In addition to her work as a script coverage consultant in the film industry, Christina Hamlett is the published author of 17 books, 100 plays and musicals, and several hundred magazine articles that appear regularly throughout the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Her upcoming book, WHERE THE PLOTS ARE, will soon be released. For more information, drop her an email.
INKLINGS: Writing Well & Profitably for Books, Film, and Stage
This Month: THEY SHOOT INDIES, DON’T THEY? Part 1In a part of the country that’s known for its covered bridges, autumn foliage and maple syrup, you wouldn’t expect to find movie cameras rolling. Yet the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont is exactly where you’ll find independent filmmaker Jay Craven and the crew of Kingdom County Productions/Fledgling Films. To help aspiring screenwriters glean a better understanding of the fiscal challenges and the priceless rewards of making indies, Craven shares his insights on what it’s like to work outside the traditional Hollywood infrastructure.
Do you perceive independent production to be a stepping stone to something bigger or is it a destination in and of itself?
Unlike Europe, Australia, and Canada, there is not much of a sustainable independent film industry in the U.S. U.S. indies hope to make their first film as a way to get industry attention and financing. I am committed to working outside of Hollywood, and use independent financing and distribution where I can, but I need industry support and cooperation where I can get it. When I can’t, I work to find other means, despite the lack of significant public funding, soft money, tax-breaks, and the kind of incentives foreign filmmakers have. The problem is that, in the U.S., “cultural” filmmaking is not recognized or deemed important. And that’s what I do—drawing stories from outside the commercial mainstream. This requires me to seek allies inside and outside of the film industry—and even inside and outside of the U.S. It also requires me to dig even deeper roots into the region as a source of continued funding and distribution. This is complicated by the vagaries of distribution and the bankruptcy-prone fiscal instability of so many independent distributors. I plan to remain independent and pursue the stories that are important to me and have a cultural sensibility. I always look for industry allies and support—and am grateful whenever I get it, especially in the form of well-known actors willing to work for indie wages. I try to make this combination work—and still get my films out to as many people as possible.
With a shoestring budget for PR, how do you accomplish that?
Indies face enormous disadvantages in a movie marketplace where the average studio picture dominates the TV and radio airwaves and can spend $50 million or more in marketing. Indies depend on word of mouth and can’t be expected to open “big on the first weekend.” Twenty years ago, indies could build slowly through word of mouth, sometimes staying on screen for a year. There is a lot more pressure now to sizzle immediately—and to warrant, even for an indie film, as much as $20 million in marketing support.
The advantage for indies is that there is an infrastructure of art houses that know and love film—and who have built the trust of audiences that they reach through mailing lists and web sites. But these venues also face tough competition. What we really need here is 800 terrific art house venues across the country that are able to survive and program diverse fare, including good self-distributed films, documentaries, and other pictures that don’t necessarily have the current big buzz.
Sadly, there are only about 200 such venues, fewer than even five years ago. We need to build that infrastructure back up, with young people hopefully finding that it can be exciting to do this kind of work and find community support.
Indie filmmakers need to be ready to self-distribute and to play alternate venues as well as theaters—libraries, museums, schools, arts organizations. And to work through alternative press and in small towns where they can often get more attention and find audiences for work that can connect with people there. The job now is to build film culture for a broad range of material. This is a tough job but an important one that will make life more sustainable for indie filmmakers.
What skills, insights or vision do you feel you bring to the process of independent filmmaking?
My experience as a Vermont grass-roots arts activist is what enabled me to organize, finance, and make these films. Beyond that, my love of film and my deep roots in this region helped me dig into these stories, which are set here. My work with actors and performing artists helped me develop skills to work with actors. The impossibility of the arts organizing in rural northern Vermont prepared me for the difficulties I’d face.
My 60’s political activism helped me hone a vision for an alternative to the corporate status quo—and to favor stories that show outsiders who take a stand for what they live or believe—and face consequences which set the terms of their character struggle. My love of history makes me feel comfortable with period stories and the research they require.
My early history with my grandmother, going to Westerns, enabled me to see my Vermont frontier films as North Country Westerns (or “Easterns”) where larger-than-life characters grapple with encroaching progress and an outlaw way of life that still endures here. I also love to work with actors and find that each one communicates in a unique language. Whether I’m talented in this area is for others to decide.
How do scripts initially come to your attention?
We receive scripts, but don’t realistically have time or resources to select many. We did pick up the idea for Windy Acres, a comedy TV series we’re producing for public television, through a random pitch. Then, we commissioned the writer, Randi Hacker, to develop a script, which we continued to work.
While we have several self-generated solo projects in development, we are much more able to work with outside material when scripts or projects come to us with attachments—especially with talent or a producer. I then get involved as a writer, director, and co-producer or producing consultant. We need allies out there to help us actually get pictures made. We don’t have time to work on projects that don’t have that kind of chance to develop. We have three or four projects now in development that have these kinds of allies associated with them. That enables us to build the critical mass we need to move them forward. Do you encourage participation by the writer(s) once the cameras start rolling or do you prefer to make the creative judgment calls yourself? Why or why not?
I do a lot of writing myself, but I have had writing partners, to whom I turn, as needed, during production. I do change the scripts during production, based on what I’m seeing emerge. I then turn to co-writers or the original novelists, where available, to solicit their input. Ultimately, I’ve always made the final call myself, since I’m closest to what’s going on and use the writing to help me shape what’s intended on screen. I like collaboration and try to work with all collaborators, including writers, in a way that allows their unique voice, particular contribution, and best effort come forward. I’m always interested to hear what they have to say.
Tell us about your first production.
In 1988, I adapted HIGH WATER, a short story by Vermont writer, Howard Frank Mosher. We raised about $40,000 from our existing base of supporters and shot the film in a week, beginning on Halloween. The film came out pretty well, we toured it to sixty-two Vermont towns—and it won a number of festival prizes.
My experience with HIGH WATER was good enough that I decided to proceed with plans to make a feature film, WHERE THE RIVERS FLOW NORTH, also from a Howard Frank Mosher story. With support from a $35,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant, my wife Bess O’Brien and I launched our non-profit company, Kingdom Country Productions and spent the next year finalizing a script (with local writer Don Bredes), raising money through a foreign sales advance ($500,000) and limited partnership ($6,000 shares), and organizing casting and production.
Part of that wish list included Michael J. Fox. How did you get him to “yes”?
Wade Treadway, a friend from my Catamount Arts days, was hired to restore Michael J. Fox’s Woodstock, Vermont farmhouse. I approached Wade and he gave Michael a copy of my short film, “High Water.” One night, I called Wade from a library screening in Olean, New York. I asked him whether Michael had gotten the video. Wade replied that Michael was there, sharing a couple beers. Next thing I knew, Michael was on the phone. He’d liked HIGH WATER and invited Bess and me to come to his house for lunch the following week. We did—and began the long process of convincing Michael’s agents and studios (Universal and Disney) that our project was viable and worthy. Because Michael generously ran interference for us at each stage—and invested modestly in the film—we were able to make it happen. This helped us get our foreign rights advance which was crucial to making the film.
The rest of the cast and crew came through Vermont connections or personal connections. The extraordinary production designer David Wasco (RUSHMORE, THE ROYALL TENNENBAUMS, PULP FICTION) grew up in Vermont. DP Paul Ryan also had Vermont connections, as did Treat Williams and Co-producer Mark Yellen. We saw Tantoo Cardinal in DANCES WITH WOLVES and BLACK ROBE and tracked her down.
I’d known Rip Torn a little when I lived in New York in the early 70’s. In fact, he played the voice of General William Westmoreland in the Vietnam documentary, TIME IS RUNNING OUT, where I’d shot some footage as a college junior at Boston University. I sent Rip the script in January ’92. He called me in June, having finally read it. He loved it, and I traveled to Connecticut to meet with him. He identified with the character of Noel Lord—and worked hard to bring him to life.
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Next month: Craven talks about the challenges of producing WHERE THE RIVERS FLOW NORTH.