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Wed September 18, 2013
New Zealand Filmmaker On Arctic Dogs, Jelly Beans And National Identity
From the snow-covered tundra to sugar-filled factories, filmmaker Costa Botes built his career telling stories of eclectic outsiders. It’s an archetype he identifies with as an ethnically-Greek Turkish citizen who moved to New Zealand at the age of three.
“I value it now, but at the time it seemed quite traumatic,” Botes says. “I grew up wanting to conform, and that meant my links to my own culture were not severed, but they were stretched to breaking points.”
As a filmmaker, Botes says he’s always on the outside looking at characters and trying to put a frame around their world. He’s produced and directed documentaries about breeding Canadian Eskimo dogs, a cross-dressing attorney, and the inventor of the Jelly Belly jelly bean.
He says the variety can seem “bewildering,” but each of these characters carries a longtime passion for their vision and persistence for the things they love.
“Most of them are miserably unsuccessful in traditional terms,” Botes says. “They either don’t make much money, or they haven’t made much money. I think that’s a slightly askew world, and I want to celebrate people for reasons other than what they’re worth financially.”
Botes’s 2011 film The Last Dogs of Winter tells the story of Brian Ladoon, who took it upon himself to preserve and breed Inuit dogs that were once an essential part of life in the Arctic.
“In the 1950s with the arrival of petrol power, the whole purpose of these dogs disappeared,” Botes says. “So Brian is trying to do something utterly quixotic and almost pointless. There’s a real drama to that.”
In 1976, David Klein came up with an idea for a small, gourmet jelly bean in dozens of flavors. The Associated Press reports he appeared all over the country throughout the late 1970s.
He was photographed for People magazine sitting in a bathtub filled with Jelly Bellys, some stuck to his hairy chest, others lodged between his toes. He dropped by TV programs like "The Mike Douglas Show" to trade quips with the host and cajole the celebrity guests into sampling his new flavors.
Then, for reasons Klein still has trouble coming to terms with, he and his partner sold their interest in the Jelly Belly name in 1980 for $4.8 million. He collected his half of the money in monthly installments over 20 years, and he faded into obscurity.
“That’s the surface story, but the real story is actually him and his son,” Botes says of his film Candyman: The David Klein Story. “Jelly Belly played a big role in ruining the relationship between David and his son. That makes it quite a moving tale.”
Botes is also a longtime friend and associate of Peter Jackson, and spent five years documenting a behind-the-scenes look at the director’s adaption of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. He says he prefers documentaries because they allow for more flexibility and creativity than feature films.
“I personally think documentary is right on the bleeding edge of the art form at the moment,” Botes says. “You can still tell a dramatic story. You can still tell an emotional story. If you do that, well then you can actually make people think a little bit as well.”
On the limitations of big, blockbuster feature films
Audiences aren't really prepared to accept, by-and-large, stories that don't follow a classical three-act structure. We know this just by observation. Just telling a story in a three-act structure doesn't make it successful. There are plenty of flops that follow that formula. So there's a dilemma there. On the one hand, you want to be creative. You want to be authentic. You want to be truly emotional. You want to tell the truth, because audiences value all those things. But I guess the big commercial bodies that make film don't really value those things. They value the bottom line. They're there to make a profit. So you have a constant see-saw. I just think that something's a little out-of-whack in the commercial cinema. I've got no bone to pick with Hollywood particularly, but they do dominate the whole world. 97 percent of the world box office goes to Hollywood. That's a pretty small area to be Hoovering up 97 percent of the world box office. They push formulas. A very narrow range of thinking going on there.
On the current state of the film industry
We've seen a steady, inexorable kind-of collapse in the financial market for all kinds of films, actually. Not just documentaries. It's quite worrying. At the same time, I don't see any collapse in the market in terms of people's demand for film. We need stories. We've always needed stories, but we're seeing, I hope, a short-term problem. It's really caused by the internet. Piracy, freeloading, all that kind of nonsense, and it's hurting us badly right now, but I'm hoping in the foreseeable future that there will be a recovery, and the internet will actually give more than it takes.
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SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Costa Botes, welcome to World Views.
COSTA BOTES: Thank you very much for having me.
GRILLOT: Well, I have to start by just asking you about your very interesting international background. You were born in Turkey to Greek parents, but you grew up in New Zealand. Can you give us a little bit of your own personal history of how you ended up in all of these interesting places?
BOTES: Well, my family is from an island off the coast of Turkey, and it was essentially a Greek island. In the 1920s after the huge war between Greece and Turkey, the boundaries were redrawn, and we found ourselves on the Turkish side. So my parents were actually Turkish citizens, but ethnically they're Greek. In the 1950s, the Greeks on that island - they were pretty much the last holdouts. A lot of Greeks moved. A lot of Greeks were slaughtered. There was mass slaughter. My lot were pretty much the last to leave, and most of Greeks left this island during the 1950s and 1960s. My father went to New Zealand. My mother and I followed a year or two later, and at the age of 3 I found myself in a country where I couldn't speak the language. I grew up with all the sort-of hang-ups that an immigrant kid has. I value it now, but at the time it seemed quite traumatic. But it gave me a perspective that's different.
GRILLOT: So speaking of that then, how does that perspective differ? Given a very significant international background that is, as you mentioned, quite traumatic to begin with, how does that differ? And how does that relate to the profession that you ultimately chose to get into, which is filmmaking?
BOTES: Wow, that's a big question. Well, you grow up in a conformist society that is largely white and English, and the very fact that you speak a different language and don't understand English gives you automatically a kind-of outsider perspective. I grew up wanting to conform, and that meant my links to my own culture were not severed, but they were stretched to breaking points. To this day, I speak Greek, but I don't really identify as Greek. I think it was probably not until my 30s when I finally felt I was comfortable in my own skin.
BOTES: So as a filmmaker, that drives all kinds of attitudes, and it means that you're always on the outside looking at characters and how they fit. I feel quite comfortable in my own skin, finally.
GRILLOT: As a Kiwi.
BOTES: As a Kiwi. I didn't feel like a Kiwi until I went back to where I was born, and that didn't happen until I was in my mid-30s. As I flew back to New Zealand, and we flew over the green hills, I looked down and I thought, "Ah, finally. Now I know where home is."
GRILLOT: So I think something you just said is very enlightening in terms of how it relates to that film career, and that is being an outsider in some ways. As a filmmaker, you stand behind a camera. You are trying to articulate a vision of whatever it is you're trying to portray to the viewing audience as that outsider, right? That outsider perspective that you bring to it. So your background and what you decided to do with your life seems to be pretty consistent in that way.
BOTES: Yeah, I've always looked at the world and tried to put a frame around it. Partly to understand it, but there's also an aesthetic dimension there, too, you know? To make pictures that look nice, but to give my point of view. As a young child, my voice was muffled. I couldn't make myself understood. I didn't understand other people, and so I was always looking for ways to communicate better. And cinema made a strong impact on me at that age, so it was imprinted on me really early. As I got to adolescence I discovered a talent for taking photographs, so imagery was quite important to me. I loved books, literature, ideas. It all leads inexorably to film, because film combines everything - pictures, ideas, poetry, music. I'm very much into music, and film was the one art form that is a synthesis of all those things.
GRILLOT: To bring that together to tell us a story and entertain us even. Clearly you've done some work in feature filmmaking. You were involved, as any good Kiwi I suppose would be, in the Fellowship of the Ring, and the series there, but I really want to talk about your documentary work, because that seems to be where you've spent most of your time. And particularly your choice of subjects when you do documentary work. I have to admit, I'm so intrigued by the fact that you've documentary films about Canadian Eskimo dogs, about the creator of the Jelly Belly jelly bean, about a bi-polar writer, and a cross-dressing attorney. So what is the common theme here, or what is motivated you to select these particular projects to focus on in your work?
BOTES: It does seem like a bewildering variety, doesn't it? There is a common theme, and the common theme is that all of these characters have carried a passion for a long, long time. They're all persistent in either their vision, or the thing that they love. The thing that they want to achieve. They're not quitters, I suppose. They're all people that carry their passions forward, and another thing that they all have in common is most of them are miserably unsuccessful in traditional terms. They either don't make much money, or they haven't made much money. That makes them outsiders of a sort too. I think our culture tends to value people according to how much money they make. I couldn't help but notice the film review in the local paper here didn't say anything about the actual film. All it talked about was how much it made. I think that's a slightly askew world, and I want to celebrate something else. I want to celebrate people for reasons other than what they're worth financially.
GRILLOT: So you're selecting your subjects then basically to highlight successful people who are perhaps achieving success in some other way. And also seem to be a bit eclectic. As you mentioned, they're not quitters. They're, I don't know, extreme cases of individuals? So tell us for example about Brian Ladoon, the rather extreme personality in your film about the Canadian Eskimo dogs and the work that he did to breed these dogs.
BOTES: Well, The Last Dogs of Winter is about an individual who can best be described as incredibly stubborn. He works and lives in an environment that is beyond extreme. He's trying to do something that is probably impossible. He's trying to preserve a breed of dog which for a long time was the indigenous dog of the Arctic. The Inuit bred them, and the whole purpose of those dogs has disappeared. We don't need them anymore. They used to do everything with human beings. They helped people stay alive up there. They dragged their sleds, they hunted, and they were an absolutely essential part of life for human beings in the Arctic. Then in the 1950s with the arrival of petrol power, the whole purpose of those dogs disappeared. So Brian is trying to do something utterly quixotic and almost pointless. There's a real drama to that.
GRILLOT: So you're right, I mean it's kind of an obsolete animal at this point in time, if you want to put it that way, but it has a connection to the preservation of a particular kind of culture and way of life, and indigenous practices. Is that something that also motivated him to do that, and perhaps motivated you to tell a story about it?
BOTES: This particular character, Brian Ladoon, I think he's motivated by a very personal and selfish passion. I don't think he thinks too much about the wider cultural implications. But they're there all the same. A limitation of my film is my focus is on Brian as a character, and there's a much wider story there. Because those dogs are actually a very critical part of Inuit culture, and the Inuit are reclaiming them now finally, and using them resuscitate a highly-damaged culture. I didn't feel it was my place as someone from 24,000 miles away to jump into that, and I wasn't able to physically, either. I would've had to travel even further afield and spend much longer to do that. I didn't feel that was my place. I was interested in one character who I had access to, and there was actually quite a big story there anyway. And that's what the focus of my film was.
GRILLOT: Well it seems like that's the focus of most of your films. I love Jelly Belly jelly beans, so what is it about the creator of the Jelly Belly jelly bean that was intriguing enough for you to produce a documentary film about it?
BOTES: That film's called Candyman: The David Klein Story. David Klein is the man who, in 1976, invented the Jelly Belly jelly bean, and in the process revolutionized an entire industry. In the first minute of the film, he's sitting in the back of his car, and he says, "Jelly Belly. They ruined my life." And I think there's the story. The fact is...
GRILLOT: It's just the opposite for me, right? (Laughs)
BOTES: (Laughs)...the fact that something silly like a jelly bean can ruin your life, as he puts it, it's one of those stories where somebody comes up with something amazing that no one's ever done before, makes a lot of money, and then through a combination of foolishness and manipulation and bad luck ends up losing it. That's the sort-of surface story, but the real story is actually him and his son. It's a father and son story, because that Jelly Belly played a big role in ruining the relationship between David and his son. What happens in the movie is the son rediscovers his father and forgives him. That makes it quite a moving tale.
GRILLOT: So is that something that you can capture, you think, through documentary filmmaking? Real-life stories where you can truly show this underlying theme - in this case the relationship between father and son - more so than you do in a feature film? It's more real, it's something that we can relate to better?
BOTES: Well, feature films can give you an amazing platform for creating emotion and meaning. They're fantastic, but they're expensive to make, number one. And number two, certainly in the mainstream commercial cinema, the boundaries of what's acceptable have become very inflexible. You're just simply not allowed to tell stories in too many different ways. It's very boring, but it's the way it is. Whereas in documentary what we see is audiences - I guess because they're smaller, for a start, and more niche - they're prepared to accept more flexible ways of telling stories. I personally think that documentary is right on the bleeding edge of the art form at the moment. It has been for years. It's where the really innovative and interesting work is going on. So you have a lot more license to explore things creatively. You can still tell a dramatic story. That's what I try to do. You can still tell an emotional story, and again, I definitely try to do that. I want to move you. That's the number one thing. If you do that, well then you can actually make people think a little bit as well.
GRILLOT: Referring to, if I'm hearing you correctly, kind of this formula that comes with feature filmmaking, and as you're referring to, that lack of flexibility and that there's some sort of formula that you must follow in order to make a feature film, as opposed to things maybe emerging a little more organically by telling a story that's real in a documentary. Is this kind of what you're intimating?
BOTES: Yeah, that's exactly what I'm talking about.
GRILLOT: And again, so it's successful. I mean I guess that's the connection to it. For a feature film to successful, they're expensive to make, therefore they have to make money, and they must follow a formula in order to be successful, whereas that's not the case perhaps in documentary film?
BOTES: It's not so much that they have to follow a formula, but audiences aren't really prepared to accept, by-and-large, stories that don't follow a classical three-act structure. We know this just by observation. Just telling a story in a three-act structure doesn't make it successful. There are plenty of flops that follow that formula. So there's a dilemma there. On the one hand, you want to be creative. You want to be authentic. You want to be truly emotional. You want to tell the truth, because audiences value all those things. But I guess the big commercial bodies that make film don't really value those things. They value the bottom line. They're there to make a profit. So you have a constant see-saw. I just think that something's a little out-of-whack in the commercial cinema. I've got no bone to pick with Hollywood particularly, but they do dominate the whole world. 97 percent of the world box office goes to Hollywood. That's a pretty small area to be Hoovering up 97 percent of the world box office. They push formulas. A very narrow range of thinking going on there.
GRILLOT: Well that's where I kind of wanted to end today was with the global nature of filmmaking, and I think you touched on it right there, and that is the dominance of one type of film in the global market, and therefore one formula, and one city, one country certainly. American film being very dominant around the world. So do you see documentary film as being more popular in other parts of the world than here, or is that going to be hard to counter?
BOTES: Well, for years now documentary film has been popular. People are interested. We see this in film festivals, and certainly in my country documentaries regularly play in cinemas, but unfortunately there is a "but", it's very hard to monetize documentaries. They're much cheaper to make than feature films - dramas - but all the same, the returns are very low. We've seen a steady, inexorable kind-of collapse in the financial market for all kinds of films, actually. Not just documentaries. It's quite worrying. At the same time, I don't see any collapse in the market in terms of people's demand for film. We need stories. We've always needed stories, but we're seeing, I hope, a short-term problem. It's really caused by the internet. Piracy, freeloading, all that kind of nonsense, and it's hurting us badly right now, but I'm hoping in the foreseeable future that there will be a recovery, and the internet will actually give more than it takes.
GRILLOT: Well, Costa Botes, thank you so much for being with us today on World Views to share this very interesting story and perspective.
BOTES: Thank you very much.
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