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 2In last month’s issue, readers were introduced to Vermont independent filmmaker Jay Craven, whose script for WHERE THE RIVERS FLOW NORTH attracted the acting talents of Michael J. Fox and Rip Torn. In this issue, Craven not only discusses the film’s behind-the-scenes challenges but also explains how he is paving the way for the aspiring young filmmakers of tomorrow.
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You mentioned that WHERE THE RIVERS FLOW NORTH was adapted from an existing novel. What changes/concessions were made to accommodate your vision of what this film should be?
Because the original novel is fairly short, we were able to keep most of the basic story elements in place. There were changes of emphasis; flashbacks were turned into contemporaneous action; and we cut a subplot involving Noel Lord’s hunt for an elusive catamount (a mountain lion thought to be extinct). In fact, we spent $3000 and brought a mountain lion to New Hampshire (Vermont officials wouldn’t permit it), but the creature lacked the vigorous performance that the script demanded. So we shot some material, and had to cut it. The last shot of the film, next to Noel’s gravesite, originally included the mountain lion. I had only eight frames of material for this shot that didn’t have the mountain lion in it. So, we had to generate an optical where those eight frames were duplicated over and over again, to create the last image. Snow was falling in the scene, so we had to make a subtle dissolve from one loop to another, to blend the snow into itself.
So what’s your best anecdote that came out of this particular film experience?
The experience of raising the money was both the hardest and the “best.” We hadn’t raised a nickel by June 1st, although we had the pieces in place. And on August 1st, we committed to production and brought in the art department—even though we only had $40,000 in the bank, and couldn’t touch it until we had $400,000.
Bess and I mortgaged our house for the $35,000 we needed to get things going. And the fundraising momentum we continued to build over the next weeks let us break escrow in time and get through the shoot. We brought in some $750,000 during the weeks between August 1st and November 15th.
Fundraising for indies, of course, is always the most challenging aspect of this business because every film comes together differently and with a different set of backers and players. Plus there’s always a strong chance that it won’t come together. Beyond that, production is the most difficult and most exhilarating because of all of the unpredictable elements. The director’s job is to bring everyone’s best effort forward and to keep all of the disparate elements organized and unified in the same film. Even as new discoveries are unfolding, some will be good and others will be potentially detrimental to your vision.
Production flows on adrenaline—long days, cold nights, punishing schedules, and many unpredictable elements. I love it—and work to hang in with every second of it. But I’m always glad to have it over and to retire to the editing room—and the new discoveries that await me. Along with the realizations of what we did and did not fully achieve during those challenging days in production.
Beyond this and despite some difficulties on which I won’t elaborate, the best “luck” was to find the unique combination of cast, crew members, and Vermont producers Bess O’Brien, Lauren Moye, and Alan Davis who worked the impossible to make this happen. The stars seemed to align to make it happen -— with an extraordinary gift of grace. Every film needs this —- the lucky ones get it.
What was your worst nightmare and how it did it get resolved?
One nightmare involved our arrival at our last location for three days of final shooting. It was for our log drive scene, in frigid water. We faced 5 degree temperatures with 35 mile per hour winds -—making it effectively 25 below zero. It was snowing and the water was freezing up, despite our need for a water surface. We had to dispatch six crew members at 3am each day to break up ice -— to keep the water available for the log driving action. Then it started snowing, which was not supposed to occur until three scenes later in the script. We changed the script and used the snow -— but we had to extend for two extra days because of the harsh conditions, which slowed the shooting. The crew was ready to mutiny -— for good reason. They thought they were headed home after a long hard shoot. We cut a deal with a local motel owner for a place with hot tubs and Jacuzzi. This cut us the slack we needed to finish the shoot -— barely.
What do you know now that you wish you had known then?
How little we knew actually helped us. We took leaps of faith based on our vision for the film. If we had known how difficult it was, we might not have taken it on. We were raising money until the very last minutes of post-production. We had potential investors visiting the set. It never stopped.
Which view do you ascribe to as a filmmaker: Life imitates Art or Art imitates Life and how did that apply to this film?
I think that both are true. And, as a filmmaker, you constantly work to discover unexpected moments during writing, production, and post-production -— and to remain open to them. I have certainly felt akin to the Rip Torn character many times, as an indie filmmaker—fighting, in a hyper-commercialized environment, to stave off the extinction of a way of life and culture that’s very much a part of me.
Beyond that, my experiences making these films teach me so much -— and open me to new and more complex understandings of myself and others, through my ability to re-invent and reside in character and story for years on end -— and through the intense collaborations with others in the filmmaking process. In fact, the films yield new and unintended meanings after they’re finished, especially through interactions with audiences. Because, for better or worse, I’m present at so many screenings of my work, I get the chance to pick up these subtle and shifting dynamics, as the film comes to life on screen.
How did the film fare at the box office?
We played Vermont preview dates in late ’93 released it in January 1994, kicking it off at Sundance. We self-distributed the theatrical release, backed by $200,000 from our video distributor, A-Pix. We played 212 venues nationwide -— got press on The Today Show, NPR’s All Things Considered, Fresh Air, Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times, Washington Post, and many others.
It was a terrific adventure and success, triggering some 92,000 in video sales and TV deals on Disney Channel, Sundance Channel, Encore, Starz, and elsewhere. Problem is our foreign company went bankrupt, leaving us some $400,000 short in anticipated revenue from that market. What did you do after that?
My next feature film, A STRANGER IN THE KINGDOM (1998 release, w/Ernie Hudson, David Lansbury, Martin Sheen), was also self-financed through a limited partnershp ($1,000 shares, $750k in foreign rights advances, and a bank loan) and self-distributed, theatrically, but it went into the market during a time when Blockbuster and the studios initiated their revenue sharing strategy, which drastically lowered the price stores would pay for rental video, from $65 a unit to as little as $5 a unit.
Most indie distributors, mine included, couldn’t handle the shock and went bankrupt. STRANGER suffered from this radical market shift, which also drove under many thousands of indie-friendly mom and pop video stores. But the film has now been acquired by a new company and is starting to see a second life for itself, especially through the advent of DVD.
My third feature, THE YEAR THAT TREMBLED (2003, w/Marin Hinkle, Jonathan Brandis, Fred Willard) was produced by Scott Lax and Tyler Davidson at Novel City Pictures in Ohio. They worked on a similar model, raising local money through an LLC ($25,000 units). My non-profit company, Kingdom County Productions, handled the theatrical release. Ardustry Entertainment handles domestic rights and Porchlight handles the international.
What are you working on now?
I’m planning, during June ’04, to produce WINDY ACRES, a comedy series for Vermont Public Television. In the fall of ’04, I’m working to complete my trilogy of Vermont feature films, with DISAPPEARANCES, a whiskey running caper set during Prohibition. Kris Kristofferson plans to star, and we’re again raising Vermont money.
I’m also involved with several films with other producers, including 1) TILSON’S POINT (a New England fisherman juggles impossible relationships and choices as he faces the end of fishing as he’s known it) with Ken Meyer and Jonathan Bernstein; 2) THE LEGACY (based on Guy de Maupassant’s 19th century novel, Pierre and Jean) with Maxine Flitman, Vinca Jarret and Michel Shane; and 3) a film based on French crime writer Georges Simenon’s novel, The Fugitive.
You are also the driving force behind a dynamic program that helps train the next generation of young screenwriters, actors and filmmakers. How did it get started and what kind of results do you see with your students?
We started Fledgling Films in 1997. For years, we’d seen teenagers contact us, wanting to find a way they could participate in our work. Fledgling Films is set up to support them in making their own films, as writers, actors, directors, and behind-the-scenes filmmakers. We stage an annual summer Institute where kids work collaboratively, in groups, to make a half-dozen films, based on scripts or short stories we find during a several month search each year.
The idea here is to demystify media and encourage kids to express original ideas rooted in their own imaginations and experience; to help them work with others in a demanding and cooperative environment; to let them experience the culture of a film shoot; and to provide the opportunity to succeed and the freedom to fail.
We also stage an annual Fledgling Film Festival each spring, for movies made by teens from anywhere across the country -— or internationally. The idea is to simply recognize and encourage this work.
This process is exciting for us. We get to see young filmmakers discovering the joys and challenges of making films. We discover new talent, from among the teen writers and filmmakers and the college film students who work as mentor/interns. We also participate in an annual production cycle, which hones our own thinking, especially in ways we can streamline and economize in our won work.
Last but not least, what’s your advice to writers who want to break into the independent filmmaking market?
The best advice I can offer is to simply make movies. Get together with your friends and work to tell stories and create images using digital cameras. Show your films to anybody you can assemble to watch them. Make mistakes. Learn from them. Develop a vision. Try some self-distribution. Figure out if this is what you like to do -— knowing that it will be extremely competitive and frustrating—and exhilarating.
Beyond that, I’d encourage aspiring filmmakers to help build film culture where they live. Help organize a local screening series; volunteer to work with a local art house, film festival, or arts organization, where you can encourage them to program films as part of their work. It’s a great way to support other filmmakers; to learn about many diverse kinds of film; and to immerse yourself in a vibrant film culture, which is essential to building an independent future for dynamic, diverse, and original media.
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AUTHOR NOTE: Further information on Kingdom County Productions and Fledgling Films can be found at www.kingdomcounty.com or by calling 802-592-3190. Craven also teaches film studies at Marlboro College.