The word we got back, often, when being turned down for festivals was "edgy" - they were looking for something more "edgy". We got similar feedback from indie distributors.
The beauty of the word "edgy" is that it has no meaningful definition when it comes to trying to write, direct or produce a film. If it means "different", well, every filmmaker thinks their film is unique. Simply because the film is being made by a different filmmaker, the most derivative movie will be different. If it meant that the film dealt with worlds or individuals ignored by the Hollywood system, both films would have qualified.
Frankly, I defy anyone to tell me why one film is "edgy" and another is not. Hell, if exploring different worlds qualified, Hobbits would count.
The Sopranos, and the phenomenon it became, had not yet happened, so casting Frank and Vinny Pastore did not capitalize on any of that popularity, but Frank's name and face were certainly known from the Scorsese films. If Paper Blood were a genre, film, then Frank's mug on the cover of the poster should have meant something.
Frank isn't a star, you say? Let me introduce you to the funding world we were dealing with in the early to mid-90s. When you were trying to get pre-sales - something that rarely happens today - you were told to go out and get a "name", which, on the low budget circuit, normally meant finding a supporting actor from bigger films or television. Lance Henriksen and has-beens like Eric Estrada were high on the list of people you were meant to attach. The Bruce Campbell's of the world paid their bills from this sort of advice. These second (or third) stringers still had clout in foreign markets, which drove sales for many a project funded from those sales.
In this decidedly low-rent version of "names", Frank's should have come shining through. It did not.
None of this is new to the film business, and I point it out here not because I am shocked that it existed, but more to point out to some of the (undoubtedly) innocent eyes out there that think there is a beautiful and loving indie-film world that welcomes the new and the different with open arms, that is above the coarse machinations of Hollywood that the "indie" world can be every bit as crass as the Big Guys. As JR and I used to say, we knew we were hookers, we just wanted to be call girls one day.
All of this talk of "what genre is this" got me thinking of the old TV show "What's My Line," and one of the fun guests on that show, Alfred Hitchcock. (Do check out the clip above) As you surely know, Hitchcock never received an Oscar as director** for any of his films, and his only personal acknowledgement from the Academy was the "we're sorry we screwed up before" Lifetime Achievement" award he received.
Much of this was due to the fact that his movies were considered genre films, suspense films and thus somehow beneath the voters of such awards. Of course, this is ridiculous, but the movie industry, big and small, has never been as good at anything as it is at shifting the ground beneath your feet.
You played by the rules and we still don't like you? Okay, we'll change the rules. That still remains true today.
Hitchcock, by many standards, was an indie-filmmaker. His budgets were far below those traditional studio films for much of his career, and even at the height of his success, the Studios saw him as more of a hired gun than one of their own.
People who saw either The Rook or Paper Blood can add their own opinions of the final product. If selling is not my strong suit, being objective about films I've worked on is. Paper Blood is not on the level of the very top crime dramas, and The Rook does not stand with the very best experimental films. If they were not great films, they were, at the very least competent films (I would argue that both were better than competent - I'm trying to be objective here), something that I can't say for both many genre films that found quick sales and many indie films that received much praise.
One final common ground between the two films is the issue of the title, and it says something about the respective filmmakers.
The Rook was filmed as The Circle in the Square. Told by many prospective buyers that the title was too confusing, Eran chose a simpler title, though, in terms of telling the story of the film, it's equally confusing. That was Eran's usual reaction to being told what to do.
Paper Blood was sold to its original distributor as West New York, and can still be found under that title in some places. Paper Blood had duel meanings; the paper (securities) that Frank's character sold led to blood, and when spoken, the title sounds like "Pay for Blood", not an accident. This, too, seemed too confusing to prospective buyers; somehow putting "New York" in the title, and then suggesting that it was somewhere geographically outside of it, made it more appealing. Don't ask me to explain it.
The markets are certainly different and more varied today, though the skeptic in me thinks many of the old systems still exist, even if in different forms. Just like before, though, the struggle doesn't end when the cameras stop rolling, and I thought a snapshot of what it was like at that time would be enlightening.
Just remember that film-making is a world where breaking the rules will lead to one set of obstacles, but following the rules doesn't guarantee very much more.
*I cannot find the title, having looked on Sayles' IMDB of films where he is featured. Maybe it was part of a TV series. Sorry I don't have more info.
**Yes, Hitchcock's films did win Academy Awards in other categories, notably Rebecca, which won Best Picture.