Making movies is the only job I’ve ever had, and dreaming about making movies consumed my entire childhood prior. I’ve been quite fortunate to be able to earn a living at what I love, and I plan to keep doing it until I die.
My most recent film is called Director’s Cut and it just had a boffo premiere opening the Slamdance Film Festival. It was written by Penn Jillette, the more talkative half of Penn & Teller, and is a twisted and darkly comedic tale about a movie-obsessed stalker who kidnaps his favorite actress and forces her to star in his amateur film. Penn plays wacko Herbert Blount, a character so dead-set on making a movie that he goes to warped and gruesome extremes to fulfill his dream.
Though Blount’s methods may not be advisable, there’s still something that can be gleaned from his do-it-yourself filmmaking attitude. If you’re an aspiring filmmaker and haven’t been lucky enough to get to shoot your opus yet, here are a few words of gentle encouragement: Get off your ass!
I made my first movie when I was seven years old. I commandeered my fathers Sears Super-8 movie camera and spent my entire life savings to that point on a $5 cartridge of Kodak film. This only provided me with approximately two minutes of footage, so I had to be judicious with what I shot. The film was to be called “The Lady Giant” and would star my four-year-old sister as a 30-story tall, behemoth monster rampaging through a downtown city I had constructed out of erector set buildings and matchbox cars.
It was a cold December afternoon in Chicago and my mother insisted my sister wear her jacket, which incensed me. How dare she compromise my vision? I remember the screaming fight that ensued: “Monsters don’t wear jackets!” I implored. It wouldn’t be my first disagreement with a producer.
Needless to say, the producer won and the first directorial compromise of my career was made. My sister wore a bright red puffy winter coat with white faux fur trim while demolishing New York City. After dropping the film cartridge off at the local Fotomat shack, which was located in the parking lot of our nearby supermarket, I waited the interminable three-to-five business days for it to return, developed and ready to screen. My first gala premiere was held in our backyard. As my film was projected on a sheet via dad’s Bell & Howell projector, the handful of local kids who sat Indian-style on the lawn were wowed by the scope and pageantry of my 90-second opus.
From that moment on I was hooked. Making movies was my calling. There was never any doubt; all I wanted to do when I grew up was be an actual film director. But my youthful optimism and cinematic passion didn’t necessarily jive with the realities of the world at the time. Playing with my dad’s Super-8 camera was one thing, but making films, real films, for an unsuspecting audience of strangers and movie lovers at large, was a magical golden carousel ring that seemed woefully out of reach: a phantom rainbow that was clear as day to my prepubescent eyes, but impossible to chase down and catch. If anybody had ever told me at the time that “The Lady Giant” could be instantly released on the world’s stage and potentially garner views and possibly fans from every country on earth, I would’ve thought they were completely insane. But that’s because YouTube wouldn’t be invented for another 30 years.
Today the world is a much different place for young, hungry moviemakers. Any kid can be an auteur from absolutely anywhere. Technology has caught up with people’s ambition, and what was once only able to be seen projected on a sheet can now be seen by millions around the world. So-called “professionals” no longer hold a monopoly on what movies get made, what movies get seen and what movies are successful. The gatekeepers are impotent and now you control the wheel. These days, a movie can be shot on an iPhone, edited on an app, distributed to a global audience online and advertised to the world on social media. Or, the movie you shoot on your GoPro just might get accepted into Slamdance, get bought by IFC and change your life forever. The only question is, what are you waiting for? If you dream of being a filmmaker and you’re not making a movie right now, it’s because you are choosing not to. There’s no other excuse. I hate to put it so bluntly, but it’s true.
Dying to make that period epic but you need millions to get it made properly? Stop sitting on your butt and proclaiming that the powers that be don’t understand your unique form of genius. You’re just making excuses. Put it aside, be your own studio head and greenlight a different movie for yourself first. A smaller movie. A movie you can afford to make right now. A movie that shows you not only have a firm grasp on how to tell a great story, but that you know how to make the most out of your limited resources. Show that you can take any set of restrictions and make them look like brilliant creative choices. Need a particular star to bring your favorite script to life but you can’t afford them yet? Instead, make a tiny groundbreaking micro-budget film first. A film that wows the film festival circuit. A performance-heavy film that relies on great acting over big special effects. Once word gets out, said star will come to you. But it’ll never happen if you don’t make it happen.
Stop asking for permission to make a movie and just make a movie. John Cassavetes and Orson Welles, two titans synonymous with independent film artistry, both used to take shitty acting gigs and then turn around and use the money to make small movies they were passionate about. Are you better than Cassavetes or Welles? Of course not. Make your movie!
But be smart. Make it good. Since anyone and everyone has access to the same affordable technology that you do, there’s a massive glut of DIY filmmakers doing exactly what you should have been doing a long time ago. But don’t let that slow you down. Just make your movie better than theirs. Be the cream that rises to the top. Take it as seriously as if a major studio had given you $50 million.
Think carefully about which movie to make. Don’t set a movie in space if you know you can’t afford to make space look cool. Look around you: What do you have access to that others don’t? Does your dad own a restaurant? Then set a lot of your movie in a restaurant. Can your sister act? Cast her. Is she part of a hilarious improv group? Cast them all. Better yet, write roles that take advantage of their hilarious personalities.
I recently made a documentary that I’d love all you aspiring directors to check out. It’s called Giuseppe Makes a Movie and it’s about Giuseppe Andrews, a one-time child actor who lives in a trailer park in Ventura County with his dad. Giuseppe’s passion for film burns hotter than yours. It burns hotter than mine too. Giuseppe’s obsession with making movies has driven him to make over 100 feature films. They’re the craziest, most batshit nuts movies you’ve ever seen and his cast of recurring players are the bums, winos and homeless people who live in and around his trailer park. Most are made for budgets in the hundreds of dollars range, but my doc chronicles the making of his most lavish production, a film called Garbanzo Gas, which he shot in two days for a thousand bucks. [Ed note: Read our interview with Rifkin about Giuseppe Makes a Movie here.]
Giuseppe’s films might not be for everyone, but that’s irrelevant; he makes them. He’s never let a lack of funds or a lack of professional actors or a lack of fancy equipment stand in his way. His need to tell stories supersedes all limitations. I made the documentary about him because he inspires me. And Giuseppe should inspire you too. His “let’s put on a show” spirit of productivity reminds me of what it felt like to be building that miniature erector set skyline at seven years old.
Herbert Blount, my stalker from Director’s Cut, may be a more insane version of a Giuseppe Andrews. His nutty methods may be immoral, illegal and wholly abhorrent, and he may be risking a lifetime in prison for his art, but at least he made his movie. What’s your excuse? MM
Director’s Cut screens at the ArcLight Hollywood with ArcLight Presents Slamdance Cinema Club, on February 2, 2016, at 8 p.m.