EDN Member of the Month – Christian Popp
In this monthly interview series EDN focuses on one of its many members to show both members in the spotlight and the diversity of the EDN membership group. Our EDN member of the month for June 2017 is Christian Popp, Producer, YUZU Productions, France.
EDN has among other things talked to Christian Popp about his latest documentary Becoming Cary Grant, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last month.
Christian Popp, born in Romania, is a German-French independent producer who started his career as a commissioning editor at ARTE (1997), first in Strasbourg and then in Berlin. He became a producer 12 years ago. Since then he produced for Interscience film, Artline Films and Docdays Productions. In 2012 he founded YUZU Productions, based in Montreuil, France, together with Fabrice Estève. Christian furthermore frequently works as a tutor, pitching moderator and advisor for numerous markets, documentary workshops and festivals.
EDN: Can you start by telling more about your background and your road into the world of documentaries? How did you end up as commissioning editor at ARTE in 1997?
CP: I studied history and French literature with the goal to become a journalist. This is what I then first did, writing for print media, eventually working for TV. At some point I felt journalism wasn’t my way to tell stories, and I wanted to explore longer forms and different narrative ways. So, I knocked at the door of the ARTE Theme evening department and got the chance to become a commissioner. Although this was in 1997, I remember well, the first documentary I was working on, a French history documentary about animals used in war times, directed by Pierre-Henry Salfati.
EDN: After your time at ARTE you started producing documentaries. How was this shift to the other side of the table – from commissioning editor to producer?
CP: Having been pitched a lot as a Commissioning Editor, I knew the rules and rituals and how to choose, develop and present projects. And I had the chance to start working with a German producer (Interscience Film) who trusted me and helped me a lot in the beginning. In fact, I didn’t know much about the production side. Already as commissioning editor I was interested in budgets and financing plans, as well as technical issues. That was useful. But I wasn’t hands on. I had to learn the production part from scratch. My main interest was (still is) creative producing, content, narratives, style, aesthetics.
EDN: In 2012 you launched YUZU Productions together with Fabrice Estève. What was your motivation for launching the company and how would you describe the company profile?
CP: In this metier one is very much bound to external parameters which are difficult to master. Making documentaries is always creating something new, a prototype. Being employed means that you have to deal with projects and people you don’t always choose to work with. That your editorial choices are dictated by others. For a short time, I worked as a freelance producer, developing projects together with directors and only then approaching a production house. But this wasn’t right for me. I knew and appreciated Fabrice Estève for a while and for him it was also the right moment to launch a company, so we teamed up.
YUZU Productions has not really a specific focus other than the quality of the films we want to do, the projects we believe in strongly. But of course the backgrounds, interests and desires of both of us are essential. We are producing science and arts and culture, history and current affairs, very personal documentaries and more factual films, mostly documentaries and sometimes fiction. What comes with our backgrounds too is the natural desire to look beyond borders and cross cultures – many of our films are international co-productions.
EDN: How do you find the projects you venture into?
CP: Projects usually are brought in by authors and directors, sometimes by co-producers we meet at international markets. Some of our projects are initiated by us and we then look for the right director.
EDN: Your latest completed production is Becoming Cary Grant, which explores the untold stories of the Hollywood icon. How did you get involved in this project?
CP: I met Nick Ware a few years ago at the EDN workshop Lisbon Docs where we tutored together. Nick is a British freelance producer living in France. And he is a big Cary Grant fan. He had the idea, we developed it together and brought it to ARTE France. Then we started looking for the right director, and I’m very happy we found and chose Mark Kidel.
EDN: The film includes Cary Grant’s unpublished autobiography, and newly-discovered personal footage. How was this material discovered by director Mark Kidel?
CP:This was part of the research for the film. There are tons of information, images, trivia, biographies about Cary Grant. You need to find your way into that, and obviously also find out what is true and what is gossip. We worked closely with a film historian, Mark Glancy, who is writing a new biography about Grant, to be published in 2018. The challenge with a star like Cary Grant is not that much to find the “new and never seen” but to focus on what is essential.
Regarding the personal footage, we knew there was a treasure to be found. Grant’s daughter Jennifer had published a book about her father a few years ago and disclosed some beautiful 8mm material at that moment. We approached her as we approached Grant’s last wife Barbara. After Mark Kidel gained their trust, they opened the vault for us.
EDN: A Hollywood icon and never before seen material – one could naively assume that this is an easy sell on the international market…. Can you give us some insights into the realities behind the production and financing process?
CP: The problem with icons is…that they are icons. I remember a nice scene in Sheffield 2015. A commissioning editor I know well rushed out the Meet Market and I said: “You look tired (after probably a dozens of pitches). So, just two words: “Cary Grant”.” She smiled and answered: “I’m in”. Well, she still isn’t. The problem with icons is that they are stamped somehow, everybody seems to know what a film about Cary Grant should be about and look like. There were already some documentaries about Grant, and we often heard “we already had one, thank you”. So, the iconic name is not enough and can even make things difficult.
Director Mark Kidel found his way into the life and career of Grant and knew how he wanted to tell the story very early on. But we hadn’t endlessly time to develop and finance, as the film was supposed to be ready in November 2016 to remember Grant’s passing 30 years ago. So, we had a deadline and needed to start production quickly, before even having the full financing in place. ARTE agreed to co-finance the development and enter coproduction pretty soon, but only for a TV version, we had some prebuys and applied to Media TV Programming in December 2015, a few days before production start. But we were missing significant amounts.
The “never before seen material” came in slowly, it wasn’t really a selling point in the beginning. Our ambition was from the start to produce a feature length film, Cary Grant’s life and oeuvre is so rich! The film was written that way, but the means, in terms of financing, weren’t there until the very end of the production. Reluctantly, we finalized a TV version first and had the picture locked film of 85 minutes on hold. Our executive producer in the US, Susan Turley from ro*co films productions and I pitched successfully the film to Showtime Documentary Films at IDFA 2016 which allowed us to finalize the feature length film, later selected in Cannes.
EDN: The film includes large amounts of archive material. How did this effect the filmmaking process and do you have any advice to producers venturing into this type of project?
CP: I studied history and I love archive based documentaries (I include here still images, audio, documents, objects – not only film archives). One would assume, producing documentaries based on archives is easier than original shooting documentaries as you manage your material. No surprises during shooting, no delayed planes, no bad weather, no difficult interviewees. But there are other challenges: finding the right material, sourcing it, get the masters, restore them where needed, get it right in terms of technical formats. And cost control. While you know more or less what a shooting day will cost, it is difficult to estimate archive costs in the finished film.
Archive consultants are essential to find the right material, I use to think they are DoPs and their relationship with the director is as important as the one on a shooting. Then you need to be very organized in your workflow, so that every film clip, picture, document has its label. You need a database system for your archive and a lot of discipline in the team so you can be sure that whatever goes in the editing room has been sourced and labelled previously. Postproduction of archive based documentaries will always be complicated because of the different sources: conforming, colour grading are a challenge. But with the discipline I mentioned, before and during the editing process, you can smooth it a lot.
EDN: The film premiered last month at the Cannes Film Festival in the Cannes Classics section. How was the experience there and how much does it help the film to have the Cannes stamp?
CP: We had a very good premiere, fully booked, and positive reactions of the festival crowd, good reviews too. Having a film in Cannes is amazing. Being selected is an honour and a stamp of quality, indeed. It gives the film the credit and attention it deserves. The interest from other festivals, distributors and buyers is now very high.
The film performed very well on Showtime and ARTE recently. Some of the buyers of the TV version, are considering now showing the feature length version instead. I’m very pleased about that.
EDN: Last but not least - what lies next for you, for Cary Grant and for YUZU Productions?
CP: The film will screen at several festivals, that I can only partly disclose as there are press embargos: Edinburgh International Film Festival, Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna, Cinema rediscovered, Bristol, Jerusalem Film Festival and other 5 festivals to be announced.
After the TV premieres this June in the USA, Switzerland, New Zeeland and ARTE, it will be soon on 8 another TV channels. More to come, our distributor ARTE France is very active.
YUZU Production is sailing full speed, we have five documentaries in production, most of them co-productions with international partners.
For more information visit: http://www.yuzu-productions.com/
For an overview of all previous EDN Members of the Month, please visit: