How To Make A Movie In A Foreign Country: Chapter 1

December 11, 2017
James Pillion jumped at the opportunity to direct his first feature film; the fact that it was to be made in Romania didn’t faze the young Australian filmmaker at first. The result is the highly accomplished Far From Here, and this series of candid articles that he’s put together exclusively for us.

What does it take to make your debut movie in a foreign country?

I had no idea but my ego thought different.

A young gun filmmaker with an oversized ego and four years in the city of Angels, I was hungry to put my neck on the line, to sacrifice my sanity in search of adventure… In other words, I was ready to make a movie.

I never considered filmmaking a career growing up. All I knew was that I couldn’t get enough of it. After reluctantly completing a bachelor of business, I submitted applications to film school on a whim and was bowled over to receive an invitation to attend a Masters program right in the heart of the dream factory – Los Angeles, California. I spent the next few years writing and directing like a boy possessed, the experience igniting something inside of me. I knew I was born to tell stories.

Jonathan Ahmadi and I met when I cast him in the lead role of a short I made in film school. He was incredibly handsome and charismatic, the type of guy who could melt a stick of butter with his smile. Persistent and self-confident, Jonathan hounded me to collaborate with him on a script idea. While we shared different aesthetics, we both loved to tell stories. We began to build a series of original screenplays and I starting putting down roots. I’d been going steady with a talented California native and was cultivating a small but dependable group of fellow collaborators. Everything was coming up roses.

In May 2015, I was detained by border patrol at LAX on a flight back from Sydney. I thought they were only going to ask me a few routine questions and called my girl who was waiting outside, telling her I would take a cab home in a few hours. It was then that a CBP officer accused me of working illegally on my temporary tourist visa. There was no trial, no appeal process. I was slapped with a five-year ban and put on the next plane down under. Everything I’d come to know; my beautiful girl, my family of collaborators and the Duchess – my 1988 Cadillac Coupe Deville – was now nothing more than a memory.

I was a train wreck. Not only had my life been ripped from me but I felt completely powerless. It was Jonathan who came to my aid. He gave me a kick in the pants and put my pain to work on a new screenplay. The first draft was born in a couple of months via Skype from Sydney – Far From Here – a confessional coming-of-age story inspired from the trials of our past relationships.

Our script caught the attention of a producer I’d been working for in LA. Securing one hundred thousand clams to realise our dreams, he gave us an ultimatum. The green light was conditional on us shooting the film in Romania with the help of a veteran Spanish filmmaker based in Bucharest. Jumping up and down like a couple of orangutans, we didn’t think twice and signed the dotted line. How bad could it be?

I’ve put together some pointers for all you hungry go-getters out there. Some handy tips on when to fire on all cylinders and when to clamp down on the brakes so that you don’t go from this…

Living the dream. Los Angeles 2013.

To this:

Facing my demons. Bucharest, 2015.

DO YOUR HOMEWORK

 I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know the first thing about Romania. I’d never even looked it up on the world map. The way I saw it, this was how my favourite movies got made. My heroes didn’t stop and think whether they could weather the storm. Besides, even if I did have second thoughts, the plane tickets were already squared away. There was no turning back now. I was a moth drawn to the light.

In September 2015, I touched down in Bucharest, the air still sticky from a muggy summer. Jonathan, Jay (our producer) and I were sharing a tiny apartment overlooking a sprawling train-yard. There was only one bedroom, so the boys slept on the living room floor. We hit the ground running, but quickly discovered that we were up against some strong cultural roadblocks. Romania is a fiercely patriotic country that fell behind the Iron Curtain for close to half a century. Thirty years since the fall of the wall, the effects of isolationism and oppression are still very real. The first thing I noticed was that everyone looked the same; their hairstyles, choice of clothes, even their facial features. Men are clean-shaven, outwardly unemotional, and carry themselves like they’re on their way to a gunfight. Women wear their dark hair long and straight, dressed in impractical high-heels, models of old world femininity.

Jonathan needed to grow a beard for the start of production and in an act of solidarity, Jay and I joined in. I was already sporting an unruly head of long hair, and together with the beard it was enough to turn me into a social pariah. Locals eyed me like a common criminal and kept their distance on the metro. More than once, little old ladies entering my building would spot me coming up the steps and nervously slam the door closed in my face. I’d wait until they had disappeared before letting myself in.

DON’T LET YOUR LEAD ACTORS FALL IN LOVE

We had a month of pre-production to pull the entire project together and our first task was to find a leading lady. My anxiety levels soared as weeks of casting flew by with no success. None of the candidates could string more than a few words of English together. When Maria Morgenstern walked through the door it was nothing short of euphoric.

Maria was a Romanian celebrity. She entered the room like a bright beacon, knocking us over the head with a confidence and intensity that made Jonathan look like a rookie. I was elated, but it was short to last. Just as quickly as she had charmed us she went cold – saying she liked the script but was most likely unable to make the film. For the next few days we tried our best to chase her, but Maria went quiet.

I was crushed, sure that the one actress who could carry the role had just slipped through our fingers. A few days later Jonathan coaxed me out for drinks in an attempt to drown my sorrows. I showed up to discover Maria by his side, their hands all over each other. It all came into focus right then and there.

A few days later, Maria whisked us away to her country home for the purposes of ‘rehearsal’. To see their love ignite over those two days was a very strange feeling. Jonathan fell head over heels for Maria, blind to the warning signs all around him. While I was excited at the prospect of capturing genuine chemistry onscreen, my gut told me that something wasn’t right.

While picking fresh strawberries in her garden, Jonathan dropped the bomb on me. He told me that Maria had asked him to move in with her. I tried to talk some sense into him, to use his head over his loins, but his mind was made up. I did my best to shrug off the self-doubt and put things in perspective. We’d come halfway across the world to make a movie. If I had to make a deal with the devil, then I’d hold my head up high and sign away my soul with confidence.

Read the next installment of How To Make A Movie In A Foreign Country

Read Chapter 3 of How To Make A Movie In A Foreign Country

Read the Final Chapter of How To Make A Movie In A Foreign Country

Far From Here is available on iTunes from April 1, 2018

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