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29th April 2021
A vintage drop
Title of film: The Untold Tale of Isabelle Simi
Director: Nick Ball
Production Company: MJZ
When life gives you grapes, what do you do? Well, if you’re Nick Ball, you turn it into a beautifully crafted film for Simi wine. A classic coming of age narrative, The Untold Tale of Isabelle Simi follows the epic struggles of a feisty young woman, who takes over a Californian winery in the midst of the 1918 flu pandemic and overcomes family tragedy and Prohibition era constraints to become a winemaker extraordinaire. The director talks to 1.4 about false starts and parallels between pandemics.

Hand-painted poster by VFX Supervisor Jesse Bradstreet 

 

Isabelle Simi’s Untold Tale is an epic story, but we heard there was an epic production tale to making her story too?

So, yeah… this untold tale was once told before! Well, half-told… and by us!

We were in the final stages of prep for the first incarnation of this idea when we got stopped by the surprise of COVID-19. We were young, naive, full-of-glee and it seems like a lifetime ago but apparently it was only last year when we were all a lot slimmer and far more tanned and in Argentina when they shut their borders down and kicked us foreigners out on our butts.

One day we were location scouting, and the next we were bustled out on the last flight from Buenos Aires and got back home just in time for lockdown.

Then the job, like a fine Pinot Gris, was put on ice.

 

Nick on set with Irene

How did you resurrect that job?

I think a lot of that’s on the Creative Director at Venables Bell in San Francisco, Gus Johnston. He just knew this is the tale SIMI needed to tell, and his passion for the project pulled all of us through. In a weird way though I am glad that the first incarnation died. Our little struggle to make this film made us understand Isabelle’s journey a whole lot better… and well truth be told, that started with a pandemic too.

It’s a bit of a move away from the traditional style of advertising narratives that you’re used to – was it an easier production process than your usual multi-set up films such as your Money Supermarket Bull spot?

Well, this is more a unique piece of advertising and more of a film (without sounding too dickish about it) per se than an ad. Isabelle’s story is that good that we had to do it justice. And, well, she’s not just the poster child for this brand, her grit is this brand so she deserved an execution greater than a box ticking exercise. She’s a real person and not some market research room created character, so we had to live up to her expectations.

But yeah, like any project it had its fair share of challenges with regards to time, budget, schedule etc. Ultimately, I think that shooting a singular narrative from start to finish with no set time limit allowed me to compose shots that could sustain longer than your average commercial and imagine sequences in a different way to your standard ad. It was nice to flex some narrative muscle and focus on a more traditional film approach to the storytelling than worrying about how to condense everything too much. I mean, I just love telling stories. Short, long, around a campfire, to my kids, in an interview with 1.4… whatever it doesn’t matter!

But yeah, it certainly was a pretty special one and a really great opportunity to shake it up.

 

 

Now, tell us about that epic score!

The soundtrack was created by a team of young, independent musicians at Stare Crazy who are my most trusted and regular musical collaborators. It was a really big and unusual project, but we sweated it over and over and over trying to craft every decision within an inch of its life. This tale is obviously a bit of a modern Western – an outsider bucks convention to overcome adversity in the wilderness. Morricone’s scores were an obvious reference point – but we were feeling irreverent, so we repurposed his themes to underline that Isabelle was smarter, tougher and funnier than a fistful of made-up men too one-dimensional to even name.

Isabelle was also a woman of few words. So we used an Italian Chorus in the style of a traditional Greek Chorus from the theatre to give her a voice, of sorts. Featuring choral arrangements and an array of American and Italian instruments and lots of weird little sing-song easter eggs throughout – it was pretty fun to affect the tone of the piece by playing around with some of those ideas.

I feel like in the end, the final score is a sprawling, engaging and diverse piece that feels organic to the tale of drama, humor and grit. I’d like to think Isabelle would have begrudgingly enjoyed it, then slapped us with a broom and gotten back to work.

 

 

 

What was your criteria for the casting of the lead character. She’s gritty and intelligent. What was the process of rehearsals and communication before the shoot?

What set Isabelle Simi apart is how she was always a step ahead of the times, and how she never took no for an answer – even when the President was asking. To do her story and our world justice, each and every beat of our narrative needed to demonstrate her tenacity of spirit, her cantankerous charm, and her take-no-prisoners attitude to make a one-of-a-kind character. She was the real deal and deserving of a treatment that understands what made her tick more than just crafting a characterful advertising cliche who ticks some marketing boxes. From there, it was simply an exercise of exposition through characterisation. She was a wily old battleaxe of a woman, tough as old boots, but she was never vindictive, just a cheeky renegade who didn’t take “no” for an answer, nor life too seriously.

The minute our actress Irena finished her audition, I may as well have gone to the pub. She was 100% our Isabelle, through and through and it was a really tough bar for any of the other candidates to match. It was the steely focused look of determination in her eyes and the sense she could give you a firm and weathered slap from the back of her hand without too much trouble that won me over. We started working together almost immediately and I provided her a bunch of visual references and movies to watch to understand the kind of character I was after which certainly helped with the language barrier, and then on the shoot day it was simply over to her to do her thing – and she didn’t know how to do a bad take. She’s amazing.

 

 

 

You’ve had your fair share of quarantines with filming abroad over the past year. Was this shot mainly on location locally?

Yeah, I’m now up to 14 countries since Covid which is bonkers, and have zero septum left from 70+ PCR nasal swabs. It’s been a brutal year of course for everyone, but luckily for me also really fruitful with some of my favourite work of my career so far. This job was certainly special though as most of the heads of department travelled into Chile from Argentina or Europe (yep, we moved countries too when we got back up and running) and that meant a forced 10 day quarantine at the hotel in Santiago. It was a strange sort of quarantine in that we could all socialise with each other as we were all in the same “bubble” which meant we could prep the job with access to the full crew for much longer than normal. So it felt like we were prepping a film in all honesty, and I think that shows in the work. More time across the board to prep please from now on!

 

Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey and Nick Ball

Anything else fun coming up that you’ve made?

Yup. There’s a fresh treat from some chewing the fat sometime soon again. It’s good and I’m proud of it. And it’s for chewing gum, if you didn’t get those puns. I think we knocked it out of the park, and sent it into orbit.

Is it for Orbit?

Yes, but I don’t think I’m allowed to say that.

Shit.

 

 

Instagram Ballztopia

Represented by:

USA: MJZ

UK: BLINK

AUSTRALIA/NZ: FINCH

CANADA: OPC

FRANCE:  HENRY

GERMANY: ANORAK

Credits

Simi Winery

Agency: Venables Bell & Partners

Chairman: Paul Venables

Chief Creative Officer: Will McGinness

Creative Director: Gus Johnston

Associate Creative Director: Ryan Hoercher

Art Director: Megan Vandagens

Junior Art Director: Alyssa Lee

Junior Copywriter: Marisa Valente

Senior Art Director: Aisha Hakim

Senior Designer: Dani Saputo

Head of Integrated Production: Hilary Coate

Senior Producer: Sasha White

Producer: Jenna Van Deventer

Associate Producer: Livia Biedermann

 

Production Company: MJZ

Director: Nick Ball

President / Executive Producer: David Zander

Executive Producer: Emma Wilcockson

Director of Photography: Seamus McGarvey

Production Designer: Matias O’Donnell

First Assistant Director: Max Morales

Chile Production Service: Labhouse

Finishing + VFX: Method Studios

VFX Supervisor: Jesse Bradstreet

Executive Producer: Scott Boyajan

CG Supervisor: Hiltesh Solanki

Producer: Laura Duncan

Lead Flame Artist: Matt Welch

Flame Artists: Cecile Tecson Broas, Cody Edwardson, Kelly Bumbarger

2nd Compositor: Chad Buehler & Alex Gitler

Matte Painting: Matt Conway, Ed Mustaros

Animation: Bradley Morris, Julie Jaros

Texture Artists: Kendrick Khoo, Sudipto Nath, Santosh Kumar K Modeling Artists

Modeling Artists: Sachin, Ilamkar, Abhishek Soni & Avijit Biswas

Rigging: Rick Fronek

Production Coordinator: Aswathi S

Production Manager: Kartiki C Patil

Editorial: Stitch Editing

Editor: Leo King

Assistant Editor UK: Chris Wilson

Assistant Editor LA: Larence Ng

Managing Director UK: Angela Har

Managing Director LA: Mila Davis

Music House: Stare Crazy

Final Mix Longform: Stare Crazy

Sound Design: Rndm Ordr

Final Mix Shortform: Rndm Ordr

Executive Producer: Rani Zarina Vaz

Sound Design: Bill Chesley (Henryboy)

Sound Design Executive Producer: Kate Gibson (Henryboy) Mixer Shortform

Telecine: Postworks

Colorist: Peter Doyle

Color Assistants: Eric Waldorf, Katy Gilmore, Brian Woos

Finishing Producer: Patriciana Tenicela

Account Executive: Barbara Jean Kearney