News, — September 23, 2011 13:27 — 0 Comments
In 1991 two films changed the landscape of indie cinema by making the frugality of the budget a selling point. Where are the micro budget film directors now? Are smart moviemakers the new wave?
Hollywood has always operated on the principle that more is more: each time the most expensive film ever made arrives in cinemas, budgetary extravagance becomes a major selling point. But 20 years ago, the US independent sector stumbled upon its own marketing equivalent: the microbudget. Suddenly it became apparent that a film’s financial shortcomings could be exploited to its advantage.
In 1991, two films changed the landscape of indie cinema and the way in which it was sold. Richard Linklater’s Slacker, which drops in on around 100 misfits and eccentrics during 24 hours in Austin, Texas, and Matty Rich’s Straight Out of Brooklyn, a tale of young no-hopers in New York’s housing projects, marked the start of a phenomenon – frugality as a marketing hook
Neither were the first film-makers to raise their spit-and-sawdust budgets from outside normal industry channels, but both made a virtue of their films’ consequent roughness. Linklater scraped up the necessary ,000 (£15,000) from credit cards and family investments, and paid for the initial one-screen Austin engagement, while the 19-year-old Rich also used plastic, as well as donations, to amass his 0,000 (£290,000). And what they managed looks even more notable in that pre-digital era, when film stock was the only material considered viable for film-makers, and video was a dirty word.
The early 1990s were a fertile time in new US cinema, with debut features from David O Russell, Hal Hartley, Todd Haynes, Todd Solondz, Whit Stillman and Quentin Tarantino. But chief among the bargain-bin directors were Kevin Smith, who shot Clerks at night in the convenience store where he worked by day, and Robert Rodriguez, who submitted himself to clinical trials to help generate the ,000 (£4,500) budget for El Mariachi. "You came to realise, as indie films started to mature, that the director’s story was a major part of the marketing," says Ted Hope, producer of early films by Ang Lee, Hartley and Edward Burns. But then appearances can be deceptive. The cost of El Mariachi and Clerks, for example, rose by at least 0,000 each after post-production and publicity costs, which is not so good for the microbudget myth.
Hope believes the lifespan of the old hard-luck stories may be at an end. "The credit card thing stopped being interesting," he says. "The budget level stopped being interesting. The diversity of the movies was no longer a selling point because there were so many of them." But he doesn’t think the market for low-budget charmers has dried up; in fact, it’s a British film he cites as proof of its health. "Andrew Haigh’s film Weekend, an incredibly romantic gay love story, is about to open in the US. It was made, I believe, for around ,000, but nowhere have I seen that budget flaunted. Instead it’s being sold on the strength of what it is."
But we may have come to the end of the microbudget generation: after an up-and-down career, encompassing indie smashes (Clerks, Chasing Amy) cult favourites (Mallrats, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back) and embarrassing big-name flops (Cop Out), Smith made an announcement at this year’s Comic-Con that he would retire from film-making, and Red State would be his final film. Here’s what’s happened to the five other leading lights.
Anders had already made a film called Border Radio in 1987, but it was her followup, Gas, Food Lodging, about a single mother raising two daughters in a trailer park, that catapulted her into the front rank of the US indie new wave. Along with Tarantino and Alexandre Rockwell, Anders was part of the "class of 92" at that year’s Sundance film festival (where Rockwell’s In the Soup won the Grand Jury prize). "There’d been indies before at Sundance," Anders says, "but 1992 was the year everyone knew something was going on." With its .2m (£770m) budget raised from a video-only deal that left theatrical rights up for grabs, Gas, Food Lodging may not have been at the Slacker end of the financial spectrum, but the shoot was still tight. "We were very proud of our low budget, and I still have that mentality. One thing that’s never mentioned about the US indies is that we all came out of punk rock and took our cues from that DIY culture." Anders has made several more features, including Grace of My Heart, which was executive-produced by Martin Scorsese. She has directed episodes of TV series including Sex and the City and Southland.
Burns wrote, directed and starred in the 1995 comedy-drama, The Brothers McMullen, which cost ,000 (£16,000), nearly half of which came from his father. Ted Hope, who produced the film and helped boil it down 150 minutes to a snappy 90 minutes, estimates it soaked up another 5,000 (£80,000) in finishing funds. Crucially, Burns gave good copy. "Eddie would tell interviewers how he lived in his car and gave up his apartment when he was making the film," Hope says. "He was also holding down a job as a PA on Entertainment Tonight, and when he had the chance to meet Robert Redford, he was so exhausted he fell asleep on the set." The film grossed more than m (£6.4m) in the US, and Burns was still hot when his followup, She’s the One, opened in 1996. Since then, he has kept a high profile as an actor (15 Minutes, Saving Private Ryan, 27 Dresses) while moving away from traditional film-making. Last year he returned to the ,000 (£16,000) club to shoot Nice Guy Johnny in 10 days on digital video, then released it on VoD, DVD and iTunes; 2007′s Purple Violets was available only through the latter site. In an unusual deal, Burns retains the copyright on his movies.
Linklater was one of four directors thanked by Smith in the end credits of Clerks for "paving the way". The others were Hartley, Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee. Slacker, said Smith, was "the movie that pushed me". Linklater is the microbudget director who has gone on to take the heftiest risks and reap the greatest rewards. He’s done it all: a studio flop that became a cult hit (Dazed and Confused), Rotoscope animation (Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly), stage adaptations (SubUrbia, Tape), comic crowd-pleasers (School of Rock, Bad News Bears), period pieces (The Newton Boys, Me and Orson Welles) and a brace of tender romcoms (Before Sunrise and its sequel, Before Sunset). His new comedy Bernie reunites him with School of Rock star Jack Black, while future projects include College Republicans, about Karl Rove’s early years, and Boyhood, a coming-of-age story that he has been filming on-and-off every year since 2001. Linklater still finds time to serve as artistic director of the non-profit Austin Film Society, which he co-founded in 1985.
Of all the US indie directors of the early 90s, Rodriguez is the one who seems to have matured the least. The only difference now is that his budgets have ballooned. When he wrote, directed, edited, produced and shot his Mexican western El Mariachi, Rodriguez had only made video shorts with his friend Carlos Gallardo. "When people see those videos now, they can’t believe the cool angles and editing that Robert did," says Gallardo, who went on to co-produce El Mariachi, as well as playing the lead. "Back then, I always said he’d be the next Spielberg. But I think he turned out more like George Lucas." Rodriguez also shares a taste for franchises with Lucas. Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico formed a trilogy with his debut, and he has stretched his Spy Kids idea to four instalments. He has also made Machete, Sin City and Planet Terror. "The incredible thing about Robert," says Allison Anders, "is there’s such an independent spirit in all his work. He’s writing the music, editing his films, doing everything. He’s the consummate indie film-maker – he’s maintaining the Robert Rodriguezness of his work at all times."
Rose Troche’s sassy debut, Go Fish, was arguably the epitome of US indie: a rough-around-the-edges, black-and-white lesbian romcom made for ,000 (£9,600). Indie producing guru John Pierson saw 12 minutes of it in 1993 and thought it had the potential to "become for the lesbian audience what She’s Gotta Have It was for the black audience". The Goldwyn company snapped it up the day after it opened Sundance in 1994; on its release, the film eclipsed Reservoir Dogs at the US box office with a .4m (£1.5m) gross. Troche’s subsequent career has lacked sparkle. Her British-set romantic roundelay Bedrooms and Hallways and the family drama The Safety of Objects followed. But TV has served her well. She directed episodes of Six Feet Under and Law and Order, and wrote and directed much of the lesbian drama series The L Word, on which she is also co-executive producer.
Red State is released on 30 September.
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