Exclusive Interview: TIFF’14 Official Selection “The Lesson”: A Micro-Budget Success Story

It has always been our mission to not only bring you the latest news and happenings in the world of 4K filmmaking, but to also bring you relevant and inspiring success stories of filmmakers who achieve success despite miniscule budgets or other somewhat insurmountable obstacles. This week we bring you the success story of micro-budget wonder “The Lesson”, which had its World Premiere earlier in September at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival.

Written & directed by Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov, “The Lesson” tells the story of Nadezhda, is a high school English teacher in a small Bulgarian town near the capital city. Stunned by a theft report by one of her students she is determined to find the culprit and punish him. As this episode unravels at work, her personal life changes drastically. She is notified by a bailiff that the bank is about to seize her house and put it on auction due to overdue mortgage payments. Determined to keep her life afloat and her house she will do everything she can to get the money before it’s too late. Her personal and professional life will converge as she goes against all the lessons she teaches her students.

Writing/Directing/Producing duo Kristina Gosheava & Petar Valchanov are no strangers to success. Their previous effort “Jump”, was nominated for the European Film Awards 2013 at Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival 2013, making it the first Bulgarian short film ever nominated for EFA.

“Jump” was also awarded the Grand Prix at the Brussels Short Film Festival 2013, Excellence Award for Best Picture at Busan International Short Film Festival 2013, and Best Short Film by the Bulgarian Film Academy 2013 (shared with The Parraffin Prince).

The Lesson Margita Gosheva 4K Shooters

Margita Gosheva as Nadezhda in “The Lesson”

Co-director Kristina Grozeva, shared in an interview with Indiewire, that “The Lesson” is

“A story of quiet, desperate revolt by a little person against the system and the mercantile, soulless, and cynical world we live in.”

“The Lesson” stars Margita Gosheva, who gives a solid performance as the lead character Nadezhda (literally meaning “hope”), and is supported by Ivan Burnev, Ivan Savov, Andreya Todorova, Stefan Denolyubov, and Ivanka Bratoeva. The film was lensed by Krum Rodriguez – one of the best DP’s in Bulgaria, who recently shot Viktoria – another successful low-budget Bulgarian film, which premiered at Sundance 2014.”The Lesson” was shot on a Sony F3, and edited in Final Cut Pro.

Filmed on a shoe-string budget with a small crew, “The Lesson” is yet another proof that if you band together with like-minded, talented individuals and you work your arse off in the meantime, great things can happen. Right after the premiere at TIFF’14, The Lesson was picked up for North American distribution by New York outfit Film Movement, thus making it the first Bulgarian film to receive distribution in North America in the last 30 years.

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Of course, it all starts with a fantastic script. The story in “The Lesson” is ripped from the headlines. Literally, this actually happened, although not a scene-by-scene recount of the actual incident, a teacher in Bulgaria did really rob a bank a few years ago.

This type of headline story isn’t your average “Law & Order”-type cash-grab scenario – the story here delves much deeper into the socioeconomic environment and consequences of living in the poorest state in the European Union. I know, as I lived there for 19 years. I remember reading the actual article about the teacher, who robbed a bank, and remember immediately thinking of my mother, who is also a teacher. Discussing this “incident” with her, I recall she was just as appalled as I was. What have we become as a society, when a teacher is forced to rob a bank? What’s the world coming to? This wasn’t no criminal mastermind, no hardened bandit… No, this was a hard-working teacher pushed to the edge by a system over which she has no control.

“The Lesson” is a tale of a small person, chewed-up by the system, who is desperately seeking a way out, which does not seem to exist.

The Lesson Promo Shot 4K Shooters

The Lesson Margita Gosheva

TheLesson 1 Promo

See the trailer for “The Lesson” below:

THE LESSON final trailer from Little Wing Productions on Vimeo.

Recently, I had a chance to get an exclusive interview with Magdelena Ilieva, one of the producers of “The Lesson” before the film makes its European premiere at the 62nd San Sebastian International Film Festival.

4KS: Tell us a bit more on the film. How did “The Lesson” come about?

MI: We’ve worked with the directors Petar Valchanov and Kristina Grozeva on different projects together before “The Lesson”. In 2010, we shot JUMP where I was the executive producer; then they started editing it. Meantime we’d meet occasionally to have a coffee and discuss life, as friends. One day they told me they were very impressed by a newspaper title, about a woman who robbed a bank, a teacher. I was impressed too, as well as by other news from Bulgaria (it’s a wonderland, no doubt about it). Two years passed, Petar and Kristina finished the edit of JUMP, had a baby, and one day they came up to me with a story. It had nothing to do with the real life story that gave them the initial spark to work, and it was a lot more interesting and cinematic. We applied at different places for development grants including Montpellier Cinemed where we were rejected. We worked on the project some more, then applied at the Bulgarian National Film Center and got around 7,000 euro for development. At the same time the project was selected at Berlinale Talent Project Market 2013. Many people were interested in the story, I could feel it during the one-on-one meetings and while I was pitching. We ended up getting the ARTE International Prize of 6,000 Euros and 1,000 more because we were nominated for the Highlight Pitch Award. In March that same year we participated in Sofia Meetings at Sofia International Film Festival where we won the LVT post-production prize. So we felt encouraged to continue developing the project.

4KS: How was “The Lesson” financed? What was the budget and what were the biggest challenges in raising funds?

MI: The film was financed privately. We applied at the Bulgarian National Film Center twice and we were rejected both times. Even though at Berlinale they told us that the project is a world class one, it was never appreciated in Bulgaria. The total budget of the film is 140,000 euro but we shot it with one eight of this amount. We got the money from private companies and from our own savings. This shoot was only possible because all the crew worked on deferred payment. After the shoot, I traveled a lot to participate in different programs like Berlinale Talents and EAVE Producers Workshop, and I would always meet Konstantina Stavrianou from Graal Films, Greece, an amazing post-production company. After many meetings and discussions, they decided to get on board and become a co-producer of the film, and they were the ones who submitted it to Toronto International Film Festival where it had its world premiere. Konstantina got us in contact with our sales agent who consequently managed to sell the film to the US: something unheard of for a Bulgarian film for the last 30 years. So in the end when I look back I can confidently say that THE LESSON would have never happened if it weren’t for the amazing people who agreed to take part in the shooting of the film, and it would have never had such outstanding success if I’d never met Konstantina from Graal who together with Reva Vougioukalou pushed it through the finish line. The film business really is about working together and you can’t make a film if you don’t have the right people willing to work with you for years.

4KS: Can you share some of the more technical aspects of the film? Cameras and equipment? What about post-production?

MI: We shot the film on a Sony F3, in 25 fps, in Full HD 1920×1080. We edited in Final Cut Pro. The DoP Krum Rodriguez and his assistant Nevena “Jaya” Zlatanova really did a wonderful job under very hard conditions related to the micro-budget which meant we had a very limited crew.

4KS: What were some of the challenges you faced during production/post-production?

MI: The biggest challenge during the production of the film was the micro-budget. It always leads to having less crew members on set and it makes it harder for everyone. Everyone had to work on more than one position. Jaya was assistant camera and focus puller; Kristina Tomova was a costume designer, costume continuity, and very often prop master on set; Hristo Simeonov was 1st and 2nd AD and script continuity. I somehow convinced my brother Metodi Iliev (who’s actually a lawyer!) to come and work for no money in this crazy production as a line producer, UPM, catering and data wrangler! Everyone was helping however they could.

4KS: Given the success of the film around the festival circuit, what do you make of this success? What do you attribute it to?

MI: You always need a good idea and talent behind it. And then it’s crucial to find the right people to bear with your shit and push your idea and talent out there, where it can be noticed internationally. We worked hard, but I also believe we were incredibly lucky, especially me meeting Konstantina everywhere I went and her deciding to get involved in the film. Without her, Toronto and the sales wouldn’t have happened. And as much as the festival circuit is important (we were invited to San Sebastian even before Toronto and without having a sales agent), in the end after years of work what matters is the sales you make so you can pay the crew who were so kind to create this film without asking for a penny. Because if you don’t, you can’t make your next film, and all your efforts would be pointless, despite an eventual festival success. In the end what matters is that we continue making movies; and for that we need money, even if it’s a micro-budget.

4KS: If someone out there is embarking on the same journey as you – to make a low-budget drama – what advice do you have for them?

MI: Be nice. No one wants to deal with assholes. And make sure everyone has a contract, including yourself. Years will go by before you clinch some sort of success, and during these years we fight, we make up again, but everyone needs security that whatever we’re doing, we’re doing it together till we make it. And always try to make as many contacts as you can while traveling: it always pays out.

4KS : If you can go back in time, what ONE thing would you do differently. What was your lesson learned?

MI: I’d be more confident and would trust myself and my intuition completely. I realize that all the mistakes that were made were due to my insecurity and me not insisting on what I thought was right. I was 28 when I started the project, I invested a lot of energy and in fact my health for THE LESSON and when I look back I see that I should have been kinder to myself. So my advice is – trust yourself and stay healthy. Make sure you have a personal life to come back to once the film is over. And keep in mind that there’s always an option that after years of excruciating work the talent comes to you and informs you you’ve done nothing, the producer doesn’t matter and it’s the talent who’s done all the work. Don’t pay any attention to this, you know it’s BS and you know what you’ve done and sacrificed. Then you just move on to the next project.

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