Interview: My Lunch with Niv Fichman
BUSAN, South Korea — I first met Canada’s Oscar-winning producer Niv Fichman during last year’s Busan International Film Festival at the Canadian Embassy film party. Ambassador David Chatterson introduced him to the gathering and asked that he say a few words. In the process of doing just that, a woman standing two rows back in the crowd felt it wise to continue with the few words she was having—rather loudly—with her friend. The alcohol is free and flowing at such engagements.
Crowd scanned, smiles tendered and pleasantries invoked, Fichman’s eyes soon fell upon the blathering woman. Employing a richness of profanity from the English tongue, he told the woman to pipe down. She wasn’t one to listen. Niv then waded into the throng, microphone in hand, demanding that the startled woman either zip it up or take the stage. Putting the mic in her face he told her if she wanted to talk, by all means do so.
I immediately loved the guy.
Originally from Tel Aviv, Israel, the 53-year-old co-founder of Rhombus Media is a tall, lanky character with unkempt salt-and-pepper hair and a hip fashion sense that belies his age. A veteran of the industry for more than 30 years, his name appears on over 200 projects including feature films, documentaries and several television series. Along with the Oscar he took home for The Red Violin in 1998, his work has garnered seven Emmys and a slew of varied accolades.
Mr. Fichman recently agreed to get together for a lunch interview while he was in town for this year’s Busan International Film Festival. He'd come to promote his latest offering, the Brandon Cronenberg film, Antiviral, a bio-horror thriller laced heavy with a theme of celebrity obsession.
After meeting in the lobby of his hotel, we chose a quiet coffee shop where we ordered a few sandwiches and coffee. As I set up for the interview, the little hockey puck-shaped flashing-buzzing device that alerts you when to pick up your order started dancing around on the table. This fascinated Niv.
“Is that a phone?”
“No, it tells you when your order is ready.”
“What a sophisticated modern society. Korea, this is fantastic!”
After grabbing our food and drink the interview began. I was first curious about what he did before going into the film industry. He tells me that he founded Rhombus Media with a friend at 19 years old and has been working there ever since.
So did he ever have a real job?
“The only other job I have ever had, I was as a stock boy at Loblaws, which is a grocery store in Toronto during high school. I was really bad at it. They thought I was kind of slightly handicapped because I was always thinking about movies. I wasn’t overly committed and I kind of liked it that they thought I was kind of dumb because I didn’t have a lot of responsibility. ”
His inspiration emerged shortly following the family’s migration from Tel Aviv to Toronto. Using his father’s movie camera, the nine-year-old Niv produced his first short film.
“I think it was called This is a City,” Niv recalls. “My dad is an engineer, but he used to make home movies, little stop action animation with a Regular 8 movie camera, so I kinda took that technique and I animated this whole highway traffic scene with this massive accident.”
While many young boys are want to recreate disaster in their playtime, not many film it—and even fewer are prescient enough to know it’s what they want to do for the rest of their life.
“I was seven or eight when I realized that my dad, who was generally miserable, was always happy when he was holding his movie camera. So in my mind it was like, ‘Oh, that’s a way to be happy. By the time I was nine I took over that movie camera, I was a very aggressive child.’”
Following high school he enrolled in the film department at York University in Toronto. Before graduation he had a film completed and ready to shop.
“It was called Music for Wilderness Lake, about some trombone players who play this crazy music around a lake in northern Ontario and all the animals join in. We raised some private money for that and sold it to the CBC. It did okay, and sold all over the world.”
Not bad for a first venture.
Finding the Money
Paramount in the film producer skill set is the ability to solicit funding—a task for which aggressiveness is a necessary vice. Niv figured this out early on. Fresh out of film school, his backpack loaded with reels, he headed for the Canadian National Film Board’s branch office in London, England.
“There was a woman that was selling films that took pity on me and she gave me a spare office and some phone numbers of contacts of hers, and said, ‘Here, you phone these people. Call them up and tell them what you are doing and maybe you’ll be able to go see them and show them your movie.’”
He rang nearly every film company on the continent.
“I bought a Eurail pass, I could go anywhere in Europe, so I phoned all these people and whoever said, ‘Yeah, you can come see me,’ I would go there. I went to Germany and I went to Denmark, I went to Stockholm, I went to Amsterdam.”
He didn’t go everywhere he wanted. “I remember it was not Paris, not Rome, not any of the cities I wanted to go to because none of the people would speak to me in those places.”
While his wherewithal is admirable, I am stuck back on how a woman in the film industry would give up her spare office and her rolodex to a wiry Canadian kid with films in a backpack.
“I was precocious,” he smiles. “And I guess she thought I was kinda cute.”
He is no longer that brash young boy and he no longer needs someone else’s rolodex. But I wonder; with investors seeking profit, and the box office hungry for moviegoers, does he find it difficult to remain true to the art while being mindful of the accountant's ledger?
“Most people make films that are meant to support the company. Of course I didn’t do that because we are making all of these first time films (from first-time filmmakers), so we have to defer and support them. But its been really rewarding.”
A recent reward was working with a group of young filmmakers on the 2011 movie Hobo With a Shotgun, starring Rutger Hauer.
“These kids from Halifax, they won first prize in this contest out of hundreds of submissions from all over the world and they had this trailer for a film called Hobo with a Shotgun. So they had the trailer and it was fantastic and I was introduced to them by Alliance, which is my distributor in Canada, and they said, ‘Hey, you may want to meet these kids. You know, it’s not your kind of film,’ because I was doing [movies like] The Red Violin.”
Taking a chance on the “kids,” much like the chance once taken on Niv, paid off nicely.
“At first I was like, 'I don't know,' but I met them and they were fantastic. I worked with them for a few years to get the script right and we made it. It premiered at Sundance and it was a big success that sold all over the world.”
Rhombus Media and Questions Everyone Hates
What about Rhombus Media, the foundation of his creative enterprise, which has largely remained the same size throughout his career? Does he want to grow it into a larger company?
“No, I'm very happy” he replies without a second thought. “Lots of my colleagues buy and sell and join and merge and split apart and merge again. Each transaction, there are millions of dollars involved.”
Millions of dollars certainly sounds good, but there are costs that are not so easily calculated.
“They lose the creative drive to make films, to make choices about creativity as opposed to purely for business. As I get older, I realize what a great privilege that is, to be able to go through life doing what you want to do and loving it."
Over his long career Niv has worked as both producer and director. Though his directorial efforts have been limited to television, I wonder which he prefers: producing or directing?
“I really love directing, but I found with directing that I can’t compartmentalize the way I can when producing. Right now, at this very moment, I have maybe 20 projects on the go in various stages, either pre-development, development, scriptwriting, in-production in post-production, in financing, in distribution; there are so many things I can do."
"But with directing, I have to concentrate 100 percent on the one thing or else I can’t do it and I just don’t have the time and brain space to give it its full shot.”
I realize that our time is running out, so I go with dreaded stranded-on-a-desert-island question. If he were in such straits, what movies would he want to watch?
“I hate those kind of questions. I always think in the past 20 years I probably haven’t seen enough films because I am so busy doing my own films. In certain ways I’ve of lost the joy of movie going, you know, I used to actually go to festivals to see films and now it’s all about business and work.”
Come on, you’re dodging me.
Oldboy? I know many of the locals here in Korea will be pleased with that choice.
“Oldboy may be number one. I just love the control that [director Park Chan-wook] has over the story and the subject. Just doling it out piece by piece, little by little, just winding it tighter and tighter and tighter until you explode.”
Then how can a film like Michael Moore’s George W. Bush-bash Fahrenheit 9/11 beat out a stunning piece of filmmaking like Oldboy, which winded up placing second at Cannes? Even over the adamant objection of then-jury president Quentin Tarantino.
“Sometimes, in those situations, the times overwhelm the work. I always thought it was really funny that Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize after one year of being president. The fact that he was the first black president and still in that mode of being the ‘hope of the world’ he won that prize though he didn’t deserve it.”
So What’s Next for Niv?
“Next up is a film called An Enemy. It’s not a first time film, it's from Denis Villeneuve, a French-Canadian director. He made a film called Incendies that was nominated for an Oscar. He is a fantastic director. It's [based on] another book by Jose Saramago and Jake Gyllenhaal is in it, so it’s a big film. I was just watching it. The reason I was late for you was because I was viewing a rough cut.”
I don’t want him to be late for his next appointment, though he tells me that he is free for much of the afternoon. In reality, while I would love to bother him for more of his time, I want to hurry and catch a glimpse of China’s stunning actress Tang Wei, who is giving a press conference nearby.
“That’s the same as asking, ‘What five films on a desert island,’” he laughs, before quickly tuning in the promotional compartment of his brain. “The film that is probably the most known, that people seem to love, is The Red Violin, and possibly, I guess it's the most available maybe. But I really love Blindness, even though it didn’t get its due when it was released. I think it is an incredible masterpiece.”
As we wrap things up, I ask Niv for his impression of the emerging city of Busan, whose film festival he has visited annually for over a decade. What was it like the first time he came?
“Well, the first time I came was probably about ten, maybe twelve, years ago. It was a lot smaller, kind of more… weird, like coming to the moon or something. I came with another film, that is also one of my favorites, called Saddest Music in the World. Guy Maddin was the director [with] Isabella Rossellini in the lead."
"In those days I could stay a lot longer, I think I was here for like a week or something, it was good. I had been to Seoul before, but [Busan] really felt like a small town, I mean none of this was here. It’s crazy how they build in Asia.”
You can check out Rhombus Media on the web at www.rhombusmedia.com
Photos by Bobby McGill