May 31, 2010
The cinema of recontextualized relationships: Colin Marshall talks to filmmaker Andrew BujalskiAndrew Bujalski is the young director of the films Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation and Beeswax, which is newly available on DVD. Though Bujalski's funny, realistic movies are often considered by critics to be of a similar genius to other independently-produced pictures of the 2000s focusing on the personal relationships of twentysomethings, they possess an intellect and an aesthetic all their own. Colin Marshall originally conducted this conversation on the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. [MP3] [iTunes link]
Watching your three films, I feel like Beeswax is starkly distinct from the two that precede it, but I can't put my finger on exactly why. What would you say to that?
I would probably agree, for starters. Are you asking me to put my finger on it?
Yeah, obviously you're the closest person to that film in existence. I can't quite articulate why. It feels different. I can't exactly point to reasons why it's so different, but why do you think it's so different from Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation?
I could get into a million reasons, which are mostly minutia. One of the things about being so close to a film is, I do sort of see the forest for the trees and the trees for the leaves. I could start with technical things: we shot widescreen format, which we hadn't done on the earlier films. I could go into the fact there are twins at the center of it, which is very different, too, from the other films. All of them have been written for the people who ultimately played the leads, none of whom were professional actors but all of whom had a particular kind of charisma that I thought would translate onscreen.
Of course, those are very different kinds of charismas. That's another thing that's different about this film. What the Hathcher sisters, Tilly and Maggie, who play the twins in the film, brought to it is... there's something about their energy which is a little more inward, not quite like anything I was used to seeing on screen myself and was really interested to try to put at the center of a movie and see what happened. The audience has to lean forward a little bit to see what they're doing. I think — of course, I'm very attached to the film — I think they're miraculous in it. The rhythm of it is a little different. It's more plot-heavy, more exposition-heavy. Certainly, that was another challenge. I could go on and on.
This procedure of creating a film, of conceiving a film starting with the fact that you know somebody and wanted to see if they could carry a film, it's something you've talked about in othe r interviews and have done with the previous two films as well. What sort of things bring these people to your attention as possible leads, whether the Hatcher Sisters or the stars of Funny Ha Ha or Mutual Appreciation?
Maybe it comes from having spent too much time at the movies as a kid. It might not be healthy to look around the world and say, "How would this translate in the movies? What would this be like if I were asking it to hold together the center of a narrative?" I think everybody knows somebody who they think, "Oh, that guy could be a movie star." Not that I've asked these people to be "movie stars" with everything that entails today.
In no case have I written films I thought were biographical of these people, per se. Beeswax is not the true story of the Hatchers any more than Funny Ha Ha is the story of Kate Dollenmayer and Mutual Appreciation is the story of Justin Rice. I took what I could imagine them projecting onscreen, how I imagined what they do in their ordinary lives, and translated that into the realm of the performer. I've noticed that, when you ask people to act — and this is probably true of professional actors as well — most people pick out something about themselves to exaggerate. People tend to want to do caricatures of themselves. You start from there, and then you can craft it in one direction or another. What is this essence of you that we can translate into a performance? Is there a story to be built around that?
Was the essence these actors would pick out from themselves and exaggerate the same thing you saw in them that you wanted to use? I can imagine that being ideal — they pick out the same thing you see — or they pick out something completely different, and you've got to make a different movie. Has that happened?
Certainly, yeah. There are surprises throughout the production process. Anything you try to boil down in concrete terms — there are always swerves and surprises. If somebody ate something weird for breakfast, they might come in in a different mood than you expected.
With Beeswax, I had a vague notion of the story, but I hadn't begun to write it. I went to the girls and asked them if they would... first of all, it's a huge commitment. You're asking somebody who is not a professional actor to take quite a bit of time and quite a bit of emotional energy to give to a project like this. As we all get older, it becomes harder for people to find the time to do these. First, I asked if they would even be interested. They both seemed game for it. We did a little screen test, and at first I had a notion of what these two roles would be. We switched it.
We did one run-through of a scene with Maggie playing the small business owner and Tilly playing her sister, and then we did it again and switched the roles. My initial instinct had been to cast the opposite of the way I ended up actually doing the film. I thought I would have Maggie play Jeannie the small business owner, and it became clear from that screen test that what they were going to bring of themselves to the roles instinctually — it was much more interesting the opposite way. Tilly was bringing a certain reservation. There was an inwardness and even maybe a defensiveness that I thought could be really, really interesting, if we used it right, in the Jeannie role.
This was a situation where, early on in the process, before I'd written the script, where something made me think very differently about how I was going to approach this. That's at the macro level. On the micro level, when you're on set, you always have to be paying attention to what the actors are bringing, and looking for ways to make that make the film more interesting.
It seems like you have an interesting relationship to — how to put it? — the way your own imagination and what you envision for a film interacts with all the other minds involved. It sounds like that's both the biggest challenge and also something you absolutely need to do what you do. Does that make any sense?
That makes perfect sense. My wife is a novelist, and I often envy her for not having to deal with all the pragmatic headaches that come with filmmaking. I also know that I wouldn't survive doing what she does. She goes off to a room by herself; everything has to come from within her. I think that would eventually drive me insane.
When it's working, it's great fun; it's a great feeling to be able to feed off the energies of others. Directing is a very strange job. If you go to a movie set and look around, you see lots and lots of people: everybody's running around, everybody has specific jobs to do. On a good movie set, everybody's very talented and good at their jobs. The director's the one person who doesn't really... do anything. Everybody else has some specific task to fulfill, and the director theoretically is, in some cosmic, alchemical way, shaping everything. But it's very unclear what the job really is. Ultimately, it's just about channeling other people's energies and then taking the credit.
Is the fact you're feeding off of these energies, shaping them, is that why you tend to work with actors who you have some existing relationship with, who you're already friends with? Is it easier for you — obviously, the answer should be yes — to work with energies of people you got to know in a non-moviemaking capacity?
It's certainly helpful in terms of knowing what those energies are, just having a better read on the people. That said, there are a lot of people who work on these films: some are old friends, others I did just meet in the context of making the film. It's probably a limitation of sorts, but I wouldn't really know how to work with somebody I didn't essentially already like and get along with. I get along with most people, so it's not too narrow a framework, but I do find I've always worked better communicating in the language of personal rapport as opposed to some elevated language of craft.
To get back to the characters in Beeswax, I was thinking of the contrast between the characters of this film and the characters of the previous two. It seems to me that what people often bring up as far as the differences between this film and its predecessors — what's the Chuck Klosterman quote — the ones before being about people "beyond college but unprepared for life." It seems like the characters in Beeswax are — I'm not saying it's a difference in kind, but — a little further out of college, a little more prepared for life. Is that an acceptable way to put it?
I'm not sure what constitutes preparation for life. For better or worse, we're all in it and it's moving at a constant speed, although sometimes it seems like it's speeding up. Certainly, the characters are a little older, which is a by-product of the fact that... I keep getting older. I think I object to the notion that any of the characters are "unprepared for life," or that they would ever get more prepared. I'm not sure exactly what they're supposed to be preparing for. There's jobs, there's adult responsibilities, so forth and so on. But those come at you one way or another.
Would you say the concept of preparation for life itself is maybe ill-defined, not that useful?
It seems that way to me. Of course, someday I'll have a teenage child, and I will throw that same notion at him and say, "Get prepared for life." The world has changed so much. I showed Funny Ha Ha in Florida a few months ago, at a college. There was a hand raised during the Q&A, and the guy said to me, "This all seemed very familiar, but when was younger, this would be the kind of behavior exhibited in teenagers. I wouldn't expect it from people in their twenties."
Whether or not that's a fair or accurate assessment I don't know, but it does seem like there is a kind of ever-extending adolescence in our culture and in whatever subset of the culture I exist in. But I also noted that, in terms of marriage and family and all these things, my father was 25 when I was born. My wife is pregnant now, I'm 33. Just taking that as rough estimate of how much things have slowed down in a generation. It takes you that many extra years to get to the same place. But does that mean I was less prepared for life? Not necessarily. I just think the world was moving at a different pace.
I want to know what you think of the way the press about your films, the reviews and the discussions and the reactions, think about your characters. Obviously, you've had such a huge role in making these films, and you have a lot of understanding for these characters — I would say compassion for your characters. Even the people who like your movies a lot often will regard your characters as one step up from drifters. How do you feel about that?
Mixed feelings. I don't want to step on anybody's toes who's trying to take their own feeling away from the films. I never would say, "No, you're wrong." I will say, I've never gone into the films as a sociologist or ethnographer. That's something that, sometimes, the films are tagged with: "This is an ethnographic study of middle-class white people in their twenties." I can only say that was never my approach or intent.
I always looked at it — again, stuck in the minutia — at this very basic level of character and story. I cared a lot about these characters, and I cared a lot about what was happening to them, what paces I was putting them through. I've always looked at it, maybe naïvely, in a much more general sense. Funny Ha Ha, for me, was a story about a young girl trying to find her way in the world much more so than it was a story about the challenges of communication in the 21st century or whatever the bloggers or the people writing their theses might say about it.
There is a certain amount of grandness that reviewers use. I suppose you don't really feel that until you are the subject, or your work is the subject, of one of those high-flown reviews.
It's a peculiar position to be in, but I grew up in that same movie-watching culture and movie critical culture. I go to movies and come out of them using words I learned in college to describe them, so I don't want to say that's the wrong way to approach it. When you make a film, you fantasize about this platonic idea of the audience member, somebody who comes in with open eyes and an open heart, ready to experience it on a personal level.
That's the thing I most wish for an audience member, just that they go in there willing and ready to have their own personal experience of the film, and have it relate to their own life and not go into it thinking about something else they read about it or some other movie. Of course, that's unavoidable. That's how a lot of us watch movies these days. But it's not my dream
That openness you hope for, is it a hope that springs from not seeing a lot of it around, or is it a hope completely separate from what you actually do see in audience members? That's not a very clear question, but —
I think I get it. The hope springs from my best experiences of the movies. I've had the best time and the most moving experiences when, either by intent or coincidence, I have come to it open. Certainly, some of my favorite movies I just happened to stumble into not knowing anything about them. That's a really hard experience to wrap up and market.
Funny Ha Ha had this great journey. I "finished" that film in 2002 — of course, in one way or another, it's still a presence in my life today — but it took until 2005 to have an official theatrical release. When I finished the film, I was very unconnected in the world of independent film distribution or even the festival circuit. It was very slow getting attention for that film, working its way to wider attention.
In a way, that film had a perfect build, where at first people really could come to it free of preconception. I think that was the best way to see it, and I'm happy we got to draw that out on as large a scale as we could. It becomes unrepeatable, and of course, I don't have the time now to let a film build its audience for three years. I'm too busy for that. But it was nice to go through it that way, and I do think it was ideal for that film.
With Funny Ha Ha, this is the question that comes to mind. It seems to me that one of two things could be true, but not both: it could've found success because it is extremely accessible, because it's a milieu, to use one of those words you learn in college, that people will be super-familiar with — it's pulled from the lives of so many — or it could be very inaccessible, because it doesn't look or feel like a "regular movie." I could see either. Do you think either did have an effect, positive or negative?
I think both. The harshest critics of the first two films have always been what you would imagine to be the target audience. The most vituperative reviews would be written by someone who is 23 and just out of college, saying, "That's supposed to be my life and it's not. Here's a detail they got wrong," a very sharp critical eye to it. That's also a certain kind of — I don't want to get too deep into this — self-loathing endemic to people at that place in their lives of the American white middle class right now. There's not a huge desire to see something too familiar represented onscreen.
Kind of a "close to home" feeling?
I think so. Again, maybe that's self-serving to say. Certainly, it's the impression I've gotten.
Has that decreased over time? You're now on number three. The characters in Beeswax are distinctive enough that I don't know how many audience members are going to think they're like them in ways that are obvious. But maybe they do. Maybe I'm predicting wrong and maybe there's more identification this time around?
I really don't know. What identification there has been is not necessarily right on. Again, I've always gone into it thinking not about representing a certain social class and not about ethnography but about very, very specific characters. My hope is that, in doing so, they will seem flesh-and-blood enough to be relatable and familiar. But everybody who walks into that theater has a different experience of life.
The films, to a fault, have always avoided trying to cue the audience and tell the audience what they should be making of a situation at a given point. This is the thing I think people who don't enjoy my films and don't get into them find most infuriating: they're never being told what the movie's about. It can drive people crazy. It only works if you are willing to find your way in and figure out what it means to you, or what it feels like to you, maybe more importantly.
The most exciting thing is, when I do talk to people about the films and go to screenings, people come out with wildly different opinions. While the film may decline to tell you, "This person's a hero, this person's a villain," nonetheless people do want to make those judgments themselves. People do come out and say, "I loved this guy, I hated that guy." The next person will have felt exactly the opposite. To me, that's when it feels like it's working well, when two very different viewpoints can look on the scren and see something that makes sense to them, that feels like a complete world to them, but tak away very different conclusions from it.
This notion that the films don't tell the audience what they're about — I think, as a lover of cinema, that's a good thing. I look for that in movies. That's maybe the number one quality my favorite movies share: what they are about is not "obvious" and certainly not dictated by the film itself. But there is a side effect. Just last night, my girlfriend was asking me what Mutual Appreciation was about. I was saying, "Well, it's about this guy, a musician, who turns up in New York and complicates the lives of his friends there. He's at some parties that go on too long." I could tell I wasn't really selling it. It boils down to me saying, "You just have to watch it." Is that a quality you find in your own favorite movies?
A feeling that I love, sitting in a movie theater, is the feeling of being just one step behind, of watching the movie, being completely engaged, and feeling like I'm just a little behind and trying to figure it out, trying to catch up, Obviously, if you fall too far behind, you get frustrated, you give up, or you say, "This is horseshit. They're leaving me behind on purpose." You might have to bleep that. Sorry.
When the world feels complete up there, you're always willing to go after it. That's always been my goal, to get something up onscreen that makes a certain kind of sense. If there are mometnts of obtuseness, if there are moments of confusion, hopefully they ring true and make the thing all the deeper. That's part of using nonprofessional actors. Not to disparage profesisonal actors — obviously, 99 percent of my favorite movies are my favorite movies because of the work done by professional actors — but there's a way in which I think part of what a professional actor is trying to do is clarify and help the audience understand what the scene is about. For these films, I didn't want that kind of clarification.
For better or for worse — I don't know if I intended it to be — Beeswax may be the most challenging of my films. Part of that is this real desire and drive to point away from that clarification. I really enjoy watching characters try to figure out things happening to them, but I always want it to have an inherent logic and make sense. I like feeling a step behind, and I kind of like it when the caracters are a step behing, when they're trying to catch up to the movie, too.
As a filmmaker working on your own projects, is it even possible that you could have actors very precisely articulate what a scene is about? Are you actually conceiving a scene with this concrete idea you can write down about what it is "about"?
Yes and no. I need to know what I'm doing as a writer. I need to know where the movie's going. Directing a film, you have to play god. That's the job, and you can't abdicate your responsibility, but, by the same token, you're not god. There are always going to be things beyond your control. You try to use them, you try to work with them, to make the film more interesting. I have found myself, as a writer, when I go back to take another pass, to write the next draft, sometimes, in an early draft, I will come too close to a line of dialogue that says, "Here's what the scene is about." That's always the first thing I cut, because it seems to make the scene more interesting to have people trying to discover that thing, or going toward it, or going around it, or going near it, than bounding off it.
Some of the critics that I really like, when they write about your films, they bring up a usual suite of themes: ethics, morality, various forms of social confusion and maybe crossed wires or slight miscommunication. It's the ethics and morality component that I find the most interesting. Do you actually see those as being common themes throughout your three films? In Mutual Appreciation especially, you can see the worldviews as cross-purposes, and the "twenty different motivations at once" you once talked about in an interview that characters operate with. Is that a constant through your films so far?
I think so. Probably more so as they go. Beeswax literalizes that motif inasmuch as there's some threatened legal battle at the center of it. A lot of the narrative drive of that film comes from one character afraid she's going to be sued by her business partner. That's directly about not only a moral-ethical standoff which may metastasize into this legal battle, but also the difference between how people conceive of things officially, how you write it down in your legal contract, and how you thought you were relating to that person.
Any time I've ever signed any kind of contract, it's caused me great anxiety. I always look at the words on the paper and think, "When we talk on the phone about this, this is not the way we're talking about it. This is a whole different language. This is a whole different agreement." That always has fascinated me, the difference between the official story and how people actually relate to each other.
This recontextualization of relationships — you talk about moving something that's been a friendly arrangement into the world of law and contracts and legal language and lawsuits and what have you. It gets me thinking about how you can see that kind of recontextualization in Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation.
My first impulse is to say that characters struggle in those movies have certain relationships between one another that are tacit, that they don't talk about directly. When they do try to transfer those relationships to words, when they try to define them, it ends up becoming a dog's breakfast. It's this muddle they can't figure out, at least for a while. They're trying to define who they are to each other. Is that too far to extend this, or do you think that's accurate?
I buy it. I don't know that I have much to add.
You buy it, but was it anything you thought or was it just kind of how they came out?
I think it's just how it came out. Ultimately, a lot of these questions about where these motifs come from, where these themes come from probably just come from my own muddled-mouthedness.
You can see the clash of worldviews in your movies, but you can also see — I want to get an idea of what elements of your own worldview are present in there as well. You've talked elsewhere about how you can't conceive of characters as being evil or villianous, inherently. That's another quality in my favorite movies: there aren't "bad guys," nor are there necessarily "good guys." Is that a quality of movies you like as well, or is that just the way you find you create characters?
It would be interesting to try to do, because obviously I live in the same world that everybody else does, in which there are highly villianous acts undertaken all the time. Where do those come from? Do they come from bad people or somebody who was abused as a kid, and that's the reason why they're going to take it out on somebody else? Where do these things come from? I never meet somebody and think, "That's a bad guy." I might think, "I don't like that guy" or, "I don't want to deal with that person" or, "I don't understand this person." That's a common one. My wife makes fun of me for this: sometimes we see a movie, and occasionally I will say, "I didn't like that movie. That movie's a piece of crap." More often, I'll say, "I didn't get it," which is how I tend to feel about things I don't relate to.
Maybe evil is something I just don't relate to; I don't get it. It's too easy for me to say, "That's person is possessed by the devil." It makes more sense for me to say, "I don't know where that came from. I don't understand it." I want to be ginger about that, because I know ther eare people in the world who have been injured by villianous acts. I would never say to that person, "You just need to try harder to understand the person who killed your family." Maybe that is a worthwhile endeavor, to try to understand the person who killed your family, but I understand why you might not want to hear that if you're that person. We may be way off topic here.
That's okay. There is no topic. Besides, I think it is pertinent. With this issue of "bad" people versus the "non-bad" ones —
This was a big question when we were doing Beeswax. The Amanda character, the business partner, who may or may not be suing Jeannie, who drives a lot of the story — Anne Dodge, who played that role, was afraid her character was the villain in the script. She didn't want to be the villian. To some extent, that was something we had to work through on set: I would find her wanting to soft-pedal the character and I would say, "Don't do that. Give the character her due and push it the way the character would. I don't see her as a villain and I don't think you should either."
She's somebody who has a very, very different perspective than Jeannie. She's frustrated and giving trouble to this nice person at the center of the story. People have come out of that movie and said, "Oh, I hate Amanda, Amanda's a bitch." Other people come out of the film, and I think the film makes it very possible for you to say, "Huh. Maybe she has a point." She may seem villianous in a certain context, and narrative film asks you to think that whoever's giving the lead character a hard time is the villain, but there's a lot of evidence in the film that Amanda might be on to something.
In the first few scenes in which she appears, I did feel something of a dislike for her. I couldn't put my finger on why, because I wasn't totally clear on what objection Jeannie had to Amanda and vice versa. finishing up the movie, Amanda does seem more sympathetic, but at the same time, it does seem to me that the actual conflict between them isn't laid out clearly enough to prevent people from seeing what they want to see in Amanda, or even in Jeannie. Is that what you found?
Yes, that sounds exactly right. I think it's also true of those conflics in general. That was also my feeling going into it. It is not explicit in the film exactly what the crux of their argument is, so we talked about it, we said, "Here could be some points of contention. Here's maybe how this all grew." But ultimately, I feel like partnerships that end up in disorder, it's almost invariably a situation of personality conflict: people who don't think about the world the same way being forced to work together.
Although you might think you like each other, when it really comes down to it, when things get difficult, when you have to work together day after day, it's hard not for these personality conflicts to erupt. Like a marriage, either you figure out how to work together, or things devolve. That's where this movie finds these characters, in this devolved place, trying to figure out how they got there, which is always fascinating to me. You take people who try to look at things — each of them is looking at the situation rationally, but they have different ideas of what rational is.
This idea of personality conflict, two sides who are looking in a rational way at the same core issue but coming to a conflict — obviously this is at the center of so much drama throughout history, drama in the sense of wrought drama as well as drama in regular life. It's a fixture as well of super-super-super-mainstream movies. Many of them are about a personality conflict, in a broad sense, the same kind of thing you might use.
In a lot of those very mainstream movies, it is resolved in a textbook way. There's a standard set of resolutions for the kind of problems a mainstream movie might use. Beeswax ends before the resolution of a certain thing, if that's vague enough. Do you find that, in life, these personality conflicts can get resolved, or are they perpetual? Is that maybe why they interest you?
Great question. What do you think? I think some people work their way to their own personal version of a resolution. You can cut off ties with somebody and say, "That person's out of my life, therefore the issue is resolved." But is it? I don't know.
It does become an issue of defining resolution, which itself sounds like a pretty thorny thing to get into.
Your films get talked about so often as, "They're not plot, they're character." It's the sort of film I enjoy, and you probably do as well, or else you wouldn't be making them. You've talked in other interviews about how you started, as a kid, going to movies all the time: watching Return of the Jedi, Friday the 13th Part V, Rocky III. These films are very, very plot-driven. What was your path, as a lover of cinema, from plot to character, from liking one to liking the other in larger doses?
I don't know if it's anything so direct. Partially, this is just the journey from being five years old to getting older. When I come out of a blockbuster and say, "I didn't get it," it's just how you watch movies. Rocky is a very vibrant character, for me, was and is. Maybe all those movies are always character-based in my mind.
It's more an issue of perception? A movie might not actually be this percentage plot, this percentage character? It just depends on what you're looking for?
Absolutely, there's no question that my experience has shown to be that people have different ways of watching movies. Some people can't handle my films because the way they watch a movie does not allow for this kind of storytelling. They can't process it. It's like not being able to digest certain enzymes.
I saw Iron Man 2 a few days ago and had a great time; I really liked it. One of the things I liked about it — I'll really get in trouble if I spoil Iron Man 2 — the climactic battle with the supervillain was not that long. I was kind of amazed at how relatively concise it was. I don't go to most blockbusters, so I'm not completely up to date on them, but it's my impression that, in recent years particularly, those things are supposed to drag on forever.
Not that the movie lacks for robots punching each other — it has a ton of that — but that stuff is not the most fun stuff for me, robots punching each other. There are other things that really endeared the film to me. But there are other people who go to the movie and really, really, really want to see robots punching each other, and really get something out of that that I don't quite understand. I'm not going to take that away from anybody; I couldn't take that away from anybody if I wanted to. But it's just another way of watching movies.
I haven't seen either of the Iron Man films, but I have heard they're blockbuster action movies that set themselves apart from, say, a Transformers or a Transformers 2 — I don't know if there's a third one, but — a Transformers 3 by having a very — "nuanced" is maybe too much — distinctive character in the person of Iron Man himself. Do you think that's true, and you respond to that?
That's a big part of it, but it also could be what I ate for breakfast. I liked the second Iron Man better than the first one, which I think is a minority opinion. I just enjoyed the way it moved; structure means a lot to me. There are all these things I expect to see in a modern Hollywood movie, and it moved much more reasonably than those. Let's not spend 45 minutes on the final battle. Not that I felt underserved by the final battle; the final battle was fine. It was great.
But there were a lot of choices in Iron Man 2 that maybe were more character-centric, if I think about it. They were spending time on things and they were building things in a way that I found a lot more relatable than what blockbusters are in the habit of doing these days. I think it's very, very similar steroids in major-league athletics: every script is on steroids now. It takes a lot of the fun out. For me, that does not produce the artistic equivalent of a home run, but obviously, for many viewers it does.
I'm interested by the attitude you have displayed toward the dynamic between blockbusters with steroided scripts and everything else, movies that aren't driven in that same way. A lot of people I talk to who are young filmmakers, young cinephiles, or who like the kind of movies you make, they'll adopt what I would call a much worse attitude. They'll say, "Oh, audiences are stupid, America's stupid, producers are stupid, money is stupid —"
Money is stupid. I'll go with that one.
What does that mean to you, "Money is stupid"? I need some clarification from a filmmaker here.
Over the years, I've developed a fair amount of confidence in my abilities as a filmmaker. If the word came down that it's time to go out and make a movie, I feel confident that I could bring back something good. Whether or not it's great depends on how lucky we are and how in the zone I am, but I believe I can consistently make good films, and I hope do that for the rest of my life, if I'm able to.
I have no confidence in my ability to produce and participate in the commercial marketplace. The commercial marketplace has always made me very nervous, probably more so than is necessary. That's something I need to get over. But money has one goal, which is to produce more money. If you look at the kind of films that come out of that, they're not usually the best films. Something like Iron Man 2, which i enjoyed, is a kind of aberration — sneaking one past the gates. It's also this cluster of good forune: Jon Favreau, making that film, had a certain amount of good taste.
You read interviews with him, and he talks about how he had to fight the cast, Robert Downey in the first one, Mickey Rourke in the second one. You look at these films and go, "Of course. These guys make the movie." That's somebody in a position of power who had the juice to push against the money, in one sense, although obviously it worked out fine and the money is happy.
It seems to me, though, that a director controls many things, but the one thing a director can't really control is the financial return. There's so many players, as you know better than me, between the director and the people paying at the other end, the audience members, the people buying the DVDs. There's all this distribution stuff and all these rights issues, where it plays, who's screening it and all that. In a real sense, can you care, as a director, about the money it makes? Of course you do care, because the money it makes affects you, but does it make sense to care?
I wish I didn't. I've made three fairly cheap, fairly small films where there was no expectation for them to be blockbusters by any means. But I've always gone into it, for better or worse, for better and worse, refusing to think about money until the movie's done. When the movie is done and we're ready to bring it into the world, the we can talk about how to market it. I'm not interested in talking about how to market it before we make it. Maybe that's naïve, maybe that's childish, maybe that needs to change,
I've always felt like the one thing that the vast majority of movies that are relased in the marketplace have in common is that they were, in some way, designed with that marketplace in mind. Obviously, the studios have made a science out of it and it's hit or miss in the indie world. Most movies that are made, somebody, somewhere has an idea of how they're going to get their money back. Sometimes they're right, sometimes they're wrong.
I always thought, "Well, if I take that out of the equation, I open up a whole other spectrum of things I can do as a filmmaker." There's all kinds of movies that just can't get made from that mindset, so if I remove sustainability from the list of priorities, there's a lot more i can do and a lot more that I'm interested in. That's another thing I'm stuck with: a lot of the things I'm interested in go hand-in-hand with ways to lose money.
It seems like we've reached a point where the sort of aesthetic you've worked in and at least a handful of other pretty well-known filmmakers of your generation and younger have worked in — that's become a reognized way of making films that are good and that people appreciate and that are attractive, in some sense, to audiences.
But it seems to me that also brings about the conditions where — I hesitate to use the word "suit," but — some suit might say, "Hey, now that these sorts of movies about twentysomethings made kinda lo-fi are hot, here's what we do: we market this movie to these twentysomethings, it's gonna be made to look deliberately 16-millimeter-y, deliberately directionless protagonists," a super-engineered version of Funny Ha Ha. Is that actually a condition that has obtained? Is the money world interested in making the cynical Funny Ha Has at this point?
I don't think so. Basically, what it comes down to is, these days anybody can log on to Boxofficemojo.com and see what these movies gross. They don't gross that high. There are a lot of reasons for that, and certainly the independent world in general — depending on your definition of "crisis" — there is a kind of crisis right now, where it's very, very hard to make the money back on anything "independent." Even the things you think would have been indie hits ten years ago, certainly twenty years ago, are having a lot more trouble today for a variety of reasons.
That's a lot of excuses. What I'm trying to say is that my movies haven't made a lot of money, and so any suit looks at that first before they think about what they might be able to pillage from it. Certainly, a business-savvy person might look at my films and say, "There's something we can use here," but they're not going to try to replicate those films.
All feedback welcome at colinjmarshall at gmail.
Posted by Colin Marshall at 12:20 AM | Permalink