Saturday, June 20, 2009

Independent Days

What I really want to do is direct.

What everyone wants to do is direct. Everyone's a closet moviemaker. Everyone's a comedian. Everyone has a screenplay in their bottom drawer, but no one's heard of anyone they know actually making it in Hollywood.

I went the independent production route myself. You get some friends together, scare up a couple thousand dollars, a film camera and shoot your clever Tarantino/Linklater pastiche, convinced that since it costs so little, there's no way it can't make money. The video store is full of them. Why not add to the noise?

We've all heard of the independent filmmaker success stories. Make a film in a weekend (or over 3 years) and it sells at Sundance for $3 million, and the next thing you know you're hired to direct the Luke Cage remake. They know what you can do with pocket change, so only if he had some real money....

It's an elegant theory. But it's disingenuous. For every Bryan Singer, there's a thousand Jacob Freydont-Atties. For every David Gordon Green that (eventually) gets pulled into the majors a dozen JP Allens remain unknown. Hundreds of films get submitted to each of over 200 festivals in the US every year (and that's just the features) and even of the ones that are selected, it's likely their first, best and last showing are at these festivals, never getting a distribution deal, or even ending up on DVD except as souvenir home burns for the cast and crew.

There are more movies out there than you can ever find out about. More people want to make movies than the industry can possibly gainfully employ. If you don't believe me, ask yourself how many times you've heard someone say words along the lines of "You know what would make a great movie?"

You've said it yourself. Everyone's got an opinion, and you know what they say about that. We think we can do it better, and perhaps we can. We'd do anything to be in pictures. But it's not just about having a better idea. It's about being in the right place - at the right time, with the right people surrounding you, and often with the right amount of money sitting on the table orphaned and waiting to be invested.

Financing is all - more projects come to fruition because they've been paid for than because they need to be told. Independent films always have a hard and schizophrenic life. They're borne of passion and necessity and wear their sponsor-less authenticity as a badge of honor, the entire time putting on airs to convince they're more than the backyard make-believe they are. They push the envelope and defiantly resist categorization and (often) coherence, because that would be selling out.

Yet they exude a needy greed to be loved, because ultimately they can't afford to piss off their audiences or their producers, and end up playing to the cheap seats, simultaneously wishing and fearing a state-funded co-opting or, at least the perceived notion of one - pursuing and risking a Kurt Cobain-ian reduction of street cred as the zeros multiply on the residual checks.

Even Ron Howard started as a seat-of-your-pants go-for broke exploitation director, which in a way is still reflected in his gilded work on "Angels and Demons," done not for art but to assert his position in the industry. A $200 million budget, completely competent and completely forgettable, reminding us that there is never enough resources of the right kind on any picture. It's the difference between the first "Terminator" and the second, the difference being a budget 10 times the size so aesthetic challenges aren't solved, so much as financed to death.

Ridley Scott makes one movie a year, and while we can discuss the vagaries of his depiction of the CIA in "Body of Lies" or "Matchstick Men," we'll never see the mad independence of "The Duellists" again. In today's environment, the list of directors able to generate a meaningful body of work is extremely short. Bad penny Terry Gilliam and rock star Martin Scorsese still can't put together the projects they really want to do. Scorsese had defaulted to music documentaries, which are probably the level of fight he's willing to take on nowadays.

And what about the filmmakers that didn't have the fortune of having worked with Robert DeNiro in their early careers? Who had a unique voice but couldn't sell a ticket? They've moved on to shooting cable shows. Or pulling cable.

Or writing for cable. Or writing work orders for cable installation.

Being independent comes with a price. By the time someone offers to pay the bill, you're already face-down in the pool.

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