Bill Kinder, indie moviemaker, reflects on the value of “Do It Ourselves” collaboration as he heads to AFM with his newly-completed feature, White Rabbit.
A few years back, I sensed, almost in a daydream, that the means to make a high-quality low-budget feature film were coming into my reach. In a way that would have seemed impossible at the start of my career in film, the entire chain of making movies, from cameras through editing to theatrical exhibition and internet distribution, had morphed into a completely digital workflow. And anyone with an HDSLR and an editing workstation could “Do It Yourself,” as they say.
But there’s really nothing about “Doing” that is just “Yourself,” when “It” is a feature film! It is more useful to understand DIY as a misnomer when it comes to live action, narrative feature filmmaking. Because t’s actually the collaboration with like-minded, talented, creative people that makes the project the best it can be. Try calling it “DIO” (i.e. ourselves), instead. You daydream you’re going to be left holding a complete film when you’re done. But that thing is ultimately largely inert, while the relationships you make, test, and grow in the grueling process of production are alive with heart and soul.
I had gotten a little practice on some short films, including one of those 2-day film “sporting” events where you scramble and scavenge to pull together a short in 48 hours. I had been testing my new Canon 7D, and was impressed with how its footage looked on a big screen. So I led myself to believe I should attempt a DIY feature, White Rabbit – something a little scrappy and renegade, with a story and a style suited to a gritty subject we seldom see: a woman home from three tours in the Iraq War.
Looking for help in key areas was nerve-wracking: writing, producing, cinematography, composing, casting. So much was riding on commitments from each of these key people I approached. But the amazing thing was that when I simply explained the film, most people understood it and wanted to be a part of it. These were people who knew a noir crime thriller about a female Iraq vet set against Occupy and Tea Party turmoil was a unique, important story that would not get told otherwise. When people wanted to know more, Kevin Warner’s script erased any remaining skepticism. When we had a platoon but needed an army, producer Ryan Lynch drafted dozens to the cause. The generous contribution of their talents started to make things happen – and started to attract still more, energetic contributors. “Something’s happening here,” as a character in the film says. I also noticed a larger sensation of responsibility with the increased size of the cast and crew. While my daydream for the project felt scrappy and renegade, I was neck-deep now and scrappy and renegade wouldn’t do in the final result of what all these people were pushing so hard for. I had to live up to the faith they had placed in the film, and in me when I asked for their help and got it. The only way I could return the favor, and come close to expressing the right measure of gratitude, was by carrying the project safely home at the highest level of finish I knew how to apply.
Beyond the camera and editing system, new digital tools that I was previously blind to came to the aid of this. We skyped an actor in LA into a table read in Emeryville. A free Scenechronize account smoothed production preparations with my first assistant director, Jessica Harris. The production designer posted SketchUp renderings and prop selections on Dropbox. Sharing video using Vimeo was a great way to collaborate with writer Kevin Warner, composer Bruno Coon, and producer Ryan Lynch. Reel deliveries for sound prep & mix with Andrew Vernon moved over fast networks. It was incredibly powerful to collapse time and space with these tools. But I also made sure the actual creative work was as much of an in-person collaboration as possible. It was always a special delight of mine to bring great artists together for the film, as when director of photography, Catherine Goldschmidt attended color grading with Gary Coates at ColorFlow in Berkeley.
The movie took almost three years to complete. Seems like a long time, but most of us had – and thankfully kept – day jobs that paid the rent. I also told everyone that family and important relationships had to come before this. One person involved in getting the film off the ground early on, learned on our set one day that a family member was very ill back home. The crew on the set took it like the news was about our own family member. It was sad and difficult, but a beautiful illustration of the depth and value of the bonds formed in this kind of creative work. And here I must say my own family was endlessly patient and supportive of my somewhat irrational zeal for White Rabbit, and I hope they know I never took for granted that incredible well of support.
OK, but three years for a “DIO” film? In the notorious equation of “speed, cost, quality: pick two,” I picked quality and cost (we were on an ultra low budget), which meant that I had to use time to save money, or to get the quality we were after. Someone I trust called it a “great achievement in low-budget filmmaking,” so I’ll take that as a sign of victory on that front. I knew the tragedy of our veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan would be topical for many years, a generation. And even if a film came out ahead of us dealing with it, it would be singular, and surely different. But other than some important documentaries dealing with the problems veterans face, I still haven’t seen the narrative features I saw marching through popular culture when I was growing up in the 1970s amid Coming Home, Taxi Driver, and Who’ll Stop the Rain. I will admit to some luck on our slow cooking timeline. A couple years ago, I wondered if the Tea Party would ever be current after 2012 – having never guessed the prominence the Tea Party would assume within the mainstream Republican party.
Now the film is 87 minutes of 2K, 5.1 cinematic goodness, a source of pride for all involved. But I know that inert digital file will only come to life when it finds its audience. So I’m back to where I was at the beginning – hoping to find some key partners to help me in an area I little understand: distribution. Like production and exhibition, distribution is undergoing a digital sea change. I head to the American Film Market this week in search of distribution for White Rabbit, looking for someone out there who can build the crowd who appreciates this smart, artful film. And that dread of rejection is already receding as the responses come back: “I couldn’t stop talking about it.” “Delighted to see that the protagonist is a tough, smart young woman.” “Carla Pauli gives an incredible performance.” “Authentic. Amazing sound. Loved the music.” My confidence is again bolstered by these comments. I hope those lead to an opportunity for people to see the hard work of over a hundred talented, energetic people whose creativity made this film. We did it ourselves. MM
Bill Kinder is the director of White Rabbit. His vision for the film is a post-Iraq War noir thriller that brings to the surface effects of war on the home front. Kinder has been Pixar’s Director of Editorial & Post Production for seventeen years. To create White Rabbit, he combined his understanding of digital filmmaking with the maverick spirit of independent filmmaking he learned from Francis Coppola during his stint at American Zoetrope. Prior to his work in feature films, Mr. Kinder directed an Emmy-nominated documentary, produced television news and other non-fiction specials, and edited commercials.