- Friday, Feb. 1, 2013
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- PARK CITY, Utah
Though it wasn't part of the recently concluded Sundance Film Festival's official program, the documentary The Unsinkable Henry Morgan made a major splash at the event. A special screening of the film--created by the Captain Morgan brand (owned by Diageo) in tandem with the Sundance Channel, director Michael Haussman of HSI, and NY ad agency Anomaly--was held at the Filmmaker Lodge in Park City during the Sundance Fest and two days later (1/20) premiered nationally on the Sundance Channel.
Haussman is no stranger to Sundance. Back in '97, his experimental dramatic feature Rhinoceros Hunting in Budapest, played to favorable reviews at the festival. Fast forward to 2013 and the director--lauded for his spotmaking endeavors over the years--has embraced the new twist of branded entertainment playing before a Sundance gathering and subsequently on its national cable network.
"I had never done a branded content film before but I now feel that this kind of work holds a lot of promise," said Haussman. "We tried to make as entertaining a documentary as possible and the client didn't get in the way of that. The client didn't get too involved in changing the edit--nothing really major was changed. There was zero branding added. I guess it's branding enough when the subject of your film is the name of the brand."
Haussman was approached to do the project by creative colleagues at Anomaly, whom he had worked with before. "I know [Anomaly's] Andrew [Loevenguth, executive producer and producer on the film], Andy [Carrigan, exec producer and creative director] and Jon [Zast, exec producer and creative director] who came to me with the project. At first I thought it was a mockumentary. I didn't know Captain Henry Morgan existed. I didn't follow pirate lore. Then I got in on a conference call and found out he is real, that they found parts of his ship in Panama during an archaeological expedition."
Inspired by Herzog
Haussman wanted to do justice to Morgan as a historical figure, his lead role in the largest pirate invasion ever (back in the year 1671) and its lasting impact on Panama City. At the same time the director sought to avoid creating a History Channel-esque, fact-finding film. "That would be boring so I kind of adopted more of a Werner Herzog approach."
Herzog is the iconic filmmaker known for his unique, eclectic bent on documentaries. In fact, Haussman cited Herzog's Oscar-nominated documentary Encounters At The End of the World, which not only captured Antarctica's natural beauty but also the characters there.
In that same spirit, Haussman infused The Unsinkable Henry Morgan with some characters of its own--eight artists he brought down to Panama City to provide their perspectives and talents to the Henry Morgan lore. Among them, for example, were three-time Oscar winning (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha, Alice in Wonderland) costume designer Colleen Atwood who designed a contemporary rendition of Morgan's most famous wardrobe staple, his red coat; production designer Dante Ferretti, another three-time Oscar winner (for Art Direction on the films Hugo, The Aviator, and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street), who with apprentice Carlos Aloisio built a 10-foot replica of Morgan's flagship, The Satisfaction; comic book artist Ben Templesmith (the comics "Fell," "30 Days of Night," and "The Nightmare Factory") who created a graphic novel based on Morgan's adventures in Panama; and Stephan Talty, historian and New York Times bestselling author of "Empire of the Blue Water," who wrote an account of Morgan's exploits.
"We had," related Haussman, "a costume designer design a costume, a graphic novelist do graphic drawings, a writer write, a musician do his thing, a modelmaker create a model and then had all these different artists sitting at a roundtable, exchanging their thoughts, ideas and perspectives on who Henry Morgan was. We'd sit them all down for a drink, to have dinner and come away with these rich, at times comedic conversations, an element which helps to make this documentary unique and engaging."
Also key was what Haussman described as "finding all those subpaths that make documentaries fun, searching out less famous people, characters in their own right, who can help recreate Morgan. We found a guy in Panama who claimed to have Morgan's sword. It was one of the best interviews in the movie."
The half-hour documentary also chronicles the search for Captain Morgan's fleet, descending into the original excavation in 2010 from which U.S. archaeologists recovered six iron cannons believed to have been on one of Morgan's lost ships in the Caribbean.
Haussman credited editor Matt Murphy of Final Cut for helping to cull down tons of footage into an entertaining film, letting the story unfold and yield what the director described as "a crazy twist at the end."
On the production side, HSI's Rebecca Skinner executive produced The Unsinkable Henry Morgan, with Linda Masse serving as line producer and Christopher Gallo as DP.