Tag Archives: passion

What Fight the Panda Syndicate Means to Me.

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By Christopher Pickhardt

Just about ten years ago, in 2006, my best friends and I embarked on a grand creative journey. Out of the blue, we decided to form a production company (Crazy Elk Productions) and produce an independent film called ‘Fight the Panda Syndicate,’ an ambitious dark comic adventure film that consumed the better part of six years of our lives. It was  an amazing creative experience for us that I can look back on with a great sense of accomplishment (as I was heavily involved in its making in the form of co-writer, co-producer, actor and co-editor, among many other hats alongside director Jason J. Dale).

It was a monumental task producing an ambitious project like this on such a shoestring budget, but with that challenge came tremendous rewards. Now that the film is in the can and we are past the film festival submission wormhole, we are actively looking to get the film out into the world; which is a whole other challenge in itself, but one that has greater chances of success than it did just a few short years ago, when you consider the advent of the digital distribution age we find ourselves in. I feel good about the future of this film and look forward to the world feasting their eyes on it.

I felt it was apropos to share an essay that I wrote back in 2009 as we were knee-deep into production on this film, for it really provides a window into the world of independent filmmaking and into the soul of the grassroots artist. Additionally, make sure to check out the film’s trailer below the essay, which I have included for your joyous perusal…

  What Fight the Panda Syndicate Means to ME

We have had a motto that has somewhat guided us since we began this journey on ‘Fight the Panda Syndicate’: what we lack in budget, we make up for in creativity. Given our meager resources I am very proud of what we have produced thus far. Lacking a large nest egg to cushion us, we have been forced to really get imaginative with how we have been making this film. Whether it is stretching the dollar to limits unseen by fund raising and bargain hunting or throwing away all conventional ways of storytelling and production, we have slaved since day one to achieve our filmmaking dreams. And as we watch the film come together in the editing process, like pieces of a puzzle, we stand behind another motto, one we adopted around the same time as the prior: ‘Fight the Panda Syndicate’ is the greatest independent film ever made. A bold statement to be sure, and one ‘El Mariachi’ fans may dispute, but never the less, one I will stand behind until the day I die.

It is hard to put into words what ‘Fight the Panda Syndicate’ means to me. How do you express a love this strong in words? I can honestly say I have never loved anything as much as this film. IT is my baby, my passion and the single most important thing in my life. My best friends and I have been working on this film for over two years now, going on three this summer. We have spent countless hours producing this project: discussing, planning, shooting, sweating, problem solving, bleeding and pressing on, as obstacle after obstacle, problem after problem, and antagonist after fucking antagonist has attempted to get in our way. We will not be deterred, not by the naysayers, the worrywarts, the assorted Riff-Raff, the inevitable financial woes or any other unforeseen force that is always working against this film. But, that is the life of the filmmaker and even on big budget films; there are nothing but obstacles and problems to address. So one must just keep their chin up and soldier on.

‘Fight the Panda Syndicate’ will be finished this year and then everyone can finally see the fruits of our labor, which is an independent film like no other. It is a film that transcends genres, is rich with character, ripe with humor, filled with action and danger and is truly a passion-filled ‘labor of love’ that started with four friends sitting around a kitchen table one night discussing ‘what if?’ This grand experiment, for lack of a better word, has grown into a family of creative artists over 400 strong from all over the north east. We are building a creative revolution, a collaboration of not only artists, but friends, who together are helping each other achieve their personal goals while striving for greater heights creatively and personally. This film is just the beginning of something truly remarkable, for it signifies that anything can be done no matter how impossible the odds against its success are and that if you work TOGETHER, ANYTHING can be achieved. ‘Fight the Panda Syndicate’ is just the first of many creative endeavors we will be working on together in all artistic realms in and out of film.

I sometimes find myself in disbelief at all we have accomplished. It is truly daunting to think of all we have been through since we started this film back in 2006. I pinch myself at times just to make sure this surreal dream is indeed a reality and not a sick Matrix-type joke I have been sleeping through. My dreams are unfolding before my eyes, almost too fast, and I find myself struggling to keep my mind on anything else. I can honestly say that ninety percent of the time I am not here; I am lost in my dream world physically present, but mentally on another plain going a hundred miles a minute in the idea super-highway. It is a place I don’t ever want to leave. Why would I want to?

This has been one HELL of a ride, filled with DRAMA the likes of which I have never experienced in my life. It is as if a door was opened into another world once production began on this film, bringing forth both great and terrible experiences; leaving our lives behind the scenes resembling a movie in itself. We have been through SO much these last couple years, both creatively and personally. Almost everyone involved with this project has had to deal with some pretty heavy shit, but we are still going strong, still fighting the good fight to get this thing finished. I am happy to say we are closer to the end than ever before with a rough cut actually in sight. The excitement is starting to brew, for nobody really has any idea what is in store for them! I am so excited for everyone I know and love to see this film that I feel high all the time, like I am floating along on a current of intense positive energy.

I am very thankful to God for the amazing family and close-knit circle I have been blessed with; I could not have asked for anything better. Without my belief in God and the strength that gives me and us each day, we would not have gotten through half the madness we have overcome. It is through faith and hope and the memory of my Mom that guided us through some of the hardest and darkest days and into the bright clearing we are at today. We have learned a lot and also gained much more wisdom these last couple of years; I know I am a better person because of it all.

In the end, experience builds strength, which in turn creates wisdom, which finally influences our character and makes us the enlightened people we are meant to be. I look forward to all the wonderful experiences the future has in store for us as we embark on a continuing quest for creative Zen – a place we can truly reach if we continue to work hard and to BELIEVE. And we will, I know it…right here in northern New Jersey, right under our noses; who knew?

Below, is the link to the film’s trailer:

Black Swan

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Review:

BLACK SWAN

Rated: R

**** stars (out of 4)

Black Swan is an intensely absorbing psychological decent into madness with Natalie Portman as Nina, a ballet dancer who is beginning to crack under the building pressure which comes with taking the arduous lead in a new production of Swan Lake. The pressure to be perfect is commonplace in the ballet; especially in New York City where after many seasons in the background, Portman’s Nina is finally given the chance to shine in two challenging lead parts, as the White and Black Swan roles respectively.

Nina’s mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), an ex-ballet dancer herself-turned painter, is overjoyed by her daughter’s ascension to the top of the ballet food chain but adds a layer of unneeded pressure onto her daughter’s already heavy shoulders. This coupled with the stern bluntness of the production’s seasoned director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel); an intimidating genius who is not shy about flaunting his sexuality to his dancers, makes for an incredibly claustrophobic atmosphere for Nina. Additionally, Leroy urges Nina to be less rigid and uninhibited in the sexual arena to further immerse her in her roles. The film wades in sexual awakening and expression through most of the middle act, slowly building to a crescendo as Nina herself explores her primal hunger which has been dormant and very necessary for her to embody the essence of the Black Swan.

It is here that the film really immerses us in Nina’s mental spiral and we witness with her, the constant anguish of striving for perfection: the mental, emotional and physical discipline and constant fear of failure. The thrill and excitement of carrying the production on her shoulders eventually gives way as the pressure builds to growing anxiety and paranoia at the thought of being replaced by an understudy named Lily (Mila Kunis), who drops into the production out of nowhere both as friend and foe. Their relationship develops as adversaries, morphs into friendship and then jerks into darkness in ways I will not spoil but ones that will leave your eyes glued to the screen and in your thoughts well after you have left the theater.

All this weighs on Nina day and night as she pushes herself to be better with the looming production’s opening night just weeks and eventually days away. She dances, sleeps, bleeds and cries – that is her routine as she takes the spotlight. Nina knew it would be hard taking the lead after many seasons under the shadow of Leroy’s original prodigy and now retiring Beth (Winona Ryder), but as Nina slips deeper and deeper into mania, her grips on reality begin to crumble beneath her.

Black Swan features easily the best performance of the year by Portman and should ensure her the Oscar in a couple months. She trained for over a year for this film and it shows – physically and emotionally. She brings a heartbreaking realism to the role of Nina, a tortured girl whose desire to be perfect consumes her. Portman has come a long way since that little girl in The Professional (1994) and proves she is more than just a pretty young face. Like her performances in Closer (2004) and in last year’s Brothers, she shows us her vulnerability and her inner fire. I admire her dedication to the part and the discipline of training to be a ballerina. It is probably the hardest and most strenuous of the performance arts, as the physical toll your body takes alone is grueling, not to mention the constant mental and emotional turmoil that undoubtedly comes with it.

The supporting performances are all great as expected. The always cunning and menacing Vincent Cassel gives us another memorable character as Thomas; the sexier than ever Mila Kunis shows us another side of her we have not seen yet and Winona Ryder is powerful as Beth (it is good to see her back in films after several years out of the spotlight). And Barbara Hershey also delivers a terrific performance as Erica, an artist and mother struggling with lost dreams in light of her daughter’s realization of her own and as she lives vicariously through her daughter, she also sinks into the realm of madness in her own way.

This is another wonderful film by director Darren Aronosky who gave us the outstanding Mickey Rourke film The Wrestler a couple years ago (my favorite of Aronosky’s films) . He is one of the most absorbing directors working today; always different and inventive. He favors handheld camera work (The Wrestler was entirely handheld), vibrant imagery and stories about people rather than intricate plots (although his characters inner monologues can be very rich and complex). Here, he orchestrates the physical and mental world of a ballerina in turmoil perfectly and like in The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream and π, Aronofsky gives us a likable protagonist with demons who descends into darkness.  He is obsessed with the mind and with human behavior and chooses to examine us as a species in diverse walks of life and afflictions. I read that initially a few years ago, Aronofsky wanted to make a film about a wrestler that falls in love with a ballerina. I am sure that would have been an interesting film, but I am happy things turned out the way they did.