TheeBlog Q&A Sessions: Julian Van Mil

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Chasing Madoff is a film based on the book ‘No One Would Listen’ by Harry Markopolos, also known as the whistleblower of the now infamous Bernie Madoff scandal that shook the nation back in 2009, and it narrates the numerous twists, secrets, threats and corruption that made this story seem unreal. I had the pleasure of chatting about this film with Associate Producer, Director of Photography and good friend Julian Van Mil. This talented Toronto based motion graphics Artist and Commercial Director is part of the team behind this film and kindly accepted my invitation to talk about his role, work, projects and some interesting facts about the film. Check out this great interview, the film’s trailer as well as some samples of Julian’s work after the jump. Happy Friday!

The film is scheduled to be released this summer – August to be more specific – in select movie theaters. Check the dates and locations on the film’s site and make sure you watch, recommend and support it!

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Hello Julian and thank you for accepting my invitation. I can imagine how hectic things might be with the near release of your latest project…
No problem. Actually I’ve fallen into this calm between the recent festival screenings and the upcoming theatrical release. Somehow it’s all fallen back into a regular-ish schedule. For now…

Before we begin, could you please introduce yourself and tell us a little about your background?
I’m based in Toronto, Canada. I’m a self taught motion graphics artist, freelance commercial director also working in narrative film and television. I have the ethos that motion graphics, film, broadcast and interactive are in no way mutually exclusive. As the technical specialities that once separated these disciplines disappear, my aim is to create memorable images that have emotional value across any medium, trying to prioritize fluidity of the creative process above all else. That and I’m addicted to coffee – it’s only 10am and I’m on my third shot.

You have an impressive portfolio! How did you get involved in film, motion and broadcast?
Thanks. I started in interactive. I was doing web sites for small local companies in my teens, that eventually lead to some promotional material for a film production company named ThinkFilm. On a lark, they gave me the opportunity to co-direct my first feature film, Snapped, a low budget horror. The film is complete garbage, but it gave me an invaluable education in film-making and managing people. I was 18 at the time, so it really served as my film school, it was a sink or swim experience.
This was before the full-blown digital camera revolution, so we shot the film on 16 mm… I can’t overstate how valuable that was and how much it taught me. At the same time I was experimenting with various compositing and effects packages. I completed about a dozen vfx shots for Snapped. Those simple shots coupled with the momentum of having directed a feature, was enough to get me going in commercial motion-graphics.

One of your most recent projects is a documentary film soon to be released to theatres nationwide called ‘Chasing Madoff’ and it narrates the story behind the story that shocked (and robbed) the world, orchestrated by Bernard Madoff.
The film is Harry Markopolos’s story, told in his own words. Harry is the whistle blower who amazingly knew everything about the Madoff’s ponzi scheme 10 years before it broke publicly. He tried repeatedly to warn the Securities and Exchange Commission (S.E.C) and peers in finance, who all did nothing. And I don’t mean, sneaky parking-garage-middle-of-the-night-style warnings, I mean fully documented time-stamped reports clearly outlining in plain english 29 reasons why Madoff unarguably was a complete fraud. Over the course of 10 years that followed those warnings, Harry became increasingly paranoid, eventually resorting to extreme self protection: guns, bomb checking, bullet-proof vests, etc. He is a perfect physical manifestation of the fear and anger people experienced over Madoff.

You are credited as Associate Producer, Director of Photography and Motion Graphics. Could you please tell us what was your role(s) in this film?
Good question. I don’t really know anymore. For anyone who’s been involved in projects over a certain scale, you know that there’s a tipping point where people give themselves over completely to the project, or they flow in and out when they’re needed. I was there completely, doing anything to make it work — with a small group of about 4 guys who worked continuously for the entire film’s production. But in a nutshell, I’m responsible for all the visual style aspects of the film. That includes things like preproduction planning, on-set shooting, creating visual metaphors, designing info-graphics, opening and closing credits, color-correction and delivering about 300 effects shots.

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Official Trailer:

For those not too familiar with titles when it comes to this field, could you please give us a brief summary of what a Director of Photography and Associate Producer does?
Director of Photography is the person who defines the visual look and feel of a film stylistically. It’s my job to have a complete vision of how the movie will look as a finished product, and understand how to technically execute that vision. I’m not necessarily the man behind the camera (sometimes I am), but I’m in charge of the camera department and it’s planning, as well as further refining the overall style of the film through colour-correction. On a doc, it’s a little bit loose because you’re continually shooting over two years in no defined time-frame or location. For instance, I relied heavily on the talented Nicolas Doldinger to shot many of the locations.
Associate Producer is less-defined. I think officially it’s an administrative role. I was given the credit because of my close involvement with managing production beyond purely creative tasks… but I didn’t do enough to warrant a full producer credit as ultimately those responsibilities didn’t fall to me.

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How long has this entire project been from conception to delivery? If you can still remember of course :)
It’s been a little over two years I believe.

If you had to choose… commercial, documentary or blockbuster?
Blockbuster.

What inspires you?
New music mostly. I don’t think there are many moment’s in my day where music isn’t playing. I can’t function well without it.

Let’s get into the film a little. Why Madoff?
He’s got it all. I mean, he’s this fantastic boiling point of everything that’s wrong with the american financial system. The story has grand corruption, fantastically disproportionate wealth, institutionalized theft, lies, cover-ups, bribes, delusion, the only thing missing is sex… When we decided that Harry’s was the story we wanted to tell, we did so just assuming that someone else would make a feature Madoff doc with a more academic summary overview of the entire scandal. Yet as far as I know we’re the first feature length movie about Madoff to go theatrical. We really lucked out there.

Where you involved in this project from the beginning or where you invited to join it by Director Jeff Prosserman?
From the beginning. Myself and Jeff have a long working relationship that goes back over 10 years, and we’re always searching for new projects. This one just worked out — right time, right place, I suppose.

This film is based on a book by Harry Markopolos called ‘No One Would Listen’ and it features Mr. Markopolos’s story. How hard/easy was to access and work with a man I assume has had his share fare of death threats?
Gaining access and finding Harry was all Jeff’s doing. I didn’t have much to do with it other than giving my creative input. However I can say that from observing the process, it seamed extremely difficult and time consuming. We had to beat out a bid from Oprah to get the rights… or so I’m told.

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Once you got him, how difficult was it to get access and clearance for this film from giants like The Wall Street Journal, SEC, Government, etc.? I mean, there were some wild accusations and cover-ups at some point. Did you experience any type of rejection from any party involved in this film?
Some of that stuff falls into public domain. Some of it doesn’t. It’s a weird line, for instance we can show a bank’s logo only if the bank itself is publicly displaying it. So we can shoot a bank’s logo on a sign in the street, and use that shot, but we can’t scan that same logo from a piece of paper and use it. The rules really make no sense to me so we have lawyers who check every frame of the film and they tell us what will get us sued. We listen to them, but we didn’t sanitize it completely, because of course the film is pointing fingers and we don’t want to dull that edge. There’s definitely a big risk, because we’re expressing the very accusing view-point of one man. But as I understand it, we legally still fall on the right side of ’safe’. There were definitely some retractions of material along the way, but nothing that affected the impact of story, and mostly stuff that I just didn’t understand why it mattered that we remove it. There was never a moment where I said, “shit, I wish we could use this material and we just can’t.” Jeff’s opinion might differ on that last point…

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What can we expect to learn or discover that we have not already seen on the news or newspapers?
Firstly, how utterly deep the corruption was and still is. I think people know that Madoff was full of shit and a fraud, and that he probably paid people off, but I don’t think they realize how small a piece of the story that is. From what I now understand, literally thousands of people at every level of wall-street and government had to be aware and were either profiting directly or were too apathetic to take a stand. Most of these people carried on completely unpunished and are still active.
Secondly, I think people will see a human side to this story that has thus-far been sorely missing. We’ve all heard about the victims of Madoff, but I believe there is a subtle negative stigma against the victims. I hear things like “they had a choice to invest their money with Madoff,” and “who cares, they were all millionaires,” “they must have known something was wrong,” etc. So there’s a lot of mis-information out there — and reliving the story from Harry’s perspective I think shows that Madoff and the system that supported him truly was a deeply insidious force. Lastly, I think you’ll hear a side of the story that hasn’t been told at all. And that’s the story of the people who actually stood up against the corruption and fought. Within such a negative circumstance that has left nothing but a bad taste in
the public’s mouth, it’s inspiring and refreshing to hear about people who didn’t stand idly by. And their actions have spurred on a movement that gives a lot of hope for the future.

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Are there any good, bad or scary anecdotes you could share?
In the interview with Harry, there was a very intense section where he says, and I’m paraphrasing, “I was prepared to go down to New York and kill Madoff.” And that just floored me. I leaned over to Jeff and asked “Did he just admit to conspiring to kill Madoff on camera?” And we were both like… “shit just got real.”

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Now, for the techies… with REDs and new film techniques using DSLRs being so popular, what type of equipment was used for this film? Do you have any preference?
We used everything. What we called the ‘master interviews’ were all shot on the RED camera. They were one week of controlled studio shooting with all of the key players against a black background. We shot these at 4k to enable us to do dramatic post camera moves. In the film, we play the master interviews as if they’re all happening in the same space, the camera flies from one interviewee to the next seamlessly, as if they were sitting next to each-other. Of course, the interviews were all shot separately and married together later in post. This was a key choice we made early on, as it allows all the characters to look directly into the camera and give the audience an ‘interrogation’ style view-point (plus it drove our editor mad). The RED allowed us to do this while maintaining a high fidelity, and we definitely pushed that limit. I recently viewed the same ‘post-camera-shift’ technique in Errol Morris’s new film Tabloid, at IDFA this year, but I think we have a much better execution, mainly because we planned for it and it’s integrated into the DNA of our story.
The rest of the location stuff was shot on my Canon D70 DSLR and Nico’s Sony EX1… I think there was even some handy-cam stuff in there. I’m a huge fan of the whole DSLR revolution, but after having shot a whole feature-film dealing with quirks, it’s connivence ultimately is trumped by it’s inadequacies. Owning a D70, I find the ability to shoot great looking footage whenever and wherever incredible. However, when I’m putting so much effort into a project that’s going to be on the big screen, I wouldn’t do it again. The shadow detail and grain are horrid, and rolling shutter is a huge problem. Not to mention all the transcoding… my god the transcoding. It always surprises me that someone like Sony, who makes great ENG style cameras, cinema style cameras, and DSLRs doesn’t marry them into a hybrid best-of-all-worlds situation. I’m not asking for new tech, just selected features. Where’s my DSLR sized camera with interchangeable lens/mounts, dedicated ergonomic auto/manual focus/shutter/aperture controls that shoots ProRes HQ 24fps 1080p directly to SxS cards? Huh…? Maybe soon. I hear that the PMW-F3 is close, but I haven’t tried it out yet. We needed RED for this project but for a lot of the work I do it’s over-kill.

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Also, with the popularity of motion graphics or special effects, do you find it difficult to work on a ‘documentary’ style film? Are there any restrictions?
Not at all. Initially I had planned to do much more, and that’s on-top of about 300 vfx shots actually completed. And I’m sure on the next one I will do even more. Documentaries are the same as any other film in that you have a room full of people’s attention for 90 minutes – you’d better keep them entertained – and I view any and all techniques fair game to do so. One of the most interesting reactions to the film was in Amsterdam where there was real controversy over our use of heavy reenactment and vfx. Some people were offended by this, like we violated some sort of rule book. It really polarized the audience. I found that great… it stirs the pot and breaks convention. I mean, we’re trying to tell a story where for 90% of it, there was no historical documentation, just a couple pieces of paper. What are we supposed to do? Just have one talking head for 60 minutes? I don’t think so, people would be bored to tears, and I’ve seen documentaries that are like that. From my perspective this is the ideal problem, because it allows me to really contribute and help energize the story. People in North America don’t seam to care so much or even notice that it’s going on.

Do you have any advice for all those future Film Makers or Film/Photography students out there?
Create work for yourself, try to make things that you would love.

What’s the best advice you ever got?
“No matter what, introduce yourself and shake everyone’s hand in the room – especially the guy who sweeps the floor.”

What are you working on now? Any upcoming projects we should look forward to?
I’m always on a commercial or two. Right now I’m working on a whole series of new Bell commercials in Canada, and I just wrapped creating 2 new show packages, one for Intervention and another for a cute game-show called Cash Cab. Plus me and Jeff have some very exciting projects in development, no details yet but keep your ear to the ground.

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Thank you again Julian! It was a pleasure having you as a guest and we wish you the best of luck on this and all future projects!

Watch the official Trailer HERE

Visit the film’s website www.chasingmadoff.com

Check out Julian’s Portfolio site! www.julianvanmil.com




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One comment
  1. This looks interesting.

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