The making of movies has always been a large part craft as well as a large part art. I won't even attempt to offer percentages. So, it is only natural that those attempting to break new ground often met at the crossroads of new ideas and new technology.
Film history professors can talk about pioneers like Samuel Fuller, or any number of the noir guys who took those big, bulky cameras outside of the comfort of the studios and into the streets. Like most art, it's history of renegades is as old as the history of the art form itself. You can call Chaplin a pioneer for the work he did outside of the studio system, and go forward and backward from Fuller's contemporaries to people as diverse as John Cassavettes and Roger Corman.
Then, there is the whole Easy Rider Raging Bulls crowd.
Those film history professors can break all of that down much better than I can; it's territory better left to them. Suffice to say that learning to do more with less did not start with the digital era.
What I can talk about first-hand is my peripheral connection to the indie world from the late-1980s through today.
A number of things converged to make this the right time to write this post: my covering a pivotal year, 1994, in my last few posts; a wonderful interview with real producing pioneers, James Schamus and one of my personal heroes, Christine Vachon; and a post on Reddit about "no budget movies."
I remember the day Vachon became one of my personal heroes; it was when I read her quote, "It's all my fault. Now, can we just move on." It was like being hit with a proverbial stick by a Zen master, that moment of enlightenment. More importantly, it exactly put into words my description of line producing, which Vachon had done. It was one of those quotes that I wish I had said.
In their article, they very clearly address the cause-and-effect:
3. Consider your relationship to the dominant culture. The conversation started out with James and Christine remembering the first projects they worked on together: , , and . In the ’80s, they remembered, no-budget filmmaking necessitated an almost counter-cultural aesthetic because it was impossible for these films to look like mainstream movies. Now, James said, DSLR production values mean that it’s easier for films to look good — “like good TV.” It’s also easier for films today to uncritically adopt the language of the dominant media culture. Independents should think carefully about whether that’s a good thing for them to do or not.
I don't know how many of those films you may be familiar with, but they all had an aesthetic that transcended budget, yet, the budget limitations played into that aesthetic. The two worked hand-in-hand.
If given a bigger budget by a Hollywood studio, the Leopold-Loeb story would never have been handled the way director Tom Kalin does in Swoon. Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, the closest to a "Hollywood" film to reference it (albeit only by inspiration) takes an entirely different focus.
Neither of Todd Haynes' films mentioned, Poison or Safe, have big budget Hollywood counterparts.
For all of the "real world" today's reality shows try to portray, do any of them do a better job of taking us inside another world than another of Vachon's producing successes, Larry Clark's Kids?
I don't think it is at all a coincidence that Haynes, Kalin, Clark, and their contemporaries like Todd Solendz are still making movies outside the mainstream. Kevin Smith is distributing outside of traditional sources. Joe and Harry Gantz, for all the success of "Taxicab Confessions," are currently raising money for their newest documentary on the unfulfilled American dream on Kickstarter.
It's important to note that for these pioneers, Indie film was not some form of "minor leagues" from which they hoped to be plucked for the "show," that "big league" being Hollywood. The budgets reflected a different sensibility for each of them, though not one they necessarily shared. If the digital revolution had never come along, they would still be finding their way in whatever system existed.
To a great extent, their budgets were, and remain, a reflection of their art. Unlike the Grunge movement in music, and the Punk movement before it, they were never co-opted by the mainstream; unlike the Easy Rider Raging Bulls crowd of the 70s, they didn't go on to become the trend-setters and new moguls, either.
The discussion of an indie aesthetic is important because there is no magic budget number that makes a movie a true indie. I have worked on films in SAG's lower budget categories - the Modified Low and, more recently, the Ultra Low - that were indies solely because of their budget. Their directors would have made bigger (and often better) films if they had a bigger budget - they just didn't. Nothing about the scripts themselves actually broke new ground, or separated them from their bigger brothers and sisters.
Conversely, most of the lists of best "indie" films of the 90s include films that, while commendable and often exceptional, were the "middle-class," where funds really didn't limit them or impact their look. Among them are all Coen Brothers films after Blood Simple, Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects and American Beauty.
So, where does that leave the filmmaker coming up in the indie world today? As Schamus and Vachon suggest, it leaves them with big choices to make.
I don't pretend to be enough of a visionary to know what those new indie ground-breakers will look like. I do know that the fact that it is shot on digital alone will not make it new and different. Many of the Hollywood blockbusters that are using the same formula they have always used are using digital, and many of them, not so well, in my book. It always amazes me when I see a movie in a theater today with a lazy special effect that was done better when the technology was not what it is today. I fear that laziness will set-in and become a mindset.
As line producer, I get many scripts from first-timers who tell me how much they can do now that they can shoot on their beloved RED or some other new camera. Then, I read the script, and it's the same script I could have read ten or even twenty years ago. Imitation and more imitation.
That is not to say there is no innovation in the movies coming out today; I just have yet to see one that stands tall at that crossroads of technology and creativity that I mentioned at the beginning of the article. Most of the truly original movies I've seen the last few years were original because of the content, and could have been produced on film just as well.
I omit the horror genre altogether, not because it's not worthy, but because it's a genre that has always done more with less; digital just makes it much less. If you think a surveillance cam and "Paranormal (fill in the number)" is the new aesthetic, then the makers of The Blair Witch Project deserve a lifetime achievement Oscar. As borderline un-watchable as I find Blair Witch, I have to credit them and admire their imagination - and that was on film.
One movie that points in the right direction was shot on film, and is now almost seven years old, and that is Brick. Personally, I hate the term neo-noir, because if you look at how many times that segment of the crime drama has been re-invented, we are certainly onto neo-neo-neo-neo-neo-noir by now.
One of the choices director Rian Johnson made on Brick was to open the doors of of a genre that spent most of its time in dimly-lit rooms and long alleys in the dead of night, draped in keenly crafted shadows. Johnson let the genre play outside in the daytime, opening up the possibilities of working with available light, something that can still be done on film with the right cinematographer. If you want to see what can be done with film and available light, including interiors, check out Whit Stillman's Metropolitan (1991)or Jon Jost's All the Vermeers in New York (1990).
Johnson took his financial limitations and turned them into advantages. We had seen all the great shadows and creepy interiors and hard men and loose women. Johnson moved that sensibility to high school, and in one of my favorite scenes, puts a typical cop/PI scene into detention hall, and moved much of the murder and mayhem outside in broad daylight.
I'm sure one day soon, there will be the definitive cellphone camera movie; I just haven't seen it yet. I will be the first to embrace a truly original script that marries perfectly with the new technology. I should also point out that I don't spend a lot of time running to some of the edgier film festivals out there, and if a reader has seen what they think to be this perfect marriage, I would love for them to share it here.
A new indie aesthetic will rise, that's for sure. I'll be waiting.
*If you're even thinking of being an indie producer, and you haven't read Shoot to Kill and A Killer Life, then don't be surprised that many of the answers to questions you will always find yourself asking have already been asked and answered.