After introducing now-iconic indies like Steven Soderbergh (Sex, Lies, and Videotape), Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs), Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket) and Kevin Smith (Clerks) to mainstream success in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the Sundance Film Festival became the world’s greatest showcase of low-budget moviemaking. In more recent years, however, it has been criticized for being more glitz than grit, complete with celebutantes and gifting suites.
But with films like Paranormal Activity breaking box office records worldwide, new festival director John Cooper realized the festival was ignoring a key part of the moviemaking population: The one that helped the fest rise to prominence in the first place.
As part of Cooper’s revitalization plan, this year’s festival will introduce “Next,” a special section for low-budget moviemakers—referred to as < = > or “less than equals greater than.”
“These are not just the films that have been labeled mumblecore or dogma or even guerrilla,” says Cooper of Next’s feature lineup. “They are an emerging counterculture within our counterculture.”
Showing audiences that you don’t need a huge budget (or any budget at all) to make a great film, Cooper wants indies everywhere to “feel encouraged and intrigued by this new section.”
Eight films made the cut for Next’s inaugural lineup—Habib Azar’s Armless; Linas Phillips’ Bass Ackwards; Sultan Sharrief’s Bilal’s Stand; Katie Aselton’s The Freebie; Todd and Brad Barnes’ Homewrecker; Adam Bowers’ New Low; Michael Mohan’s One Too Many Mornings; and Eyad Zahra’s The Taqwacores. Just days after their acceptance letters arrived, MM caught up with seven of this year’s “Next” wave of indie moviemakers.
Writer-Director-Producer-Editor, New Low
The Pitch: A neurotic twenty-something struggles to figure out which girl he really belongs with: The best one he’s ever known, or the worst.
Budget: Not a whole lot
Shooting Days: 22
Camera: Panasonic AG-DVX100B w/ m2 Redrock 35mm lens adapter
Writer-Director-Producer, The Taqwacores
The Pitch: When a Pakistani-Muslim engineering student moves into a house with punk Muslims of all stripes in Buffalo, New York, his ideologies are challenged to the core.
Shooting Days: 18
Camera: RED ONE
Producer, Bass Ackwards
The Pitch: After a disastrous affair with a married woman, a down-and-out guy embarks on a cross-country journey in a modified VW bus.
Shooting Days: 48
Camera: RED ONE
Director-Executive Producer-Composer, Armless
The Pitch: In this off-kilter comedy, a woman comes to terms with her husband’s strange secret: A compulsive desire to cut off his arms.
Shooting Days: 12
Camera: Panasonic HDX 900, with a Canon 21X7.5 HD zoom lens
Writer-Director, One Too Many Mornings
The Pitch: A new comedy.
Budget: Less than $50,000
Shooting Days: We shot nights and weekends over the span of two years. All in, it was probably 50-something days and half-days.
Camera: Panasonic AG-HVX-200
Director, The Freebie
The Pitch: A young, confident married couple decides to give themselves one night with someone else, no questions asked.
Budget: It wasn’t much
Shooting Days: 11
Camera(s): Two Sony PMW-EX3s
Writer-Director-Producer-Editor, Bilal’s Stand
The pitch: Bilal’s Stand is based on the life of a Black, Muslim Detroit high school student’s struggle between running his family’s taxi stand business or pursuing his dream of higher education at The University of Michigan.
Budget: Initial shooting budget of $12,000
Shooting Days: 28 (plus eight days of re-shooting)
Camera: ARRI LS Super 16mm
Adam Bowers (AB): I’d heard of its reputation as a sort of impenetrable fortress for indies with no budgets and no name actors, which is exactly what I’d made. But a friend convinced me to just go for it… I ended up dropping the movie off at their office a couple of hours before they stopped taking submissions.
Eyad Zahra (EZ): We feel that our film is very American, and yet at the same time very international, too. Sundance is the ideal place to launch this kind of story. We are extremely lucky to get in.
Thomas Woodrow (TW): Sundance is still the one festival that has national exposure in the U.S. To play at Sundance means to have the attention of the national press… Being a “Sundance Filmmaker” is something that you can always point to with pride.
Habib Azar (HA): We decided to submit to Sundance based on our post-schedule and the fest’s reputation. We’re incredibly proud to be a part of it.
Michael Mohan (MM): My heart was actually set on world premiering at the Northwestern Delaware Film Fest, but we were rejected. Maybe next time!
Katie Aselton (KA): Honestly, because it is and always has been the best. To have the “Official Sundance Selection” laurels on your film says so much. It’s an incredible honor.
Sultan Sharrief (SS): After all the hard work and after four years of shooting, we wanted to submit Bilal’s Stand to the top film festivals. We felt Sundance would give us the best chance of getting the film seen around the country, which was always one of our primary goals. The film carries on a legacy of independent and innovative filmmaking that builds upon the work of Neorealist directors like Robert Rodriguez. We knew it was a long shot to get into Sundance, but we hoped that the spirit of the film would get us through the competitive selection process. Thankfully our instincts were right.
Though it launched the careers of some of today’s best-known independents, Sundance has been criticized in recent years for becoming overly commercial. How do you think “Next” will change the fest’s reputation in the low-budget moviemaking world?
AB: Again, I think it’s fair to say that, over the years, they definitely started to get a reputation, whether it was true or not, of being a festival for “non-independent independent film.” From all my conversations with the organizers at the festival, I think this will definitely help change that. I read on some message board, someone was talking about “Next,” and they said Sundance was making a little “ghetto” side-festival as a way to steal some of Slamdance’s thunder, but that’s really not been the case at all. Everybody at Sundance has been really helpful, and taken great care of the “Next” films. I can tell that the organizers are really, genuinely excited about this program. But, the success of this year’s program will really determine how it shapes Sundance in the years to come, I think.
EZ: I would imagine so. It’s a big deal for Sundance to save a space for eight ultra-low budget films, while at the same time playing less movies overall. That’s gutsy, and you have to give John Copper and the Sundance programmers monster props for doing that. Let’s see how this year plays out, but I have a feeling “Next” will do wonders for a new generation of filmmakers. If Sundance is making a home for this kind of thing, others will too.
TW: I think it’s an excellent move on the part of the programmers of the festival on a strategic level. It is a way for them to highlight terrific work, which can be as entertaining and rewarding to audiences as “big movies” with “stars.” Not to mention original and risky.
MM: This is a tough question to answer because I strongly disagree with that criticism. To me, Sundance has always been about non-commercial independent film. For every film as big and star-powered as Little Miss Sunshine there are ten films as tiny and fantastic as Live-In Maid, Old Joy, or In Between Days. Entertainment Weekly is simply not going to do a cover story on the new Native American cinema of Oklahoma-based filmmaker Sterlin Harjo, even though the festival has played not one but two of his films in the past few years. That’s my defense of Sundance. I love Sundance. With them starting this “Next” program – I think it’s more about turning on a spotlight and more clearly defining something they have absolutely been doing all along.
KA: I think the “Next” section is a great idea. Not only does it bring attention to the fact that you don’t need a lot of money to make a good movie, but I think there’s an interesting progression between the “Next,” “Competition,” and “Premiere” sections. It’s like a blueprint of how independent film-making works: You start small, affordable, using the resources that are available to you… you make a movie that showcases what you can do, with the safety net that you’re not going to lose everything you have if it fails. Then your next foray may be a little bigger, maybe a larger budget, maybe not, but you might have some larger names attached and your approach may be a little more refined (“Competition”). Then, if you’re lucky and you make great films, a studio will get behind you and boom, you find yourself in the “Premiere” section, hopefully with everything you’ve learned along the way and your soul still intact.
SS: I think it will inspire hope in those that may have written their goals off as unattainable. I was definitely intimidated upon my first visit to Sundance to see films like Friends With Money or Thank you for Smoking. I remember thinking, ‘How can I possibly compete with this?’ I think with Next more people will be inspired to showcase their work and it will make the (dare I say it) true indie films more competitive. I feel sorry for the programmers as they’ll probably get double the applications for Next for 2011!
Sundance staffers refer to “Next” as < = >, or “less than equals greater than.” Can you give one example of how financial limitations lead to true creativity on your project?
AB: The camera, with the lens adapter, became very tricky to hold. Not only was it a good amount of weight, but instead of a shoulder mount, there were two steel bars digging into my cinematographer’s (Ryan Moulton) shoulder. Also, the lens adapter flipped the image, so everything was upside-down, which made it really fun to shoot, I’m sure. But we had to figure out, over the course of the early days of shooting, the best way to make the camera as steady as possible (without anything close to a real Steadicam) and at least mildly comfortable for Ryan. So we kept going back to the hardware store to buy these plastic pipes and foam tubes, and the camera became this constantly morphing Frankenstein until we found something that we were okay with (which ended up being foam tubes to go over those steel bars, and this weird little handle that was the remains of a previous handle we had taped to the front of the camera before it fell apart). You can see what we were left with in some production stills. As for the steadiness, we pushed Ryan in an old wheelchair I bought at a thrift store that had been modified with lawn mower wheels because the original wheels squeaked. Either that, or we sat him on the back of a car and had one of our crew members push it.
TW: We didn’t have money for production design or to pay any actors, so Linas [Phillips] and Sean [Porter, Director of Photography] were forced to pick locations on the fly and often cast the people who were actually there. There is a lovely instance of this in the film where two characters interact with an intoxicated girl at a bar. She delivers an extraordinary and naturalistic performance, but she really was drunk and they really did find her in that bar. Could a hired actress have delivered the role with the same light-handed nuance? It’s hard to imagine.
MM: There are zero limitations if you’re willing to take your time. While I was definitely inspired by the spirit of those, for lack of better word, mumblecore movies, I wanted to challenge ourselves to take it one step further. The story is a simple comedy, but I wanted it to be cinematic. I wanted to use all the tools that telling a story with a camera has to offer. I wanted the performances to be loose, but the narrative to be strong. So we just chipped away at it, bit by bit, scene by scene, on weekends. Friday nights we’d meet at the location (a large church complex), build our sets, set up lights, maybe get a couple shots done, and then sleep on the floor. Saturday we’d wake up – shoot all day long. Sunday morning, church was in service, so we’d shoot any MOS scenes, or scenes outside the church (otherwise the organ would drown out the dialogue), and get the rest after the church was cleared. We did this on and off for 2 years. Shooting in this way was a complete luxury. We could take risks, knowing that we could re-shoot if they didn’t work. We spent a lot of time rehearsing. The only partial downside was for my main actor Stephen Hale, who actually lives in this church in real life. For the entire time of the shoot, his little apartment was full of props and lights and c-stands. The dude could barely move around, it was so cluttered. He would email or call us on a daily basis to let us know how awful his life was. As a director though, I was in no rush–this did nothing but help his performance.
KA: I think our greatest creative hurdle during our shoot was [figuring out] where to put my 15-month old and all of her gear while we were shooting. Because of our super low budget, we opted to shoot the majority of the movie in my house, so there was a lot of shuffling of cribs and toys and plays and sippy cups, but the end result is that you would never guess that Annie and Darren (the two main characters in The Freebie) live in the same house as a toddler!
SS: I could give a thousand examples. My favorite was figuring out how to lower the food budget to feed the cast and crew. Our film was created through a class, The EFEX Project, so we taught metro Detroit students how to give a business pitch to restaurants around the area. Many restaurant managers were so impressed (or perhaps just humored) by the students showing up with the random request for a one-day donation of food to our movie that 15 agreed and covered 20 days of shooting. We took a $15,000 catering line item to a $3,000 cost. (And had some really great food because of it.)
When all is said and done, what do you hope to accomplish with your Sundance screening?
AB: I’m excited that people will get to see it, because when you make a movie like ours, you aren’t quite sure where it can go once it’s done. If enough people like it, I would love to be able to release it on DVD, whether with a distributor or through self-distribution methods.
EZ: We want to premiere the film in a special way to some awesome audiences. We are hoping to create lots of dialogue and get people thinking on different levels. If we can achieve solid audience interest and excitement with the film, we hope that the business end of things will work itself out.
TW: Watch this space.
HA: At its core, the Sundance screening is an end in and of itself. About 750 people will have the opportunity to experience our art and glimpse the world from our point of view. It’s funny, I work in theater and opera, and often the complaint when one produces wonderful work is that it is only seen by a handful of people. But after slaving away with my whole heart and soul on Armless for two years, I was faced with the very real possibility that not one person would ever be able to see it in a real theater. That was frightening as hell, and we’re so glad that we get to premiere our film at a festival as caring and ebullient as Sundance.
MM: Our screening at Sundance is the launching pad for our self-release! We are selling DVDs and downloads of the film directly from our website at www.onetoomanymornings.com. So any of you reading this article: hit up our website – watch our film.
KA: I hope people like the movie. I hope someone says, “I’d like to buy your film.” But what I really hope is that people look at me as a filmmaker and as an actor and look at the amazingly talented people who worked on the movie and say, “I’d love to work with you… Let’s make something.”
SS: I really hope people are inspired by the film and the process in which we made it. With technological advances across the board and crazy 3-D special effects, I wanted to just tell an old-fashioned yet fresh story that offers a new perspective on the life of American youth. From the feedback we’ve received thus far, Bilal’s Stand seems to do that.
What’s the one piece of advice you would offer to other low-budget moviemakers?
AB: If you have an idea you’re truly excited about, just go out and make it exactly the way you want. The best part about having no budget means you don’t have to please anybody but yourself, so don’t try.
EZ: It’s sort of the cliché rule, but it’s so true: Know your means and maximize your resources. Be realistic about what you can pull off. The idea behind your film is really the most important thing; if the core of your story is special, it will shine through the technical limitations you may have.
TW: Understand that what appears to limit you is probably your greatest strength. Frugality is freedom, so take permission from nobody except yourself. Have fun, because if you do it right, it is one Hell of a ride.
HA: Don’t forget about overtime. Budget for much more than you think you’ll need because you’ll use it. Trust me. More generally, you need to micromanage and at the same time be very malleable in what is acceptable. When you’re going into hour 12 of day three, that third take was probably okay—just roll with it. Also, have a very clear vision of not only the artistic product, but how you want the shoot to go. Don’t let the DP and gaffer dictate the schedule; you should know how long you want to spend lighting (they’ll hate you, but they’ll get it done).
MM: You absolutely need to have a personal connection to your story. You can’t just like your story, you can’t just love your story, you have to be willing to put a piece of yourself out there.
KA: Keep it simple. Tell a simple story that doesn’t require you to go beyond the resources that are easily available to you.
SS: Make decisions early! So often people like to have multiple options in front of them and in holding on to that false sense of security you can waste a lot of time and resources. Measure twice and cut once is how I was raised and it can get you really far. From shooting schedules to shot list to color themes, make committed decisions and do the best you can with them.
Anything else you’d like to add?
AB: Making movies with friends is one of the most fun things I’ve ever been able to do, and I think just having fun while you’re making it, and enjoying it for the process as opposed to the end product, is something that little movies that most people probably won’t see can do better than the biggest blockbuster.
EZ: Treat your indie film like it’s the last or only film that you will ever make. Make a super, insanely personal film that you honestly think the world is itching for. Don’t make a film with the intention to appease anybody in the industry or even the indie film world. You have no control over what the trends are in both places. Instead, think of yourself as someone who will set the next trend.
TW: Fan the film on Facebook to catch the latest news! Bass Ackwards!
MM: It would be ridiculous to say “I’m an aspiring novelist, but I can’t write my novel because I don’t have the proper tools.” Everyone has access to Microsoft Word, or worst case, a pencil and paper. Up until recently, aspiring moviemakers could have used that excuse legitimately. No more. Everyone reading this article has a friend or a neighbor with a camera. Your computer comes with iMovie or something similar. Seriously, everyone, if you have a story to tell, just go do it. You can figure it out. You don’t have to wait. Jump in the deep end. Go make movies. But go to our website and buy our DVD first.
KA: I’d just like to say that this is an utterly surreal experience and I’m so excited to be a part of it!
SS: I think this film is more than just a film, it’s turned into its own type of unique experience. The root of the film is trying to empower regular, everyday people or the people without access to resources to be able to speak for themselves. Bilal’s Stand is the story of a Black Muslim from Detroit but in no way is it limited to what one would think that those things should imply.