How City-Centric Shorts Point to New Filmmaking Opportunities

It’s one of the more ambitious, wide-ranging undertakings in recent memory: producer Emmanuel Benbihy’s multi-installment Cities of Love project, which takes the concept of the anthology film on a globe-trotting journey. Benbihy moves from city to city, recruiting a line-up of big-name directors and actors to create short narratives about urban romance, which are stitched together in city-themed portmanteau films. The first installment, Paris, je t’aime, comprised 18 short films by directors including Gus Van Sant, the Coen Brothers, Alfonso Cuarà³n, Wes Craven and Christopher Doyle. The follow-up, New York, I Love You, released today, uses transitional segments to link 10 short films from directors including Mira Nair, Brett Ratner, Joshua Marston, and Allen Hughes. F&V Skyped Benbihy to ask about his inspiration for the project, the difficulty of pulling it off, and his hopes that Cities of Love will help usher in new ways of thinking about film distribution, and new opportunities for young filmmakers.
FILM & VIDEO: First Paris, je t’aime, and now New York, I Love You. What was your inspiration for this multi-film project?

People have been working on anthologies for decades, and for some reason anthologies have never had commercial success. People always blamed the fact that an anthology film lacks unity and is uneven. I was surprised that no producer ever tried to really work on that. It’s possible to create unity with diversity. My main motivation was to develop a format that allows 10 directors or more to make a collective feature film that has fluidity and is cohesive.

So when you approach directors about being part of the anthology, how do you communicate that to them?

I talk to them about the structure of the film. We’ve been working on that format for almost 10 years. I explain to them that we have, for example, 10 segments with transitions in between. (That’s something we didn’t have for Paris je t’aime. We had too many vignettes in that film, and if we had used the transitions as well, we would have had a very long film.) Each director is going to work on a five- to seven-minute segment, and they should treat it as five to seven minutes of a feature film. Another director will work with their actors and their characters as we come up with potential scripts and options for these characters in the transition segments, where they will interact with other characters from other segments. We submit these possibilities to the directors and together determine what will be shot. Our goal is to accumulate as much transitional material as possible.

Emmanuel Benbihy and director Mira Nair
Emmanuel Benbihy and director Mira Nair

Are you the writer of those transitions?

I run the creative team in charge of the transitions. We have two or three transition writers and one transition director, plus me. We’re all brainstorming constantly about what we can do. A lot of parameters fall into place really late – the schedule of the actors, the feedback from the directors – so we have to be always on the job. It’s a real challenge.

New York, I Love You, was shot on a combination of digital [Panavision Genesis] and film formats. What drove the decision to combine different acquisition formats in the same film?

We originally wanted to shoot only HD, but because of the nature of some of the segments, we didn’t want the image to be too clean. If it’s too clean, it really looks like it has been shot today, and it removes part of the magic of film. When the image is imperfect you can believe the time is not as clearly defined. Two days ago, I watched New York, I Love You on a HD screen with a Blu-ray Disc. It was very strange. We’re just not used to it. Younger generations will take it as it is. But for me, having grown up watching film, I don’t like it when the image is too clearly defined. It makes me think of TV. It’s so real that it’s almost like looking into a mirror. That super-reality is not always the best choice depending on the story. You want to feel a little distance.

The Panavision Genesis was a really good camera. We had a very good partnership with Panavision and we were completely convinced by the quality of the image we were getting. We were very comfortable until a couple of segments were submitted that needed to make people feel they were not exactly in today’s reality. That was an issue. The directors and DPs really felt they should work on film. You can work on the HD image and make it not as well defined, but some people still want the guarantee of a film image. And my goal is always to protect directors.

But we don’t want to have to deal with all of that film in the post-production process. It was OK for this one because we were in New York. But my next movie is in Shanghai, and I definitely want to shoot in HD. It’s more convenient.

I’ve read that one segment didn’t actually make it into the final line-up of New York, I Love You because it didn’t match the rest of the films. Is that true?

Actually, two segments didn’t make it into the film. [One was directed by Scarlett Johansson, the other by Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev. -Ed.] Regarding Scarlett Johansson’s segment, it was just difficult for us to reach overall unity because her segment had no love story, it was shot in black and white, and it was a little bit long. We tried, but when we were cutting it in we suddenly had six or seven minutes in black and white in the middle of the film. We could have done that if we had found a way to integrate it so that it made sense to the audience. But we had no specific transitional material to take people into a black-and-white world. For instance, you could enter a hotel lobby and walk down a corridor and stop in front of a black-and-white photograph that becomes the film image. That could have been a transitional idea to take us there, but we didn’t have that. And the content itself was very different. It had no love component – on the contrary, it had a fear component. It was about a character who is a little paranoid, kind of scared of the city, and it was very unbalanced when we played it for an audience. They couldn’t get back into the film. This is a very special format. We have very specific challenges to deal with, and that’s the main one. Once the audience realizes something does not fit, their narrative experience is interrupted. Most of the time, it’s impossible to get it back.

How did you handle the special requirements for production and post on an anthology film?

We always want production and post to be in the same facility because we are dealing simultaneously with different directors, and these directors are at different stages. We can go pick up a director at the airport, then come back to the office and meet with another director who’s just back from his location scouting. Then we meet with another director who’s planning to shoot the next day. Another director is on set shooting, and a fifth is in post. To keep track of everything we do – and for me as a producer to be present – I need them to be in the same location. On Paris je t’aime we created a post facility inside our production facility, but in New York, we found that already in place at Mega Playground. We used their production facility on the fourth floor, and on a higher floor was everything we needed for post-production, including digital grading.

James Caan, Olivia Thirlby, and Anton Yelchin in New York, I Love You
James Caan, Olivia Thirlby, and Anton Yelchin in New York, I Love You

How did you look at dailies?

We got DVDs almost always on the same day, a little bit late in the day. That’s crucial for us. The directors only have two days of shooting. Working on film, there’s no way that, on the end of the first day, they could get their footage. So they shoot the second day pretty much in the dark. They all have doubts. They’re not sure they have what they need the first day. Not to mention the fact that it’s only a two-day shoot. It’s not like they have time to get up to speed. It’s the first day of shooting and the last day of shooting, one after another. They don’t have time to feel confident about anything.

With HD, they could watch everything they had done the first day. There’s a big difference between what’s in a script and what’s on screen. Sometimes the feeling of what’s on screen is different, and it affects the way they shoot the next day. Maybe they don’t rewrite, but they definitely question the material, question the original intention, and adjust their directions for the second day. Maybe something came up that was unexpected and requires special attention on the second day.

Getting feedback on the first night, that’s something I learned on Paris, je t’aime. We shot with Alfonso Cuarà³n, and he had chosen to do a single shot, a conversation on the sidewalk from beginning to end, and he wanted to shoot it at magic hour. So we knew we had 45 minutes to shoot that scene. Alfonso told me, “I will need only one day of shooting.” I told my line producer, “You plan two days of shooting. Because we never know what can happen.” At the end of the day, we had a problem. We shot on film, and because it was a very long walk with the Steadicam and the video feedback was wireless, it did not record the image properly. So you had an image that was completely inconsistent. At some moments we had no image at all. When you walk 500 meters with a Steadicam and so on, after that you want to watch the scene, right? And he couldn’t watch the scene. Unfortunately, it created a lot of confusion and Alfonso stared to doubt. “Do we have the take? I’m not sure. I saw it from far away. I don’t know if we have it.” A couple of shots were ruined by passersby who didn’t know what we were doing and stopped in the middle of the scene to look at the camera, so we had only three potential good takes, and Alfonso came to me and said, “I’m not 100 percent sure. I think I should shoot tomorrow.” So I went to my line producer and asked him, “OK, everything is in place for tomorrow?” And he told me no. Why? “We tried to save a little money.” You can imagine me screaming. This guy wanted to be smarter than everybody, but he was putting us in a delicate situation. We managed to shoot the next day, but we lost elements, like the bus that hadn’t been booked for the second day. We still made it. And in the end? The take we chose was a take we shot the first night.

What’s the next project in the series?

The next film is not being produced by me. It’s being made in Rio de Janeiro. The next one I’m producing is in Shanghai, next October, and then in Jerusalem in spring 2011.

What’s your creative goal for the entire project? When you’re finished, do you think the project will end up being more a picture of the world rather than a collection of portraits of individual places?

It’s both. I’ve been working on the franchise for the last 10 years. Time flew, but I didn’t see the time passing by. It took a very long time to do the first one because Paris, je t’aime was hard for people to understand. What we were trying to do was very ambitious. We have developed a format that answers a lot of needs and a lot of concerns. People want to have, sometimes, small experiences. They want to try things. Directors see in our format an opportunity to have an adventure that brings them back to the original reasons why they got into movies. They have the excitement of working with actors they might not have the opportunity to work with on a feature film, or to try something like shooting a single, six-minute shot. Everybody has good reasons to be involved. Cities of Love is based on love, and our material provides a high potential for cross-cultural identification. It’s interesting for an Indonesian audience to watch New York, I Love You and see that New Yorkers have love problems that are close to theirs. You can see that in a more conventional feature film, but it will focus on one aspect of the relationship. Here you have 10 directors proposing 10 visions of love, so you have a spectrum in front of you.

Also, the format is a feature film and it is also 10 shorts. In terms of programming, and in terms of access to multiple forms of commercialization – theatrical, tv, online distribution, even brand integration and consumer products – this format is very flexible. It’s a flexibility that a conventional film wouldn’t have. On that level, it’s a very modern format. That stimulates me to keep going, because its potential remains underestimated. If people understood better what we’re doing, they could go much further in terms of exploitation. What they could do with the content would be very interesting.

Each Cities of Love episode is a community in itself. We have managed to build a formula that allows us to secure famous people. Obvious film-financing problems do not allow us to work with young filmmakers on features, but we would like to create a web distribution platform that would be open to a wider range of filmmakers, and also to other cities. We could work with film schools. Lots of things could happen, and we could build a very strong filmmaker community online – a city-driven international online community. That’s my next step. You could say that today the Internet is a vehicle to promote movies. But the way I see it is that the feature film we’re doing, which represents a multi-million-dollar worldwide marketing campaign, could become a promotional tool for something much bigger that takes place online, and that is open to all filmmakers and all cities. If you look at the time we spend behind computer screens and in theaters, the Internet obviously already won the war. But I don’t think that consumption of film is threatened at all. It’s a completely different experience, but we will be consuming images online much more in the future.