For filmmaker Danielle Diffenthaller, her work is a calling. But she readily acknowledges that she also needs to make a living from it. In this Business Day interview, Dieffenthaller talks of the challenges the faced creating the iconic local soap opera Westwood Park, convincing corporate Trinidad to consider film as an investment opportunity, building an industry and a legacy for future filmmakers and why film is an integral part of shaping TT’s identity.
How have you managed to continue in this profession and earn a living, especially since film tends to be career that so many people still think of as a hobby?
Tenacity, bad mind, stubbornness, complete insanity, I think, because truly by the grace of God. There’s a design to it as well. A lot of what I’ve done was aimed at building an industry. Yes, I wanted to make a living, and now that I’m older and have children and have to think about things like sending them to university it starts to become serious that I need to make a living.
I’ve been lucky, I guess, in that I chose to do certain things. Where everybody else was buying a house and a car and building a life I was investing it in making TV just so we could have something that could seem sustainable and long-lasting, which is why I did six seasons of Westwood Park. Not because it was paying me oodles of money, but for many reasons we needed to have that continuity.
That’s interesting because it seems then that you understood the need for that continuity – and you were effectively a pioneer in the industry. But you clearly aren’t the first filmmaker in TT. There are all these old movies, etc. Tell me about when you started and building on that established sector.
That’s exactly what I was doing, building on the established. I worked under Horace James (legendary broadcaster and actor) at TTT. I literally insinuated myself into his life and said this is what I wanted to do. I was supposed to be in the newsroom, I was supposed to be a reporter, but that was not why I joined television. But I didn’t want to be no reporter although in (management’s) brains, being at TTT equalled going there to report.
That was the only option then?
Yeah, and for me there was a whole production department there with scripts and things to do. So that was where my pull was, and I was just drawn upstairs. I used to sit and read all the scripts and make suggestions on what to do.
I think – people say a lot of things about Eric Williams (I was a child when he was around), but I think the thing that he understood was the need to establish a television station and to tell people about themselves. He is the man who brought back Horace James from England and gave him that mandate.
And I think this is what is missing now, the mandate where people understand who they are. It was a fundamental part of the psyche of the people of my generation who grew up watching themselves. We grew up in independence, the first of the post-colonial era and we grew up understanding having a sense of pride in your country and being invested in your country. Because I left this country and I came back.
It seems then that even now there’s a gap that still needs to be filled.
It’s hugely void, yes. I started with Horace when I was still in school. I spent my gap year before university at TTT – this was the mid-1980s – and I was supposed to be a reporter, but I started wandering upstairs to Horace and literally said, "I want to work on this" – "this" being local production No Boundaries at the time. I did things by instinct, because I used to look at how he would organise his shoots and think, 'Come on, this is such a mess, let’s organise this."
And little did I know I was (employing technical skills) like making a strip board, breaking down the script, I was doing things that to me were logical, but apparently in TV were a thing. I was just doing it like that by hand and making things happen.
And every year after that, while at university, I would come back in the summer and work on the show again.
And then I went to London and worked at a news and current affairs show at Channel 4 – another education – and somewhere in the middle of London I realised, "Why am I here telling everybody else’s story but my own?" It was interesting and I really liked it, but I just felt like I wasn’t fulfilling some other thing that I was supposed to be doing.
I came home, still not completely convinced I was coming home to stay, met some people and that was the end.
A few weeks ago, a picture surfaced of when we all first came together and my former partner said to me, "What do you think would happen if you went back to London and I went back to New York?" I said, "Whatever, we can’t think of that now. This is where we are now and what we’ve done and where we have to be."
When you pitched the idea of Westwood Park, how were you able to convince people that this was something viable, something people would watch? Obviously, you need the interest of the market, and also to secure funding. Especially since there seems to be an idea that film is not just something that’s a hobby but also cheap.
I don’t know why people think that. The thing that boggles my mind to this day is, why do people think we’re any different to Hollywood, Bollywood, Nollywood, any of those other woods. Why do people think we’re any different? If the US were to pull Hollywood, what do you think is going to happen to their economy? And their ideologies and philosophies…They are getting into the core of people, getting into people’s minds (via film).
They are selling us their stuff. Why are we any different? Why is it that anything we do is any different, any less relevant or valuable than they do?
So if that was your question, I can’t answer. Convincing people (to finance projects) continues to be a trauma. We still have our post-colonial trauma, we still have our self-loathing. We still have that mentality that what we do is inferior or to make it you have to be out there.
But to me, if we are really serious about being a society or being a country, what are we standing for?
If people can answer those questions, then getting money wouldn’t be that hard, but it is.
And Westwood Park?
Convincing people for Westwood Park was, and still is, the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. It took me two years, and the only reason I got the money in the first place was I shot the pilot, basically for free, begging people, everybody under the sun – what you see in those first few episodes is me begging people for clothes, locations, to act, to work as crew.
Luckily, we had invested in our own camera and we had a box of lights, so basically between my best friend – who was the production manager, the property master, the set psychologist, the everything on set – between the two of us we were doing makeup, wardrobe, pulling in friends and just asking people to help get it together.
And then two years later, there was a Caribbean Broadcasters Union meeting and one of the issues was a lack of local programming, and all of a sudden, everybody remembered that, "Oh, Danielle has something, I wonder if she still has it?" So both TV6 and TTT came at me: "Oh, you still have that show you wanted to do? Let’s talk."
It was basically who was coming up with the budget. TV6 wanted to give me a 1987 budget and TTT was giving me a 1997 budget, so that’s who we went with. I had to explain that I wanted to pay everybody a fair wage for what they are doing, plus getting it done.
Even when they came up with the money, TTT actually gave me licensing rights, because everybody thinks that when they give you all this money to produce something, they are going to own it. No. That’s not possible.
People often forget about licensing.
Yes, but to me, as far as I was concerned, you cannot know how much money I’m going to make from this and I knew – I mean, at the time, I didn’t think I was going to make any set of money, but I knew that the money I would make from it wouldn’t be then. So it was an investment somewhere down the line. But I knew it would take forever before I got back the money.
And then we started to do product placement. (Brands) don’t just land up on a screen. Somebody paid for it to be there. So that’s how we got the rest of the money.
It seems then that people don’t really understand what really goes into the commercial side of producing film projects.
Soap operas were called that because soap companies would put their products or actually advertise the soaps on these programmes. because that’s what housewives watched. and housewives use soap. And that’s since the fifties. And we used the same concept in the 1990s and today. When somebody is driving an Aston Martin it’s not because they like the Aston Martin, it’s because Aston Martin paid for it. Tom Cruise isn’t wearing Ray Bans in Top Gun because he likes it, they are paying him to wear it. It’s always selling something.
I went to pitch my new series, Caribbean Tales, about four years ago and afterwards, these guys came up to me and said, "So what can you sell in the show?" and I was stunned at first. They said, "Yeah, the concept is good, but what are you selling? Can you partner with a makeup company and sell makeup?"
In (US TV series) Scandal for example, Olivia Pope’s makeup is Revlon, her wardrobe sold in (mass market retailer) Target. These shows are a vehicle to sell things, and it’s a concept we haven’t caught on to yet.
It seems then that local media companies don’t appreciate what goes into making local content.
Not only that. One, they don’t appreciate what goes into it but also – they don’t understand, I guess. I don’t know why, because we can tell you people are watching – they aren’t seeing how the market laps up the content. The other thing, too, is that physical TV is dead. Content is still king, because we have a bajillion platforms to populate. And the whole thing is to try to get viewers to your platform amongst the noise.
People don’t understand what it takes. They say to me, "Why don’t you do a web series?" like somehow a web series is cheaper than a TV show. It’s the same thing you have to go through to produce, unless of course you’re just doing it on your phone.
How was it for you to convince your family, your backers, even yourself, that film is a viable business and can make money?
It’s a real Catch-22 situation. To get the money, you have to show people where the money is. To get the money you have to have the money. It’s a vicious cycle. When you produce a film, people think, fine they gave you so much money to produce a film. But that’s half the battle. When you finish the film, the real battle comes with selling it. This is the issue we’ve had in the Caribbean. The real problem in the Caribbean is distribution. Because without distribution you really are just doing a hobby.
That’s the next question: how do you get to these platforms?
We have plenty platforms wanting to showcase but it’s to get people (viewers) to these platforms. So you have to have a marketing plan. But even so, the next project I am going to do, I approached it very differently to Westwood Park. This way I’m just saying, "I’m gonna do a pilot and I am going to get a distributor before I do the series." I want worldwide distribution before I do the series.
I got one. He came here – a Canadian who just liked the project – and we tried to sell it to corporate Trinidad and still, nothing. It was just, "What? This man was saying he had distribution."
But I think people don’t understand TV as a product. Because to me it’s just like any product you want to sell: you have to know which shelf you’re getting it on and to get it on to the shelf first.
What about international outlets? Netflix, for example?
I’ve been trying to get Netflix, but Netflix is interested in audience. We have to prove to Netflix that our audience is more than five million people, so we have to have figures of the diaspora, so they understand it’s not just the island chains. Right now, we are trying to come together as a unified body as the Caribbean to show we do have that audience.
Is it that people, corporate backers, just don’t understand what they can get back?
No, they don’t. For me product placement is a real no-brainer, because at the end of the day, whoever put their product in Westwood Park, for example, is still getting the benefits of that exposure. And that’s money they spent 20 years ago.
What’s the timeline for production? It seems like there’s so many elements and opportunities for employment.
It depends on when you get the money. The cheapest part is pre-production and scripting.
But you have to live. People always ask, "Oh, so did you write the whole series?"
What you think? It’s free?
They don’t seem to realise I still have a mortgage to pay, children to feed, myself to feed, put gas in the car. I still have to live while I write. That is why you are paying for me to write, so I can live and write, instead of doing it the way most people do it, which is in between other jobs.
Most of Westwood Park was written while all of us were in between other jobs. Eventually when we got paid, we could hand over the money to a writer.
The writing is the cheapest part, because it’s just two to three people.
Then you have pre-production, where you bring in your producer, your props master, script supervisor, wardrobe people, etcetera, because you have to break down the script to find all these things, including find locations, cater, get props, figure out the set, sound, camera angles, and so on.
Then you start to shoot and have to get actors and crew. So usually on my shoot you might have 20 crew and five-ten cast.
And then comes editing and scoring and post-audio and colouring, titles and then you have to take it to market and then you have to find somebody to sell it around the world.
Putting it on TV here is not where it ends, because then you’ve just wasted your time and money. Because really – and this is where we have a problem – people say, "Really? You sure people want to see that anywhere else in the world?"
What Netflix has taught all of us is people will watch anything, wherever it comes from in the world, once the story is good.
And Westwood Park too has proven this. We put the first season online some years ago, and I would get letters from all over the world, like Sweden – and not Trinis in Sweden, but Swedish people. And I asked one man once why he was watching, if he even understood it? He said yes, and I asked, well, why he liked it, and he said, Sweden is dark, cold and he liked looking at the bright colours and it was sunny and had pretty people.
So there’s a whole world out there for everybody. And we can’t be so self-loathing to think we are any less.
What about incentives? The government is still the driver of the economy.
It doesn’t have to be. Yes, the tax breaks can work, but I think corporate Trinidad has a lot to gain from a thriving film industry, especially those who export,because it goes beyond Trinidad. I’ve never done anything for just Trinidad. I always knew even in 1997 my audience was the whole Caribbean. I set out for that.
It’s a mindset and people have a set mind.
I don’t know what to say. It’s not that much money. Because I’ve seen people spend $1 million for a 30-second ad for Christmas or Carnival, and that ad just runs for a season and it’s done. You put KFC in a Westwood Park, for example, and it’s there as long as someone is watching. People still watch The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Friends, I love Lucy – which is 70 years old. People will watch things, and thanks to the internet it never goes away. So for brand recognition – and maybe I just don’t understand advertising – it’s there and you get your money’s worth.
People come up to me all the time and ask me when I’m doing another show. If everybody is seeing this, why is it so hard?
No. That doesn’t work here. The people that gave me – and I still didn’t make my target – were either foreigners based here, people married to foreigners, people living abroad and now home or people abroad. And people in the arts.
So we still haven’t got on to that. And a lot of people don’t have credit cards, I’ve come to realise.
People don’t see the arts as a driver of the economy.
Which is what I don’t understand because they all (love) Hollywood. We just not on to ourselves.
Do you have hope for the future of film in TT? I mean there are all these new mandates for local content platforms.
I can only have hope, or else I might slit my wrists, so I’m not going to do that. We have to be broader in our thinking and our reach.
The people who miss home most are the people who are not here – the diaspora. So I think that’s where we have to find the money.
We need it. but we don’t seem to understand that it’s a need. not just a want or desire or hobby. We need it as a country because we have no guiding philosophy.
I see how Hollywood sells their philosophy, the American philosophy. They are selling their ideology.
We are not selling anything to our people, except when you look at the news and see a hero’s send-off for a gangster.
They are selling their ideology. They are making it look cool. It’s sad, but we are not counteracting it with anything. What’s the counteraction?
(Laughs) But what are we doing to counteract that image sold to them to make it not attractive?
To me, the police making you eat concrete is not a deterrent. We have the power, the tools to sell ourselves, but we aren’t using it, because as far as people are concerned what we do (film) is a hobby.
What’s your next project?
It’s called Plain Sight. When is it going to come out, I don’t know, because I still have to find the money to do it.
It’s a drama on Trinidad. I call it a crime drama, but it’s not a procedural, but really a comment on society as it is now, trying to link all the little bubbles of communities, because I feel in TT we have all these bubbles of communities who don’t understand each other. It’s spilling a drop of blood and how that drop of blood ripples through society linking it to every single echelon of society.
Do you see an evolution or devolution of film in TT right now? Or both?
Both. The TT Film Festival gave the industry a boost, because a lot of people do work for the festival, but it can’t just be that you’re doing work for a festival.
Short films work as best as a proof of concept, but to say you’re going to make money off a short film is not necessarily true.
I started an organisation, FilmCo, with three other people and we are basically trying to get some kind of congress, a link between the festival and TTT, because we are the ones doing local programming for TTT in prime time, where we will take those short films and put it on TTT to at least get these filmmakers some kind of money.
So while it’s great that people do work for the festival, there need to be other avenues.
How would you inspire people who want to come into this industry?
Inspire? Once I taught a course at UWI and I told the class, anyone here for money or thinking to make money or looking for fame and glory, to leave and become a lawyer, because there are lot more people choosing to be chicken thieves than those who want to invest in film.
It’s not an easy business. It has to be a calling, especially in Trinidad. It has to be something you believe in passionately. Or else you’ll just get frustrated. A lot of people have fallen by the wayside.
But in my brain I have a mission. It’s a slight amount of madness, I think. I used to see what Horace went through, so my hashtag is #Horacedidntdieforthis.
We always like to reinvent the wheel in Trinidad, never about building upon something, and I am determined to build upon what was laid as a foundation, and I hope people come to build upon what I built as well.