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Independents' day

iconNot to begin at "The End," if you've ever wondered about some of those careers named in a film's credits, we've got info for you from 'Halloween II' director Rick Rosenthal and film reviewer Paul Clinton.  

True grit in filmmaking

October 11, 2000
Web posted at: 5:57 p.m. EDT (2157 GMT)

In this story:

The money pit

A woman or man for all reasons

School daze

For richer or poorer


(CNN) - For Liz Stubbs, toiling at a job with little or no income, cajoling others for money and favors and dealing with constant, often chaotically changing events makes for a magnificent madness.

It's the career of an independent filmmaker.

For every success story like that of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez who made "The Blair Witch Project" (1999), there are dozens more independent filmmakers struggling against enormous odds to complete a film or get it shown.

The calls are out for entries in the 2001 festivals scheduled around the country. Those are siren calls to gut-invested film artists, growing in intensity as entry deadlines approach. Nashville's festival, for example, closes its submission period in two months. And this year's 31st annual round of screenings there in June drew more than 10,000 people, a 37-percent increase in attendance over the previous year's festival.

Just one of those 10,000-plus viewers -- the right viewer, the one with connections, the scout from the big studios -- could do the trick, change the rules, blow the career of an "indie" filmmaker wide open. Intoxicating stuff. Even sooner, there's the LA festival, right at movie mecca, in April. The Ohio Independent Film Festival opens November 5 in Cleveland. There's always another festival, another call for submissions, another chance.

"It's not something you choose to do. You can't avoid doing it."
— Liz Stubbs, author and independent filmmaker

Why would anybody want the grief?

"It's just a passion," says Stubbs, who in addition to working on small, independent films herself, is co-author with Richard Rodriguez of "Making Independent Films: Advice From the Filmmakers" (Allworth Press, June).

Or it's just a compulsion. "It's not something you choose to do," Stubbs says. "You can't avoid doing it."


The money pit

Opinions differ as to exactly what constitutes an independent film. "My definition," says Stubbs, "is some sort of uncompromised expression, original thought and questioning -- an attempt to get people to think or feel in new ways.

"I think if you're truly an independent filmmaker, you don't care to make films in the studio system because you don't want the limitations that are probably going to be put on you. The studio system is a business, whereas I think independent filmmaking in its truest form is an art or a passion."

But of course what's nice about working on a film funded by a studio is that you have comparatively ample resources, financial and otherwise, at your disposal. If you make an independent film, you may have to do everything short of robbing convenience stores to breathe life into your cinematic baby.

In "Making Independent Films," Stubbs and Rodriguez interview seven independent filmmakers for insider experience on everything from getting started in the business to preproduction, shooting the movie, postproduction -- and financing.

In that last category, these filmmakers -- through resourcefulness, persistence and coherent planning -- appear to have had some amazing successes. Jennifer Farmer got Donna Summer, Gloria Estefan and Rita Collidge to provide music free.

"You have to beg, borrow and steal. You have to swallow your pride and be able to ask for help, for money. A lot of people are willing to help independent filmmakers if they think there's a chance they're going to finish their film."
— Liz Stubbs, author and independent filmmaker

She also got $80,000 worth of postproduction work done without charge. David Zeiger received $80,000 in grants, two-thirds of his budget, to make his film.

"You have to beg, borrow and steal," Stubbs says. "You have to swallow your pride and be able to ask for help, for money. A lot of people are willing to help independent filmmakers if they think there's a chance they're going to finish their film."


A woman or man for all reasons

Cadging money and services is only one of many skills and talents independent filmmakers need to do their work. They've also got to work within a tight budget, be involved in casting, location planning and script editing, be flexible when things inevitably go awry and keep their low-paid -- if paid at all -- cast and crew happy.

What do all those people listed at the end of a film do? We asked "Halloween II" filmmaker Rick Rosenthal.
You know how those credits just keep coming? And coming? film reviewer Paul Clinton fills us in on a few more of those jobs going by after "The End."

Nothing is more important than morale, Stubbs says.

"The ability to keep the cast and crew happy is essential," she says. "It's not about the paycheck for them, so if they're having a miserable time they're going to walk on you. There's no investment for them to stay. I think you have to keep it light, keep it a positive place."

It's also a good strategy to hire crew members at the next highest level of their specialty, based on the last job they worked, Stubbs says. "What they're getting out of it may not be money but experience and a credit, which they can use to get themselves a better-paying position on their next film."

"Making Independent Films" co-authors Liz Stubbs and Richard Rodriguez  

Almost as important as keeping colleagues congenial is flexibility, Stubbs says. "It's never going to happen just the way you want it to happen," she says. "You've got to be able to go with the flow, adapt."

Those interviewed in "Making Independent Films" tell a number of anecdotes that demonstrate just how useful this quality is.

One filmmaker, Traci Carroll, recalls in the book how she thought her lead actress was about to bail out during filming, so they filmed until 4 a.m. because they knew she wasn't returning.

The actress did leave, forcing another cast member who was supposed to strangle her in the movie to instead choke a wig placed on a bed. The scene was filmed at such an angle that a full head wasn't needed.

And Chris Blasingame in "Making Independent Films" tells how he needed to buy a cheap old car for his movie. He was set to buy a 1964 Cadillac, only to show up, cash in hand, to learn it had been sold earlier in the day. He opted for a 1963 Buick, but it was towed and impounded and nobody was sure where it was, just hours before the shoot. Finally, he found somebody willing to sell a 1966 Chevrolet BelAir. The car was perfect.

Imaginative independence: Filmmaker Jennifer Farmer's "Pumpkin Man" leads a boy to some new perspective on his parents' divorce.
Watch a clip from 'Pumpkin Man.'

Play video
(QuickTime, Real or Windows Media)

•  What's stopping you from really going for that movie-magic career you have in mind?
If Hollywood can milk those credits, so can we. We've got one more tale from what follows "The End."

"Sometimes the things that fall through are a blessing in disguise and you find something even better," Stubbs says.


School daze

Stubbs and the independent filmmakers interviewed in her book are lukewarm at best on the value of attending a film school. "A lot of people say the value of film school is in the people you meet there," Stubbs says.

"Those end up being the people you work with later in life. You can go to them for advice, or they can work on your film. The learning part of it really comes from doing, and not as much from lectures, reading and viewing films. The education comes from the hands-on part of it. You can get this on your own more cheaply than you can in a lot of the most prestigious film schools."

Neophytes can learn filmmaking fundamentals by perusing how-to books, videotape lessons and other guides, Stubbs says. Then, she adds, you should try to work on somebody else's movies.

"That, I think, is an even more valuable experience if you're in a position to see how they put the movie together, what works and what doesn't," Stubbs says.

Filmmaker Jennifer Farmer, right, works with Laura Johnson, second assistant director, on the set of "Pumpkin Man"  

In her own case, Stubbs attended the International Film & Television Workshops in Rockport, Maine, where she eventually took a job in the film department. Then she moved to Atlanta, where she was production manager of a low-budget horror flick, "which, frankly, I'm not sure ever made it in the can." After that, she made a stab at documentary films.

Technology has evolved so that almost anybody can make an independent film, Stubbs says. Digital cameras only cost about $1,000, she says. "Digital video has enabled people to go out and buy a DV camera and shoot hours and hours of film for $10 per cassette.

"That's good in a way because it makes filmmaking accessible to a lot more people who might otherwise not have tried it. But it also means there is a lot less thought and planning put into a lot of projects than there would be if you had to pay dearly for every foot of film that you exposed."

But let's assume that you've worked hard on your independent film. Then what? You probably will have to try to get it shown at film festivals. You do this by submitting your film, a fee and an application. Then you wait to hear how you fared against perhaps hundreds of other hopefuls, depending upon the category.

Festivals are useful for making contacts with others in the industry and for getting your movie distributed in theaters or on cable television, Stubbs says. "They get you talked about as a filmmaker. They'll give you film life, and that will give you life as a filmmaker."


For richer or poorer

Film-festival exposure probably won't make you rich. Here's what one of the filmmakers interviewed by Stubbs had to say on the subject:

"I'm married -- I'd love a house; I'd love kids, but I can't. I want to soon. But it gets to be depressing. When I was 25 it didn't matter so much, but now I'm getting a little old to be living this lifestyle. But you've got to let things roll off your back."

"It's a love-hate thing. You doubt yourself constantly. You question why you do it all the time. If it's something you're not passionate about, then go elsewhere, because it's all about staying power."
— Liz Stubbs, author and independent filmmaker

Most independent filmmakers work at another job and make movies in their spare time. Or their family or spouse carries them financially.

"Mostly what I do to pay the bills is a lot of writing for corporate training films and producing those," Stubbs says.

Director Chris Blasingame (right) with crew members Mark Yoder (center) and Chad Outler (left)  

Still, the colossal success of "The Blair Witch Project" could do for independent filmmaking what Watergate did for journalism.

"That opened the door for a lot of people who may not have thought they could make films," Stubbs says. "I think it's definitely something that will increase the popularity of people going out and making films.

"But if you want to make money, independent filmmaking is not the career to choose. After many years, if you get a reputation as a good, solid independent filmmaker, then perhaps you'll get the returns you wanted in the beginning.

"I know a lot of people who get discouraged and drop out, but they come back to it. It's a love-hate thing. You doubt yourself constantly. You question why you do it all the time. If it's something you're not passionate about, then go elsewhere, because it's all about staying power."


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September 21, 2000
NYC film market gives hope to indie auteurs
September 18, 2000
Another Internet first: 'Quantum Project'
May 5, 2000
'Election' voted best film in Spirit Awards
March 26, 2000
From apartheid to Tammy Faye, Sundance documentaries packed punch
February 1, 2000
A brief history of Sundance
January 21, 2000
On screen in Austin: Your future as a filmmaker
October 13, 1999

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