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Three Reasons Independent Film Will Survive

Three Reasons Independent Film Will Survive

Articles - Directing

Sherman Alexie

Independent film will survive and thrive because moviemakers
can buy good video cameras, quality sound equipment and effective
editing systems for $10,000 or $5,000 or $1,000 or $500. Anybody
can afford to make a movie. The moviemaking process has finally
become egalitarian and populist. Over the course of a few months
or years, a poor reservation Indian kid can collect $1,000 worth
of discarded aluminum cans from ditches and garbage cans, spend
$500 on her equipment and then spend the other $500 to make a movie
about the sad beauty of aluminum cans and their relationship to
Native American health, economics and politics.

Of course, that Indian kid will only make her movie
if somebody convinces her that a successful movie can be made for
only $1,000. I could make a movie for $1,000, but who would see
it? I wrote and directed a movie called The Business of Fancydancing for approximately $150,000 in cash and credit and very few people
have seen it. We played a Manhattan theater, but received horrible
reviews and the movie bombed. We played three theaters in greater
Los Angeles and received wonderful reviews, but the movie still
bombed. What does this mean? I hate to say it, but it means I’m
an irrelevant moviemaker. I’ve only proved how easily a small
movie can disappear. I can’t convince that Indian kid to see
my movie, let alone make her own. So who can make the utterly convincing
$1,000 movie?

Well, I’m issuing a challenge to Sam Raimi,
David Koepp, George Lucas, Jonathan Hales, M. Night Shyamalan, Chris
Columbus, Joel Zwick, Nia Vardalos, Jay Roach, Mike Myers, Michael
McCullers, Barry Sonnenfeld, Robert Gordon, Carlos Saldanha, Chris
Wedge, Michael J. Wilson, Michael Berg, Peter Ackerman, Peter Jackson,
Fran Walsh, Philllipa Boyens, Ron Howard and Akiva Goldsman.

Who are those folks? They are the writers and directors
of the top 10 grossing movies of 2002, and I challenge them all
to write and direct $1,000 movies. Who would pay attention to a
$1,000 movie made by George Lucas? Half of the world. Who would
pay attention to a $1,000 movie made by Mike Myers? The other half
of the world. Demographic hyperbole aside, I am simply asking these
highly successful moviemakers to commit the populist and egalitarian
act of making and distributing $1,000 movies. Of course,

I’m assuming these highly successful moviemakers
are populist and egalitarian liberals because they work in Hollywood,
which might be the most liberal community in the history of the
world. And because these filmmakers have varied, wonderful and commercial
talents, I’m also assuming they would make very good and very
diverse $1,000 movies. Can you imagine how many Lord of the Rings
fans would rush to a $1,000 movie made by Peter Jackson? His first
film, Bad Taste, didn’t cost much more than $1,000,
so he knows how to make a micro-budget movie. After watching M.
Night Shyamalan’s micro-budget thriller, that reservation
kid would begin collecting aluminum cans in the theater lobby to
finance her movie.

Of course, this is a ridiculous challenge. Millionaire
moviemakers have no moral, ethical, artistic or financial imperative
to make micro-budget films.
And I can’t judge them for choosing to ignore my challenge,
as I’m quite positive all of them will. But I wonder how many
of them have ever watched a $1,000 movie? Sam Raimi probably has
a video library filled with zombie movies made for $12, and God
bless him for it, but will he ever again make a zombie movie on
a micro-budget? I can only offer sacred and profane prayers for
such a cinematic miracle to happen during my lifetime.

So which moviemakers can and should make the convincing
$1,000 movie? Who does have the obligation to make the micro-budget
movie and prove that a beautiful and successful micro-budget movie
can be made and distributed? Well, countless numbers of micro-budget
moviemakers already make countless numbers of really terrible micro-budget
movies, so we can only depend on their continued obscurity. After
all, a populist and egalitarian society might offer guaranteed opportunity
for all, but it doesn’t guarantee all will be talented. However,
there are plenty of talented moviemakers who, having already made
beautiful and successful independent films, might be convinced to
take the $1,000 movie challenge.

L to R: Evan Adams and Gene Tagaban;
Swil Kanim and Tagaban in The Business of Fancydancing.

So I challenge Paul Thomas Anderson to make a $1,000
movie about Homer, a 16-year-old glue-sniffer, who wakes up one
morning and decides he must get the high score on all 33 Mortal
Kombat video game machines in Torrance, California. This movie will
be shot in six 30-minute real-time scenes.
I challenge Kimberly Peirce to make a $1,000 movie about Emily Dickinson.
The reclusive poet will only be seen in recreated still photographs
and only heard in voice-over, telling her life story and reciting
her poems. Emily’s true story will interweave with a silent
movie about one day in the life of a Chicago Catholic high school
cross-country runner also named Emily Dickinson, and her interracial
love affair with an African-American science geek named Langston
Hughes.

I challenge Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson to make a
$1,000 movie about Rosa, an elderly Chicano housekeeper, who unexpectedly
visits her son Tomas, a homicide detective, at the Austin police
headquarters. She convinces him to escort her into an interrogation
room where she confesses to murdering her boss, his wife and their
three teenage children. The rest of the movie will be shot only
in that interrogation room and will only feature Rosa and Tomas.

I challenge Rebecca Miller to make a $1,000 movie
about a man and woman trapped in their small car in a sudden blizzard.
The man and woman are 20 miles from help, have no food or blankets
in the car, and will almost certainly die if they stay with the
car and will most likely die if they try to walk to safety. No matter
if they live or die, their affair will soon become public knowledge.
Do they stay in the car or walk? Do they stay together or separate?
Do they live or die? I challenge Ms. Miller to shoot this film using
only two flashlights for illumination.

Am I serious about these four challenges? Sort of.
I believe these moviemakers could write and direct great movies
based on my goofy ideas, but I would rather they film their own
$1,000 ideas. Hell, I would be ecstatic if Paul Thomas Anderson
filmed a $1,000 movie with Adam Sandler. I would be even more ecstatic
if Adam Sandler agreed to star in the aluminum can epic written
and directed by that Indian kid. I only know that a micro-budget
film directed by any of these independent moviemakers would certainly
be distributed and play in a few hundred theatres or more. Imagine
what would happen if ten independent moviemakers of this calibre
released ten $1,000 dollars films in the same year? Would there
be an artistic revolution? A micro-budget rebellion? A $1,000 coup
de tat?

Of course, a $1,000 movie shot on video will look
like crap, no matter who is behind the camera. But I have faith
that most moviegoers will eventually accept, understand and enjoy
the ragged and unpredictable visuals of videography. Most films,
whether studio or independent, are seen on 19-inch televisions.
Independent film will survive and thrive because The Blair Witch
Project
and Lawrence of Arabia look exactly the same
on 19-inch televisions. Of course, I’m exaggerating to make
a point, but why must a film be visually beautiful at all? Why can’t
a film be visually ugly, muddy, unclear, bleary and opaque? Human
beings can certainly be morally ugly, muddy, unclear, bleary and
opaque, so why shouldn’t cinematography reflect that? Why
do so many film critics and filmmakers worship at the altar of beautiful
cinematography? Whenever I stop to admire the physical beauty of
a person, place or thing, I am as uninteresting as I can possibly
be, and am usually romanticizing the place or thing, or objectifying
the person. Accordingly, whenever a movie stops to admire the physical
beauty of a person, place or thing, it usually romanticizes and
objectifies. The dramatic pause to display cinematic beauty can
be a form of denial, of deceit and even of immorality.

After all, if one believes in only one standard of
beautiful cinematography, then one must accordingly believe in casting
actors who fit that one standard of beauty, despite the original
meaning of the art. That’s why Michelle Pfeiffer was cast
as a working-class schlemiel in the film version of Frankie
and Johnny
, despite the fact that Kathy Bates originated the
role on stage. It’s also why Kevin Spacey, a good-looking
and stylish man, played the role of Quoyle in the film version of The Shipping News, despite the novel’s description
of Quoyle as a man with “features as bunched as kissed fingertips.
Eyes the color of plastic. The monstrous chin, a freakish shelf
jutting from the lower face.”

I challenge all moviemakers to adapt Romeo and
Juliet
and cast two homely actors as the doomed lovers, and
only spend $1,000. Imagine an Indian kid who adapts Romeo and
Juliet
and casts two homely Indians as the doomed lovers who
suicide themselves by drinking poison out of aluminum cans.
Moviemakers and movie critics are obsessed with visual beauty because
cinema is an art still suffering through its adolescence (I’ll
try not to make any analogies between Michael Bay movies and acne).
Go take a look at Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,”
a blisteringly ugly and profound vision of pain and loss, and you’ll
see one tangible result of the epic human journey from cave painting
to painting canvas. We are 30,000 years old in the presence of Munch’s
“The Scream” and 111 years old in the presence of Kevin
Williamson and Wes Craven’s Scream.

Independent film will survive and thrive because of
cinema’s youth. It will be the independent filmmakers, the
unsponsored and unincorporated, the unknown and unappreciated,
the wildly immature and impulsive, who will make good movies and
then great movies, and then good art and great art.

Aren’t you excited to know there’s been
no Shakespeare of the cinema yet? Shakespeare wrote Hamlet over 4,500 years after the first human wrote the first letter of
the first alphabet. Since Edison first projected film in 1891, we
can expect the cinematic equivalent of Hamlet in the year
6391. Independent film will survive because millions of writers
and directors will spend the next four or five thousand years in
a collectively vain and glorious and vainglorious quest to make
the cinematic equivalent of Hamlet. Of course, there exists
the possibility that a man or woman might preempt time, might be
born with a spectacular blessing or curse, might just be plain lucky,
and make the cinematic Hamlet as soon as tomorrow, or next
year, or 23 years from now. Hell, some 12-year old boy might make
the greatest movie ever with Legos and Fisher Price Little People.
Or maybe a poor Indian girl will make it with aluminum cans and
seven stray dogs.

So, my dear moviemakers, obscure and not, if you can
imagine the possibility of that Indian girl and her $1,000 masterpiece,
then you could certainly imagine the continuing possibilities of
independent film.

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