Back in 2013, Jason Mojica, who heads Vice Documentary Films, the recently launched new division of Vice Films, encountered Kim Jong-un. He met North Korea’s Blessed Leader during production of Vice on HBO’s Season One finale.
“It was the most surreal experience of my life,” recalls the affable, thoughtful Mojica. “We were invited to a special private dinner, and we were not allowed to bring cameras, notebooks, pens or phones. When we walked in, there was a kind of wedding receiving line, and immediately to my right was Kim Jong-un.” Naturally, North Korean cameras were whirring and clicking.
“We sat down to dinner,” Mojica continues, “and I just stared at him, because there he was. The guy.” Kim, like many ruthless tyrants who know how to crank up the charm, came across as “convivial, pleasant, fun, entertaining. It was a very large table, there was a translator, and it was more about speeches and toasts than one-on-one conversations. Eventually, I approached Kim and invited him to come to Brooklyn, and [told him that] we would give him a grand tour. He laughed heartily. That was one of the most ridiculous things he ever heard. But it never hurts to ask.”
The moment was typical of Vice’s approach since it originated as a Montreal-based magazine and grew rapidly into a global operation in 30 countries. Offering a variety of online and broadcast programming, Vice’s brand is audacious risk-taking, going where no media company has gone before in many countries, including treacherous hot sports.
TRUMP: I’d be honored to meet Kim Jong-un.
KIM JONG-UN: The honor is all mine M’er F’er! (launches ballistic missile.)
That escalated fast.
— Jeremy Newberger (@jeremynewberger) May 13, 2017
Recently, that man in the White House tweeted that he would be “honoured” to meet with Kim Jong-un. Laughing, Mojica told me during an interview in a Toronto café, that he “definitely encourages” Trump to meet Kim. In fact, as he mulls over current and future projects for Vice Documentary Films, he says that some kind of Trump Show is a must. At the same time, “coming up with an idea about Trump is a tough one. Everyone can do something direct; I’m trying to figure out something more subtle. I’m very interested in Atlantic City, for example, in and of itself. It certainly takes on another level of nuance in a Trump presidency. We just haven’t cracked the code what the best documentary would be.
“One of my biggest challenges at the moment,” continues Mojica. “Is responding to this moment that we are experiencing in America, one unlike any I’ve never experienced in my life. With all due respect to Michael Moore, we don’t want a head-on assault. I’d rather see something that represents the overlooked, the people on the margins of society. I’m trying to come up with an approach that demonstrates it’s Donald Trump’s world, and we just live in it—the ordinary working stiffs trying to deal with what it means to be side characters in Donald Trump’s reality show.”
Mojica wants Vice Documentary Films [VDF] to nourish the company’s longstanding attention to “people on the margins of society, as well as rebels and radicals.” On the other hand, VDF is a separate entity, “akin to a studio division inside Vice. The stuff that we’re making is not necessarily for Vice platforms. It isn’t going to fit neatly alongside other Vice projects that you might know in terms of style and tonality, or on camera reporters and things like that. We don’t want to do more of the same. We are not looking for people to bring us projects that they think are quote, ‘totally Vice.’”
Formerly Editor-in-Chief and Executive Producer of Vice News, Mojica adds, “We are trying to develop a healthy mix of projects that cross from quote unquote important issues to culturally peculiar oddities and things that entertain.”
As examples, Mojica cites two recently completed, sharply contrasting films. Barnaby Clay’s documentary Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock “was a few years in the making, and very slick.” The movie plays as a bio of legendary rock photographer Mick Rock (his real name, the film points out), his virtually mystical experience of photography, and a visually splashy immersion into the worlds of subject/friends like David Bowie and Lou Reed. “On the other end of the spectrum, the Renaud Brothers’ Shelter is a stark, unsettling—almost Wiseman-esque in its stripped-down nature—film about homeless people in New Orleans.”
As for the kind of talent Vice Documentary Films wants to collaborate with, Mojica says, “We’re looking for well-known filmmakers, less established ones, and those with auteur visions. We think that we can help hone the skills of up-and-coming filmmakers, and also on the business side of things provide [films for] distributors and streaming platforms. Our brand becomes a seal of approval. And we’re going to be creative partners with collaborators throughout the process, as much as they want to, or as much as is needed.
“In cases involving conflict and crisis, that’s definitely one of our greatest strengths. We are able to provide insurance and the security backstop, things like that.”
While the company aims at partnerships that won’t necessarily lead to chart-busting numbers, Mojica says, “I would never pretend that if something has success written all over it, we’re going to look the other way. But I think what’s important to us is avoiding things that feel like someone else could’ve just done them. We take more risks than most people, and with our company’s history, and who we are, we can get away with edgier films with bigger bets.”
Mojica says that Vice will “get involved with projects that that are incredibly interesting to us, whether we are developing them in-house, or we are producing them with someone else who has brought a project to us. And ultimately, we are working to figure out what is the best life that we can give to that film.”
Distribution and exhibition, says Mojica, will be “very traditional exploitation of the distribution windows from theatrical to streaming online. We ask what are the goals for the film. Some people have visions of grandeur for their work; some are modest about it. It’s about everyone being on the same page, and just trying to figure out the best strategy.”
Like distribution, funding strategies will vary from project to project. “We have a nice development budget,” explains Mojica, “but then we have to be sustaining. We’re a business that must make smart decisions and hedge our bets. We will get involved with coproducing projects with some people, and financing. We will make inexpensive films, and expensive ones. We have to decide is this one we are going to make even though it wont be a commercial success? Will this film help pay for some of the other ones?”
Vice Documentary Films, which intends to collaborate with Canadian filmmakers, works “closely with our Toronto office,” Mojica says. One new doc is “being run out of Toronto, and we are working with them all the time on developing projects.
Vice has deep experience with short form doc projects, and has made features like 2007’s Heavy Metal in Baghdad and Snoop Dogg’s 2012 Reincarnated. But Mojica, says, “We see ourselves as a humble entrants into the doc community, as people who have a lot to learn.
“It’s certainly been a learning curve for me. I come directly from daily news, visceral video. I had the freedom to make a [short] film on a story,” and have it up in two weeks. “Now I’m involved in a very slow prolonged process,” a slow process that excites Jason Mojica.