I met Morrisa Maltz during SXSW in 2016 when she came to a panel on micro-budget filmmaking that I put together and pitched for the festival.
Our mutual friend Meera Menon connected us. Morrisa submitted her film Ingrid to our Creative Distribution Fellowship and both my teammate Jess Fuselier and I fell in love with it. We loved Morrisa’s fire to get the film out into the world and the intimacy with which she captured her main character on screen. Unfortunately, the duration of the film was a little short for our requirements and, to our disappointment, we didn’t have the full buy-in of everyone here at Sundance Institute. However, we wanted to keep the door open. Filmmakers like Morrisa inspire us. She has the fire and the conviction to fight for her film being seen.
What follows is part one of a two-part interview series on Morrisa and her first feature documentary, Ingrid. When Morrisa has concrete data on how well her film has performed in the marketplace, we’re going to publish a follow up piece where she reports her findings to the world at large.
Liz Manashil, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What incited you to make this film? How did you meet Ingrid and what convinced you that she would sustain a feature-length film on her life?
Morrisa Maltz (MM): I started making things after my father passed away in high school and haven’t stopped since. As an adult, as I started making money from my career (albeit still a very modest one) I started to lose whatever that was that you start off with — that feeling of needing to make things. I was yearning to find that again.
I started looking for “outsider artists”—people that made things without the want for money or fame—and visiting them for two years in between other work and projects. At first, I didn’t intend to make a doc, I was just curious and asking questions. I visited around 10 subjects in various parts of America. I found people in Montana, Texas, Pennsylvania, New Jersey — one of my closest friends (Meera) actually went into the forest in New Jersey with me the day after her wedding because I had gotten so obsessed with visiting one on my list whenever I had the opportunity to travel anywhere.
While in Dallas with this subject someone told me about Ingrid. I drove out and met her and there was this immediate connection and fascination. Ingrid was the first woman who had peeled off from society to create in this manner. All the other people I visited were men. I started visiting her on and off for a few months.
At first I thought to make a short film about her, opening up the idea to a feature if there was enough material down the road. About six months into filming I realized I could turn it into a feature.
MM: How did you get the financing together? How did you meet and bring on your teammates?
MM: I was ruthless to start; I think you have to be. I asked a long time doctor friend of Ingrid’s from Dallas (the man who originally told me about Ingrid) if he would finance a short film for $10,000. It took a lot of convincing and Ingrid had to agree. That was the hardest part. Finally, after weeks on the phone with her and the investor we signed for that amount.
Once I got this initial financing I looked for a small team native to Dallas. I didn’t know how much we would be filming so it didn’t add up to fly people out of LA. Dallas has a big commercial scene so there was/is plenty of talent there excited to work on films. I had a friend in Dallas who knew my work well and recommended a commercial DP and drone operator to me (Andrew Hajek and Will Graham). Our production team was small, but incredibly talented. For post, I worked by word of mouth as well—we worked with Treehouse Edit and Filmworkers in Dallas. I also worked with a Dallas sound editor, Roy Bennett, and an additional editor, Laura Colwell, based out of Austin. Although, for the final editing, I used an editor who has edited all my work, Vanara Taing, and the composers I’ve always worked with, Alexis&Sam. They are both based out of LA.
MM: How did you know how much you needed to raise? How did you divvy up responsibilities between your crew when it was so small—did you feel supported?
MM: I wouldn’t really phrase it as “knowing how much I needed to raise,” it was more “how much I could get,” and then figuring out how to use it.
We got $5,000 more from the investors for a feature idea. We made the whole thing for $15,000 dollars. And everyone did A LOT of favors. It was basically all in-kind. If people are excited about a project and it can interest them creatively, there are ways to make things for not a lot of money. Emotionally, it did not feel great. Working that hard for so little money, not paying yourself and not being able to pay those that are bending over backwards to do amazing work for a project does not feel good.
There are, of course, inspiring moments when things come together and everyone is excited. The film has had a lot of success so overall it’s been great for the team, but during the process I was asking a lot of talented friends and team members that didn’t make me comfortable. I was also doing way too many jobs, for no pay, supporting myself by renting out my apartment in LA to make a film with very little money that I could hardly pay anyone for! It’s still what you have to do to get something made, it’s just not an easy, or comfortable, process!
MM: How many days did you shoot the film and how did you arrange the dates? Did Ingrid give you carte blanche to record everything?
MM: At first we scheduled the dates with a small team going and kept it more structured. Towards the middle we were just winging it when people were free. We were building the edit as we were filming so it helped to be able to be more organized when we actually had a day to get out there. Ingrid lived about four hours from Dallas so we could do a quick trip in a day if we needed to grab something.
Getting a woman that has been a hermit for years to open up about her life and really trust me was the major challenge. Ingrid had never opened up to anybody and I needed her to intimately express her feelings about herself and her past. It was hard to just make that happen. She had to really believe in our friendship for it to be genuine. Before this trip, a lot of her personal life was sort of off limits. She finally opened up about a lot of the things she hadn’t wanted on camera before (about her childhood, her family, and her nazi parents).
There were a few things that Ingrid didn’t allow us to capture. For example, her actually killing the rabbit isn’t shown. Other than that she did give us mostly cart blanche—getting her to trust me and open up deeply was the main issue.
LM: The film uses a lot of verite footage — did you make a decision to avoid too many “talking heads” or was it a byproduct of Ingrid and how she felt about the camera?
MM: I really wanted the film to have the feeling of what it’s like being on her property. The pace and visuals were integral to this. I was also aiming for the viewer to have space within the film to have their own existential experience and contemplate their own life choices. I wanted the audience to talk about it afterwards and encourage a philosophical discussion. This meant that we spent a lot of time out in nature (sometimes spending days filming ants and spiders) by Ingrid’s property, trying to make really visual imagery that matched the feeling of the world Ingrid inhabits. It also meant that I wanted a lot of the footage of Ingrid, herself, to be meditative, her meticulously working mixed with cuts to rapturous long nature shots.
I enjoy watching talking head documentaries but that was not what I wanted for this project. I wanted it to feel more like a visual poem. My background is as a visual artist, so the decision was an artistic one, which happened to also match up well with Ingrid’s comfort level. It was far easier to film her with a fly on the wall verite style, and save more of the interview work that we needed for later in the process. The film is shaped how I got to know her. The camera is viewing her farther away at the beginning and moves much closer to her towards the end.
MM: How did you start building an audience for the film? On what platforms have you been most successful?
MM: The way Ingrid built an audience was, and still is, mostly by people seeing it on the festival circuit, word of mouth, emails, and lots of social media posts for screenings. For example, every curated screening I’ve done, I’ve also added an element that brings a larger audience. At our ArcLight screening in LA we did a creative mothers panel, with well known women in the industry discussing how they balance their creative life and motherhood. If I added some extra element to a screening like that it has helped our audience build.
With festivals, we were very lucky in that our initial investor gave us a small budget for submissions. I spent about $1,000 dollars on festivals from January 2018 to April 2018 — applying outright and hoping we would get into one major festival and that would help with waivers for future submissions. For this group of submissions I targeted the very top festivals.
When we heard we didn’t get into Sundance, which was expected, I heard we got into Slamdance. I had a short film that premiered at Slamdance in 2014 and I loved the philosophy and feeling of the festival. We all need to start somewhere and Slamdance supports that feeling. There is also a sense of camaraderie there with many other artists who had no budget and fought tooth and nail to make the thing.
With the way the festivals work, you have to “pick your premiere.” If I premiered at Slamdance, I couldn’t play SXSW or Tribeca or any of the other top festivals. I think it’s an unfortunate part of the process but it is what it is and I needed to get this thing out there. After Slamdance, I slowly learned the right festival fits for the film—Southern festivals like Atlanta, Oak Cliff , Hot Springs Doc Fest, Virginia, Cucalorus and festivals specializing in women and nature, like BendFilm Festival and Eastern Oregon Film Festival.
MM: How did you prepare for each of your festival screenings? What are must have assets to have on hand? How did you promote your film on the festival circuit?
MM: For the majority of festival screenings I had posters and postcards prepared and posted a lot on social media. I also asked everyone involved and close friends to repost about the film. I also reached out to lists of press, personally, to ask them to write and review the film.
We did pay for PR at Slamdance, but to be honest I don’t think it did too much. When you have a very small personal film, people appreciate the personal touches. I got a lot of great feedback from press (and festivals) that I wrote myself. If you’ve worked hard and people know that, it always helps to do as much yourself as you can. I’ve also heard this around the festival circuit from programmers — they respond more to emails from filmmakers themselves.
As I mentioned before for certain screenings I created panels and invited special guests to take part. I also asked them to post and promote the film. I did a lot of email and social media outreach for these to sell tickets. At many of our screenings we played to an almost full house because of this. We also just had a one-off screening in Baltimore where we partnered with MDFF and one coming up in Arkansas where we partnered with a women’s center that supports art and education. I ended up doing a lot of emailing and social media reach out for these types of screenings as well. They tend to get a lot of people since you’re playing to their niche audience involved with the local organization.
MM: Did you hire a publicist? Can you talk about the cost of your publicist and what you got out of it?
MM: I did hire a publicist and, in my situation, I did not think it was worth it. The festival press office out of Slamdance would have done the same work for free that the publicist did. It was probably the least vital part of my festival experience.
The reviews happen even if you don’t contact press if you play at major festivals, and then apart from that, as I mentioned before, I took the press list that the festival press office sends and wrote each person individually. Writing press does take time, and I definitely missed a happy hour or something at Sundance doing it, but it was worth it. I think there has been a lot of value out of the reviews. Our film got the highest ratings from reviews out of of any other doc feature coming out of Slamdance and the reviews have been very useful in pushing the film further and garnering interest. I was also the only solo female director in the feature doc category, which was surprising, but also helped with press.
I have heard that some people get a lot out of hiring a publicist so I suppose I was curious what type of addition that would make. Although, I’ve worked on a lot of art projects where I’ve done the press myself and just found it’s better on my own with small projects. Basically all I got out of the publicist was someone kinda’ pretending they cared about my small film more than the big ones they had at Sundance, which I knew wasn’t true. He was very nice though!
MM: When did distribution come into play? How did you decide on your distribution plan?
MM: The second festivals were announced for Ingrid, my inbox was full. Also, other email inboxes, of email addresses I didn’t even know I had anymore, were full. It’s crazy how the festival announcements happen and immediately you’re contacted after so long of making something in the dark.
After talking to a lot of these people and considering options, it looks like I’m going to self-distribute. None of the offers were enough to give up the full rights of my film. If I keep the full rights for a small film like this, as my body of work grows this is a film people will come back to and revisit. I could continue to keep 100% profits made off of this film, not just right now, but in the future as my career builds and continue to keep full control over the film. If I had an offer that blew my mind, I would have taken it but like many films that even got the creative distribution fellowship (what just happened with Thunder Road being a great example) if you turn down a few offers that aren’t monumental, and choose to do it yourself, it can be a great testament for the power of self-distribution.
MM: What is your plan for distribution? Who are your partners?
MM: My plan as of now is playing festivals, curated screenings, and doing a small theater run through spring of 2019. Then I am most likely releasing the film online with help from Quiver, an offer the Sundance Institute Creative Distribution Fellowship offers to fellowship finalists. I also have a broadcast deal in the works that would start after our festival run ends in spring 2019. Before this date I will be playing as many festivals and doing as many one-off screenings and art house screenings as possible so that our audience continues to build before our digital release. The larger audience we can grow now, the better for our digital release.
We will also do a big marketing push before our digital release on social media and via email blast. For this part, depending on what money I’ve made back from screenings, I am considering bringing on a publicity team to help with the push. MM
As a reminder, submissions to Sundance’s Creative Distribution Fellowship for year three are now open here. And, always feel free to reach out to us at [email protected]. Photographs courtesy of Sundance Institute.