CHECKING THE GATE
A time comes in an independent filmmaker’s career when he asks himself if it’s been worth it. That filmmaker is usually somewhere in middle age, reminiscing on the life he’s spent running down money, negotiating deals, adjusting to changing trends in the film world, and occasionally finding time to be creative and make a movie.
I came to filmmaking late in life, directing my first feature at the age of 42. Before that, I’d been an actor in the theater for several years. Filmmaking was a way, I believed, to earn a living doing something that had a more permanent impact on society. After all, performances on stage are fleeting and they come and go, but film was forever; it had the ability to survive long after the spotlights dimmed and the stage went dark. Film could reach into the future and was living proof that all of my dreams were real and not just imagined. I could tell stories on film that would survive after I was gone, stories that might enlighten and change how others looked at the world. A dozen years into my film journey, I begin to wonder if being a filmmaker isn’t a flawed ambition, like a director checking the gate on the lens for dust at the end of a take.
As time goes on, I find myself taking inventory. Will half a dozen feature films, if that’s all I ever make, be enough? I’ve raised tens of millions of dollars to make the movies that I wanted to make and am still a virtual unknown in my industry. My films have garnered awards and been seen in theaters and on television around the world. I’ve amassed almost 1,000 investors who believe in my work and are still willing to give me money. Every dime I’ve raised has come from self-made investors who share my dream vicariously and none of my films have been financed any other way. I’ve hired hundreds of members of various unions over the years and worked with some of the most talented people in show business. I’ve never had a Hollywood agent and in 54 years never flown first class on an airplane. I own a modest home, which I’ve refinanced more than once to pay my crew on a movie set. I’ve resisted the temptation to sell out and make movies that could put me in the mainstream and have instead produced films that are close to my heart. I’m not sure if half a dozen films will be enough, but it’s likely all I’ll ever have the opportunity to make.
None of these things I’ve mentioned make me special; they only make me a filmmaker. The question is whether or not making films, as noble a profession as it has the potential to be, is anything more than moving pictures on a screen? The thousands of films produced year in and year out – with the majority never receiving any sort of distribution whatsoever or reaching more than a roomful or two of people at a remote film festival here and there – make me wonder why so many attempt the journey. Filmmaking is no longer an exclusive vocation; it’s a whim for most and a way to avoid work in the real world. Filmmakers are no longer born; they’re digitally reincarnated and mass-produced by a hunger to make filmmaking accessible to everyone. Asked recently what I do for a living by a college professor at a social gathering, upon learning that I was an independent filmmaker, the response came, “Oh, you’re one of those.” There’s no longer anything exclusive about the moniker. I’m sure that if I had said I was a scientist searching for the cure to some rare disease or a teacher molding the minds of the young, the professor’s opinion of me would have been more favorable. I didn’t tell him that my films address relevant social issues, because he had already made up his mind about what it means to be an independent filmmaker.
Every day I question my reasons for making movies. I love what I do, but in the scheme of things I doubt its importance. Once in a while I’ll get a call, asking me to bring one of my films to a classroom of students who are studying civil rights or some such related topic. More than any opening night or award at a film festival, these requests are invigorating and give me hope. And maybe this is why I chose to become a filmmaker – for the opportunity to teach others. The faces of those students are unforgettable and many continue to stay in touch. I’ve created a blog for filmmakers, sharing my film making experiences, although I doubt it reaches the numbers I had hoped it would reach. I’m involved in the restoration of a classic 1,200-seat movie theater in my neighborhood, a place where film festivals and retrospectives can be held for generations to come, and this gives me a new purpose. So why do I question my reasons for making movies? All of these things add up to a career in film, and it’s what I seemed to want late in life.
My only wish is that independent filmmaking wasn’t so tainted in the opinions of those who have come to view it as a hobby for the young and misguided. Unfortunately, that’s what it’s come to and it’s difficult to place blame on anyone. We encourage our children to express themselves and when they do it in film, none of us should be surprised. Filmmaking is and should be for the young, but with this assignment should also come the responsibility of making meaningful films. If all you’re looking for is attention and all you care about is how calling yourself a filmmaker sounds to others, the industry has enough of you already. I’ve seen the children of my investors bounce in and out of this business by the dozens. All of them want to be filmmakers and while a few have the talent and acumen, most eventually end up pursuing more normal careers. To be an independent filmmaker is to be a little crazy, in a good way, and it’s far from normal. In hindsight, nothing about my decision to enter the world of film makes a hell of a lot of sense. The hours suck, there’s never a vacation to look forward to, and the victories are few and far between – once you call yourself a filmmaker and commit to it, it’s a life sentence.
So, why do we do it? I don’t think I’ll ever know the answer, because my career is constantly in flux and changing all the time. My political interests, for example, have begun to take a front seat to my filmmaking and I’ve become involved in a few campaigns. I see my future through a different lens these days. It’s not all about the films I make, as much as it’s about my desire to preserve independent filmmaking as a respected institution. With this comes a different responsibility and one that I only hope will sustain me in my later years. What I do know is this – as long as I’m breathing and can think for myself, I still have a chance at making film matter.