Film festivals conjure the image of actors, filmmakers, and ‘artsy’ folk patting each other on the back about how great their work is, while photographers snap their animated conversations, and audiences rave about their favourite films. But among all the socialising stands several people who are worried about whether they’ll get a seal of approval.
Sean Hodgkinson, a cheerful, 35-year-old filmmaker, who’s just released his first film, “A Story about Wendy”, at this September’s Trinidad and Tobago 2012 Film Festival, is one of those people. Nervous and nauseous, Hodgkinson hasn’t fully soaked in the fact that he’s accomplished step one of his long-term dream – “to produce fun and entertaining productions” – alongside his friend and fellow cofounder of his company Quirky Films, Sascha Ali. Despite the nerves, he’s excited, especially since the film’s premiere on September 22 sold out in under an hour, giving him hope that all of his film’s dates will have similar success.
Seven years ago, Hodgkinson wasn’t thinking this far. Although, his passion for filmmaking began as a young child, when he would borrow his father’s VHS Camcorder to shoot horror films, his career looked as if it would be more filled with thoughts of cumulus clouds and carbon footprints than cameras – after he graduated with a degree in geography and environmental policy from Brock University (Canada) in 2001. Film and geography. He loves them both. But, as he says, “Life has a funny way of presenting opportunities.”
His opportunity came in 2005, after he had returned to Trinidad. He was taking a video production course that was facilitated by well-known producer and television personality, Lisa Wickham, and, at the end of the course, she offered him a job at her company, E-Zone Entertainment. Suddenly, he was a production co-ordinator, and worked on music videos for Soca artistes, such as Shurwayne Winchester and Patrice Roberts, for hits like “Open the Gate” and “Sugar Boy”.He then moved on to the Caribbean New Media Group (CNMG), producing environmental features, and eventually left to work as a freelance co-ordinator and producer for ads by top, local brands. Along the way, he found time to pursue a Certificate in Filmmaking at the London Film Academy in 2009.Now, three years later, he’s at the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival, looking on, as audiences take in his story about Wendy, whose life spirals out of control after her fiancé leaves her, and finds herself caught up in drama.
During this whirlwind phase of publicity and checking ticket sales, Hodgkinson is still figuring out how he’s going to fund his next step. However, as you’re about to find out, he’s managed to do a lot, with little, and, hopefully, his passion for film will pay off.
O: What’s your journey been like, from launching Quirky Films to now?
SH: We founded Quirky earlier this year, and shot the film. We received some funding from the Trinidad and Tobago Film Company (TTFC), for which we are so grateful. Without them, “Wendy” would not even be here, and the rest we begged and borrowed.
A lot of people worked for free or next to nothing. They sacrificed their time. Everyone juggled three or four roles, we had a core team of six people and everyone gave 1000%. When we went to Tobago to shoot, Heidi Walcott – who plays the lead role – was the personal assistant. There was no room for egos; we just wanted to make a film, and something that we were proud of.
We spent two months rehearsing, and the dedication the cast and crew displayed was unmatched, and I am so humbled by that.
O: How did you come up with the idea for “A Story about Wendy”?
SH: A colleague of mine from the film “Limbo” told me about the Trinidad and Tobago Film Company’s (TTFC) Production Assistance and Script Development (PASD) programme, and asked if I could write. I said I could, and from that I pieced together some flash cards with some characters and interwove a story. Initially, it was written as a sitcom, but, in the end, the film took on a life of its own.
O: What’s your role at Quirky Films?
SH: Quirky has two directors, myself and Sascha Ali, whom I met at CNMG, and we clicked and realized we had a similar vision. I am not one for titles. Sascha is more of the technical wiz. I am more of the visionary, and I guess I handle public relations, which is ironic because I hate attention and I’m shy. But there’s no point in making a film and having no one see it. Right?
O: How hard is it being a filmmaker, raising funds for your work, and marketing it?
SH: It’s been a tough journey. Would I do the same thing all over again? Probably. This was my dream, and I was so fortunate to have an amazing group of people who believed in this dream. We tried to market the film via social media – YouTube, Facebook, Twitter. I guess the only way I’d know if it was successful, would be the turnout at the premiere on September 22nd…and we were sold out on the first night. So that was great!
O: How did you go about putting together all of the necessary elements to get the film done?
SH: Woosah. The process is a long one. The entire process took about two years, from start to finish. Playing the story out in your head, writing it, auditioning actors, going to locations and rehearsing, and then you realize that a scene doesn’t work. You go somewhere else, then you plan, schedule and shoot, take after take – there’s a foam board in the shot, the boom is in the shot, the shot is out of focus, or the lighting isn’t right…It is pretty intense. It takes a lot. We were all perfectionists. So we tried our best with the resources that we had.
O: What did you need from the main actors for this film to work?
SH: I wanted people who could essentially bring the characters to life. Heidi [Walcott – who plays Wendy], I saw in an Axe commercial and made this ‘screw pan’ face…that in my mind made her Wendy. I worked with her on a music video in 2011 for “Hard Fi” and after I met her, I said that was it. I was so nervous to ask Heidi to play the part, and vice versa, Heidi was too nervous to audition. But on the shoot we talked and laughed, and, for me, Heidi could bring this character to life.
O: For someone who doesn’t know, what’s the process of getting a film done?
SH: You write your script. When that is done, you work out your budget and start working on the crew and cast. So, at the TTFC, I met Anthony Fung and Kevin Lee Yuen, and, like myself, they were all too eager to make a film, and they came on board. Anthony was our Director of Photography and Kevin Lee Yuen was responsible for sound. But they suggested changes to the script to make it a little punchier and I listened.
Then we started casting, and once that was done, we did our table reads, literally all the cast sitting around my living room, reading out the script and suggesting changes or suggesting what the character would do, and we listened and came up with version nine of the script and that is what we shot. Our editor was also our first assistant director, so his job was to make sure we got everything done on time, and our makeup and wardrobe was done by Carla Hutchinson, who made sure everyone looked their best. It was a totally collaborative effort and it was an awesome one.
O: How hard is it to write a screenplay? What are some of the things you have to consider?
SH: We went through nine different drafts. You look at the budget and then realize that we can’t afford to shoot a scene – one scene was a bathroom exploding at Maracas or a mas camp setting with 50 extras.
As we rehearsed with the actors, over a two-month period, we added in dialogue, changed scenes, etc. As the writer, I allowed the actors to make the characters their own, with my approval of course. Ayanna Cezanne, who plays the ‘baddiss’, Sylvia, really brought a warmth and heart to a character that was otherwise two dimensional.
I don’t think you should consider anything; just write and let the producer sort out what is possible.
O: You said that the process took about two years. But you started Quirky this year, and shot the film this year as well. So clarify…what’s the sequence of how everything fell into place? Did you start before you got funding?
SH: I was awarded a PASD grant from the Trinidad and Tobago Film Company in 2010 for “A Story About Wendy”. That PASD would have essentially covered the full production costs. At the end of 2011, when we received the funds, the terms and conditions changed somewhat, and we received a grant that effectively covered less than half of the production costs. But, that was better than nothing, so as a team, we decided to go ahead and shoot the film.
Without the TTFC, I would not even be here, so we are totally grateful for the support. Quirky came into being soon after. We thought that the film had loads of opportunity for product placement and thought that we would have attracted corporate sponsorship. Boy, was I wrong. Everyone said no. I have all the rejection letters in a manila folder. Actually, one company said yes, Trini Fried Chicken from Cunupia. They were very supportive, and others chipped in too.
Tomace, from West Mall, loaned us an amazing wardrobe for the character of Simone. Everlasting Vows loaned us amazing wedding dresses. Blue Waters gave us a tonne of water. Heather Jones loaned us an amazing dress for the opening scene of the film. Franco Trading allowed us to utilize their amazing office for a few days, and friends and family gave us access to their homes.
The Ministry of Arts and Multiculturalism also gave us a grant. That allowed us to finish the film. Hopefully, now that the film has come out, Corporate Trinidad will join us and help us tell the story. We envision a six-part miniseries and we cannot wait to start.
O: Without getting too much into your personal finances…and assuming that the grants received from the TTFC cover actual production, but not your ‘bread and butter’… give us a sense of the financial reality of making money as a young film maker.
SH: Wow, you ask some tough questions. I think you find most filmmakers’ doing three and four jobs, to pay the bills, freelancing here, doing a job here…but like I said, if you believe in what you are doing, you will find a way to get it done.
I think “A Story About Wendy” has a lot of potential. It’s a great story that has a universal appeal, and I am hoping that the positive response from the Film Festival would create a buzz that would financially allow us to continue to tell the story. We can’t be dependent on the Film Company and the Government to support the arts. We need corporate Trinidad to see the value as well. But it also depends on what the audience wants as well, if they want to see more they will want more – the Santana series has proved that.
O: What do you do besides filmmaking to make money?
SH: I actually sell bottled chutney, Sumptuously Orgasmic, and it can be found at the monthly Upmarket [local crafts market].
O: Do you still work on ads?
SH: I still work on ads when the opportunity arises.
O: What’s the next step for “A Story About Wendy”, after the T&T Film Festival?
SH: We’ve envisioned “A Story About Wendy” to be a six-part mini series, with this film being the pilot. We are also working on another project with the same cast and crew. But I can’t say anything more.
We would love the opportunity to send it to foreign film festivals, so I hope that comes to fruition, and we hope that a local television station and corporate Trinidad would come on board and support us and get the series underway.
O: It’s your first film. What have you learnt from this experience?
SH: Patience and to trust and have faith in others.
O: What do you want people to think/think about after seeing the film?
SH: I want them not to boo at the end, and to want more. I hope they will be entertained. I mean that’s the goal, to provide entertainment. People can step away from their troubles for 40 minutes and be transported into another world, a world that is familiar.
O: Do you think that there are more opportunities for young filmmakers now?
SH: With a degree program at UWI, the TTFC and the TT Film Festival, there are more opportunities than before. Whether or not you can sustain yourself, as a filmmaker, remains to be seen, I am going try.