As the T&T feature film The Cutlass prepares for its international release, Caroline Taylor talks to the filmmakers about the challenges of local and regional cinema
CT: Teneille, what inspired you to tell this story as your first feature?
Teneille Newallo (screenwriter & executive producer): Timing is everything. I am firstly an actor, and moving back to Trinidad, I realised that I wanted to create challenging roles for local actors, as they weren’t yet abundant here. Apart from the reasons mentioned above, I knew that telling this story would also fulfill this calling I had to create some meaty roles for local actors. I am very passionate about showcasing our local talent alongside foreign talent.
CT: Darisha and Drew — how did you first become involved in the project, and what moved you to sign on?
Darisha Beresford (director & executive producer): I believe it was around 2010 that Teneille came to Miami and shared the story with me and the idea of turning it into a movie. At the time I had been a producer on a variety of reality TV shows and had worked on a handful of independent films in the US. I was moved by the story, and was very interested in directing/producing a feature film at home (T&T). So we partnered up, along with Drew Umland and his post-production company to create The Cutlass.
CT: Why, for you, is this story important?
DB: I found that the story told from the perspective of the real life hero and her family was inspiring. As she recounted the events, I truly admired her strength and her ability to “pick up the pieces” in her life. She was able to describe and paint a very distinct and intense picture of her abductor, which helped us create his complex and unique character for the film, which was brilliantly portrayed by T&T actor Arnold Goindhan. Even though The Cutlass is a psychological thriller, there are many emotional and truthful layers that can hopefully raise important questions within our society, ie mental health, support for victims of abuse, poverty, violence against women etc.
TN: I lost my best friend to violence when I was 18 years old and since then, have been waiting for my moment to contribute to the Say No to Violence Against Women movement. When I first heard this story, directly from the mouth of the victim, only days after it occurred, I was blown away by her courage and modesty. Most people that knew her and knew of what she went through never really got the details or understanding of what she truly experienced; and I wanted everyone to understand. In that moment, I immediately felt like so many people could benefit from hearing what it was she truly had to endure. This was not a regular kidnapper and this story was certainly quite different from the other kidnappings that were happening in Trinidad in 2005. This man was tremendously intelligent, calm, collected, brave, calculating and focused and working for himself. At the same time, he was completely lacking in emotional intelligence and was a complete coward on the inside, terrified of failure. In another life, his great mind could have been an assistance to humanity but instead, he was more than a hindrance to society. Without giving away the story, the fact that he met his match in “Joanna” in the forest, is a testament to her own intelligence and bravery. The story needed to be told. There are many young women and men out there who can gain strength from her experience, and learn from the experience of the kidnapper in the film.
CT: How did you navigate the delicacy of presenting a story based on harrowing real life events?
TN: [N]avigating through this was one of our most difficult tasks. Darisha and I, from the beginning, knew that it would be a very delicate matter and we are both very protective over the family, as we know how devastating of an experience this was for not only “Joanna”, but her family and friends. Writing the story, I also had to consider every individual that was actually in that house when “Joanna” was abducted. They all had very traumatic experiences and they all needed to be respected. Extensive research (6 months or more initially, plus additional research during writing and filming) and constantly checking in with the victim was a major priority throughout the entire filmmaking process, including a private screening in my home for the victim, before the premiere. We even had some family members visit us on set during filming and some are even extras in the film! We also included original music in our film, from the band that was actually in the house during the kidnapping. We wanted to keep the experience as intimate as possible for our cast, crew and, of course, audience.
CT: How long did it take, from conception to completion of the film, and what were key milestones in the journey?
TN: I originally began writing the script and then put it down for a year or so because I had a work opportunity with an A-list agency in LA. When things fell through, I re-evaluated my entire life and decided that I was going to create my own path from then on. It was in this moment in 2010 that I became serious about making The Cutlass. I approached Darisha and we discussed a partnership (and then later on, Drew joined the team as our third producer). The key milestones for me were that deciding moment in 2010, the moment we shot our short teaser in 2012, the moment we released the short teaser, our first bank deposit, the moment we shot the feature in 2016 and our Red Carpet Premiere in 2016. To hear and see audiences reactions to the film was, by far, the most rewarding moment.
CT: What were the biggest challenges in producing this film, in addition to fundraising?
Drew Umland (editor & executive producer): One of the biggest challenges faced in producing an independent film project and bringing it from concept to market is the length of commitment required. We were able to plan, shoot and edit the film in just under a year. However, we spent several years prior to that in development. Now, our efforts are focused on the distribution, release and marketing of the film. Our team has produced two children since the this project began. I am sure they will be school age before we have really “completed” the project.
DB: In addition to the actual fundraising, one the biggest challenges was to make a micro-budget film look and feel like a million bucks! We didn’t have the capital to rent the fanciest equipment or to hire the biggest crews, however, everyone who said ‘yes’ to taking on the project invested their time, talent, resources and skills to produce a world class production for the fraction of the cost. It’s amazing what we can achieve with dedication, persistence and the innate love for our craft- no matter the obstacles we found creative and innovative ways to cross the finish line.
TN: For me, the biggest challenge was finding that balance between telling the true story and telling an appropriate story for an interesting film. We wanted to stay as true to the essence of the story as possible but knew it was necessary to change certain elements to make it appropriate for our audience. In doing this, our main priority was always the comfort of the real-life family and especially the real-life “Joanna Soloman”, that were involved in the true, horrific event; so we always wanted to remain respectful. There were certain elements of the story that needed to be changed to protect the family and to also help the audience relate more to the story; and then there were elements that had to remain in the film, otherwise it would have taken away from the real-life experience of these people. In the end, the story is about “Joanna”, her bravery and her victory and I think we accomplished that feeling in the film. Our actress, Lisa-bel Hirschmann was fully committed and her dedication to the role truly shows.
CT: Darisha and Drew — what were the particular challenges you faced directing/editing this film, especially in the local context?
DU: As the editor and post production manager, the real test was getting this film ready in time for the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival. This was very important to us. So there was no time to waste. To meet this goal we actually began editing the film on-location as it was being shot. This meant setting up shop with generators, tents and computers in some very unusual and exotic locations deep within the Trinidad’s north coast. Deep in the bush at night the lights from our tent would draw out the kind of creepy crawly critters that nightmares are made of. There was no sense in trying to fight them off. We just kinda cohabited.
DB: As far as directing, I had to view all the challenges that presented themselves as opportunities to create and improvise. For instance, our wilderness locations (which make up a great deal of the film) were stunning but were a bit out of the way… a little nerve wrecking from a logistical standpoint. But for the sake of authenticity and getting the shot I had to make a convincing case to ensure my cast and crew that these locations were imperative to telling the story. Time was also very limited because we didn’t have the budget to shoot the film in the ‘appropriate’ time frame. So I had to make many creative and logistical decisions on the fly.
CT: And what surprised you (whether positively or negatively) in working on this film?
DB: (Even though I don’t like surprises because I try to be as prepared in my head for anything lol) I think the biggest surprise for me directing The Cutlass was finding the acting talent in Trinidad and Tobago to be exceptional. I had worked with local crews before and knew that we had very skilled technical departments. However, the actors were very well prepared, professional and transformative. It was refreshing to work with such talented performers.
CT: What does the landscape look like for T&T films on the international market? What are the challenges of distribution?
DB: There is a unique opportunity for T&T film producers to find a niche in the international marketplace because the film world is changing rapidly with the influx of new distribution platforms. As long as the stories are universal and the target audience can emotionally connect with the characters, there is no reason why Caribbean films can’t be showcased internationally. One of the biggest challenges is to convince popular distribution outlets that there is a big enough viewership that can support a growing industry.
DU: The market landscape for Trinidadian and Caribbean film falls somewhere between a green pasture and uncharted territory. Many buyers/distributors that have seen our film are impressed, but they are not exactly sure what to do with it…yet. The region retains its “New World” status as filmmakers who wish to produce projects in the Caribbean for the international market are explorers in search of new opportunity.
TN: From our experience in speaking with sales representatives, agents and distribution companies, there is no real market yet for Caribbean film. This is quite exciting because this means that Caribbean filmmakers today have the opportunity to consciously create our own market! We have been told by some that our dialects are challenging and then by others that the dialects are attractive so I think there is still a bit of reservation about whether or not the world is ready for Caribbean film, but I think they are! They just need a little warming up. However, the one thing we all know is that film is made for an audience. If people are moved by your film — if they like your film — they will spread the word and word of mouth, as we know, is the best form of advertising. Once we filmmakers remember this, the sky’s the limit.
CT: What do you think needs to happen to increase the chances that films like this can get produced here in T&T?
DU: For more films like The Cutlass to start being produced in T&T we need a few things to happen. However, the most important factor is that films like this must achieve some level of commercial success. We have proven we can produce a high quality product efficiently. Now the product must prove itself in the market. Once that occurs you will not be able to stop films like this from being made.
DB: The law of supply and demand is necessary in all businesses including the film business. With The Cutlass being one of the newest products of its kind from T&T (high quality, low cost genre film, with a universal message), we are hoping to create a big enough demand for more films that can be produced from the local sector and from our production team at Blue Basin Films. Even though we want our films to cross over into the international market, we first and foremost need to create a business model and distribution plan specifically for the Caribbean. As T&T filmmakers we see the importance in collaborating with other Caribbean audiences and filmmakers, as we can only succeed with the support of one another.
TN: This is quite a complicated topic but I think you just have to do it yourself. Just make it happen, one way or the other. Show support to your fellow filmmakers. You’ll be quite surprised what you can accomplish once you take all of the responsibility upon yourself. The investors and sponsors will come once they realise you are actually creating good product, but you can’t blame them for wanting proof beforehand — that’s business, sometimes.
CT: What are you most proud of now that the film is complete and being seen and received by audiences?
DB: I’m so proud of everyone that went above and beyond to facilitate the completion of the film, from investors and sponsors who took a chance on us to the creatives and crew members who worked tirelessly to make the best film possible no matter the challenges. The Cutlass is my first feature film as a director and watching the film on the big screen with a sold out audience at the TTFF was incredible. From tears to wows, seeing the buzz that the film created was really cool.
TN: I’m most proud of the fact that the victim and her family are happy with the result of the film while, at the same time, our audiences leave the theater moved, oftentimes even to tears. It’s relieving to know that after years of effort to balance the two, we were successful in the end.
CT: Are there any specific details about the commercial release (when, where, etc) that you can share?
DB: We are proud to announce the films official release in Trinidad and Tobago theaters this summer; from then on we will be releasing in select theaters throughout the Caribbean and North America. Our goal is to make the film available worldwide to the Caribbean diaspora and beyond.
TN: Our limited theatrical release is scheduled for August 2nd 2017, for Trinidad and Tobago. We will then be releasing in Guyana August 17th, Barbados on August 23rd, St Lucia and Antigua & Barbuda on August 24th… Following our Caribbean release, we will continue our limited theatrical release in North America. We are currently signed to a US distribution company, Wild Eye Releasing, who will then handle the rest of our commercial release in the United States and Canada. Additionally, we began our journey in Cannes in May, with international sales agents Leomark Studios, who are handling our sales throughout the rest of the international territories.
CT: Anything else you’d like to share?
DB: Collaboration is everything when making a movie! We were very fortunate to have had our US based talent Drew Umland (Post Production Specialist) and Ian Bloom (Cinematographer). They brought a layer of skill and refinement to the project that elevated us into a world class level.
TN: To create a Caribbean film industry, I think it’s important that Caribbean people support the work of all of our filmmakers, because it is only through a collective effort that an industry can be created. While that may not always happen, there are many local filmmakers that have been working hard for years to make films that audiences would enjoy and all of their efforts have contributed to where the industry has reached today. It’s also important to remember that the industry will grow as audiences grow. For that to happen, we filmmakers must make films for our audiences, not for our peers. Finding a balance between staying true to what you want to do and satisfying your audience is the real art behind successful filmmaking, otherwise you will just be making films for your family, friends and (maybe) festivals.
I would also like to add that none of this would be possible without our local sponsors … and all of those who helped us out throughout the entire process! A tremendous thank you goes out to these contributors who now have an intricate part to play in the production of a great local film. Their contributions have helped move the the development of our local industry in the right direction.