WAVES OF REBEL VISIONS
I was born in 1959. Filmically speaking, it was the year of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, one of the early films of the French New Wave. Truffaut along with Godard, Varda and others were fighting what they saw as the tired narrative of post-war French films.
1959 was also the year that John Cassavetes made his debut with Shadows, a movie he described as being about “the little people – the ones Hollywood doesn’t talk about.” The film couldn’t get a U.S. distributor but still managed to win the Critics Award at the Venice Film Festival. This helped secure an American release through European distributors.
Right around that same time, in New York, Maya Deren thought “official cinema” was “running out of breath” and she formed the Filmmakers Cooperative to explore avant garde filmmaking. The group included Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage and Shirley Clark.
The American New Wave (or the New Hollywood movement) came only a decade later, in the 70s. From Arthur Penn, Elaine May and Charles Burnett to Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese and Coppola, these filmmakers, many of them film school grads, were rebelling against a tired Hollywood studio system.
The 80s brought us “high concept” movies yet with it came artists like David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, Euzhan Palcy, Katherine Bigelow, John Sayles, Jim Jarmusch, Susan Seidelman, Spike Lee and Joan Micklin Silver whose personal visions bucked the system.
But when True Love won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1989, I didn’t realize that I would be a part of yet another film wave. In fact, I was surprised on many levels. First off, we entered the film in what was then called The United States Film Festival, at the suggestion of John Sayles, who was one of our mentors. I remember thinking, “Oh the festival in Utah.” Who knew that this would be the year that “Sundance” was born and became a household name?
As things turned out, I wasn’t able to attend the festival because I was dealing with a birth myself. The night we won, I went into labor with our second son. So, while I heard some muffled excitement on the phone that my husband and producer Richard Guay held out to me, I could only hug the wall and pant. It wasn’t until I came home from the hospital a day later, with newborn Kenny in my arms, and found our apartment overflowing with flowers from every major studio and every big Hollywood agency that I could react. But even then, my hazy postpartum response was, “Who died?”
But, present or not, on the night of January 28,1989, I, along with Steven Soderbergh (whose sex, lies and videotape won the Audience Award) became a part of the wave we now call the Indie Film movement. We would join an incredible group of filmmakers who left their own mark throughout the 90s and beyond.
Like the movements that came before us, doors suddenly opened for a wide range of diverse and unique visions from directors like John Singleton, Darren Aronofsky, Julie Dash, Robert Rodriguez, Nicole Holofcener, Ted Demme, Mary Harron, David Fincher, Greg Mottola, Allison Anders, Tom DiCillo, Michael Moore, Todd Solondz, Kimberly Peirce, Gus Van Sant, Maria Maggenti, the Hudlin Brothers – I’m sorry to name just these few.
It was hard to see it happening at the time. I only knew that I liked a lot of what I saw and the energy was crazy. There was an excitement and encouragement to break the rules – (no problem here!).
“We like what you do,” the studio execs would say in our meetings. Although sometimes they’d add, uneasily, “But don’t do it too much.” I had one producer almost stroke out on me at a meeting with Warner Brothers where I happily chirped that I admired the films of Hal Ashby and Robert Altman. They were troublemakers!
But since I was not an observer, I was riding the wave, I didn’t realize how unusual it was to be able to make a movie like Dogfight, where River Phoenix plays a marine who takes an unsuspecting folkie (Lili Taylor) to an ugly girl contest, and have it come from a major studio. But in 1991, it happened!
Or, can you imagine getting financing for a film about a girl who wants to be a saint in 70s New York (Household Saints again with Lili Taylor)? I remember our meeting with Ira Deutchman from Fine Line Features who told me, quite bluntly, “I really don’t understand your script. And Catholic girls have always made me nervous. But I’m betting on you.” So the decision to make a film was based on the person who was actually making it. That was revolutionary! …Again.
Even our Sundance-winning first feature spent six years getting rejected because it was “not universal enough.” Also – it was a story where “nothing happened” according to the studio execs who read the script. Yet, in the indie-friendly world of 1989, it was distributed by MGM/UA.
When we’re in it, we don’t think about being part of the history of anything. We are myopic while it happens. But looking back, I can see the film waves that have come through in my lifetime alone. So I can say, with certainty, that there’s another wave coming. Not just one, but many. Because there’ll always be a new wave. Even when the doomsayers predict the “death of independent films,” another movement will come along to make fools of them.
What they don’t understand is that alternative films have nothing to do with the business.
Yes, today studios are downsizing, most have boarded up their arthouse divisions and distribution is in an upheaval. But, just as in earlier times, when the industry bemoaned competition from radio, the advent of sound, then color, then television – fearing the worst with each new technology – this uncertainty was fertile ground for the visionaries in the film business; the producers, executives, writers and directors who think – and play – outside the box.
So long as there are iconoclasts with ideas and stories that burn to be told (Tiny Furniture, Gun Hill Road and Beasts of the Southern Wild are luminous examples of the latest incarnation) there will be no end to films with a unique vision
And the new technology that is threatening the status quo will allow filmmakers to reach their audience in ways that were unheard of before. Not just with online marketing, but even cameras, lighting and editing equipment are now so accessible that veteran filmmakers are joining the younger ones to make movies low budget enough that we “don’t need to ask permission.”
What? No cast approvals? No script notes from people looking to squeeze your story into a formula, whether it fits or not? No waiting for months and years to get that green light only to learn the executive who championed your movie has left the studio?
Not that I had any romantic notions of what it would be like to operate with little money, but the idea that we could dream of a story and then have the resources to instantly make it happen! – well, that certainly sparked me to do my latest film, Union Square. We had a tiny and passionate crew, a fearless and talented cast – Mira Sorvino, Tammy Blanchard and Patti Lu Pone – and pretty much one location (thanks to our producer, Neda Armian, who donated her apartment!). And as we were making our film, we learned that Jonathan Demme, Spike Lee, John Sayles, Allison Anders and Ira Sachs were all making micro-budget films.
So, I am here to tell you that rebel storytelling will live forever.
Yes, I said it. Forever.
The movements will just ebb and flow – like waves.
I think it’s time for a new one.
Nancy Savoca’s Union Square is released this Friday, July 13.