AFM Conference: Persistence of Vision

February 25, 2003

The 2003 American Film Market (AFM) hosted the panel "Persistence of Vision: Maintaining Creative Focus in a Bottom-Line Environment" on February 25 at the Le Merigot Hotel in Santa Monica. This was the third year AFMA asked DGA to program a panel discussion. AFMA President Jean Pruitt introduced moderator/DGA Fifth Vice President Michael Apted. The panel consisted of directors Kathryn Bigelow, DGA Western Directors Council Alternate; Wes Craven, DGA Independent Directors Committee member Neil LaBute and Mark Romanek.

LaBute started out by saying that his background in the theater and academia prepared him well for independent filmmaking by "making me used to getting by on very little. I sort of backed into filmmaking after doing a lot of theater and teaching college. I did it out of frustration more than anything when a stage play I wrote was 'optioned,' a chilling word as I soon found out. I waited a year for this independent financing to come through and nothing happened. I was used to finishing a play and then putting it on for $500.

"During that year of waiting, I started to look at films a bit more closely. When I saw a few of the more trumpeted films that came out of Sundance, by people like Kevin Smith, Ed Burns, Robert Rodriguez, all of whom were able to work on relatively low budgets, and when the option came back to me, I went to some friends and raised $20,000. That's how I financed In the Company of Men. The money actually came from two guys who'd been in a car accident. They could both still walk, so I convinced them to give me their settlement money. They've since been handsomely paid back," LaBute added with a grin.

Bigelow spoke about how she started her career in the art world, and the tenacity that one is forced to develop in the world of high art (and low poverty) helped her keep the faith when she turned her creative focus to film.

"I was at the point where I was living in a condemned building with no heat and no electricity and one day an artist friend called me and needed these films to be played on the wall behind him while he did his performance art," she recalled. "Of course I volunteered to make the films because I needed a job. I picked up a camera without knowing what I was doing and in 24 hours shot my first film. That was kind of like a light bulb going off over my head ... To me, any art form comes down to asking yourself why you need to communicate the idea you're trying to get across. If you know the answer to that, you can always persevere and get things done. When I did my first feature, The Loveless with Willem Dafoe, it was like the blind leading the blind. We had no idea about distribution or anything bottom line. These bottom-line skills aren't things that can be taught, really. You have to learn by doing because you're cultivating instincts and a singular vision."

Mark Romanek recalled how his prominence as a music video director almost derailed his career as a feature director on One Hour Photo before it began. "When most executives hear the words 'music video director,' they immediately say, 'well, let's send him the comic book we're going to turn into a movie or the 1970s TV show we're going to turn into a movie.' Those aren't the kind of movies I wanted to make. I tried to develop many projects on my own with different writers over the course of seven or eight years, but couldn't get a greenlight on anything, because they'd pigeonholed me as a guy who was just good at giving them some flashy, music video stuff, which isn't even what I did as a video director. In sheer frustration, I realized I had to write something for myself, and had to navigate through it by avoiding all the 'red flags' I had learned on the way so they couldn't say no. I wrote the script in a burst in three weeks, and was shooting the script 10 months after I thought it up. Every obstacle in development that I'd encountered before suddenly just seemed to fall away. It was really weird! Even Robin Williams coming out of the woodwork to work with us was that way. I wasn't pursuing Robin simply because I didn't have those ambitions for it. For some reason, that movie wanted to be made, and we kept the faith, and it happened."

Apted recalled how, when he did his first film, he shot the entire thing in long takes, so the producers couldn't tamper with it. "I was convinced they were going to take it away from me once we were done, so I didn't give them any options."

Apted used this as a jumping-off point to ask the panel if they remembered the moment when they'd finally had enough. Craven replied that during his first films, even though he had just one partner on the shoot (his producer Sean Cunningham), there was still a struggle between art and commerce. "I think there's always that kind of primal struggle that's going to happen between the person who's trying to be responsible monetarily and the artist who wants to have as much time as he can to get it right. Over the years I came to realize that there's a real sense of responsibility you have to develop and you have to view that person not as your enemy, but your collaborator. Let's face it: you can't make films without money and you can't get money the next time unless you're responsible with it the first time. So I take that very seriously now and I've gotten very disciplined with preparation. I try to have all my homework done when I get to the set. I think the money people respect that too. Another thing that helps is if the money person is just that, one single person. I worked on a film once where there were seven or eight producers, each with a different agenda, and it was a total nightmare. The best films I've made are when I'm partnered with people who love film: Bob Shaye, Bob Weinstein, Sean Cunningham, Peter Locke. The worst films I've made were when I was dealing with lawyers and accountants, when those were the types of people that were running the studio. So inasmuch as you can, align yourself with those first types of people on the monetary side, that's what you want."

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