Go Big or Go Bust: the challenge of finding distribution for a NY indie film (Part 11 of 11)

(I’m reprinting the last two paragraphs of the last blog post for context.)

Jackie Raynal, who had been on the crew of early Godard films I had loved and 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 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.  The Bleecker Street Cinema was my favorite downtown movie theatre.  It was all coming together.  

I never heard from Jackie Raynal again.  Nor did I ever hear from Lucky Red.  The Fort Lauderdale Festival sent press clips which included two wonderful reviews of How To Be Louise on two different days in The Miami Herald.  I clung to them.   

It was a hot July that summer in New York, hot and humid as I remember.  Ralph McKay the director of Jonas MekasAnthology Film Archives on Second Avenue in the East Village had called to ask me to come over to talk about the possibility of screening HTBL.  I stuffed myself into a pair of black jeans as I was going to the East Village, after all, where a tough version of cool trumps even the weather.  Or so I figured.  

Ralph McKay was not at all what I expected.  He was young and gentle and seemed more like an artist than a businessman.  He and Jonas Mekas wanted to give HTBL a month long screening.  (!!)  They thought the film would do well and build an audience and they wanted to open it on a Thursday.  Most films in New York City opened on Friday so this would make a bigger audience and longer reviews more likely.  And, Ralph McKay assured me, this was just the kind of film that Vincent Canby of The New York Times, a friend of Jonas Mekas, would love.  They would do everything they could to make sure Canby came to the press screening.   We wouldn’t have to pay for a four-wall.  We wouldn’t have to buy ads.  And if we got a good review in the Times, I could go back to Dan Talbot and his offer from New Yorker Films.  Indeed, all my dreams were coming true.

Anthology Film Archives, New York City

Anthology Film Archives, New York City

I went into high gear designing and having a poster made up to plaster downtown New York.  The poster came back not looking anything like a movie poster but I figured that by getting a strip to paste over the top and another strip with all the credits to paste over the bottom, we could salvage it.  And in spite of the cat and Frank and glue all over everything, a handful of our old crew and I hand-pasted headers and footers and made up a gorgeous black and white poster.

On the day of the press screening, I got a call from the Anthology.  Vincent Canby was in the hospital.  He wouldn’t be at the press screening.

The next morning, on the day of our opening at Anthology, I heard NPR’s Neil Rosen give HTBL a very positive review live on WNYC and rushed out to get the papers.  The New York Post had given us three stars and called it “very sexy”.  After reading the first few lines of the review in The Times, I called Lea Floden who had starred as Louise, and shouted them at her into the phone: “A Judy Holliday character who seems to have fallen into a Jean-Luc Godard film.”  Lea, in Los Angeles, had already read the review and told me to take a deep breath. 

Caryn James, who had reviewed it for The Times, was not a fan.  In fact, her ‘review’ seemed to veer into personal attack territory.  “Anne Flournoy, who wrote, directed and produced this low budget film ... sometimes pulls back to suggest an arch superiority … “How To Be Louise” quickly becomes a low-energy exercise in directorial attitude…”  Ow ow owww.  

The New Yorker Films deal was contingent on a good review in The Times.  Our hopes for distribution, which only five minutes before had seemed well-founded, were suddenly bleak.

The audiences at the nightly screenings at The Anthology grew over the month but they never filled the house.  The review in The Times put a pall over everything.

My artist energy and whatever free time I had went into writing the script for ‘the next film’.  Mostly I was focused on all that goes into keeping a family clean and fed and the job of raising two children.  Telling other mothers at the playground that I was a filmmaker began to feel like a fiction from another lifetime.  Time after time, I wrote and rewrote my script with notes from producers, with notes from friends.  On good days I was certain that all this would come to something.  On the many bad days, I swallowed the bitter pill that my life as a filmmaker was over. 

Seventeen years later, in a summer of desperation, The Louise Log sprouted out of my experiences of marriage and motherhood and my fear that if I didn't set some deadlines for myself, I'd never finish anything again.  I'd make one video a month.  Six months later I 'finished' the first one.  It was supposed to be a one-off thigh slapper and it was anything but.  It was dark.  It was a meditation on mortality and wasted time.  Armed with some self-knowledge at this point, I realized I could spend the next seventeen years bringing it up to my standards.  I uploaded it to YouTube on the last day of the month which happened to be the last day of the year.  People in my address book wrote that they loved the actor (Christine Cook) and asked for another one with her. Thrilled at the response, I did one video a month for four months in a row.  But I was running out of ideas as everything I had was in that script of so many rewrites.  With Bob Berney and Mr. Green's encouragement, I decided to shoot and throw this enormous effort up on YouTube for free.  It became the basis for episodes 5-17 of The Louise Log

In 2013, The Sundance Institute launched How To Be Louise online and to celebrate that, we had a screening at Indiescreen in Williamsburg. 

And that's my whole, never-before-told, story.

What did I learn from all of this? 

I leaned the importance of working on what I love and with people I respect.  That way, regardless of artistic or commercial success or failure, I’ll have used whatever (days, years) it takes, feeding my soul.  

And I learned that 'failure' is not necessarily all bad.  In the clear light of twenty-five years later, I think this ‘failure’ may actually have been my lucky break.  With my tendency toward maniac workaholism, if I’d had the option of a career when my children were small, it’s possible that I might have managed to avoid the life-changing experience of that surrender historically demanded of mothers.  Had I been busy as a bee with my big career, I doubt that being completely broken by the loneliness, the drudgery and the exhaustion of motherhood would have been anywhere on my agenda.  In avoiding that, I might have also missed out on the great love of my life, of and for my family.

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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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