Monday, May 30, 2011

Voices from the S-VHS era

I recently re-read a library book that I'd read about eight or ten years ago, Making Movies on Your Own: Practical Talk from Independent Filmmakers by Kevin J. Lindenmuth. It was comprised of advice from 25 indie directors I hadn't heard of, and it was published in 1998 by McFarland, a publisher that seems to specialize in academic non-fiction books.

Back then the Sundance-and-Miramax era of arthouse hits was still in full flower, so I found it odd that this book was so biased towards shot-on-video exploitation films (as opposed to the usual bias against such films). A few years later, though, I worked on Tom Gleason's horror spoof Enter the Dagon and as a result discovered the world of DIY straight-to-video horror, and its star system of actors and directors.

Rereading it from the perspective of an older and more experienced filmmaker, the book is a great time capsule of an unsung, half-forgotten era. An era when consumer equipment was just getting good enough that regular Joes could make technically competent movies, and film school was becoming optional. The Internet was just starting to catch on (only one of the filmmakers mentions it as a venue for selling his films), and DV was brand spanking new. Back then, when people complained about “Hollywood” it wasn't just to be a fanboy troll; the implication was that they were going to make their own films that were different, possibly better.

Lindenmuth's interviewees discuss issues such as whether to shoot on S-VHS or Betacam SP, how to get video rental stores to carry your films, and how many publicity images you can fit on a Syquest(!). All of which really brought home how long ago and far away that time now is. But it reinspired me somehow, like looking through old family photos and remembering your roots.

The late 1990s/early 2000s was probably the last era when exploitation filmmakers still had an auteurist attitude. Most of the guys in this book, even though they're making no-budget backyard videos about zombies or aliens, talk about following your artistic vision and cite directors like Scorsese and Coppola, not just Romero and Raimi (though them too), as inspiring them to become filmmakers. They also declare that even if you don't make your (self-funded) production budget back, it's still worth it just to make a film and get it seen. They seem to embody the same can-do spirit as the lucky few who struck gold making Clerks and Reservoir Dogs and El Mariachi.

The directors in this book stated that publicity and self-marketing are important, but often admitted that they themselves were not strong in these areas. That's another thing that's changed. For so many indie directors – and the older directors who they looked to as role models – making films was a way of expressing yourself in ways that didn't come so easily in “real” life. Writers and filmmakers didn't have the best social skills, so they used art and storytelling as an outlet.

Being an independent filmmaker today, however, seems to mean being as social as possible. It's all about Facebook friends and Twitter followers and YouTube hits. In the indie filmmaker conferences that I've attended in the last few years, filmmakers such as Lance Weiler and Jon Reiss have been promoting “transmedia” not only as a way to extend a film's brand, but to engage the audience interactively. The idea of the artist-genius on a pedestal dispensing his inner thoughts has fallen out of fashion; increasingly, it's about real communication with your audience, and creating a sandbox that the audience can play in and customize.

All of which is challenging and exciting in many ways, but it requires skills that a generation of aging, angst-ridden navel-gazers haven't necessarily developed. Contemplating my own future as a filmmaker, I'm of two minds on how to respond to all this.

On some days, I feel like enough is enough, that I've already spent too much time and money making movies for an audience that may not even exist, especially in an age when the desire for new and original stories has been replaced by the desire to cling to a favorite childhood franchise forever. Becoming a feature filmmaker was an ambition of mine since middle school, but now I've done it more than once, and no longer feel the need to prove anything.

Yet on other days, I feel totally re-energized, like I've been through a difficult trial but have finally come out the other side stronger and wiser and more balanced, and that I've finally learned how to make movies. I've learned what to do and what not to do, and what new challenges I would need to tackle next time.

While a lot's happened in the years since Lindenmuth's book was published, one theme in the book still speaks to me. The guys interviewed in that book loved movies, and they loved filmmaking. They weren't part of a movement. They weren't straining to be fashionable or hip. They weren't motivated solely by fame or fortune. They didn't worry about the fact that they were operating far away from the major production centers. They stuck to their guns and made the films that they wanted to make, with whatever tools they could get their hands on.

I once read an old interview with John Waters from around 1987, when Hairspray was new. He talked about the guerrilla approach that he used to produce (and screen) early films such as Pink Flamingos, and then said “I think you could still do it today, but there's no movement.” Of course, just a few years later there was a movement – the movement that Soderbergh, Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith were part of, among many others.

It's a curious irony that just as the tools to make movies have become cheap and widespread enough to empower every Garage Kubrick, the entertainment industry has shifted its focus to reality TV shows and to franchises based on established brands. That alone would seem to make this an ideal time to be an independent filmmaker.

Keeping up with trends is important. You can't lose touch with the audience. You can't become a bitter old guy stuck in the past. At the same time, though, you need to remember (or be reminded) who you are and why you're doing this. Being independent isn't just a matter of having a low budget or working outside the studio system. You need to have an independent viewpoint as well. The people who stand apart from the crowd, not the ones trying to get in, are the trailblazers.

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