Cape Verdean-Canadian filmmaker P.J. discusses his approach, relationships and the most important elements of his career so far
- Photo credit: David Fulde, 2020
P.J. Marcellino is a Toronto-based, Cape Verdean-Canadian filmmaker, author, and political scientist. He is currently the creative director at Anatomy of Restlessness Films and co-founder and head of development and strategy at Baobab Film Collective, a startup international ensemble of African filmmakers developing premium non-fiction TV formats.
Following an early career as a journalist, social researcher, and political advisor, he transitioned to storytelling through the means of documentary, maintaining eminently social-political angles. He continues to work in documentary today, but is also making inroads into narrative genres, particularly in his wheelhouse of political thrillers and procedurals, SciFi, and New Noir. He is a graduate from Seneca College's Documentary Filmmaking Institute, a member of the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, and a member of the Directors Guild of Canada.
Name: P.J. Marcellino, DGC
Location: Toronto, Canada
Works in: Canada, EU, West Africa
Repped by / in: Alex Rozanec, TrePalm Films & Entertainment
2nd Rigoberta Menchu Social Award — Festival Presence Autochthone (Montreal)
Best Documentary Feature — Int. FF Women, Social Issues & Zero Discrimination (Jakarta)
(Nominee) Best Documentary Feature — Athens Int. Film & Video Festival (Athens, Ohio)
(Nominee) Best Music Documentary — NorthWest Fest (Edmonton)
(Nominee) Best Documentary Feature — Bentonville Film Festival (Fayetteville, Arkansas)
(Nominee) Best Documentary Feature — Festival Vues Sur Mer (Gaspé, Quebec)
(Nominee) Best Feature Documentary — Snowdance Independent Film Festival (Bayern, Germany)
Best Documentary Feature — Hamilton Film Festival (Hamilton, Canada)
Best Documentary Feature — Desert Rocks Film & Music Festival (California)
Jury’s 3rd Prize in Documentary — Festival des Films du Monde (Montreal)
(Nominee) Best Feature Documentary — Red Nation Film Festival (Santa Monica)
(Nominee) Best Environmental Documentary — Red Nation Film Festival (Santa Monica)
(Shortlist Nominee) SAMHSA Voice Award (Washington, DC)
(Nominee) Golden Pegasus Award — Peloponnesian International Film Festival (Greece)
(Nominee) Doc Talent Award — Cyprus International Film Festival (Cyprus)
Q > What elements of a script sets one apart from the other and what sort of scripts get you excited to shoot them?
P.J. > Structurally, what often gets my attention, and how I feel I can best step in as a director and complete the client’s vision, are well-matured scripts with clearly defined set pieces and smart, subtle messaging. That is to say scenes which have been creatively thought through, logistically vetted, with good copy, and are budget appropriate. It all goes back to project ideation... Impressive scripts or storyboards are great, but only insofar as resource allocation matches them.
Content-wise, I’m pretty partial to a dose of gritty visual grammar, to a certain urban decay, to a certain Noir vibe. Those would be the kind of visual cues that make me perk up. I think one of the coolest challenges for a director (or for this director) is finding the beauty in ugly things, giving them the editorial treatment, making them stand out casually.
Q > How do you approach creating a treatment for a spot?
P.J. > I always look at a script as the ultimate source. Perhaps that goes back to my filmmaking slant - I started in documentary and currently work in narrative. What does the script say? Where are we? Are there key words about what it looks like? What it feels like? What props are used? I start by highlighting all of this information and methodically add other key words. The point of going through this process is that eventually a word clicks and cements a corresponding image in my mind. With that as a catalyst, I can take to my private portfolio of set design files and visual references (or, failing that, too Google) and scroll until I find something that matches that initial image. From then on, it’s really like assembling a shapeless puzzle - you have an idea of where you’re going but must stay open to some conceptual detours as you start to put the pieces together in the treatment.
Q > If the script is for a brand that you're not familiar with / don’t have a big affinity with or a market you're new to, how important is it for you to do research and understand that strategic and contextual side of the ad? If it’s important to you, how do you do it?
P.J. > This is why communication with the client is so crucial. Understanding not only what they want, but also what they think they want, and what they actually need - and why. Ideally, by the time I hit the drawing board with that information, a conversation would have happened with their key creatives, and produced references. This is perhaps where I inject differentiation into the process. For a dozen years before I even worked in film, my storytelling skills were applied to journalism and my work as an investigative researcher. Then, I started my film journey in documentary, with its specific rhythms and codes. So, by professional default, I seek to understand the ins and outs of a situation before I dive in, and that very naturally takes me down some research rabbit holes, hopping from link to link until I have enough context. Those 5 Ws + 1 H of journalism work well to understand project briefs.
Q > For you, what is the most important working relationship for a director to have with another person in making an ad? And why?
P.J. > The director of photography, hands down...! If, as is my case, you don’t shoot, then you fully rely on that person to 'get you', to get your visual grammar, aesthetics, and references across, and to add their own references while respecting your directorial style. Being able to find a common aesthetic language is so important, which is why this relationship often lasts years. Once you find your person, you want to work together as much as possible, because you easily understand each other.
In my particular case, since I was a photo-reporter and an architecture editor for a long time, documentary photography’s observational style and architectural influences in how I like to frame lines of tension around the subject are so markedly part of my style, that I need a DOP who gets these arthouse cues and elevates them with sleek technical execution and maybe some surprising moves.
The bottom line is that a director and a DOP cannot work together if they don’t share a common language and cannot have a dysfunctional relationship. After all, the DOP is the one translating your brain onto the screen, using the best mental visual libraries in the industry.
Q > What type of work are you most passionate about - is there a particular genre or subject matter or style you are most drawn to?
P.J. > I appreciate and enjoy shooting verité documentary. I also love the language of some arthouse and experimental cinema. Those are the folks pushing the boundaries of what comes next, so I keep my eye out for edgy new stuff. But my personal tastes - what I watch - is aesthetically much closer to dark political thrillers, dystopian sci-fi, New Noir, and even Afrofuturism.
Q > What misconception about you or your work do you most often encounter and why is it wrong?
P.J. > That, because I am primarily known as a documentary filmmaker, my work is necessarily going to be in a documentary style. Nothing could be further from the truth. Everyone is multifaceted, and - now on my fourth career - I certainly am. Yes, I worked in documentary, but I was also a top-notch architecture writer and editor, I photographed hundreds of music and sports events over the years and I was a policy advisor and communications lead in international politics circles... Each of these left a mark not only on how I think about things visually, but also on how I go about executing a plan. Then there is my personal taste (see previous answer). The work you do is always a product of everything you bring to the table. And, in my case, that’s pretty diverse.
Q > Have you ever worked with a cost consultant and if so how have your experiences been?
P.J. > Not in film or agency work, but often in politics. Then again, as a film producer it often falls on me to assess costs and keep an eye on them, and to evaluate how minor conceptual or logistical changes will impact the overall budget. I’m not unfamiliar with this process.
Q > What’s the craziest problem you’ve come across in the course of a production – and how did you solve it?
P.J. > In spring 2017, my documentary released later that year had a series of preliminary consultation screenings across the Canadian Arctic, from Nunavut to the Yukon. We travelled to remote areas by plane, by dirt road and, on one occasion, by snowmobile. That latter event happened when a stubborn blanket of fog threatened to strand my team in Igloolik, an island hamlet in Nunavut, famous for being the home to the legendary Zacharias Kunuk and Natar Ungalaq of 'Fast Runner'. They were among the first to watch our cut. In the middle of the screening, we learned that the flight we had hoped to take out of Igloolik had been grounded 60 kilometres south in the tiny community of Hall Beach. It meant that we could have been stuck there over a week, which would have put a major wrench in the tour, and on my budget.
Kicking into a producer mindset in minutes, I immediately calculated the risks of a $2,000/day tab as long as we were fogged out... Don’t ask me how I remembered this, but I realised I had a friend in Hall Beach, of all places! Since the flight in had stopped there and arrived in Igloolik only 15 minutes later, I figured it couldn't be too far to cross the sea by skidoo. All we needed was a hunter with a snowmobile, GPS and good knowledge of the area. So, over the next few hours, I frantically engaged people in the local boards to find the right hunter and try to lock in a deal before 6pm, when gas stations closed. And by six we were sitting on a sled at a temperature of -55 C, bouncing around as the skidoo flew over two hours of bumpy snow. We got to my friend’s place in time for dinner.
It’s a great production story, yes, but it also points to a larger 'think-outside-the-box' approach I take on set. I like having Plan A, B, and C, and if they all fail, I adapt on the fly. I’ve learned that working on the field in Africa and Latin America. It’s a great transferable skill - see where things go, have a plan, but be prepared to adjust. Nothing is worth fretting too much over.
Q > How do you strike the balance between being open/collaborative with the agency and brand client while also protecting the idea?
P.J. > Communication. You never just show up on set. There are many conversations in pre-production and prep that are fundamental to how you approach the gig. When you meet the client and / or the creative director, it’s important to understand where they are coming from, what they want, factor in what is known and what is unknown, and discuss the idea together. If you’ve done your job well, by the time you arrive to set to direct, you’ve had enough time together to understand their overall creative vision and context, and to work within that space, while pushing the visual approach they approved. The agency / brand / client could always change their mind. It’s a dynamic thing. But at that point you pick your battles... you stick to your guns on what you know is important, and you offer compromise where you know it’ll be important to them, keeping in mind that the overall vision can’t exist without execution. Again, it comes down to being able to clearly communicate.
Q > What are your thoughts on opening up the production world to a more diverse pool of talent? Are you open to mentoring and apprenticeships on set?
P.J. > I’m not sure why this is even a question. Why are we still asking people if they are 'okay' with a diverse workforce? It seems ridiculous. It’s 2020. I have worked professionally on migration, diversity and inclusion for years, at an international level. Personally, my own background (Afro-European) also meant that I grew up surrounded by the normalcy of all people being different. My company deliberately hires diverse folks; all of my projects have an inclusion angle; and I currently represent the Directors Caucus in the Diversity and Inclusion Committee of the Directors Guild of Canada. I mentor younger filmmakers constantly, because that is the only way we can level the playing field - I would like to have had the same opportunity as I started, but I’m so proud to have brought that drive into the film industry from my previous job.
We need to stop engaging with the idea that this is an option. If you’re not willing to work with a diverse pool of talent at this point, you have no place in this industry going forward. Your time is up. Period.
Q > How do you feel the pandemic is going to influence the way you work into the longer term? Have you picked up new habits that you feel will stick around for a long time?
P.J. > During the pandemic, together with two colleagues, I co-founded and co-directed a massive two-week digital conference to rethink the cultural sector during and post-pandemic. There is a lot to discuss, but the dust is far from settled, so I reckon we’ll need to look into this later on. What is already certain are the massive changes in two specific areas. Firstly, the digitalisation of our work. Turns out, so much of what we do can be done effectively online, from home. I have been using video calling for work for nearly 20 years, and I’m so glad everyone now recognises it as a valid tool. The other major change has to do with distributive networks. There is a chaotic model in absolute reinvention right now, and we’ll have to wait and see where the chips fall. This is a time for innovative filmmakers.
Q > Your work is now presented in so many different formats - to what extent do you keep each in mind while you're working (and, equally, to what degree is it possible to do so)?
P.J. > The filmmakers of the future will be the ones who fully realise the advantages of transmedia storytelling and other innovations (like AR). This means planning for different platforms, perhaps different audiences, different times, different partners than before. It also means accepting multiple entry-points for and customisation of your story, having less control yourself and allowing the viewer to have more. That’s the future, and it’s here now.
Q > What’s your relationship with new technology and, if at all, how do you incorporate future-facing tech into your work (e.g. virtual production, interactive storytelling, AI/data-driven visuals etc)?
P.J. > One of my last projects was a wholly digital series, made for YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram, and requiring different outputs for all. By now, that’s almost 'traditional'. But I am currently working on my first transmedia feature documentary, which has a variety of other associated platforms for various types of content - some physical, and some technological. It’s an exciting time, and I can’t wait to see where we go next.
Q > Which pieces of work do you feel really show off what you do best – and why?
P.J. > My award-winning film 'When They Awake' is the most important work I’ve done in film. Its significance, documenting 40 Indigenous musicians at a moment of pivotal cultural crossroads, has been immeasurable. It came out years ago, it screened in 300+ events and 60 festivals in 30 countries and it continues to screen in North American schools today. I am proud of that content, proud of the visuals I developed with my co-director Hermon Farahi (from 'Knock Down the House', the most expensive documentary Netflix ever bought), but mostly proud of the correctness of the process of working with the communities. It was a 3.5 years project, for which I fundraised close to a million, much of which in in-kind sponsorships, so production had to balance different interests.
-'When They Awake'
My previous film, 'After the War: Memoirs of Exile', was perhaps a conceptual challenge. It was solely based on interviews, old letters and photographs. I sought to create a visual treatment of the archival material that did not look the same as every other documentary, and to this date, those shots (all of which done in the studio, since we did not have enough post-budget) continue to be some of the technical work I am most proud of. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say.
- 'After the War: Memoirs of Exile'
'No Limits' was a playful spot we did for American Express, inspired in their old pre-movie commercial spots, full of adventure and sophistication. It was such a blast to shoot and edit, and even though the company has moved on from that strategy and we did not get the deal we wanted, it did get our foot in the door, and got us a great meeting with their marketing team. Not bad for a cold call.
- 'No Limits'
The 'Folk On The Rocks' promo shot video was one of the most memorable gigs ever. It was set around explaining to someone who has not been to this legendary music festival what it feels like to be there, in the peak of the Arctic summer when the sun sets for two hours. It felt like one of the most organic shoots I’ve ever done, and I truly feel the fun, the vibe, and the hectic dynamic of a million music concerts happening at the same time captured the event and spirit of the place pretty well.
- 'Folk On The Rocks'