What does “independent” really mean?

If your film stars Jennifer Aniston, and had a $30 million budget, does it really qualify as indie? Sundance seems to think so. But isn’t that a bit like Green Day calling themselves punk?

The Dances With Films festival in Los Angeles receives thousands of submissions annually, from which they select 16 or so features for their official competition. Their definition of “independent” avoids the filmic equivalent of “stadium punk” or other oxymorons. Instead, they seek films made without star power, studio backing or oil magnates’ credit cards.

This year I am honored to have my second feature film, Pop-Up, screen in competition at the festival, June 9 at the TCL Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. With 15,000 attendees annually, this is no backyard festival. This is big. So for a guy from a smallish Australian city that’s often confused with an English mining town, I’m pretty stoked.

So how did I get from the beaches of New South Wales to the star-embedded footpaths of Hollywood? It’s been a long, hard journey, but luckily I’ve kept notes—an entire thesis worth.

I’m in the final stages of a PhD at the University of Newcastle, under the supervision of Professor Mario Minichiello and Associate Professor Mark Roxburgh. It’s a PhD by creative practice, whereby instead of submitting a 100,000-word thesis, I submit a 50,000-word thesis and a corresponding work. In my case, my work is Pop-Up.

“Pop-Up” writer/director Stuart McBratney. (Photo by SJ Cahill)

Pop-Up writer/director Stuart McBratney. Photograph by SJ Cahill

A PhD is about presenting new findings within a field, researched and written with academic rigor. I wanted to explore the thinking behind some of the most successful microbudget feature films, articulate a theory about what made them work, then test the theory by creating my own movie using those methods. In academic nomenclature, my goal was to make a movie that didn’t completely suck.

We don’t have 50,000 words here, so I’ll provide the CliffsNotes version of my findings. My thesis title is “Shoestring Theory: Pragmatism and Bricolage in Microbudget Feature Filmmaking.” I know that “pragmatism” and “bricolage” sound esoteric, but they’re actually simple concepts. Allow me to save you from a Wiki-hole.

Pragmatism is about stripping your idea down to its fundamentals. Do you have a great movie idea about a married couple on the International Space Station, heading for divorce, but depending on each other for survival? Cool story! But if you only have a tiny budget, ask yourself: What’s the essence of that story? If it’s about isolation, tension and rejuvenation, can you do that somewhere other than in orbit? Sure. They’re now camping in the desert. You won’t have your space shots, but you’ll have a movie. And what’s more important to you: that cool image of the couple making out in zero gravity, or actually getting the movie made? If you answered the latter, you’re already a pragmatist.

Bricolage goes in the other direction. It’s about taking stock of your available resources and building up your production values, then making script adjustments accordingly.

Let’s say your cousin manages a gourmet cheese shop, and she’d be delighted for you to film there. That scene you’d set in the organic supermarket? Change it to a cheese shop, then adjust other elements as needed. Now your character Dale is no longer shopping for kale. He’s gonna make a kick-arse fondue. And who doesn’t love a long-stemmed fork?

“But that won’t work,” I hear you say, “because he’s an annoying vegan who won’t shut up about wheatgrass! And that joke with the rhyme will no longer fit!” He can still be obnoxious, but instead make him pontificate about Gorgonzola Dolce. And that rhyming joke was kinda lame anyway.

Pragmatism is about making the movie smaller. Bricolage is about making the movie bigger. Oscillate between the two until you find the right balance. Too much pragmatism and you end up with a man trapped in an empty room with a broken toaster and a box of strawberry pop tarts. Too much bricolage and your film is overstuffed.

Less is not necessarily more, but more is not necessarily more either. A balance between less and more is more.

Filming a scene from “Pop-Up” with a drone in the heart of Transylvania. (Photo: Dan Pereț)

A scene from Pop-Up is shot by a drone in the heart of Transylvania. Photograph by Dan Pereț

On Pop-Up, I’d originally written a part for a friend who’s a brilliant martial artist. But having learned my lesson from my first movie, I knew to value performance over party tricks. This guy could do the most spectacular jumping spinning back kicks, but his acting? Well, he was no Steven Segal.

So upon finding an actor who could actually act, I rewrote his part as a guy who dabbled in kickboxing, but wished he could kick butt like Jet Li. And by removing something superficial, it resulted in something deeper: a character plagued by longing and regret. As the Dalai Lama said, “Sometimes not getting what you want can be a wonderful stroke of luck.”

We all know to write what we know. But Pop-Up’s lead character is a female Romanian immigrant with a prominent birthmark. What would a guy like me know about that?

My dad moved to Australia from the U.K. when he was 20, well before I was born. Epigeneticists argue that personal experiences can affect offspring on a molecular level. Despite being born Down Under, I’ve never felt quite like I belonged; perhaps I inherited my dad’s feelings of otherness? For whatever reason, I’ve chosen to spend 15 percent of the last 20 years in Europe, and these experiences have infused my writing.

I wanted to express this outsider feeling. So I made Rada, the lead character of Pop-Up, an immigrant, now living in Newcastle. But why a Romanian? Simple: because a good friend runs a production company in Sebes, Transylvania, and I knew we could shoot her origin story there with a trusted production company.

Director Stuart McBratney attempts to balance an unwieldy contraption in Sebes, Romania. Photograph by Dan Pereț

McBratney in Sebes, Romania. Photograph by Dan Pereț

Making Sam a frustrated kickboxer was pragmatism. Making Rada Romanian was bricolage. These are just two of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of examples sprinkled throughout the years of blood, sweat and tears which resulted in Pop-Up. By applying these approaches at the earliest stages of writing, casting and pre-production, and continuing them until the final sound mix was completed, I was able to make a genuinely independent film. It may not star Jennifer Aniston, be set in outer space, or feature organic superfoods, but the movie got made. And judging by the reaction so far, it doesn’t completely suck.

So if you’re in L.A. on June 9, come to our screening and ask us a question at the Q&A. If not, you’ll just need to wait for my 50,000-word thesis. MM

Pop-Up screens at Dances With Films on June 9, 2016 at TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Tickets are available here.