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Tuesday, October 27, 2009
By Zachary Levy 

Aw man, I am thinking. Last Thursday’s New York Times is up on my computer screen and I’m looking at the virtual front page, just below what would be the fold. The headline: INDEPENDENT FILMMAKERS DISTRIBUTE ON THEIR OWN. It’s turf I’ve become increasingly familiar with in the last couple of months since I started plotting a DIY course for my documentary Strongman and I dig in to the article. I don’t get too far before I realize I have a serious problem—Sacha Gervasi took out a second mortgage on his house to pay for the distribution on Anvil. I don’t have a house.

Maybe it’s just as well, of course. If I had a house, I probably would have mortgaged it long ago. The truth is a lot of us would. We are filmmakers who operate on a certain amount of faith. We make films because we believe — we believe we have something to say, we believe that we can say it in a way that’s unique and we know, we absolutely know, that people will care about it once it is done. And the cost of that kind of faith, whether measured in credit card balances or our personal lives, has never been small. But as the unspoken corollary of The Times piece suggests, those costs may increasingly go up for filmmakers.

For The Times is absolutely right that there has been a sea-change in certain segments of the traditional distribution landscape. Sure, the big players may still go to Toronto with their checkbooks, but for most of us that was never really an option anyhow. They were buying the kind of indie films where they already know the players involved, where the people are known quantities. For our kind of indie — the scrapping from the street up kind of indie, the Craigslist and duct-tape kind of indie — the big players and Toronto require visa stamps most of us just don’t have.

It’s what’s happening at the next level down in the industry that matters more to us. And the stories we hear trickling back through the grapevine don’t seem particularly encouraging: woefully small advances from established companies, smaller and smaller amounts being put towards advertising and marketing. At a time when the big players, no matter what they say, seem to be operating with at least a couple of small glances over their shoulders — furtive peeks at “what happened to the music business” or tightened breaths at the mention of the digital bogeyman ‚ it seems that timidity has crept into all levels of the establishment. People just seem a little unsure right now.

I think I understand what’s happening when I see more and more people with traditional distribution experience on their resumes hand me their business cards having reinvented themselves as as indie-film consultants, as DIY specialists. I get it when I hear the initials repeated more and more like some kind of post-DV-modern mantra. It’s like those earliest whispers about the internet — there’s this hot new thing massing out there, and if we can just get a hold of it quick enough, jump on board in the right way, find someone to explain it to us, it just may be the answer to the industry’s sense of temporary impermanence, the thing that is going to save us all from oblivion.

The truth is, of course, that for us filmmakers, there is nothing particularly “new” about DIY. There has been a slow creep towards DIY for a long time now: we now make websites, we make trailers, we design and make posters, all in the hope that an established distributor will notice. We have already done at least the first pass on work that a distributor would have traditionally done. And yet, even in those statistically rare cases where a traditional distributor does buy the film, it hasn’t raised the purchase prices. We already are doing DIY stuff without any of the benefits.

For more and more of us then, having already taken the lion’s share of the risk during production and now doing the basic distribution groundwork anyhow, taking that step towards full DIY begins to look exactly like a logical step forward and not some crazy blind leap off a cliff. Yes, we have reached a potential tipping point between traditional distribution and the DIY models, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

For too long (from my vantage point at least), getting traditional “distribution” has been the metric by which too much of our business AND our art has been measured. Whether it’s critics who won’t pay attention to a film unless a name-brand distributor is attached (thus getting week-long runs) or film festivals who measure their importance by the number of acquisitions that happen at their festival, consciously or unconsciously, too many places have positioned themselves as feeder circuits for relatively narrowly-defined commercial success. Making traditional distribution the yardstick across so many levels of the food chain has really limited the kinds of films that get through each successive gate. At least from my vantage point, I think it has encouraged programming, writing about, and even making versions of films that we have increasingly already seen before.

A model where chasing traditional distribution is the gold standard makes it harder for all of us to take the risks necessary to make films that are different either in content (God help a politically conservative documentary get seen even on the festival circuit these days) or in form.

So what if there is less traditional distribution to chase?

Practically speaking, the DIY route is not easy. I say that from the front lines. I say that from the dozens of phones calls I make to get one call back. I say it from the emails I send out that float off into the ether of our virtual age.

Even with all the recent attention given to DIY, it’s still a path that will cause even the bravest of us some level of self-doubt. I measure my progress like some sort of Neanderthal ground fight. Both glacially slow and brutally rough, but you keep moving, hoping that critical moment in evolution is just around the corner. Ultimately, I think it is worth it, as too many of us have allowed the unspoken mandates of current traditional distribution to become a poor trade for artistic stagnation.

There will be a lot of talk in pages like these about what tools we should use to Do It Yourself. I can imagine it becoming a debate that plays itself out over the next couple of years within varying camps — the DIYdays crowd vs. the folks who have enough capital to do a service deal and buy themselves a more traditional distribution approach. But whatever the mechanics end up being, that in itself is not really the most exciting part. It is like getting caught up in the details of a new computer plug-in. It’s fun, it’s exciting, but ultimately they are just tools. The real revolution is not which tools we use — it’s what we do with them.

And for a brief moment, it seems like we have a chance to change that. As DIY distribution becomes increasingly viable, we can get to place where current commercial distribution becomes less and less of a shaping influence on our work. For if this revolution is to have real permanence, it can’t just be about our business — it has to also be about our art.

As I go down this DIY path, there have been a lot of times recently when a moment from my days as college DJ have come flashing back into my head. At the time I did a country music radio show, and I remember once probing Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings about the origins of their '70s Outlaw revolution against Nashville’s traditional infrastructure. “Well, you see,” Waylon began in his slow, deep drawl, “it was that age-old conflict between management and labor,” pausing to let the David vs. Goliath simplicity of the struggle sink in. “So we decided to become both.”

Then of course Willie piped in — “Yeah, we really screwed up.”

Sometimes total A-to-Z control is the last thing we really need as artists of course. We fight to knock down every wall we see and then wake up the next morning and don’t recognize the rubble-strewn landscape in front of us. “Man, what the heck do we do now?” we ask. Have we just added 10 more things to our to-do lists?

Perhaps. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re making a mistake by doing it. For as in Waylon and Willie’s case, or in the case of so many other business and creative revolutions, whatever trail that gets cut on the business side can quickly become over-grown again. The industry is very good at seizing on tools that seem to work and making them their own. What has the potential to remain unique and long lasting is the artistic work that comes from these tools.

Of course, this is not a battle between management and labor. Everything from the studio collapse of the 1970s to last decade’s DV revolution has e already changed the politics of factory floor production. This one is about post production. It is about the conveyer belt at the very end of the line — the one that can only handle certain size boxes, the one that can only move at a limited number of speeds, the one that can connect only to certain size trucks to take the product to the customers. So either off-sized boxes pile up at the loading dock, or we don’t make them at all, or we start building methods to get them into trucks, no matter what size.

So what does this mean for us as filmmakers? We can increasingly become our own distributors, or perhaps soon even viable mini-exhibitors streaming our films from our own websites. We can tailor distribution models to individually fit our films rather than the other way around. We can Twitter and friend our way to brand-name recognition, but at the end of the day... we still want to be filmmakers first. DIY can’t become just an excuse to have filmmakers do more of the work. If we take the risk, we should not only reap the financial rewards for that, but we should do it in a way that allows for the filmmakers that follow to be in a better position creatively.

That means we might collectively have to do more work now. Too many non-profit art houses — the kind of places that should be most likely to take artistic risks — have retreated to becoming essentially second-run houses for more established distributors. Rather than building loyal local audiences, they worry about what happens in New York or LA. We will have to hold their hands. We will have to reassure them that there is a community of filmmakers that will support films without the shrinking advertising dollars of a brand-name distributor. We have to help build stronger local exhibition scenes. We will have to work harder to get the mainstream press to pay attention to our films, whether they play a week or a night. And we should do better at promoting each other’s work.

It won’t be long before the industry becomes calcified again around whatever develops from this, but at least for the moment, I think we as filmmakers have the kind of chance that comes along only every once in a while. It is a chance to remake not only how we get paid or what tools we use to get our films seen, but really the kind of films that the public sees. That ultimately is the most exciting part of this whole thing.

The conveyer belt at the very end of the line has been causing us to re-size and shape our films for too long. By building our conveyer belts, our own networks, it seems we have a chance to re-shape not only our financial future, but also, if we play our cards well, a new creative future as well.

In a lot of ways, the choice is ours. As we do DIY, we can choose to make the same kinds of films we have always been making and get them seen. We can simply replicate what the established distributors are doing anyhow. But we can also use this moment to push ourselves to make new kinds of films and get them seen. That is what I hope we choose to do.


# posted by Scott Macaulay @ 10/27/2009 10:06:00 PM Comments (4)

Monday, October 26, 2009
By Jamie Stuart 

Here's Part 2 of Jamie Stuart's look at Apple's new Final Cut Studio, which he used to make his short film, Isn't She?.... Read Part 1 of Stuart's review in the Fall issue.

A week before I was set to resume shooting Isn't She?..., I installed Apple's new OS Snow Leopard. I proceeded to spend the entire week flipping out, losing hair, sending dozens of freaked out e-mails to Apple.

The cause of my China Syndrome? QuickTime X. And ColorSync.

For Snow Leopard, Apple decided to realign the OS's color mechanics to work with ColorSync. Furthermore, the new version of QuickTime, QuickTime X, was not just designed to upgrade the program from 32-bit to 64-bit, but they also sexed up the standard interface to make it more palatable to casual users.

Simply put. In no uncertain terms. QuickTime X is a fucking abomination.

And Apple knew it wouldn't fly for professional users. So they've maintained a new version of QuickTime 7 that works with all pro applications. In fact, they even confirmed to me that QuickTime X, with its over-saturated, over-bright picture that bizarrely features the controls over the image, is specifically for common users — while they recommend QuickTime 7 for pros.

Thing is, though, QuickTime 7 doesn't even look exactly how it used to — because the OS is now synched to ColorSync. The blacks aren't as rich. The color is a little less saturated and milky.

What this means is that, let's say I create and upload a Quicktime for people to see online. I'll be mastering it using the new Quicktime 7. However, once it's online, because QuickTime X is the OS default, it'll be viewed in QuickTime X if you're on Snow Leopard. If you're on a previous OS, you'll view it using the old QuickTime 7. Or, if you download the video and you're on Snow Leopard, you can watch it with either X or the new 7. Point is: Whereas in the past I was mastering for a one-format-fits-all-sensibility, now my work, while mastered with one program, might actually be viewed by any one of three programs. And that kinda sucks.

Eventually, I adjusted to the properties of the new QuickTime 7, and, putting that mess behind me, the first day of shooting arrived. Four days later I was in post-production and putting Final Cut Studio through its paces.

This short film, which was originally supposed to be a light dramedy in the Hughes/Crowe mold had morphed into a technically complex monster with dozens upon dozens of VFX composites: Everything from simple cover-ups to 3-D cartoons to 3-D photorealistic animations (I even created masks to blur background areas that picked up lens adapter grain because the focus was too close). I found myself becoming a sort of DIY Fincher.

One spirit-crushing composite was the brilliant result of trying to be creative during the shoot to save time. In order to simplify a montage, I concocted the idea that the main character would walk along in a wide shot as the background changed to show both a passage of time and location. Shot it in a few minutes. Great. Onto the next scene.

In post-production, however, the reality hit that I was going to need to rotoscope her walking with a 40-point mask for 250 frames! Furthermore, due to street traffic, most of the backgrounds were composites as well. Then, I was also going to have to deal with objects like trees and fire hydrants that she passes behind while moving. These are not the types of shots that are supposed to be found in DIY productions. And it was one of dozens.

The bulk of the compositing consisted of manufacturing — and often animating with a 3-D camera — computer screens, Blackberry screens and web pages. Each screen needed to be built from scratch, each web page required graphic design.

At a certain point in the haze of doing all this, just getting to switch up by flopping one shot 180˚ because I accidentally shot the character's wrong hand (and also adding digital steam to the contents of her cup), felt like a delight.

I shouldn't complain, because I truly enjoy doing all that stuff. That's what it's all about if, like me, you get off on using the medium to its fullest. This is why I'll never understand and respect filmmakers who simply pick up a digital camera, handhold it and improvise with their friends. So what? Just plain lazy.

If anything, expectations are so low for DIY work that it's incumbent upon the filmmaker, in my opinion, to work even harder to prove himself. DIY is a method not an aesthetic. There's no excuse, no matter what your budget is, for a lack of creativity or lazy technique. None. Whatsoever. Good filmmaking is good filmmaking.

Anyhow, aside from the initial freakout over Quicktime X, both Snow Leopard and Final Cut Studio have been mostly hassle-free. Snow Leopard even cleared up about 10 GB on my hard drive.

One strange defect I've noticed, however, is in the relationship between Final Cut Pro and Color — though I'm not sure whether this is a FCS issue or a possible QuickTime X issue.

Basically, Color is supposed to import Final Cut's 3-wheel color corrector if it's been applied to a shot and treat it as if it's a primary adjustment. There were about 50 shots that I sent to Color to create corner vignettes to replicate the look of the lens adapter (either because they were composites from scratch or close-ups I shot without the lens adapter). Most of the shots returned to Final Cut without any irregularities. However, a handful of shots that I'd adjusted the color on using the 3-wheel color corrector (I'm not talking about mids or blacks, actual color shifts) came back looking putrid. It was as if Color imported the color correction, then added the same color correction on top of it again. The results were over-saturated in the direction I'd previously shifted the color.

What else? What else? Soundtrack Pro. I used Soundtrack Pro as I always have — to both record all the foley sounds (the only live audio I ever use is dialogue), and to also manipulate tracks that require effects like reverb, distortion and so on.

For this short, even though I had great music from Edie Sedgwick (Justin Moyer), there were a handful of diegetic pieces that needed to be character specific. For two of the characters, I simply used loops from Garage Band. But for another character, I wanted a very specific pseudo-indie rock sound, so I quickly wrote and recorded a handful of riffs combining drum loops with my acoustic guitar distorted to sound like a lo-fi electric guitar garage recording.

Blah, blah, blah. I'm five days away from premiering the short at this point. My brain is flattened, fetid roadkill. I can barely make enough sense of language to make words cohesive. Hopefully, it shows in the finished short.

Nothing else to say. Splat.

Below is a teaser of Isn't She?.... See the short here.


# posted by Jason Guerrasio @ 10/26/2009 08:02:00 AM Comments (0)

Sunday, October 18, 2009
By Gareth Higgins and Jett Loe of The Film Talk 

For the past three years, we’ve been pursuing a noble goal: to try to talk about movies and meaning in a way that might interest someone other than ourselves. We do this over at The Film Talk, and want our work to be an ongoing conversation about the movies and how they intersect with our lives. You’re welcome to join the conversation. Sometimes it’s difficult enough for us to interest each other, so that can be a pretty tall order. But thankfully there is sometimes also serendipity in talking about cinema – one of us has insights into the human experience that switches on a light for the other; as when Jett saw Tarantino’s coruscating satirisation of our culture’s addiction to violence (repelled one minute, compelled the next) in Inglourious Basterds, or when Gareth found so much to like about The Hurt Locker that it made Jett like it even more. We still can’t agree about Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, though.

After three years of this ongoing conversation, we’re in a position to consider some of the themes under which cinema, at least of the kind that gets released in the US, sails.

The first theme we want to discuss is how to make films that will last...

OK — so you’ve come up with your concept: Boy meets Girl. Or Boy meets Boy. Or Boy meets Rampaging T-Rex. Or Taxi Driver meets Himself. Or Girl meets Archaeologist. Or Boy meets Multinational Corporation CEO. Or Boy meets Antichrist played by Sam Neill. Or Big Boat hits iceberg with lots of well-dressed Boys and Girls on board.

You’ve got your set-pieces: Boy runs away from Huge Rolling Boulder in South American cave. Girl goes to the Opera with Richard Gere. Boys and Girls find pirate ship and get the gold to stop their houses being turned into a golf course. Boy observes a giant bell being crafted in medieval Russia and decides to paint religious icons again. Boy tries to avoid crossing ghost-killing laser streams with other boys. Taxi driver shoots Harvey Keitel’s hand off. Boy and other Boy talk to each other at a dinner table. Boy defuses Bomb in Iraq. Boat sinks.

You’ve got your philosophical intention: Peace on earth. Love conquers all. Life is difficult (the trick is not minding). Love hurts. Serial killers sometimes eat the right people. War is hell. Life is beautiful.

And you’ve got your open-ended ambition: An Oscar. A Palme D’Or. An honorable mention by FIPRESCI. A Sundance screening. A Toronto screening. A screening, anywhere. Please. A DVD release. Or the hope that someone may one day care enough to want to download a pirate copy of your film. Or maybe your mom will watch it. Or maybe you really will get that Oscar.

Concept + set-pieces + philosophy + ambition may be stirred together to produce the early stages of a treatment. It is at this stage that your friends in film criticism must urge you to STOP. Take a look around. We want to suggest five things you might want to think about before going anywhere else. They may not be the most important five things, but they are nonetheless important, because they constitute some of the most frequently missed opportunities in movies.

1: Psychological motivation

The terrain of the human soul is not easily navigable; anyone who has ever tried to be a person or even just watched ‘Oprah’ knows this. There is, surely, a relationship between the wounds we have all suffered, and the behavior we manifest toward others and ourselves, but, let’s face it, much of the time we have no idea why we do what we do.

So, here is our arbitrary rule number 1: Don’t use childhood or other trauma in the background of a character as shorthand for explaining their behavior unless you’re willing to earn it.

Examples? Hitchcock’s Spellbound probably looked pretty innovative on its 1945 release – evoking the then new science of psychoanalysis; but the absurd notion that a man responsible for the death of his brother could get over it just by remembering that it happened makes the film look like a Zucker Brothers comedy today. On the other hand, if you want to see how psychological depth can exist in a film that, at first glance seems to pay no attention to it, have another look at Unforgiven; hardly anything explicit is said about Clint’s motivation for killing, but the shading of maternal loss – his wife, presumably his mother, and the innocence of the prostitute whose scarring he aims to avenge – would give an analyst more than enough to work with in trying to replace outward violence with psychological integration.

2: Film as conversation

Two statements that seem true: Art is always in conversation with the real world. Many of us have forgotten this. Last year’s box office hit Wanted seemed to forget that its mockery of bland automaton economic activity was sneered at by, among others, Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman, whom, we can presume, do not often have to suffer the vagaries of working in a call center cubicle. More than that, it ignored the fact that there really are people in the audience who get turned on by the fetishisation of firepower, and that the notion that dehumanization for entertainment’s sake taught us a few lessons about life-imitating-art during the era of Victorian circuses.

On the other hand, Inglourious Basterds knows from the very beginning that it’s in a conversation with the real world; and not just because of its ostensible basis in history. The violence isn’t played for laughs, because Tarantino knows the world already laughs at human misfortune enough to regularly forget its own humanity. Wanted was accused of misogyny; it doesn’t warrant that moniker, because its characters are so dehumanized that their gender doesn’t get a look in.

3: Less is More

It's not the early days of cinema anymore when folks were shocked and stunned by an approaching train, a stop-motion giant gorilla or a big sphere in space being blown up, (I exclude the audience for Transformers of course — that's not the kind of movie-making, and we use that term loosely here, we're talking about).

The point is that people now know movies - they've internalized narrative structure, they're familiar with the cliches, they get who's the hero and who's the villain - you don't need to spell it out for them. To make your movie stand out now you don't need more - you need less.

The masters knew this. Look at 2001: A Space Odyssey — Stanley Kubrick removed the film's exposition as much as possible in the editing stage - interviews and voice-overs that might give some hint as to what the hell was going on were cut. As Kubrick said at the time "How could we possibly appreciate the Mona Lisa if Leonardo had written at the bottom of the canvas: 'The lady is smiling because she is hiding a secret from her lover.'"

Andrei Tarkovsky knew this — watch Andrei Rublev, perhaps the greatest masterpiece of the movies. It's a series of chapters with no exposition, nobody holding your hand — telling you what's going on — hell, the protagonist of the movie isn't even in every chapter. And it works.

It's not just past artists who knew this 'less is more' secret. Kathryn Bigelow gets it implicitly - The Hurt Locker is a series of short stories, with all the fat cut away. It's up to you, the viewer, to make what you will of the story - and in that sense films like The Hurt Locker, 2001 and 'Rublev' are the real interactive cinema — not movies with 3D glasses or based on video games.

So do less with more - by having the audience have to work out what's going, (meaning they actually have to participate in the movie), your pic will become a real, tangible thing to people, and therefore last a lot, lot longer.

4: Auteur theory is dead - Collaboration is the Key

Mike Leigh makes consistently thoughtful, reflective, and just plain good movies; and he is usually considered to be one of the most distinctive directors working today. His scripts are famously shaped in concert with a long rehearsal process; and perhaps most challenging to the notion that films belong to the director along, for 20 years until his untimely death this year, he was intimately supported by producer Simon Channing Williams. Since High Hopes and up to Happy Go Lucky Leigh made films that worked, and he has spoken of the importance of collaboration in making this happen.

Recently on our podcast, Ramin Bahrani, the brilliant director of Man Push Cart, Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo made it clear how important cinematographer Michael Simmonds is in the process of making his films. They collaborate together during the script stage, while shooting of course, and even during post. We're so often fixated on directors that it doesn't occur to critics to list Ramin's three films as the work of Bahrani/Simmonds, or even to mention Simmonds much in reviews. But they should. The writer of The Wrestler, Robert Siegal, has just directed his first film, Big Fan, and Michael Simmonds shot it. Watching that pic it's hard to imagine it would be anywhere near as powerful without Simmond's careful placement of camera and gritty yet blanched out images - he's a huge asset. So don't be shy or intimidated, work with the most talented people you can find. If it works for Mike Leigh and Ramin Bahrani it can work for you.

As for number 5., well, we were commissioned to write a 1000 word piece, and, like all passionate film critics, are already talking far too much. Tune into the next episode at The Film Talk for the exciting conclusion to our humble contribution to answering the question: "What Should You Do If You Want Your Film To Last?"


# posted by Scott Macaulay @ 10/18/2009 12:45:00 AM Comments (3)

Thursday, October 8, 2009
By Susan Seidelman 

Susan Seidelman's landmark 1982 debut feature, Smithereens, recently made its Cable VOD debut on Cinetic's FilmBuff channel. It will soon be made available on iTunes, Amazon VOD, and more. Seidelman reflects on the origins of her Manhattan indie classic as it finds new audiences today.

I moved to New York City in the mid 1970s, to go to NYU film school. At that time the grad school was housed in a funky building on East 7th street and Second Ave — a space it shared with a rock club called the Fillmore East.

The mid-to-late '70s was a transitional time in the East Village. The influence of the 1960s "hippie" culture was fading, and the "yuppie" gentrification of the 1980s had not yet begun. This was also during the time of the NYC bankruptcy crisis — when there was no money around to fix up neighborhoods or public spaces. That meant that the East Village had a lot of cheap apartments, cheap bars and clubs, abandoned and boarded-up buildings and a lot of disused outdoor space to put up posters advertising art shows and bands. As a result it attracted a lot of young, creative people — painters, actors, musicians, and filmmakers — who were looking for cheap space to live and work.

In 1979, after graduating from film school, I decided to make a film about this neighborhood and some of the characters that lived there. This became the basis for the film Smithereens. I had stayed in touch with my friends from NYU and we decided that if we pooled our resources, i.e. if no one got paid, we could make a low budget feature film shot on 16mm, for about $20,000. My grandmother had recently died and left me some money which was set aside for my "future wedding" — but since that wasn’t in the cards at that time, I decided to use it for camera equipment, film stock and lab expenses — and make a feature film instead. The final budget was $40,000 — due to unexpected stops and starts.

We began shooting in spring of 1979, with a script written by Ron Nyswaner and Peter Askin — based on a story by me — about a young woman named Wren (played by Susan Berman) who escapes her dreary life in New Jersey suburbs and comes to the East Village seeking fame and fortune in the Downtown punk-music scene. Because she has no discernable musical talent, nor does she think that’s necessary, she becomes the groupie to a shady punk rock star (played by musician Richard Hell) and a legend in her own mind.

The film was shot off and on over an 18-month period, as I ran out of money and dealt with various production problems. At one point, during rehearsal, the lead actress fell off a fire escape and broke her leg causing us to delay filming for several months. This meant re-casting and rewriting the script to accommodate changes in actors, locations, and crew members. Yet, all these stops and starts actually improved the film, since I was able to see what scenes were working and what story changes needed to be made. I was editing the film myself on a Steenbeck in my apartment — so during the months in between shooting, I could look at the edited scenes and adjust the script accordingly before going back out to shoot again. Had I not run into production problems, I don’t think the film would have been as good. For one thing, it would not have starred Richard Hell — since he came onboard during the six-month hiatus when we needed to recast the original male lead.

I wanted the film to be slightly stylized, but also capture the gritty reality of life in the East Village. I also wanted Smithereens to include some moments of irony and humor to counter-balance the harshness of Wren’s life. I would call the tone of the film "pushed realism." The characters are real, the emotions are real, but some of the situations and art direction are “stylized." The art director, Franz Harland, found gritty locations in the East Village and in mid-town (an abandoned parking lot under the old West Side Highway), which we then painted or decorated in a way to add a certain fantasy element. We wanted the film to capture a specific late 70s/early 80s punk graphic style. The look of the film was also influenced by the street fashion (what people wore to CBGBs or the Mudd Club) and street art — the "ransom note" graphics of the fly-posters advertising bands that lined the walls of Alphabet City, as well as early graffiti art.

Thinking back on it, there was something wonderfully naive about the way the film came together. We never thought about how (or if) the film would get distributed, or how it would be marketed. This was just a film I wanted to make that attempted to capture the spirit of a certain time and place. Fortunately, it ended up getting accepted to the Cannes Film Festival and then got picked up for distribution by New Line Cinema. But that was never something we calculated or even thought about when we first set out to make Smithereens.

The New York independent film community was much smaller back in the late '70s and early '80s, and making an independent film meant that you did so with very little money. Often the director was also the producer, the writer, the editor and the distributor as well. You really were working independently. There were no indie production companies back then, or none that I was aware of. Many of the NYC indie filmmakers knew each other and shared information, actors and crew. Often one director could be seen acting in another director’s film. If there was any source of inspiration, it would be the spirit of the French New Wave filmmakers of the 1960s. The “let’s go out and shoot a movie” attitude. It was a very liberating way to work.

I think over the past 30 years, the independent film community has gotten much more diverse, complicated, corporate, and expensive. Some of that simple “let’s make a movie” spirit has been lost, although it can still be seen in some work, such as those by the "mumblecore" filmmakers. But we are now in a transitional time, especially with the collapse of so many of the smaller distribution companies, and it remains to be seen what the full impact of the Internet will be on indie filmmaking. However, there will always be people who want to tell visual stories – and they will find new ways to get their stories in front of an audience. We can no longer do “business as usual” – but as times change, as cameras get cheaper and the Internet becomes the great equalizer - new and creative possibilities emerge that makes me optimistic about the future.

Susan Seidelman's other directing credits include Desperately Seeking Susan, She-Devil, Boynton Beach Club, and the pilot episode of HBO's Sex and the City.


# posted by Scott Macaulay @ 10/08/2009 12:01:00 AM Comments (4)

Sunday, October 4, 2009
By Shari Roman 

Filmmaker, critic and Filmmaker magazine writer Shari Roman died in Manhattan on Wednesday, September 9. The following is a reprint of the last piece that Shari wrote for us, published in Summer, 2007. In the piece she surveys a number of young visual artists using film and film installation as a medium. For more on Shari and her life and work, visit the blog post on her passing.

When Matthew Barney kicked off his five-part Cremaster film cycle in 1994, perforating the barrier between the art world and independent cinema, the multidisciplinary artist took some hard knocks from purists who felt he was creating his increasingly lavish HD provocations with Hollywood in mind. But the success of Barney’s large-scale Cremaster vision — museum retrospectives, film festivals, international gallery tours, theatrical release, DVD sales — also proved to have an unanticipated ripple effect. Its wide-scale acceptance reawakened a broader appreciation of that other kind of art film — films made by visual artists.

Two generations ago, painters, sculptors, performance artists and photographers working in film and video, including Andy Warhol (Sleep, 1963), Michael Snow (Wavelength, 1967), Vito Acconci (Theme Song, 1973) and Robert Smithson (Spiral Jetty, 1970), had experimented in much the same way. With their related explorations in film and video, these artists proposed gestural and narrative approaches that influenced other artists, filmmakers and those who, like Barney, bridge the divide.

Currently, in the indie/mainstream world, there are several filmmakers who continue to explore the realm between artist and arthouse. The painter Julian Schnabel, who has been making features since Basquiat in 1996, expresses the extreme reality of a severely paralyzed man who communicates through one twitching eyeball in his third dramatic feature, the 2007 Cannes favorite The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. And, Sweden’s proud polemicist Lukas Moodysson (Together) recently created the Acconci-like Container, “a silent movie with sound,” replete with its own Brobdingnagian interactive gallery installation.

Meanwhile, coming from the gallery world, the new international cadre of art-school trained, “fine”-art anarchists are unabashedly wielding the language and history of traditional cinema. Entertaining both the eye and the brain, and as at ease with a brush as with a guitar or a camera, they appropriate and stylishly compound critical narrative-image structures while toying with the construct and context of material, sound, space and time.

There are projects which run to feature length: Eve Sussman’s lushly shot “historical” feature Rape of the Sabine Women (2006); Britain’s Mark Wallinger wanders around the Mies van der Rohe museum in a bear suit in his Sleeper (2005); performing live, Gregory Weeks’ 12-piece psych-folk orchestra The Valerie Project (2007) composed a brand-new psych-folk musical score to accompany Czech director Jaromil Jires’s erotic myth Valerie and her Weeks of Wonder (1970) (at MoMA this fall). But most are working within the short form.

Among these prolific up-and-comers is Denmark’s Jesper Just, 33, who has moved from DVCam to 16mm to anamorphic over the past seven years. Staging Douglas Sirk–inspired, imagistic and operatic scenarios in settings ranging from strip clubs to parking lots to the countryside, Just has his protagonists communicate primarily through song. In I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire, men inside a gentlemen’s club sing songs by the Ink Spots into telephone receivers around the room. With Sleepwalkers (pictured above), America’s Douglas Aitken, 39, projected five literally larger-than-life characters (including Donald Sutherland and Tilda Swinton) onto seven facades at New York’s MoMA for two months in a crisply beautiful, interconnected narrative about humanity and the architecture of time and space. Sweden’s own Dadaist Erik Bunger, 31, is a musician, performance artist and video artist who has been appropriating and remixing media from existing music and film. His Let Them Sing It for You (2003) is an interactive Web site wherein you write a song and it is crooned back to you via a computerized voice mélange of different pop stars. In Bunger’s ironic 16-minute dialogue Gospels, he reassembles short clips in which famous faces, such as Bonnie Raitt, Eric Stoltz and Eric Clapton, seamlessly speak of “him” (whoever that might actually be) with such fervor that the piece takes on a creepy-canny, recontextualized religious dedication. Using 25 actors, the Netherlands’ Gabriel Lester, 35, now based in Brussels, played with six simultaneous 15-minute video projections, inspired by Jacques Tati’s Playtime, on the exterior of Stockholm’s Bonnier Konsthall. He also ingeniously tinkered with the image-search forms in Google and Alta Vista, and from those “found” images constructed the Chris Marker–style docufables All Wrong (2005) and All Right (2006) without ever leaving his studio. Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss, collaborators since the late ’70s, were given a massive retrospective at London’s Tate Museum last year, due, not in small part, to their early video work. Their most notorious is the 29 minutes of The Way Things Go (1987) (distributed by First Run/Icarus Films and pictured below), in which they document 100 feet of deliriously synchronized Rube Goldberg destruction. (In 2003 even Honda saw fit to parody the piece for a commercial).

Unlike a bourgeoning Jarmusch, let’s say, these image-makers are nourished by a formidable “guaranteed” support and distribution platform that encourages their personal expression. Not only do they have the opportunity to screen at proper cinemas; they have museums, galleries, Web sites and a global interface of arts-funding organizations (Creative Time, NESTA, Motiroti). There are also a conflux of multimedia marketers like Japan’s Artstar (which makes artists’ work available for iPod download) and Denmark’s ArtNode (which offers ARTpod, free MP4 videos from renowned artists including Just) ready to pick up the slack. It just might pay to be an artist after all.


# posted by Scott Macaulay @ 10/04/2009 08:01:00 PM Comments (0)

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