It’s a common theme for the independent filmmaker: they didn’t necessarily get into making movies to become producers, but the nature of the industry—low budgets, tight shooting schedules, and razor thin margins in finding cast and crew–forces them to be involved at all levels of production. And usually, this is on top of trying to maintain a separate professional career, the paycheck that allows them to chase their passion. So, while soaking up the essential lessons for the indie filmmaker, how does one keep balance?
There are multiple ways that independent filmmakers emerge, and some of them even get to make lasting impressions. There are the festival darlings, the 22 year old film students who seem to have impeccable timing or serendipity on their side when their movie drops, or the ones who have no formal training whatsoever, whose script lands in the right hands at the right time. But for every Tarantino or Troy Duffy (writer and director of “The Boondock Saints”), there are the thousands of other indie filmmakers slugging it out working day jobs.
Duffy’s career, of course, plays out like the classic cautionary tale. After making “The Boondock Saints” in 1999, he tore through Hollywood and burned bridges before he even crossed them, and it would take ten more years before he got the chance to make the sequel, “The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day,” which essentially disappeared quicker than his reputation.
But most independent filmmakers are grateful for the chance, and understand that what they’re chasing after is a process; they’ll keep working on other people’s films or going on auditions, if it will eventually lead them to the chance of making their own film. And most of them will admit that they’re getting an apprenticeship on how to navigate through the business.
One thing that independent filmmakers struggle with is making a movie that will have a broad enough appeal that it will get distribution. It’s no secret that many of them operate in a vacuum, a small supportive group, but that sometimes becomes a Catch-22, because if they’re trying to break beyond that small circle, they may alienate those people that they’re used to collaborating with.
And of course, money always comes into the picture. As an indie filmmaker, whether they’re trying to raise $5,000 or $500,000, the budget almost always dictates what happens next. A new wrinkle comes in when the makers of these movies are looking at crowd funding as an option to get their project financed. In this economic climate, the traditional way of funding independent films is going the way of the wagon wheel. Jayce Bartok and his wife Tiffany are looking to crowd fund their latest, “Tiny Dancer,” and they know that if they want to raise a substantial portion of their budget (about $200,000 or so) through crowd funding, they have to go beyond just their friends and supporters.
“The double edged sword is that I hear one message from the crowd funding camp that’s like you’ve got to raise 70% of your budget from people that aren’t your friends when you’re crowd funding,” Jayce Bartok says. “And that would be made up of your followers and your Twitter universe and basically your supporters in the DIY world, so it’s a twofold thing when you say, ‘I’m going to go out and try to live in a bubble and surround myself with this little camp of followers and make a product for them.’ Our goal is to make a film that is just as good and reaches beyond that so it’s like I’ve got to get the money from this isolated camp but the difficulty is if you make a film just for that isolated camp.”
Another area that an independent filmmaker, who is also most likely the producer of the film, has to do their homework is in finding the crew. Different sized productions will of course require different things from their crew. But for a medium sized production, where crew members are professionals, the indie filmmaker may have to abandon some of their long held ideals.
“I’m more a fan of everybody’s good at one thing and that’s what’s great about films—the collaboration and they all come together,” Bartok says. “There should be a director and a writer, actors, art designer and everybody should just really excel at that, but I find that with this new method, you’ve got everything and that’s what scares me at a certain point. When you’ve got your money and you’re ready, that’s when you have to take a deep breath and say, ‘okay, now let’s go back to the traditional model and hire the best people we can for all these jobs and really try to delegate and departmentalize.’”
Bartok’s dilemma may be different than some in the fact that he’s a fairly successful actor. He made his big screen debut in “The Fisher King,” and he has a recurring role in USA’s “White Collar.” But it’s something that many independent filmmakers share. They’ve been in the business a long time, and have a career that’s competing with their desire to make movies.
“I came up as an actor and working in some great projects and I’m always sort of torn between, I still have to audition to make a living and you still have the actor brain,” Bartok said, “and I should land a TV pilot and be making $50,000 an episode where this and that, and I have the other side of my brain that said, ‘well I wrote and produced this movie and I’m trying to do it again,’ so there’s this conflict. So I’m feeling like I’m still just an actor and now like a filmmaker.”
And for filmmakers like Bartok, who’ve been in the industry for several years, and have established connections or have a solid career as an actor, how do they reconcile this with their dreams of being a filmmaker? The Bartoks’ project, “Tiny Dancer,” focuses on the world of ballet, and Jayce found himself in an interesting dilemma.
“I auditioned for ‘Black Swan’ and I met Darren Aronofsky and it is like the same thing,” Bartok said. “Do you say, ‘hey I wrote a ballet movie and I made ‘Cake Eaters,’ or is that going to hurt you for getting this job or is it actually going to help you? I think these are questions that I’m still trying to figure out.”
There are never any easy answers for the independent filmmaker. It’s not for the faint of heart, and for those who think that their problems will be solved as they move up the ladder in terms of the budget size of their projects, what it actually means is that the problems will only change and become more complex. But that’s the carrot that dangles in front of people like Jayce and Tiffany Bartok, and a thousand other underfunded, relatively unknown filmmakers—the answer to their next problem might just be the one that transforms them from festival darlings into the next Aronofsky.