Everything about this year's IFP/LAFF (Los Angeles Film Festival) felt scaled up from years past, mirroring the move toward the mainstream that independent filmmaking has experienced. With the festival now positioned as one of the major independent gatherings after Cannes, organizers sharpened the focus to reflect a more broad-based, international industry. Visionary mainstream directors like Michael Mann and Michael Moore were brought into the fold to widen the IFP/LAFF audience, while established stars like Halle Berry, Willem Dafoe and Samuel L. Jackson brought a touch of Hollywood glamour to closing night.
As in years past, IFP/LAFF filmmakers gathered for an opening-day DGA luncheon headlined by IDC (Independent Directors Committee) members Stephen Gyllenhaal, Neil LaBute, Charles Burnett and Patricia Cardoso. Gyllenhaal's welcoming comments echoed the festival's weeklong theme.
"We're a community who struggles, every single day, from attacks on financial, political and artistic fronts," Gyllenhaal said. "I've found that after half my life making movies, I've grown closer to you, my fellow independents, than the people who raised me. The battles and dreams we share as filmmakers form bonds so lasting they can only be described in terms of family."
Jowan Carbin was among the novice directors moved by Gyllenhaal's remarks. The filmmaker was at IFP/LAFF to screen his Columbia University thesis film, Welcome to Life. Carbin's short, about an 11-year-old boy struggling with his identity, won a $2,500 cash prize in the African-American section of the DGA's national student film awards. Carbin noted that, unlike Sundance, where he was hustling to land professional contacts, IFP/LAFF was about trying to connect with other filmmakers. "Joining the DGA is a dream of mine," Carbin said. "It's an organization that fosters a family-type feeling among the best directors in the industry."
Keynote speaker Cardoso emphasized the practical benefits of being part of the DGA family. "I joined the DGA because I wanted to have a baby, and the people I was working for did not provide health care," she said. "After I joined, I realized that the Guild is much more than just health benefits. They fight equally hard to protect your rights as an artist."
Protecting "the work," which all directors, independent or otherwise, liken to their "babies," was of concern to New York-based independents and DGA members Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. The documentary team was attending the festival with their new film, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. Berlinger recalled having to beg distributors to look at their debut film, Brother's Keeper, even after it was a Sundance hit. "I had a security guard pass our only print of the film through the gates of the locked garage at Samuel Goldwyn because they had it for so long, without looking at it, and we needed it back!" Berlinger said.
Both filmmakers noted that "feature documentaries like My Architect, Capturing the Friedmans and Fahrenheit 9/11" are the new "independent films." "Corporations have co-opted the independent world and put tremendous pressure on filmmakers to create work that will do studio-type numbers in the first weekend," Sinofsky said. "Documentary filmmakers are happy to get small releases and take time to build their audiences the way indie narratives did 10 years ago."
One of the high points of this year's LAFF was a last-minute addition entitled "Michael Mann's Los Angeles," which featured Tom Cruise, from Mann's upcoming Collateral. The sold-out evening featured riveting clips from one of the year's most anticipated collaborations. Moderated by Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan, the discussion offered a rare chance to peek inside the working methods of a mega-star like Cruise and a visionary director like Mann.
"Collateral takes place over 10 hours and one night," Mann explained. "It's a fractal view of two men thrust into a mobile hostage situation. I worked with Tom and Jamie [Foxx] to construct life histories that are not part of the text of the movie, but inform every decision their characters make."
Cruise explained that he and Mann had been talking about working together for 15 years. "I wanted to see where he would take this material, which was so tight you could tune a piano to its structure. I usually create backgrounds for characters as starting points, but Michael took it to another level. He had pictures of where my character, Vincent, grew up in Indiana. He had me dress up as a guy from Federal Express and go out on runs, and I was thinking: can we get arrested for this?"
The star marveled at how Mann adapts technology in the service of his actors. "Much of the film takes place in a cab, and Jamie and I did not want to have to loop everything," Cruise said. "The digital process and special rigs Michael used enabled us to shoot continuously
"One thing that I admire about Michael's films, which was a part of his direction to us on Collateral," Cruise added, "is how key the environment is to the story. Michael provides identifiers that you can see in the shot, out the window, etc., which help inform your character. It's a unique way of working." "When the marine layer comes in at 1,200 feet," Mann added, "the sodium vapor lamps light up the clouds in this sort of dark daylight. It's something I've only seen in Los Angeles and it was a tremendous challenge to see into the night as we experience this fragmented view of the city through these characters.
If Collateral showed filmmakers what can be done by two pros with a generous budget and schedule, the "Directors Dialogue" seminar, featuring DGA members David O. Russell and Kimberly Peirce, was an example of how filmmakers create artistry with almost no means at all.
"How long did you have to shoot the murder scene?" Russell asked Peirce, after screening a clip from Boys Don't Cry. "We had six hours for the interiors," Peirce responded. "That's with a small child in the scene and three storylines to resolve. You have to make sure you get all your close-ups and that each actor is covered; with no time and no money, there's no going back."
Peirce and Russell screened clips from their films and then each discussed each other's strengths. It was the most frank discussion of how to complete an indie film ever offered at LAFF. "Directors deconstruct moments from real life and then must convince their actors how to re-create them piece-by-piece," Russell said, in response to Peirce's praise for a sex scene from Flirting With Disaster. "I'm shooting a movie right now with Isabelle Huppert and she didn't want to do a sex scene that was scripted because she thought it was over the line. I shot the rehearsal on video and showed her the playback. She understood I was going for comedy and was fine with the scene after that."
Another noteworthy panel was a poolside chat with genre masters Joe Dante, Tobe Hooper, Eli Roth, Guillermo del Toro and Don Coscarelli. This stellar group of directors tried to assess whether modern day horror films had lost their social significance, ala historical touchstones like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead or Alien. Moderator Elvis Mitchell pursued the topic which dominated the abbreviated Q&A session.
"Horror movies are as subversive as the directors making them," Joe Dante noted. "You will still find challenging, subversive horror films being made on the margins by scrappy independents who don't feel like they have to pander the way the studios do."
"All the institutions still look at horror like the bastard child of a hyena," Guillermo del Toro laughed. "And that's fine with me. I fear the day horror films become respectable: they will lose all their mystery and menace. The horror genre is as close as filmmaking comes to tapping our deepest, darkest dreams. They need to stay outside the mainstream in order to maintain that purity of purpose, to be truly effective."