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VIFF 2008 Interview – Circus Rosaire director Robyn Bliley

Circus Rosaire - At VIFF 2008
by Jason Whyte

“Circus Rosaire is a documentary feature that is both heartbreaking and hilarious as it takes an intimate, behind the scenes look inside a ninth generation circus family of animal trainers struggling to survive in a business that is rapidly disappearing.” Director Robyn Bliley on the film "Circus Rosaire" which screens at this year's Vancouver International Film Festival (September 25 - October 10).

Is this your first film in the VIFF? Do you have any other festival experience? If you’re a festival veteran, let us know your favourite and least-favourite parts of the festival experience. Do you plan to attend VIFF for the screenings?

Circus Rosaire is my first film in the VIFF, and I’m thrilled to be included in the 2008 festival. I love Vancouver and look forward to attending the festival and supporting the film.

Before this year, I knew nothing about the film festival world, but wow, what a ride I’ve been on since Slamdance in January. I feel a lot more knowledgeable now after 15 festivals under my belt than I did 8 months ago. As an indie-filmmaker and especially as a first time director, I have found the film festival experience invaluable. Festivals allow filmmakers and films many avenues of exposure that might not otherwise be available. I’ve built up a nice press kit with numerous articles and reviews by critics that I most likely would not have gotten had it not been for the festivals. Film festivals can help generate a buzz about your movie and if you can pick up an award or two, all the better. Also, there is nothing like seeing your film on the big screen in front of an audience for the first time. It’s been incredibly gratifying screening Circus Rosaire in different cities around the US and abroad and seeing how audiences react to the film. It’s a beautiful feeling when you see that your story is making an emotional connection with your audience. It doesn’t get much better than that.

There are aspects of the festival experience that can be challenging. First and foremost is the expense. It can be very expensive to participate in festivals. There are the submission fees---most festivals, unless you are invited, require a fee to submit your film for consideration. If you’re lucky enough to be selected, you may need to pay for your travel there. Some festivals pay your expenses, some don’t. Publicity materials and screening masters of your film figure in to the festival budget as well. It’s well worth the expense; you just need to be prepared.

Could you give me a little look into your background (your own personal biography, if you will), and what led you to the desire to want to make film?

I actually started out as an actress in Los Angeles, where I currently live, and worked a few years in television and film. I found that I was increasingly more fascinated by what was going on behind the camera. So I decided to learn as much about the production process as possible. I ended up working almost every job on a production crew, which I did on purpose knowing that I’d make a better director and producer if I had personal experience in various crew departments. It was an eye opening experience going from the cushy actor’s trailer to working as a production assistant. But I think it’s made me a better filmmaker.

Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question “When I grow up I want to be a …” Finish this sentence, please!

I don’t think I can complete the sentence. I really didn’t know what I wanted to be when I was growing up. Looking back now, it makes sense that I am doing what I’m doing. I was raised as an only child by a hard working single mom and I spent a lot of time by myself playing and pretending---performing in front of my mirror, directing my Barbies and stuffed animals in a variety of scenarios and stories, basically entertaining myself, living a lot thru my imagination. Not too different from what I’m doing today…although, I have given up my Barbies.

While you were making the movie, were you thinking about the future release of the film, be it film festivals, paying customers, critical response, and so forth?

There were many times when I daydreamed about the film playing on the big screen and at film festivals, imagining what the audience reaction would be. Other times, the challenging times of making the movie, I wasn’t sure if anyone would ever see the film. At different times I felt different things.

How did this project come to fruition? If you could, please provide me with a rundown, start to finish, from your involvement.

I first met the Rosaire family on my sixth birthday, when my mom took me to the circus. At that time, they were the circus superstars of the day, performing in big stadiums and arenas and attracting audiences by the thousands. I remember being fascinated and awestruck by their almost telepathic communication they had with their animals. They definitely stood out from the rest of the circus performers. My mom and I went backstage after the show to see the animals up close, and we met Roger Zoppe, Pamela Rosaire’s husband. Our lifelong friendship began.

Anytime they were performing within 500 miles of Memphis, Tennessee, where I was born and raised, my mom and I would jump in our truck and meet up with them. I remember their chimpanzee Kenya and I were about the same age and we were great buddies. She would set the table and we’d eat sandwiches together. Kenya interacted with me like another person. So the chimpanzee was like the sister I never had. Experiences like that helped form my respect and love for animals of all kinds. Pam and Roger still have Kenya today. In fact, she’s a card-carrying member of the Professional Rodeo Association and rides a horse in their act.

So when I was growing up, the circus was magical and enchanting. Many years later as a young adult, I saw the Rosaires perform again, and was shocked and saddened by how things had changed. The huge stadium arena, with the 3 ornate and spectacular circus rings, was now a dusty rodeo ring, in a small Texas field with a handful of people more interested in their beer and hotdogs. I wondered how a family, who at one time performed for presidents and kings, found themselves struggling to survive. I knew in my core that this was a perfect backdrop for a great story. The kind of story I wanted to tell, full of drama and laughter and struggle and pathos.

What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it principal photography or post-production?

The most challenging aspect in making Circus Rosaire was the fact that it was an “independent” venture in the truest sense of the word. My partner, Chad Wilson, and I financed the picture completely with earned profits from our company, Progressive Productions. We would typically land a job with a client, and earn enough money to schedule a trip and catch up with the Rosaires for a while – in Florida, or wherever they happened to be - until our next paying job brought us back to Los Angeles. Though this technique had its pros and cons, on an aesthetic level it allowed us to peek into the lives of our subjects during several trips over the course of many years. As a result, we captured dramatic changes in the lives of the Rosaires over an extended production schedule, during a critical time in the history of the family. In retrospect, though it was very stressful, I feel this is a major contributing factor to what makes the film successful on an artistic and emotional level.

Post Production was another very challenging experience. Chad and I accumulated over 300 hours of footage, and did some preview editing before realizing we were too busy and needed another pair of eyes on the material. Our editor, Monique Zavistovski, came on board 8 months pregnant with her first child, and neither she, nor I, was prepared for what it meant to have a new baby or how central baby Chloe would become to our editing process. Since we didn’t have the extra money in our editing budget for a babysitter, I spent about a year working closely with Monique and helping raise her daughter. It was tough and demanding, but somehow, we got through all of it together.

Please tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.

I’m very lucky because my husband & partner Chad is a cinematographer and he’s an incredibly talented filmmaker. We shot on the Panasonic SDX 900. We wanted a beautiful image in widescreen, 24p, and the Panasonic allowed us to capture a very cinematic image. Its wide exposure latitude & terrific color response make it a great documentary camera. We are really proud of the way the movie looks, and pleased that it holds up when projected on a big screen.

Talk a bit about the experiences (festival or non-festival) that you have had with this particular film. Have you had any interesting audience stories or questions that have arisen at screenings?

We’ve had so much fun at festival Q & A sessions. At the AFI fest, we even had one of the stars from the film, Ricky the chimp, participate. He was definitely a hit with kids and adults alike!

It’s been amazingly heartwarming to see how the movie appeals to people of all ages. We’ve had kids as young as 5 and adults upwards of 95 years old, all of whom enjoy the film.

I’ve found too, that whether or not one agrees with the use of animals in circuses or entertainment, “Circus Rosaire” challenges all of us to look inward at how we judge and perceive others. I think the role of any documentary filmmaker is to constantly question how can we as artists provoke people to look at the world through different lenses.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world (directors, actors, cinematographers, etc)? Did you have any direct inspirations from filmmakers for this film in particular?

A few of my biggest inspirations in the film world would include Spielberg, Scorsese, and doc filmmakers Michael Apted and Errol Morris. For “Circus Rosaire”, I was inspired by many filmmaker friends who saw early cuts of the film and gave incredible notes and insight. I will be forever grateful to Jeff Blitz (“Rocket Science” and “Spellbound”) and James Moll (“The Last Days and “Inheritance”). The Rosaire family, who we profile in the film, is also incredibly inspiring to me. They have taught me so much about dedication and perseverance. During the tough times of making this film, and there were many, I always heard the collective Rosaire voice in my head saying “Cowboy up, the show must go on”.

How far do you think you would want to go in this industry? Do you see yourself working on larger stories for a larger budget under the studio system, or do you feel that you would like to continue down the independent film path?

Larger budgets would be nice. Whether it is a studio picture or indie film, I’m attracted to compelling character driven stories. Would I like to work with a larger budget? Yes, who wouldn’t? But I’d also like to maintain a certain level of control. It’s important that directors retain the creative vision of the film from pre-production thru post and sometimes within the confines of the studio system it’s hard to do that.

If you weren’t in this profession, what other career do you think you would be interested in?

I’d probably have a career devoted in some way to the welfare of animals. What specific form that would take, I don’t know. I have this crazy dream about going to the Congo, Rwanda and a couple other places in Africa, to participate with the Rangers on their anti-poaching missions. I’d probably last about a minute.

Please tell me some filmmakers or talent that you would love to work with, even if money was no object.

I’d love to work with David Attenborough. I sent him a letter not too long ago and he actually wrote me back! He was planning on watching “Circus Rosaire”. I thought that was really cool.

Do you think that you have “made it” in this profession yet? If you don’t believe so, what do you think would happen for that moment to occur?

Gosh, no. I’ve only just begun. I have so much to learn. I’m not sure what constitutes the “I’ve made it” feeling. You know, though, some of the best feelings I’ve had with regards to the experience with this film have been seeing audience reaction to “Circus Rosaire”. To be part of a film that can illicit feelings from people, both laughter and tears, is incredibly gratifying on so many levels. Another great memory from the festival tour is bringing in extra seats to screenings because the house was full. I have thought at times that if I never had the opportunity to make another film, at least I made people feel something with this one.

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?

I think great critical/media response makes a significant difference in the life of a film, be it studio picture, independent film or festival title. With an independent or festival film, it’s crucial for the filmmaker to get the word out there about his/her movie. Because usually there is not the money to generate the buzz needed to attract audiences. The studios spend millions of dollars on print and advertising for their films…why? Unless people know about a movie, they won’t see it and the film won’t survive in the marketplace. It’s really valuable to indie filmmakers especially to have good press about their film to help build awareness and interest and film festival facilitate that.

If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?

That’s a good question. One of the most beautiful and historic theatres I’ve been to is the El Capitan Theatre on Hollywood Blvd. It’s so colorful and lavish and has such an illustrious history. It would be amazing to have Circus Rosaire screened there.

Do you have an opinion on the issue of “A Film by (Insert Director Here)” ? Is this something you use? Many people collaborate to make a film yet simultaneously, the director is the final word on the production.

I used “A film by” and put myself along with my Producer & Cinematographer Chad Wilson because it was a film by the both of us. Yes, I directed it, but he was an integral part of making this movie. I know there are DGA rules, etc about this, but to each his/her own.

What would you say to someone on the street to see your film instead of the latest blockbuster playing at the local megaplex?

I guarantee “Circus Rosaire” will give you your money’s worth!

No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start?

As an indie filmmaker, it’s important to choose compelling stories, create a realistic budget, secure investors, and get the best crew and talent around you as possible; Prepare to embark on an incredibly journey. And buckle your seatbelt!

And finally…what is your all time favourite motion picture, and why?

I can’t name just one, but I can say that my favorite films are those that touch my inner core so profoundly that I’m reminded of what it is to be alive-- to live, love and persevere.

This is one of the many films screening at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival. For more information on when this film is playing and to order tickets, point your browser to – Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 09/26/08 18:32:44
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