films were co-productions. I want to show my films in Berlin, Cannes or Venice, so I’m always looking for partners. Moreover, it’s usually very hard to rise funding in my own country. Poland is quite lucky with having Polish Film Institute and all those Funding Commissions. In many countries in Asia filmmakers do not have them at all. Therefore, whether you are commercial, arthouse or independent director you have to find partner or you won’t be able to start filming. It forces us to look outside our countries. You may find open-minded distributors that will become small contributors. Usually they do not provide you with the full budget, especially if the project is not purely commercial. They are willing to take some risk, but not the whole one. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to find a private investor as well.

Would you say that Polish filmmakers are living is a comfort-Polish-Film-Institute-zone that provides them money?

In my opinion lots of Polish filmmakers do not think about sales too much. It is not on top of their minds, because they are much more focused on what they would like to say, which is quite obvious, because Poland has a tradition of auteur cinema. I am not saying if it is good or bad thing. It’s only the problem when a country has too many films and none of the markets is interested in them. Filmmakers I am working with are also auteurs, but for me it is essential to think about artistic values of the project and it’s business potential at the same time.

Is the potential, even for a small film, is much bigger if you are willing to have an international co-production?

It’s true. If you can manage to get funding from another country that is sort of approval that your project is good and has already attracted the foreign market.

How do you put small films on the big international market? Would you say that sales agent is a key to success?

Not necessarily. Sales agents do not perform miracles. I usually prefer to go to the film festival first. Then get a sales agent and negotiate a better deal.

Speaking about better deals would you say it is easier to sell genre-like film, because the international market receive them with open arms?

Yes, completely. The next film I’m working on is German, French and Australian co-production and it’s a psychological drama called Apprentice. At the end it remains an arthouse film, but while we shoot it we were focused on building thriller-like tense and claustrophobic atmosphere alike the one you may remember from Iranian Separation directed by Asghar Farhadi. Even if you’re an arthouse director you should incorporate some genre elements into your film. It helps to sell it a way easier! Filmmakers shouldn’t be afraid of genre. Too many people think that – let’s say comedy is bad, because it is low-class. Yet, one of the best films of our times is Jean Renoir film Rules of the Game [from 1939], which is a wonderful comedy. Moreover, one of the most promising Polish projects I’ve seen during work-in-progress was a comedy called Kebab and Horoscope [directed by Grzegorz Jaroszuk]. Hope it will find good place on the market soon.

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