Little Earthquakes: The Best Movies I Saw in ’15

madya_apu My half-assed mashup of two of my favorite movie-going experiences, Apur Sansar and Mad Max: Fury Road.

By any account, I consumed a crapton of tv. Jessica Jones, Red Road, Daredevil, The Walking Dead, Orphan Black, Game of Thrones (oh and Helix and Defiance)… days of my life I’m not getting back were spent staring at the screen. But this wasn’t a passive experience – those were moments where I felt intimately connected with the lives of fictional people. Debarati and I talked about them as though we knew them. It’s that cliched tv-as-modern-campfire experience, and it definitely reached some kind of peak for me this year. It could be because I’m studying these shows with an eye towards breaking into the medium, or it could be that the creators are counting on the binge-watching experience when they’re crafting the stories.

On the other hand, it’s been a surprisingly lackluster year on the film front. I saw a handful of truly great features, most of them at least 25 years old (or older). But Avengers (especially), Spectre, Terminator: Whatever, and others… they were technically brilliant, good looking commercials, but had little lasting emotional value. And an even larger percentage of films – Ex Machina and The Martian come to mind – were gripping while I was watching them but really didn’t leave much of an impression later.

Surprisingly (or not), my most memorable film experiences of the year came from a handful of indie films and older, ostensibly more quiet films. So here’s the list of films I saw in 2015 that I will remember for years to come.

THE APU TRILOGY, Pather Panjali, Aparajito, and Apur Sansar – three incredible films, made by Satyajit Ray, from 1955 to 1959. The trilogy follows the fictional Apu, from his impoverished childhood in rural West Bengal in the early 20th century, to his later childhood in Benares, to his adulthood in Kolkata. After many years of hearing how awesome these films were, I finally got the chance to see them projected, thanks to a new restoration that screened at Film Forum. Ray does more with a single shot of two children running through the field to see a train go by, than Joss Whedon did with $200+ million and all the CGI toys and top-drawer Hollywood talent that you can buy with that. The careful composition of each shot, the amazing performances, the fact that you feel like you’re a part of someplace you’ve never been – it’s epic filmmaking, but done in a very understated (and therefore underappreciated) way.

HEAVEN’S GATE, released in 1980, is famous for being the film that bankrupted United Artists, and ushered in the beginning of the end of auteur-driven Hollywood filmmaking. On the surface it seems obvious: it’s a slow-moving, not very action-oriented Western about a lawyer from Harvard who ends up on the side of small homesteaders, immigrants and cattle rustlers in a remote part of Wyoming, as they’re targeted by big-time cattle ranchers. An epic of American greed, as immigrants who are fleeing Europe try to scratch out a decent living, and are targeted by ruthless, bigoted businessmen… sound familiar?

Time has been kind to this film, as many critics slowly unpacked what was really going on with the film. There are many repeating visual and sound motifs – concentric circles, mazelike interiors that contrast with the wide-open exteriors, locomotion of various kinds (horses, carriages, railroads, roller skates). The visual density, the telling of the story through movement and sound, the moral ambiguity of many of the characters – those alone are worth seeing the film for. Again, I felt like I was living in Wyoming over a century ago. I wasn’t in the theater any more.

NIGHTMARE CODE: This is a sneaky indie sci-fi/thriller. At first, you might think it’s just a ‘found footage’ project, playing on themes that have been worn to death – the dangers of surveillance, virtual reality, and so on. But it’s much more interesting than that. A troubled hacker trying to get out a big legal mess takes on a job at a startup. He’s tasked with finishing up their sophisticated behavior recognition software prototype, right after their lead programmer went postal and shot half the staff and himself. But the code proves to be far more than just predictive – it seems to be changing the behavior of its programmers, and not for the better. This film tells its story using split-screen security cameras, webcams, body cameras, and computer screen, in a way that’s really effective. The acting is really great – you feel as though you’re in a real startup shop, with folks trying to cope with real development problems. The realism makes the spooky goings-on that much more effective.

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is amazing. It had no reason to be anything than a stupid action film with lots of over-the-top effects and no depth. It was a license to print cash. Instead it had a heart, a real point of view, incredibly well-done characterizations (especially considering the sparse dialog), and yes, awesome action (achieved through a magnificent combination of practical effects, CGI, and let’s not forget the sound design)!

UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD, the director’s cut. When I saw the original version – 2.5 hours – back in 1990, I was both bored and intrigued. After seeing Wings of Desire, I was in love with Wim Wenders and thought he could do no wrong. But the film was so muddled and gave me no real anchor to guide me with. I could tell there were some great ideas floating in there, and had heard rumors that there was a longer cut out there.

The completely restored version, presented this year at MOMA, was amazing. It clocks in at nearly 5 hours, but you’re not bored at all. Instead, you’re incredibly grounded in what’s going on. The ostensible plot is about a woman who’s drifting through life in 1999, and gets seduced by, and then chases, a mysterious man who’s carrying around a camera that can record reality for playback to the blind, while the whole world is waiting for a potential nuclear disaster (a satellite carrying a nuclear payload may be crashing to earth). The plot takes the viewer from Europe through America to Japan to the aboriginal homelands in Australia. The themes of the film carry you through the wonder, fears and joys of modern life and tech, issues of community vs. individuality, the struggle to distinguish between the real and the virtual (and the real environment of dreams versus the virtual reality of our concept of nature). It’s a deep, dense movie, well worth the evening.

JESSICA JONES – yes I know it’s not a film, it’s a TV show, but hear me out. This is the project that will forever change the way we look at the superhero genre in film and tv. The craft on display is amazing – the performances, fight choreography, direction, lighting, sound design, music… but it’s the multilayered story that makes it work. By opting not to do another “the world ends if we don’t stop the bad guy,” the show instead delves into the internal world of the characters. It seems like it’s about a hard-drinking PI who is trying to take down a clever psychopath with a special talent for manipulation. But it’s also about the nature of abuse and manipulation, and the damage that abusive relationships can cause to one’s psyche. It’s about the difficulty and high cost of doing the right thing, when society as a whole rewards ‘following the program’ (even when that program turns you into a killer, a la Nuke, or a victim, like Patsy).

IMAGINE I’M BEAUTIFUL – this is a really tense, slow-build psychological thriller, written, starring and produced by Naomi McDougall Graham, and directed by Meredith Edwards. Without giving too much away, it’s about a young woman, Lana who comes to the city and answers a roommate ad. She moves in with the very troubled Lana, and the two slowly form a deep bond. But their friendship turns and twists in unexpected ways, and you’re kept wondering where the hell is their relationship going? It’s a great handshake of style and substance, made more amazing by the fact that it was made on such a low budget.

At first glance these films seem completely unrelated. Pather Panjali, Imagine I’m Beautiful and Nightmare Code were low-budget first features. Mad Max is part of a franchise, with top stars and made by George Miller, who’s pushing 70. Until the End… and Heaven’s Gate were both regarded as mid-career commercial and artistic failures at the time of their release. Jessica Jones was a thoroughly collaborative effort, produced by the Marvel machine (which has had better years, frankly).

But what unites all these films is their focus on what Tori Amos called, in her fantastic album and title song, Little Earthquakes. “Oh, these little earthquakes / Here we go again / Oh, these little earthquakes / Doesn’t take much to rip us into pieces.” When you listen to that song (or just about any of them on the album), you’re shown that someone’s sanity and life and dreams can matter as much as the whole world’s, and can depend on the simplest of things. Stolen fruit, the one tree that’s still standing in a marsh, the lucky find of a typewriter in a commune… these films, like little earthquakes, obliterate boundaries. I’ve never been to Apu’s remote West Bengal village, nor did I grow up in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. But while I was watching them and for some time afterward, I wasn’t here in NYC in 2015 anymore; I was standing next to Apu while he was walking down the tracks by his apartment, or hanging on to Furiosa’s rig for dear life. These films accomplished the miracle that the medium has always promised and seldom delivers – to connect you to someone else, somewhere else, and change you in the process.

At some point I’ll write about the great TV I saw in 2015, so stay tuned! Happy new year!

VOD And Screenings!

NOW AVAILABLE ON VIMEO ON DEMAND and VUDU!

NEXT SCREENING:

Louisville International Film Festival, Saturday Oct. 11th 2:30pm
Holly Theater – Galt House Hotel: 141 N Fourth Street, Louisville, KY 40202
More Info: louisvillefilmfestival.org

More channels, screenings, and news coming soon!

Art of Brooklyn Film Festival Screening!

Just a quick reminder that we’ll be screening at the Art Of Brooklyn Film Festival!

AOBFF

WHEN: Thursday, May 8th, 8pm (reception) / 9pm (screening starts)
WHERE: St. Francis College, Founders’ Hall, 180 Remsen St., Brooklyn, NY
TICKETS: $10 for the evening – includes the reception, 2 shorts, Found In Time, and a Q&A!
MORE INFO: AOBFF Page

I’ll be there with DP Ben Wolf, editor Dan Loewenthal, costume designer Ghislaine Sabiti, and other crewmembers for a post-screening Q&A!

Six Things I’m Learning About Distribution

Found In Time goes to Harvard

Found In Time goes to Harvard’s VeriCon

#6: Don’t Bother With The Top-Tier Festivals.

I wasted a lot of time – nearly six months – sending the film out to “A-List” festivals. These are the ones that everyone wants to get in – Sundance, Berlin, Toronto, Berlin, Cannes, and Tribeca. I applied to three of them (Sundance, Toronto and Berlin), but really I should have started with the sci-fi/fantasy/horror festivals and targeted them instead.

While it’s always a “nice idea” to premiere at Sundance, the time you spend waiting to hear from them – during which you can’t really apply to any other festivals that may screen beforehand – is time you could be spending on other things. Unless you know for a fact that you can really get into Sundance or one of the other fests, don’t wait for them to pass on you – go find another festival premiere that may better suit your material anyway.

In my case, Shriekfest was happy to premiere my film, and I screened in front of a great, appreciative audience. I also got a lot of press coverage from the screening, was treated really well by the staff and fans, and my LA-based cast were able to see the film as well. I even won an award! If I’d premiered at Sundance earlier that year, I would have been competing with much bigger fish with budgets for publicists and wine-and-dine parties.

#5: Figure Out Your Genre.

I initially thought my film would appeal to indie-types because it’s a little on the experimental side, and fantasy fans, because it’s not really “hard” sci-fi. I called it a “fantasy” film. I consciously avoided the terms “sci-fi” or “science fiction” whenever possible because I didn’t want my film to be compared to other higher-budgeted, effects-driven films.

I was wrong on both counts. The people who liked my film were sci-fi folks. The crew, cast, and early viewers all called it a “sci-fi” film. The festivals that accepted it first: sci-fi/horror fests. The people who seemed to hate it the most (judging by distributor and festival rejections) – the “indie crowd.” I think “Found In Time” hit the market at the same time as a crap-ton of weepy 20-something-let’s-figure-out-our-relationship-bastard-son-of-mumblecore movies hit the market, and those are what played at SXSW, Tribeca, and Rooftop the past couple of years. Some of these films are great, by the way, but they’re not what I made.

If you’ve made a movie, try and figure out where it “belongs” in the genre universe as soon as possible, so you’re not wasting money and time sending it out to festivals, sales agents, and distributors who really don’t know what to do with it. And yes, drama and comedy are genres.

#4: Don’t Make Your Artwork Too Specific:

I printed up my first batch of postcards to indicate the Shriekfest screening time and location. This was dumb. It made it almost impossible to re-use those cards. I had to cut out custom-sized labels with the Eerie Horrorfest times on them, then carefully stick them over the Shriekfest screening times.

#3: Sometimes The Screening Isn’t Going to Be Great.

The projector’s too dark, the sound system is a rusty tin can with string, the attendance is down, there’s a blizzard outside, your screening time is at 9am, there’s a huge racket outside… you can only control so much about your screening, and then you have to let it go. DON’T let your anger show, or take it out on the staff or the audience. Treat the staff and audience with the same respect regardless of their size or the conditions. Some of the best screening experiences I had were when five people showed up. Those five people held a Q&A with me for an HOUR after the film. Those are the fans you should kill to have.

#2: Try to Avoid Online Screeners.

I still firmly believe that DVD and BluRay offer a superior viewing experience, if for no other reason than they require the sales agent/festival programmer/distributor to actually sit down, put the disc in, and watch something. Especially now that net neutrality in this country is about to be toast, I don’t want my film being choked to the point of unplayability, or competing directly with the viewer’s other twenty browser tabs.

#2: Transparency Works Better Than Opacity

The prevailing wisdom back when I got out of school was that you kept your cards close to your chest – your budget, your plans for the film, your premiere status, etc. You didn’t want your film getting stale, so you listed it on IMDB much later in the process. You didn’t want your ideas stolen by competing filmmakers, so you didn’t reach out to them. You didn’t tell your fans what you were up to, as a means of building suspense.

The truth is that telling people what’s going on with the film – especially the cast and crew – at each step of the way has been a great help. It’s kept us all together like the happy family we were when we were shooting. Putting up set photos, listing the film on IMDB, setting up the Facebook page, reaching out to other filmmakers at festivals, comparing notes – it’s all been a great experience and I think has only helped us find a bigger audience. I’ve also had a much better time. I still think that you don’t want to tell people your budget unless it was so low that that’s actually part of your marketing. However, explaining your process, how you shot it, what your successes and failure during the production and post were, can only help you stay connected to your audience, your cast, your crew, and the larger filmmaking community.

#1: Make the Film With The Assumption That You’re Going to Self Distribute.

When I started making Found In Time, finding a distributor still seemed like a good idea, so I budgeted so as to pour as much money into the making of the film as possible. I’m happy with my distribution deal, and I still think that finding a “traditional” solution makes sense if you’ve crossed a certain budget threshold.

However, for super-low-budget films, direct or hybrid distribution models make more sense and will net the filmmaker more money and exposure than waiting forever to get a deal with no advance. You just have to adjust your budget accordingly, and spend more of it on the end of the process rather than on the beginning. But this also frees you to work on your own timetable. Get some buzz from festivals, sell DVDs directly, then find a streaming solution that works. You have to spend more time on distribution, but you’ll learn a lot along the way.

I’m learning more every day! The beauty and difficulty of this strange art/business form we’ve chosen is that there’s always more to figure out. Got a different opinion? Let me know!

Rethinking The Word ‘Visionary’

It’s been a while since I dipped into the ‘critical’ role. Generally, while I like (and read plenty of) film criticism, I’m less sure of my ability to write it. Also, I’m constantly afraid that it will make me very self-conscious in my own work.

But, I feel like I have to speak but, because something is bugging the shit out of me, and it has to do with the advertising (and to some extent) the fan-boy reception and criticism of Zack Snyder as a ‘VISIONARY.’

Zack, I don’t know you, but I have seen most of your films. I feel that you, Gaspar Noe (Enter The Void), Sophia Coppola (Lost In Translation), Christopher Nolan (Dark Knight), and a few other filmmakers belong to a particular class of artists. You have impressive technical skills, and are trying to embrace bigger themes in your work, while working within a system that seems to actively discourage anything of the sort. That does make you special among many film directors who seem content to waste their talents on complete crap, or try to make a go of it entirely outside the mainstream system.

However, it doesn’t make you a visionary. Because, in order to be a visionary, you have to have a VISION.

What do I mean by this? I mean that, as an artist, you have to reach beyond what we know and accept as part of our consciousness, dig into what’s ‘out there/in there’ – the endless, constantly unfolding universe – and bring back a new paradigm, nugget, something, anything, that suggests a better/newer/alternate way of being, thinking, loving, living, making. In literature and philosophy, think of Ovid, Dante, Blake, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung… more recently, Djuna Barnes, Pynchon, Deleuze, Adrienne Rich, Phillip K. Dick, William Gibson, Samuel Delaney, Elizabeth Hand, Neil Gaiman. In art, think of Picasso, Matisse, Keith Haring, Louise Bourgeois. In music: Dirty Projectors, John Cage, Arvo Part, The Boredoms, Bjork, Bill Laswell’s Last Exit, PJ Harvey…

In film and television: Tarkovsky, Kurosawa, David Lynch, (sometimes) David Cronenberg, Maya Deren, Kieslowski, David Simon, David Chase (what’s with all the Davids?), Hayao Miyazaki, Julie Taymor (sometimes), Wong Kar-Wai…

Feel free to argue with some or all of my choices. Not all of them produced consistently visionary (or even good) work. But what unites them (at least is my mind) is that, regardless of their choice of medium, subject matter, technical acumen, critical reception or box office score, they bring something back from the edges of our existence, and thereby broaden our sense of what’s possible.

Other visionaries: the filmmakers I’ve been meeting this year on the festival circuit. The filmmakers behind Sader Ridge, Found, Channeling, Menschen, Lonely Boy – just to name a few, and just at one festival (the Phoenix Film Festival) – are exploring new places, on budgets that are far less than Zack Snyder’s personal bottled water supply. Are the works technically perfect? No. Who cares? They have the vitality that unites great art, from the shamanic cave paintings at Lescaux to Basquiat to Ralph Ellison to Arvo Part’s Tu Deum.

Being a visionary doesn’t guarantee success – sometimes it means taking years of exploration, exile, scraping by on day jobs, scratching away at ideas, throwing a lot of crap out. It’s risky and maddening and sometimes you’ll die before everyone realizes who amazing you are. But if you want the frontier, to connect with what made you want to do this as a kid – it’s there, waiting for you.

So use this word with care. If you aspire to visionary status, spend some time working in the dark. And bring us back something new.

Applying To Festivals, Joy and Pain

First off, our trailer is now on YouTube!

The festival application process just plain sucks. You start by making DVDs and sending them out. Then you wait, and wait, and get ready… for more waiting. On some level, you’d rather be writing the next script. But you have to pay careful attention to what fests you apply to and in what order. It’s a game where small errors can have catestrophic consequences.

For starters, there are many festivals out there (every town has one). But rather than shotgunning your film to every one of those – the application fees and postage will kill you – do a little research ahead of time, and figure out your priorities and overall distribution strategy.

Here’s a few of the big outcomes I’d like to see happen from a festival screening of Found In Time:

  • The film attracts the attention of a distributor and/or sales agent
  • The film gets some positive reviews
  • We get some fans who’ll spread the word and maybe buy some tickets down the road
  • We get some laurel leaf clusters to stick on every piece of packaging and on the website
  • We sell some DVDs and merchandise
  • We get some honest acknowledgement from peers and fans
  • We get to see the film on a big screen with an audience

Chances are, no one festival is going to fulfill all those expectations, so which ones are the priority? And how does it fit into the overall distribution plan?

The approach we’re taking is to go for the genre fans first and the prestige fests second. So in addition to looking at some of the top fests, I also researched some genre (sci-fi and fantasy) festivals, and some non-fests (comic and fantasy conventions) as well.
I then narrowed things down by excluding fests that:

  • Require 35mm prints or DCP exclusively. DCP is probably the future of digital projection, but I’d rather not shell out the $6.5-$8K to convert the film or spend one-two weeks attempting (and probably) failing to do it on my own.
  • Are less than 3 years old. Fests tend to become a little more organized and well-known over time.
  • Have conflicting dates with each other. I usually went with the more targeted (genre-wise) festival.
  • Have exorbitant or scam entrance fees (where you basically pay to have your film screened).
  • Have gotten negative feedback from anyone I know.
  • Don’t seem like they attract much distributor attention.
  • Are focused on specific sub-genres (robots! anime! role-playing games!)

What I ended up with was a database of good candidates, along with their submission deadlines, entry fees, website URLs, and any other pertinent information. After staring at the list a bit, I picked out a few with close deadlines, and applied to them first. Play close attention to premiere requirements – if you get into one fest in a given country/continent/medium, it may box you out of a “bigger” fest in the same “territory.” Some festivals (like Sundance, Toronto, Berlin) prefer world premieres. Others don’t care. Generally, the higher the prestige value, the more picky they are about it.

Leave some time for the application process itself. You have to QC your DVDs, pack them correctly, label them as per the submission instructions, and type up a cover letter with your contact information and some basic technical info (region, running time, title, etc.) If you’re not up against the deadline, send the packages Priority or first-class mail – you’re not gaining anything necessarily by sending them Express or FedEx.

Spend some time writing the synopsis and logline. Adhere to the letter of the application – this is not the time to get creative, go over the wordcount, or send superfluous materials. Don’t send a press kit unless they specifically ask for one. But do have your material ready, just in case. When you get into a festival you’ll have to crank out your posters, postcards, stickers, press kits, and duplicated DVD pretty quickly.