Alaska, Ice and Crowd Funding: An Interview with the Filmmakers of ‘On the Ice’
Writer/director Andrew Okpeaha MacLean and producer Cara Marcous (2010 Fast Track) talk with Josh Welsh, Film Independent’s Director of Talent Development, about their film On the Ice. Set in the isolated, frozen town of Barrow, Alaska, On the Ice is the story of Iñupiaq teenagers Qualli and Aivaaq who have grown up like brothers in a tight-knit community defined as much by ancient traditions as by hip-hop and snowmobiles. Early one morning, on a seal hunt with their friend James, a tussle turns violent, and James is killed. Panic stricken, terrified and with no one to blame but themselves, Qallii and Aivaaq lie and declare the death a tragic accident. As Barrow roils with grief and his protective father becomes suspicious, Qalli stumbles through guilt-filled days, wrestling with his part in the death.
After premiering at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, On the Ice went on to play major national and international film festivals, winning the FIPRESCI prize at the Seattle International Film Festival. It also screened at the 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival as Film Independent’s Project:Involve screening. On the Ice was in Film Independent’s Fast Track program in 2009, and received a Kodak Film Stock grant from Film Independent in 2010.
On the Ice is currently raising distribution funds on Kickstarter.
Q: First off, congrats to both of you on the film and your amazing festival run. For anyone who has not seen On the Ice or is unfamiliar with it, can you tell us what it’s about and where and when you made it?
A: Thanks! On the Ice is about two teenage boys in Barrow, Alaska who get involved in a tragic killing and a cover up. We shot in the Spring of 2010 entirely on location in Barrow which is the northernmost point of the U.S., 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
Q: Since Sundance, the film has played many festivals, winning awards at Berlin and Seattle, among others. How has that experience been for you? Have you been surprised by audience reactions at any of the fests you have attended? What other fests do you have lined up?
A: It’s been pretty non-stop but in a great way. The audience response has been really positive. People are fascinated by the world of the film because for the most part they come in with little, if any, awareness of Barrow in a contemporary sense. The most surprising thing for us so far is that at every festival, no matter where we are, people make comments about it being like their hometown or their community. In some of the seemingly most opposite places, like Istanbul for example, people still see themselves or people they know in the characters.
Q: On the Ice was just announced as one of the films that will be going out as part of the new Sundance distribution initiative. Can you explain how this release will work? Where and when will you be in theaters and also launching online?
A: We are in the process of nailing down our dates, but the release will work like a fairly traditional platform release. We plan to start in three cities and then build from there. The nice thing about our relationship with Sundance, and having more control of the process, is that we can target our release really specifically to the audience we have already built in certain markets, and then use that foundation to expand further than we might have been able to otherwise.
Q: Can you talk about how you’ve used crowd-funding for On the Ice? I know you had a fundraising campaign on the USA Projects website that helped fund your trip to Sundance, and now you have a major campaign underway on Kickstarter to help with the theatrical release.
A: With our USA Projects campaign, we were able to afford to have our two lead actors in Park City with us to help promote the film and to hire an experienced PR company to take full advantage of being there with our actors. In that case the “crowd” was made up of personal contacts for the most part, in addition to the amazing USArtists community. We were also very fortunate to have the exceptional support of the Rasmuson Foundation who provided matching funds to all donations. That made a huge difference for us in terms of motivating people to check out our page.
Our Kickstarter campaign is a more ambitious venture and we’re trying to reach as many people as we can. We’re reaching out through our own grassroots network of supporters as well as through a wide variety of organizations and some media outlets. Once people find out about us, we feel like the project speaks for itself, but we are working pretty hard at getting the word out any way we can. In fact, we are very much open to suggestions, so if anyone out there has suggestions of a community or organization that might be interested in our film, we’d love the heads up!
Q: Going back to the beginning of the film, Andrew, you developed the feature out of your short film Sikumi, which played Sundance and other festivals back in 2008. Can you talk about your process there? Was it always your intention with Sikumi to turn it into a feature? Did the story evolve in ways that you didn’t original anticipate when you were doing the short?
A: I actually didn’t have a feature in mind when I made Sikumi. But it quickly became obvious that there was a larger story to tell. Sundance was the first festival that Sikumi played at, and I started writing On the Ice just after that. From the beginning I knew there were certain changes I wanted to make. I wanted to make the story more contemporary and to make the central characters younger, so I could explore they way kids in the Arctic are forging their identities from both modern and traditional cultures. I think the biggest surprise for me was how much the tone of the film changed. It’s got a completely different feel to it.
Q: Cara, could you talk a bit about how you got the film financed? From a producing perspective, I can imagine this was challenging – you had a cast of non-professional actors, a first-time feature director, and a beautifully written script that had to be shot 320 miles north of the arctic circle. How did you pull it off? Did you have one main investor, or did you pull together financing from a range of sources?
A: Winning the Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking at Sundance in 2008 for Sikumi helped immensely in terms of getting people to take the time to read Andrew’s script and watch the short. Andrew wrote a really strong page-turner script, which would get people excited, and then when they watched Sikumi, they knew he could actually deliver as a director.
From my side of things, I knew it was still going to be difficult to raise what we needed to make this in Alaska. It was a complicated film production-wise in an expensive place, so I spent a year and a half raising over 300k in grants and in-kind donations, all non-recoupable funds. I could then go to investors with a project that already had significant financial value, but with no impact on their potential investment in the film. Andrew’s agent Craig Kestel introduced us to Whitewater films and they ended up being our first money to sign on. Then, through the Sundance Creative Producing Initiative, I met the incredible Lynette Howell and she loved the project. She felt strongly that she could help us put together the rest of the budget and we were thrilled to have her expertise on our side. Ultimately, Lynette helped us piece together the rest of our budget with several investors and we managed to greenlight ourselves just in time to shoot the following spring.
Q: Can you both talk about casting the film? You have an amazing cast of non-professional actors for the most part. How did you find them, how did you audition them, and Andrew, once you were shooting, how did you work with them?
A: Andrew and I knew that casting was the lynchpin to the success of the film very early on. My first goal fundraising-wise was to find grant money to support our extensive casting plan all over Alaska and Canada. We ended up applying to the Princess Grace Foundation for a Special Project grant to fund our casting process and when they approved our grant, they basically allowed us to believe that we could make our film. Our casting situation was profoundly unique because there are very few experienced Inuit actors, particularly in the teenage age range of our main characters. We knew we needed time to genuinely reach out to the communities and develop word of mouth in a significant way. Because we both have a background in theater and acting, we felt confident running the casting ourselves and set up an ambitious 3-month journey to 15 communities, as well as video auditions. We met about a thousand people from all over and ended up holding an intensive three-stage call-back process to find our cast.
I think the key to the process was the amount of rehearsal time we had. I was able to work with the two lead characters for a solid month before we started filming, and we slowly added the other actors into the mix as we went. We did some basic acting exercises and a lot of improv work. My goal was for the actors to feel like they owned the parts. So by the time we got on set, with camera and crew, they felt confident about the story they were telling.
Q: Cara, can you talk a bit about your experiences as a producer dealing with festivals and the film’s theatrical release? Is there any particular advice you would have for a producer who is in production or post-production right now, and perhaps not yet thinking about festival strategy or the way the film will be released?
A: It’s a hard question to answer generally, but in terms of festivals I think it’s important to have a strategy for at least your U.S. and international premieres. Once we had screened at Sundance and then Berlin, we worked with our domestic and foreign sales teams to fully flesh out our overall festival strategy. And our strategy is still developing now as we look ahead to those markets where we think we may have the most activated audience.
In terms of releasing the film, we’re in slightly unchartered territory, so it’s early for me to share any advice. On a basic level though, everything comes down to communication. Right now I am focused on finding ways to delegate appropriately so that I will have the time I need to manage the process properly and communicate with all of our many amazing collaborators.
Q: If someone wants to see the film, or wants to help you with distribution, what can they do?
A: In the immediate future, festivals are the only way you can see the film, but we are hoping to release theatrically late this year or early next year. Once we release theatrically, On the Ice will then be available through a variety of outlets online as well. Our website has all the most current info.
The most powerful thing people can do to help with distribution is check out our Kickstarter page and forward it on to friends. Posting our link on Facebook might sound like a small thing, but thus far it’s been our most effective way of reaching a wider group of people. And if someone wants to help in a more involved way, they should email me and we can talk in more detail.
Q: I’m sure you’re extremely busy with the film’s release right now, but can you tell us anything about your next film(s) or what else you’re working on in the near future?
Andrew: I’m working on a bunch of projects. I have several script ideas that I’m outlining or starting to write. Most of them take place in warm climates. I’m also attached to a couple of projects as a director. Hopefully one of them will catch on soon.
Cara: I’m still fully entrenched in On the Ice, but I am in development on a few different films as well. We’ll see what comes together first but I can’t wait to get back on set!