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.  

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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 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



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 - 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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