Movies

Independents' Day

New technology helps filmmakers go beyond Hollywood.

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From time to time, Hollywood will "discover" one or another segment of American society: middle Americans, college-town bohemians, gays, immigrants, blue-collar workers, young professionals. Yet what finally erupts on screen usually conforms more closely to familiar Hollywood conventions than to anyone's actual experience. There are exceptions, of course, but they prove the rule: We remember The Deer Hunter as a "classic" because it is so unlike most other movies. One unfortunate consequence of Hollywood's vast hierarchies and concentrated wealth is a dearth of personal, idiosyncratic visions independent of the industry's culture. It costs a lot of money to make a movie, and studio heads are understandably wary about risking that dough on something unproven.

The alternative is to make movies independently. Film, the poet-director Jean Cocteau once said, will become an art when it is as inexpensive as pencil and paper. Today, Cocteau's surrealist fantasy has almost come true. Scrappy artrepreneurs, armed with cheap camcorders and digital editing software, are finding it easier and easier to set creative, highly individual visions to celluloid or video. What's more, these new directors are independent in a way most earlier "independent filmmakers," heavily dependent on a tightly knit grant-giving establishment, never were.

Consider Rick Castro, 37, the co-writer and co-director of Hustler White. A gay Angeleno, Castro was fascinated with Santa Monica Boulevard and its "amazing interaction" between hustlers and cruisers. The scene was obvious to those who knew what was going on, but others could pass through it obliviously.

An obsession was born. "I got so intrigued with the hustlers' stories," Castro explains, "because as I was spending time with them and photographing them, they would tell me these hustler yarns. I heard romantic stories, psychotic stories, near-death experiences, the whole range of human emotion."

Santa Monica Boulevard is literally in Hollywood, yet Castro could find no honest depictions of its world in the films the town was churning out. There was a brief mini-trend of hustler movies, most of which he describes as "really bad." Particularly offensive to him is johns, a current "independent" ($1 million budget) release supposedly set in Santa Monica but in fact entirely filmed elsewhere. "This was obviously directed and written by a straight man," Castro comments. "It shows no interaction with gay sexuality whatsoever. It could have been a film about female prostitution–that they are males is just a 'twist.' If this was a film about female prostitution, it wouldn't go anywhere–you get the idea the director thought using males would be just bizarre enough to get people's interest, but he'd water it down enough for it to be accepted by a mainstream audience."

So Castro and his collaborator, Bruce LaBruce, decided to make their own movie. They met and talked with the boys, who recounted tales of odd johns, brutal vice squad sweeps, the drug trade, the trade in stolen goods. Some of their stories almost certainly stretched the truth, but that didn't matter: It all went into the pot, was stirred well, and came out, the filmmakers hope, as a surreal but authentic evocation of that particular culture in that particular place.

Made for just $50,000, Hustler White is incredibly cheap by Hollywood standards. But among the new wave of ultra-low-budget features, it actually comes in at the high end of the scale. Rick Schmidt, writer-director of Morgan's Cake and American Orpheus, has been making well-regarded movies for under $10,000 since the 1970s. (He's since written a very good book, Feature Filmmaking at Used Car Prices, aimed at helping others do the same.) Writer-editor-director Antero Alli cut his teeth in experimental theater, later began shooting documentaries and shorts, and eventually produced his first feature, The Oracle, for just $1,000. While intermittently brilliant, it has its problems–the sound quality could stand some improvement, and some of the acting is on the amateurish side.

But that's another advantage to low-budget filmmaking: The freedom to make, and learn from, one's mistakes. Alli's second picture, a science-fiction tale called The Drivetime, was made for just $5,000. Set in Seattle in 1999, it spins a complicated story of media saturation, time travel, and police riots, peppered with psychedelic infomercials (penned by "Real Astrology" columnist Rob Brezsny) and political terms borrowed from the anarchist writer Hakim Bey. It is a quantum leap forward, arguably one of the best movies of 1995. (Full disclosure: I'm an extra in it. But frankly, speaking as a critic, I think it would be better without me.)

It may be misleading to create a new category for these filmmakers, separate from the traditional "mainstream" and "independent" pigeonholes. None of them eschews grants, and few would balk at the chance to play with a Hollywood budget. But they represent something genuinely different–if not exactly new, then larger than ever before, thanks to three technological revolutions.

The first of these is video. The price of good camcorders is dropping even as their quality dramatically improves. Traditionally, directors have shot with film, and for those who can afford it, this remains the medium of choice. But for those who can't, there are ways to get around video's disadvantages. One is to make a movie in which the video look is appropriate for the story. Many of the characters in The Drivetime are videographers, and much of the movie is seen through their cameras' eyes. The result is an attractive mix: a fantasy film with a documentary feel. Furthermore, the video look seems thematically appropriate for the movie, given the picture's concern with media and mediation.

Beyond that, there are several tricks a director can use to overcome video's flat look. Alli discusses them in an essay ("Video Deconstruction: Cinematic Values in the Videofilm"), listing such techniques as "shooting silhouettes against bright back lighting" and "framing a strong background to foreground contrast." The idea is to create the illusion of depth in an innately two-dimensional medium. Painters have successfully tackled this problem for centuries, and it seems reasonable to suggest that video directors might manage to as well.

And, where all else fails, there's Filmlook, a recent digital process that adds simulated film frames, along with film texture and color, to video. It's expensive, but it's cheaper than celluloid itself.

The second revolution is digital editing: transferring video footage onto a computer and editing it there. While we aren't yet to the stage where someone armed with a Macintosh and top-notch software can match the output of a professional editing lab, we're getting there. As Schmidt writes in Feature Filmmaking at Used Car Prices, "it shouldn't be long before the rising tide of new filmmakers?will be able to edit their movies on computers that fit in their briefcases. In fact an entire collection of video production equipment, Hi-8 video camera and Mac PowerBook will be able to fit inside a bowling bag!"

The third revolution–or, more accurately, potential revolution–is video-on-demand: the ability to download feature films quickly over the Internet. Thus far, this has been more media hype than living tech, and one can be forgiven for suspecting that it will turn out to be only so much commercial hot air. Nor has the hype been particularly thoughtful. It's been simply assumed that VOD would be little more than just another consumer pleasure (Now You Can Rent The Hollywood Hits Without Leaving Your Home!). But if it comes through, it would also have shattering consequences for distributing independent features and shorts.

Getting distributed is one of the toughest jobs an independent filmmaker faces, matched only by managing to avoid getting a bad deal from whatever distributor one ultimately finds. VOD could change all that. Transaction costs would drop to almost nothing, leaving only the problem of getting the word out that one's movie is available to be seen. Says Schmidt, "The Internet offers hope to the true independent filmmaker that he or she might find a small and appreciative audience, and maybe even get some revenue."

In the meantime, other means for showing indie pictures may emerge. Alli foresees "video venues, not unlike cinemas" that will emerge after "the rush of video technology in the hands of enough people making videos." Here again, diminishing expenses are radically decentralizing the marketplace. It costs much less to buy a VCR and a large-screen monitor than the equipment necessary to set up a traditional theater. All you really need are something to show and some people willing to watch it.

And occasionally, a big distributor picks up a low-budget movie and it becomes a hit. Robert Rodriguez's thriller El Mariachi, financed in part by becoming a paid guinea pig in drug tests and originally made for only $7,000, is one example. Another is Kevin Smith's Clerks, made for just $21,000. A comedy set in two New Jersey convenience stores, Clerks resembles the otherwise very dissimilar Hustler White in two very important ways. It depicts a particular place, and a particular way of life, that no Hollywood studio has ever managed to represent authentically. And it doesn't bother worrying about that segment of the audience that will find it uninteresting or offensive. Just as the spread of cheap printing presses once gave voice to marginal writers, the new film technologies allow for a greater range of cinematic expression and consumption.

One can overrate the effect of technology on art, of course. "Anyone can make a direct-to-video cheapo or a direct-to-parents'-and-friends'-bookshelf for under $20,000," comments Irwin Lewis, the writer and co-producer of the forthcoming Nobody Rides for Free. "You can buy a VHS tape for about six bucks; without doing any editing or counting the use of your mom's video camera, that's a 120-minute feature for $6.00." The "real story," he continues, is "how you can put $20,000 into a film and make it look better than a movie somebody soaked hundreds of thousands, even $1 million or more into.

"This can be done because of advances in technology, yes, but even more important is the amount of information available to today's low-budget filmmaker, the inspiration of those who have gone before, and the creativity of modern low-budget filmmakers," he concludes.

The Drivetime's Alli similarly stresses that the new equipment is secondary to the creative impulse. "I don't know if it's easier to make movies these days as much as it is necessary," he says. "Some people can only consume so much before, out of sheer necessity, they are forced to regurgitate and reinterpret the media they eat. Out of this group, maybe 10 percent will actually do something concrete, like make a movie or a video, or produce a CD, or publish a newsletter, or start a pirate radio station."

Some of those creative regurgitators may well move into the mainstream one day. Which leads us to two last points about these new technologies' effect on the art of film: They allow young directors to carry out their apprenticeships on their own. Kids have been fooling around with cameras for a long time, of course. An adolescent Kenneth Anger shot his first movie in his family's living room while his folks were out of town–in 1942. But now much more sophisticated technology is much cheaper, allowing young talents to bypass (or better prepare for) a highly competitive, highly limited, and highly expensive slot in a traditional film school.

Witness Justin Lowe, a 15-year-old Scorsese fan who lives in Waldport, Oregon. With a Hi-8 Camera, some editing software, and a PowerPC, Lowe makes movies. Granted, they aren't very good movies, as he is the first to admit. But that's beside the point: They're a valuable exercise in self-education. In June, he mailed me a copy of his last picture, 20 Seconds to Live, along with a list of everything wrong with it: "Microphone picks up lens movement"; "Microphone picks up camera noise"; "Stall door hits camera"; "Lame music"; "Overly dramatic scene"; and "With a budget there would have been a real explosion." And my favorite: "Scene in here for no purpose but to show that I had been there in real life." His conclusion: "Overall, I think 20 Seconds to Live is an extremely pointless movie that is in need of a plot. I'm sorry that you had to spend money on postage and tape to see this."

In need of a plot? Maybe. But not pointless. Every experiment and every mistake is a valuable lesson, and brings this energetic talent closer to his first "real" feature. Rodriguez made movies like this when he was a teenager, using far more primitive equipment. I doubt he wants any of the pictures he shot back then to be publicly screened today, but I'm also sure he's glad he made them. (Besides, 20 Seconds to Live does deserve a special Oscar for Funniest Unexpected Use of Bagpipes on a Motion Picture Soundtrack. And it's better than anything Pauly Shore ever starred in.)

Ten years from now, stories like this won't even sound unusual. Moviemaking equipment won't be as inexpensive as pencil and paper, but it should be cheap and plentiful enough to satisfy Jean Cocteau. Whatever fads may then be ripping through Hollywood–or the National Endowment for the Arts–one can rest assured that there will be maverick artists ready to buck them and go it alone.

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