FILMMAKER FLASHBACK: FALL, 1992
As Filmmaker approaches its 18th birthday, I thought I’d fill the dog days of August with a series of posts taking you through our history. For the next few weeks I’ll be revisiting an issue a day, pointing towards significant pieces from our archive and commenting on interesting correspondences between independent film’s past and its present day.
Of course I’ll start with our debut issue: Fall, 1992. Filmmaker was actually the spawn of two magazines, The Off-Hollywood Report and Montage. The OHR was the IFP’s publication, Montage was published by IFP/West (then IFP/Los Angeles and now Film Independent). The original crew consisted of me as Editor, Karol Martesko as Publisher and Holly Willis as our West Coast Editor, and the IFP and IFP/West jointly published the magazine. (Filmmaker is now solely published by the IFP.) The goal was to create a single new national magazine “by filmmakers, for filmmakers,” one in which content was driven by the voice of people working in the film industry. We also strove for an expansive definition of independent film. Our first issue featured producer Andrea Sperling (most recently, Mark Ruffalo’s Sympathy for Delicious) on no-budget shooting in Los Angeles; me interviewing Paul Schrader about his Light Sleeper; Jeff Scher, in the days before the digital intermediate, interviewing film color timer Don Ciana; and our cover story, a conversation between directors Hal Hartley, whose third feature, Simple Men, was opening, and Nick Gomez, about to debut with his first pic, Laws of Gravity. The two directors would seemingly be an odd couple. Hartley’s work was more mannered in its approach, while Gomez was gaining attention for a realer-than-realism style in which the camera always seemed to be catching up to the action. (Indeed, d.p. Jean de Segonzac became in-demand after this picture; his jittery camerawork would soon be a staple of TV shows like Homicide.) Both directors hailed from SUNY Purchase film school, though, and Gomez edited Hartley’s second feature, Trust. And James Schamus, who had been first the Editor of the OHR and then its Executive Editor, wrote the intro, identifying another area of correspondence: the importance each director placed on dialogue.
From Schamus’s intro:
In many of Godard’s films, the dialogue is not so much the interaction between two naturalistic characters as it is the dramatization of a question and its possible answers. Interrogations, interviews, market research, Socratic wanderings — these make up the calculus of human relations, which are always predicated on a deep sense of uncertainty and a will toward knowledge, even if it is understood that this knowledge can only be gained by the exercise of the interrogator’s power over another person.
He also got at other relationships between the two:
While Hartley and Gomez have come up with seemingly opposite approaches to their work – Hartley perfecting a denaturalized, exclamatory dramatic style all his own, Gomez exploding onto the scene with a pyrotechnician’s approach to camera and acting – both share preoccupations and concerns rarely addressed in American independent film, especially when it comes to the issue of class. Their characters are metaphorically not unlike most independent filmmakers – obsessed with work and yet rarely employed. Real work, as opposed to simply holding a job, is something of a criminal activity. Lucky for the independent community, Gomez and Hartley have remained one step ahead of the law, be it the law of gravity for Gomez or the law of desire for Hartley.
Laws of Gravity was the first big (in influence, not budget) film from the now-defunct New York production company Shooting Gallery, and, of course, Simple Men was produced by Schamus’s business partner in Good Machine, Ted Hope. In reading it again, Hartley and Gomez’s conversation particularly resonated with me because of a recent blog post of Ted’s and my response. Ted posted “The Good Machine No-Budget Commandments” and wrote, ‘My surprise in reading them today is that no where do they say “The budget is the aesthetic.’ That had seemed like the mantra at times.” I commented on Ted’s post here, which prompted a filmmaker to reply to me that his own no-budget work has a sufficient production level to prove that this mantra was no longer valid. My response to him was that “budget” wasn’t being discussed as something that just enabled a certain level of cinematography or production design but rather as an element that defined the way narratives themselves were constructed. So, after these posts and conversations, I was surprised to look back at the first issue of Filmmaker and see that our lead interview began like this:
DOES BUDGET = AESTHETIC?
HARTLEY: I don’t know if having an extremely small budget dictated the style on The Unbelievable Truth. When I look at Simple Men, a film made for almost 20 times as much, it’s pretty much the same type of film as far as style goes. It’s about human beings as opposed to action. The stories are pretty much the same. I remember when I was making The Unbelievable Truth forcing myself to not think of the situation as one that was posing limits on what I was doing. I forced myself to concentrate on the resources that I did have to make images that were good, whether we had tons of money to make those images or had no money. Nick, I doubt that your next film stylistically is going to change as a result of having more money.
GOMEZ: Well, one of the things that happened on Laws of Gravity, different from your approach to The Unbelievable Truth, is that the economics of the film did dictate the style. And [having little money] didn’t prove to be a limitation. It actually proved to be a venue for opportunity in that there were certain things we could pull off and a certain kind of freedom we had when you’re making a film with nobody backing you except your friends. Laws of Gravity was put together fairly quickly. The funding was in place before there was much of an actual screenplay. Knowing how much money I had dictated the scope of the screenplay and the ways that the scenes were handled. Our difference in styles is that your focus tends to be very concise and intellectual in its respect to the information that sort of filters through your vision. The way that I worked in Laws of Gravity was with a certain kind of lack of structure. It was the lack of structure, the freedom that I allowed the actors to soar off into, that was partly a response to the fact that this film was just coming out of pocket. I felt that I had the freedom to take chances.
HARTLEY: One thing I found really interesting about Laws of Gravity — which is one of things that’s really different from all your other films — is that you have so much improvisation in it, which is generally thought of as something that costs money. So that’s why I hesitate to say that a small budget defines style.
GOMEZ: It didn’t define a style…
HARTLEY: But you had a style in mind…
GOMEZ: We had a style in mind and one of the things that allowed us to fully embellish that style was the fact that the style made complete and perfect economic sense. I had in mind a style that approached a certain vérité feeling, a certain kind of immediacy.
HARTLEY: Which was an interest before an economic concern…
GOMEZ: But it was also an interest in and among other interests….