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Sibylle Meder Interview: Filmmaking, Music & Passion

Interested in composing music for film?  Indie film maker Sibylle Meder shares some valuable advise!  Sibylle is a filmmaker of fiction and non-fiction projects. 2014 will see the premiere of her feature documentary The Island Bus.  Sibylle talked with Local band on all things film in this revealing interview.

Tell us a little bit about your yourself and how you decided to become a filmmaker?

I am a filmmaker of fiction and non-fiction projects, writer and image and word creator in general, with photo projects I work on and my own blog THE HAPPY FILMMAKER (http://sibyllemeder.net/the-happy-filmmaker).

I would say that it wasn’t so much a decision but a realization that brought me here: at some stage I realized that directing films would be the combination of all the things that I cared about, so this is my main occupation and the culmination of all the other passions.

I loved writing, I have written for pretty much all of my teen and adult life, and I love photography. That famous „I got my first camera from my grandmother“ story applies to me, too. You know, you experiment a bit and dream about different professions. Becoming a photographer was one of them. Initially I even wanted to become an actress. I auditioned for one of Germany’s most prestigious acting schools and didn’t even get past round 1 – but was told I should consider directing. Not that I immediately listened. But turns out, they were right. My biggest love is the cinema. So from passionately watching films to wanting to create them, it isn’t such a big step.

After an excursion into Archaeology, I studied Theatre and Film Studies and graduated with an MA. But staying to teach at uni wasn’t for me. I wanted to do the real thing, look the beast in the eye. I went on to enroll in an intensive hands-on filmmaking course at the New York Film Academy. So I usually say I got my film degree in two stages: theory first, practice later.

I had wanted to become an actress, because the exploring and creating a depiction of another person’s life fascinated me. I haven’t acted anything in ages, but people ask me sometimes whether I am sure I should be BEHIND the camera. Yes, I am sure. Simply, because coming from a love for auteur cinema something inside me still feels that the director is the one closest connected to the film as a whole. It really is your baby – at least the way I work. That said, as I grow and develop I find the collaborative aspect of filmmaking more and more rewarding. The more you work with other people and are able to form and grow into a team, the more you get to explore and learn. The team work is what turns it from something you care about to something that you fall deeply in love with. And babies can have different parents.

Do you consider film making a passion?

Absolutely.

How do you decide on subject matter for the next film?

Again, it feels more like ideas present themselves to me rather than that I go out looking for them. The films I have made as a director so far were all created in a very non-commercial environment which gives you an amazing amount of freedom. The process is pretty magical: inspiration strikes at the most unexpected moments. Taking the idea and turning it into a project and then finding the means to execute that is another matter.

But you could say that certain themes and subjects turn up repeatedly in my work: I am fascinated by families (families by relation and chosen ones) and in general by groups of people interacting and the dynamics between them. That’s probably a legacy of long conversations with my psychologist mother. I love ensemble films and this shows in some of my works. As a theme, I would say that I like making films about people who manage to create happiness for themselves and the ways in which they do this. Nature and the interaction of a person with their environment (whether it is a landscape or a cityscape) are also pretty important – as is humor.

Even in my more commercial work, like promotional or event videos where the subject matter is pre-determined, I try to make it my own by applying my sense of humor or “eye“ to it. Doesn’t always work, but when it does customers are usually happily surprised.

Your recent project, “The Island Bus” is a documentary. Is this the style of film that you are most comfortable with?

Not exclusively. In fact, it started with fiction. At the core of THE ISLAND BUS is this story of the outsider who comes into a pretty whimsical community and has to find his bearings. The audience gets to enjoy the comical and the more thought-provoking aspects of life on a small Greek island. Before THE ISLAND BUS when I first considered making a film on Tilos island, I had this Neo-Realist approach in mind. I planned on using lay actors and getting the whole village involved to act in my film. It was supposed to be a romantic comedy about a fisherman looking for a wife – and had some Oscar-Wilde-style identity confusions in it. Never happened, though I did find some prospective actors. But I was lacking the infrastructure to do it. If you work in this way, you need to have a team of people behind the lens who have been working together for a while so that there is a familiarity to fall back on which I didn’t have at the time. But I liked the project. In a way, the tone and some of the scenes in THE ISLAND BUS echo that idea.

What is the message that you hope audiences will get from this film?

I know that I am good with atmospheres, I strive to create an atmosphere and a space for the audience to experience this atmosphere, to immerse themselves into it. In the case of THE ISLAND BUS, I hope audiences will feel what it is like to live on this island – and with living I don’t mean holidays. I mean that we were trying to get people to experience the everyday life of a small Greek island community. To me, THE ISLAND BUS (the actual bus and the eponymous film) is like a microcosm of the island – which again is like a microcosm of what is happening in Europe at the moment. But I hope, beyond that it will also inspire audiences to reflect on what is important to them in their lives, what they would be willing to sacrifice – and for what. What are they striving for? How do they find happiness? And could they imagine themselves in the position of Saeed, Marta, Sveta and Menelaos who are the main characters of the film. How would they act?  So, in short: I don’t think we are telling people a message but inviting them to ponder certain questions – and hopefully the atmosphere and the story of THE ISLAND BUS will provoke answers within the viewers.

A documentary producer from Israel who is making very high-profile political documentary films once told me that THE ISLAND BUS had inspired him to reflect on his own filmmaking. He said: „Sibylle, you don’t take the viewer by the hand and tell them what to think and feel, you give them the space to work that out by themselves.“ I thought that was an amazing compliment. That is exactly what I am trying to do.

Can you tell us a little about how you go about finding funding to make your films?

In a nutshell: I try and fail and try again and fail better. My fictional short films were mostly funded by the Metroscreen Production Group, which is a local filmmaker’s support in Sydney (where I was living at the time). In Greece where I am partly based right now and where THE ISLAND BUS is set, film funding is non-existent. For a few years already, the Hellenic Film Board has zero funds and it doesn’t look as if this was going to improve in the future. So you need to look for alternatives.

With the kind of films like THE ISLAND BUS (which is a feature-length observational documentary about a remote place with a social interest and humanistic topic) getting funding – especially as a first time filmmaker – is close to impossible. So you beg, borrow and steal. We have had seed funding from Creative Scotland to develop the project which meant producer Lindsay Goodall (of Glasgow-based Beau Films) and I could take THE ISLAND BUS to pitching workshops and present it to commissioning editors in Corfu, Athens, Thessaloniki and Edinburgh. The feedback was great and helped with developing the film further. We got a lot of encouragement and enthusiastic response – but financially, we ended up producing it without the help of a co-producing TV channel. So in other words: the film was funded by the wonderful people working on it, including our German co-producers Anja and Mike Dehghan of High5Films, donating their time to make it happen. Lindsay managed to pull together a great team of talent whom she had worked with on previous projects and who enjoyed her collaboration and our project so much that they were generous enough to apply their talents to THE ISLAND BUS. Cinematographer George Cameron Geddes is a household name in Scotland, his feature rom-com NOT ANOTHER HAPPY ENDING was the closing film at Edinburgh Film Festival in 2013. Colorist John Sackey usually works on high-end advertising jobs and TV commissions, yet found the time to do some magic for our film. Sound designer Ali Murray’s work includes Oscar nominated and multi award winning documentary KARAMA HAS NO WALLS from director Sara Ishaq, and numerous Mark Cousins features. Yet, he agreed to spend what was probably Scotland’s finest summer in decades with me in his studio, working on the sound design for THE ISLAND BUS. Same goes for the musicians who were involved. Effectively, all of us donated our work to the film. In a business sense, there are of course only so many projects you can make that way.

For SPACE, PLACE & STORY a documentary short film I shot in Israel in collaboration with director-actress Judith Korin and a writer-actress Alicia Devine from Scotland, we received funding from the European Cultural Foundation. A short documentary report I filmed and directed for Metropolis TV was first pitched and then commissioned by the TV channel. For my promotional videos, I don’t even pick up a camera without a budget agreed on by everyone involved. So there are various ways of going about it.

In general, I would say, the more independent you want to work and the more control you want to have over your idea and the outcome, the more difficult it will be to get others to commit to paying you for it. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t go for it though. On the contrary. There are lots of networking and funding opportunities out there, but also lots of filmmakers competing for them. As in any business, it helps to maintain contacts – as the example of Lindsay and the people who love working with her repeatedly shows – follow up any leads, and most importantly: keep on keeping on.

Can you tell us what you do in order to promote the films when you are finished?

THE ISLAND BUS has it’s own bi-lingual blog (in English and German) about the production of the film (http://islandbus.wordpress.com). There is a Facebook page and a twitter account and we had a coverage in Germany and Greece about the production process. We have submitted the film to several festivals and I have just been to Thessaloniki International Documentary Festival where I have met up with sales agents and festival programmers. Word about the film is spreading. It is a long process but you just have to keep at it. I know there is an audience eagerly awaiting the release and we are working on the best possible strategy to make the film available to as many people as possible who want to see it.

Did you have a lot of support from friends and family?

Of course. I think, filmmaking is such a fascinating but also exhausting business that that support is really crucial. Even if it isn’t any professional or monetary support, the emotional support, the pep talks are invaluable. It’s good to have people who keep you grounded and show you that they believe in what you are doing. I also like to consider them in my mind as my second audience (the first audience I am usually myself cause I need to make films that I would like to watch, too – otherwise the work gets stale).  Before a film is even made, having a specific audience in mind gives it a more personal depth, I feel. In the case of THE ISLAND BUS, there was a whole island community of 400 people in the F&F section.

Do you get a lot of support from social media?

Social media make it possible for people to interact with the makers of their favorite entertainment. I think it’s an interesting way of audience feedback. THE ISLAND BUS has very loyal fans who have supported the project from the word go and are eagerly awaiting the premiere this year and I am very grateful for that. It is a bit unreal sometimes thinking that what I am doing on a small island could move someone in New York or Australia to write something. Especially the blog has had a good following and people wrote from almost every continent – apart from Antarctica, I think. I don’t know what’s wrong with them down there. Maybe they don’t like buses…

So, yes, of course that keeps you going because even before you have a finished product, you realize that what you do is of relevance to someone. So you are also being held accountable. At some stage, I had a regular blog post to publish every Friday and that was also a nice way of reflecting where the project was. Recently at the Doc Fest in Thessaloniki, I connected with other filmmakers on Twitter because we were all encouraged to tweet about the films we had watched. Being at the same festival at the same time meant that you could go from social media to real life discussions which was great. It can all get a little overwhelming, but in general, social media are just media, so you can use them in the way that fits you best. It’s a learning experience. Like everything.

Have you ever doubted that the career of a filmmaker might not be feasible?

Apart from the usual self-doubts and questions that come with the territory and which probably every artist knows from time to time, I have never considered another career. That said, I am taking filmmaking to be a very wide definition. I am recently reaching out and trying to work in various forms, like music videos, and have worked in various crew positions from writer to camera person and editor. But that doesn’t qualify as a career change I think. I am definitely hooked on the moving image.

All artists at some time or another go through periods of self doubting. Was there ever a time where you when you really felt that you were over your head?

With every single project at some stage. It’s part of the process I think. It is a sign of perfectionism.

You have had films screen at festivals?

I have had short films screen at festivals in the UK, Germany and Australia. THE ISLAND BUS will screen at festivals in Greece in 2014.

Can you tell us about your first experience with this kind of showing?

The most perfect feedback you can get. There is nothing like watching your film with an audience. The first time my film school graduation short, SPARE PARTS, screened at a festival felt incredible. I was nervous. It was bizarre sitting in a cinema, watching my own work on a big screen surrounded by an audience that actually laughed at some of the jokes. When it was time for the Q&A, my knees felt like jelly on the way up to the stage. As soon as I was there and got to discuss, all the anxiety left. I think all that university training of speaking in front of an audience did kick in eventually. But it was also immensely rewarding to get the feedback from people who the film was made for: the audience.

Another nice aspect of film festivals is that it is a little like a high school reunion – but only with the kids you always wanted to hang out with. Most of my filmmaking friends describe it as that kind of  “bubble“: at a festival, you get to attend all these different events from screenings, to panel discussions, market chats, individual meetings and socializing events. There is such an information and communication overload that you come back highly inspired and charged – and totally exhausted at the same time. But it is great to take some of the festival vibe into your normal work life. And ideally, you will have made new connections that get you further. Filmmaking is collaboration. So making new connections is always good.

Generally what kind of feedback do you get at these events?

It depends on different factors: the audience can be very varied. A screening that is open to the public will be very different than screening your work for industry only or in the framework of a pitching event. Therefore you can get anything from just a „Thank you!“ or someone saying they really liked (or disliked) your film to a detailed and in depth discussion of some of its topics – or even an offer to collaborate on future projects.

What is your thought process when you get an idea for a film? Do you immediately think of budgetary and practical considerations or do you linger for a while in the creative mode?

I think before I even go into budgeting or anything more practical, I will mull over an idea for a while to see whether it is really anything I would like to spend a good part of my life on. In contrast to, say, pencil-drawing, filmmaking is a long process. There is no way that you can make a quick film in a few minutes. So you don’t just jump on every idea and try it out. That said, I made a music video once which I finished in one long night-session. But that was more like a playful exercise to hone the craft.

Then again, since so much in filmmaking depends on logistics, once you realize that an idea is something you want to pursue, budgeting and organization will come in pretty soon. I think, the time frame really depends on the size of the project. I pondered the idea for THE ISLAND BUS for about a year and a bit before we actually started looking for a team and funding. Lindsay and I started swapping ideas and shaping the project description in late 2009. From then on, the project went through a lot of revisions to reach the form it has now.

How many films have you done in total?

THE ISLAND BUS is my first feature-length documentary. There are over a dozen short films, depending on whether you count film school and uni projects or not. In addition to that, I have made a TV report, music videos, promotional videos and am in the process of collecting material for another feature-length docu. I am also currently co-directing a web documentary series called DREAM JOB for NYC-based Catalysta.

Do you continue to learn from these projects?

All of life is a learning process, isn’t it? The older I get and the more I learn, the more I realize what little I know yet. Every single project has its own lessons. Which might be what makes creative work so rewarding – and exhausting at the same time. Never a dull moment.

How important is the music in your films.  In what order of priority does this fall?

That depends on the project. For THE ISLAND BUS I knew pretty early on that I wanted the music to play a vital role in the film. For several reasons: firstly, the island life depicted is very slow, but the characters are mostly quite temperamental and fiery. Other than a film set in, say, the Arctic circle where the slowness of the rural pace of life is echoed in the reserved attitude of the people in Northern climes, people on Tilos oscillate between extremes: stillness and liveliness. Music could help here to counteract the calming effect of the vast landscape and give parts of the film a faster pace.

Another important aspect was the diversity of the island. There might be only about 400 inhabitants, but they hail from 16 different countries and 3 continents at last count. Yet, they have all chosen Tilos as a home. At least temporarily. In a rural community, customs are important and play a role in shaping people’s interaction with each other. But with so many different cultural backgrounds, fusion is inevitable. So I was looking to express this in the music. Again, we were very lucky with the people we got to work on this. There were the young local musicians Antonis and Kostas Makris, Telis Hatzifountas and Xenia and Pantelis Logothetis from Tilos who played the island’s traditional songs for us. They also collaborated with John Bartlam and Dennis Kelly, two English musicians who live on the island, an we set up two jam and recording sessions in John’s backyard. The remixes were done by Germany-based Morroccan DJ Badre whom I met through mutual friends and colleagues and whose ethnic gypsy fusion style of electronic beats was just perfect for the second musical layer. The original score for the film’s more pensive scenes comes from Local Band’s very own Thomas Mangano.

The resulting mix is a wild ride from traditional Greek island songs to dance remixes to orchestral pieces – and I am very proud of it. After a preview screening, someone already told us they are waiting to buy the soundtrack. So I think that emphasizes the importance of the music.

 Does it help you to “visualize” music to your images?

I actually work the other way round very often. I would say that my first „filmmaking“ happened as a teenager, sun-bathing on a Greek beach, headphones in my ears, listening to music and having films and stories play out in my head. And I think this is common among filmmakers. Which leads us to a film music conundrum: the director and the editor would love to have music to set the image to – whereas composers usually would like to have an image or better even an edited scene before they start.

For musicians and composers who aspire to write music for films, how would you tell teach them to speak a directors language?

I think, it is more the director’s job to learn the language of their different team members. We speak about „beats“ and „objectives“ with actors and „frame size“, „speed” and „high or low-key“ with cinematographers – and though some of these terms sound musical, they have a very different meaning. Most directors – myself included – know preciously little about music composition, but we have a fair knowledge of composition – directing a film is pretty similar to conducting an orchestra. I can only speak for myself, but what I am usually looking for in the film music is a certain mood.

To learn each other’s language, it is a good idea to swap musical tastes, listen to the same pieces and start talking about what you like and dislike about them, what they provoke in you and why, and what associations you have. I think, directors never mean to say: „I want something like this song here“ (and then give you an example), but often they are lacking the vocabulary to express it any better so they just revert to what is called „result direction“. If you have the time to do so, a great example to enhance communication comes from a very inspired directing teacher, Mark Travis. In his „Directing Feature Films“ he suggests that you let team members describe the story and action of a film with regards to their craft. So a costume designer would write about colors and fabrics, period styles and trends. A musician would probably emphasize choral pieces or single instruments. A scene might play out in staccato or in a slow movement. Even if you don’t have the same specific language, I think that is a good conversation starter. As in any good relationship, it also helps to spend at least „virtual“ time together and play around a bit and try different things.

Talk about the difficulties in working with composers?

As you can probably guess from the above, I think most directors are more visual animals than trained in sound. I have always tried to overcome that handicap, and one of my film school films was mainly focussed on the sound. But it is easy to revert to the visual where you just have more experience. So we feel a little confused when asked to describe what we are looking for. And then, the fact that we work with temp music to create the image can also cause problems. If there is that piece of music that you have heard and you think it is perfect, then it is quite hard adapting to something else. I know composers probably hate the idea. To them it must feel a bit like being compared to the former spouse. And it is unfair. So as a director, you should have the ability to move on from your pre-conceived ideas and be open to what your composer comes up with. But you want a certain mood, pace, a certain quality of the music which you find hard to express. – I guess you can see where problems arise.

My suggestion would be to get to know each other musically, to share music, talk about it, bring up very personal associations. Once you have established that rapport and understanding and you feel as a director that your composer has also gotten what the film, the scene, the mood you are working on is about, then you should let them take it away and let yourself be – hopefully pleasantly – surprised by what they come back with. Music being such an emotional thing, it is a very special moment when you watch your visual work with the score for the first time. I have had tears in my eyes on more than one occasion. Tears of happiness, by the way.

What are the top tips you would give to composers looking to get their music into film?

THE top tip, I feel, is to have a portfolio of musical pieces available that gives a person who has absolutely no musical training an intuitive idea of what you are capable of. As I mentioned before, I think a lot of directors like to listen to music to get their creative juices flowing. I secretly suspect that is the reason why music videos are such a popular playground. So if you can present a person who might want to work with you with a selection of your work and they find something that speaks to them, that is the foot in the door.

Following that up, it also helps if you can speak about the process and communicate how you go on about changes and adjustments and if you are patient enough to deal with people who don’t really know what they are talking about but are desperately trying to get their point across.

Unfortunately, composers like actors are on the receiving end of a lot of rejection in the film industry, I think. So make sure you let negative answers slide off your back. If it helps, directors too repeatedly hear “ No”. It is all part of the process.

What is one of the most remarkable things that ever happened on a shoot?

I think witnessing how someone unexpectedly offered to adopt my documentary’s main character while I was filming them was a pretty remarkable experience. It was supposed to be a much smaller scene depicting some island life – and suddenly turned into one of the crucial scenes of the film.

 What is your next project?

Currently I am co-directing the web documentary series DREAM JOB together with Edward Goldberg for Catalysta. Season 1 is about to be finished and will go online in June 2014 on Catalysta’s own website (www.catalysta.org). It follows young professionals as they are starting a career in their dream industry (the first season deals with Eco Fashion) with a view to the common good, sustainability and social responsibility. The show aims to put faces and real-life stories to buzz words and make the process of working towards your dream job palpable.

For filmmakers, composers, directors and all of the people involved in the process of bringing films to the screen, what are some parting words of advise, love and encouragement?

First of all, stay true to yourself. You and what you have to bring to the business and the world in general are irreplaceable – even though „the industry“ will tell you differently. Learn whatever you can from wherever you can. Take everything as an opportunity to learn something and enjoy that. Find a way to maintain balance and happiness. I like meditation (took me years to find that out). But do whatever works for you. Being relaxed is a huge bonus in an industry where people love to make themselves slaves of deadlines and perceived or real pressures. Have a life, ideally the life you want, and include a lot of it in your work. Make your work a part of your life. Don’t compartmentalize. Be bold, stand up for what you stand for. But most of all: be happy with what you do. That’s the most important thing I think. Oh, and: make sure you get enough sleep!

I have recently started a blog called THE HAPPY FILMMAKER on my website (www.sibyllemeder.net

) to collect tools, tips and stories about how to be exactly that: a happy filmmaker. So if you’d like, pop in and see whether I have got more words of wisdom to offer – or to talk about your own experiences. All the best for you and your work and hope to hear from you soon! Enjoy!

PHOTO CREDITS: Sibylle and cinematographer George Cameron Geddes, photo © Lindsay Goodall

About the interviewer:

Thomas Mangano is a composer and a performer living on Long Island, NY.  He is the owner of a production services company that provides music, soundscapes and effects to  professionals in  film and media industries.  He is  also the founding member of the  Boutcher/Mangano Jazz Trio and currently serves as the Music Director for the Custer Observatory.

To learn more about Thomas, Please visit his website: Thomasmangano.com

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About Thomas Mangano

Musician, Composer, Columnist

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