NEXT Fest 2016 Filmmakers on Accepting Financial Limitations in Exchange for Freedom to Make Uncompromising Cinema
To fuel their tentpole machines, studios have gotten into the habit of poaching successful independent filmmakers to direct (or at least assume the role of the director in a ceremonial way on) their most valuable franchises. Some would argue that the practice exists to cut down on costs and allow executives to easily manipulate a filmmaker with less leverage or experience. Indeed, when this happens, the result is often disastrous. Nevertheless, young storytellers continue to be tempted by studio-based jobs-for-hire that wind up costing them their creative freedom.
By comparison, the independent model allows filmmakers an enviable amount of experimentation, yet it comes with a long list of constraints during the development and production stages and an uncertain and ever-shifting fight for distribution. Below, six filmmakers screening this weekend at the 2016 Sundance NEXT Fest explain why creative control is king and how being independent allowed them to tell stories outside the distribution safety net of what’s mass appealing — even when some people weren’t always on board.
Considering the financial limitations and perpetual battles that independent filmmakers face, is the struggle worth it in order to freely exploring uncompromising subject matter? And have the premise, ideas, or thematic elements of your latest film presented a problem when it came to getting it made?
So Yong Kim, Lovesong. That’s part of being an indie filmmaker. You do take that risk because you are going for something that is quite different or something that you feel is your passion project. To be quite honest, we are making films so that they are very unique and creatively challenging for myself to make and also so they hopefully connect with an audience. And the marketplace is very difficult at the moment.
But I love that aspect of it because you can do much more nuanced storytelling. I don’t think storytelling is something that’s black or white. It has all these in-between spaces that I love to explore. It’s not about whether you are sad or happy, it’s not about those two polar extremes. I think that as we experience life there are much more nuanced moments, and I think those are the in-between moments that as humans are much more influential in our consciousness and in our lives. I like to capture that on film. When someone comes to me and tells me they connected personally with Sarah’s journey in Lovesong, I’m always thankful because it’s hard to articulate the decision-making exactly as to why they follow this path rather than the other. For me it’s not that I want the audience to feel or make decisions about her one way or the other, but it’s more of a self-reflective experience [for them] at the end of the film. If someone in the audience says, “Oh it made me think of this one experience I had,” then I’ve allowed them to reflect on their past experiences or their decision -aking, I think that’s really rewarding for me because I fell like there is a connection there. There is an emotional connection that I’ve made with the audience.
Chad Hartigan, Morris from America. For this film, which had a small budget by Hollywood standards but a big budget compared to the $50,000 for This is Martin Bonner, it still wasn’t my money. If it’s not your money, you’re always answering to somebody. But I think in the world of independent films, it’s easier to find partners and financiers and producers that are on the same wavelength, and that, as a team, you can tackle things together. That feels less like someone standing over your shoulder.
I wouldn’t say that making movies this size is completely free of compromise, but I’ve never had a studio experience, so I’m only going off of what I think I know of it. But I think it is better to have a team full of people that are all on the same agenda and trying to make a great film, first and foremost, and let business matters fall where they may.
I had just made a slower drama, and now I wanted to make the opposite of that. But more naturally, at the end of a project, I find myself, if there are a few ideas swirling in my head, gravitating towards the one that feels the most different, just as a new challenge, as a change of pace. I’ll spend three years immersed in a project, and by the time it’s done, my tastes in what I want to watch have changed, and [also in] what I want to make. So when Morris came into my head, this coming-of-age movie set in Europe, it lent itself to a different aesthetic naturally, and that was exciting and made me want to pursue it. Because I also want to, over the course of my career, show that I can try any genre and hopefully do it successfully.
Elizabeth Wood, White Girl. I had final cut, final saying in every aspect of this project, which I think is a rare luxury. I’m nervous that moving forward if I start making bigger films I won’t always be able to make every last decision about casting, editing or the poster and the trailer. It’s great to have that creative control where it very much feels like it’s all something that I created; I can’t imagine giving that up because that is something you have to give up when you are accepting a movie from the big names.
Some people said, “Oh, what’s wrong with this character? We need to know more about why someone would do these things?” And I’m like, “You wouldn’t be asking these questions if it were a male character.” If this was a movie about a guy doing drugs, having sex, and exploring race and gender, nobody would bat an eye. We are just not used to seeing girls in that role and stories told by women. But also think people know what they are getting into if they watch the film. I’m happy to say that so far it’s been a very positive reaction.
Andrew Neel, Goat. There is no doubt that one of the major advantages of independent cinema is that you are able to push the boundaries a little bit more. It all depends on expectations. All filmmakers fear too much interference in their process. I don’t think there are any filmmakers that don’t fear that. On the other hand, I think it all depends on whom you are working with and what their expectations are. According to what your project is and how you see it developing and coming to life, you choose to work within certain environments in the film business. Sure, I fear that too many people could interfere with my vision for a film, but at the same time I think if you choose wisely who you are working with and you are all on the same page in terms of what your expectations are, people’s involvement can at times be very fruitful. I happen to be a really collaborative filmmaker. I like working with producers. You just have to make sure you are working with people that are seeing things generally the same way that you are.
Goat is the kind of movie that needed to be made outside of the studio. Probably most people in studios would agree that this is the kind of movie that you should have more freedom to push the boundaries. We also have less money on the line. When there is less money on the line it’s harder for the filmmaker to get what they need but it also lowers the risk for everyone involved, including with the money, which makes for more freedom.
Being controversial is good. Any publicity is good publicity. In the case of Goat there’s an exposé element to the film because it was based on a memoir. I think audiences respond to that, and the controversy surrounding what people want to take away from the movie and their feelings about hazing is what makes an interesting film. Hopefully there’ll be a lot of disagreement and arguments about the topic. I think it’s a good thing when people are arguing about a movie. Those are generally the movies I like the best.
Babak Anvari, Under the Shadow. We didn’t have a big budget, so there were restrictions, but in some ways it’s better because you have more control. It depends on the studio or the executive and the constraints they give you…. I would say that the limitations I had in terms of budget in Under the Shadow were a great learning turf because it forced me to be more efficient and come up with creative ways to tell the story because we had to shoot it quite quickly and we didn’t have an unlimited budget. You do have control in one sense, but then at the same time you don’t have a freedom to do everything you want because you are limited.
People love genre films and you have more room for exploration. When you are making an independent film that’s one of the best ways to attract the audience. That was one of the reasons I chose this genre. My story was about a very specific time, ’80s Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War, and not many people know about that. It was great way to introduce that era to the world by using genre tropes.
For the sake of authenticity there was no way I would have shot it in English; it had to be in Farsi. It would have been very unbelievable [in English], even for the non-Farsi speaking audience. There is always something phony about when a story is set in a non-English speaking country but the characters are speaking English with a weird accent. Me being born in Iran and knowing that culture and that country very well, I just couldn’t do it. It was very important to stay true to the story.
Jim Hosking, The Greasy Strangler. I think it’s not a bad thing to have some restrictions. I think you end up making your own restrictions anyway. It’s hard to describe. Even if you had carte blanche and unlimited resources or time, at some stage you have to make some decisions. So there’s always the feeling of a leap of faith. You never know how a film will turn out untill you edit it and put sound on it and finished it. The whole way along, it’s a very insecure process. You feel restricted by yourself and by the nature of filming things. You don’t have control over every element. You don’t have control over people’s performances, you don’t have control over the technology or the crew, you just try to communicate and hope that everyone’s is pursing the same path.
Once you understand that it’s an evolving, fluid process and you let go of being the megalomaniac control freak, you can end up making stuff that’s really interesting. So I think [filmmaking is about] accepting restrictions, and just trying to follow your instincts and, speaking for myself, following your gut. The process is the most enjoyable thing. I think the restrictions are natural. We’re all restricted by our imagination and everything.
I would say [The Greasy Strangler] has been interpreted as a disturbing film, and a disgusting film, and it was not my intention to disturb or disgust anybody. I would say that my intention was to challenge people’s ideas of what a film could be, but I was really trying to make something that I found really, really funny — to make a really unique, unforgettable world. I think that anything interesting or different has the potential to be provocative, because it’s got to surprise and ambush people, but I wasn’t trying to disturb people, I was just trying to excite them.