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Metro Pulse Gone Indie

The life of an independent filmmaker couldn't possibly be easier.

By Coury Turczyn

MARCH 6, 2000:  All you've got to do, really, is charge up a few credit cards, borrow a camera, enlist some friends to act for free, and voilá: You're on your way. Once you get the film all spliced together, you should be expecting a call from Robert Redford inviting you to his little film festival up in Utah, of all places (I think the city's called "Sundown"). Before your screening is even finished, a bidding war will commence among studio heads over distribution rights. (Note: hold out for at least eight figures, and don't forget the merchandising!) Of course, this will spark the media's love affair with your artistic genius, so be prepared for a constant flurry of interview requests (you might consider hiring a publicist beforehand just to manage your press schedule). And then—after breaking box office records, winning critics' awards, appearing on the cover of Time, and getting that fat contract to direct Armageddon II: Really Big Hail—you can at long last fulfill the dream that inspired you to make movies in the first place: to date a supermodel.

What could be simpler? Heck, you read about these indie film success stories all the time; look what happened to those Blair Witch guys—and they couldn't even afford a script!

Strangely enough, however, some of the filmmakers whose works will be screened at next week's Valleyfest Film Festival have had a more difficult time of it. In fact, contrary to popular media reports, making your own movie isn't exactly a glamorous road to success—because it's usually filled with potholes the size of Buicks.

"I don't know if I could ever go through something like that again," confesses New York writer/director Douglas Zimmerman of filming his feature He Outta Be Committed, which will be making its world premiere at Valleyfest. "Well, I suppose I could if I had to—but I'd have to be paid. The whole thing was a psychedelic experience. It was my Vietnam."

And this is coming from a fellow who says his movie turned out just as he imagined it on paper. ("That's pretty amazing, I know, but I'm really proud of that.") His tale of an upwardly mobile executive fallen on hard times took military precision to complete.

"I wrote a script which I had no right writing for our small budget—far too many locations and too many people involved with not enough time to do it properly," Zimmerman says. "However, once it was decided we were going to make this film, then I was committed to doing it properly or not do it at all. Therefore, that meant working around the clock—working 20 hours a day, seven days a week, for 10 months straight. No exaggeration."

Could it be that the real world of independent filmmakers is actually a rather cold and lonely place where success is anything but guaranteed? Take the example of Rick Venable; before he moved to Knoxville last year to become an HGTV producer, he and some friends decided to make their own movies. Having at least some experience working at a Memphis TV station, Venable helped with their low-tech first efforts—a video parody of ER involving coffee infusions, and a Super 8 cops 'n' robbers short called Blown—before co-directing the full-length 16mm feature to be screened at Valleyfest, The Big Muddy.

For its first feature, the group decided to have a minimum of characters, as few shoot days as possible, and no special effects—in other words, a romantic comedy. Then the filmmakers meticulously planned the shoot for a year, with shot sheets and marked-up scripts. "We thought we were so prepared, but everything could still go wrong," says Venable.

Written and starring co-directer Kaleo Quenzer, The Big Muddy is about a young man who is convinced that all his dissatisfaction in life comes from the fact that he's stuck in Memphis. If he could only move to a bigger city, perhaps Seattle, then things would surely get better. Just when he's packed up and ready to go, his truck gets repossessed, forcing him to stay until he can pay off his debt—whereupon he meets a girl at his coffee house hangout who might just be The One. With a $20,000 bank loan and a borrowed camera, they started filming in late summer of '97 and shot for the planned 21 days—and weren't anywhere near finished. "We ended up shooting all the way through winter of next year," says Venable. "It ended up being 60 total days."

This presented unexpected problems.

"The film's called The Big Muddy, after the Mississippi River, so we had all these scenes where the main character has his revelations down at the riverbanks. Well, once the weather started getting cold and windy, you couldn't record sound down there, plus we had actors in shorts and rollerblades freezing their asses off trying to say their lines as the wind whipped up off the river."

Then there were was the rusty film magazine scratching the footage, trolleys ruining the sound recording with their clanging bells, mismatched wardrobes in different shots...technical problems that delayed their progress, certainly, but in hindsight Venable gleaned a different filmmaking lesson.

"We based the story around what we could accomplish," he says. "I thought it was important then to prove that we could light a scene and shoot it on film—but I don't think the technical side is as important as having a good idea and telling a good story. If we had thought of a more original story and had written a more original script, with more original characters, I think that even if we had shot it on VHS, we would have had a better chance of making a name for ourselves."

One filmmaking duo with an original idea, solid experience, and a professional cast was Los Angeles-based director/producer Eric Young and producer/writer/actor John Lee. An executive at Walt Disney Studios, Young has done everything from location managing to producing—but still had a yen to direct his own movie. His playwrighting partner Lee came up with a simple yet affecting story about, yes, a struggling, middle-aged playwright in Los Angeles, one who reluctantly befriends an aged and cantankerous British actress. But rather than devolving into a Driving Miss Daisy treacle-fest, Breathing Hard is a sharp, witty look those who strive to make it in Hollywood.

Breathing Hard—which is making its world premiere at Valleyfest—was financed by the holy trinity of indie movie funding sources: credit cards, savings, and borrowed money. Shooting on weekends and editing at night, the film took over a year to produce, with Young becoming an ersatz art director and set dresser whenever necessary. He says it's hard to pick just one war story to relate.

"On a particularly difficult day, working in a location three stories up without a reliable elevator in 100-plus degree heat, we tripped the power in the building—within a few shots of quitting for the day," Young says. "Now this building was built in the 1920s and had more mysterious locked doors in the basement than you can imagine. We were finally directed to look for the 'Frankenstein-looking' room which was this massive iron structure with locks and no keys to be found. After having lost six or eight hours of precious production time, we decided to employ hammer and crowbar to pry the door off its hinges, nearly killing us as it toppled to the floor. And what we found were ancient fuses as big as a man's fist, which then took hours to replace. Things always get more complicated on your worst days. It tests your resolve."

So what does an exhausted indie filmmaker do with his or her masterwork once it's finally completed? The choices are simple: Either send it to your best friend, who just happens to be a development exec at Miramax, or enter it in dozens of film festivals, hoping to get selected. This latter option is really the only chance most filmmakers have in recouping any of their investment—that maybe it'll generate enough word of mouth to lure in a distributor to see it who might like it enough to make an offer.

"Distributors want to see how a film will play with more regional audiences. They want to see you taking the film on tour and having a rich festival life with it, getting coverage and reviews," says Mike Tierno, a New York filmmaker who's thankful his Mastercard-financed Auditions made it into Valleyfest. "Festivals are great places to show the film, create buzz, get feedback, meet people. I've met so many industry people in the process. I know a lot more now about how everything really works than I ever did before."

For Australian writer/director Samuel Macgeorge, making movies can be an epic battle, particularly in a film scene that struggles in the face of Hollywood studios setting up shop Down Under. Local technical crews often opt for the better money of American productions rather than the little-or-no budgets of homegrown indie projects. "In Australia, basically no feature film is made without some assistance from a government-sponsored funding body," says Macgeorge. It took him a few years to put together the sets, equipment, and cast for Freezer, his short about a man trapped in a warehouse freezer who believes he may soon die.

"I think independent film is just about one of the toughest, most competitive arenas to be creating something in," Macgeorge says. "I don't so much measure success by awards or even box office success, however these things are important and wonderful to have. But just to make a good, solid film, a film that is a good work of art, that affects people's lives, reaches out, moves people—this is what success is truly about. Success is in the eye of the beholder."

But Mario Chioldi, producer for He Outta Be Committed, says that even for indie film artisans, the bottom line is always the dollar value a film is projected to be worth. "Independent filmmaking was an $800-plus million industry last year," says Chioldi. "While this is a small slice of Hollywood's $7.49 billion box office take, it is quite a large industry." And the roots of that industry start growing at film festivals, even small ones like Valleyfest.

"It is especially important for new festivals to continue to be born." Chioldi says. "As older festivals gain reputations among distributors, they become more and more popular, more selective, and, eventually, the kind of work they show veers more toward the mainstream. Take Berlin, for example. Younger, smaller festivals like Valleyfest become the new homes for fresh vision and innovative voices in the film world."

However, not all small filmmakers are looking to compete in the indie film trenches—some are simply using film as a means of gaining new life experiences. There's former Knoxville resident Kelly Riley, for instance, a recent graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design whose dabbling in documentary-making has taken him everywhere from Tibetan settlement camps in India (Ayung Rinpoche, Master of the Phowa) to the mountains of North Carolina (Moonshine). In fact, he's reluctant to call what he does a "career."

"I'm into enjoying the experience of life," Riley says simply. "I'm really into going and hanging out with people I wouldn't get the chance to hang out with otherwise, and [filmmaking] is a great guide for something to do—you know you have a reason to be there."

Partially financed by a grant from Entertainment Weekly, Moonshine (which will be screened at Valleyfest) is a portrait of one Jim Tom Hedrick, a lifelong bootlegger with a child-like zest for life that comes shining through the hand-held video footage. Riley doesn't preconceive his documentaries; he just shows up and starts shooting, hoping to winnow out moments of real life. In the case of Moonshine, Riley knew that a friend of his father's had some moonshining connections and he asked him if there was anyone he could talk to.

"He said that I ought to talk to Jim Tom and then he just wrote his [own] name down for me on a piece of paper and told me where to go," Riley says. "And I drove into a really small mountain town, which will remain nameless if you don't mind. I kinda asked around for Jim Tom, and people were like, 'Hey, what do you want with Jim Tom?' They definitely were not that open to me, but I just pulled out the piece of paper and that helped a lot."

Once a sense of trust was established, Riley and his crew of helpers (Josh Backer, Perry Hallinan, and Emily Kay) shot and edited about 30 hours of footage, condensing it into a 30-minute film. For someone who doesn't consider himself very competitive ("Documentary-makers seem to be more in touch with the fact that we are lucky to be doing it at all. There is not that idea of the big payoff."), Rily's documentary has already been accepted by several major festivals, winning best of show at the Independent Feature Film Market. Right after Valleyfest, he'll be heading for a screening at that center of cultural cool, South by Southwest.

Next up, Riley will be traveling all over Canada for three months, shooting a documentary for the Nature Conservancy of Canada—a gig he lucked into through a friend's parents. It sounds like another adventure to Riley, rather than a stepping stone in a planned film career.

"I'd like to just keep making progress," Riley says, "to see where it will take me..."


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