By Kris Kelly, Community Affairs Manager for CBS 62/CW50
What goes into creating a documentary? Port Huron Filmmaker Joshua Riehl shares his thoughts on what it takes to produce this film as well as tips for future documentary makers.
Riehl spent the past six years working on a documentary on “The Russian Five” (Sergei Fedorov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Slava Kozlov, Igor Larionov, and Slava Fetisov). They were the first 5-man unit of hockey players trained in the Soviet system of hockey to play together in the NHL. They changed the way the Detroit Red Wings’ played and led the team to their first Stanley Cup in 42 years.
1) How did this project get started?
Like most documentaries, “The Russian Five” has had a pretty long gestation period. After finishing classes at the University of Texas at Austin, I really started the process in earnest at the end of 2012 when I started sending out letters to some of the key characters in the story. Jim Lites, being the Red Wings’ point man in orchestrating Fedorov, Konstantinov and Kozlov’s defection to Detroit, was living in Dallas at the time. He invited me up to have a chat and that gave me the encouragement to seriously pursue the project. Two and a half years later, after multiple near-misses on securing funding and with the hopes that I could find the money to make this where the story mattered, I made a leap of faith to move back to Detroit. A few months later I met Jenny Feterovich and she introduced me to Dan Milstein. Dan listened to my pitch and I guess he must’ve been impressed with my passion and dedication to the film because he agreed to fund the project.
2) What does it take to put something like this together? How do you do all the research and find all the contacts, the video, etc. to tell the story?
To make a documentary like this successful, it truly takes a village! Some doc films can be successfully completed with a single multi-talented individual who can produce, direct, shoot and edit the film by themselves but this is not one of them.
Whether it was the mountains of archival footage, the scheduling of interviews with superstar hockey players or the actual editing of the film, this documentary would not have been possible without the superstar team I was able to surround myself with, there was just too many moving parts.
It took about two and a half years to shoot all of the interviews, collect, digitize, organize and catalogue literally thousands of hours of archival footage and edit the film. It’s definitely been a labor of love and an incredible learning experience.
3) What challenges did you face?
Beyond the practicality of building a team that can work together in the pursuit of a single goal… I think that there were definitely other challenges that I didn’t anticipate. While everyone that we interviewed was very receptive to the idea of doing the film, the logistics of working around the schedules of these guys was quite the challenge. It’s not like Steve Yzerman or Sergei Fedorov are sitting around the house watching TV looking for something to do, they’ve got busy and successful post-playing careers!
There was also the challenge of tracking down all of the archival footage – which meant hitting up every TV and radio station in Metro-Detroit. Some, like CBS 62 and Fox Sports Detroit, were very helpful and receptive, while others wanted nothing to do with us. There are tapes of archival footage sitting on shelves collecting dust that we weren’t able to get our hands on and for me, it was a personal struggle to accept the idea that there are things out there that would’ve undoubtedly helped us tell this story a little bit better and we just had to edit the film without them.
4) You’re from Port Huron…not a big mecca for film producers…so how did you get started in this business?
My love for documentary filmmaking goes back to my childhood. On Fridays my mom would take my sister and I to the local video store where we were allowed to rent one VHS tape for the weekend and I would always pick out National Geographic nature documentaries.
Years later, when all of my friends were starting bands and learning how to play guitar, I ended up with a video camera. We’d hang out and I’d film their concerts and practices, but I never really gave a profession in filmmaking any serious consideration. Hollywood seemed so mysterious and far removed from a place like Port Huron. But then one of my best friends, Sadaat, coming home with a Laserdisc copy of Clerks, Kevin Smith’s groundbreaking low budget breakout debut, and suddenly Hollywood didn’t matter. “Clerks” was proof that all it took to make a film was determination and a group of friends that would support your dream, but Michigan still seemed like a rough place to make a go at it.
While in high school, I ended up getting incredibly lucky when one of my friends bands, Taproot, got signed by a major record label and I was asked to join go out on the road and record video of them on their first major tour, Ozzfest 2000. That experience made me more determined than ever to pursue a career in filmmaking and I started to create plans to go to NYU Film School after graduating high school.
Of course, life had other plans for me. It was 6 years, and three back surgeries later, when I finally left for film school in a warmer climate, at the University of Texas in Austin. During my first semester I made a short film about a man that was wrongfully convicted and executed for an accidental fire that was wrongly ruled an arson fire, and that short film landed me a job with Jessie Deeter, a powerhouse of a director/producer who taught me so much, on a PBS Frontline episode of the same story. The rest, I guess they say, is history.
5) Do you have other Detroit or Michigan people working on the project with you?
It’s been a joy to work with so many talented Michiganders on this film! My good pals, Chris Rosik and Rob Cousineau of Get Super Rad, were instrumental in convincing me to take a leap of faith and move back home, and they’re responsible for the beautifully shot interviews you see in t
We were able to get Detroit’s very own Wayne Kramer of the MC5 to score the film, which was a major coup.
Keith Gave, former Detroit Free Press beat reporter, was a key early supporter of the project and having him on the team helped us get a lot of these hockey players on camera a lot easier and quicker than we’d have otherwise.
There’s also Dan Milstein, our Executive Producer and a Ukranian born-immigrant who became an extremely successful businessman in Ann Arbor, who took a huge leap of faith on me and helped us make this go from an idea to a reality.
Honestly, there’s been so many Michigan people that helped crew or intern on this film that I’m forever thankful for but without two of my producers, Jenny Feterovich and Steve Bannatyne, this film would’ve never been made. Jenny took a flyer on a first time director with a dream and was not only the key to getting funded but our shoot in Moscow would have literally been impossible without her.
Last summer Steve officially joined the team and became indispensable in finishing the film with his experience and steady as it goes attitude. Ironically, Steve is also from Port Huron, he currently lives in LA but we met in Austin at SXSW a few years ago, so it just goes to show that you never know when or where you’ll run into a fellow Michigander. We’re out there and its important that we support each other and maybe some day we can even have sustainable careers back in Michigan!
6) Got any tips, suggestions, and ideas for someone who might want to follow in your footsteps?
Be prepared to fail and fail often!! The important part is learning from your failures. Even better if you can learn from the failure of others! There were so many times that things didn’t go right or expected on this project and I learned so much from all of them, it’s impossible to pinpoint one or two simple lessons.
I think the best advice I can pass on for anyone who dreams of being a film or documentary director is a piece of advice I received from one of my mentor/teachers, Werner Herzog. After asking him if it was common to experience so many setbacks and disappointments early in the process, Werner looked at me and in his iconic Bavarian accent and without a hint of irony told me, “if you want to be a director you must be prepared to travel to the depths of hell and wrestle the film out of the jaws of the devil himself!”
Initially I laughed this off as Werner being Werner but in hindsight, it was one of the most honest and blunt assessments of independent filmmaking I would ever receive. Making a documentary is really hard work, and the higher you set your sites the harder it’s going to be, and finishing this documentary was probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life, and I’ve had some pretty big challenges in the past. Honestly, don’t get into filmmaking if your goal is to find fame or money because you will be sorely disappointed. In my opinion, only if there is a story that you can’t stop thinking about, something that speaks so often and loudly to you that to ignore it becomes utterly impossible, should you embark on this journey.
Tickets to the world premiere are no longer available, but there are still tickets left for a special showing of the film at 4:00 PM on Friday, April 13 at the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit. The cost is $10 in advance and $12 at the door. DIA members receive a $2 discount. https://www.dia.org/events/freep-film-festival-russian-five
For more information, you can keep up with “The Russian Five” on twitter @RussianFiveFilm, Instagram @therussianfive, or on their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/theRussianFive/?ref=br_rs.