THE “INDEPENDENT” SPIRIT AWARDS

Did you know that the word “independent” as used by the media, Hollywood, and most filmmakers has actually nothing to do with the true definition of the word?  Did you know that the term “independent” is actually used by those people as a description for a new genre?

If there were any doubt in your mind, you can now rest easy.  Here’s proof.

Your “independent” film is eligible for consideration at the “Independent” Spirit Awards if your film cost less than $20 million.  That’s right.  TWENTY Million Dollars.  (I laughed out loud when I read that.  Literally.  Beyond LOL.)

If Film Independent had any real interest in celebrating the art of true independent filmmaking, they would limit the budget ceiling at $250,000 including post work.  A film made for anything greater than that amount should never be considered.  On that note, they should have a special prize for films made for less than $50,000.  (Currently the ‘no budget’ film category considers any film made for less than $500,000.)

Film Independent does not define “independent” solely on financial terms.  I bet you didn’t know that Film Independent considers a big-budget studio-made film an indie “if the subject matter is original and provocative.”

That means the word Independent is just like Comedy, Drama, or Thriller.  It’s now a genre.

[In terms of financing, Film Independent looks for “economy of means” and “percentage of financing from independent sources.”]

Uh huh.  I bet.

[The film needs to be American, which means it has a U.S. citizen or permanent resident in at least two of the following categories: director, writer or producer.  For example, Saudi Arabia’s Oscar entry “Wadjda,” with a Spirit nomination for best first feature, is an American co-production, while the directors of Danish-British-Norwegian docu “The Act of Killing” are U.S. citizens.  Alternately, a film can be considered American if it is set primarily in the U.S. and at least 70% financed by U.S.-based companies.  Everything else is considered international.]

That seems okay to me.  Although, I’d open it up to the International market to be fair.

[To be eligible for the Film Independent “Independent” Spirit Awards, a film needs a commercial run in the calendar year or to have screened in one of these six designated festivals: Los Angeles Film Fest, New Directors/New Films, New York Fest, Sundance, Telluride or Toronto.]

[Nominations for the Spirit Awards are made by committees for three areas: American narrative films, international narratives and documentaries.  The committees include filmmakers (directors, producers, actors, etc.), film programmers and critics, past nominees and members of the board of directors.  The final awards are voted on by the entire Film Independent membership.  In 2013, there were 43 committee members looking at 325 entries.]

So there you have it.  The word “independent” as it relates to movies has been totally redefined.  It no longer means what it says in the dictionary.

The Sundance Disease

My dislike for Sundance has nothing to do with the original message of Sundance.  I genuinely think Robert (Redford) had a great idea.  The original concept is beautiful and very valuable, celebrating filmmakers of all sorts.  But in recent years it’s distorted beyond recognition.  Sundance is now a gargantuan disease infecting the world and it’s time to confront it.  We can no longer be in denial.

The first cases were diagnosed in Los Angeles, leading the CDC to theorize that neither Robert (Redford) nor Park City, Utah, was the source of The Disease.  I interviewed a Studio Executive suffering from The Disease.  Said individual stated, “You are nothing unless your film is shown at Sundance.  If you aren’t at Sundance, you must not be a real filmmaker.”  All other research indicates that most films “accepted” into Sundance have, in one way or another, been financed, produced, or planned by a company in The Industry.

What happens to the real independent film?  What happens if one doesn’t surrender?  The same thing that happens to people in our culture that don’t fit the mold!  They are exiled!  They are called freaks!  Which reminds me of the scene in FREAKS: “One of US! One of US!”

Have you been in contact with The Sundance Disease?  How would you know?  Here are signs to look for.  Common symptoms include: Confusion and general disorientation characterized by a preference for freezing temperatures, deep snow and high altitude instead of warm waters, white beaches and the mild climate of Cannes in May; Preoccupation with Sundance participation on the part of the inexperienced public who have no knowledge of important festivals such as Berlin, Toronto or SXSW; Industry Wannabes who insist that missing Sundance dooms a film to second class status.

A secondary infection of The Disease is the marginalization of all the other festivals.  It makes all the other organizations less important: “Oh, you got into Cannes – too bad you weren’t ‘accepted’ into Sundance!”

Slamdance started with good intentions and challenged the bureaucracy of Sundance.  Now, Slamdance has developed symptoms of The Disease.  And, if we aren’t careful, it will spread to Slamdunk and all the other Dances.  Remember what happened to LapDance!?  At this rate of infection, we’ll be looking at TromaDance to predict the 2006 Oscar nominees.  We’ll have forgotten all about the Independent Spirit Awards.

The Disease is as contagious as SARS.  And, like SARS, there is currently no known cure.  But if all independent filmmakers fight together, we can stop it from killing us.

Originally published in Aftertaste Magazine, 2004

 

KAREN BLACK

I first met the actress Karen Black in 2001 when I stopped by her house to try and persuade her to star in my film FIRECRACKER.  She knew I was coming, so she let me in.  I was instantly hooked on watching her body movements and facial expressions.  There was something about her entire being that reminded me of a wild cat… like a panther or a jaguar.

She seemed to float on the air, feet never touching the ground.  I would later remember this and encourage the Oscar-winning sound designer Paul N. J. Ottosson to remove Karen Black’s foley from one of her characters in FIRECRACKER so she would appear to subconsciously float, otherworldly through the film.

Karen eventually agreed to star in FIRECRACKER and we went about making the film.  She was an incredible trooper on set.  One of my favorite scenes is when her character Sandra leans out of her gypsy wagon to talk to the young boy.  During filming, when it was time to reverse the camera and get the kid’s shot, it was nearly 5 AM and we’d been filming since long before sunset.  Several people on the crew were worried about getting Karen back to her room so she could sleep but she stood firm, and refused to go.  She wanted to stay and be there to act with the kid who was being filmed.  She was a total pro.

In the years after FIRECRACKER came out, Karen and I remained good friends and I’d look her up every time I was in Los Angeles.  We always daydreamed of another project and when we would be able to work together again.

In 2008, Karen was being honored at the Macon Film Festival and they were to show my film FIRECRACKER, so I was flown in to present it with her.  It was such a lovely town, we decided to make a movie there.  Screenwriter Frankie Krainz had just finished his ode to film noir women in prison movies, and Karen said, “I’ve always wanted to be in a women’s prison movie and no one’s ever asked me to be in one.  Isn’t that peculiar?”  So we decided to make STUCK! together.

At first I’d thought of casting John Waters’ muse Mink Stole as the part of the Next Door Neighbor Lady, and Karen as the bible-beating shooter on death row for gunning down an entire fleet of tax collectors.  Karen really wanted the part I had in mind for Mink, and eventually I convinced Mink to take the part I’d originally had in mind for Karen.  It ended up being a great switch, and both women were perfect in their roles.

One of my favorite moments during the filming of STUCK! came when we were shooting a scene near the end of the film, where Karen’s character is riddled with guilt.  In that room, on the set, we turned to each other after a take and looked around.  It was just the three of us.  Karen, me, and my sound guy.  I made the comment about how amazing this was, this experience.  How intimate and real and honest.  She smiled and said, “THIS is filmmaking.”

I am so very lucky to have been able to work with her and to be her friend.

Last week Karen Black passed away after a long battle with ampullary cancer, a rare form similar to pancreatic cancer.

The days leading up to her death were filled with lovely texts and email exchanges.  One night, I sent her this text:

“I had a cry for you today.  In your honor.  I was sitting in my editing room, which is the same room you loved, on the second floor, with the North facing windows.  And I smiled.  And felt your love and support.  And I hope you can feel mine for you.  You are a treasure.  After work I like to go outside in my yard and look up at trees, see the leaves and the branches.  All those shapes and lines.  You once taught me its important to do that after sitting at a computer.  You also have taught me the gift of collaboration.  I shall never forget those incredible moments creating with you.  I love you with all my heart.  Now.  Next.  And then some.  Cheers, my dear.  To YOU!”

She replied with kisses and was eager to hear about what I was working on next.  It was such a blessing to have had the chance to say farewell to her personally.  And it was so lovely to just keep on going.

Please, everyone.  Take a moment and watch this clip of Karen’s most memorable films.

Our film FIRECRACKER is now streaming on demand.

Dear Karen:  Know that you are loved and will be missed.  Thank you for being one of my collaborators, one of my cohorts and my friend.

SOUND MAKES A MOVIE

The sound quality of a movie is the single most important thing to focus on.  Audiences will tolerate inferior image quality if the sound is perfect, but they will not tolerate a perfect visual image if the sound is inferior.  Naturally, you want to have both the image and the sound as perfect as possible, but if you must throw more money into one or the other jars—pick the sound jar.

When I started out in the business there were specialty sound houses that produced and edited a movie’s sound.  Even if you had no money, it still cost around $50,000.  Of course, back then, we were shooting on film and had to imprint the final sound onto celluloid.  Today, since film is obsolete, and almost everyone can get a copy of ProTools, it’s possible to get the same level of sound quality those sound houses provided for a fraction.

I can’t remember all their names, but Lisa Hannan and Paul N. J. Ottosson worked at that sound house who did the post sound on my first film PEP SQUAD.  They were both incredibly nice people and also very talented.  I remember telling them I wanted my sound design to rival that of THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT, that surprisingly cool movie with Geena Davis.  They agreed it would, and they did it, and the sound in PEP SQUAD is phenomenal.

Paul and I have continued to work together many times over the years, and he won back-to-back Oscars in Sound for THE HURT LOCKER and again for ZERO DARK THIRTY.  He’s the best in the business, and the lessons he taught me are immeasurable.

I’ll mention one thing he taught me during the post sound in WATCH OUT.  There’s a hilarious scene with Peter Stickles at a Lobster restaurant where the production sound had an echo to it (either because the boom wasn’t placed in the right location, or for whatever other reason).  On the reverse angle, the production sound of the other character, played by Matt Riddlehoover, was not nearly as echoey.  Instead of removing the echo from Peter’s shots, Paul added more echo to the reverse shot.  So the echo matched.

That is one lesson I loved, and that never occurred to me before.  You don’t have to have crystal clear sound, you just need to make sure the sound goes by smoothly so the audience doesn’t get sonically jarred from shot to shot, or scene to scene.  I then remembered all the “bugs” and “weather” sounds Paul used in my film FIRECRACKER.  Instead of removing the bugs, they added more.

It’s about how to take what would normally be considered an error, or a sonic mistake, and using creativity to solve the problem.  If you use this way of thinking, and have taken good steps during production to insure you’ve got at least a good foundation to your sound, you, like me, will never need to do any ADR.  I remember Paul telling me that my production sound on FIRECRACKER was better quality that the production sound in the blockbuster SPIDERMAN 2, which required a ton of ADR, and also for which he was also nominated for an Academy Award.

Another trick I learned about sound, is that if you remove the bass from the dialogue, it’s easier to hear.  Try this next time you’re in your car listening to NPR.  Put the bass and treble at equal, listen for a bit, then remove just a small bit of the bass.  See what I mean?  Or, rather, hear what I mean?

It’s also fun to play around with Foley.  And sometimes the absence of Foley.  In FIRECRACKER I wanted to have the mother’s character (played by Karen Black), have really heavy Foley – like the gravity in her world was intense.  On the flip-side, I wanted them to remove all the feet Foley when it came to the carnival world, so when the carnival singer (also played by Karen Black) walked across the room, it was as if she were floating, feet never touching the ground.  Of course, that is all absorbed subconsciously.  Most viewers never notice those kinds of things.  But, they’re fun to play with.

Creating sonic landscapes is just as much fun as creating the visuals.  Remember this next time you’re watching a movie, or making one of your own.