Thursday, January 5, 2012

Notes from Film Independent Forum

Some are here to learn, some are here to share. Everyone is here in the name of film. Each have different experiences, backgrounds, and levels of expertise. As I sat in one panel about film financing Saturday I looked back at the packed auditorium and thought to myself, "Damn. Each of these people are here just because they want to make movies." They don't have money to make it happen, but they are here because they believe in what they want to do enough that they believe they can make it happen somehow.

The Directors Guild of America buzzed alive for 2.5 days last weekend, filmmakers sharing challenges, hints, and tips. Events like Film Independent Forum create a space for like-minded filmmakers to gravitate toward one another naturally. Attendees can see works, hear the creators of those works talk, and then afterwards meet them and ask them further questions if they'd like. A sense of: "Collectively, we can do this" filled the building.

Day 1 at lunch I sat with Nick Lewis, who just directed his first documentary: "Rise and Shine: The Jay Demerit Story" and is usually a lawyer for a day job; Eric Kench, a passionate editor my age; Anthony Saludares, an actor / aspiring director, and Peter Belsito, a 30 year independent film business veteran who offered plenty of wisdom to us all.

Lewis' unusual path into film shows the accessibility of the modern film world. Moved by the story of World Cup soccer star Jay Demerit, Lewis saw no one else making a documentary and decided to it himself. "The only way to get it done is to do it on your own," he said. Lewis made a quarter of a million dollars for his movie on Kickstarter, enough to send a cameraman to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, and now has his film screening in festivals and even a distribution deal on TV. "God bless the internet," the table agreed.

The internet wasn't around in 1981, when Belsito founded Independent Feature Project. "We wanted a voice," he said. "We were kids of the 60s, we were used to getting organized when there was a problem." Now the organizing can happen online. Or in person, at events like these. Either way, it has to happen somewhere. "Unlike other art, film is always collective," said Belsito. We need each other -- as was exemplified by the forum crowd, who were already deep in new connections by lunchtime.

One interesting panel "Find New Docs: Works in Progress From Film Independent Fellows" featured short versions of works in progress from new filmmakers: Malika Zouhali-Worrall, Director and Producer of "Call me Kuchu," the story of the life and tragic death of Uganda's openly gay man; PJ Raval, the creator of "Untitled Gay Retiree Documentary," and Natalija Vekic with "Strand: A Natural History of Cinema." They gathered on stage after the screenings and spoke to the joys and challenges of indie filmmaking.

One audience member asked how the young filmmakers felt about Herzog's claim the day before that he edits his movies in less than two weeks. "It's a stop and go process when you only have 2 people," said Vekic. "You are raising money, editing, shooting."

One filmmaker saved on money by living with his subject, which ended up working out creatively too. "We lived with our subject, and just hung out with the camera..."

Another interesting panel on Day 2 featured independent film directors who are now working in TV: Alan Poul, producer of "Six Feet Under" as moderator; Nicole Holofcener, director of "Please Give" and "Parks and Recreation"; Patty Jenkins, director of "Monster," and "The Killing,"; Jeremy Podeswa, director of "Boardwalk Empire," and "The Pacific"; and my personal favrotie, Don Roos, director of "Happy Endings," and "Web Therapy."

The panel was built around the trend of successful indie feature directors now directing TV for money, or availability. One major difference between directing TV and film is that writers have way more power on set of TV. Holofcener spoke to the refreshing quality of that. "Working on something that isn't your vision is kind of refreshing." She talked about different levels of insecurity and arrogance that come with being less valued as a director on set of TV. "Sometimes I wonder why I'm even there."

Another topic that came up was quality. Cinema used to be something to be attended to, now people watch movies on their iPads and iPhones. Roos spoke up, "Since it looks bad on TV it forces you to make sure the story works."

During Q & A one audience member asked a question about getting into the industry. There was a dramatic pause.

"The commodity you have is your singular vision," one panel member told the audience.

Jenkins said one thing she has learned from working on TV that will now be helpful to her working in film is to be open-minded to other people's opinions. "TV moves too fast to be all one vision," she said. Now she considers peoples' ideas in a different way.

"You can't be afraid of ‘NO,' you'll get a lot of them. You'll lose the fear eventually."

What are the TV directors watching now? Lots of reality.

In another room Juan Davis of KCET spoke about using transmedia to empower community. Davis is the creator of the "Departure" Series, a web experiment that is capturing and recording stories from people and characters that make up neighborhoods all over LA. "Every neighborhood we are covering are neighborhoods in transition," Davis said. "I notice that people don't feel ownership of the city. In order to take ownership you have to understand where it's coming from." He spoke of the series as "Slow media," like slow food. "Anti-drive-by media." Though they are not produced but rather just talking head stories, you could feel from his talk that this will make sense over time rather than in one sitting, like a film or episode of TV. I think that's what Davis meant by "Slow Media." "It's storytelling tweet by tweet, step by step until eventually there is a narrative arc," he said.

Those are some tidbits from the weekend. It would be interesting to see a visual web starting at the event and branching out to connections made and works in progress.

Onward ho, onto creating. Like Craig Emanuel, who led the film financing today forum said, "Let us take advantage of our beautiful minds."

This is posted over on my film blog as well.

Werner Herzog at Film Independent Forum

Werner Herzog deletes all of his unused footage when he's done making a movie. Why? 1: Storage takes up too much space; and 2) "A carpenter doesn't sit on his shavings either."

This means that he doesn't have the option to go back and re-edit films. "I accept all my errors, and my films have many of them." You have to accept that the "child has a stutter, a squint, a limp."

The great filmmaker delivered many gems and to a packed house of filmmakers and aspiring filmmakers at the Directors Guild of America on Sunset Blvd Saturday morning. He was warm and seemed pleased to be there, almost like a grandfather passing down wisdom to his grand kids. "I hardly ever wear a suit and I do it for you here," he said. "Because we are all colleagues, we are all filmmakers and I want to show you respect." I sat in the front row and hung on his every word.

An editor with a bad habit of dawdling, perhaps the best wisdom I took away from it was about editing. "Editing HAS to be fast." Herzog delivered the final cut for "Bad Lieutenant" just 2 weeks after he was done shooting. "I always look at the footage only once." He puts either 1,2, or 3 in the rarest cases exclamation marks next to timecode and then knows that the footage with 3 exclamation marks will be the movie. Simple enough. "I've always been a quiet, steady, focused worker," he says.

Herzog's idea of efficient shooting and editing comes from his time experience as a producer. He understands the value of time and money. However, this is a riskier way to make movies. "You have to know what you're doing." As we know, Herzog does. While shooting "Bad Lieutenant" he would check in with the line producer every day after set to see how the cash flows we're going. He eliminated "safety thinking" on things like having a custom costume for a background actor who doesn't even appear...and eventually this thinking made made him deliver the film $2.6 million dollars under budget and 2 days under shooting schedule. "You have to take money seriously," he says, but "The more important thing is that you are taken seriously by the producers."

Herzog talked a lot about his new documentary "Into the Abyss," on capital punishment- a subject close to his heart. "I respectfully disagree with capital punishment," he says. He is a believer of life in prison without parole. Herzog says that though he lives in the US with an American wife, he will not become an American citizen because he will not be a citizen of a country that allows capital punishment. Moderator/ Journalist Stephen Galloway of the Hollywood Reporter asked Herzog a few times how working on this movie must have affected him emotionally. Herzog spoke steady, and did not appear jolted during his answers.

Other gems from the lecture include:

"Independent cinema doesn't exist. It exists only for your Christmas movie at home. All the rest depends on money." He talked about how he may start his own distribution company and the crowd cheered.

Herzog is a resident of Los Angeles and loves it. "For work, I have to be in the city with the most substance. For finances it's New York, for oil Huston but for everything else, Los Angeles."

"I have a reputation of being insane which is kind of weird because I'm clinically sane."

"Travel on foot that's where you start to understand the world and you start to understand life."

"I am not a journalist, I have conversations. I have to find the right tone right away. I am just the echo of what's going on"

For aspiring filmmakers who can't find a job in film yet, Herzog suggested, "Look for self reliance. Work where there is real intensity of life. Don't work in an office, work as a bouncer in a sex club. As a guard in a maximum security prison, and make your money for your film that way."

At one point while talking about a character in "Into the Abyss" Herzog used the phrase "national treasure." [Though he's not an American citizen] it struck me as odd to hear him use this phrase without referring to himself. It was very clear to me who the national treasure in the room is.

After a Q&A Herzog stayed around a while as fans buzzed around him. And then he was gone.

This is a late re-post of my film blog over at