- Asher Svidensky/Sony Pictures Classics
In 2014, photographs taken by Asher Svidensky of a 13-year-old Mongolian girl named Aisholpan attempting to be the first-ever female eagle hunter in her country instantly went viral.
Eagle hunting is predominantly taught only to males, and involves first building a connection with a golden eagle and then going out with it and hunting foxes and hares.
Aisholpan, whose father is a prominent eagle hunter, gained international notoriety thanks to Svidensky’s photos as she set forth to break the mold and bring the art of eagle hunting to modernity.
Basically, the story was just waiting to be made into a movie.
Director Otto Bell was transfixed by Svidensky’s photos and quickly got the life rights of Aisholpan three months after her story went viral. He immediately began shooting in Mongolia as she continued her apprenticeship, which included her being part of the annual eagle festival.
Returning home, Bell realized he was completely broke. Having spent his life savings of $80,000 and getting a loan from the bank of $12,000, he was struck with fear as he realized he still didn’t have enough money to finish his feature debut.
- Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty
“I learned that Aisholpan had to achieve one more task before she could be declared an eagle huntress by the elders, I had to go back and film that,” Bell told Business Insider while the film played at the Toronto International Film Festival. “That was a really dark time, a lot of sleepless nights.”
He dug up the contact info of documentary titan Morgan Spurlock (“Super Size Me”), which Bell had done commercial work for years earlier, and cold called Spurlock to see if he’d come onboard the film as an executive producer.
“I cut together ten minutes from the eagle festival and I sent it to Morgan,” he said. “He called me back that day and said, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this, how can I help?'”
With the added financing from Spurlock, Bell went back to Mongolia, got the footage that he needed, and returned ready to edit the film. What he didn’t realize was this film that would be titled “The Eagle Huntress” would eventually get the attention of some major players in the entertainment world.
Finding a Jedi
Before Spurlock came on, Bell already had an idea how to make his documentary stand out amongst the countless others that are made every year.
Highlighting the journey of the first female in twelve generations of her family to be an eagle hunter, Bell decided to tell the story not like a fly-on-the-wall non-fiction but as an action movie. With breathtaking photography of Mongolian landscapes where Aisholpan and her father gallop on horses to slow-motion shots of her eagle gracefully tracking its prey (cut over fast-paced music), Bell creates a movie that feels more Jerry Bruckheimer than the Maysles brothers.
But the movie also has a strong theme of female empowerment, and to drive that home Bell and Spurlock knew they needed to do something that would give the movie attention beyond its genre-busting feel.
After wowing audiences at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, where the film was bought by Sony Pictures Classics, Bell had the fortune of signing on with talent agency CAA, who also has Daisy Ridley, star of the latest “Star Wars” movies, as its client.
- Anthony Harvey/ Getty Images
The film was sent to Ridley, and the night before he flew to Sundance, Bell got a call from her wanting to be involved.
“It was clear that she had been moved by it,” said Bell. “She talked about how she cried on the phone to her mother when she watched it.”
Ridley agreed to come on as an Executive Producer before the film’s world premiere at the festival. Then, following the film’s reception at Sundance and being bought by Sony Classics, the decision was made to add narration to the movie, and Ridley agreed to do it.
Bell flew to London and recorded in one day the narration Ridley delivers in the movie (which is around five minutes of the 87-minute movie).
This allowed Bell to eliminate the numerous title cards that were present in the opening of the cut that was shown at Sundance and replace it with gorgeous drone shots of the Mongolian mountains over the narration by Ridley introducing us to Aisholpan.
“We want a G rating, we want this to be a family documentary,” said Bell, “so with Daisy’s narration it’s a hand-hold through the film. Though there are subtitles, her narration is going to help young kids.”
Landing a pop star
But perhaps even more powerful than the movie nabbing a Jedi is the original song they got from a chart-topping artist.
While in postproduction on the movie, and with its Sundance premiere drawing closer, Spurlock came up with the idea to include pop songs in the movie. Bell admits he wasn’t a fan at first.
“With the music I wanted it to be more impressionistic and he wanted it to be more commercial,” said Bell. “We fought a bunch during post production – but in a very constructive way.”
Bell and Spurlock could never agree on the same music until finally, according to Bell, Spurlock asked, “Who do you want?'” and Bell answered, “Sia! F—ing get me Sia!”
“And sure enough he did,” said Bell with a laugh.
As post production pushed on, Bell said Spurlock would give matter-of-fact mentions that he was talking to Sia’s manager. Then a few weeks before Sundance began, Bell got a call from Spurlock to come to his office.
“I was like, ‘S–t, now what?” said Bell.
Bell arrived at Spurlock’s office, and Spurlock told him he wanted to play him something.
“He pressed play on his laptop and I swear to god we both cried,” said Bell.
Sia had written and recorded the song “Angel By The Wings” for the movie in a matter of days. Bell would place it at the end of the movie moments before the screen goes black and the end credits roll. The powerful pop girl power anthem matches the message and tone of the movie perfectly and gives audiences an uplifting feeling when they leave the theater.
Bell has experienced on numerous occasions the reaction of audiences at that moment when Sia’s song comes, and he said it’s the most effective when the movie has been shown to kids.
“Those are our best screenings,” he said. “Middle schoolers, high schoolers, that music plays at the end and then I’ll be with Aishoplan and she comes on stage and kids just start cheering.”
Bell admits there were many nights while making the movie when he wondered if people would be as moved as he was by the story of Aishoplan. But the journey the film has taken since filming wrapped has given him confirmation.
“With Daisy and Sia, when they saw it and were moved by it, that was a real validation to have those ladies come on board,” said Bell. “It’s not just me who loves it, it’s these incredibly powerful women as well.”
“The Eagle Huntress” opens in theaters November 2.