Wednesday, July 29, 2009
There’s something to be said about not being eager to please. Chris Fuller’s Loren Cass is an aggressively confrontational debut, all the more so because it is so resolutely restrained in its approach. So seemingly oblique is Fuller’s approach that one feasibly could make it through the entire film and not realize that its subject matter is the aftermath of the 1996 St. Petersburg riots; but on the other hand, that subject matter is so deeply ingrained in the film’s form that it doesn’t matter. Loren Cass doesn’t so much deal with its themes as it ingests them, and then - through the juxtaposition of gorgeously photographed tableaux, depicting the various intersections of wayward youths in a shellshocked city; and through the use of poetry and political speeches on the soundtrack; and through stock footage depicting myriad public woes – it recapitulates them.
This is a strikingly formalist work, with echoes of the old masters as well as more recent cause celebres like Tsai Ming Liang and Harmony Korine. Fuller’s intent, though, is so intensely personal and tightly wound that all comparisons are ultimately irrelevant. This is, for better or worse, his vision, and Loren Cass an entirely unique – and uniquely American – art film with a capital A.
Two years after premiering at CineVegas and being nominated for a Gotham Award, Loren Cass opened in New York on July 24th. Kino International will be releasing it theatrically in additional markets in the coming months (it is also available digitally through iTunes and Amazon).
Filmmaker: The movie starts with a temporal bang, as a single voice-over utterance takes us back to the late 90s. How old were you when the St. Petersburg riots occurred? Clearly they made a big impression on you.
Fuller: I was 15 at the time and I think it made an impression on everyone around here. It was sort of a backdrop to what was going on in my life and on my side of town and kind of colored everything during that particular time. I was working on the script and it naturally sort of wove its way into the story. I think the setting for what happens on the surface is very important and that was the perfect background for a film like Loren Cass.
A lot of people seem to be focusing pretty heavily on the racial element of the riots too, but I think it's important to put it out there that this was also, and maybe even more so, a civilian versus authority type of engagement. It wasn't like there was rioting directed purely at caucasians or anything, most of what got destroyed was in the neighborhood immediately surrounding where the police shooting took place. We've seen the same sort of thing happen in other places recently like the events in Greece, and really it's happened a lot throughout history all over the world. There's a great photograph that the St. Petersburg Times has where there's a row of civilians squaring off with a row of police officers. All the civilians are black and there are two white cops, two black cops. I think that sums up the experience or at least what I took from it. People seem to jump immediately for a black versus white sort of thing, or vice versa, and in my opinion it's more about dejected poor and the possibility that authoritarian elements could swoop in and do as they pleased, even taking one of their sons. And that's not to say that's what happened. Again, I wasn't there, so I want to emphasize that I'm not interested in the "sides" that have evolved, both of which are particularly passionate around here about their point of view. But with the history behind the film as I included it, what we wanted to show was an objective event between people that sets a certain tone and effects every aspect of everything you see. Things like that seep into your bones.
Filmmaker: I understand you were 21 years old when you made the film. It's rare for any filmmaker to have such an original voice at such a young age, much less with their first feature. Would you say the content you were dealing with dictated the style in which you made the film, or is this an aesthetic you've been developing?
Fuller: That's an interesting question. I guess my answer would be both.
I definitely feel that content dictates form. Everything should be done to service the particular project, which was the case with Loren Cass. I don't really think that a filmmaker should develop their own aesthetic consciously. Whatever the aesthetic is should come naturally and be intertwined with the form. After all it's the filmmaker who selects the subject matter, writes the film, and so on, so an aesthetic materializes from a combination of things starting with the first decision made. The moment you become conscious of your aesthetic is the moment it turns into a gimmick.
That being said, this film is intensely personal, as it should be, and I do believe in the whole auteur thing. There's definitely certain techniques and sensibilities that I favor (in all facets: writing, directing, editing, etc.), and things I'm against implementing, so I'd like to think my films are my own and original. In a way I think the "meaning" of a film should come from a synthesis of the form/style and the filmmaker/author. The content is a subsidiary of the form and the aesthetic an unconscious subsidiary of the filmmaker, if that makes sense. My next film won't be like Loren at all on the surface, but, at the same time, I'm guessing and hoping that those who have seen Loren will recognize it as mine. So, sure, it's a developed aesthetic too, but not a consciously developed one I've meticulously planned out and let control my decisions regardless of the content I'm working with. In my opinion an aesthetic, in addition to being unconscious, should be variable... or else you'd probably be a fairly boring, predictable "artist".
Filmmaker: But the important thing is that the aesthetic is developed, conscious or otherwise, which then begs the question - what was your film education like? What work did you make prior to Loren Cass?
Fuller: I have no formal education or training in filmmaking and I didn't make anything prior to Loren, no shorts or anything like that. This was my first film in every sense. I learned a lot at the library to tell you the truth. There was a period in time where I frequented a bunch of different libraries in Tampa Bay where you can score all sorts of great films by the best filmmakers for nothing, obviously. I used to take home stacks of stuff and kind of felt like I was cheating in a way cause I had access to all these amazing works whenever I wanted them for as long as I wanted them. There's also a plethora of great literature on filmmaking and art in general, but more so than that, philosophy. During a period when I was working on Loren I was really into Schopenhauer. Which brings me to something else. The internet. My generation is the first to grow up with a resource like that at the tip of their fingers, something where details on anything and everything are available all the time. I think the effect of this kind of thing still hasn't been seen yet and I think it applies to all things (art, technology, commerce), but I'm guessing you'll start to see huge advances in everything over the next few decades purely because everyone has access to an almost infinite database of knowledge instantly. People forget how new it is and how new generations have access to this tool from the time they learn to read. Between the library and the internet, who needs film school? I always hated school anyway and ditched college shortly after I got there to make Loren, just wasn't for me.
Filmmaker: Your mention of the internet and that instantly accessible information rung a bell with me because, as soon as I was done watching Loren Cass for the first time, I went online to look up not just reviews but to try to decipher the cultural enigma of the film. For example, be it due to my age or just general ignorance, I knew practically nothing about the St. Petersburg riots beforehand, and so I sort of discovered the entire context of the movie retroactively, and what was upon first viewing incredibly oblique was suddenly, in retrospect, greatly enriched. How, in preparing for the film, did you reconcile the need for exposition? Did you hope audiences would approach from a firm cultural bedrock, or were you hoping they'd find that after the fact? Or did it simply not matter?
Fuller: It definitely didn't matter. I don't believe in exposition and never thought it was a need. I think the images tell the story and everything that's necessary to convey what I intended is in the film, I think it speaks for itself and stands on its own. I'd be interested in hearing if your research after-the-fact changed your feelings on the film in any way, or if it just helped you intellectualize it better. I think that's all exposition really does and I'd wager that you felt the same way about the movie after you got the historical details. But the extra information probably let your mind rest, which may or may not be a good thing. Of course, I encourage people to go and read more about different aspects of the film, I do the same thing with works that I like and something that spurs that reaction is what we're all after. But I also believe sometimes it's best to just let your mind wrestle and come to its own conclusion.
Filmmaker: I’d say that my research after the fact didn’t so much change my feelings about the film as much as bring them into clearer resolve – as in, I now could prescribe literal meaning to an image that previously had only evoke an emotional response. But speaking of those images – you very nearly let these gorgeous chiaroscuros tell the story entirely. The compositions you and your cinematographer have created are so rich and considered. How much time did you spend on these set-ups, and what was the production process like?
Fuller: It happened fast but we had been preparing so long that the limitations associated with a small budget and short shooting schedule weren't too restrictive in the end. That being said, you feel the lack of resources and the pressure every day but the goal is not to let it change or hurt the film. A lot of credit goes to my producer Frank Craft who took a lot on himself to ease the burden on me and the whole production. [Lead actress] Kayla Tabish stepped up in a production role at the last minute because we were overworked and took care of business. We spent a lot of time working out the compositions and checking out the locations and things beforehand so only getting a few takes wouldn't matter, we'd get what we needed. Our cinematographer built a lot of his own lighting rigs and had been on board to do the project for a long time, so he knew what I was after. We used Kodak Super16mm stock and an Arriflex camera, and the colorist at our lab also did a great job in his own right. A lot went in to the overall look of the film. We shot the whole thing in 14 days and pretty much didn't sleep. It was utterly exhausting and an experience unlike any other I've ever had or will have in the future I'm sure. Everyone was pretty worn out and nuts by the last day. But it's like the adage goes with fighters, that the fight is won with the preparation. Training's hard, fighting's comparatively easy. It's the same with filmmaking.
Filmmaker: The performances seem to compliment the film’s formalism. They’re almost Bressonian — in that the actors are not actors, but 'models' in the service of the film. Do you subscribe to that notion? And how do you handle working with actors, especially since you play one of the main characters yourself?
Fuller: I did subscribe to that, in a way, for this particular film and may or may not for future ones depending on the content. But I don't think that should take away from the performances or make people believe the characters are superficial or one-dimensional, they're just non-traditional and very connected with the subtext and their environment. We've been very lucky in that the film has received a lot of praise for a lot of different reasons, but one thing that I find is often overlooked is the acting. It's incredibly difficult to carry a scene, let alone an entire film, without dialogue or with very little dialogue. That could be a disaster if it's not done right. We had some truly excellent actors that did some really amazing stuff, in my opinion. Kayla Tabish, Mike Glausier, Din Thomas, Jacob Reynolds and Travis Maynard all did really tremendous work and I hope they start getting some more attention for it. Mike did get a Best Supporting Actor nomination from one film festival which was great.
Working with the actors in this instance was a lot like the shot composition we talked about earlier, it was all in the preparation. Lots of long, late night phone calls and discussions prior to filming. The casting was very important because we knew we weren't going to have a bunch of formal rehearsal time, we didn't have the money or the room in our schedule to bring the actors out early for extra days. They needed to be strong on their own and prepared as best as possible before we got going. Once that train was moving it wasn't going to slow down.
Though there was definitely a lot on my plate at certain times, from a director's standpoint, it's hard to get a better feel for a scene than staring directly into the actor's eyes while its happening and having whatever it is sent straight at you. As for getting what you need from them, there's just a ton of variables. It depends on the content of the film, the character, the scene, the particular actor, the location, etc. regardless of whether I'm in front of or behind the camera.
Filmmaker: Your use of the Bud Dwyer suicide footage is a pretty defining point of the film; it serves as an emotional turning point, but it ties into the story in a number of different ways - I know hardcore bands have been known to use that footage during their shows, and then there was the on-air suicide of former St. Petersburg weather lady Christine Chubbuck a decade earlier. Did you always plan to include this footage in the film?
Fuller: Yeah using that footage was always part of the plan. The Christine Chubbuck one (which happened in Sarasota), a lot of people don't know about and I've never been able to see it. I did try to track it down at one point due to the things I was trying to do with this film but had no luck. It's definitely a defining point in the film and its woven into the fabric of the entire piece, I think too often some people dismiss it as gratuitous or offensive which doesn't make a lot of sense to me. I think those people need to watch the film a second time.
Filmmaker: Continuing that train of thought — I've read at least one review in which the critic was angry that he was subjected to that footage. It's certainly not pleasant, but then again it's so ingrained in the pop culture underbelly that it seems like fair game at this point. Did you feel any culpability to your audience in using it?
Fuller: Definitely not. I don't make the world, I just live in it. I think I remember the review you're talking about and this guy felt that he had a right to choose whether or not to see something when it came to scenes of real death. I think that's insane. Someone should tell him that one day he'll get a real close up view of death and he's not going to have a choice then, either. That kind of mentality just blows my mind. People die every day. I've seen people die, and I imagine you and a lot of your readers have also. Did you have a choice? Did they? I know I didn't. The fact that he was offended by that offends me. The footage should shake you to the bone, it is unpleasant and it's not supposed to make you feel good. It hurts your soul the first few times you see it. It's supposed to make you feel the way you should when you see a kid jump of the Skyway, choke down pills or shoot themselves in the face. There are things about life that are ugly and unpleasant. The whole point of Loren Cass, in a nutshell, is to embrace that, celebrate the ugly things. I think he also said something about how it had no context in the slightest and was just randomly thrown in...the film is the context, there's 83 minutes of context. I don't know how someone who writes about art for a living can be that fragile.
Honestly, I take my work very seriously and if there's anything you can see visually that could possibly offend you, don't go see my movies, they won't be for you. I'm amazed that millions of years into this thing people can be offended by anything, really. Things are what they are. And for the record, I agonized over every little detail of this film for over a decade and to think that anything is randomly thrown in or without context, particularly a real suicide, is silly and, frankly, insulting. If anything I feel I owe an audience complete dedication to what I'm working on and to shy away from things that are intrinsically a part of life would be a disservice to them, myself and my art.
Filmmaker: Have you screened the film in St. Petersburg?
Fuller: We screened a rough cut of the film in St. Pete in 2006 before finishing it up and starting our festival run. It did really well, we actually had to turn a lot of people away so I'm looking forward to getting it back into a theatre or two down here soon.
Filmmaker: On the other hand, the film has played quite a bit abroad. Given that has a very European and even pan-Asian sensibility to it, have you found that it actually plays better overseas, compared to American festival audiences?
Fuller: You know, that's a tough one. I actually hate sitting through screenings so its tough to gauge how the film has played with the crowd at all these festivals. I was in the CineVegas screening and the primary Locarno screening and, though they both seemed to go well, we got a standing ovation from a huge audience in Switzerland and that was something I didn't witness anywhere else. Based off that experience and the people who approached me while I was out there, I'd think that it would probably play better overseas than in the States, but we'll have to see. I wish that wasn't the case but all the things you hear about sensibilities and attention spans might end up being true. It's definitely a movie you have to invest yourself in. You get from it what you give to it.
We haven't had any opportunities to screen in Asia, unfortunately, and that's something I hope will change in the near future because I definitely think audiences there would be receptive to a film like this.
Filmmaker: How many times have you been asked the meaning of the title?
Fuller: About a million.
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Monday, July 6, 2009
As I settle back in from a wonderful July 4th get-away, I am reminded of a mantra we used to chant at InDigEnt all the time (we were a spiritual bunch). It was about how the digital revolution in filmmaking truly is a democratizing factor in production and distribution. I believed it then and I believe it now. While that phrase has been thrown around to mean all kinds of things, what it really means to me is that technology is reducing the barriers to entry for the making of films and subsequently for the dissemination of those films to audiences. Doesn’t democracy feel great? While experimenting with digital production tools was the raison d'être at InDigEnt, distribution was always via traditional channels. Thus, a foray into alternative distribution is a first for me.
I did flirt with alternative distribution, or what’s now known as self- or DIY- distribution, on one occasion at InDigEnt. Puccini For Beginners had received only mild distributor interest after playing Sundance in 2006 and I thought it might be the time to experiment with a self-release. Ultimately, after scrutinizing the numbers and work involved, we decided to go the traditional route. The internet and blogosphere had not yet developed to the point it has today and the traditional distribution models hadn’t fully collapsed. Sure was nice to have options.
Fast forward to 2009. I’m fortunate to be a producer of Lovely By Surprise, the feature debut of the insanely talented Kirt Gunn. It’s a magnificent film with a serious marketing challenge. It doesn’t have big stars; it has gifted film and stage actors. It doesn’t have a high-concept plot line; it has a nuanced, multi-layered story with a big but complex payoff. It defies genre conventions. It has won numerous awards, but not Sundance.
After playing the festival circuit, we racked up some great awards but no distribution. After receiving some offers that were not really offers, it got to a point where waiting for another offer without a minimum guarantee was punishing on Kirt and myself. With no other brilliant ideas at our fingertips, we decided to dive into the deep waters of DIY-distribution. In our case, it hasn’t been fully DIY as we’ve hitched our wagon to Indigenous Film Works, a small outfit in Dallas, Texas run by Brandon Jones and Marc Stephens. I was introduced to Brandon through a film festival programmer. Indigenous has been able to put up some limited P&A support and give us very favorable terms, including non-exclusivity. They are also handling manufacturing of the DVD, shipping and returns. This is no small task. Their biggest asset is Brandon’s relationship with wholesalers and his understanding of the DVD market, which I discuss later. He has a bit of experience releasing genre films, but it’s his first time doing anything like we’re attempting with this film, making it a learning process for all of us. We also have the lovely Nevette Previd (who I knew from my time working with IFC) and Kelly Kitchens on board for some press/PR and outreach support. Rounding out the crew are Greg Lofaro and Graeme Jamieson, two tireless humans who work with me at Dandelion.
Our first task, and our most important, has been to decide what will best resonate with the public in trying to promote the film. Without the typical marketing angles and publicity machines I’m used to, we have both a challenge and an opportunity. Additionally, with no money to advertise the film, we’ve had to rely on human and earned media to get the word out. Those are the terms we use at Dandelion to define word-of-mouth publicity (via humans) and mentions in the press, blogs and other publications (advertising you can’t buy). We made the bold decision to actually respect potential viewers of the film by using a simple marketing strategy to expose it to the world… we decided to market the film itself. Not a genre, not an actor, not a controversy, not “inspired by a true story." We believe in the film, both as art and entertainment. It tends to strike up hearty discussion among audiences and people tell us they continue to think about the film long after seeing it. Others have really disliked the film, and passionately so, though that’s a small minority. So, we know we have a film that resonates, to the point of polarizing audiences. If we can just get the film in front of a critical mass of people, we have a chance to start a larger conversation about the film and can attempt to build on that. That’s the challenge we’ve put in front of ourselves. Let’s go find the people who will see Lovely By Surprise as either art, entertainment or both.
We’ve started by reaching out to every cranny of the real and virtual world in an attempt to identify potential lovers of LBS. Given that we have limited people-power, we are trying to concentrate our efforts around the most likely places. On the ‘net, that includes fan sites of the actors, literary sites, indie film sites, music sites (the film includes songs by Stephin Merritt and Tom Waits) and the like. In the real world, we have been holding word-of-mouth screenings in selected cities. These screenings are always held in conjunction with film festivals, film clubs, professional film societies, local arts magazines and other relevant organizations that like to be associated with quality projects and have a large member base that they can promote the film to. They like being able to invite their people to a sneak preview screening of an upcoming release. It’s important to pick your partners for these events carefully. Pairing yourself with the wrong sponsor can make for some very awkward screenings. We have learned this from experience.
We have been diligent in trying to use relationships that were established during the festival run. That comes in the form of competition judges and festival staff that were enthusiastic about the film. In just the few festivals and other screenings we played, we garnered fantastic comments or reviews from the likes of Scott Foundas, Godfrey Cheshire, and Nick Dawson. We have also reached out to people that couldn’t attend screenings and sent screeners to those interested in reviewing the film. If there’s one thing I underestimated, it’s the readership of some of the popular film blogs and the ways in which some of these writers have embraced the film. Not only have there been some great reviews, but some fascinating discussions in the feedback sections of these pages as well. The strong reactions we predicted have borne out, and that conversation has continued online. What more could we ask for in trying to promote this film? As an example, see Craig Kennedy’s 4-star review of the film from this weekend. Not only is it a great review from someone one who actually understood the film and took some time to think and write about it (sad to have to highlight that…), but take a look at the comments. Exactly what we’d hoped for. Also, if you Google the film, after the requisite IMDB link and the link to the official film site, there is review after review from bloggers all over the world. That happened through outreach by our diligent team and it seems to be a great tool for spreading the word about Lovely By Surprise. The team has also posted video clips that serve as sneak previews. The thinking here has been that, while the trailer is the traditional promotional tool, it doesn’t really give a sense of the pace and tone of the film. These clips do a much better job of that and we believe that the audience for this film will appreciate that. Lastly, we are making sure to keep the social media cylinders firing at all times with a Twitter feed (@LovelyBySrprise) that has great trivia and factoids about the film, its actors and other fun stuff (you’ll have to subscribe to find out!), a Facebook fan page, MySpace page and the other requisite social networking must-haves.
The flip side of this experiment is making sure the film is available for rental and purchase on the release date, July 7th. We decided on a “day-and-date” release for two reasons. One, we’re a tiny group and can only sustain this level of attention for so long. Two, as momentum has grown over the past few months of promotion, we think its time to get the film out there while awareness is still high and let people consume the film in any way they want. Unfortunately, this meant that we’ve had to pass on some deals that required exclusivity.
For example, the IFC FestivalDirect VOD deal requires that the DVD release be held back ninety days from the VOD release date due to deals with the cable operators (they don’t want to compete with Netflix). With the lengthy backlog to get on the service, we were looking at a DVD release as late June 2010. While I love IFC and was excited that they liked the film, there was no way we wanted to suspend our entire operation just so the film could be carried on a consignment basis through cable monopolies starting sometime next year.
Another challenging outlet has been theatrical distribution. The film was shot on 35mm and finished as a cut negative. There’s no IP and the prints look fantastic. Unfortunately, outside of festivals and special screenings, getting on traditional screens is a giant challenge without the support of the traditional distributors. The film has had enough buzz in certain markets that we are doing some very limited theatrical. Seattle is a good example. We’re playing the Firehouse Theater there. It’s a new art-house cinema and Seattle is where LBS world premiered and won the Special Jury Prize. It made sense and we were thrilled to be contacted by them. We will probably do some other special engagements like that but without ad money and movie stars, that route is pretty limited.
That leaves us with the workhorses of the DIY route: DVD and digital. We’ve been working with Indigenous to ensure the film is available in as many places as possible and can be consumed however anyone wants. We started months ago with the biggest buyers and worked our way down from there. Believe it or not, Blockbuster Video is still considered the biggest retailer out there and they were very interested in the film. The quality and scope of our indie marketing plan initially attracted them. They even told us they were going to buy thousands of units and had us work on artwork for them. But right before the deal was struck, their buyers were all fired and our deal was in jeopardy. On top of that, we heard from some smaller distributors that they’ve been owed payments from Blockbuster for many months and are concerned they may never get paid. Being the little guy on Blockbuster’s accounts payable list is a terrible position to be in. (Analysts in recent months were speculating that the company may be on verge of bankruptcy; their share price is currently $0.63/share). We decided to let it go. With that fiasco behind us, we worked with Indigenous to make sure that every possible outlet, both retail and online, would carry the film. They set up Netflix, Blockbuster Online, Amazon.com, iTunes and all those other online rental and purchase sites. Also, as they are set up as a vendor with all the wholesalers that distribute to retail rental stores and purchasers like Target, K-Mart, etc., we have orders coming in from those guys as well. This detail can’t be overlooked. Working with an approved vendor is a key step to getting your DVD in rental stores all over the U.S. (yes, they still exist). Don’t wait until your DVD is pressed to do this. It takes months to get all of this set up properly. The consequence of delaying this process is severe, as your film will not be available everywhere you want it to be when your marketing push is on and potential viewers won’t be able to access it.
Our release date is today, July 7th. It feels different than opening days in the past. No premiere party, no box office reports. The effects of our plan will begin to appear over the next few weeks as we see how well the promotion has worked. Yet, our job is far from over. We will continue to actively promote the film for at least the next six months, far longer than I’ve ever worked on a film when it was being marketed through a traditional distributor.
So here I am, now a member of this fledgling democracy. I can proudly say July 7th is truly Independence Day for Lovely By Surprise. I’ll be sure to let you know how it develops.
Jake Abraham is an NYC-based producer and former partner in InDigEnt. He is currently executive producer at Dandelion, a company created in partnership with Epoch Films. It is dedicated to creating programming and entertainment sponsored by brands. Dandelion is platform agnostic, having created feature films, web series and Xbox games. It has exclusive relationships with writers from SNL, 30 Rock, The Colbert Report, The Onion, This American Life and many other cool spots.
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