The Adaptive Auteur
Like many independent filmmakers, Amy Seimetz was used to a certain way of working. Though familiar with bigger productions thanks to her acting roles on TV’s The Killing and other projects, she’s otherwise spent most of the last 15 years deep in the trenches of the American indie scene, working in every capacity on micro-budgeted movies with Joe Swanberg, Shane Carruth and other similarly intrepid filmmakers.
That changed in 2014, when Steven Soderbergh – a big fan of Seitmetz’s first feature, Sun Don’t Shine – put her together with fellow director Lodge Kerrigan and handed them full creative control over a TV adaptation of Soderbergh’s film The Girlfriend Experience. Shot in Toronto last year, the series stars Riley Keough as an enterprising law student turned high-priced sex worker (it debuted in April 2016 on Starz).
Seimetz realized at an early budget meeting how different the TV world could be for a seasoned DIY-er. As she explains, “We were looking at the camera department and I said, ‘I don’t think we need two dollies.’ And they were like, ‘Um … don’t worry about it.’ Then I thought, ‘Wow, we can have two dollies – and we don’t have to use wheelchairs or a skateboard!’”
Indeed, this is a very confusing time for indie filmmakers. Of course, it’s never been easy for anyone who’s more committed to making personal work than to attracting studio gigs on summer tentpoles. But the challenges continue to intensify as competition grows for festival slots and screens, and potential financiers and distributors become ever warier of risks.
The number of theatrical releases in North America has risen precipitously in recent years – 707 were released in 2014, up more than 200 from ten years before – despite declining attendance numbers, making for an extremely complicated and crowded field.
Photo: Jeff Vespa
“The market is oversaturated,” says Justine Whyte, the director and executive producer for CFC Features. “Since there’s so much noise, it’s hard to get heard and to get people to pay attention. It’s not as easy as it was in the ‘80s or the ‘90s or the 2000s – and I can’t imagine what it’ll be like in the 2020s.”
“It’s a hard time to be an independent filmmaker,” says Toronto filmmaker Matt Johnson. “A very hard time.” Yet it’s not impossible to get some traction, as Johnson did when his largely self-financed debut The Dirties – a caustic mock-doc about a high school shooting – earned big love at Slamdance in 2013 and won a distribution deal with Kevin Smith’s company. Johnson’s second feature, Operation Avalanche, debuted at Sundance in January and makes its Canadian premiere at Hot Docs this month.
Johnson’s friend Andrew Cividino broke through in 2015 after years of struggling to raise financing for his debut feature when Sleeping Giant – a sharply rendered coming-of-age story set in Northern Ontario’s cottage country – earned a spot at Cannes last May. But as he readies himself for the film’s theatrical release in Canada this month, he’s become aware of how much work it takes to even put a festival darling on most people’s radar. “There are just so many deserving films made every year,” he says. “When you’re done making your film, you think maybe that’s the end of it. But you’re suddenly in the position of jockeying to get attention for it."
“Even when you think you’ve done something big – like getting into Cannes for us – really that’s just the beginning. You have to keep fighting for it.”
Toronto producer and CFC Features alumnus Daniel Bekerman scored another success when
The Witch – a period horror film he co-produced in Northern Ontario for American writer-director Robert Eggers – parlayed a rapturous reception at Sundance in 2015 into a wide release that grossed $30 million USD, roughly 30 times the project’s original budget. But he believes that kind of best-case-scenario for indie filmmakers – in which a bare-bones project lands a much-coveted slot at a major fest, garners a sale and breaks wide thanks to a savvy distributor – is more exceptional than it’s ever been.
“It’s become a constant improvisation,” Bekerman says of surviving in the indie film world. “That’s not just true for young filmmakers since we’re pretty much all in the same boat. Everyone has to deal with the fact that everything’s in flux.”
Whether aspiring or established, auteurs must be more adaptive than ever. Yet as resources have grown scarcer for makers of indie features, the boom in television production means that those same talents are finding opportunities they’d never expected to have only a few years ago. As big players like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon radically alter the business, TV has become a surprisingly welcoming home for filmmakers that have traditionally made do on scraps.
With The Girlfriend Experience, Seimetz and Kerrigan enter a realm that’s increasingly populated with indie-film peers like Joe Swanberg (Easy, an upcoming series for Netflix), Jim Mickle (Sundance’s Hap and Leonard), Mark and Jay Duplass (HBO’s Togetherness) and, of course, Lena Dunham, who’d surely still be making tiny movies like Tiny Furniture if HBO hadn’t come calling. Says Seimetz, “A lot of the friends I grew up with in independent film are turning to TV because it’s the new Wild West in media.”
“I’ve kind of gone full circle,” says Bekerman. “I was terrified of subscription VOD services like Netflix two or three years ago. I thought they were going to destroy essentially what was my livelihood. When they were starting, they didn’t seem as hungry for content – it was more about putting up old content and they were buying it very cheaply. Now they’re hungrier for new content and they’re actually injecting new life into the industry in a totally exciting way. So it’s been a full 180 from initially feeling like they were the death knell of independent content creation – now I feel like they’re pretty much the saviour.”
Matt Johnson – who first earned attention with the caustic web series Nirvana the Band the Show – is also at work on a new series for Viceland.
“The model’s flipped,” he says. “It’s so risk-averse when it comes to the market forces behind feature filmmaking – nobody wants to lose money or make a mistake. Whereas because television’s kind of imploded and things have changed so much, people are willing to take crazy risks. VICE in particular is willing to put things on air that seem almost completely unmarketable. It’s like Weird Al Yankovic is controlling it circa 1981!”
MICRO-BUDGET OR BUST?
Any discussion of the state of independent cinema is inevitably complicated by conflicting definitions of “indie.” After all, even by the time Sundance was establishing Quentin Tarantino, Todd Haynes, Nicole Holofcener and other upstart auteurs of the 1990s, the word had come to connote an artistic sensibility rather than a mode of production. Confusingly, it was typically applied to a whole category of mid- and low-budget offerings that may have seemed slightly less commercial-minded than most multiplex fare but still often involved major stars and studio money (albeit filtered through boutique units like Focus, Fox Searchlight or Disney-era Miramax).
But the proliferation of micro-budgeted work through the 2000s fostered a return to the grittier tradition of American independent filmmaking minted by John Cassavetes’ Shadows back in 1959. Really, “indie” is a broad enough designation nowadays to cover a huge array of productions at various scales. After all, the number of studio releases by the big six studios dropped more than 40 percent between 2006 and 2014, slipping from 204 to 120. In 2015 there were only 103, though they claimed more than 80 per cent of the market.
The ‘90s boom also fostered the perception that the indie film world exists first and foremost as the farm system for Hollywood’s major league. Plenty of filmmakers share that notion. Fired up by the Cinderella stories of quasi-indie hits like Little Miss Sunshine, newbies continue to dream too that they’re just one hot festival screening away from their own breakthroughs. (Many would just settle for clearing the balance on the credit cards they used to finance their shorts and features, as Kevin Smith famously did for Clerks.)
The economic reality is very different – even though markets at festivals have begun to heat up again thanks to new players like Netflix, they’ve yet to fully shake off the effects of the economic meltdown and the disappearance of many of the boutique mini-studios that had been driving the indie boom. As Justine Whyte jokes, “In 2008, I wanted to take a five-year nap. Everything was shifting and I feel like that shift is still happening."
Meanwhile, film schools continue to churn out talents eager to move up the chain. Unfortunately, even those who think they’re making all the right moves may endure a rude awakening. Andrew Cividino found that to be the case when his success as a maker of shorts failed to translate into a shot at a feature. “When you’re coming out of film school, you think, ‘How can I go about achieving what I want?’” he says. “And I thought that the linear path would be to go and make a number of shorts and if they achieved success on the festival circuit and won awards, that would then position me to make my feature from a professional standpoint. That really didn’t turn out to be true.”
It was a conversation with Matt Johnson – who spent his summers on the same beach where Cividino’s family had a cottage and where he’d eventually shoot Sleeping Giant – that forced him to realize the DIY route was the only way to go. “He basically said, ‘You’ve done everything right and you’ve checked all the boxes and it still hasn’t clicked.’ That’s when I decided, ‘Well, maybe I just have to go out and make something – otherwise I’m gonna wait forever.’”
Already slim, the financing for Sleeping Giant fell through when he was first ready shoot it in 2013. Not wanting to lose the chance to work with actors who’d soon be too old for their roles, he shot a short version of Sleeping Giant before scrambling to make the feature the following year on a micro-budget largely derived from arts grants.
The ability to go bare-bones is essential for any filmmaker looking to survive in the current climate. As Bekerman says, “You definitely need to be flexible and willing enough to be able to throw out a model you thought was rock-solid five minutes ago.”
At the same time, Bekerman believes that the micro-budget model can’t be a strategy that works across the board. “The big elephant in the room for any conversation about micro-budgets is the question, ‘Are we professionals? Are we doing this for a living? And are the people who are helping us make these things all independently wealthy and don’t have to worry about money?’"
“At a certain point you have to address that if you’re talking about making micro-budgets forever. If you’re all independently wealthy, great, go for it. But you also have to respect this is people’s lives and their livelihood. Doing every movie for $10,000 isn’t enough to have a viable industry. It’s something I’ve done and I’ve got a lot out of doing but it’s something I’d only do again or advise anyone else to do if it was absolutely the right choice for that particular project.”
There are also the artistic limitations that come with working on a micro-budget scale. As Seimetz says, “It becomes very difficult to make certain things for certain amounts of money.” Another point she makes – and this is a common lament for filmmakers preparing to ask their friends to commit time to a third or fourth project for no compensation beyond the occasional case of beer – is “you can’t keep asking for favours.”
Yet knowing how to do something for nothing has considerable advantages besides maintaining artistic control over the work. “That was 100 per cent my path to success,” says Johnson. “After making a film on my own with my friends and using all our own money, we could then go to a studio and say, ‘Hey, I could do something bigger if I was making a movie with you guys.’”
Photo: Matthew Miller
Contrary to the prevailing wisdom that mid-budget movie prospects are rarer than hen’s teeth, Johnson insists that the studios are very much looking out for indie talents able to trade up into films in the sub-$5 million range. “In fact,” says Johnson, “I would say the development departments of every major studio are exclusively looking for those people.” (It’s telling that the makers of the Star Wars and Marvel franchises have sought to revitalize their respective universes with the help of former Sundance breakouts like Rian Johnson, Gareth Edwards and Taika Waititi.)
Seimetz believes her ilk are uniquely positioned to take advantage of the new possibilities offered by the likes of Amazon, FX and Hulu. “For the people who have done micro-budget stuff for years and years and are now making that shift to television, it’s a dream come true because they can already do things in a thrifty manner,” she says. “The budgets we’re getting offered for TV are … I don’t know, 10, 20, 30, 40 times the money. To the TV people they think some of these shows are relatively cheap and we’re like, ‘Well, I can make 10 movies for this kind of money!’”
Having assumed every possible role on a set already – from performing to line producing to operating cameras and mikes – she also knows the value of what she learned in those trenches. “I never wanted to be in a situation where someone was telling me yes and no and I just had to accept those reasons why we can or can’t do something,” she says.
“There are people that just want a paycheque and want to direct and are happy to do it in the industry format. But if you want to be self-sufficient and want to make the stories you want to make, you’ve gotta know all this other stuff. As it is in any field, knowledge is power and anyone who has the secret knowledge over your head, knows they have a little bit of power over you.”
BUILDING A FILMMAKER-FRIENDLY FUTURE
Whether it’s the icy cool of The Girlfriend Experience or the stylish paranoia of Mr. Robot, there are innumerable signs that TV has become a whole lot more welcoming to the kinds of risky moves that used to be solely the domain of indie cinema. The problem for filmmakers may now be surviving in the wilderness long enough to establish their voices and build the skills they need to thrive in the new paradigm (which, as it so happens, is likely to stay in flux).
No wonder Justine Whyte feels so worried about the sustainability of filmmakers’ careers. “When I support them, I’m trying to think about where they’re going next,” she says. “I have to ask myself, ‘Am I putting them out to get slaughtered?’” That’s why she wants new filmmakers to be ready to capitalize on the moment should their first features actually get some heat. “It’s your one time – hopefully, that is, since it’s not guaranteed – that you have people’s attention,” she says. “This is your opportunity to talk about what’s next so you need to have something ready.”
In that spirit, Cividino is hoping his Sleeping Giant momentum will aid his plans for We Ate the Children Last, a feature adaptation of a Yann Martel story that Cividino already fashioned into a post-apocalyptic sci-fi short in 2011.
Johnson emphasizes the need for filmmakers to be adaptive, too – after all, Canada boasts a far greater pool of funding for television shows and even web series than indie films. Nevertheless, he believes that a publicly financed system like Canada’s has a unique opportunity to support indie talent. Indeed, he says the smartest thing Telefilm Canada could do to foster newbie auteurs is to dramatically expand its existing program for micro-budget productions for emergent filmmakers. He calls the current one “one one-hundredth of the size it should be or could be,” his rationale being that “you need 100 failures to make one success and filmmaking is a failure-based enterprise.” Perhaps those failures will engender a hardier generation of newbie auteurs.
Dan Bekerman – whose slate of fresh projects include director Nadia Litz’s second feature The People Garden and 22 Chaser, a thriller developed and produced by CFC Features – also thinks filmmakers ought to be excited by TV’s embrace of riskier fare like The Girlfriend Experience and what that bodes for the state of cinema, too.
As he says, “My hope is that it will encourage people to be bolder with the kinds of things they’re making and be bolder in sticking to their guns and trying to tell stories with conviction rather than watering them down. Because it’s becoming pretty clear that the watered-down stuff is what’s dying out.”