From technological innovation to subverting expectations and everything in between
15 Great Ways Filmmakers Found Their Independence In The Last 20 Years
Art and Experience: At the end of the 20th century, Bobcat Goldthwait’s legacy read like a cheap joke: He was a screaming comedian from the eighties best known as Zed in the “Police Academy” franchise who once tried at his hand at directing a movie (“Shakes the Clown”). Those achievements barely skimmed the surface of Goldthwait’s ability, as the ensuing years made clear, when Goldthwait completely transformed his career into one of the most provocative American filmmakers working today. With the microbudget “Sleeping Dogs Lie” (aka “Stay”), Goldthwait showed his potential to funnel taboo subject matters into oddly touching, relatable human dramas, a proclivity he kicked up to a whole new level with the subversive black comedy “World’s Greatest Dad,” which features Robin Williams in one of his all-time great roles.
Goldthwait has kept innovating, with each new movie offering a fresh perspective on the naive assumptions that govern everyday life: “God Bless America” deconstructs the absurdity of reality television by literally blowing it to bits, while “Willow Creek” gives “The Blair Witch Project” a run for its money with one creepy depiction of a couple that fail to take Bigfoot warning signs too seriously. “Call Me Lucky,” his documentary about fellow comedian and activist Barry Crimmins, merged Goldthwait’s original passion for standup comedy with his newer interests. Already an outspoken critic of modern society behind the mic, Goldthwait has successfully rebooted his talent behind the camera, losing none of his fiercely independent spirit — or savagely hilarious outlook. -Eric Kohn
The Formation Of Killer Films
Sundance Producers’ Brunch 2016 keynoters Christine Vachon and Pam Koffler, whose 20-year-old Killer Films has produced 80 movies including “Kill Your Darlings” and “Boys Don’t Cry,” boasted four films at the festival (“Wiener-Dog,” “Frank and Lola,” “Goat” and “White Girl”). It’s not surprising. Killer has been producing a wide range of indie films for more than 20 years, from Todd Haynes’ Cannes contenders “Velvet Goldmine” to “Carol,” which won Best Actress for Rooney Mara. They’ve watched their movies take home Oscars (Julianne Moore for “Still Alice”), Golden Globes and Emmys (“Mildred Pierce,” “Mrs. Harris”), and Vachon won a Creative Emmy for “This American Life.”
They’ve consistently pushed projects with women directors, from “Go Fish” to “I Shot Andy Warhol,” and keep scoring invites to appear on panels on the subject. Vachon has written two how-to indie film books and is a regular on the speaking circuit. Befitting the way the industry is changing, Killer Films also has a number of things in the works for television outlets, as well as Amazon, produced a series of short docs for Time, Inc., and an AOL series called “In Short” with such actors as Jeff Garlin, Judy Greer and Alia Shawkat directing five-minute pieces. And as they continue to zig and zag — they will survive. -Anne Thompson
Having The Guts (And Grit) To Make “Celebration”
In the last 20 years, it’s hard to point to a film that more radically changed the way films were made than “The Celebration.” When Thomas Vinterberg’s film, shot on a $700 one-chip consumer DV camera, became the splash hit at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, it sent a digital ripple effect into American indies that is still felt today. Adhering to the “Vow of Chastity” of Vintenberg and Lars von Trier’s Dogme 95 manifesto, “The Celebration” embraced improvisation, handheld camera, location shooting and natural light that would come to define independent film for the next two decades.
Vintenberg demonstrated that filmmakers could free themselves from the apparatus of expensive filmmaking and could not only tell a gripping story, but something cinematically exciting as well. Rather than avoid or mask the limitations of early DV, Vinterberg built into the movie. The film takes place over the course of a day, as a family reunites to celebrate their patriarch’s sixtieth birthday, but as night sets in and the revealing of a terrible secret causes the family to disintegrate, so does the movie’s image. In the low light, the camera loses its ability to fully capture color and becomes grainy and pixelated, perfectly mirroring what was happening in the narrative. After a decade of glossy, multi-million dollar indies made popular by companies like Miramax, “The Celebration” redefined the aesthetics of indie filmmaking in the digital age. -Chris O’Falt
The Rise Of Netflix’s Original Programming
It’s hard to remember an era before Netflix completely changed how many of us approach watching television, but really, it’s only been a little over four years since “House of Cards” first premiered. It wasn’t the first streaming service to offer original series — but by dictating its own terms for distribution, the company redefined an entire industry’s best practices. Here in 2016, the value of ratings has eroded like never before, even broadcast networks are experimenting with the binge-viewing model and you no longer need a cable subscription to watch HBO. And Netflix led the charge — simply by being itself. -Liz Shannon Miller
Taking The Money (And Making A Great Movie Out Of It)
Working for a major studio in order to reboot the classic franchise you invented isn’t ordinarily a strong show of independence, but there’s nothing ordinary about “Mad Max” mastermind George Miller. Disappearing into the Namibian desert with $150 million of Warner Bros.’ money and returning several years later with a singular masterpiece of blood and fire (those studio notes must have gotten lost in the mail), Miller’s Oscar-winning “Fury Road” flexed muscles that the movies have allowed to atrophy, and reminded Hollywood that the film industry’s future is most at risk when the film industry’s present refuses to take any. At a time when multiplexes often feel like a post-apocalyptic wasteland in their own right, “Fury Road” opened the floodgates and made it rain. – David Ehrlich
Incubating And Hatching, All At Once
When Chicken & Egg Pictures founders Julie Parker Benello, Wendy Ettinger and Judith Helfand started their non-profit organization in 2005, it was with one simple aim: To provide both help and a home for women non-fiction filmmakers in need of that extra push to make their projects a reality. Now a decade into their endeavor year, the film fund has awarded nearly $4 million in grants and spent more than 5,200 hours of mentorship to bolster over 190 films, including “After Tiller,” “Lioness,” “Meet the Patels,” “Hot Girls Wanted” and “The Invisible War.” The organization continues to roll out new initiatives that serve their multi-pronged approach, along with their true desire to “incubate and hatch all at once.” From the beginning, the founders were compelled by the idea that they could make a real difference for filmmakers who found themselves at a critical juncture. Over the course of ten years, they’ve done just that (and so much more). -Kate Erbland
Steven Soderbergh “Quitting” Feature Filmmaking
There was a time when Steven Soderbergh kept floating around the idea that he was going to retire from feature filmmaking, but it wasn’t like many of us necessarily believed him. But by the time his struggles in getting “Behind the Candelabra” became widespread knowledge (multiple studios wouldn’t touch the film because it was “too gay”), it seemed that the director really was fed up with the Hollywood system and ready to leave it behind, and for good measure. But while many of us thought his filmmaking retirement would mean a dearth of new Soderbergh content, the director had something more fiercely independent up his sleeve: He dove head first into the world of television, a place that would give him total control to create, write, direct and execute his visions without the interference of the money-hungry Hollywood executives who wold chose a buck over artistry any day of the week.
The move has resulted in the acclaimed medical drama “The Knick,” which has had two very successfully seasons on Cinemax, and, most recently, the masterful Starz drama “The Girlfriend Experience.” Soderbergh stated his independence by using television as a creative life-force when the movies had seemed to all but give up on him. Fortunately, TV has reignited his artistic side, and he’s already in the middle of his filmmaker comeback with “Logan Lucky.” -Zack Sharf
Using An iPhone To Make A Breakout Feature
Filmmaker Sean Baker knew that a movie about a day in the life of two transgender prostitutes in West Hollywood could not look like any other film. He didn’t have the budget for celluloid, and he didn’t want the ubiquitous look of a DSLR. When he decided to shoot on an iPhone 5S, his directory of photography was skeptical. “We need to embrace this or else we’ll fail,” Baker told him. Baker had been following iPhone filmmakers on Vimeo, and discovered Moondog Labs’ anamorphic lens adapter, which “expands your camera’s horizontal field of view,” allowing for panoramic shots, organic flares and distortion.
The proof is in the pudding: “Tangerine” crackles with saturated colors — the film radiates heat like the pavement its heroines are pounding. When it debuted at Sundance in 2015, audiences flipped for the film’s DIY aesthetic. Beyond its camera quality, the iPhone’s unassuming presence was crucial in capturing intimate and natural moments between the first-time actresses and real-life friends Mya Taylor and Kiki Rodriquez. Baker was able to film inconspicuously an underground world that would not have been accessible to a large camera crew. For better or worse, the iPhone camera (and the lens adapter) has made independent filmmakers of everyone. How liberating. -Jude Dry
Never Settling, Never Conforming
Few directors in Hollywood have blazed a trail as varied and unpredictable as David Gordon Green. After bursting onto the scene in 2000 with the critically acclaimed lyrical beauty “George Washington,” Green established himself as one of the most distinctive indie filmmakers in the U.S. by directing three more dramas, the the small town love story “All the Real Girls,” the dramatic thriller “Undertow” and the romantic drama “Snow Angels.”
He then switched gears completely by shooting three studio comedies, the Seth Rogen stoner film “Pineapple Express” the adventure-fantasy “Your Highness” starring Danny McBride, and the 2011 Jonah Hill vehicle “The Sitter.” Green has spent the past five years crafting an eclectic mix of low-budget indies (2013’s “Prince Avalanche”), comedic television (HBO’s “Eastbound & Down”) and dramatic features (2013’s “Joe” and 2014’s “Manglehorn”). His latest film was the 2015 political comedy-drama “Our Brand Is Crisis,” starring Sandra Bullock. Up next for Green is a drama about the Boston Marathon bombing, “Stronger,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany. -Graham Winfrey
The Editing Software For The People
By the late 1990s, non-linear digital editing had become dominant in the post production world. The problem was the Avid editing systems were extremely expensive and only made sense for commercial post-production houses and large budget TV and films…and then along came Final Cut Pro. A huge part of the Steve Jobs Act II re-birth at Apple was the introduction of hardware and software that allowed creatives to work professionally from their personal computer. There was no bigger example of this than the early aughts version of Final Cut Pro, which when combined with the new firewire interface gave independent filmmakers an Avid-like system on their home Apple. Indie filmmakers not only had cut the cord from post-houses in making their films, slashing budgets significantly, but they were able to make money entering the freelance world without having to be employed by a larger production companies. The shift was radical. By 2007, 50% of the professional edit market was apple users who could afford their own editing system. -CO
Taking Their “Unbreakable” Creation To The Right Place
“They alive, dammit!” Tina Fey and Robert Carlock developed a hilarious comedy for Ellie Kemper called “Tooken” for NBC, but when it came to putting it on the schedule, the network began to waffle, fearing how it would fare without complementary programming to launch it that season. After a whirlwind presentation to Netflix however, Fey and Carlock sealed a deal — that even got NBC’s blessing — with the streaming service with a two-season order. And thus, a racier “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and many gifs were born. -Hanh Nguyen
Committing To Her Own Voice And Vision
In 2011, Jill Soloway was broke and unemployed. Once word got around town that she was “difficult” (ie: an opinionated woman), even her years producing “Six Feet Under” and a decades-long friendship with Jane Lynch couldn’t get her hired on “Glee.” So she took a leap of faith and sunk all of her savings into making her first feature, “Afternoon Delight,” which earned her the best director award at Sundance in 2013, but was panned by a few high profile critics. (This critic, and Quentin Tarantino, both loved it.) Despondent, Soloway nearly quit show business for good. But she was able to use her feature as a calling card to pitch a television show to Amazon Studios, which gave her the creative freedom to make a little show called “Transparent.”
That show — which won two Golden Globes and five Emmys in its first season alone — has changed the course of history for transgender people in Hollywood and the world. Soloway is committed to hiring transgender actors, writers and crew members, and champions underrepresented filmmakers by executive producing their shows. Not only that, “Transparent” legitimized Amazon and all over-the-top content, upending the television landscape for good. Nothing embodies the spirit of American independence quite like a tragicomedy about Jews and queers taking Hollywood by storm. -Jude Dry
Keeping Creative Control
Few have achieved a level of autonomy both within and outside of the existing media framework quite like Louis CK has. To FX’s credit, they’ve placed enough faith in him to fork over much of the creative control of “Louie,” letting the comedian take as much time as he needs to write, direct and edit a full season of cable TV. The show’s fourth season saw CK using his weekly chunk of programming to deliver the wonderful six-episode arc “Elevator.” At the crest of the conversation that TV was becoming increasingly cinematic, CK made one of the best films of 2014 and aired it over the span of a month. And then, without any preamble, CK cemented his place as the comedy world’s foremost auteur/Thom Yorke by going directly to his audience, releasing ten episodes of his latest series “Horace and Pete” through his own website. As a result, few are more prepared for a post-advertising, post-episode-length-restricted era of entertainment better than he is. -Steve Greene
The Invention Of The DSLR Camera
The micro-budget indie that dominates today’s film festivals was born 10 years ago when Canon introduced the 5D. Bringing single-lens reflex optics to a digital camera that could shoot high definition meant indie filmmakers could now shoot cinematic digital images — that looked good both streaming online and projected at a theater in Sundance — on a camera anyone could afford to own. Independent content creators across the board could now truly own their own supplies and make something professional. -CO
Leaving Their Big Studio Superhero Franchise Film
The battle between artistic expression and studio demands have become common news in our current age of blockbusters and movie universes (not even genre king Joss Whedon had full control over “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” which is saying something). But of the many directors to fight the studio for their directorial vision, none have been as fiercely independent as Edgar Wright.
As has been widely (and wildly) reported over the past couple years, Wright had been working on the superhero movie “Ant-Man” since developing the script way back in 2003 with “Attack the Block” director Joe Cornish. 11 years later, the director was all set to begin production when Marvel began meddling with his vision, even going as far as changing the script without his knowledge. With just three months to go until production, Wright boldly stepped away from his decades-long passion project, a declaration of his independence that no doubt was a deeply painful decision. The director would rebound by starting a new project, “Baby Driver,” proving that he would only make movies the way he wanted to, with his exhilarating vision fully intact. Don’t mess with Edgar Wright, Hollywood. -ZS