THE “MAKING OF” A Grain Of Sand

Chance & Fate Are Often Confused

Who can speak of all the factors that lead to any one event? One thing is certain, however… I began this project with no experience in documentary filmmaking when chance blew in on a Sunday morning in the Canary Islands. It was not because of anything that I would normally choose to do. It was a roll of the dice, if you will. You see, on Sundays, I like to read the newspaper, and it just so happens that on that day, in that place, the only newspaper the newsstand had was a right-wing newspaper I had and have not bought since. And in that newspaper, in the Sunday Special to be more exact, was the article that introduced me to Brendon Grimshaw.
I immediately knew I wanted to do something with Brendon’s story. It appealed to me on so many levels, and I saw Moyenne Island as a beautiful and intricate metaphor of our times, because it sits as both a testament to the greatness of man and the dangers we face in this voracious global economy. I had a feeling that one might discover interesting things in a battleground like that, with the enticement of it being veiled in the historical mystique surrounding lone men living on lone islands.

The Island As A Microcosm

The Pitfalls Of Commercial Creation

At the time I discovered the article, I was busy preparing my first break in the film industry, a tv-movie called Adrenalina that involved explosions and special effects and many opportunities to learn the more professional/technical aspects of filmmaking. So I put the article about Brendon aside, hoping to get back to it soon, and dedicated my time and creative energy to the commercial project I had been hired to complete. Despite winning numerous television awards and working with great people, I finished Adrenalina somewhat disenchanted with the filmmaking process. I soon realized that I cannot convince myself that something has value simply because I am asked to do it. I think this realization really propelled me into making the documentary about Brendon Grimshaw. As if it were a matter of penance, I took all the money I had made making the tv-movie and decided to try and make a documentary about something I cared about.

From Imagination To Realization

So you decide you want to make a documentary. Deciding is the easy part. Making it is a whole different matter. The first step was writing a letter to Brendon Grimshaw in which I outlined my intentions and enquired if he would be interested in being subject to the creative eccentricities of a director for a month. Had I had any experience in dealing with these matters, I would have simply called the Tourism board in his small country and been given his cell phone number, but I naively assumed he lived on an island without cell phone reception. This mistake would prove to be of the greatest importance, for a month after sending my letter, I still had not received a response. I had already secured the financial backing for the project from my father and my own money and had convinced some very good people from the film industry that this project merited the sacrifice of going a month and a half without pay. The important elements were in place, and yet I had not even spoken to the man I wanted to make a documentary about. So I decided to just fly down there and see what happened. Like Brendon Grimshaw when he first arrived to the Seychelles, I realized that I had come to one of the most beautiful places on earth. Now the only question was whether Brendon wanted to be in the documentary, or not?

The Gadgets Behind A Grain Of Sand

As both the Director and Producer, I was, for the first time, in a position where I had to balance the desire to create the best film possible with the obvious economic limitations of a $50,000 dollar budget for the entire project. It’s much easier to portray things beautifully when you have a million dollars in your budget, but that was not the case, and so each decision I made was both definitive and of the upmost importance. The first thing we had to decide was what camera we were going to use. Most mid-range cameras cost more than our entire budget, and renting one for a month would have cost us too much. So we decided to buy a great little camera, the Panasonic HVX200. The two main reasons we decided to use this camera were the fact that it was at the time the only camera in that price range that records high-definition video without compressing it to Mini-DV tapes, and because Panasonic works really well with greens and flesh tones, which were the colors we would encounter most in the documentary. Another great addition was the variable frame rate options the camera afforded. We decided to buy a small jib (ProAM250) for this project, because I knew that the only way to achieve the smoothness of far more expensive cranes would be if we used our jib while shooting at high frame rates, so that we could slow it down later and make it look smooth and slow. As far as capturing the footage is concerned, the P2 cards weren’t a viable option for us because of their price and the sheer amount of footage you record in a documentary. So we opted for a Focus Firestore FS-100, which is an external hard drive with much more hard drive space than a P2 card. This little drive worked perfectly for us and we only had problems on one very hot day in which we should have found a way to keep the drive a little cooler. Those were the main devices we used to create the film. Jaume Avizanda, the director of photography, and Manel Capdevila, the camera operator, were responsible for all the in-camera decisions that were made and we all collaborated in the creative process where the shots are concerned. Why we decided to use those devices the way we did is an entirely different matter.

The Techniques & Influences Behind A Grain Of Sand

	There are many creative layers to this documentary that exist independently from one another. The opening sequence that leads into the title was inspired by a technique Brian de Palma used in Scarface. He connected two beautiful shots in the horrific bathtub murder sequence by simply moving towards a window and then zooming out from the other side in an entirely different shot, which turns out to be a beautiful crane shot that follows the waiting men in the car all the way back up to the apartment. We also used Solaris, Baraka, Powaqqatsi and Gala as inspiration for the spirit we wanted behind our representation of nature and the island. But nothing initially worked the way we had imagined, as we were all learning a great deal. We soon let the filming exist on a fairly intuitive level so that we wouldn’t impose our pre-established ideas onto any given situation. The interviews with Brendon were setup in a way where there were five topics and each one was discussed in different locations that more or less had bearing on what was being said. I purposefully chose to interview people outdoors and in wide shots, because I felt this visually supported the idea that we, as humans, are a part of nature and our surroundings, not the God of it all. I also was very interested in reflecting the process of creating the project, because I felt that it somehow mirrored the story we were trying to tell of how Brendon helped create the island. So we put another camera on the task. Some of my favorite shots in the documentary were filmed by Ayelen Liberona with her camera. The black and white footage and a few other shots were all filmed by her. I told her I was interested in seeing where the process meets the story itself, and she did everything else. I can’t imagine the documentary without her footage, and I admittedly had very little to do with any of the images she created. All I can say is that sometimes, it is a good thing to trust the vision of other people. Knowing when and who to do that with is part of the art of filmmaking.

The Beauty Of Purpose

There is a moment in the documentary when Brendon explains that it would be easy to sell the island and live a life of luxury for his remaining years, but that this notion simply doesn’t appeal to him. And the reason it is of little interest to him is because he enjoys his life on the island and realizes that there is a greater purpose to all the work he has accomplished. This summarizes perfectly the way I feel about my documentary A Grain of Sand. We had very little money to make this film, and no one was paid for their collaboration. Instead, I offered them the opportunity to work on something I considered to have purpose and beauty, in the hope that we would sell the project when it was finished and pay everyone for the fruits of their labor. It is too early to say whether we will receive a just recompense, but I assure you that those of us who have worked on this project feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. And it is in those found feelings that I have sincerely found my love for filmmaking, just as it was on Moyenne Island that Brendon found his love for nature. Life is often about creating a framework around which we try to lead our lives. Many people would have you believe that the framework by which we must live already exists the moment we are born. I have learned through the making of this film and the life of Brendon Grimshaw that this is not the case. Many of us are unhappy with the system as a whole and are looking for ways to change it. What those changes should be is part of a different debate. But when different people come together to plant trees, make a film, or change the face of politics, you’d be surprised at what can be accomplished. We celebrated Brendon’s 82nd birthday on our last day in Seychelles with a sense of accomplishment. I personally felt both wiser as a person and as a creator.

The Creation Of Narrative

Now we had all this footage. It was no longer an idea, or a creative theory… it was raw material waiting to be a narrative. But what was the story? Was the story about Brendon and his island? Was the story about Brendon’s life? Was it about the hotel development that surrounded him, like sharks in water? There are so many aspects to his story that it was difficult deciding what ideas to develop. But develop it we did. What would I change? I would have liked more conflict… a clear enemy. But there wasn’t one, and it felt wrong to create one like Michael Moore does so well. The truth is I found a very gray line where conservation, politics and business converge in a very well rehearsed discourse.
 It would be safe to say that Brendon and I sat on his verandah, off and on for the next two weeks, drinking single malt whisky and talking about death and sadness and anything that crossed our minds. We formed a bond, and it was because of that bond that this project was made. Had I called first, this project would probably never have come to exist. By the end of my stay, Brendon suggested that making this documentary might just help him get his mind off everything else. So it was decided, and I had two months to put everything together and get back to film what we needed.

The Importance Of Being Naive & Humane

The answer to that question did exist and had been put down in writing, I just didn’t know it. You see, Brendon had responded to my letter and was about to put that response in the mail when I surprised him with a visit. He was not interested in participating in any project because, as I tragically discovered when I first met him, he was at the time experiencing the pain of a loved one dying from cancer. The loved one was Rene Lafortune, the man who had worked and lived with him on the island for the past 34 years. This man was the last remaining person of real importance in Brendon’s life, and he was a 56-year-old man with a few months to live when I showed up wanting to talk about a documentary. So when I set foot on Moyenne Island for the first time and found a broken 81-year-old man, I knew there were far more important conversations to be had.
I’m sure this documentary could have been better, but there’s no point in lamenting something that will never be. Ultimately, I’m proud of what we accomplished and learned, but cautious when giving any overarching value to the film itself. Once something is created, you can only hope it takes on a life of its own, establishing connections with people you will probably never see or know. If there is a ripple, I hope it travels far and wide.
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