The Nonlinear Editor: Snow in August
Posted Sep 4, 2009

Megan + Narbeh's Sweden Thriller Concept "Snow" from PACIFIC PICTURES on Vimeo.

Back in the late '90s, I saw the great indie filmmaker Richard Linklater interviewed on The Independent Film Channel (IFC). Although it had been at least half a decade since his breakthrough films, Slacker and Dazed and Confused, had made their initial splash, Linklater still enjoyed a great deal of outsider cred as a hip, young filmmaking voice in an industry that was trying to leverage the marketability of its insurgent indie icons. When the IFC interviewer asked him if he had any advice for students who wanted to build careers outside the Hollywood system, Linklater said that technically, he hadn't been an "indie" filmmaker since Slacker; all his subsequent films had had mainstream studio support. What makes you an independent filmmaker, he said, is making your own films, and-regardless of who's backing and distributing your work-producing the movies you want to make.

Naturally, that's easier said than done, and not everyone gets the chance to come in from the Rebel Without a Crew cold and become a rebel with a budget and mass distribution. People will tell you there are always compromises that must be made; it's a cruel irony that backers don't always have your back and don't always share your vision of the film you want to make. (I'll never forget the Star Wars making-of documentary I saw in which George Lucas said the Fox execs dismissed an early cut of the movie with a single comment: "The bear needs to wear pants." Anyone there got a pulse?)

In the traditional world of wedding videography, it wasn't really about making the film you wanted to make; issues of vision and artistic identity and conviction rarely came into play. You got hired, showed up, shot what you saw, and made it look as polished and elegant as you could while doing your best to capture the authentic emotion of the moment. Then you delivered your product, collected your fee, and moved on to the next project. Questions of filmmaking, vision, and compromise or no compromise never entered into the equation.

Over the last year, we've thrown the spotlight on a number of "wedding filmmakers" who approach wedding projects as opportunities to produce films, whether it's a subjective artist's rendering of the day or a "concept" film that stands apart from the event itself. Meanwhile, we've seen studios such as StillMotion—who insist that they audition their prospective clients as much as their prospects audition them, lest they commit to a project that doesn't inspire them—emerge as the most influential voices in the industry.

We've also begun seeing work of unprecedented ambition and scope. Arguably, the most ambitious concept filmmaker working in the business today is Kevin Shahinian of Pacific Pictures, whom we featured on the cover of the January issue with an article on his mind-blowing Bollywood debut ("Hooray for Bollywood"). In the intervening months, Kevin has been tapped to speak at two major industry events—WEVA Expo and Re:Frame—and is touring with another (In[Focus]). He's also begun developing a four-part EventDV-TV series called The Language of Film that will debut this December. He's followed up his initial Bollywood film, Tum Hi Ho, with similarly themed films that have made him the toast of the industry blogosphere, and he's undertaken an epic concept project in India this fall. Most recently (at this writing), Kevin has unveiled Snö (Snow), a new film shot in Uppsala, Sweden, back in March of this year, and finally premiered at an August wedding in L.A.

I saw a teaser from Snö online several months ago and was mesmerized by the intensity and epic feel of the piece, which is both an homage to the great international suspense thrillers and also a compelling love story that closely parallels the parabola of the wedding couple's own romance. Now that I've seen the entire 12-minute film (which appeared online in late August), I'm awed by the way it sustains the drama and emotional resonance of the teaser Kevin leaked a few months ago. It's especially remarkable given that the first scene I saw benefited from the services of a leading Swedish film actor (not to mention some stunning aerial shots captured via gyro and helicopter). The professional actor continues to anchor much of the film, but Kevin gets stirring and true-to-life performances from the bride and groom, a talent that has already become one of the hallmarks of his work.

Pacific Pictures' Sno

As the father of a 5-year-old, I don't get out to a lot of art house theaters or see many foreign-language films these days. But there are two movies I've seen this year that remind me of how tense and taut the dialogue of the classic European filmmakers can be when as much is left unstated as spoken explicitly: the opening scene of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (which only intermittently feels like an American-made film) and Kevin Shahinian's Snö.

Granted, Inglourious Basterds is a masterful feature film that fuses a number of styles and works almost as powerfully over its full 150 minutes as it does for those first 15, and Snö is a short that only has to hold one's attention for 12 minutes. But what's really exciting about Kevin's film is that it feels perfectly reasonable to discuss it in these terms and to make these sorts of comparisons. That said, Snö is such a different film from the other Pacific Pictures joints I've seen—his first two Bollywood shorts—that it doesn't make a lot of sense to compare it with them, at least cinematically. Though not necessarily more ambitious or accomplished than its predecessors, what distinguishes Snö is that it demands so much more of its audience—a serious, and possibly unprecedented risk for a wedding-day presentation to take.

Besides Inglourious Basterds, the other big-screen movie that's really floored me this year is the Pixar CGI feature Up. The opening sequence of Up is utterly breathtaking and uncharacteristically, maturely devastating (to put it mildly) for a CGI release. Major-studio CGI movies—even those with adults in their crosshairs—are supposed to be wild, madcap romps. Up and its Pixar predecessor, Wall-E, demonstrate how difficult it is for even the most ambitious and visionary CGI filmmakers to transcend the presumptive limitations of the genre and make films that don't always leave 'em laughing. Both of these features have started out by taking viewers to unsettling, aching, tragic places and then beaten hasty, hijinks-packed retreats.

Snö makes no such compromises and remains stylistically and emotionally consistent throughout—which, I'll admit, came as a welcome surprise to me. Putting the bride and groom on the big screen is inherently crowd-pleasing. But that's not always enough to hold the attention of a crowd for 12 minutes that would otherwise be devoted to drinking, dancing, and socializing. Weddings are often serious and solemn, but receptions are party time. Tum Hi Ho and Dil Jaanta Hai (Kevin's first two Bollywood shorts), for all their ambition, artistry, and genre authenticity, featured comedy, fabulous dance sequences, and their fair share of glamour and glitter. Simply by remaining true to the Bollywood style (and the music-video concept from which Tum Hi Ho grew), these films were all but guaranteed to maintain or heighten the party atmosphere of the reception.

Snö, while not exactly a downer (true love does triumph, after all), is the kind of movie that can be a bit tough on a party crowd. The fact that Kevin was bold enough to challenge his audience and make a film compelling enough to get them to rise to the challenge (check out the reaction here) is a watershed moment for our industry.

Pacific Pictures' Sno

Is Snö the film Kevin's clients hired him to make? Is it the film they expected him to make? I suspect the answer to both those questions is yes and no. But Kevin says it is, in the most important ways, their story, and that explains a lot about why the film worked and why it resonated so much for the couple and their guests, even if it was the kind of film they never dreamed would screen at their reception.

As for the free rein Kevin obviously had with the production, I imagine there was a great deal of respect and trust involved there, the kind of trust that makes a hired videographer about as close to an independent filmmaker as anyone could reasonably expect to be-and very much an independent filmmaker in the way Richard Linklater used the term: making the movies you want to make.

Best of all, I'm happy to report that Kevin's film got worldwide distribution. If you haven't seen it yet, scroll back up to the embedded version from Vimeo at the top of this page, and check it out for yourself. As the Swedish Air Force MP in the film says, "What makes a moment unforgettable? A sight? A sound? A feeling?" The answer, as all great wedding filmmakers know: all of the above.

Stephen Nathans-Kelly (stephen.nathans at infotoday.com) is editor-in-chief of EventDV and program director of EventDV-TV.com.