Mark Raso is arguably the brightest director to come out of Toronto in the last 20 years. The University of Toronto graduate studied directing and screenwriting at Columbia University, where he received an MFA in film. While at Columbia, Mark directed a number of short films. His film Under went on to garner a gold medal from the Student Academy Awards of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Under may have nudged the door a bit for Raso's career, but it was his 2014 feature film Copenhagen that flung that door wide open. The film, which stars Game of Thrones' Gethin Anthony (8 episodes) and Frederikke Dahl Hansen was a smash hit with audiences across the world. It premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award, and went on to win the grand jury award at Florida Film Festival and Gasparilla International Film Festival. The film eventually wound up on Netflix.
Mark is a co-owner of Fidelio Films , the New York City-based company behind Copenhagen, alongside producers David Figueroa, Mauro Mueller, and Mauricio Leiva-Cock. The four met at Colombia, and have since produced a bevy of films. They won back to back academy awards with Raso's Under in 2012, and then Mueller's A World for Raul in 2013. Copenhagen, their first feature was released theatrically in the United States in 2014.
Today, Mark is in post-production on a major feature film, Kodachrome ,
which stars Hollywood heavyweights like Ed Harris ,Jason Sudeikis , Gethin Anthony, and Elizabeth Olsen . Pensare Films caught up with Mark to talk about the development behind his wildly successful first feature, the shift from indie darling with zero expectations to directing his first major Hollywood feature, and the unique relationship he maintains with key collaborators like his composer Agatha Kaspar, cinematographer Alan Poon, and his Copenhagen star Gethin Anthony.
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You wrote and made Copenhagen nearly a decade into your career. While there were clear early indications that you had a true talent for filmmaking, was there ever a moment over the 8 years leading up to this big breakthrough where you debated if you wanted to direct films for a living?
I always new I wanted to be a filmmaker - the only question was if I was capable of making a living doing it. Honestly, it took a lot of work, a lot of learning, and an understanding that like any profession you need to work your ass off at it to find success. I made some goods shorts and I made some bad shorts. I wrote some good scripts and some bad scripts. But either way their intentions were right – I was always trying to challenge myself and it was really just a matter of finding my voice.
I think there are a ton of talented filmmakers. I went to school with so many it was intimidating. But “natural talent”, more often than not (and especially in my case) is about being one of the hardest workers. That you are not afraid to make mistakes. That you are leaving your comfort zone as a filmmaker. You can’t be afraid of failure (or success for that matter). So short films or film exercises are when you can afford to fail with little consequence.
I didn’t rush things, and waited until I made a short film I was satisfied with enough that in my heart I knew I was ready for the next logical step of making a feature. It happened 5 years later than I originally hoped for, but by then I had built a stronger foundation to help me accomplish the task.
Do you have any advice for someone who wants to shoot a successful no-budget or ultra-low- budget feature film? Are there parts of the filmmaking process that you particularly prioritized, either in pre production, production or post production?
My advice is to add another step. Pre-pre- production. This time is generally free (or costs very little) – so take as much time as you need getting the script into the absolute best stage it can be – get feedback, do readings, whatever you need. Take as much time as you need casting. Shotlist the entire film. Story board what you feel needs to be story
boarded. Shoot complicated scenes on your phone or DSLR camera to solve potential problems. Take advantage of the time you have to get everything in the best possible shape you can.
Once you have done that, surround yourself with people you trust and like to work with. There is no room for anyone you question or don’t feel confident working with on a low budget film. It needs to be a machine; everyone has to believe in it.
Let the film evolve in pre-production and production into what certain circumstances may bring – be open to gifts that may present themselves (location changes, weather changing, etc) You are constantly trying to turn lemons into lemonade. I believe you have to have that attitude, the experience needs to be fun and enjoyable. When people are working for very little to no money to execute your vision they 100%, absolutely and unequivocally need to enjoy coming to set everyday. It’s your job as the director to make sure that happens (you also need to feed them well!).
In terms of post production take your time to get to where you need. But for the most part if you’ve planned well this should take care of itself.
A Columbia prof told me your film can only be two of these three things: Cheap, Good,
and Fast. Go for the first two.
You're working with Copenhagen lead Gethin Anthony again in your next feature film, Kodachrome, which is currently in post-production. Actor-director relationships are so crucial to the success of any film. How have you both evolved from 2-3 years ago? You're both young and talented artists, and I'm wondering if you're seeing the fruits of that evolution in your relationship?
Not only am I working with Gethin again, I also am working with Agatha Kasper and Alan Poon again, and one of my producers on Copenhagen Mauro Mueller was my Director’s Assistant on Kodachrome. Bringing it back to the Gethin question, when you find people you love working with, you do it as much as you can. There happened to be the perfect role for Gethin in the film so I sent him the script and said “it’s yours if you want it”.
Gethin has done some great work on Aquarius and he’s a seriously talented actor. We remain good friends and both happened to be living in LA the years after Copenhagen so we got to see each other a lot, bounced ideas off each other (including a Copenhagen follow up) and have supported each other since the film.
Speaking of Kodachrome, it's a substantially higher budget project than Copenhagen. Working with established veterans like Ed Harris and Jason Sudeikis must be exciting, but some young directors find it challenging or intimidating to work with the more established A-listers. Did you have to change your approach to directing at all due to a bigger project with bigger names attached to it?
I didn’t really change my approach. I am who I am and not being that reads false so I just try to be myself. I’ve learned that being honest and truthful with actors – even when you don’t have all the answers - is the best way to get on the same page and work together towards making the best film possible. Ed and Jason (And Lizzie Olsen, Dennis Haysbert, Wendy Crewson and Bruce Greenwood) are all really good people. They made it incredibly easy for me (The key to getting good performances is cast great actors!) and any challenges presented were to make the film as good as it can be – which is more than I could ever hope for.
FREDERICK DAHL HANSEN (left) MARK RASO (center) and GETHIN ANTHONY (right).
Sasha K. Gordon Q&A. From Odessa to New York City
By Robert Misovic JUL 28 2017
In 2010, a video surfaced online of a girl throwing puppies into a river in Bosnia. It sparked rage online with people protesting that the girl should face legal consequences, jail time, or even death for her actions. This went as far as director Michael Bay offering $50,000 in exchange for her capture. The girl in the video was 12 years old. The story is the subject of Ben’s first feature film Find this Dumb Bitch and Throw her in the River.
I've read and watched interviews in which you thanked Denmark for their hospitality and favors in helping with the production of this film (the theme park opening early comes to mind). Do you think there was a reason people were especially eager to help? I've read that the the fact you'd won a student Oscar
held some cache with the locals, and the fact that the film was called Copenhagen probably didn't hurt. Was there something about how you approached production in Denmark that made you guys particularly successful?
In this case being naïve about shooting there basically helped. We just asked for everything and shockingly got a lot. I’d be embarrassed to ask what we were in my home town but it’s a lot easier when no one knows your name. But just because we asked doesn’t mean people had to help.
There was a general excitement about supporting our project (the arts in general) and about foreigners shining a spotlight on their city/country, no matter how small the spotlight was. Plus Danish people are just really nice, cool people.
Robert is a screenwriter and writer for Pensare Films Media. He loves cinema in all its glory. Follow Robert Misovic on Facebook for more Film Reviews and Film Festival-related goodies
3 of the biggest things that struck me about Copenhagen aside from the direction and stellar writing were; cinematography, music, and just how great Frederikke Dahl Hansen was as Effy. I've read that Dahl Hansen blew you away at an audition, but what was it about Alan Poon (cinematographer) and Agatha Kaspar (composer) that piqued your interest?
I’ve worked with both of them before this film. Alan I had done about 4 short films with, so that progression was natural. Agatha had scored my short film Under. Aside from being super talented, she understands and is able to interpret my non-musician notes and ideas. I wanted to work with them on Copenhagen because I knew they could deliver, and I owed them both the opportunity to at the very least pass on the project because they were both there for me for little to no money on previous projects.
Meet Sasha K. Gordon, the star of David Bezmozgis' film Natasha, and one of the more talked about actresses of 2017 due to her stellar work in the film. As Natasha heads for a theatrical release in New York on April 28th, we caught up with Sasha and talked about her character, the film, her upcoming off-broadway play Terezin, and her interesting journey from Odessa, Ukraine to New York City.
Your 2014 feature film Copenhagen was met with audience and critical acclaim, and did so on a budget that's often reserved for higher end short films (estimated). Do you feel the budget restraints made you more creative? Could you imagine making it on a larger budget and not ruining what it was?
While there is definitely a world where I can imagine having made the film on a larger budget, I believe the budget constraints helped focus the film, as well, it gave us tremendous freedom to make exactly the film we wanted.
We were not answering to anyone, there was zero expectations that the film would ever be seen, so we could basically do whatever we wanted to do. So in this case less was more – but twice the budget probably would have still kept it small enough to give us the freedom we desired, and given us more to work with (and paid people what they deserved).