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In Features, Issues

For all the talk, in this magazine and elsewhere, about the difficulties of making one’s first film, not much is said about making one’s second, which can be even harder. To discuss this issue, we asked writer and producer Jack Lechner to sit down with four directors who should know – Chris Cherot, Derek Cianfrance, Tom Kalin and Alison Maclean.

Left: Tom Kalin's Swoon.Right: Derek Cianfrance's Brother Tied.

There’s a dirty little secret in independent film that few producers and filmmakers talk about: however difficult it can be to make your first film, it can be even harder to make your second. Things didn’t use to be this way. There was once an unspoken assumption that if you managed to get your first film off the ground – and assuming it wasn’t a total disaster – that someone, somewhere would finance your second. In fact, attorney Tom Garvin once wrote an article for the trades demonstrating that most filmmakers stumbled when it came to financing their third feature, not their second.

Times have changed, though. When it comes to hiring independent directors for industry-financed projects, a hot newcomer with a great short or music video reel is an easier attachment than one lauded for a respected festival film that didn’t do much commercial business. Indeed, most development execs will tell you that in a scenario featuring that respected one-time director, an established studio hack and a hot first-timer, the one-time director is the odd man out.

Of course, there are exceptions. David O. Russell, Darren Aronofsky, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson and Larry Clark, among others, capitalized on the buzz of their debuts to work the system and set up second features quickly within the industry. Others, such as Lodge Kerrigan and Jonathan Nossiter, looked overseas to find the financing for their own artistically challenging second features. And still others, such as Miguel Arteta, flirted with studio moviemaking only to re-embrace the low-budget aesthetic a second time around. But for every one of these folks there are 10 filmmakers stuck in time-wasting development deals or shopping scripts that many express "interest" in but few will commit to.

To discuss this phenomenon, Filmmaker asked Jack Lechner, former head of production at Miramax in New York and now head of production at the commercial and feature company @Radical Media, to assemble a roundtable of directors, some of who have wrapped that second feature and some of who haven’t. Below, Lechner talks with Tom Kalin, the acclaimed director of 1992’s Swoon, who has been producing and making short-form video artworks while waiting to embark on his second feature; Alison Maclean, whose second feature, Jesus’ Son, occurred only after many failed development deals; Chris Cherot, who, after his indie hit Hav Plenty, is headed back to indie production for his second feature; and Derek Cianfrance, whose Brother Tied, a challenging black-and-white festival hit, earned him admiration but no takers for his second script.


Jack Lechner: So much has been written about filmmakers struggling against all odds to make their first films, but as we all know, it can be an even greater struggle to make your second feature. Why is it so hard to get a second feature off the ground? Is it just because it’s so hard to get any feature off the ground?

Derek Cianfrance: I can only speak from personal experience. When I made Brother Tied, I was out in Colorado, I was young, I had a complete belief structure, and I had no one telling me I couldn’t do something. [Making a film] was like a dream that I decided I was going to make into a reality no matter what. It took four years to make it happen. But when I was trying to make a second film, it wasn’t only about me, my crew and my cast believing in it. People with money had to believe in it too.

Tom Kalin: There’s a lot to be said about that naïve rushing into something the first time out, not even really knowing how you’re making your choices necessarily. Speaking for myself, I think I’m a complicated case. I chose to produce two movies after I became known as a director. I always get slightly prickly around the second-feature question because I’m like, "I’ve made my second and third features!" On one level I mean that sincerely, because I think the role of the creative producer is highly undervalued. All that said, my [not having directed a second feature] has not been from a lack of support [within] the film industry. I’ve had some complicated bad luck because I tend to be drawn to material that involves life rights and true stories, and those are prickly, tricky things to get involved in. Increasingly, I’m like, "Give me an original screenplay, please!"

Chris Cherot: What you have around this table are four very independent and very different filmmakers who approach filmmaking the same way, which is from a highly creative standpoint. Unfortunately, because this is called show business –

Lechner: Exactly . . .

Chris Cherot's Hav Plenty
Cherot: – that creativity isn’t always smiled upon. I went from studio to studio with my second script. After being greeted with the nice small talk – "Oh, how we loved Hav Plenty!" – I was usually faced with the question, "How much money did it make?" And if your first movie didn’t crack at least $20 million, it’s going to be very tough within the studio system to get your second film made. In fact, the studios sort of liked me and my second script, but they tried to change it, and that wasn’t what I wanted to do. So I ended up making my second film independently again. For those of us who look at film as a creative medium, it’s tough to get a film made because it’s always about personal vision. And when someone tries to change your vision, you get defensive, and that’s a tough spot to be in. I’ve been trying to teach myself not to look at it so damn personally, but it’s tough. It’s tough to invest this much time in something and not have it be a personal experience.

Kalin: Being simultaneously totally engaged and totally disengaged – it’s a very insane way to be.

Lechner: Alison, you made Crush in New Zealand with experienced producers, but I always had the feeling that you got to make the movie you wanted to make.

Alison Maclean: Absolutely, no question. I had this privileged, ridiculously ideal situation to make my first feature. I wrote the script I wanted to write, I cast who I wanted to cast, I made it with no interference, and then I came to America full of this ridiculous idealism, and thought it would continue like that!

Kalin: I know. I saw you coming and thought, Oh god . . .

Maclean: And then I wrote three scripts in succession and saw them, for one reason or another, not happen. It’s exactly what you just said. People would say, "Crush, it’s an interesting film, but it didn’t make money." With a first film, people give you the benefit of the doubt to some degree. If it’s an exciting idea, then they’ll perhaps take a bit of a chance.

Cianfrance: I think the misconception is, if your film doesn’t make money, then you don’t know what you’re doing as a filmmaker. Just because I made a film for $60,000 doesn’t mean that I won’t know how to make one for $7 million.

Lechner: When you look at how much Hav Plenty made versus how much it cost, your film was probably more profitable than most big studio films.

Cherot: My film is what you call a modest success. It got distributed – that’s the successful part about it.

Lechner: Tom, after Swoon, in which you did something so specific and iconoclastic, would people looking at your next projects put them through a "Swoon lens" and imagine that you would make them just like Swoon?

Kalin: Oh yeah. You know, I think the unspoken elephant in the room for me at meetings is always, "You’re this crazy aesthete who’s going to make this movie that’s like – ‘What’s the narrative?’" And actually, that’s funny, because other than the first 20 minutes, Swoon is very classically ordered and structured. But I do get asked occasional questions like, "It’s going to be in color, right?" And no one will hire me to do a contemporary comedy very easily, for instance. If, for example, you had a first successful feature that was comedic, [studios] want to see you escalate that to the next level. They don’t necessarily want you to really shift gears creatively. And many directors don’t want to [repeat themselves]. I certainly don’t want to make a movie that resembles Swoon in any way as my second feature.

Lechner: No one believes this now, but John Woo was for years typecast as a director of comedies. He wanted to make action movies, and no one would give him the chance.

Kalin: That’s so nuts.

Lechner: And now, of course, if John Woo wanted to make a comedy . . .

Alison, did directing episodes of "Sex and the City" and ‘Homicide’ help you while trying to set up a second feature?

Maclean: I think [directing for television] helps a little, but [TV and film] are still quite separate worlds. After six or seven years, people just are not sure you still direct. You lose your credibility as a director. So at least if you are doing television, then it means you’re out there and you’re working.

Kalin: I find that so unnerving! What, I’ve rusted up and died already?! I haven’t done television work so much but, just like you, I continue to do short narrative work to keep my fingers and toes still moving. Has the music video work you’d done made any impact on your directing career?

Maclean: That Natalie Imbruglia clip?

Kalin: Yeah. You couldn’t go anywhere without seeing that video for a while.

Maclean: No, I can’t say that it did. I think it would have been helpful if I were to make commercials, but [it didn’t really help] for features.

Cherot: There are a lot of guys talking about how you make a couple of videos and then segue into feature filmmaking, but music videos aren’t stories; they’re usually performance pieces. Commercials are actually the true and original short film experience, because in 30 seconds you’ve got to tell a story and make people laugh, cry and feel something for a specific product.

Kalin: You see a lot of high-profile music video directors making features, like Hype Williams, who directed Belly. I’m a big fan of his music video work, but I thought Belly was not successful as a feature. Somebody like Spike Jonze, who is a real innovator of narrative, particularly story-wise, is a very rare kind of person.

Cherot: It comes around to a question of money. Successful music video directors are offered feature deals because their music videos make money.

Lechner: With regard to what Chris just said about making money, one of the challenges you’ve had, Derek, is that Brother Tied played a lot of festivals, won a lot of awards, was admired by a lot of people but didn’t actually get distribution. Do you sort of feel the weight of that as you try to get a second feature going?

Cianfrance: Somewhat. I mean, I don’t look at it and wonder why it didn’t get distributed or feel bad about the fact that it didn’t get distributed. I don’t even think about Brother Tied anymore. There was a time – the year after I made Brother Tied – when I was in a difficult position in my own brain because [I took the film on the road] and all I was talking about was my past and what I had done and my future and what I was going to do. But at that time I was only traveling, surviving off of complimentary cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and per diems. I wasn’t making anything. So after that year got done, I wrote some other scripts and tried to get them made. But people read the scripts and thought, "If we couldn’t sell Brother Tied, we can’t sell this one either." Then I started seeing movies like julien donkey-boy and Celebration, which are some of the most beautiful cinematic experiences I’ve ever been witness to.

Lechner: They stand on their own.

Cianfrance: They stand on their own, and they are video; they’re not film. I don’t think you should make video look slick like film. Video is kind of lo-fi. So okay, what can I do lo-fi, what will I not need any money for? I’ve got to just go out there and do what I can do with what I have and not wait.

Kalin: Because of the high costs of distributing a film these days, at least in terms of your own ego and self-preservation, you cannot measure work by its ability to be picked up and distributed. I was thinking about the time Swoon came out, how it was in theaters for months across the country, how it slowly built an audience. And now it’s impossible. If you’re not banging out those numbers, you’re gone two weeks later. You’re over. And filmmakers are profoundly devastated by the lack of support for their work even when they make a really great film. So if [commercial success] is the yardstick you’re measuring the work by, you have to have a very thick skin. Someone like Jem Cohen is an inspiration. He’s a filmmaker who has made feature-length work that’s in mixed formats. He’s done a bunch of music video work for R.E.M., he made a documentary on Fugazi called Instrument, and he has a very eclectic career. He’s a reminder that successful work doesn’t have to be theatrically distributed.

Cherot: I also think just recently what made independent directors’s lives a lot tougher is a little movie, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, called The Blair Witch Project. That little movie has made the expectations of independent directors so high. Studios are looking for the next $30,000 movie that can make $150 million. It’s insane.

Lechner: Blair Witch is the Star Wars of independent film, and it’s having the same effect that Star Wars had on studio movies in the ’70s. When people get used to making a certain amount of money, making a smaller amount of money suddenly becomes unacceptable on a corporate level. A movie that makes a couple of million dollars suddenly becomes less attractive to [distributors and financiers], whereas a couple of years before, they would have been happy with that.

Alison, what were the factors that allowed you to get Jesus’ Son, your second movie, made?

Alison Maclean's Jesus' Son
Maclean: It feels like a special case, because I didn’t initiate it. It came to me, and I was invited to direct it. The producers took an option on the book, and we set about developing the script over a couple of years. Then the producers went out to pretty much all of the major companies here and in Europe, and everybody said no. Even with a fairly strong cast, everyone was nervous about the structure, the drug-taking and that the main character was unlikable. Or they just didn’t quite get the script. The film wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for the fact that the producers had relationships with people who were interested in investing in a film for the first time.

Lechner: But you [deserve] a lot of credit – because I was one of those people who read the script [at Miramax] and was concerned about the structure, was concerned about the drug-taking and was concerned about the protagonist. And then I saw the movie and realized that none of the things I was worried about mattered in the slightest. You had a vision for it, and you made it work cinematically.

Kalin: It’s amazing how much of a leap of faith it takes to read a script and imagine [the finished film].

Maclean: It’s a risk. There’s no way to avoid that. I think partly why it’s taken me so long to make a second film is because the films I want to do are risky. It’s hard to compare them to other films out there. But those are the films I care about, and if I have to make them for as little money as is humanly possible, then it seems important to still make them.

Lechner: And Chris, how about you, what allowed you to get your second film made?

Cherot: I knocked on the doors of some private investors with a Blockbuster videotape copy of my first film and said, "Hey, want to give me some money to make a movie?" It was pretty much the exact same process I went through with my first film. Because my first film was released, it was easier for me to get in the doorways of the people with the money the second time around, but it was still a struggle. And, of course, my own money went into it. But it was truly an independent experience, and again, it was tough finding the money and producing the movie.

My second film could have come along a lot sooner had I gone the studio route, but another thing that has changed, especially for black filmmakers, is that now that Scary Movie has come out and made $150 million, the studios want the up-and-coming black filmmakers to make the next Scary Movie. And maybe down the line, I’ll make a madcap kooky comedy, but probably not as my second, third or fourth film. I want to know that when I walk into that studio and make that $10-million movie, that I’m going to be able to call the shots the way I’d like to call them. That probably won’t happen until movie five or six.

Lechner: It takes the leap of faith [producer Michael] De Luca made with Paul Thomas Anderson, between seeing Hard Eight and saying, "Okay, you can go make a two-and-a-half hour movie that’s going to come this close to an NC-17."

Cherot: It’s about cultivating those relationships with studio execs. [Filmmaking] is a business, and the primary function of any business is generating capital.

Lechner: Alison, you made Crush in New Zealand, where you had some state subsidies, right?

Maclean: Crush was made with money from the New Zealand Film Commission. They’ve got a policy of financing first features, but after that you’re expected to get foreign pre-sales, in which case you are into the same kind of scenario of having to have name actors and that kind of thing, and foreign investors.

Lechner: So it’s a trick you can do only once.

Maclean: Yeah, that’s right. It’s hard to sustain a career there, actually.

Kalin: Look at the Canadians. Look at Atom Egoyan’s career. There’s state support for the films he makes, and he can repeatedly go back to a state agency.

Lechner: It’s only been recently in his sixth or seventh movie that he’s actually started to get money from outside Canada. It makes me think of Ingmar Bergman. He didn’t make a good movie until something like his tenth movie, but because he was working in Sweden and there weren’t any other young directors around, the Swedish Film Institute backed his movies. It makes me wonder – when I think of those filmmakers whose work I can’t stand – if they had a chance to make 12 more movies, could they actually make something good?

Cianfrance: That’s why you’ve got to practice. You don’t have to shoot everything on film. It’s like doing any craft or playing basketball. You’ve got to keep practicing and practicing and practicing to get better.

Lechner: The commerce model actually asks you to be Michael Jordan on your very first time on the court.

Here’s another question: development hell. Alison and Tom, you’ve both been through a bit of that. Since this is something that anyone who makes their first feature is going to be involved in to one degree or another, what characterizes that place, that time? How do you survive?

Maclean: For a while I was living on little bits and pieces of development money, but I couldn’t really earn a living. It was enormously frustrating. But there’s a way in which I think in hindsight that I kind of made those films in my head, and that I’m in a different place than I was six years ago. Even though there’s a couple of them that I still want to make and hope to make, I don’t think it’s wasted time. I learned a huge amount.

Kalin: When [discussing a project with executives], you can’t say, "I want to make a breathtakingly weird, unconventional, shocking movie that makes you think about narrative structure in a different way." You hide all that under the rug and talk about beats, character, the first-act climax. You speak that vocabulary. I often have to speak a vocabulary that I don’t admire or even necessarily follow because you have to be able to make that form of the film visible to the people in the room. It’s frustrating, because instead of going into a room and saying that my greatest assets are the unconventional choices I will make on set, I have to say, "Don’t worry."

Cherot: That’s because the unconventional is not familiar, and what’s familiar makes money.

Lechner: Tom, you’re now working on a project that you were working on five or six years ago?

Kalin: Savage Grace. It’s the film I wanted to do immediately after Swoon. The Really Useful Group, which is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s group, optioned this book for me, and it was an insane mismatch. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s company was really never going to make this movie, but they paid for development, and I stayed in this beautiful London flat in their offices. I think, in retrospect, had I known what I know now, I wouldn’t have tried to do a movie at that scale directly after Swoon, because Savage Grace is a movie that requires a budget of at least $8 million. But I never lost the passion for the project, and I retained a relationship with the writers. When the option lapsed I went back to Christine [Vachon] and asked her to look into it. She’d never lost the passion for it either. But yeah, I agree completely with what Alison said. As creative people, it’s about ego, and it’s a very troubling thing when you are developing a film and it doesn’t go. You know how much you’ve learned during [the development period], but there’s always this anxiety about manifesting your work. It just makes me want to get really quiet. I don’t have the urge to say, "Oh, I have been working. This is what I’ve done." It seems so defensive. And then I think it’s an exciting thing when a project does come back around because I’m much more capable of making this movie now than I was before. And I also have movies that I might have been interested in earlier but now I wouldn’t want to make. So I think there’s something to be said about [the development experience].

Lechner: What happens when, after your first movie, you become flavor of the month? How do you deal with that?

Maclean: Who’s been flavor of the month here? [laughs]

Cianfrance: I’ll let you know [how to deal with that] when it actually happens!

Kalin: I think that there’s been a movement around identity-based filmmaking. So there’s [always] a new woman filmmaker, there’s a new filmmaker-of-color, there’s a new Asian female director, there’s a new gay director – and that mirrors what’s going on culturally in society, I think.

There was an article on the New Black Cinema a few years back. The cover was all men, and there were only small mentions at the end of the article about Julie Dash [Daughters of the Dust] and I forget who else. People rarely wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and identity themselves by saying, for example, "I’m a white, middle-class gay man!" But those kinds of distinctions shape the marketplace. There are waves of work that get marketed with these very arbitrary connections.

Cherot: I think your second film depends a lot on the politics of what’s happening in the business.

Lechner: Which you can’t control, so all you can do is make your movie.

Cherot: And one day I hope to be able to walk in and talk to a studio exec and say, "This is the movie I want to make, and don’t give me [any] problems about it." And it’ll go over smoothly and be a great experience for everyone. But until then I’ve got a few battles to fight, and it’s just the love of filmmaking that sustains me. Otherwise you become an embittered, angry player-hater, I think the kids say.

Lechner: I’ve met those.

Kalin: I love that whole phenomenon. I explained to someone the terminology of "player" and "hater" recently, and they were fascinated.

Cherot: Player-hating is basically envy – the deepest extreme of envy.

Kalin: There were these two radio jocks who got famous for hating players, so they themselves became players even though they were really player-haters.

Lechner: There’s a movie there.

Cherot: The Player Haters.

Kalin: There are plenty of people who spend their days being player-haters.

Cherot: "That movie sucked!" It sucked because I didn’t make it. Fear and player-hating – that’s what runs the film business.

Lechner: Fear absolutely runs the movie business on the business side. I think [screenwriter] William Goldman actually said that, and he was completely right. People think it’s greed or a lust for power. But it’s fear; fear of losing your job, fear of going back to Paducah and working at your uncle’s pharmacy, that’s what drives the movie business.

Cianfrance: Not being at the party anymore.

Cherot: And that is what’s liberating about the independent film business. While there may be fear, it’s not rampant. It’s not what drives us or motivates what we do.

Lechner: When we’re lucky.

Cherot: I don’t think it’s fear. It’s more of a, you know, I have this savvy, and I have to get it out. I have to execute it, or it’ll kill me.

Cianfrance: Execution, that’s the toughest thing to do.


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