Winning Sundance, selling yourself, and distinct cinematic voices: an interview with producer Olivier Kaempfer

Olivier is in that enviable position of being part of the establishment whilst still retaining an edge. BAFTA-nominated, Sundance-winning, and the executive director of one of the most important film funds in the UK, Microwave, he’s one of the best people you could hope to talk to about time management as well as the state of British cinema. An LFS graduate who went on to establish his own production company, Parkville Pictures, in 2007, Olivier has maintained a close relationship with the school which became something of an official rapport when he was made Governor of the school in 2017. He first made it big with the BAFTA nominated short Ralph. In 2014 Parkville went on to produce Desiree Akhavan’s first feature, Appropriate Behaviour, which was nominated for an Indie Spirit Award at Sundance.

But the big win came last year with the Jury Prize at Sundance for Akhavan’s second feature The Miseducation of Cameron Post, (starring Chloë Grace Moretz and Sasha Lane). When we catch up with him in the Film London offices to give us the low down on how one goes about giving moolah to emerging British filmmakers and why selling oneself doesn’t need to be a dirty word, he’s still exhibiting something of a post-accolade dewy glow.

Congratulations on winning the Jury Prize at Sundance! What was it like?

We did not expect to win at all! Those that win are often films that go on to win Oscars, often films with bigger budgets. It was just a thrill to be in competition, we’d been to the festival before in 2013 with Desiree’s Akhavan’s Appropriate Behaviour in a section called Next about discovering new talent, new voices, and we were thrilled to be there, because what was a no-budget film. But here we were back with what might be called proper financing and in competition with a well-known cast like Chloe Grace Moretz, Sasha Lane, etc so being in competition felt like a graduation.

We so much didn’t expect it that we actually left! Basically, we got a call from the head of the festival to see if anyone was still in town and going to the award ceremony and they were like, “it would just be good if someone was there...”. Chloe, who was a big champion of the themes of the film, she flew back from LA to pick it up. It was surreal, we were sitting in London, Cecilia my business partner, Desiree, and I, just watching the award ceremony online. It exposed the film and gave us a platform really, whether it’s just as filmmakers or the film itself, but you know I don’t know if it changes what an audience thinks about [the film].

How does an award like that change a company like Parkville?

A lot of doors open after something like this, if you think of it as two funnels - in terms of material coming to you or you going to financiers with material - those two things certainly change. More material comes our way and more doors are open to us because they see that we’ve made something that’s had an impact and people want to know what you’re doing next and see if they can be a part of it. Already just that – “wanting to know” - is good enough. It gives us a bigger slate of material and changes the momentum of everything.

Is there a significant increase in quality of the material that’s in front of you after winning Sundance?

We have a bit more freedom to do what we wanted to do all along. It allows us to work with more established talent because you’ve achieved a certain notch in terms of output. In the end though, great material is difficult to come by! Even though we get more access to it and more doors might open, it’s still just as difficult to find something brilliant and make it. Things are different but also don’t change a lot at the same time.

You’ve become the Executive Director of Microwave, the feature film fund offered by Film London, BBC Films, and the BFI. What kind of voices are you looking for and what’s involved in choosing who you fund?

Especially now that so much material is being made - especially on a microbudget - things are different. You know when Microwave first launched in 2007 the novelty was “oh wow can you make a film for £100K” then there was “oh you can make a good film for £100K.” Now everyone can make a film for that amount of money, so what you’re trying to do is make a film that stands out. You know “distinct” is a word that gets used a lot as well as “diverse” be it for the filmmakers or for the material. And I think all those things are inherent to whatever stands out, especially when you’re at that level of filmmaking, you know. You’ve no production value to escalate or elevate what you’re doing, it’s just purely the story or the voice. So we’re looking invariably for material from diverse voices especially as a public agency, but also as film fans. We’re simply interested in hearing stories from people we haven’t heard from before.

Is there a type of story you feel isn’t being told in British cinema at the moment? What are young British filmmakers failing to do (if any)?

What’s been lacking? I think filmmakers have to understand more and more the connection between their material and an audience without compromising what it is they’re trying to say. I believe thinking about who it is that’s watching your film or who your film is for is something that has been allowed to be left as something a distributor might think of or something you think about further down the line. I think if you’re going to have a career in filmmaking or any type of storytelling at the moment with so many voices out there, you have to think of what connects to an audience and is still true to you. If between five things that you want to make one of them have clear audience appeal, then make that one.

The world has changed so much. Beforehand maybe you could just make a film and then hide behind distributors and marketing, let them be the ones that take it out there. These days if you’re a Youtuber, big on Instagram, a TV personality, you are directly engaging with your audience. As a filmmaker these days you can’t just hide behind the mechanism anymore. You have to face up to the audience!

And people do think it’s a dirty thing. They say, “oh well you know I’m not a commercial person,” but it’s not “dirty” if it’s true, if it’s authentic, and if it’s genuine and you’re able to persuade people that this is for them. You’re not “selling it” you’re just getting people to watch your film! It does mean filmmakers have to think differently about what their role is in the whole process. I think it’s going to be harder and harder for filmmakers who are not on top of that skill set. It’s just reality.

It’s a bit like pitching. Pitching is one part of owning-up-to and promoting your own material and people often say they don’t like to do it. You don’t have to think of it as pitching, you think of it as how do you get someone to connect with what you’re trying to do. It’s the same with pitching yourself online - just do something that makes people excited about you and what you have to say.

I’ve just overseen the first two slates of Microwave and we’re putting together the third slate and this one is going to have far more focus on that skillset. Not just because that’s what Microwave wants, but because if Microwave is there to launch careers with the idea that a person is going to go on to make another film in the wider industry, they’re not going to be able to do so without that skill set. Of course, we’re not saying it’s a blanket rule for the industry, but I certainly think for a new filmmaker coming through it’s important.

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