Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A Visit with René Bastian (WSC '94), Founder of Belladona Productions, Inc.

rene%20bastian.jpgBorn and raised in Hamburg, Germany, René Bastian (WSC '94) is the owner of Belladonna Productions Inc. He founded the company in 1994 after graduating from Washington Square College where he majored in Political Science and minored in Journalism. René is well known for producing multiple award winning films such as Sue, L.I.E., Transamerica, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints and Funny Games. We had the opportunity to visit René at his office in New York, where we talked a bit about his company and his transition into the film industry.  

While you were a student at NYU, did you know what you wanted to do for a career?

No, not at all! That was really an exploratory phase for me. Before coming to New York I actually went through training as a shipping merchant—Hamburg, Germany is a big port city. I did that right after school and realized that I didn’t want to continue doing that, which caused me a little confusion. I had a very early set of ideas that I wanted to do something in a creative industry but I had no role models or even an example of what that meant. NYU was a wonderful place to explore that. And I had a vague idea that when I talked about creativity that that might be in writing or involve some sort of instrument of expression, meaning a camera—so photography or film. I took my two and a half years at NYU to proactively explore everything. In my journalism curriculum I focused on writing, but also television and photojournalism. I fell in with a group of Tisch students who became my friends. I volunteered to work on Tisch student films, and I partook in the Tisch curriculum indirectly through these friends. While I was at NYU I was actually involved—in some way, shape or form—with about twenty-five student films.  

And when you graduated from NYU and started your company, how did that come about and what was that process like?

Well as an international student I had a work permit for one year, and in that year I began to embark on a career and started working in film. I started making money and I started to consider New York my home. I worked very closely with two other NYU students and we had casually mentioned the idea of forming a company. And then one of them had visa issues and it really became a practical decision because he wanted to stay and we knew that forming a company would be a good way for him to get a visa. So he asked myself and our other friend if we would be part of the company. So we really formed it for visa issues, and without much of a plan. Some say that to succeed in the film business you need a lot of experience, a great network of people, and capital. But we had no experience, knew nobody and didn't have a penny to our name. That’s how the company started.  

Can you explain the role of the producer?

The term really encompasses a broad variety of professions and some people just do some aspects of it while others do it all. It takes a long time to learn everything required to be well rounded. We are producing mostly feature films. Here we initiate the process by choosing a piece of material that can already be a screenplay or we develop the screenplay from some other source material. We choose the director and we cast the actors. These three elements—script, director and cast constitute a financeable product, based on which we put the financing together, make the film and then market it. So it’s really a multi-faceted profession ranging from very creative tasks to financial and logistical. As a company our core business is physical production. We get paid for making the films. Our other tasks are development of material, financing of the material and then selling and marketing of the finished films.  

Can you talk a little about how social media has played a part in film production?

Social media has made it possible for us, for the first time, to speak directly to the audience. In the past distribution companies would acquire your film and it was their business to market to the consumer. Producers had really no say in that or relations to the audience. Now producers can interact with the audience well before the film is even made, and that's really quite wonderful. So all of our films today have Facebook pages and websites, and we try to build a community around the film before the film is made.  

What advice would you give to alumni who are interested in switching their career into something that is in film or producing?

Well it depends on where you’re coming from and what you want to do within the industry. One thing I really enjoy about this profession is that it requires a very diverse skill set ranging from creative to business. You're dealing daily with different types of creative people—writers, directors, actors, composers, designers—but you also deal with bankers, investors, insurers, and lawyers, etcetera. So depending on the background from which you enter the field, you may have a deficit in another field. You need to understand what your own strengths and weaknesses are and embrace the fact that film is a collaborative effort. Try to suppress your ego and learn from people around you who are better at certain things. What’s great about this profession is that you don’t have to know everything right from the start as long as you are with the right kinds of people who supplement your weaknesses. Understand that film is a life long learning experience. Embrace that and be patient.  

Can you talk about the projects you’re working on now?

We are working on a large number of films right now. We have about six projects of our own that we develop and then we co-produce a few more. To be specific, my main task at the moment is a project that is a big film for us in terms of budget. It’s also the first film we’re doing in Europe. It is a little challenging because we’re blending European ways of financing with American ones. In Europe films are often financed by public funding bodies, which are very regulated in terms of a legal framework. In the US, we work with private investors and distribution companies. Marrying these two mentalities can be challenging, but also ultimately quite beneficial for all sides. This particular film is called The Wall, and it takes place in Berlin in 1961 around the time that the Berlin Wall was built. A “Casablanca-esque” sort of film of ordinary people being tossed into turmoil by a big international event.  

Do you have other films or directors that really appeal to you?

That is always such a tough question to answer because there are so many directors that I admire for different reasons.  

Is there something you saw recently that really stuck with you?

A few days ago I saw a Danish thriller that I really liked called Just Another Love Story [written and directed by Ole Bornedal]. I thought it was quite unusual and exciting. I also enjoyed The Artist very much. I admire the audacity of making a silent movie in this day and age. It's success is just another example of how great talent and originality can defy the preconceptions of an industry.  

Is there anything else you would like to say or add?

I would like to say what a great resource NYU was for me. What I really needed at that point in my life was inspiration and to learn a variety of things. And looking back at everything I’ve just described—going to CAS gave me a strong foundation, while being able to participate in what Tisch was doing, I also learned my craft there. NYU was really quite an incredible schooling experience for me. Please click here to learn more about Belladonna Productions.

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