Frank

Go Big or Go Bust: How An Indie Filmmaker Hunts Down A Distributor (Part 10)

After sweeping the Italian press with rave reviews, I returned from Pesaro feeling as I had when How To Be Louise had been invited to be in competition at Sundance: my career was assured.  I would soon be joining Susan Seidelman, Jim Jarmusch and the new generation of New York film directors.

With an active eighteen month old, it took a while to notice that the phone wasn’t ringing off the hook for the first step of that plan to go into effect:

Where were the offers of distribution?  Figuring I should strike where the iron was most hot, I asked around about Italian distributors and called Lucky Red, a film distribution company in Italy, who’d been highly recommended as ‘right up my alley’.  As I remember, the phone call wasn’t exactly a love fest but hey, the language barrier was certainly an issue.  I mailed them hard copies of the press, a VHS tape and a very good letter.  

In the meantime, I started cold-calling and mailing off VHS copies of the film and the press to distribution companies in the States.  Janet Grillo at New Line Cinema got right back to me.  “I don’t know.  It’s not for New Line.  it’s … it’s PETITE.”  Petite?  Hey are we talking about dresses or my life’s work?  What the heck, New Line distributes Nightmare on Elm Street.  I vowed to be more careful about which companies I approached.  

Dan Talbot of New Yorker Films liked what he saw and told me over the phone: “If you get a good review in The New York Times, I’ll distribute this film.”  Wow.  YESSS.  New Yorker Films!  Reputable.  Solid.  First class!  

My job instantly narrowed: 1) find a New York City film programmer who would show HTBL so it would get a review in the Times or 2) ‘four-wall’ it (Rent a movie theatre for a long-enough run so that HTBL can qualify for newspaper reviews.)  The bad thing about option number two is that you have to lay out a fair amount of cash to rent the theatre and then (this is the pre-internet era) spend a huge amount of energy trying to tell everyone you know about it as well as make up ads and pay newspapers to run them to get an audience in there to defray the cost of the four-wall.  

Just making this film I had gone to the mat with the begging and borrowing for the past four years.  I’d thought my job was to make the darn film.  I picked up the phone and started calling all the independent theatres: Bleecker Street Cinema, Cinema Village, The Quad and the newcomer, Anthology Film Archives.  I mailed or Frank and I hand-delivered VHS/press packages.  

Jackie Raynal, who had been on the crew of so many of my favorite early Godard films I had watched at her Bleecker Street Cinema, was the first to call.  She loved the film and wanted to invite Mr. Green and me to her Central Park South apartment for drinks.  It was all very understated, all very restrained but I’m telling you, it was a love fest.  Jackie is French, Jackie is sophisticated, Jackie is a woman.  Jackie felt that people in France would go crazy for this film and she and her husband Sid Geffen were interested in talking about launching it at the Bleecker Street and then distributing it.   

My first New York apartment had been just off Bleecker Street.  I’d gone to art school in Paris and my family name is French.  The Bleecker Street Cinema was my favorite downtown movie theatre.  It was all coming together.  

(to be continued)     

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Go Big or Go Bust When You Least Expect It - How I Love Italy (Part 9)

If you’re here for the first time, welcome to a post about the making of my first feature film (How To Be Louise) (trailer below) and my adventures with it on the festival circuit and beyond in search of distribution.  What I’d imagined would be one or two entries has turned into a multi-installment epic.

Returning from six months in Japan to the broken-down charm of Williamsburg was a shock: the bloom of living in bohemia was off the rose.  

With Frank in Williamsburg pretending that the bloom was not off the rose.

With Frank in Williamsburg pretending that the bloom was not off the rose.

Our neighbor Larry Ungarten with Frank and me. (I'm wearing my Berlin Festival t-shirt)

Our neighbor Larry Ungarten with Frank and me. (I'm wearing my Berlin Festival t-shirt)

Lea Floden, Larry Ungarten (under the arrow) and Bruce McCarty in "How To Be Louise".  Larry has a great moment in this scene.

Lea Floden, Larry Ungarten (under the arrow) and Bruce McCarty in "How To Be Louise".  Larry has a great moment in this scene.

n Japan, I remember once leaving a bakery and breaking up a big cookie to share with Frank who was confined to his stroller.  When some large pieces fell onto the street, I figured “Big deal. The birds’ll get ‘em.”  But looking around, I had second thoughts.  The street was immaculate and the people in their impeccably pressed suits and knife-pleated skirts all seemed complicit in keeping it that way.  I bent down and picked up the crumbs to throw away in a proper garbage can.  

Here in Williamsburg, with our now walking sixteen-month-old Frank, the distressed look I had so loved had become a burden. Even the appeal of a low-population neighborhood within one subway stop of Manhattan had lost its allure. None of my artist friends had children and the only people in the kiddie park were drinking bottles of English 800 in their wheel chairs.  

We started working every angle to find an affordable apartment in Manhattan.  

In the meantime, How To Be Louise was going on to festivals without me.  Antwerp, Atlantic International Film Festival, Fort Lauderdale, Haifa Intl Film Festival, and Santa Barbara Film Festival among others.  

And then, there came an invitation from a festival I’d never heard of —in Pesaro, Italy.  There was going to be a section for American Independents.  Having been in competition at Sundance and in Berlin, I have to admit that my ‘high standards’ had crossed the line into outright snobbery.  I’d heard of Venice.  But, Pesaro?  At first I shrugged and thought, well, okay maybe the film can go.  If the print is available.  (We had only one print for screenings as even a 16mm print could cost over a thousand dollars.)

Truth is actually stranger than fiction because Mr. Green had been planning to leave at just the time of the festival for a lecture tour in that general region of Italy.  My dear sister Mary arranged to take off from work to join Frank and me in Pesaro for a few days so I could take my eyes off Frank and be there as a filmaker.  

The festival put us up in a lovely small hotel with the other indie filmmakers, many of them from New York:  Paul Morrissey who had made many films with Warhol, Jon Jost, Abigail Child, Su Friedrich and others. 

Here I am posing in front of the festival posters and the cinema in Pesaro where the screenings took place.

Here I am posing in front of the festival posters and the cinema in Pesaro where the screenings took place.

Frank and I standing in the middle of the street in Pesaro

Frank and I standing in the middle of the street in Pesaro

All of our meals at the hotel were taken care of by the festival and, unlike at Sundance and Berlin where everyone was pretty much on their own, there was a delightful spirit of camaraderie at the large tables in the hotel dining room.  Frank, with his passionate love of spaghetti, was always in a good mood.  We were artists and being treated so well, respectfully.  How could I have ever considered passing this up?  

We all have our strengths and our weaknesses.  I like to think that I’m good in the moment, present and real.  Unfortunately, as far as executive function, that's a card missing from my deck.  When my sister Mary left to go back to her job in New York, the full horror of my lack of foresight and planning hit me like a Mack truck. 

at the kiddie park in Pesaro

at the kiddie park in Pesaro

At eighteen months, Frank was a big talker.  Furthermore, he was in constant motion.  There was no way we could go to screenings.  In fact, there was no way I could have a conversation.  Here I was in Pesaro, surrounded by filmmakers, film lovers and even film curators from MoMA and beyond.  I saw the filmaking crowd at meals, but other than that, I was attending to my toddler, so close and yet so far.  We had more than twenty-four hours until Mr. Green would arrive and give me back my freedom. Frank and I hit the beach.  We spent time at the kiddie park. I was counting the seconds.
 
After one very long morning picking Frank up and depositing him on the seat of yet another enormous motorcycle parked around the town square, Adrienne Mancia and Jutte Jensen from MoMA came running toward me.  “There you are, Anne!  Your film is the hit of the festival!”  I actually thought they were being sarcastic but apparently the Italian press had gone crazy for How To Be LouiseCorriere della Sera had used the phrase “unreserved praise” along with my name in one sentence and seven other papers had singled out How to Be Louise as the film of the festival.


(to be continued)

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Go Big or Go Bust: New Efficiency Model - Codependency from Japan to San Francisco (Part 8)

With both Sundance and now Berlin behind me and no big distribution deal in the works, I felt the emotional equivalent of having the tendons behind my knees cut.  There was nothing to do but to accept my situation.  Hey we weren't going to sell off the rights to just anybody. 

I flew from Berlin to Brooklyn to meet Frank and Mr. Green and we headed back for two more months in the suburbs of Osaka, Mr. Green to finish out his guest professorship, me to my exile with Frank. 

Frank learning to walk

Frank learning to walk

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t that I didn’t love Japan.  Visually, gastronomically and culturally, it's one of my favorite places.  The cleanliness alone makes me feel more relaxed and safe than almost anywhere I’ve ever been.  It was the combination of not speaking the language, being in a suburb without a friend and this active one-year old for my constant companion which made the experience a little like being exiled to Mars.

I settled in for the duration, resigned to the fact that my film just might not get distributed.  And I set right to work on a revenge action plan: whenever Frank went to sleep I would work on the script for my second feature.  It would be a comedy about the incredible loneliness of marriage and motherhood, the dashed expectations of my highest hopes and dreams. But this next film would not be made on a shoestring.  At the very least, I’d need a budget for a babysitter, and anyway, to insure distribution, we’d need a star - so we’d have a budget of millions.  When it opened to rave reviews, everyone would be clamoring for my first feature, How To Be Louise.  I’d show them

We toured a little around Japan.

With students of  Kagoshima University  on a boat in front of Sakurajima, one of the most active volcanoes in the world.  The towns on either side of the volcano share ash-removal equipment depending on where the prevailing wind is depositing the ash.

With students of Kagoshima University on a boat in front of Sakurajima, one of the most active volcanoes in the world.  The towns on either side of the volcano share ash-removal equipment depending on where the prevailing wind is depositing the ash.

In April, we headed back to the States.  The first stop was the San Francisco International Film Festival.

My to die for papier maché earrings were made by an artist in Berlin. 

My to die for papier maché earrings were made by an artist in Berlin. 

I’d been reading about David Lynch’s new hit television show Twin Peaks which hadn’t been available in Japan. We watched an episode in our hotel room, aptly named I thought, the Queen Anne Hotel.  I scoured the San Francisco phone book to see if there were any Flournoys.  It was fun to be back in the US.  

The festival gave an elegant lunch for the indie filmmakers where I met Wayne Wang, whose Chan Is Missing had been a huge inspiration.  Peter Scarlet, the Director of the festival, told me that HTBL had a very high audience rating (I think he said it was the second most popular!!) and that a radio station wanted to interview me.  It was all happening so effortlessly. Things were looking up!  

I’d never done a live interview but figured I’d be all right as I love to talk if I know the subject matter which, in this case, I certainly did.  Mr. Green and Frank and I went over to the radio station in Berkeley. 

Halfway into the interview, the radio show host managed to render me speechless: “You know, I was watching a screener of your film with my girlfriend the other night and she remarked: “This is actually a portrait of codependency!” Panic engulfed me.  Codependency?  I wanted to change the subject immediately but, overwhelmed by fear and then suddenly by anger, was afraid to open my mouth.  And well I didn't:  A portrait of codependency?  My film is a comedy!  You make it sound like a mental health tract!  And why is your girlfriend even qualified to comment?  You know you're probably turning away potential viewers!  ARE YOU SAYING I HAVE ISSUES?

I have no idea what I did say out loud (if anything) after his 'observation'.  

So as we walked away from the radio station, I asked Mr. Green how it went.  He winced.  And then his face froze in the wince:  “Well…”  He made that little twisting motion with his hand like he was unscrewing a candle flame light bulb sticking down from the ceiling.  I'm not exactly sure what he was saying.  And come to think of it, I still don't really want to know.

(to be continued)

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Go Big or Go Bust: New Efficiency Model - Surprises at The Berlin Film Festival (Part 7)

Having a projector bulb burst five minutes into the screening of your first feature film and watching a very influential person get up and leave the room should be high on any filmmaker’s list of Things To Avoid.  I tried to put the recurring image of Richard Pena, Director of The New York Film Festival, out of my mind.  But there he was, in instant replay in my head, over and over, and over, rising from his seat and heading for the exit. Fortunately, we had our big screening still ahead of us, in the Panorama section of The Berlin International Film Festival aka Berlinale.

Official Trailer (2:07)

I’d seen How To Be Louise so many times, I did not need to watch it again.  But the chance to see it anonymously, surrounded by hundreds of film lovers, was too tempting an opportunity to miss.  What if they didn’t get it?  What if they booed?  What if, God forbid, they walked out?  Heck, I'd already weathered that.  It would be instructive.  It would be a once in a lifetime experience.  And it would be important to know if and when they didn't 'get it'.

To my joy (and great relief) none of my dark fantasies came to pass.  They LOVED it.  They laughed everywhere I hoped they would and then some.  Their applause over the final credits sounded like thunder.  I was beaming.  My face hurt from smiling.  The Berlin Festival crowd got our film.  I couldn’t wait to tell Mr. Green.  

After spending a good thirty minutes mastering the basics of German pay phones, I rushed to call him with about three pounds of Deutsche Marks.

On the fourth ring he answered: “Oh Annie.  I’m so glad you called.  Where are the long pants?  For Frank.  I can’t find any clean long pants.”   The demands of life with the one-year old I’d left him to take care of were much more pressing than my news and I think Mr. Green listened to only part of my recap before he cut me off with a quick congratulations, signing off to get back to his charge.

Frank, age one

Frank, age one

Berlin

Berlin

I headed for the airport with invitations to more film festivals but again without a distribution deal.  But I left Berlin having connected with a lot more filmmakers.  And the more peers I met, the more I realized that my plan and vision were extremely naive.  Here I figured, I’ve done my part, I made the film.  Come and get it.  A lot of these other filmmakers were taking a different attitude.  They were planning on spending a year on the festival circuit.  My idea of hitting two or three festivals and finding a distributor started to seem laughable.

(to be continued)

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Go Big or Go Bust: New Efficiency Model - The Berlin Film Festival (Part 6)

After having the ‘World Premiere’ of How To Be Louise at the Sundance Festival (trailer below), I flew from Salt Lake City to Newark to pick up one year-old Frank at my parents in New Jersey. 

(2:07) trailer for How To Be Louise starring Lea Floden as Louise and Bruce McCarty

On arriving at my parents, guess who didn’t recognize me?  Guess who wouldn’t even look at me?  Choking back tears, I wallowed in heartbreak until my mother suggested that I pull myself together.  

Frank and I headed back to Brooklyn to join Mr. Green who had arrived from Japan to meet with students in his lab and to take over with Frank.  Having schooled Mr. Green on what he needed to know, I set off for our European Premiere.  (Premieres are a very big deal in the world of film festivals.)

Having never been to Berlin, I didn’t know what to expect but my hopes were high from what I knew from Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya, Marlene Dietrich, the Bauhaus and Max Beckmann.  I was not disappointed.

The Departure by Max Beckmann

The Departure by Max Beckmann

In spite of it being a bitterly cold February with the usual icy streets and sidewalks, the mood of the city was jubilant: the Berlin Wall had come down just two months earlier. Lea Floden and I stayed in a small hotel and had schedules packed from morning til night. We went to a festival party in a high-ceilinged room hardly bigger than an over-sized living room.  The draw was neither movie stars or film producers, but rather the Soviet Army marching band in full uniform. They played Swing Era music with lots of brass and I can't find the words to describe how explosive, how loud and incredibly exciting it was.  It was like the music was coming from inside my body.

And then there was Berlin. On one of my forays into the streets around the festival, I came upon a pharmacist who seemed to be trapped in the 14th century. The pharmacy had large windows through which I could see that it was a jewel box of exquisitely functional wood work - shelves, drawers, cabinets and mirrors. But it was the pharmacist himself who made my jaw drop.  He wore a perfect white lab coat and his white hair was cut in an impeccable Prince Valiant bob with a page boy curl.  This vision eventually inspired Everett Quinton’s character Ethelred’s hair in Season 3 of The Louise Log.  

Everett Quinton in the Prince Valiant wig - (We didn't have the budget for the curl of a pageboy.)

Everett Quinton in the Prince Valiant wig - (We didn't have the budget for the curl of a pageboy.)

Lea and I met up with some other filmmakers who were taking a trip over into what had been behind the Iron Curtain ninety days earlier.  The drab and barren-looking architecture and the looks on the faces of the people in East Berlin were in striking contrast with the opulent and free feeling of the western part of the city.  In the guarded way the East Berliners looked around (or didn’t look around} while sitting on a bus or walking past us on the street, it was clear that decades of a repressive regime had affected them.  

I spent most of my time in Berlin at the festival, walking in one direction or the other of a very long hallway in the building which housed The Market.  It was easy to meet new people and find old friends.  Our friend and long-time champion Lynda Hansen who organized American Independents in Berlin was there and we met Josef Wutz, a producer and actor and many others I've lost touch with. 

Like everyone, we had a few screenings set up at The Market.  As you might expect, The Market is where the business happens in modest screening rooms for small groups of people in the industry.  A very nice bonus of Market screenings was the Sign-In List which was handed to the filmmaker after the audience had been seated.  I was thrilled to see that a number of film festival directors were at our first screening, including Richard Pena of the New York Film Festival.  My first short had screened at New York before he was the director and I held my breath imagining that my first feature might be invited too.

Less than ten minutes into the screening, the bulb in the projector burst.  Eventually the lights came up.  Some time later, a technician poked his head in and asked for our patience in several languages.  There was complete silence in the room.  I was in the back row chewing off my nails.  After a few more minutes, Richard Pena got up and left. 

(to be continued)

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