The world of filmmaking is a complex one in that it may be tough to get in but its tougher to stay in and remain in with some semblance of what it was that got you in in the first place. There have been many filmmakers that start off in the bowels of “indie-land” but then gravitate to the status of Hollywood never to return to their “indie” roots. There are few that manage to weave in and out of the film culture doing both mainstream and indie films while at the same time influencing independent filmmaking for the better. With the growing appreciation of digital technology it is becoming easier for filmmakers to explore other avenues of storytelling outside mainstream Hollywood. By exploring some of these filmmakers we might better understand the nature of independent filmmaking today.
In 1970 director Michael Apted would inherit one of the most profound documentary series in history with his 7 Plus Seven (aka 14 Up), a continuation of director Paul Almond’s Seven Up! (1964), which chronicled the lives of several people at the age of seven. 7 Plus Seven would see this same group at age 14 and every seven years Apted would interview the subjects of the film again and again up until the most recent edition 49 Up (2005). This is all while Apted continued to do mainstream films such as Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), Gorky Park (1983), Gorillas in the Mist: The Story of Dian Fossey (1988), Thunderheart (1992), and The World Is Not Enough (1999), among others. Even amongst his mainstream films Apted manages to explore un-Hollywood-like stories like Gorillas in the Mist, Enigma (2001), Married in America (2002), Amazing Grace (2006), or Me & Isaac Newton (1999), while at the same time balancing the latest Bond film (The World In Not Enough) and his duties to big budget films like Enough (2002), Nell (1994), or Blink (1994). Apted has proven that it is possible to maneuver back and forth while continuing to do films about the things that interest you the most. As a indie documentarian he has proven that even the most obscure of subjects can find an audience and can continue to do so.
Director Gus Van Sant is a different kind of filmmaker in that he makes his indie films “indie” while turning his mainstream films into indie-like material. Although Van Sant would direct his first film The Discipline of D.E. in 1982 it wasn’t until 1989 with Drugstore Cowboy that audiences really began to look at Van Sant as a maverick new filmmaker with a style of his own and a way of storytelling was unlike anything that had ever been seen before. 1991’s My Own Private Idaho was a tremendous stepping stone in Van Sant’s participation in the black comedy To Die For (1995) and his biggest mainstream film Good Will Hunting (1997). Although both mainstream films that have a very “indie” creed that sets them apart from many of the other films released at the time. The same can be said for his most infamous film the 1998 remake Psycho, which was an experiment in filmmaking by taking the script from the original film and doing a shot for shot remake only in color. Although audiences lambasted the film there is no denying that this film ushered in the current climate of Hollywood remake madness which has spread most fiercely through the horror genre. Although directing the occasional big budget film here and there (i.e. Finding Forester -2000), Van Sant’s love is rooted in the indie world where he gets to explore complex character situations in unconventional stories such as Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003), or Last Days (2005). Rarely does Van Sant follow any Hollywood mode of screenwriting as dictated by screenwriter Syd Field. Instead, he explores character through mood and atmosphere and overall performance utilizing improvisation as a means to develop story (as is seen in Last Days). This is a technique that has made Christopher (Best in Show, A Mighty Wind) Guest famous and popular with audiences.
British director Michael Winterbottom has never had a mainstream film hit in the states but that hasn’t stopped many of his films from reaching mainstream audiences. Having started out in British television Winterbottom wouldn’t direct his first film until 1992’s Forget About Me, the story of a love triangle, music, and everything else in between. This would be a characteristic of many of his films from Go Now (1995), Wonderland (1999), 9 Songs (2004), and the 24 Hour Party People (2002), among others. One of the things that has helped his films in the states and his creed as an “indie” filmmaker is the fact that he has worked with such a huge cast of actors in such small budgeted films. Everyone from Steve Coogan, Jeremy Northam, Tim Robbins, Samantha Morton, Milla Jovovich, Wes Bentley, Sarah Polley, Shirley Henderson, Molly Parker, Christopher Eccleston, Woody Harrelson, Marisa Tomei, Kate Winslet, and Robert Carlyle, to name a few, have come out to lend their talents to various Winterbottom projects. All of his films retain their British roots and the sensibilities while trying to sneak into the mainstream subconscious.
The same cannot be said of director Robert Rodriguez who has made mainstream films more “indie”. In 1992 Rodriguez assaulted audiences with his made-on-cheap El Mariachi, which became an instant crossover hit in America. From there Rodriguez was given the keys to the city from Miramax/Dimension Films who would give him carte blanch on just about any film he wanted to make. Assisted by filmmaker Quentin Tarrantino, Rodriguez would go on to make From Dusk Til Dawn (1996), Four Rooms (1995), Desperado (1995), and his latest film Grindhouse (2007) in which he contributes “Planet Terror.” Refusing to “go Hollywood” Rodriguez chooses to stay in Austin, Texas where he has made a home for himself and his filmmaking empire. Away from the watchful eyes of Hollywood Rodriguez has continued to make the films he’s wanted to make in the way he wants to makes them including his Spy Kids trilogy and a semi-spin-off in The Adventures of Sharkboy & Lavagirl in 3-D (2005) that has revolutionized modern day 3-D technology. Rodriguez’s fascination with the growing contributions of digital cinema has ushered in a new way of filmmaking most recently displayed in the ground breaking Sin City (2005), a panel for panel adaptation of the Frank Miller graphic novels. Although Rodriguez has made his few studio-“for hire” films Roadracers (1994) and The Faculty (1998), he remains a filmmaker that continues to do what he wants, how he wants to, while all the while remaining “indie” in the face of mainstream cinema.
Working as an indie filmmaker not only means producing films that mainstream Hollywood would never embrace but it also means being able to maneuver between the two camps, and being able to make a mainstream film fit within the confines of an indie one. It also means being able to attract a wider audience for a film that would normally only garner a small one. It means a lot of different things to a lot of different films but there is hope that such filmmakers as Michael Apted, Michael Winterbottom, Gus Van Sant, and Robert Rodriguez pave the way for their fellow filmmakers in a world that’s crowded in mediocrity and the “Hollywood-way.” As you think upon the contributions of these valiant filmmakers also reach out to their brethren – David (Eraserhead) Lynch, Spike (Adaptation) Jonze, Michel (The Science Of Sleep) Gondry, Richard (Dazed & Confused) Linklater, and Steven (Sex, Lies, & Videotape) Soderbergh.