How They Did It: Pulling off an Icelandic Co-Production with Autumn Lights

Autumn Lights is the first independent American-Icelandic co-production in history to be both shot and completed in Iceland.

Producer and star Guy Kent made the film alongside director Angad Aulakh and Ashley M. Kent, Davíd Óskar Ólafsson and Árni Fillippusson. This is Kent’s recount of their experience in setting up an international co-production on this film.


When Angad Aulakh and I decided that we were going to shoot Autumn Lights in Northern Europe, it brought on an entirely new set of variables to the equation that we had not yet encountered as moviemakers: international co-production. It’s the subject of seminars, and is surrounded by an endless string of questions: What is your entry point? What is the process?

Guy Kent, producer and star of Autumn Lights

Guy Kent, producer and star of Autumn Lights

While initially we were not acquainted with its mechanisms, we were confident in our ability to immerse ourselves and understand the procedure from the ground up. It not only proved to be a manageable process, but a rewarding and vital component to making Autumn Lights the film that it is.

The idea to set our story in Scandinavia originally grew out of pragmatism. While we were in need of a location with geographical isolation, and a dramatic backdrop for a story that was intimate in scope, it was imperative for us to find a local, professional infrastructure to keep production feasible. Shooting internationally can bring its share of added expenses in various forms, so it was important for us to evaluate how far the budget would stretch us in any given country prior to the final decision of Iceland. We found an international co-production to be necessary in offering three fundamental components to making the film we had envisioned: It would give us the ideal location for the story; access to the infrastructure and its working professionals, both in front of and behind the camera; and—most imperative to our film—government programs that would allow us either to offset costs via rebate/tax incentives or infuse equity into the actual budget of the film.

Prior to Autumn Lights, Angad and I had developed three separate projects during a brief nine-month period, with each project becoming more attune to the ingredients necessary to get financing for our first feature film. It was that commitment to strategy and pragmatism that allowed Autumn Lights to receive its initial financing in the States prior to Iceland entering the equation. That mentality would also later serve us as we entered our international co-production.

Prior to the script’s development, we asked ourselves a series of questions in order to establish feasibility:

  • What themes and ideas that interest us can we maintain within a certain scope?
  • How small must that scope be in order to maintain a high quality level at our targeted budget?
  • Where can a budget that doesn’t exceed a certain dollar amount actually benefit from government programs and local infrastructures?

This last question was crucial when it came to the benefits of international co-production. While there are helpful programs domestically, many of them require a production to have a certain amount of spend, and it’s usually an amount more than most truly independent productions have at their fingertips.

Kent (as David) and Marta Gastini (as Marie) in Autumn Lights

Kent (as David) and Marta Gastini (as Marie) in Autumn Lights

Shortly after the script for Autumn Lights began to circulate, we had secured our financing within the States through means of private equity. With that, we began looking at international film communities whose work we found inspiring with which we wanted to work. This led us to Iceland and Icelandic producers Davíd Óskar Ólafsson and Árni Filippusson, producers of celebrated Icelandic films such as Metalhead, Either Way and the Either Way English-language remake, Prince Avalanche, from David Gordon Green.

Many contemporary films coming out of Iceland tell stories of strong, steadfast relationships of its enduring people, usually in rural, isolated communities, painted against the grand backdrop of its geography. We found these stories inspiring and complex, made by a community of accomplished professionals with whom we were excited to work. And though Autumn Lights is not a “true” Icelandic story, both sides of the co-production were excited to show Iceland and its talent in a way it had never been seen before in an English-language film, especially when the country usually stands in for a distant, barren planet (or as simply a tourist destination).

We had been in touch with Davíd and Árni prior to Autumn Lights and we immediately felt a connection. We believed that Autumn would be a story they’d gravitate toward. When they showed interest in the script and in collaborating, our initial conversations with them revolved around the equity that we would be bringing into Iceland and how far that would take us if we were to set the film up there. Equally as important during those early conversations were the incentive programs available for co-productions, which ones were applicable to our specific production, and how that infusion into the budget would affect not only the various logistics, but also the creative factors having to do with the script, the vision and ultimately the final film as a whole. We understood the feasibility of relying solely on the equity brought into Iceland in the chance that we were not to receive certain co-production approvals. And we understood what that potential monetary value would be if we were to receive the incentives through an approved co-production. We discussed if it would be most beneficial to use those incentives to offset equity costs, or to infuse it into the film’s actual budget.

Shooting Autumn Lights in location in Iceland

Shooting Autumn Lights in location in Iceland

Once we made the decision to move forward in Iceland with Davíd and Árni, a partnership was expeditiously formed. While setting up the logistics proved to be a straightforward process in terms of the arrangements and legal structures, we had to do our due diligence in order to provide reasonable security and assurances to us and our production investors. Trust and respect are critical ingredients to a partnership regardless of its nature, and as we entered this international co-production, a level of transparency was essential to gain a clear understanding of the mechanisms.

Moreover, seeing that both Angad and I had roles as director and actor, respectively, on the film, trust and communication had to be clear and open. Our confidence in the procedure and our team allowed us the ability to focus on our other roles in the production when cameras were rolling.

While we did not know what to expect prior to this experience (especially as every government’s approval and expediting procedures will vary), we quickly found the process to be entirely workable. Our experience of making Autumn Lights in Iceland was unforgettable, and our passion for this jewel of a film and for the community that embraced us is immense. MM

Autumn Lights opens in theaters and On Demand on October 21, 2016.

 

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