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How Are Indie Films Doing These Days? Not So Well . . .

Monday, July 17th, 2017


If you don’t care about the latest Apes movie, how are more thoughtful films doing?

As Tom Brueggemann of Indiewire notes in this perceptive overview of the current field, not all that well. Sofia Coppola’s new rendition of The Beguiled is racking up respectable but not incredible numbers, while as of July 16th the much-heralded film A Ghost Story has grossed just $288,751 in limited release. On the other hand, Eleanor Coppola’s subdued Paris Can Wait has made $5,304,000 in 177 theaters in 10 weeks. But it’s a tough world out there for independent art house films, and most viewers are simply flocking to the franchise films – they’re a sure bet.

The upcoming Blade Runner 2049, which dropped a trailer today, is sure to make money, and War for the Planet of the Apes (is this trip realllllly necessary?) has garnered $102.5 million in the first days of release. Meanwhile, the films that Brueggemann writes about are dying on the vine – they get no publicity and push at all, and so they wind up on streaming – no more DVDs. Try to find these films in a theater near you; unless you’re very lucky, you won’t be able to. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; every one of the films that Brueggemann mentions deserves a real shot at theatrical distribution, with a solid ad budget, rather than vanishing into the mists of the digital domain.

Read Brueggemann’s entire article here; a stark look at the art film today.

Advice to Young Filmmakers from Denis Côté

Friday, July 7th, 2017

As Leo Barraclough reports in Variety, director Denis Côté does not suffer fools gladly.

As Barraclough writes, “Canadian filmmaker Denis Côté has won multiple awards at top festivals, including Berlin with Vic + Flo Saw a Bear and Locarno for Curling. This week he has been mentoring a group of student filmmakers at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, where he advised them on how to get ahead in the independent film world. Variety was given exclusive access to the discussion.

Although he is genial, Côté doesn’t seem like a man to take hostages. He told the 10 students – gathered together by European Film Promotion as part of its Future Frames program — that they were ‘shy,’ and given the context of the discussion – how to get your films selected by film festivals — it wasn’t a compliment.

‘You need to be social. If you are this kind of weird poet director who has no friends and is always alone you might be a genius but… you need to talk to people,’ he said. ‘Cinema is a social world. It is not like playing a guitar alone in your room or painting. Cinema is the most social art.’

Young filmmakers needed to be proactive when trying to get on the festival circuit, and not leave it to others to put their films in front of festival programmers. ‘Never trust sales agents, distributors or films schools when they say they are taking care of your film. Send [the submissions] yourself.’

He cautioned against being overly pushy. ‘There is a thin line. You need to be respectful and not annoying. The moment you become annoying everybody knows.’

Côté’s go-getting attitude is also applied to generating projects. ‘I’m my own job provider. If I don’t write a new script, no one will write it for me. I’m my own locomotive bringing people with me. I’m open to collaboration but it’s never happened to me.’

He explained that he has developed the reputation for being ‘this alien weird guy making these weird films,’ which may put off writers from sending him their scripts to direct. His ‘weird’ – a.k.a. experimental — films include Bestiaire, a documentary in which a variety of zoo animals stare into the camera, and Carcasses, about a man who collects wrecked cars, and four teenagers with Down Syndrome, carrying guns, who invade his junkyard.

He advises young people to be brave and not to wait too long to go into production on their first feature. ‘Young filmmakers are just afraid to shoot sometimes,’ he said. ‘If they feel that they don’t have the right budget for their story they don’t start.’

Many of his films have been shot with very little money and just a few people. His latest feature documentary A Skin So Soft, which follows six body builders, was shot over 27 days on a budget of Euros 40,000 ($45,700). Although unconfirmed, the intention is for the film to have its world premiere at Locarno.

Côté’s love affair with cinema started in his early teenage years when his diet was purely horror movies, mainly European artistic genre filmmakers like Dario Argento, who filled his head with images of ‘witches, zombies, skulls, blood and cannibals.’

When he went to college at 18 his film teacher opened his eyes to the delights of arthouse movies by the likes of Fassbinder, Godard and Cassavetes. ‘It changed my life,’ Côté says. ‘I never watched horror cinema after that, but its DNA was still inside me, so when you watch some of my films there is a feeling of menace. There is always something that I borrowed from horror cinema because it has stuck in my head and my personality somewhere.’

After college he became a film critic on community radio, and later worked as the critic for a local publication. He then decided to make his first feature film. ‘I said, “I’m going to show the world what I can do with zero money, a video camera and four people,” he recalled. ‘I was pretentious like that.’

He decided to ‘make a movie at the end of the world’ and so chose a village at the end of a road heading out of Quebec. Drifting States (2005) featured a man driving for 16 hours – shortened to two minutes and 45 seconds in the film – until the road stopped (‘for me that was super poetic,’ he said), and then starting his life afresh.

The film won the video section award at Locarno and the prize money allowed him to quit his job and follow the film as it appeared in around 50 festivals over one and a half years. When the film won $10,000 at a festival in Korea, he used the money to make his next film, Our Private Lives (2007).

Bigger-budget films followed, like All That She Wants (2008) and Curling (2010), but Côté has repeatedly returned to low-budget filmmaking. He remains an independent film guy at heart and admits he has an aversion to folks from the mainstream movie industry. [As for Hollywood filmmaking, he notes] ‘I can’t be around these people. I hate these people so much.'”

Words of wisdom from someone who knows what he’s talking about.

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

Wednesday, May 31st, 2017

Only Lovers Left Alive is that rare thing – a genre film that reinvents the genre.

As Susan Wloszczyna writes in a sharp and perceptive review from 2014, very little can “compete with the fabulously aloof and effortlessly cool creatures of the night lurking in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. They don’t need the sun to sparkle. They are superstars illuminated from within.

Not that Jarmusch’s denizens of the dark are so mundane as to be directly referred to as vampires during the course of this pleasurably droll and languorous soak in a pool of comical musings, nostalgic longing and sorrowful loss. They are more like supreme beings, too good for the mundane and crassly disposable 21st-century chaos that exists outside their carefully curated domains. The domestic fortresses where they doze during daylight hours are bursting with rare books, objets d’art, collectible musical instruments, exotic fabrics, ancient electric gadgets and other relics culled from the many centuries they have existed amongst us lesser mortals.

Like most of Jim Jarmusch’s films, the emphasis is not on action but interaction—especially the verbal kind. And atmosphere. Loads of atmosphere, down to the sounds of far-off howls and crimson-red Gothic lettering during the opening credits. As usual, his pacing is decidedly unhurried—the less kind might say sluggish—but it is made more than tolerable by the presence of a pair of exceedingly appealing lead actors.

Tom Hiddleston, with wavy dark hair cascading Veronica Lake-style over one eye and boasting a poet’s slim-hipped physique, Hiddleston is a [superb] as a woeful and weary loner who finds solace in collecting classic guitars and penning mournfully hypnotic mood music. The only thing that truly relieves his gloom is his spouse and soulmate, Tilda Swinton’s more upbeat Eve. This runway-ready vision in a fawn-hued apparel, sunglasses and leather gloves while topped by a tangled mop of beige hair resides across the globe in Tangier, but stays in touch with her Apple iPhone.

Despite the distance between them, Jarmusch cleverly signals their psychic connection to one another from the first scene when a spinning 45-rpm record fills the screen and rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson’s witchy wail resounds on the soundtrack. That hypnotic image dissolves into the sight of two reclining figures going round in a circle, seemingly in the same room yet miles apart.

The story, such as it is, revolves around a concerned Eve paying her beloved Adam a visit, which requires booking a night-time-only flight and selecting just the right fake passport.Why they are apart is not fully explained, though we are left to guess it has to do with Eve’s close ties to Christopher Marlowe. Yes, that Christopher Marlowe, the Elizabethan tragedian whom some believe—including Jarmusch—wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare. He, too, is a vampire but less than thriving. The conceit that he is still around, hiding out in Morocco and supplying fresh untainted blood to Eve comes a bit out of nowhere, but John Hurt invests both pathos and humor into the role.

It is just one of the ways that Jarmusch, who with his legendary shock of white hair could be a cool vampire himself, allows his characters to toy with supernatural lore instead of over-explaining their lifestyles. Fearing contamination from feeding on humans directly, Adam, posing as Dr. Faust, gets his supply of hemoglobin by bribing a hospital worker who goes by the name of Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright). He also employs the services of Ian (Anton Yelchin), a none-too-swift kid who may or may not have tipped off others about the existence of Adam and his underground recordings.

Ian, who is a real bloodhound when it comes to fulfilling his master’s craving for rare guitars, doesn’t seem to question Adam’s nocturnal habits or the fact that his bathroom is perpetually out of order. The only time he gets suspicious is when his delivery of a Gretsch Chet Atkins gets Adam reminiscing about seeing rocker Eddie Cochran of Summertime Blues fame—who died in 1960—perform while using that model. Ian pipes up: ‘You saw Eddie Cochran play?’ ‘On YouTube,’ quickly explains Adam, covering his tracks. It’s akin to Bela Lugosi saying, ‘I never drink—wine.’

The arrival of Ava, Eve’s brazenly bratty little sister who is given a mischievous spin around the seductive bloodsucker block by Mia Wasikowska, soon up-ends the order of their carefully maintained universe. But the best parts are when we get to witness the reunion of Adam and Eve, sipping blood in aperitif glasses or slurping it in Popsicle form, driving around the ruins of a downtrodden Detroit in a vintage sports car (when Adam mentions the Motown Museum, Eve begs off: ‘I’m more of a Stax girl myself’) and sharing ancient memories of acquaintances past.”

Everything about the film is meticulously detailed, and the gorgeous score, composed principally by Jarmusch’s own band, is the perfect accompaniment to the proceedings. The ruins of Detroit, the back alleys of Tangier, and a seemingly endless round of intercontinental flights blend together to create a commentary on the passing of time, coping with changing technology, of the long view that 500 years of existence can bring to one, and the daily need for blood – now obtained through blood banks and other semi-legal means (most of the time) – as a constant factor in continued existence.

What makes the film so ravishing is the intoxicating camera work, the dim yet pungent lighting, and the mood, feel, atmosphere and eternal timelessness that the film conveys. This isn’t another film about some roving vampires and their victims, and it isn’t another franchise film cranked out by someone who once had promise with their first film, and then abandoned any pretense of artistic integrity to follow the Marvel or DC bandwagon. This is a slow moving, deeply felt, and passionately crafted film, which lingers in the mind long after the last frame has faded from the screen.

Only Lovers Left Alive does nothing less than create a whole new way of looking at the “undead.”

American International Pictures and Teen Films

Friday, January 27th, 2017

High School Caesar was one of the many AIP teen films of the 1950s – with a neat twist.

High School Caesar – a great title, by the way – was one of the many teen exploitation films released through American International Pictures in the mid to late 1950s, and represented the first time that a film production company directly targeted a teenage audience.

While the majors dithered and tried to return to the past, AIP – headed by co-founders James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff – stepped in to fill the gap the studios wouldn’t; films aimed at teenagers, which were as up to date as could possibly be.

In many ways, AIP changed the film business entirely in its most influential period from roughly 1955 through 1967, working closely with house director Roger Corman, who directed most of AIP’s output. But AIP also did a brisk business in “pick up” films, which were made by smaller companies and then distributed through AIP. High School Caesar belongs in the latter category.

Shot in Chillicothe, Missouri by the small company Marathon Productions, and directed by O’Dale Ireland, the film stars smooth-talking, baby faced John Ashley as Matt Stevens, who, unbeknownst to the teachers and principal at the local high school, runs a protection racket and other assorted graft schemes, terrorizing the students with impunity.

Made in a few weeks for roughly $100,000, the film was shot on actual locations, featured local residents in bit parts, and represents a kind of home-brew egalitarian filmmaking from an era in which anyone with a minimal budget and a good idea could get a theatrical release for their film – impossible today.

And if you can lift a great plot from William Shakespeare while keeping things contemporary – hey, why not? It also worked because the film spoke directly to its intended audience – not down to it. In general, AIP flourished because:

*AIP realized that no one was making films teenagers really wanted to see. AIP churned out one teen film after another, in a variety of genres, from horror to comedy to science-fiction to musicals, usually shot in a week, in black and white, on budgets in the $100,000 range – no more.

*AIP realized the importance of advertising, and would often spend more on promoting a film than actually making it. In addition to garish posters and “sensational” trailers, AIP’s sales staff would speak directly to teenagers, theater owners, and keep up on the latest trends, to deliver product that would find a ready audience.

*AIP invented saturation booking. Saturation booking, which has now become the standard for major film releases, opens a film everywhere at once so that it makes as much money up front as possible, before negative word of mouth sets in.

*AIP realized they had to control both halves of the double-bill. From the 1930s though the end of the 1970s, movies usually weren’t “stand alone” releases as they are today. Films were paired in a double bill, with an “A” on the top half, and a “B” or re-released film as the second part of the program. The second feature was often rented for a flat rate, rather than a percentage of the box office, so —

*AIP made double-bill combo pictures and sold them only as a double-bill, thus retaining all the box-office revenue, rather than splitting the box office receipts with another, larger company.

*AIP made their films available to drive-ins and distributors on a much more favorable financial basis. Where the majors would often insist on a 90/10 split of box office revenues for the first week of a film – which is why concession stand prices are so high – AIP would deal directly with theater chains and drive-ins (then a major factor in distribution) on a 50/50 basis, thus undercutting the majors.

*And finally, and amazingly, AIP was the first company to realize that summer was a great time to release a film. Until AIP came along, the majors thought that in the summer, everyone was on vacation, and didn’t want to see any movies until the Fall and/or Winter. AIP immediately swept in with summertime double-bills that caught teen audience attention, and pretty much created the summer movie season as we know it today.

So, back to High School Caesar. The film was a solid hit when released by AIP, and director O’Dale Ireland made a few other films, but nothing with as much box-office impact, a film that even spawned a hit single with the same title. But the residents of Chillicothe, where the film premiered at the local theater to record crowds, never forgot the film – which is run on TCM from time to time – or the impact it had on the community.

So in 2014, the local high school drama group decided rather than staging a traditional play for the year, they would do a video remake of High School Caesar, using a completely non-professional cast. Shot in a matter of weeks, with many of the local residents from the original film returning to the cast – now as mothers, fathers, grandfathers and grandmothers, in supporting roles – the new version was warmly received by the community. You can read the whole story of the 2014 remake by clicking here.

A remake of a local “classic” – a fitting tribute to the film, and to AIP.

Sterling K. Brown and Issa Rae to Host Spirit Awards

Monday, December 5th, 2016

The 2017 Spirit Awards are much more interesting than the annual Oscar race.

As Matt Warren reports on the Film Independent website, “if it wasn’t already obvious from its beachfront locale (bring your swimsuit!) or avant garde approach to red carpet fashion (that psychedelic cowboy-hat-and-poncho combo is just fine by us), you should know by now that the Film Independent Spirit Awards are not your typical awards show.

The purpose of the Spirit Awards isn’t to anoint individual filmmakers or performers and elevate them into some sort of untouchable, aristocratic fraternity of Hollywood bigwigs—it’s to celebrate independent moviemaking as a whole.

It’s beyond cliché at this point to observe that film is a collaborative exercise, one that brings an entire micro-community of likeminded artists together to create something new and unique. So really, “community” is the key watchword here—and what better way for likeminded communities to celebrate each other’s work than to break bread together. Or, in this case, breakfast burritos.

The actual 2017 Spirit Awards ceremony won’t drop until February 25, but on Saturday, January 9 this year’s honorees will once again gather for Film Independent’s annual Nominee Brunch in West Hollywood in order to toast the past 12 months in independent film (and perhaps sip one too many mimosas) and watch as Brunch co-hosts Sterling K. Brown and Issa Rae take the stage to award a trio of filmmaker grants: the Piaget Producers Award, the Truer Than Fiction Award and the Kiehl’s Someone to Watch Award.

And if that wasn’t enough, the Sprit Awards have announced that the great David Oyelowo as the honorary chair of the 2017 awards, as announced by Film Independent President Josh Welsh. Need a quick refresher about who the 2017 Film Independent Spirit Award nominees actually are? Check out our Nominee page here, or watch last week’s press conference announcement, featuring Jenny Slate (Obvious Child) and Edgar Ramirez (Carlos).

As for this year’s Brunch co-hosts, Welsh said, ‘Sterling K. Brown and Issa Rae are two of the most captivating and talented actors working today…we’re so happy to have them host our Spirit Awards brunch.’

Sterling K. Brown rose to fame in 2016 with his jaw-dropping portrayal of Christopher Darden in the FX phenomenon The People vs. O.J. Simpson. He currently stars on the hit NBC drama This is Us. Rae—who joined us at the LA Film Festival “Diversity Speaks” panel in June (click here for a full recap)—is the creator and star of HBO’s critically acclaimed dramedy Insecure, which recently wrapped its first season. The show is an adaptation of Rae’s popular web series, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, which you can find here.

Two actors of enormous depth who have both been involved in projects exploring, with nuance and sophistication, the complexities of African American life in the 2oth and 21st centuries, Rae and Brown are in good company with Oyelowo, widely acclaimed for his performances in films including Middle of Nowhere (for which he was nominated for Best Supporting Male Spirit Award in 2013) and Selma (nominated for Best Male Lead, 2015). Past Spirit Award Honorary Chairs have included Jessica Chastain, Kerry Washington, Benicio del Toro and Jodie Foster, among others.”

Not to be missed. Click here, or on the image above for a video.

Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women” at The Ross

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2016

Kelly Reichardt, one of America’s finest filmmakers, is coming to The Ross Theater Nov. 4th.

As the website for The Ross notes, “Kelly Reichardt is a screenwriter and film director working within American indie cinema.  Her credits include Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff, Night Moves and Certain Women.  Her debut film River of Grass was released in 1994. It was nominated for three Independent Spirit Awards, as well as the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. In 1999, she completed her sophomore feature, Ode, based on Herman Raucher’s novel Ode to Billie Joe. Next, she made two short films, Then a Year, made in 2001, and Travis, which deals with the Iraq War, in 2004.  Most of her films are regarded by critics to be part of the minimalist movement in films.

In 2006, she completed Old Joy, based on a short story in Jon Raymond’s collection Livability. Daniel London and singer-songwriter Will Oldham portray two friends who reunite for a camping trip to the Cascades and Bagby Hot Springs, near Portland, Oregon. The film won awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Rotterdam International Film Festival, and Sarasota Film Festival. Neil Kopp won the Producer’s Award at the 2007 Independent Spirit Awards for his work on Old Joy and Paranoid Park.

For her next film, Wendy and Lucy, she and Jon Raymond adapted another story from Livability. The film was released in December 2008 and earned Oscar buzz for lead actress Michelle Williams. It was nominated for Best Film and Best Female Lead at the Independent Spirit Awards.  She then directed Meek’s Cutoff, a western starring Michelle Williams. It competed for the Golden Lion at the 67th Venice International Film Festival.  In 2013 her film, Night Moves, debuted in competition at the 70th Venice International Film Festival.

Reichardt is also an Artist-in-Residence in the Film and Electronic Arts program at Bard College. Ms. Reichardt is the recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship.  Reichardt’s next film, Certain Women, is based on Maile Meloy’s 2009 collection of short stories, Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, and was shot in March and April 2015 in Montana.  Starring Michelle Williams, Laura Dern, and Kristen Stewart, Certain Women premiered on January 24, 2016 at the Sundance Film Festival.  Reichardt won the top award at the 2016 London Film Festival for Certain Women.”

This is an opportunity not to be missed; Reichardt’s work is astounding, and chance to see her in person should not be passed up. This is is one of those once-in-a-lifetime events; you get to see a brand new film from one of America’s finest filmmakers, and you also get the opportunity to talk about the film with the director. The screening begins at 7:30PM on Friday, November 4th, followed by the Q&A with Kelly Reichardt.

Click here to read a superb profile on Reichardt’s work from The New York Times.

Nine Great Filmmaking Tips from Roger Corman

Monday, August 15th, 2016

Roger Corman, still active as a filmmaker at 90, is being honored at the Locarno Film Festival.

As Sophia Harvey writes in No Film School, “while many directors consider low-budget filmmaking to be just a step in an ever more glamorous career, Roger Corman has made his home in the indie world.

And now he is one of the most lauded director/producers in Hollywood, still active at age 90, with over 400 works on his filmography. Many of these are beloved cult gems, especially the “drive-in” teen movies, both comedic and horrific, of his early career, and the heated political films that mark his later period.

In describing his youth, Corman recalls a time when he ‘was directing one picture during the day, during my lunch hour casting the next picture, and in the evening I was editing the previous one. That night I thought, “I have to sleep fast.”‘ He slowed down a bit after that, he laughs, but only a little.

In celebration of his lengthy and notable career, Switzerland’s Locarno Film Festival invited Corman to be their Filmmaker’s Academy Guest of Honor at this year’s festivities. Last week, he spoke about his experiences, from landing his first job as a messenger at 20th Century Fox and discovering Francis Ford Coppola, to his admiration for James Cameron. Below, we’ve put together some of the most important takeaways from his Locarno talk.”

Here’s one great tip for starters: “1. Build A Crew That Makes You Proud. As a producer, Corman knows that the key to an efficient and well-run set is a cohesive crew. ‘The first picture I directed, when I finished shooting, I made an A list, a B list and a C list of everybody on the crew. The A list were the ones who were very, very good. Those were the ones I wanted to hire back.

The C list were the ones who were not good and I would never hire them back. And the B list, which was more complex, were the ones who were just OK, I’ll hire ‘em back if I can’t get any better’ he explained. ‘I made another list after each picture. And over a short period of time… I had a crew where everybody was friendly, they were all outstanding, and we all worked together. It was also sometimes known as the Corman Crew.’

The Corman Crew was often hired as one unit, which is unusual in the indie world. He described the ‘great camaraderie’ that was created by this dynamic and the ‘enormous sense of pride’ felt, by him and the rest of the crew for garnering such a reputation in the independent field.”

And don’t forget, when Ingmar Bergman astonishingly couldn’t get a US distributor for his film Cries and Whispers (1972), and Corman was by then running his own production/distribution company, New World, Corman instantly came up with completion money, and a solid US distribution deal for the film (it even played drive-ins), which was subsequently nominated for five Academy Awards (winning one Oscar for Sven Nykvist’s luminous cinematography].

And he’s still out there on the cutting edge, doing retrospectives and championing the work of young filmmakers, such as Ana Lily Amirpour, doing an hour long on-stage discussion / screening of her film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and in general keeping up with the latest movements in cinema, even if he has slowed down just a tiny bit.

Words of wisdom from one of most prolific and successful filmmakers in history.

New Article – Kelly Reichardt: Working Against The Grain

Thursday, June 9th, 2016

I have a new article on the films of Kelly Reichardt in Quarterly Review of Film and Video.

As I write in the article on her film River of Grass, “like so many of Reichardt’s protagonists, Cozy and Lee want to leave the lives they’re drifting through behind, but they have no clear idea – indeed no idea at all, what to do about it. They have no money, no real aim, in life, but they’re not so much hopeless as they are bereft of imagination. There’s a world out there beyond Florida, but somehow, home is home, and that’s where they seem to be stuck, in a state of permanent stasis.

And, of course, the film has many stylistic and thematic debts, which Reichardt is all too willing to acknowledge. As she told Iain Blair, in River of Grass ‘I can clearly see Godard’s influence, and noir and early Terrence Malick. It’s all laid quite bare.’ The film was recently restored as part of a Kickstarter campaign by Oscilloscope Laboratories, and released as an extra on Oscilloscope’s DVD of Reichardt’s ultra-realistic, almost existential Western Meek’s Cutoff (2010). It’s a solid first effort, and certainly offers an early clue to the direction her career was heading in.

Reichardt followed this up with two shorter films, Ode (1999), clocking in at 48 minutes, which is a sort of riff on the plot of the 1960s pop song hit Ode to Billy Joe, and then two very short films: Then A Year (2001), dealing with the consequences of a ‘crime of passion,’ and Travis (2004), centering on the human cost of Iraq war. But at the same time, Reichardt’s enthusiasm for making films had dwindled; these newer films were shorter, less ambitious, and she was clearly backpedaling in her career – indeed, she wondered if she had any real future as a filmmaker in any realistic sense, even working at the margins of the industry.

River of Grass has made something of a splash on the festival circuit, being nominated for Best First Feature, Best First Screenplay, and Best Debut Performance (Lisa Bowman), as well as the rather enigmatically named Someone to Watch Award at the 1996 Independent Spirit Awards, as well as being nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1994, and for Best Feature Film at the Torino International Festival of Young Cinema – but none of those nominations translated into a win, and gradually, the ‘heat’ surrounding Reichardt began to wear off.

As she admitted to Iain Blair, ‘making [River of Grass] was a real eye-opener, and even going to Sundance and all of it – that was my first realization that it was different for women in this business. There were just two of us women filmmakers at Sundance in ’94, and there was no sense of camaraderie or welcoming – no fault of Sundance. And I took it really personally and it took me a long time to get over it. That was a part of my retreating afterwards.

The other part was, I just couldn’t get financing, and it was so frustrating. I tried so hard to be a more avant-garde, less narrative filmmaker, but it just didn’t come naturally to me. I went to L.A. for a while, and Jodie Foster was going to produce a film I was doing, but it never got made. I simply didn’t have the social skills needed to operate in the business. So I went back to Super 8, which is what I’d done in college.

It seemed like nothing happened during my time in L.A., but I’d worked – in the art department – on Poison, and I became friends with (director) Todd Haynes. And he introduced me to (novelist) Jonathan Raymond, and one of his stories became the basis for Old Joy (2006) – but I had no idea when we did it that it’d even become a feature.'”

In short, it’s a tough world out there, but Kelly Reichardt keeps working, which is the only way to get anything to happen, no matter what your chosen field. Unfortunately, the article is behind a paywall, but you can gain access through Love Library Reference, if you’re interested, and in the meantime, check out some of Reichardt’s superb films – she’s one of the most truly original directors working in America today.

That’s Kelly Reichardt – working against the grain.

Spike Lee Finally Gets An Oscar

Sunday, November 15th, 2015

Spike Lee, one of America’s greatest filmmakers, is finally getting some Academy recognition.

As the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences noted, “Spike Lee, a champion of independent film and an inspiration to young filmmakers, made an auspicious debut with his NYU thesis film, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, which won a Student Academy Award in 1983.  He proceeded to blaze a distinctive trail with such features as She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze and Do the Right Thing, which earned him a 1989 Oscar nomination for Original Screenplay.

His work as a director ranges from the Oscar-nominated documentary feature 4 Little Girls to such mainstream successes as Malcolm X and Inside Man.  Lee’s other feature credits include Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Crooklyn, He Got Game, 25th Hour, Miracle at St. Anna and Red Hook Summer.  He currently serves as the artistic director of the graduate film program at NYU.”

In truth, Spike Lee should have won an Oscar for Direction a loooooooong time ago, probably for Malcolm X, one of his most powerful and influential films, on the life of the great civil rights leader. But Lee has always worked as an outsider, and even on Malcolm X, with Denzel Washington cast in the leading role, he had to seek funding from outside investors, such as Oprah Winfrey, to bring the film in on time and on budget.

As he tweeted shortly after he received his Academy Award, “you have to bust your ass, roll up your sleeves, and attack, attack, attack every single day” to make a film, and it’s a never ending battle to get meaningful films made.

As Access Hollywood wrote of the event, “Spike Lee told an audience of entertainment luminaries that it’s easier for a black person to become President of the United States than head of a Hollywood studio or network. Lee made the remarks Saturday as he accepted an Oscar statuette at the film academy’s seventh annual Governors Awards dinner in Hollywood. ‘We need to have some serious discussions about diversity and get some flavor up in this,’ Lee said. ‘This industry is so behind sports it’s ridiculous.’

The filmmaker praised Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Cheryl Boone Isaacs for ‘trying to do something that needs to be done.’ Earlier in the evening, Isaacs called on the industry powers in attendance to take action toward ‘recognizing and embracing a broad cross-section of talent.’ She also announced the academy’s new five-year plan to improve diversity in its staff and governance.”

And yet Spike Lee continues to struggle – his latest film, Chi-raq, due out December 4th, was finally funded by Amazon after every conventional Hollywood studio turned the project down flat. In an industry dominated by followers, Spike Lee is a leader, and a genuine original, who continues to tackle projects that deal with contemporary issues of race, politics, disenfranchisement, and social inequality in a town that loves fantasy more than anything else. Spike Lee will never make a conventional film, and it’s high time that that Academy honored him for his amazing body of work.

Spike Lee – one of the most important American filmmakers working today.

Uncle John (2015)

Sunday, September 20th, 2015

Steven Piet, John Ashton and Erik Crary on the set of Uncle John.

As the film’s publicity materials succinctly note, “small town bully turned born again Christian, Dutch, has gone missing. Well-regarded member of the community, John, is not a suspect, but has everything to do with it. Dutch’s younger brother, Danny, has his own theory about the disappearance and it centers on John.

Meanwhile, John’s nephew, Ben, arrives in town with his new girlfriend Kate just as John finds himself confronted with threats from Danny.” And that’s just the beginning of one of the most beguiling and mesmeric films in recent memory, made by two young men in sixteen days on an absolutely minimal budget. But as David Lynch noted on his Twitter feed, “check out @UncleJohnMovie – it caught me up and held me for days!”

As Neil Genzlinger noted in a rave review in The New York Times, “the simmering mystery Uncle John is so subtle, so exquisitely paced and so determined not to go in any of the obvious directions that it’s hard to believe the film is Steven Piet’s first feature. Piet, who with Erik Crary also wrote the script, sketches some memorable characters while keeping his two-pronged story sparse, ominous and deliciously ambiguous.

John Ashton is just right as the inscrutable title character, an older fellow in a rural town where an unlikable man named Dutch has gone missing. Shortly before his disappearance, Dutch apparently found Jesus, and he had been visiting various townspeople, confessing to misdeeds and such. Dutch and John’s sister were an item long ago, but something murky happened to the sister, and perhaps now something murky has happened to Dutch.

While all of this is being slowly revealed, many miles away in Chicago a young man named Ben is becoming smitten with a new co-worker, Kate. Alex Moffat and Jenna Lyng are very watchable as this might-become-a-couple, but what do they have to do with the goings-on out in the country? Turns out Ben has a beloved uncle who raised him, a man by the name of John. And when the two young flirters head his way for an impromptu visit, all secrets will be revealed. Or will they? It’s tantalizing, sublimely creepy stuff that keeps you guessing even after the credits roll.”

Added Frank Scheck in The Hollywood Reporter, Uncle John’s “other virtue is reintroducing John Ashton to the screen in his first major role in decades. The character actor, memorable for his sardonic comic turns in Midnight Run and the Beverly Hills Cops movies, delivers an understated but career-defining performance as the title character.

Seen disposing of a body in the film’s opening moments, John is an unassuming widower who looks like he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Whether engaging in small town gossip with his buddies at the coffee shop or politely ignoring the flirtations of one of his carpentry clients, he maintains a low-key demeanor that is only betrayed by the quiet intensity of his gaze . . .

The film is an impressive dual calling card for its tyro director who keeps the tension at a simmering boil throughout both genres. And the late-career performance by the veteran Ashton (sans his usual mustache) is a revelation. The now 67-year-old actor has been steadily employed over the years, but he’s rarely had a role as good as this one and it’s a pleasure to watch him run away with it.”

You can also read an excellent interview with the director and screenwriter in Indiewire, in which Piet and Crary note that “throughout the process, we tried very hard to keep from becoming precious about the whole project. Not that its easy — trying to get a micro-budget film together is all-encompassing because it requires your non-stop attention and a willingness to ask for endless favors.

However, keeping that framed inside the fact that the rest of the world is also doing its own thing was incredibly helpful. Without proper money, way more no’s than yes’s came in. But, by keeping things reasonable and honest, the yes’s we got were for the right reasons.

In terms of production specifically, micro-budget on this one meant there would be no room for indulgence, ego or indecision because it was all going to be over in 16 days anyway. By doing what we could in extensive prep to set that up for success, and by trying to maintain a collaborative, healthy vibe on set because you are all there making a movie together, the whole experience was the most difficult but satisfying thing attempted to date. For us, the goal now will just be respecting those lessons and trying to grow from it all as the next project gets set up.”

There’s one other person who really deserves mention here – cinematographer Mike Bove. Bove’s clean, CinemaScope-ish visuals, shot with an Alexa digital camera, really bring the film to life, and take full advantage of natural light and the sparse settings of the film, which was shot on location in Wisconsin, and briefly, in Chicago.

It seems that Piet and Crary had three different levels of budgeting to work with – the dream budget, the “B” level budget, and the bare bones budget, and what happened in the end is that they mostly used the “C” schedule, shooting only what they needed. And that’s good – it’s perfect the way it is.

This is a dazzling debut film – check out the trailer here.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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