Thursday, January 20, 2011

Gargantuan Filmmaker's Life Catch-Up

Settle back with a nice cup of coffee, tea, whiskey, whatever. This is gonna be a long one. A lot to catch up with since I did my last "day/week/month/year in the life of this filmmaker" blogs oh so long ago.

2010 has been the low point in my blogging life with only 22 posts throughout the year compared to 58 in 2008. I often feel I simply don't have anything new or interesting to say. Then I read Ted Hope's blogs (where he posts about 10 times as often as I do - no exaggeration) and see that he is always finding something stimulating and/or important to share. In fact, half of my lame 2010 output was reposts of his blog. So, the fact is, I'm just a shitty blogger. But I'm going to change that. I'm going to dig deep for fresh insights, ideas, inspirations, awarenesses, modalities, tools, technology and more - as well as re-introduce the golden oldies. I'll point my finger at the latest and greatest as well as the old faithfuls. And maybe this will help take all of us a little farther down the road in our filmmaking lives while adding something meaningful to our lives as a whole.

For those of you who don't know, I've spent the last 4+ months in New York City, mostly for personal reasons. But there is much work that can be done there - on many levels. NYC is so incredibly vibrant, in part due to it's amazing density. It throws people in very close proximity to each other and creates some exciting collisions of thought, attitude, energy, work, art, culture, business, politics and simple conversation. It's no surprise then that there is relatively far more exciting independent filmmaking work coming out of NYC than L.A., especially given that the "industry" in NYC is dwarfed by the one in L.A. That said, the real revolution is that exciting filmmakers are emerging from all manner of cities, towns, villages, farms, burgs, burbs, coves and caves around the world and integrating local culture and concerns into their work. Anyway, I digress. For many years, now - and for the reasons stated above - we've been wanting to launch a Filmmakers Alliance group in New York City. So, since I'm spending so much time there, the time is right to finally do it! But putting together a group in NYC brings up many considerations, especially since the filmmaking culture in NYC is so different from that in L.A. Is there actually a need for FA in NYC? How will it be structured? Where will it be centered? What will it offer? Of course, much of what we do in L.A. transplants there just fine. But a lot of stuff does not. So, I've been mostly watching what goes on in NYC...and how it goes on. Getting a feel for it, so to speak, and figuring out who best to bring into the fold. Making lots of notes and hoping to do a for-real launch in May.

How can you not love this?...

Also, I am writing a film that is set in New York City. I can, of course, write something set in a city in which I've lived without having to be there. But I find being here and discovering/re-discovering it's rhythms and nuances on a daily basis adds much to the depth and flavor of the script. Anyway, for all of the same reasons mentioned above, it's a great place to write.

Another reason to be in NYC is money. There is a lot of money in New York City. Despite the economy, there is lots of money, everywhere, actually. But serious money always flows through New York City at one point or another. All kinds of it. Old money. New money. Wall Street money. Internet money. Mega Millions money. Whatever. Art for art's sake is part of the culture of New York (but don't get me wrong, there's plenty of commercialism here, too), so patronism is not as foreign a concept there as it is in L.A. and the potential patrons are not as overexposed to the filmmaking community as in L.A. Maybe I'm just making this all up. But it definitely seems this way, so far.

Why do we need money? Well, FA is a non-profit and lives and dies by philanthropic largesse - sometimes corporate, sometimes organizational/foundational and sometimes individual. And it's my job to find that money. Corporate sponsorship has been very challenging for the last few years and many good filmmaking orgs have had to be very creative to stay afloat. We're no different. On top of it, we are doing a couple of things outside of our normal scope of activities that demand cash.

I've been trying for the last year or so to put together a film fund for 6-8 VERY low budget films. It's probably the smallest film fund ever attempted and my more well-healed friends think I'm crazy dinking around with stuff like this. "It's just as easy to raise 10 million as it is to raise 1" they tell me. Really? Well, that may indeed be true as it is all about preparation and presentation and that takes just as much effort trying to raise a gazillion dollars as it does raising a few bucks. But people truly do get nervous in this day and age about chunking down big bucks on the riskiest of ventures. There is definitely a ceiling above which they will not go. And I don't blame them. Film revenue is notoriously elusive and the history of filmmaking - independent and studio - is fraught with waste and irresponsibility. So, how do we lower the risk and make investment more attractive? Well, the smaller the investment, the smaller the risk. No-budget filmmaking is my sweet spot, so it is irresponsible for me to stake my rep on anything other. And I need to prove out my beliefs/concepts in that sweet spot. If I can't do that, I don't deserve a penny from anybody. Of course, I have very specific parameters about what these films need to be and how they need to be made, marketed and distributed. But those will be laid out in another blog.

I also want to finally realize our website goal. And that is, to finish building a website that is as much of an all-in-one tool for filmmakers as a website can be. There's a lot of cool shit out there on the web, but nothing nearly as comprehensive, integrated and organized as it could be. Which surprises me as we have been building/planning this for years and were certain others would have beat us to the punch by now. But for whatever the reason (maybe the cost vs. financial benefit, maybe the sheer magnitude of the effort, maybe the lack of cohesive vision, maybe narrow self-interest) it has not been done and that just means a continued window of opportunity for us.

And then, of course, the normal scope of FA activities demands funding, especially since we are on the verge of expansion...and, perhaps, dramatic change. I've been helping with all the usual FA stuff in LA - mostly hands-on managed by our fabulous associate director Vidyut Latay - including setting up meetings and screenings, equipment rental, fiscal sponsorship and a few other things. We intended to scale back a bunch of FA stuff in anticipation of my extended stay away from L.A., but Vidyut has managed to be so on top of everything that we haven't had to do too much scaling back at all. I also have begun sponsor solicitations for 2001-2012 and I've also been putting together the pieces to launch FA NYC, which will probably include another Independent Film Master Class here. We'll be doing another Master Class in L.A., as well.

Yes, a lot of the usual stuff, but for an organization like ours to stay vibrant and relevant, it needs to be flexible and ever-evolving. It had become a bit stale and moribund of late and things didn't help with my pulling away a bit (geographically as well as emotionally). But the time away has been good and truly helped me get my head together about our next steps. And with Vidyut's help, we're gonna start making some cool new things happen. And all of that will be detailed in another blog, as well.

I wasn't in LA for our annual Christmas party, but the members put one together, anyway, and did a great job. I felt sad to miss it for the first time ever, but was excited to know that the members will make stuff happen with or without me hanging around to complicate things. Actually, I've often wondered what would happen to Filmmakers Alliance if I was not in the picture for any reason. It's a good feeling to know that it has taken on a life of its own and will do just fine under any circumstance. But I'm not planning on going anywhere anytime soon. Quite the reverse. I fully intend that our various grand plans for FA will come to fruition within the next year.

Same can be said for my own filmmaking life. It definitely needs to go to the next level. I made a short "My Last Day On Earth" that played a couple of great festivals (Ashland Independent Film Festival, Seattle International Film Festival), but it didn't get into a couple of other key fests and I kind of lost steam submitting it. I've done the festival circuit ad nauseum as a filmmaker, panelist, juror, exhibitor, etc., etc. I do still love festivals, but it sometimes seems that more play than work gets done. The fests also start to feel a bit repetitive. Never mind the expense of the fests (short filmmakers are rarely brought to festivals for free) and the time it cuts into work and other things I might need or want to do. At this point, I don't need to drag the film and myself through the few of the literally hundreds of festivals out there that might program the film. Anyway, it's time for me to make another feature. Long past time. So, I continue diligently hammering away at the script for my next feature, "Hurricane Jane" as well as developing two ideas for MUCH smaller features - ones that I know I can shoot for $50k or less. By hook or by crook, I've GOT TO make another feature. Despite the gloomy outlook for indies and the still-lingering recession, I've got too many connections and resources (and current technology is too supportive) for me to mount any sort of an excuse. If I call myself a filmmaker, I've got to make films. NOW.

Speaking of festival experiences, in late November/early December I was invited to the Malatya International Film Festival in Malatya, Turkey (the apricot capital of Turkey!!) in late November/early December to hold a filmmaking workshop with local students. The invitation was arranged by a friend, Turkish actress Nehir Erdogan, whom I met during her brief visit to Los Angeles during the LA Film Festival in 2009. It was my first trip to Turkey so it was an exciting opportunity. And the fest allowed me to bring my girlfriend, Brigitte., so we could also make a subsequent vacation out of it (how often do I hang out in that part of the world?) The fest's idea was to instruct through actual production. The workshop participants, with my guidance, were to conceive, create and screen a short film during the 7 days of the festival. Not all that difficult considering there are film slams in which films are made in a short number of hours. But these were not film students. They had very little if any filmmaking experience. And they did not speak a word of English.

Malatya reminded me a bit of parts of Tehran, Iran, where I spent my senior year of high school - although I confess that, after 33 years, my memory of Tehran is a bit hazy. I found a familiar kind of middle eastern architecture, mosques in abundance, lots of small shops and open markets, crowded streets (of mostly men), women traveling in groups hidden/bundled in scarves and the always surprisingly easy mix of peasant villagers, shopkeepers, businessmen and students . Most of the festival events where held at the big, new mall, which housed the theaters, and at the local university, the largest in Eastern Turkey, I believe. The festival was very well-funded and the people running it were fantastic. They were from Istanbul (the company that produces the fest is actually called Istanbul Group) and a very, fun, smart group led by the fabulous Gunseli Birol. I couldn't help but be impressed, as well, by their attention to detail and almost insane punctuality.

They took great care of us and even gave me an assistant/interpreter - an extremely cool and smart guy named Sarp Eskisındı. We called him The Fixer because he seemed to be able to make anything we needed happen. He rocked and became our best friend in Turkey.

Me and da boyz (and girl) - Turkish-style...Sarp Eskisındı, Umut Kalaycı , Mehmet Hamdi Örüm, me, the actress (whose name escapes me), Polat Bektaş, Ozan Can Durdu, and Tuncay Ades.

So, back to the workshop - I decided to forgo lecturing because of the inexperience of the participants and the lack of English and dove straight into developing the short we were gonna make. After setting some parameters, I gave the gang 2 hours to come up with some ideas. Maybe 4 or 5 we can choose from. They went into a nearby lounge at the college and animatedly discussedit. I watched them through the glass and admired the passion and wild gesticulation that went on. Finally, they emerged,...but not with 4 or 5 ideas. They were united behind a single idea. "We want to do a film about sadness."

"Sadness?" I asked quizzically.

"Yes, sadness".

"You want to do a film about a single emotion - a depressing one at that?"


"Okay, so what the story?"

"What do you mean?"

"What happens in the film. What, as an audience, are we watching take place?"

They scratched their heads. Seems they hadn't thought of that just yet. So, we tip-toed through story ideas and finally came up with a circular series of "moments" - each touching on a kind of sadness - structured like the famous play "La Ronde".

Once we got past that point, things flew forward quickly. We literally wrote the script together in a few hours, with one guy typing it in Turkish and all others throwing out suggestions. Then, we jumped right into production the next day, which wasn't too difficult considering we had no equipment other than a camera. And no actors, either. Each of the participants would have to "act", as well.

But the guys were all fantastic and had such amazing, enthusiastic energy. They each got to "direct" a segment and took it very seriously. They helped provide props and locations and it all came together very nicely. I surprised at how well the guys did as "actors" and how fully they invested in it. After shooting, we all sat in the hotel lobby where all the festival guests stayed and edited it on my laptop. Like the writing process, one of us (me) did the cutting but responded to their comments/suggestions. A friend of one of the participants provided some music he created specifically for the piece. I slapped on some credits and PRESTO! We had a film. We showed it closing night of the festival at the closing party and the guys could not have been more proud and happy. One even brought his entire family. It was very inspiring and a lot of fun to be part of the whole process. But it would not have been nearly as much fun if the participants were not so sweetly committed. Hopefully, they also got a lot out of it.

After the fest, Brigitte and I spent some time in Istanbul and then in Cairo (saw the Pyramids, of course and tooled around dirty, insane and fun Cairo). Then came back to NYC and work, hustle, holidays, freezing cold, etc., etc. After two fun, gorgeous snowstorms, it was time to get back here to L.A., where I am now. But I'll be back in NYC soon enough. In the meantime, there's much to do here in terms of my own filmmaking life, re-shaping Filmmakers Alliance and planning my triumphant return to New York City and the launch of FA NYC.

Great to be back in L.A., too, after being away so long. You appreciate it in a whole different way. L.A. is a lousy wife, but a great lover. So, it's nice to experience it anew. It helps, too, to also have already had an awesome meeting with Vidyut, who offered incredible ideas about where Filmmakers Alliance needs to move in the future. Wonderful, too, to reconnect with my creative family and start pushing my own filmmaking life forward. Right now, despite how challenging the economy and Indie Film still is, I'm feeling a lot of excitement about what lies ahead.

Next up: Sundance Film Festival. Stay tuned.

1 comment:

  1. Welcome back! Thanks for the inspiring blog Jacques!