Neil Mandt traveled the world to shoot his latest film, Last Stop for Paul, on a budget of 50 grand. In an interview, he shares his top travel tips (such as how to find where the locals hang out)--plus his picks for great video-cameras.
Independent filmmaker Neil Mandt has been to 78 countries and has more than 1 million airline miles banked in various frequent flier accounts. He drew on his memories as a backpacker and inveterate traveler to create his latest film, Last Stop for Paul. The plot: Two guys travel the world to spread the ashes of a recently deceased buddy.
The film, which has won awards at several festivals, opens in Los Angeles on March 7, 2008, and in New York City two weeks later. (See the trailer at LastStopForPaul.com. We recently interviewed him via e-mail.
Congrats on completing the movie! What's the story behind it?
Last Stop for Paul is almost entirely based on real events. I'd say about 90 percent of the movie actually happened to me at one time or another. I'm someone who loves to travel and meet new people. As a result of this openness, I've often found myself having experiences ranging from the strange to the insane.
I had my first backpacking adventure in Europe when I was 17 years old. Over the years, I amassed quite a collection of funny stories that I would share with friends over beers at parties. The more trips I went on, it seemed, the more extreme my adventures became. It didn't take long for me to start thinking that these tales might make a good movie someday. However, it did take me 20 years to actually make the movie.
What are some travel lessons you've learned?
Traveling the world can be exciting and daunting at the same time. Every city brings new adventures and potential headaches. Here are a few things to consider when leaving the comforts of home.
Getting there: Fares have been rising along with fuel prices. Surprisingly, one international ticket has not gone up in price that much, and that is the round-the-world ticket. When you are traveling to more than two countries, it is entirely possible that a round-the-world ticket could be the most cost-effective. Just call a few airlines and ask to be transferred to their around-the-world department and price out the ticket. You will have to select your itinerary in advance (although it can be changed later for very small fees), and you may save some coin.
Food: Street food can be cheap, but it can also be unsafe. I've found that in Southeast Asian countries, such as Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand, street vendors in organized markets tend to be the safest when it comes to the digestive tract. You should be especially careful to consider the cleanliness of the environment where the food is being prepared. If it looks dirty, it is dirty. On another note, the price of local food (such as Thai food in Thailand) in high-end restaurants tends to be surprisingly affordable. On my last stay in Bangkok, I ate dinner at a very fancy Thai restaurant at a five-star hotel, and the Thai meal was only $10, while my friend's sushi was $80.
Jet lag: There are many things that can help you adjust to a new time zone and minimize your jet lag. Let's start first with the flight out. Change the time on your watch to whatever the time will be in the country where you are going. When the airline offers you a meal, consider the time in your new country. If it is the middle of the night in your new time zone, then you shouldn't eat a full meal. Have a light snack, just enough to get you through the flight. You will also want to sleep if it is time to sleep in your arrival city.
When you land, you will want to do as many things as possible on the new time. Eat during the local breakfast, lunch and dinner times, even if you're not hungry. Make your body learn that it is on a new time. Get lots of sunlight during the day; this will tell your body when it is day and when it is night. Many people get tired in the afternoon, but it is very important that you avoid taking a long nap. You must force yourself to minimize your sleeping during the day; this will help you get through the night. If you must rest, make sure that you lie down for no more than one hour. Otherwise you might wake up at 3 a.m., alert and ready to go nowhere.
Go to non-touristy spots: While the tourist spots are popular for a reason and often should not be missed (the Eiffel Tower, the Christ the Redeemer statue, the Great Wall), oftentimes the best experiences can be had off the beaten path. Ask the locals where they shop for food and clothes. More often than not both of these areas will be large and have many options. Whether you're in fact hungry or want to buy something is irrelevant. These scenarios are great for people-watching and offer you the best access to locals with their guard down. Try to make a new friend and ask for advice on the best places to go out at night or things around town that shouldn't be missed. The locals will be more happy to help an out-of-towner if they're in an environment where they are comfortable.
How are the economics of filmmaking changing in the digital era?
The economics of filmmaking in the digital era are definitely different than in the film era of just 10 years ago. In 1995, I produced my first feature-length movie, Hijacking Hollywood, at a rock-bottom cost of $350,000. That was cheap! The movie was filmed on 35mm film stock, and it was shot entirely in Los Angeles. Nowadays in the digital era, a filmmaker is able to be much more mobile and shoot far more cost effectively. Last Stop for Paul was shot in more than 25 countries around the world for $50,000. Far less expensive.
As for distribution, some things have changed, and some things have remained the same. Ten years ago, the only options for distribution for an indie filmmaker were theatrical releases, video, and television. At the time DVD didn't exist, and the Internet was in its infancy. Getting a theatrical release on a little movie was and still is very difficult. Moreover, often it doesn't make financial sense to make the prints and market the movie for theaters. However, now, thanks to high-speed Internet and sites like YouTube, distribution on a global level is possible for any aspiring filmmaker.
What's your advice to young filmmakers who pursue a dream of filming on the road?
First things first: Know what your story is and make sure it's a good one. The world already has plenty of bad movies; don't make another one. It's hard to make an independent film; it will be even harder to sell and get people to watch it if it isn't unique. Assuming that you've conquered any story issues, your biggest concern in shooting on the road is to make sure that you are traveling as light as possible, yet still have all the equipment necessary to execute your vision.
Traveling can be complicated enough; trying to lug a lot of production equipment around the world will make things harder. I shot Last Stop for Paul with one small Panasonic DVX 100 camera and two wireless microphones. Nothing else. All of the equipment used could fit in one personal-size backpack. This made traveling around cities, as well as alluding the watchful eye of authorities, much easier. Landing in jail for filming illegally, or having your tapes confiscated, will be a major buzzkill on your Oscar dreams.
Any practical tips about the equipment needed by travelers wishing to record their trip but not necessarily make a movie right away?
There are many great digital cameras on the market right now that will work great for recording your personal trip and still won't be at all cumbersome in your backpack. Pure Digital makes a device called Pure Digital, and RCA makes a device called the Small Wonder. Both of these are tiny camcorders and are very inexpensive. They are perfect for someone who wants to capture a trip on video but not shoot a movie.