JEREMY: I got my start making short films in high school, then continued in college as a theater and film major. Directed more short films and some plays. When I was finishing up school, I made a documentary in Senegal called This Is Us, which was nominated for a Student Academy Award. Tall as the Baobab Tree is based on stories from that documentary.
Where did the idea come from and what was your writing process like?
JEREMY: When I first went to Senegal, I thought it was going to be a one-time thing -- I had gotten hired by an educational nonprofit to shoot a short promotional film in a rural village school. But once I got to the school, I met a bunch of students who were around my same age. Their experiences as first-generation students was very intriguing and inspiring -- so I found a way to go back and make a documentary with them. The idea for the narrative feature film developed naturally during the making of the doc.
Tall as the Baobab Tree uses real people, "non-actors," playing roles that mirror their actual lives. Taking inspiration from films like Munyurangabo, we developed a script outline -- bullet points of scenes and key moments within the scenes -- and let the actors improvise.
I found that the best way to cultivate compelling performances was to have the actors be in as natural an environment as possible. This also led to a more powerful and true script, since the actors themselves were shaping the scenes. We were also open to revising the plot outline throughout the shoot, incorporating any discoveries that came up during improvisation.
JEREMY: The local kids (village students) were the heart and soul of the production. Without them, there would not have been a film. The story of the film is their story -- their passion, their drive to have their story heard, that was the fuel behind our production. I never even considered trying to make this film without them. The benefit speaks for itself on screen: the film truly captures the passion, hopes, and frustrations of the young generation of village students.
JEREMY: With the help of a 501(c)(3) fiscal sponsor, we raised our budget through a combination of individual donations and equipment/services sponsorships. Seeing as how I started out with no connections in the indie feature film world, my plan was to set up an online store on the film's website and sell directly to groups who would be interested in the film's subject matter -- schools, nonprofits, etc. Of course I also felt that the movie had its merits as a work of cinema, not just as an educational tool, but I knew that I could at least appeal to that niche market.
As we started getting into festivals and expanding our network, we eventually formed relationships with different sales outlets. You can keep an eye out for the film on iTunes and Netflix thanks to Sundance Artist Services and San Francisco Film Society!
What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?
JEREMY: We used the Canon 5d as our primary camera, and the 7d as b-camera. We always shot with two cameras rolling simultaneously to minimize repetitive takes for our nonprofessional cast.
Using DSLR's was such an easy decision for us: we were shooting on location miles away from the nearest paved road with no access to electricity. The crew and I slept in a hotel with electricity every night, so we could charge batteries and dump footage -- but we took horse-drawn carts to and from the village each day. We needed gear that was easy to transport, didn't require elaborate lighting, and didn't necessitate a large crew.
I loved that we were light on our feet and could totally adapt to our surroundings. We were fine with flex fills and an ultra-light LED panel for interiors. Honestly, can't say that I hated anything about it. I've since worked on a RED (on other projects), and of course the extra latitude in post is nice -- but I also found myself missing the agility of the DSLR.
JEREMY: Smartest thing? Making sure I clearly communicated with my crew throughout the pre-production process -- we were very well prepared when we hit the ground to begin production. We knew that we'd be dealing with many unknowns: improvised/changing script, unpredictable weather, challenging work conditions, etc. Thankfully, we were prepared to expect the unexpected.
Dumbest was definitely not giving sound its due on set. Rather than fly out a professional sound person, I figured I could bring my own equipment and train some of the students to be our sound guys. I paid for this dearly (in time and money) in post, working for nearly a month with a sound designer to fix errors we made on set... flying back to Senegal for ADR was definitely out of the question. I've since learned that neglecting sound is a classic first-time filmmaker mistake... don't skimp on sound!
JEREMY: I'd say that the most significant lesson I've taken with me is this: it's more important to be making something than not making something. It sounds simple, but it can be so easy to get caught up in trying to get some high concept idea off then ground when more immediately executable opportunities exist all around you.
It's better to shoot with non actors, a DSLR (or anything), and tiny crew than it is to wait for that investor, wait for that one more grant application, spend tons of money, and make a "real" film.
If you have your 1 million dollar script just waiting for that grant acceptance, great -- but in the meantime, make a short film with no dialogue starring your roommate.