NO ALTERNATIVE: “…And That’s A Wrap!”

The last time I updated my blog, we had yet to begin production on “No Alternative.” Perhaps it’s a testament to the all-consuming nature of production that you have not heard from me since! I am therefore extremely pleased to write that we’ve finished principal photography and the film is in the proverbial “can.”

On the set of “No Alternative.” Photograph by Joshua Sarner.

It want to reiterate that I would not have been able to get this far without the help and support of everyone who contributed to our crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. Because of the strength of the Indiegogo campaign and your stalwart support of the cause, this project has gained the attention of magazine, newspaper and television outlets around the country. It also attracted the interest of investors who also believed in the film — both in its message, and in its commercial viability.

I can honestly say that everyone involved in the filming, from the actors to each and every crew member, was emotionally connected to the material and brought their A-Games to the set:

It was an absolute pleasure to work amidst such a passionate and talented group of people. The leads, Michaela Cavazos and Conor Proft, impressed me more and more each passing day. They were outstanding as Bridget and Thomas Harrison and I can’t wait for viewers to see just how outstanding their performances are on screen. I was also thrilled to work with veteran actors, Kathryn Erbe (“Law & Order: Criminal Intent”) and Harry Hamlin (“Mad Men”), who played the Harrison parents. I can’t thank them enough for their passion, generosity and faith in me as their director. Coming-of-age movies about families are hard to make in Hollywood, but I truly feel this movie was meant to be made — it was a near-impossible task, but everyone’s contributions made it possible. And it was not only monetary contributions: people donated their time, their 90’s era vehicles, their wardrobe, their food, their houses (as locations and for lodging), their instruments, their band logos and music, among many, many other valuable goods and services. My hometown, the City of Yonkers, could not have been more accommodating throughout the process — it has always bee a dream of mine to shoot this film there. This project was about as grassroots as it gets; and you know what, each and every step of it was invigorating!

Left to right: Conor Proft, Kathryn Erbe, William Dickerson, Harry Hamlin, Michaela Cavazos.

I’m extremely excited to be heading into the next phase of the film: the editing phase. We have a wonderful editor, Natasha Bedu, who has spent a lot of her time recently cutting the Emmy Award-winning series “Intervention” on A&E. Natasha couldn’t be more excited to be part of the team, and I’m thrilled to have her on board!

As we venture into post-production, our fiscal sponsor, From the Heart Productions, has encouraged us to continue raising money for this final, and crucial, part of the process. Those looking for end-of-the-year tax deductions, all contributions remain fully tax-deductible. Please share the project, if you haven’t done so already, and consider adding to your contribution if you feel compelled to do so — we’ve already done so much with a relatively small amount of money (by Hollywood’s standards), a little bit more will assure we get the best post-production sound and color correction we can swing. Here is a link to our current campaign:

https://bitly.com/noalternativefilm

Thank you so much for your support! I wish you all the best this holiday season!!

 

“No Alternative”: Pre-Production Begins

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Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! Or, more precisely, casting and locations and storyboards, oh my! Lately, my days have been a triptych of both beautiful and nightmarish imagery, all in service of the pre-production of “No Alternative.” Pre-production has even infected my dreams: the latest one was an elongated hike, alone in the mountains, but thanks to the inexplicable logic of the dream medium, the terrain was the movie itself, and I wasn’t even halfway to the precipice.

However, the most turbulent time for me, with respect to my subconscious, is after filming ends: 3-4 weeks after wrap, I begin directing in my sleep. My wife gets woken up to find me sitting up in bed, pointing at things in the room while calling “action” and “cut” and shouting my DP’s name “Rob” a lot. It makes for some interesting evenings.

If you’ve ever directed a film, you understand how it consumes your life. That’s why pre-production is such a critical part of the process. You can’t go into battle without a battle plan, right? I can’t stress enough, the Hitchcockian goal of striving for boredom on set; he often remarked that he was bored on set, because he had already made the movie before he got there. He was simply witnessing the execution of his vision.

Striving for this is a great thing. Will you be bored on set? Unlikely. However, you will stress a lot less if you’ve already broken down the script, done your beat sheets, and storyboarded the whole damn thing.

That’s where I’m at. I’ve broken down the script, I’ve beat out all the scenes—I know each and every character’s objectives, obstacles, action verbs, adjustments, circumstances, physical life, backstory, and perhaps most importantly, I know the subtext of each scene. In a perfectly constructed scene, the camera films the subtext—the subtext that is translated from the page into a visual metaphor on the screen. I’m smack in the middle of storyboarding. I would love to sit in a secluded corner and visualize the film in such detail that I will have tested and troubleshot every possible shot in my mind. But I have casting and location scouting to do!

In all seriousness, if you’ve done your beat sheets properly, you shouldn’t have to test and troubleshoot every possible shot imaginable—if you know what the scene is about, and you’ve identified the subtext, there is only one way to shoot it.

We’ve been able to recruit a wonderful casting director in Judy Bowman, who is based in New York. We are shooting the film in Yonkers, NY, the fourth largest city in the state, which sits just north of the Bronx. I believe Elia Kazan once said that casting the right actors is 85 to 90 percent of directing a successful film. Woody Allen also said that 80 percent of success is showing up. So, I figure if I cast the film mostly right and show up most of the time, the film will be gangbusters.

Casting is its own art form. This is a very small, independent movie; however, in my experience, actors want to work, and if they see themselves in a part, your chances of booking them for the role are high. We are dealing with a cast primarily of teenagers, which means we’ll be auditioning a lot of people for the majority of the roles. The roles of the parents, however, are such that we might attract bigger name cast members—they’re big parts that can be shot out in a relatively short period of time. You obviously want to find the right people for the roles, but “names” typically don’t audition for independent films. It’s understood that an offer (money, backend points, etc.) is made to an actor before that actor will read the script. That might strike some as snobby, but if you think about it, if name actors (they’re classified as “name” because they’re in demand) responded to every request to audition for an independent film, their days would be completely occupied with them.

From my standpoint, it’s a bit of a gamble. If you’re going to make an offer to an actor, you want to do your due diligence and become as familiar with that person’s work as possible. You should also, if possible, contact those who have worked with that actor before. Most other directors, producers, actors, will extend you the courtesy of sharing their experience with said actor. This courtesy was extended to me once in the past, and it saved my film (and sanity): I ended up choosing not to work with an actor who was problematic on other people’s sets.

We are in the midst of making a few offers and lining up auditions. It’s exciting, but can also be anxiety inducing. While Kazan’s statement regarding actors is sound, logically; actors are also just one part of many parts of the filmmaking process. If you put all your stock in them, you are doing your story, and vision for that story, a disservice.

I will be getting back to my storyboards momentarily; while some directors don’t like to do them, I find they’re essential. You are basically making the movie (sketching every shot of it) before you make the movie, and that would tickle Alfred Hitchcock. And if it would tickle Alfred Hitchcock, I must be doing something right. The sooner I can see my movie in its entirety spread out in front of me, the easier it will be to breathe.

[This piece was originally published in Film Slate Magazine]

The Beginning of a Movement: THE FIFTH WALL

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“The Fifth Wall” is a response to the modality of contemporary Hollywood. The origins of its manifesto are attributed to my time at the AFI and its message developed along with some of my fellow filmmaking classmates:

While we were at the AFI a few of us conceived of a movement we called “The Fifth Wall.” Whether through the use of surrealism or through meta-fictional truth, we conspired to tell a story that would not only leave the audience resonating with some sort of transcendent beauty, but also, because each of us in “The Fifth Wall” has experienced severe trauma and loss first hand, we endeavor to subconsciously imbue them with a feeling of solace. To send the viewer a message in a bottle, from one empathetic being to another, a communiqué of hope: you’re not alone in your pain. It will get better and you will derive much beauty from the world in the future…

While this movement has been largely theoretical until now, the time is now to put this theory into practice. Hollywood is a business that continues to eclipse the art, originality and storytelling that used to be—and should be—the core of what movies are. The most common justification movie executives give for the broad and banal blockbusters that dominate the box office week after week is: audiences want to escape the troubles of their lives; they don’t want to see something that “hits too close to home.”

This escapist ideology is shortsighted and, in many respects, erroneous.

The idea that human beings turn to art and entertainment as a way to alleviate life’s strain and pressures is accurate. But what is it about art and entertainment that actually provides relief, beyond the temporary escapism? While being transported to cinematic worlds in galaxies far, far away may seem like departures from reality, it doesn’t necessarily benefit your life outside of those two hours; in fact, it might do more harm than good. The science seems to indicate that confronting our emotions, rather than ignoring them, however troubling these emotions might be, is a more effective means through which to purge the pain, anxiety and trauma we encounter day to day. Let’s take a result of such a purge for example: the physical act of crying. The biochemist William H. Frey II purports that the reason people feel better after crying is that it decreases the level of adrenocorticotropic hormones in the blood, hormones associated with the detection of, and response to, threat or other stress-inducing stimuli. It also promotes the production of cortisol, which lowers stress in these types of situations. Putting the science aside, experiencing emotion as a way to cleanse oneself of it is nothing new. Aristotle posited the notion of catharsis in ancient Greece. He believed tragedy, with respect to drama, is the imitation of action arousing pity and fear, the purpose of which is to achieve the purgation of those emotions. The act of being a spectator of dramatic tragedy has a tangible, and ultimately positive, effect on the mind and body.

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Catharsis is the basis of psychoanalysis. The expression of the original emotion, one that has been repressed or ignored, is the method through which the healing of trauma can only begin to take place. While movies are not psychoanalysis sessions, the idea that people go to the movies to “escape” means they must be escaping from something. Furthermore—and this is the problem—this same something that is being ignored for a couple hours will only return later and will have become greater and more overwhelming than before. The very origin of dramatic storytelling, predating Greek tragedy, goes back to Egypt around 2800 BC in the form of pyramid texts that depict the dramatic journeys of dead pharaohs entering the underworld.

The earliest dramas all have one thing in common: death. The whole purpose of the invention of drama was realizing a type of catharsis or emotional resolution through confrontation, not some desire for vapid escapism.

Co-founder of “The Fifth Wall,” Paul Sanchez Yates, explains: “I find it difficult to separate my personal life from my art. In fact, I refuse to separate them. These films, these emotion-pictures reveal my inner affections, passions, humors, beliefs and traumas and scars. Unlike the usual Hollywood escapism, these films are extremely personal, sometimes horrible, but always exquisitely real.” Yates continues, “’The Fifth Wall’ is the state I find myself in when I have revealed so much personal truth that I no longer know where I end and the canvas/film begins. In this work I reveal so much about my inner-self that my perspective is lost.”

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Most people tend to look toward the past with regret or to the future with dread. Hollywood provides entertainment that sacrifices emotion for spectacle, spectacle it thinks will allow viewers a respite from the regret and dread behind and in front of them. “The Fifth Wall” provides the regret and the dread, which allows for exactly the kind of respite the audience desires—one that extends beyond those two hours and into their lives after the film.

Middle Class Filmmakers: Do you want to make Hollywood films or Fifth Wall films? Your answer may very well impact the future sustainability of an art form that matters to us a great deal.

#Hollywood99 #MiddleClassFilm #TheFifthWall

What Does The Sundance Film Festival Mean To Middle Class Filmmakers?

Sundance_Film_FestivalWhat does this year’s Sundance Film Festival mean to Middle Class Filmmakers?

Let’s first compare last year’s sales with this year’s sales. In 2015, the big Hollywood distributors bought the majority of the films showcased at the festival—Fox Searchlight bought “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”; Open Road bought “Dope”; Sony Pictures Classic bought “Diary of a Teenage Girl.” Just around one year ago, various entertainment news outlets reported that the Sundance Market was “starting to look like the old days.” However, the three films mentioned above ultimately underperformed at the box office. These relatively small films seemed to have gotten lost among the much bigger budget and glitzier blockbusters that the studios released over this past year.

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Hollywood’s one percent is betting all their money on blockbusters; therefore, to ensure those bets pay off, they focus all of their marketing efforts on these films. They need these films to appeal to as many different demographics as possible, and to as many demographics in as many regions around the world as possible. Smaller, niche material, like the movies bought at Sundance in 2015, are simply not a priority for Hollywood’s bottom line. If one or two of their gigantic tentpoles bomb, it would potentially be enough of a financial disaster to collapse a studio. That type of risk is something that sends shivers down the spine of tinseltown.

As this year’s Sundance concludes, let’s take a look at what happened: streaming sites Netflix and Amazon eclipsed the traditional Hollywood distributors. While this year’s Sundance did see the largest sale in its history, and a studio made the sale—Fox Searchlight bought “Birth of a Nation”—most of the movies were bought by these internet tech giants. The welcome side effect of these alternative buyers opening their big wallets was that they drove up the bidding for the movies in general. If the erstwhile generation of Hollywood distributors wanted a piece of this year’s pie, they had to push their way to the front of the line at the bakery.

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Each year, I’m somewhat baffled as to why Hollywood becomes, more or less, a ghost town during Sundance. I’m constantly cautioned by colleagues to not pitch anything, take any projects out, etc., throughout the duration of Sundance, presumably because everyone’s there—in body, or at least in mind. If Hollywood cares so much about the indie films at Sundance, why do they care so little about releasing and marketing them? Perhaps it’s just a chance to party and pretend like they care. Harvey Weinstein criticized the establishment’s release model in his recent Op-Ed in The Hollywood Reporter: “We need to support independent film distribution (and, in turn, independent film culture) 12 months a year, not just the last four.” What is so clearly different this year is that it seems like the new kids in town do care about releasing and marketing these films. This leads us to pose the question: If the studios, and traditional models of distribution, are the establishment, are Netflix and Amazon the anti-establishment? As opposed to the current studio mindset of making essentially one type of movie, for a gigantic demographic, it’s in the best interest of Netflix and Amazon to provide their subscribers with an array of material on their menu. Subscribers are in control of their content, that’s why they subscribe, and the more options, the more control they have to dial in a movie that matches their specific taste. The studios operate in the world of the indistinguishable; Netflix and Amazon operate in the world of the specific—and this is good news for indie film and its middle class filmmakers.

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The trouble, of course, is that we are assessing this change in real time. We don’t know if Netflix and Amazon will see their bets on these Sundance films pay off. Are they looking to gain more subscribers, or simply keep the ones they have? How will they judge the success of these films, and furthermore, how will the industry judge the success of these films with respect to the filmmakers?

Netflix reportedly offered 20 million for the slave rebellion drama, “Birth of a Nation;” however, the filmmakers opted for a studio’s $17.5 million dollar offer. Why did a film that’s content is anti-establishment ultimately go with the establishment? Especially an establishment that is currently marred by accusations of racial bias? The reason seems pretty clear: Fox Searchlight can offer a guaranteed, and perhaps stronger, theatrical release timed during awards season. Netflix’s current model for these types of acquisitions is a day-and-date limited theatrical and streaming release (the movie hits big screens and streaming platforms on the same day).

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While the sales of these films to Netflix and Amazon reflect well on the filmmakers, history has taught us that the ultimate litmus test of their viability as working professionals is how their films perform at the box office. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” sold big at Sundance, but it didn’t do well at the box office. When the industry discusses that film, they don’t discuss it in light of its sale, but rather in light of its numbers. It’s all about the bottom line. How will Netflix and Amazon keep track of its numbers? Netflix has stated, quite adamantly, that it does not release its internal numbers to its filmmakers. This lack of transparency will no doubt prove detrimental to its filmmakers who are vying for their next gig—unless these tech giants are offering multi-picture deals to its talent (it wouldn’t be a bad idea, guys). Filmmakers are typically offered their next job based on how many people watched their last film—if that data is unavailable, it could potentially leave the filmmaker in a bit of a lurch.

I’ve always been of the opinion: I want as many people to see my films as possible. The making money part has always been second to that. The good news is that Netflix and Amazon can make that first part a reality—introducing middle class films to their millions of subscribers. The not so good news is, the growth of the filmmakers they showcase, and the route to a sustainable living post-sale, is an unknown.

#MiddleClassFilmmakers

99Percent

It seems my Indiewire piece on “The 99 Percent…In Hollywood” struck a nerve [bit.ly/1XtxL9K]. I think that’s a good thing, both positive and negative responses alike. The point was to start a conversation and the conversation has begun.

ElijahWood-Indiewire-TwitterMost of the response out there has been positive and I can’t thank you enough for the support.

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But the reason I wrote it, and titled it “I am the 99 Percent…in Hollywood,” is that this isn’t about me at all. It is about an issue that’s much larger than I am.

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For the benefit of clarity: I’m speaking on behalf of numerous filmmakers, many I know personally, who share a similar sentiment. I’ve made three features in the past 2 years and have been fortunate to see them all released in a variety of ways. Detour was distributed theatrically and digitally—both domestically and internationally (it just finished a successful theatrical run in Japan)—and Don’t Look Back was sold to Lifetime Movie Network and recently premiered to 1.1 million viewers when it aired.

It took me a while to get here—Detour took over 5 years to make, a process that started before the trend of minimalist, single protagonist, single location films—our development and pre-production predated Buried and 127 Hours, for instance [http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/29/movies/detour-directed-by-william-dickerson.html].

Making a film is in any filmmaker’s grasp, money or no money, and I do agree that’s a powerful, important and hopeful thing; particularly when making your first film.

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I have directed both film and television. The problem is compensation and support is not commensurate to the work in this “middle” space—the current area in which many of us are working.

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Films are cheaper, and easier, to make, yes; but much more difficult to utilize as a bridge to a living. It’s indeed necessary for new “outside-the-of-box” models to be explored.

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This is a tough conversation, but it’s one that not only filmmakers need to have, but the higher ups in Hollywood also need to have.

Are movies simply a pop cultural fad? Are they simply a product? I don’t think so, and if you’ve ever been affected by a movie, you don’t think so either. I believe movies are not only important, but indispensable, to our culture. If you don’t think so, my piece isn’t for you. And that’s perfectly okay. I will continue to advocate for change, for a rebuilding of the middle space of filmmaking because I think the current chasm is doing long-term damage to both the industry and the art form itself.

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I recently used the film Me and Earl and the Dying Girl as a lens through which to examine the current state of movies. In this particular “indie” film, the story ends with a girl dying. As if to add insult to injury, she dies while watching the movie Thomas Mann’s character Greg has spent the entire film making for her. We are forced to stare at the dying girl as she’s watching the movie, and dying, and we don’t get to see it. We don’t get to see the movie Greg has toiled over, the movie that results in his grades going down the toilet, the movie that may, or may not, be his first and final expression of love and affection for the character of Rachel. We will never know what the movie is about. We will never know, because that’s not what’s important.

What is important is the power that movie has on both Rachel watching it, and Greg having made it, and the power the movie within which that movie is being projected is having on us as we watch it in the theater. Movies have the power to not only move us emotionally, but also provide the shared experience of experiencing that emotion with others—and that experience is nothing short of transcendent.

Greg grows up watching movies with his father, with his friend Earl, and with Rachel. Greg is you and I. Movies have a lasting, meaningful effect on his life as well as ours. As Me and Earl and the Dying Girl shows us, moving pictures are life—they live on after death. They continue to point us into the direction of the people we respect, care for and love the most; they point us into the direction of eras, societies and cultures past. I have no doubt that most people working in the industry will speak of their passion for movies, but if they’re really passionate about them, they’d make more films based on that passion. When movies are made in boardrooms on the basis of demographics, or the desire to sell in other countries, they alienate that portion of the audience that wants to see unique, personal films. Movies are an amalgamation of art and commerce; however, there must be an equal balance between the two for a movie to matter.

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When it comes down to it, we are all film fans. We, as human beings, are compelled to tell stories; it’s how we make sense of the stories of our own lives. Hollywood, when operating at its best, is one of America’s greatest industries. Please, let’s not take that power for granted.

Let’s keep this conversation going. Follow me on twitter: @WDFilmmaker

Me and Earl and the Dying World of Independent Film

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When I first saw Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, I referred to the film as Me and Earl. The choice to shorten the title was a subconscious one, but it was still a choice, and the choice was to avoid the elephant in the room: that a girl is going to die in the movie I’m about to see.

This is a very un-Hollywood thing to do. And the filmmakers say as much in their film, when the main character, Greg, reassures us in the voiceover: “Bear with me, I know you’re bracing to see a sweet girl die; but she doesn’t, she gets better.” Here’s the thing, she doesn’t get better. She dies. You may be mad at me for not issuing some kind of “spoiler alert” prior to me writing that last sentence; but tough, if the title of the movie didn’t spoil the ending for you, my words certainly won’t. The truth is, this is just symptomatic of a larger problem: Hollywood has trained us to anticipate happy endings, and as a result, we become infuriated if we aren’t rewarded with them (this type of fury is few and far between, because movies made inside and outside of Hollywood these days rarely end on a low note). I’m a firm believer that good movies should be metaphors for our own realities. Yes, this is a movie about filmmakers dealing with a cancer growing in the blood of their friend; however, not discounting the seriousness of the plot, this film is also about filmmakers—and by extension, the audience—dealing with a dilemma growing in the heart of Hollywood.

The film opens with these two kids, Greg (the narrator) and Earl, his co-worker, “not his friend,” which he, ironically, goes out of his way to say. These two might seem like they’re obsessed with movies, but they don’t really act like it. It’s more like movies are just a part of their lives—an indispensible part. The movies they watch inform their views of the world. One of the first movies we see them watching in the film is Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, which is about “the search for a golden city that doesn’t exist.” It’s no coincidence that the filmmakers use the plot of a movie within a movie as an analogy to the lure of Hollywood. Many have likened the selling of a script, or the booking of a role, to the modern day gold rush—a rush to become the next big thing.

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Greg and Earl are friends with the outsiders, if friends with anyone else at all, which leads to the befriending of Rachel, the girl who’s dying from leukemia. They are the true independents, finding their way through the world outside of the system—namely, high school—by making movies as a means to coping with the often turbulent and, literally, life-threatening task of growing up in this relentless world. In this world—the world of reality and not of Hollywood movies—the hot girls squash you, your friends (excuse me, co-workers) punch you in the stomach, and people close to you die out of nowhere. It’s called life, and movies help us deal with it—movies are human antidotes to woe, when they’re made by artists, that is.

The influence of pop culture surrounds these characters: it is a wall-tacked picture of Hugh Jackman, after all, who tells Greg to stop being insensitive and not joke about death with a dying girl. Moments like this achieve two things: 1. They highlight the significant role that Hollywood plays in our lives on a daily basis, particularly the lives of our youth; 2. They emphasize the fact that Hollywood gets it wrong. Are we to ignore the elephant in the room? Are we to repress our feelings, only to let them eat us alive from the inside out? Humor, often black humor, is the life preserver in a choppy sea of sorrow, misery and the hardened indifference of the natural world. Hollywood makes its living—a very, very good living—sugarcoating this reality.

Through his narration, Greg telegraphs the beats that Hollywood often mandates in its films; specifically, that the girl doesn’t die at the end. If this had been a Hollywood movie, not only would this girl make a miraculous recovery, but Greg and Rachel would’ve also fallen in love, and it would be that love, that B-Story, which leads to her survival. Love conquers all, triumph of the human spirit, buddy stories; are these phrases applicable to your own lives? I would say, mostly, no. I know some, particularly those in this business, who argue that viewers want an escape from their lives; they are willing to pay for that escape, and Hollywood exists to provide that escape. I would argue that that tentpole mentality is just as myopic as most of the industry’s output of megabudget blockbusters.

It used to be what separated studio films from indie films was the ending: studio films ended happily, independent films ended bleakly, at worst, or ambiguously, at best. There was a time, not that long ago, when studios funded these “independent” films with depressing-ish endings. Not so anymore; not even close. Fifteen years ago, Walt Disney Pictures produced a David Lynch movie to the tune of 10 million dollars—a movie about an elderly man who embarks on a journey across state lines by way of a tractor to see his brother before he dies. As the millennium advanced, studios continued to fund independent films, but they began to not-so-subtly guide these films into mainstream territory. Take Lars and the Real Girl as an example. With a budget of 12 million, the movie explores the life of a delusional young man who dates a sex doll he procured from the Internet. This is a great indie idea; however, the film embraced a tone much more reminiscent of mainstream studio fare: it wasn’t stark, it was sentimental; it wasn’t edgy, it was wholesome. It was executed as though it was the sister to Sleepless in Seattle. Lars is an example of a number of “indies” that adopted a mainstream tone as a means of, in my opinion, attracting larger, broader audiences to more niche material. Ultimately, the movie didn’t do well at the box office. There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s because the movie’s tone conflicted with itself; it didn’t quite know what it wanted to be.

Fast-forward ten years later and that independent film production and distribution model that existed within the studio system—the system within which Lars was made—has completely disappeared. There are only megabudgets (movies made for 150 million dollars and up) and microbudgets (movies made for under a million, often far under a million). There’s nothing in between. Barely nothing. Even the movies that make it through no man’s land—the movies made between 5 to 20 million—are largely anomalies (i.e. movies by a handful of auteur directors, like the Andersons—Wes and Paul Thomas—who cemented their careers when indies were being regularly funded). The ones that do make it through still largely operate with mainstream mechanics. Whiplash, the kid becomes a veritable superhero in the end and conquers all with an astonishing drum solo; Boyhood, despite the odds and a series of questionable father figures, the kid has the whole world in front of him (it ends with him staring into a horizon); Birdman, the film ends with the onstage suicide of its main character (but, wait, maybe not? In a moment of magical realism, he wakes up in the hospital, injured, but optimistic, so much so, he opens the window, jumps out and flies into the great blue sky). I liked all of these films quite a bit, actually; but it does appear as though they’ve been influenced by Hollywood’s expectations.

What is refreshing about Me and Earl, which won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, is that the movie itself flies in the face of Hollywood and its expectations. While some have criticized the film for characters that border on caricatures—the alcoholic single mother, the quasi-magical black friend, and the girl who dies to teach the self-absorbed protagonist a lesson—it’s a film that is aware of itself with respect to the movies that have come before it, and these characterizations are part of its point. Greg’s narration misleads viewers into believing they are sitting back and watching a movie that adheres to Hollywood’s rules, which guarantees a happy ending that will continue to resonate its happiness on the walk to the parking lot.

In the end of Me and Earl—excuse me, The Dying Girl—there is, well, there is a girl that dies. An innocent one, who never did anything bad to anybody. As if to add insult to injury, she dies while watching the movie Greg has spent the entire film making for her. On top of that, we are forced to stare at the dying girl as she’s watching the movie, and dying, and we don’t get to see it. We don’t get to see the movie Greg has toiled over, the movie that results in his grades going down the toilet, the movie that may, or may not, be his first and final expression of love and affection for Rachel. We will never know what the movie is about. We will never know, because that’s not what’s important. What’s important is the power that movie has on both Rachel watching it, and Greg having made it, and the power the movie within which that movie is being projected is having on us as we watch it in the theater. Movies have the power to not only move us emotionally, but also provide the shared experience of experiencing that emotion with others—and that experience is nothing short of transcendent.

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Greg grows up watching movies with his father, with Earl, and with Rachel. Greg is you and I. Movies have a lasting, meaningful effect on his life as well as ours, and that effect demands that we as the audience are not lied to. As The Dying Girl shows us, moving pictures are life—they live on after death. They continue to point us into the direction of the people we respect, care for and love the most; they point us into the direction of eras, societies and cultures past; they point us toward the origin, the end and the rebirth of ourselves. I have no doubt that most people working in the system will speak of their passion for movies, but if they’re really passionate about them, they’d make more films like The Dying Girl. When movies are made in boardrooms on the basis of demographics, or the desire to sell in other countries, they alienate that portion of the audience that wants to see unique, personal films. Movies are an amalgamation of art and commerce; however, there must be an equal balance between the two for a movie to matter.

When it comes down to it, we are all film fans. We, as human beings, are compelled to tell stories; it’s how we make sense of the stories of our own lives. Hollywood, when operating at its best, is one of America’s greatest industries. Please, let’s not take that power for granted.

THE MICROBUDGET REVOLUTION

IMG_2725Did anyone notice that the movies nominated this year by The Independent Spirit Awards for Best Feature were the same movies nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for Best Feature, with the exception of one film, Love Is Strange? If the Academy Awards were created as a platform to showcase commercial Hollywood’s best and brightest, why were the Independent Spirit Awards created? Presumably they were created as the antithesis of the Academy Awards: a platform for independent Hollywood’s best and brightest.

Financially speaking, The Independent Spirit Awards deem an “indie” to be a movie made for under 20 million dollars, but if that 20 million dollar budget is coming from the same studio that made millions of dollars from the latest superhero franchise, is the film in question still capturing that “indie spirit?”

Let’s step back for a minute. 10 to 15 years ago, the studios had their own independent film divisions. They considered independent film a viable product for niche markets of film consumers, so much so that they were willing to blur the idea of what an “indie film” was in order to have a piece of the pie. Today, virtually every studio has dissolved those divisions. They are officially not in the independent film business any longer. This means the independent film is now quite literally independent of studio support. So, why then is an awards show dedicated to independent film, presenting the majority of its awards to films that are not technically independent? Here’s how the Independent Spirit Awards define the rubric of an independent film: “uniqueness of vision, original, provocative subject matter, and an economy of means (with particular attention paid to total production cost and individual compensation).”

If the studios aren’t funding lower budget, character-driven, niche films anymore, those who are funding them are most definitely not funding them to the tune of 20 million dollars. The days of the 5 to 20 million dollar independent film are over, and have been over for a few years. I’m not saying films aren’t funded inside those numbers currently, but they are very few and far between—so much so, that it is foolish to focus your sights as a filmmaker on making a movie within that range.

If independent film as we know it is dead—at least in the current state of the industry—what is left? What’s left are: studio blockbusters (i.e. movies made for 150 million dollars and up) and microbudget films (i.e. movies made for 1 million dollars and under, and more often far under). The number of studio films made this past year has shrunk by nearly half, while the amount of microbudget films has nearly doubled. The studios are making fewer movies and putting much more money into them. They’re taking huge gambles financially, and the way to offset that gamble is to ensure that the entertainment they’re selling appeals to as many people as possible. This approach, of course, dilutes the originality of the content. When movies are made in boardrooms on the basis of demographics, they alienate that portion of the audience that wants to see unique, personal films. In other words, they alienate the actual film fans. Instead of making ten films that target different, more niche markets, they make one movie for the price of ten and bet it all.

The truth is that independent film is far from dead. In fact, it’s thriving like never before thanks to the technological resources at the disposal of hungry, young filmmakers these days. They are overwhelming and strikingly affordable. Behold the microbudget feature. Anyone with the right stuff can make a movie these days with production values that were simply unattainable just a few years ago. The stigma that was once attached to movies with budgets this low is no longer there—one can make a movie for peanuts and make it look like a million bucks. The barriers to making a feature film, and consequently announcing yourself as a filmmaker in this industry, have never been easier to overcome.

While this is encouraging, no doubt, this has lead to a surplus of low-budget films living out there in the world. For the consumer, there’s a deluge of movies to choose from, many of which have little-to-nothing in the way of traditional marketing. And, while the filmmakers’ methods of directing and producing films have changed, the industry’s method of buying and distributing them has, essentially, remained the same. This has lead to a business model for microbudget filmmakers that precludes them from making a living wage from their films. Ted Hope recently stated, “Filmmaking is not currently a sustainable occupation for any but the very rare.” There are approximately 141,000,000 jobs in the United States; approximately 100,000 of them are film directing jobs. Working directors make up about .0709 percent of the workforce. If more and more of the movies being made are microbudgets, that means a director’s salary is accordingly micro, if they have a salary at all. Therefore, the potential payoff rests on the distribution of the film, but getting your film distributed through the conventional channels may not lead to much of a payoff for the filmmaker.

The good news is that do-it-yourself distribution has not only gotten easier, but it’s quickly becoming an accepted practice. If the filmmakers are in charge of promoting their own films, why let a traditional distributor profit from your hard work when you can distribute yourself digitally through an assortment of online outlets and recoup the profits directly? This is an important question to ask if you’re planning on raising money for your own microbudget. DIY has never been easier, or more professional looking, as it is right now.

Yes, the market is more competitive—everyone with an iPhone can, technically, make a movie. And now that studios aren’t funding indies, you have major creative forces in the entertainment industry turning to microbudgets themselves: M. Night Shyamalan is making a microbudget, Spike Lee raised the money for his last movie on Kickstarter, and Mark Duplass just produced a feature film shot entirely on an iPhone. However, this is what’s important to remember: what matters is the value of the idea—of the story—not the money it took to bring that idea to the screen. That’s what art is. Art is valued by the painting within the golden frame, not the golden frame itself.

DETOUR-CrewPhotoAs I wrote in my book, DETOUR: Hollywood, “In the end, our purpose as filmmakers is akin to the purpose of the railroad, an apt metaphor that never ceases to disappoint in times of crisscrossing articulations: we are just human beings trying to connect…and it is story that connects us.” My advice: make your movie. But be sure to make it using your own unique voice. Be bold, don’t try to fit in, and maybe, just maybe, Hollywood will take notice.

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DETOUR: Hollywood: How To Direct a Microbudget Film (or any film, for that matter) is available in Paperback and Kindle:

http://www.amazon.com/DETOUR-Hollywood-Direct-Microbudget-matter/dp/0985188634

Behind-The-Scenes: The Release of “Don’t Look Back”

Over the past few months, I’ve experienced the incredible rollout of my latest film, “Don’t Look Back.”

The movie was initially released on Video On Demand and then had its domestic television debut in October on Lifetime Movie Network. On the night of its debut, it drew over 1.1 million viewers. It was an amazing experience. I even dabbled in a live tweeting session with two of the film’s cast members, Lucy Griffiths and Tyler Jacob Moore, during the broadcast.

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I didn’t get nearly as many questions from fans as the two stars sitting next to me…but I did get some!

What was really cool about the experience was tweeting behind-the-scenes pics and info while those very scenes played out on the television in front of me. I’ve gotten some great feedback on the site, specifically, how I talk behind-the-scenes details and provide a glimpse into my directing process. Here’s a portion of a recent comment: “As an audience member, you do wonder what the director, writer and actors went through during the creative process and this is a wonderful resource for that. It is always interesting to know when shots and frames don’t just ‘happen’ but were planned to add more to the story than the action and dialogue.” I’m really glad to hear it.

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The craft of directing can often seem intangible, or at times mysterious, and I take every element of the process extremely seriously. A recent article I wrote on directing a scene in “Don’t Look Back” was published in MovieMaker Magazine. Here’s a link where you can check it out:

http://www.moviemaker.com/archives/series/how_they_did_it/inserting-cuts-oner-dont-look-back/

In these days of microbudget films, with limited time and resources, you have to be as prepared as possible before you begin production in order to call audibles and change things up later on down the line. In fact, I’ve written a book all about the process of directing my first feature film, “Detour,” which is slated to be published early next year. So…keep an eye out for it!

In the case of “Don’t Look Back,” I was fortunate to have wonderful producers, and terrific cast and crew members, who supported my vision and helped me finish the film in the best possible manner!

 

REBEL WITH, OR WITHOUT, A CAUSE

Rebel

We’ve entered an age when everyone is on camera.

It didn’t used to be like this. It used to be an event to be filmed, a happening, something we would dress up for or prepare for minutes, days, weeks, even months in advance. When Norma Desmond said she was “ready for her close-up” back in 1959, her character had spent decades preparing for it. Not so today. Today, most people barely dress up, or wear anything at all, to be on camera. Not only that, they post it instantaneously on the worldwide web for everyone and their grandmothers to see. Though, I do doubt the web-surfing abilities of most grandmothers. Close-ups are not hard to come by, and who needs Cecil B. Demille to shoot it for you, not when you can snap a selfie.

We are reminded recently of what was once special about the art of the moving picture when footage of a screen test Marlon Brando did for the movie, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, surfaced.

15 minutes of fame has quickly become 15 minutes of non-fame (if some folks are lucky) because everyone is famous now. And a lot of people are famous for no particular reason. They are famous for the sake of being famous, an obvious, and perhaps unfortunate, byproduct of a culture in which everyone films themselves all of the time.

Our lives are quickly becoming the recordings of lives.

Human behavior is becoming a reenactment of a reenactment. The reflections of our lives that we post become reality, a reality that seeks the approval of a thousand strangers who determine the worth of our lives with one click of the “like” button.

Somewhere in between these two realities – that which resides in front of our eyes and that which resides in the wires behind a computer screen – is Taylor.

He is fact. He is fiction. He is Taylor.

William Dickerson is Stephen Fry proof thanks to caching by WP Super Cache