Filmmaker Case Story: Nancy Porter and “Louisa May Alcott,” Part 2
When longtime filmmaker Nancy Porter and her collaborator Harriet Reisen decided to tell the story of 19th-century writer Louisa May Alcott, they started with the challenge of raising funds for a production of the scale and approach they imagined, one with large sections of dramatized material using sets, actors and costumes.
The film, “Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women,” will be aired national on PBS Dec. 28; the process began nearly eight years ago with the first explorations of funding.
We began writing grants for this project in 2002 to the National Endowment for the Humanities,” Porter says, “and NEH supported us first with a planning grant and then a scripting grant and then a production grant, But NEH only really funds up to 60 percent, so then in order to get the that money you then need to go out and raise the rest of the budget.”
That began with a script, written by Reisen. The script was a combination of dramatized sections, using only words Alcott had written, and a rough of the experts they would use, and what those experts would say, much of that based on Reisen’s research process, learning what their experts had written about Alcott in their own books and scholarly work.
In the spring of 2005, working on a production grant up that extended through the fall of 2006, the filmmakers went to PBS’s American Masters show with the script. They met with Susan Lacy, the creator and executive producer of the series, which began in 1984.
“Susan loved the script and agreed to become a co-producer,” Porter says, “and so that gave us enough funding to be able to secure the rest of it with capstone funding from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, PBS, the CPB Program Challenge Fund (which they no longer have), the NEA and another called the Simons Foundations.
What is happening in public television at least is that it is difficult to get complete funding as in work for hire on public television anymore because television is so strapped so they would like producers to come with some funding and then their funding goes further. That was the idea that we would initiate this project and raise money and then go see who wanted it and how much they could support it.
Boyd Estus did the cinematography. Estus has a long line of credits for Nova, Frontline, American Experience, American Masters, and other productions. “Years ago he’d done Unsolved Mysteries,” Porter says, “and he had a lot of experience of that kind, with recreations. I think when you do drama for public television, you really have to set your sights differently. We’re not Hollywood filmmakers – we don’t have those budgets, we don’t have that experience, we can’t afford that look – but you do the best you can. I think the production value is very high and the acting is very good.”
Estus shot with a Panasonic HDX900, which is DVCPro format. The film was shot in 60i for broadcast.
“I make a film every two years or so,” Porter says, “and it feels like everything changes in that time. We struggled with the decision to shoot in film or in HD, but film is so much more expensive and HD can look great, and it did. I’ve been making documentaries a long time, so I go way back to the Steenbeck equipment. Now we’re up to having Avid XPress Pro up in my attic.”
There was a lot of After Effects work we did with the stills, and there’s also separate animation. We hired a couple of wonderful animators who were artists in and of themselves.
A big challenge I learned about in going to distribution was going from an interlaced master, which is what we broadcast, to a progressive master. That was challenging because of so many things with After Effects. Because of the stills and how they were used, there was a lot of moiré. Post was done at Modulus Studios in Boston.
With documentaries that use dramatizations and recreations, the issue of hiring actors and how to pay them is always a can of worms. Many documentary films (“Man on Wire” and “Enron” come to mind) establish scenes with actors in non-speaking roles, presumably not just because it helps tell the story but because the minute actors begin reading lines, a lot of union consideration kick in. For films, that usually means dealing with the Screen Actors Guild, but “Louisa May Alcott” was from the start a television venture, Porter says.
The budget was over a million dollars, and over half was for the drama.
That done, it was a huge enterprise, twice as big as anything I’d ever done. It was a shock to have 40 people a day on the set when you’re used to a documentary crew of three and four people.
We used AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), because we did a co-production with WNET, and WNET and AFTRA are co-signatories, so we had to use AFTRA, and pay AFTRA scale. But I think the biggest shock to our budget was that we had to make the film under IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employes). We had thought we were doing a non-union film, because it’s a PBS film and we were raising the money all ourselves, and it was a low-budget enterprise, relatively speaking. I guess IATSE felt like, “Well, if you’re going to use costumes and actors and set designers, it’s going to be IATSE.” So once they come after you and tell you that you have to do it, you have to do it, or they’ll close you down. We were not able to negotiate.