John Cassavetes and Orson Welles were both individuals who tried to function within the system and learned that they couldn’t. It wasn’t a choice with them, or with those of us who have followed in their footsteps. After my third film, Sitting Ducks, achieved a certain bit of success (which followed my being unable to get anyone to see my first two films, A Safe Place and Tracks), I was approached by the producer of one of the big commercial hits of the time to see if I would direct “two-thirds” of his next movie. The producer’s hit was Animal House and his next movie was National Lampoon’s Movie Madness (at least that was one of the titles). It was going to be a spoof of different movie genres and I would direct two out of three of them, one parodying the fear of Atomic proliferation (always good for a laugh), the other sending up police brutality (equally uproarious material, right?)
Well, I had started my career doing standup improvisational comedy with The Compass Players-an off-shoot of Second City-and The Uncommon Denominator off-Broadway, so wouldn’t this be right up my alley? Sure, the scripts he sent over were beyond atrocious, with breast jokes vying with blind jokes for yuks from a discriminating audience. But I was assured I could change anything I wished and just have fun with it, so what was the issue? It paid well, I’d have a huge crew (outrageously large by my standards), I could cast wonderful people like some of the heroes of my childhood-Richard Widmark, for God’s sake, and that wonderful little guy who played the “gunsell” and was slapped around by Bogart in The Maltese Falcon. (Elisha Cook, Jr. -ed.) So why was I hesitating?
I asked my friend and frequent lunch companion, Orson Welles, what he thought and he told me wearily: “Find out if you can do it, if you can work their way. If you can, it will save you years of heartache and frustration and your life will be infinitely simpler.”
So I tried. I said yes. I signed on… I won’t go into detail, but I think you can find the result in some old video bins (thank God it never made it into theaters). Nothing in it is recognizable as my work because someone took it away and “fixed it up.”
As of this writing, I’ve written and directed 16 films (#15, Hollywood Dreams, is coming to theaters right now and #16, Irene In Time, is on my editing table) and I can tell you-win, lose or draw-I don’t regret any of them. Love them or hate them, they are all my movies, frame for frame. The only filmic regret I have ever had was that horrible Movie Madness meshuggah.
But Orson was right. The time wasn’t wasted because I learned my lesson and my lesson was this: I have to be independent. I don’t have a choice. I admire many wonderful moviemakers who can make excellent movies within the studio system, but I can’t be one of them any more than Orson or John could. So find out what you are and if you are one of us, welcome. You are the future of independent moviemaking!
With today’s changing technologies, it is easier and much less expensive to get your film made than ever before; every single advance is on the independent moviemaker’s side. No longer can studios and huge corporations stop you from getting your films made or, once made, to the public. There are now distribution companies of every size and shape; a small outfit like my own Rainbow Releasing Company not only distributes those of my films I don’t want to make a deal with another distributor for, but the “Monty Python” films and a wonderful documentary Max Schell made about his sister, Maria, among others. When Robert De Niro produced a film called Mistress that he didn’t want to go the usual route with, we distributed it for him.
There are hundreds of outfits like ours today where there were exactly none when I tried to get a deal for Tracks in the late 1970s. Once turned down by the six or seven majors (the one thing they wanted even less than to see a film about the impact of the Vietnam War on America was to see a film with Dennis Hopper starring in it-no matter how brilliantly), that was that.
Today’s moviemakers can make a film for practically no money, thanks to the amazing changes in the technology, and can get it seen by simply sending it out through e-mail or posting it on YouTube, MySpace or whatever will pop up next. None of this existed when I started out and all of it contributes to the fact that this is the very best time in history to be an independent moviemaker! MM
Henry Jaglom directs Tanna Frederick in Hollywood Dreams (2007). Cinematographer Hanania Baer and Jaglom have collaborated on more than 10 projects.
Although Henry Jaglom’s moviemaking career began in the cutting room, when he helped edit dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, his roots are firmly planted in acting (he trained with lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio). Since directing his first film, A Safe Place, in 1971, Jaglom has become one of cinema’s most important independent voices, writing, directing and often starring in 16 features-and distributing many of them through his own rainbow releasing Company. As Jaglom’s latest film, Hollywood Dreams, is hitting theaters, he is putting the final touches on Irene in Time. Jaglom was profiled in MM #6 (may 1994) and #14 (August 1995) and in the May 2007 edition of the “Hands-on-Pages” on MovieMaker.com.