I grew up in Omaha, and when I was twelve my buddies and I made a little Super 8 movie called Beyond the Ray of Death. That was kind of my first introduction to film. In college I took a Super 8 class and really liked it, and I also took some summer classes at UCLA for cinematography. That gave me the film bug in a serious way. Alexander Payne was in some of my classes, because he was starting graduate school. We’re both from Omaha. I then applied to film school at USC and got into the graduate film production program, and that’s where I got my masters degree.
Well, I wrote a feature film script set in Nebraska, but I didn’t know anyone in production, so I asked the film commissioner if she could recommend someone I could produce with. She told me about a guy named Dana who poured cement as a day job but had shot a few commercials and wanted to get into features. And then she said “By the way, Dana’s grandfather is Robert Altman.”, and I said “He’s hired!” (laughs) So I teamed up with Dana Altman, and Robert Altman became our mentor. Panavision gave us a free camera, and Paramount gave us a free editing bay. It counted as my thesis film for USC.
I had a lot of jitters since I hadn’t even directed any short films. A lot of people start by doing a lot of shorts or music videos, but I kind of jumped right into a feature. I surrounded myself with a good team. A couple of friends from USC came out to help, and we had some great people from Nebraska. I felt fairly confident. We were using short ends, so we had to make sure we had the shot set up right. It was film, so it wasn’t like the digital era where you can keep rolling. I remember the first day of shooting it rained, (laughs) and that was a little unnerving.
Yes. I learned to always think two shots ahead. Because what you don’t want to have happen is when you say cut and everyone is looking at you and asking what’s next and you don’t have an answer. You have to be able to know exactly what the next shot is, and while the crew is setting up that shot you are already thinking about the shot that will follow it, and no one is waiting on you as a director.
Yea, it’s funny. You go to these film schools and they teach you everything except directing really. Robert Zemekis was coming to USC to teach class one day and said “I finally figured out the secret to directing. I was working with Meryl Streep, and when I needed her to be happy I said Meryl, be happy. When I needed her to be sad I said be sad.” And we were like we just paid how many thousands of dollars for a film school degree? Harold Ramis told me there are only two things you need to do to make a great film: number one, hire Bill Murry and number two, turn on the camera. That’s what I do!” Robert Altman’s advice was “Ninety percent of directing is casting.”
What they don’t teach you in film school is that a lot of directing is psychological management of your actors and your crew. One interesting lesson I have learned when doing auditions is that you can really get a lot from an actor if you get them to improvise. Even if you don’t cast them, you still get a lot of valuable information about the characters and the parts that you will be directing. I think that’s one thing people don’t take advantage of enough. Use the audition process to develop the characters and the feature itself.
In the mid nineties it was Sundance or bust. The whole indie film scene was changing after a whole new generation of indie filmmakers, like Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino, appeared in the early nineties. Sundance and all the other institutions of indie film became more Hollywood. Miramax became part of Disney, Fine Line became part of Warner Bros, Fox launched Fox Searchlight and Sundance was part of the influence of the Hollywood-ization of independent film. They were focused much more on second time directors and directors with bigger budgets and bigger stars, and they left behind the niche of the first-time director. That was essentially why we started Slamdance.
We asked Robert Altman. Actually, Dana called him up and said “Bob, we are thinking of starting this thing, but the filmmakers are nervous that they are going to get blacklisted and never get into Sundance. What do you think of that?” Robert thought about it for a minute and said “Ahhh fuck ’em!” And those were our marching orders. (laughs) As far as we were concerned we had the blessing of the pope of indie film. Twenty years later Robert Altman is dead, and I am still blacklisted, so I am not sure how that worked out. (laughs)
Well, it was coincidental but Altman was always one of my favorite directors. I even had the poster of MASH above my wall when I was writing the script to Omaha. My favorite movie as a teen was Repo Man. At USC the professors asked us what our favorite film was and all the students were trying to be more pretentious than the next with answers like Kurosowa, and my answer was Repo Man. (laughs) Everyone looked at me funny. All that Jazz was another film that really influenced me.
When you make an independent film the film festival is your theatrical release. Very few American indie films will get a big acquisition at Sundance where Harvey Weinstein will help you win an Oscar and consequently it will play in thirty Landmark Theaters around the country. Even when you get distribution it’s more about VOD, DVD and digital distribution than playing in the theater, because there is just no money in it for the distributor. But you can still get that theatrical experience on the festival circuit. In some ways, I think film festivals are more valuable then ever. Even if you make a big Hollywood film that plays in 3,000 theaters, it plays for a week and it’s gone. It’s a very short experience of that engagement with the audience. If you play on the festival circuit you can be on it for a year and traveling around the world and really engaging with your audience on a weekly basis.
Director Paul Rachman and I talked about this quite a lot and we call it “The Fear”. Any idiot can make a first feature film. You go into it blindly and excited and you go woo-hoo, let’s produce it on credit cards. Then you make the movie and realize how hard it is, and you get this fear of doing it again. You worry about how am I going to raise money, how am I going to find a crew, everyone I asked to work for free has done it already, I know how hard distribution is, etc. You’re also second-guessing if anyone will want to see the film. Overcoming that fear, I think, is the hardest thing. When you are making a movie the first person you need to convince is yourself.
My latest project is a feature film called Between Us, and it’s an adaptation of a hit Broadway play. I co-wrote the adaptation with Joe Hortua, the playwright. The movie stars Julia Stiles, Taye Diggs, Melissa George and David Harbour. We raised money on Kickstarter with friends and family and we were able to get an amazing cast who committed to doing the film for next to nothing. It was the longest three week shoot I have ever done. (laughs) The film premiered at the Oldenburg Film Festival in Germany and the Hamptons Film Festival in the states. All together it has played at twenty-two festivals in seven countries. We secured distribution with Monterey Media for a small theatrical release and the film is currently available on DVD and VOD.
There is an Ecuadorian film called The Porcelain Horse that I saw at a film festival in Spain and the director is Javier Andrade.
Founder - Slamdance Film Festival