Sundance Film Festival

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: on Steve McQueen. And Me. And The Power of Less.

I have to interrupt this story of making my first 16mm feature (for under $80,000), of traveling with it to the competition at Sundance and to Berlin and thinking that I would then sit back and preside over a bidding war between hot indie distributors.  Please check back for that on Friday.  Today I’m burning to tell you what's going on right this minute.

For the past couple of months, I’ve been practicing a new form of meditation.  Inspired by The Power of Less a book which my friend and collaborator Victoria Trestrail sent (written by the same guy who has the wildly popular blog Zen Habits) I’ve been doing an eating meditation.  Instead of my bad old ways of eating at my desk and chewing as I continue to work, I’ve been sitting at tables with and without other people and keeping the focus on the moment.  I love to eat.  I never make time to meditate.  This is a win win situation.  I’ve been surprised at my ability to stick with this.  It feels like the foundation of a new way of living and I’ve been feeling a calm and a focus and a peace I’ve rarely known … until a few days ago.  Suddenly, I’m eating at my desk again.  I run up and down to the basement throwing in loads of laundry as I chew and then back to the computer.  “I have to!  I’ve got to get this finished!”   And I don’t seem to be able to get my inner bull back into its pen.  

Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 15.55.22.png

A few weeks ago, Mr. Green was watching the Saturday night movie on our local PBS station, Channel 13.  He’d missed the opening credits and wasn’t sure what he was watching.  The star looked sort of like Paul Newman, sort of like Steve McQueen but wasn’t as handsome as either of them.  I never sit down to watch television for fear of losing a day but soon found myself sitting next to Mr. Green on the couch.  Even though this star was not all that handsome, he was compellingly, quietly and naturally so intense that I couldn’t take my eyes off him.  

Eventually it became clear that this actor was indeed Steve McQueen.  And later we discovered that it was Steve McQueen in Bullitt.  

I wanted to see the beginning (and it isn’t streaming on Netflix) so headed over to the public library to check out the dvd along with two biographies of Steve McQueen for good measure.  Who was this guy? And how had he learned to channel this intensity, this incredibly rich inner life.  He seems like a genius.  I figured he probably went to Harvard.

Well from the little I read of one of the biographies, I think old Steve was a middle school drop- out.  He may have had the worst childhood of anyone ever.  Abandoned, neglected and abused, he lived with his mother who worked as a prostitute out of the bedroom they shared in Indianapolis, surrounded by the rail yards, open sewers and … hog pens?  The author of the biography was definitely making the case that the source of the rage that powered him and his performances was his childhood.  

Long before fast food, he was known as ‘Big Mac’ because of his larger than life appetite for life and his habit of hoovering down food like an animal.  He’d tear through a meal with a cheeseburger in one hand and a piece of pie in the other.  Shooting a scene with him, Karl Malden (who had famously worked with Brando) was quoted as saying that McQueen scared the daylights out of him, springing at and attacking like an animal.

I think seeing Bullitt and reading about Steve McQueen put me in touch with my own raging, impatient inner animal, an energy which is generally channeled into maniac workaholism.  The frustration of being an artist under the radar makes me mainline work like a crack addict.  NOW

I just wolfed down a bowl of lentil soup as I typed.  More about all this soon.  


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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Go Big or Go Bust: New Efficiency Model - Sundance A Cautionary Tale (Part 5)

In November, we left for Toyonaka outside of Osaka, ‘the business capital’ of Japan.  Normally I would have been a nervous wreck, figuring that I’d lose myself, my focus and any film momentum I might have gathered now that I’d be a faculty wife in exile in suburban Japan.  But with my new status as a successful filmmaker with a feature in competition at Sundance, nothing could stop me.  Or so I thought.

Lea Floden as Louise with Michael Moneagle and William Zimmer

Lea Floden as Louise with Michael Moneagle and William Zimmer

From the minute we arrived in Japan until the day we left, my love for our lodging, the Guest House of Osaka University, its minimalist architecture and heated floors, never diminished.  On the contrary, the charm of my new social situation wore off faster than the jet lag.  

Mr. Green came home from his first day at the lab, his eyebrows raised, “These people work twelve to fourteen hours a day!  I’m not going to get into that.  I want to enjoy you and Frank and our time here.”  I raised my inner eyebrows.

Within the week Mr. Green was working twelve hour days.  Hey, I’m not a pathetic person clinging to her husband’s arm, I’ve got stuff to do too.  I’d soon be leaving for Sundance!  I set out to lock in a babysitter a few afternoons a week so I could collect my thoughts before setting off on the festival circuit.  

At eleven months, Frank was a terror on all fours.  He knew he wasn’t allowed in the refrigerator but as soon as its door swung open, he’d dash over at his top speed crawl, lace little fingers between the wires of a shelf and pull himself up to standing, shrieking with delight.  For extra fun, he’d grab things off the shelves and hurl them into the room.  

My first inquiries about getting some relief were to narrow-minded traditional types who tipped their heads to the side and screwed up their faces.  “Babysitta?  In Japan, babies stay with mother.  Or grandmother.”  Seriously? I thought to myself.  Get a life.  Weeks into my search for a few hours of relief, I realized that I was up against something a whole lot bigger than I’d ever be.  According to everyone I asked (this was 1989) I would not find anyone willing to watch the kid if I scoured the entire country.  Peoples’ best suggestions were that I take him to Baby And Me Swim classes.  I’d meet other mothers, too!

I turned to dark chocolate and more and more coffee trying to bring my energy up so I could make do on less sleep, getting something done while old Frank recharged his batteries.  Unfortunately, the stimulating effect reversed and made me more tired than ever.  

Heck, I figured, what’s there to do to ‘get ready’ anyway?  We didn’t have the budget for a publicist.  Lea Floden would join me in Park City and we’d do the best we could.

One month before setting off for Sundance (and dropping Frank at his grandparents in New Jersey) I started giving him more bottles of baby formula and weaning him from nursing.  He was eleven months old and though I’d loved this incredibly tender and intimate part of motherhood, it had to end in order for me to go to Sundance alone.  A measured tapering off would spare both of us the misery of going cold turkey.  One afternoon, watching his beautiful profile, peaceful and confident as he nursed, he pulled off my breast and looked up into my eyes, his mouth full of milk. He cooed at me with such love, the memory of it is a high point of my life.  

Note to filmmakers who haven’t been to Park City: before you go, read up on how to prevent altitude sickness.  “Headache, fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite, shortness of breath … the common symptoms of mild altitude sickness can be similar to a bad hangover.”  I knew about this and I thought I took precautions.  Maybe I didn’t do enough.

In Park City the festival organized for me to stay in a condo with other filmmakers. They all seemed to know each other and to sleep in ripped t-shirts. I remember one of them looking me over in disbelief (and what felt like hostility) in my nightgown and housecoat. Here I’d made it to Sundance and now was going to feel alienated … because I wore a nightgown?

Jet-lagged, with the altitude sickness and now feeling ostracized by my immediate peers, I wasn’t in top form to face the career opportunity of my life.  Legendary PR man Mickey Cottrell and Doug Lindeman and I exchanged cards on the bus to a screening and Mickey said he’d heard good buzz about How To Be LouiseClaudia Lewis, young, hip and smart, sat in front of Lea and me at a screening.  She’d worked on Drugstore Cowboy.  She encouraged us to stay in touch.  

Pretty much the rest of the festival is a blur.  There were parties.  There were lots and lots of people all of whom I knew i should at least be trying to connect with.  But how do you do that?  Especially when you feel tense, when you feel needy.  Opportunities were certainly all around and just as surely slipping through my fingers.  I was anxious, wanting to try but not to try ‘too hard’, and always feeling in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Roger Ebert and Steven Soderbergh were on the judging committee. I don’t remember ever even seeing them.

We had our packed screenings which seemed to go well and after them our Q&A’s where there were lots of questions.  People approached me afterwards, people with cards from companies I’d never heard of, saying they’d like to talk about distribution and television sales.  Naturally when I glanced down and saw that neither Sony Pictures Classics, Miramax or Orion Classics were on their cards, I'd smile politely, knowing that our film was destined for greater things.  Lea and her husband Dan Bonnell convinced me to leave Park City for twenty-four hours to go skiing at Powder Mountain and get our feet back on the ground.  When we returned to Park City, I went back to crash at the condo only to find someone else sleeping in my bed.  Hmm.  Sorry Mick Jagger, I’ll have to disagree with you here:  You can’t always get what you want, you get what you get.  

I left Park City for the airport without having talked distribution with anyone.  

(to be continued)

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Go Big or Go Bust: New Efficiency Model - It's the Tiny Little Actions (Part 4)

So I’ve dropped all semblance of an attempt to wrest control of the direction of this story and am going with the flow.  

It was the end of February of 1987 when we finished shooting the second half of How To Be Louise.  To my eye, the dailies were stunning.  The performances by Lea Floden and Bruce McCarty were beyond my wildest dreams.  The performances by the circle of friends they’d cast in the other roles were equally top-notch, friends like theatrical legends Maggie Burke and Lisa Emery, Mary Carol Johnson, Hollywood and tv regular Josh Pais, and Michael Patrick King (who went on to write, produce and direct Sex and the City, The Comeback and more). 

Lea Floden and Bruce McCarty in the scene about which  The   New York Post  said: "This is very sexy."

Lea Floden and Bruce McCarty in the scene about which The New York Post said: "This is very sexy."

Lisa Emery, Josh Pais and Steve Simpson

Lisa Emery, Josh Pais and Steve Simpson

Josh Pais (dancing with himself in the mirror), Mary Carol Johnson and Lea Floden

Josh Pais (dancing with himself in the mirror), Mary Carol Johnson and Lea Floden

Michael Patrick King and Alice Spivak on the steps of the WIlliamsburgh Savings Bank on Broadway near Peter Luger's

Michael Patrick King and Alice Spivak on the steps of the WIlliamsburgh Savings Bank on Broadway near Peter Luger's

Maggie Burke

Maggie Burke

Our Director of Photography Vladimir Tukan had shot footage which itself had a power and beauty independent of the story.  Yes it was 16mm, but it was luminously rich black and white: Vladimir had studied cinematography in the classic old school tradition in Russia. He was passionately committed to this film, so much so that there were more than a few unforgettable moments when I had to put my foot down about the complexity of the camera moves.  In pre-production, we’d watched Bunuel’s Viridiana and The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz specifically for the long moving shots.  Vladimir was going to the mat to give me what I wanted, so much so that I once had to pull out all the stops and use tears to get him to agree to a simpler shot.

Along with the job he did shooting HTBL and Nadja Yet, I'll always be grateful to Vladimir for a life lesson he taught me as one artist to another.  Sometimes, in the heat of the moment of blocking and framing a shot, I'd lose my confidence and dismiss what I'd sketched out in a storyboard.  Vladimir would turn to me with the full force of his considerable personality:  "No!  Ehnn!"  (That's a phonetic spelling of my name with Vladimir's accent.) "Don't deesmiss your idea.  That comes from unconscious.  That's very valuable.  Let's see if we can do it."

Vladimir is on the left in profile. 

Vladimir is on the left in profile. 

And we did.  And when we finished, it looked so good.  I realized that we weren’t just going to be able to have a babysitter, we’d be on Fifth Avenue with a nanny.  I got pregnant within the month.

While Walis Johnson assembled a rough cut, I wrote every person and grant organization I could get to, asking for money for post-production.  

Flash-forward three months: the production had run aground, out of money.  I painted the apartment and sewed curtains for every window in it.  Our downstairs neighbor Charles came up and commented to Mr. Green that I’d turned the place into a womb.  

One day, getting thick around the middle and out of breath trying to do a little yoga stretch, the full reality hit me: I’ve really done it this time, seriously shot myself in the foot.  I was exhausted and couldn’t even touch my toes.  How was I ever going to finish this film?  A voice in my head I didn’t know answered: “You’re on the right track.”  

And so I went back to taking the tiny little actions I could.  We got a very nice grant from The Jerome FoundationAmy Taubin wrote a profile piece for the Village Voice which a young man in Rockford, Illinois read and then sent us $5000.  And we got other donations including a big one from someone who seemed so cheap that I’d thought twice about wasting a postage stamp on him.  

We screened at what was then called the Independent Feature Project (IFP) in New York in October.  Ulrich Gregor of the Forum at the Berlin Film Festival ran at me after the screening:  “Are you the filmmaker?  I LOVE this film!”  A well-connected entertainment lawyer from Los Angeles told me to call him.  Jim Stark who had produced my favorite indie film Stranger Than Paradise stopped in to one of the screenings and gave a thumbs up:  “You’ve got something there.”  This was happening.

The sardonic and sometimes dark Philip Johnston started composing a score with his band The Happy New Yorkers and Kathleen Killeen worked on locking the picture.    

Ten weeks later, Frank Thurston Green was born.  Someone told me about a documentary filmmaker who gave birth to her first child on Sunday and went back to work on Monday.  The story made me wonder about both my commitment to film and her sanity.  My picture wasn’t locked, the sound was still to be edited, the score had to be recorded and laid in and I didn’t give a damn about any of it.  I was out of my mind with hormones and sleeplessness and falling madly in love with this chubby little baby.  

The next thing I remember was feeling irritated that my attempt to lay in the music (as if it were wall-to-wall carpet) had ruined the film.  Fortunately Mr. Green has a deep intuitive connection to storytelling and somehow knew how to cut in the score so it would amplify instead of flattening out the story.    

Soon after, we scheduled a sound mix with Dominick Tavella at Sound One.  As an assistant film editor, I’d been to many sound mixes, dreaming of the day when I’d be the director working with the mixer.  But as my passion for this baby was growing, so was my irritation at any distraction that could take me away from him.  Self-discipline pure and simple got me on the M train to the F train to midtown and the mix.  And then there was what I thought was ‘the last step’ of my job: submitting to film festivals.  Sundance and Berlin were at the top of our list.  

In the meantime, Mr. Green had been invited to spend six months as a guest professor at Osaka University in Japan.  Of course we would go with him.  But what if the film got into festivals?  Mr. Green and I agreed that we’d “work it out.”

Ulrich Gregor from Berlin’s Forum, who had professed love for our rough cut the year before, was the first to respond.  In a dagger to my heart, he let us know (by telegram, I think) that he wasn’t excited about the final film and had passed on it.  I was packing suitcases and chasing Frank, now an energetic nine-month old, as he crawled around the apartment terrorizing the cat.  Still there was no word from Sundance.  This was 1989, before email and cell phones and I was frantic that, off in a suburb of Osaka, I might never get word from Sundance or any of the other festivals we'd submitted to. 

The night before we left for Japan, I got the phone call from Sundance that they wanted How To Be Louise for the Dramatic Competition.  Soon after, Manfred Salzgeber, curator of the Berlin Festival’s Panorama, sent similarly good news.  

(to be continued)

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