g The Film Panel Notetaker: ND/NF- HBO Films Roundtable: New Directors and Beyond - March 30, 2008

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

ND/NF- HBO Films Roundtable: New Directors and Beyond - March 30, 2008

New Directors and Beyond
Walter Reade Theater – New York, NY
March 30, 2008

New Directors & Beyond Panel at ND/NF

Sunday during New Directors/New Films (ND/NF), an HBO Films Roundtable entitled New Directors and Beyond took place with ND/NF veteran filmmakers who talked about the beginning of their careers, where they are now, and new technologies that are changing the way they make films. Overall the discussion was nice, though I kind of wish moderator Joanna Ney would allow the panelists to further answer one particular audience member's question about how the panelists connect to their audiences via online social networks and grassroots promotion versus traditional marketing. Ney said that this wasn't a marketing panel. True, but this was still a relevant question because many filmmakers are now utilizing these resources to their advantage, and it would have been interesting to hear more thoughts on how the panelists may or may not be using them, being that they come from a previous generation where these tools weren't necessarily available to them when they were starting out. Speaking of audience questions, there was another really good one: To what extent do you feel the choices you made in your career were your own vs. external factors, to which Lodge Kerrigan answered, "That's a fascinating question."

Joanna Ney, ND/NF Selection Committee Member & Producer, Arts Programming, Film Society of Lincoln Center

Lodge Kerrigan (Clean Shaven, ND/NF 1994)
Philip Haas (A Day on the Grand Canal with the Emperor of China, ND/NF 1988; Music of Chance, ND/NF 1993)
Tom Kalin (Swoon, ND/NF 1992)
Jim McKay (Our Song, ND/NF 2000; Everyday People, ND/NF 2004)
Michael Almereyda (Another Girl, Another Planet, ND/NF 1993)
Tamara Jenkins (Family Remains, ND/NF 1994)
Su Friedrich (The Ties that Bind, ND/NF 1985; Rules of the Road, ND/NF 1993)

Ney: After your initial films, was it easier or more difficult to make your second film?

Kerrigan: Clean Shaven was an amateur film. It took two to three years to make and cost about $60K just to correct it. If I started shooting, then I’d be so much farther than just talking about making a film. At the end of the day, it was a good experience. When it ended, it was such a strange experience. I thought I had to make something else. I sent it to Telluride where Roger Ebert saw it, and then it was selected by ND/NF. I went to a writer’s workshop in France and got my second project produced. People look for a blueprint on how this happens, but in my experience, there is no blueprint.

Haas: My third documentary about Hockney was the film that got me attention. ND/NF positioned me. I then got another film, Music of Chance. I thought that would get into Sundance, but the festival committee didn’t like it. The financiers were in a panic. The only thing we could do was change the music. The along came ND/NF to show the film. Music of Chance was more successful for its esteem than as a commercial success.

Kalin: I started as an experimental filmmaker. My first film grew into a feature. I got involved with Christine Vachon and Todd Haynes in an AIDS activist group. I continued to make experimental shorts. I fell in love with the book Savage Grace, a light-hearted story about Irish-Catholic women, a sweeping epic story that ends in tragedy. We never made the musical version of it, because Andrew Lloyd Webber had the rights at the time. I still wanted to do Savage Grace and re-optioned it. It came about because I never fell out of love with the project.
McKay: I thought my second film would be easier to make. I financed my first film, Girls Town, myself with credit cards. It got a distributor, but I kind of got cocky and thought I knew how to do it. Then I wrote Our Song. It’s about the project itself, not about what you did before. I remember Steven Sodergbergh did Sex, Lies & Videotape, and then he did a lot of smaller films after. For my second film, I cobbled $100K. That got into ND/NF, probably my best filmic experience for me. I was asked to get involved with HBO’s Everyday People. For my next script, Angel Rodriguez, they wanted to make that, too. It was a much smaller film. That time has changed just because of corporate changes at that place. I think they decided to stop making smaller films. I never cast someone because they would bring in money, and that’s sad. I like to watch films with people who don’t have a lot of baggage so you can get to know their character.

Almereyda: I had a rough time on my first movie, Twister (not the blockbuster Twister from 1996). No one was paid except for an elephant from New Jersey. It’s a very eccentric film under one hour long shot in pixelvision. It’s kind of magical. It had an odd history on the festival circuit, but was never released. It’s not even on DVD. I was lucky that some people saw it and liked it such as David Lynch and his wife. They were excited about getting involved with my movies, but couldn’t get the money. I then made Nadja, which is about vampires and also kind of eccentric. It’s easy to underestimate how difficult it is to make films, but things are shifting.

Jenkins: My first film was a half-hour film that played at ND/NF and was financed by ITVS. I finished film school and applied for a grant called TV Families. I got to make a weird black and white movie and got paid to do it. It was my first semi-pro film. Probably one of the purist experiences I ever had. Prior to making films, I was a performance artist. Theater companies encouraged me to make my own material. I realized when you get frustrated; you can make your own thing. I went onto film school eventually, then got my lucky break by getting this grant. At Sundance, it won the prize for best short. It led to me making Slums of Beverly Hills as a broke emerging artist in a post-grad stupor living very frugally. At Sundance, I met Michelle Satter who asked if I had a feature. She had a great new timing quality. I sent her this unfinished screenplay and got it into the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab. I’ve been saved many times in my life by institutions. Those have been like my mother. I developed the script at Sundance. American Playhouse was going to make it, but Federal funding went away. Eventually, I made it with Fox Searchlight. I never had to negotiate with executives before that. I think they should teach that at film school.

Friedrich: My film The Ties that Bind from 1984 was a stunning moment for me because I had only been making films for a couple of years. It was only 54 minutes long and it was selected for ND/NF. There was a full-page review in the Village Voice for it. I am really grateful for ND/NF for choosing my film. I’m different than these other panelists because I don’t work with commercial films. I didn’t get investors to give me money to make my films. I did get a stipend to go to Germany. It gave me time to think about what to do next. I proceeded to get grants and made Rules of the Road, a 30-minute film, in 1993 about a woman I know. At that ND/NF screening, I was sitting near a couple I didn’t know who said they didn’t know lesbians live their life like that. I thought that was a great moment. It’s not all an easy road.

Ney: How has technology affected your filmmaking? Is it evolving? Does it have an impact?

Friedrich: I always shot on film until 2002. I wish I could still afford it, but I can’t. My new short is on video. It’s a great boom to have this medium, but you have to deal with lousy projection, except here at the Walter Reade Theater.

Almereyda: I’ve shot in about every medium. Shooting in film is cumbersome and expensive. William Gibson said the future of film is not evenly distributed.

Kalin: I work only in film. Started with 8mm and eventually graduated to 16mm. Savage Grace was shot on 35mm. Julianne Moore means something financially, but she was also the right person for the role. Technology will continue to move forward. People tend to choose what the economy dictates and what stories dictate. It depends on aesthetics. I’m mostly drawn to lyricism and romanticism. You also have to embrace the limitations.

Kerrigan: It’s important to couple technology with the discovery of distribution. How will you get people to see your film? It’s based largely on advertising.

McKay: When digital cameras came into being, everyone could make a movie, but I don’t know where they all are. Sherman Alexie was quoted as challenging directors to make something for less than $1,000. A personal story is possible, but where are they? We have 100 million people making videos of exploding Coke bottles on YouTube. It’s still an elitist group of people who are telling you what to see. The next film I’m producing that’s directed by Josh Fox is shot with a handheld camera and mixes fiction and documentary. My company invested in it and one year later the director came back with something completely different. It’s hard getting it into festivals. It’s all video and looks like crap at times intentionally, but it works when you’re in a small room of people or watching it online.

Friedrich: I’d like to respond to Jim’s remark. We’ve all heard that all this great work will happen. The problem with things on YouTube is because of distribution. I teach and all my students think they’ll be filmmakers. Odds are it won’t happen. How do you support yourself? Me for example, because I came from a time where there was a circuit to show work. There’s a limited amount of space to show this work. There’s a lot of talented filmmakers who are justifiably desperate. It’s just a bad scene.

Kalin: The Rodney King beating was kind of a watershed moment in video. It’s kind of awful this idea turned into YouTube.

Kerrigan: The music industry is under increasing pressure to offer music for free and make up revenue through concerts. This will be applied to the film industry, too.

Friedrich: Theaters in America can show a short before a feature. IFC Center is the only place I know that does that.

Audience Q&A:

Q: To what extent do you feel the choices you have made in your career have really been your choices verse external voices?

Kerrigan: That’s a fascinating question. Your environment determines what you really want. When I was younger, I was determined to take my time. As I got older, I had to support myself and family. I’m now attached to direct a studio film. I want to do it, but question where this comes from. So much of people’s really interesting vibrant work happens early in their career. When you get too relaxed, you somehow lose certain focus.

McKay: Bingham Ray once said that indie film is the realm of the young and irresponsible, which to I add people who also want to live in New York City and don’t want to have a family. I lived on people’s couches. After that, I had a family. Comfort is a part of it. Is it my dream choice to direct an episode of Law & Order? No. I’d rather make my own films, but this allowed me to make my films. My wife wrote a script which I’ll now direct. I never did anything I wasn’t crazy about.

Kalin: I made my second feature 15 years after the first one. I was barely paid to make it. I’ve chosen not to pursue other offers except my own work. I also teach. It’s been completely rewarding. I still want to make opinionated films.

Q: Do you continue to work with the same talent and crew from your first films?

Kalin: On Swoon, I worked with Ellen Kuras and then worked on several shorts with her after. There’s also a great reward working with new people.

Haas: I’ve worked with different people over the years. I started working with my wife, but not anymore. It’s good to have continuity, but also to be open to new situations.

Jenkins: I worked with an entirely different group of people on The Savages. It always feels the same making movies. The problems always feel the same, like where to put the camera. I feel the same anxieties.

Friedrich: I’d like to make a remark. There’s something to do with age. I think there’s a problem in this country regarding mania for youth. It used to be as you go along, you get better, ie. Kurosawa. We need to remember if there isn’t going to be any support, you have to be 24.

Kerrigan: This is tied to economics. When you’re young and have potential, people see it, but that can’t define it. Studios think perhaps they’ll evolve into a great talent, but potential can diminish.

Haas: It’s also a question of perception. More commercially successful films get pigeonholed. It’s reassuring and depressing to hear this.

Q: How easy is it to connect to your audience? Have you experimented with social networks or grassroots promotion versus traditional marketing?

Kerrigan: It’s usually best if you already have a brand. It could be very effective, but how much of your time can you devote to setting up this mechanism.

Haas: It works best when it goes hand in hand with traditional marketing.

Q: Is it important to live in New York City to do creative things or has technology made it easier to live anywhere and do it?

Kerrigan: Filmmaking is like any other industry. It’s centered on relationships. You can write a screenplay anywhere, but you have to develop relationships.

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