SUNDANCE PROFILE – DRUNKTOWN’s FINEST: Native American Filmmaker Comes of Age Within LGBT Genre

by H.S. Bayer

The Sundance premiere of Drunktown’s Finest female filmmaker Sydney Freeland finally fulfilled the great expectations, for her first feature that its followers, from the Sundance Institute, Native Forum, Film Independent and Fest Founder Robert Redford, felt for the film this past January in Park City. It had been five years from when her fledgling 171 page script was foisted on Native Forum’s N. Bird Runningwater; fostered at the Native Lab; finalized at the Screenwriting Lab and fine tuned in the Director’s Lab – the full Monte of Institute fellowships. Freeland filled in a few blanks at the Producers Summit; found herself facing a frantically fierce fight for financing thus forcing her feisty team into a frenetic fifteen day filming schedule frying under the August sun in Santa Fe and on the Rez, followed by a flawless Crowd Funding effort in the fall… then forty fleeting days, in Santa Monica, fearlessly fighting to not fall behind while flying through the fast and furious editing/finishing phase before unfurling the digital film file from her DCP at 2014’s Film Festival.

drunktown 6 posterArguably the first contemporary Navajo American narrative feature, the film’s mise-en-scene evolves out of the tension, from the contrast yet simultaneous co-dependence, between life in a Southwestern U.S. town, Gallup, New Mexico (ignominiously dubbed “Drunktown USA” on an ABC 20/20 segment in the late 1980’s), and the large Navajo Nation Reservation outside, and around the city.

Born into the Navajo tribe and growing up on or near a Reservation, each individual, beginning their adult life, faces the 21st century reality that they must choose to go off the rez, to actively participate in American society and its trappings of success, or remain and forsake much of its material wealth and mainstream culture. Yet the powers that be are not in the surrounding rural areas and smaller towns. The action, in left behind cities like Gallup, isn’t necessarily such an improvement and usually engenders a downside – estrangement from one’s family and ethnic or regional culture – these are universal themes, for indigenous and rural people, around the world. Freeland dramatically encapsulates her lead characters’ challenges into a ‘coming of age’ story.

Here’s what you would have read, in the Sundance film guide about the movie, when deciding which screenings to scramble for tickets and battle the crowds and insiders to attend:

Drunktown’s Finest is Sydney Freeland’s feature film debut and her response to a news story that characterized her hometown of Gallup, New Mexico, as “Drunktown, USA.” Nizhoni was adopted and raised as a Christian by a white family, transsexual Felixia dreams of becoming a model, and Sickboy is headed to basic training so he can take care of his soon-to-be- born child. We observe the Navajo Nation from the inside out through the eyes of these three unlikely characters. At first our preconceptions are reinforced, but slowly, as each of their lives unfolds, we confront the reality of living in this community, and we see these three aspiring to leave their town behind. Shot against a mesmerizing New Mexico landscape, Drunktown’s Finest portrays such a strong underlying tradition of acceptance and family that we start to wonder whether the outside world these characters crave is truly the answer.

Only 132 features chosen from more than 12,000 submissions, just 1 out of 91, were fortunate enough to have such a blurb and 6 screenings – (which also provides you, dear reader with the ID’s of the main characters so you don’t have to scratch your head, when their names come up later… plus the movie’s major moral message – better them than me) – at this marketing laced nirvana of Indie film, Sundance, now in its 30th year, has evolved into. All the lucky projects selected had a unique and challenging journey to Park City, UT, but “Drunktown”s back story is particularly instructive, from the perspective of the indie filmmaking process.  Sydney took nine years to develop “Drunktown” from concept to shooting script to digital master. The major challenges and milestones of the journey will be examined in this article.

DECONSTRUCTING DRUNKTOWN’S FINEST:

An Auteur Prepares – The Script – The Labs – The Producers – The Financing – Below the Line – The Cast – Distribution & Sales + The State of Native American Cinema   

The process involved refining the screenplay and advanced mentoring in the Sundance Institute’s labs; acquiring a savvy producing team from scratch; finagling of resources and budget to get it in the can; rounding up multi-skilled below the line talent and high-end technical support and tools on a tiny budget; creatively casting an authentic Native ensemble; directing a small core of experienced performers amongst a supporting cast of primarily non-actors…overseeing the bare bones digital, neo-realistic, yet feature quality film production; intensely collaborating with a highly perceptive editor doubling as the post production supervisor, throughout the finishing stage… finally handing  this non-mainstream Native LGBT movie over to the producers and the sales agent… trusting them to circumnavigate today’s extremely challenging, over saturated indie film market, evolve a successful post-festival sales and distribution strategy and arrive at a successful outcome. All the while, the Sundance Kid, Robert Redford, in his role as Executive Producer – could only cross his fingers for the best, perhaps open his Rolodex in a pinch, while he watched from the wings.

AN AUTEUR PREPARES

Sydney spent a decade learning her craft and building credentials before she began “Drunktown’s” nine year voyage to Sundance. She exited eastward from NM for Arizona State University, graduating with a BFA in Computer Animation…  appropriately heading to the west coast next… studying in San Francisco for her MFA in Film & TV at the Academy of Art University… accumulating around a dozen shorts for her credits, while at school… then south to LA to earn a living in the production departments, of a number of  TV companies, including the Food Network, Comedy Central, the National Geographic Society, PBS, and Walt Disney… simultaneously notching another dozen shorts into her gun belt… her films playing in so many film festivals she can’t keep track at this point.

In 2004 she was named a Fulbright scholar and, during this period, starting writing screenplays including “Drunktown,” begun in 2005. A 2007 Disney scholarship was followed by a NM New Visions grant, one from Film Independent and, after the Native Lab in 2009 and the Screenwriters’ Lab, a 2010 Eccles Directing Fellowship followed by the Producer’s Summit. Principal Photography on Drunktown’s Finest was in August 2013… after a couple of years, in which, Freeland’s  17 year rising star momentum faltered for the first time – probably the Gods of Chance warning her about overconfidence.

SYD 4 Prod Shot MPT-Sydney-Freeland-2

Sydney Freeland at the Sundance Labs

Looks like you did a lot of shorts leading up to Drunktown’s Finest.

Sydney: I’ve done over 25 shorts but about 10 were in film school. The ones that are best known are Hoverboard, which ran at the Seattle International Film Fest, PBS Online Film Fest, American Indian Film Fest and a lot of others, and The Migration  which was accepted to the Imaginative Film Festival Toronto, LA Skins Fest, American Indian Film Fest etc.

I saw you also had one in 2010 called  Osama Likes Frybread (an often denigrated staple of the Southwestern Native American diet) that ran at the SWAIA Indian Market, Heard Museum Film Fest, American Indian Film Fest and  a small one, the Monument Valley Film Festival, where it was reviewed by the Navajo Times like this: With the world after Osama Bin Laden, two sheepherders on the Navajo Reservation stumble across a camp where Bin Laden is hiding out. The film was intended to depict Navajos but the actors aren’t Navajo and attempts at the Navajo accent were far from authentic. It is, however, a hilarious effort.

Well you made sure that your Navajo characters spoke the Déné language properly in Drunktown’s Finest. How long did you live on the reservation?

Sydney: I lived there till I was 18. Once I graduated High School. I was gone.

It was enough already?

Sydney: Yeah, like – I’m good. I’m outta here – I went to Arizona State, got a degree in 3D/Computer Animation and then I went to graduate film school in San Francisco. I loved it there.

And then you worked all over the place for awhile, even the Food Channel?

Sydney: Yeah doing a lot of film work, primarily in the editing department, but camera too. I started writing screenplays and made some more shorts during that time.

It’s so extremely early in her career but Sydney shows signs of something special… a certain confidence… a determination that nothing can get in her way… she knows she has  a message to convey and she will accomplish whatever she needs to do, in order to get it to the screen.

What is it that defines an Auteur? As the screenwriter (author) and the director, Sydney certainly fulfills the basic criteria. Yet, when we think of the notable Auteurs of Cinema, we look for unique vision in their storytelling, and a special feel for the filmmaking process.

According to Mateo Frazier, one of the lead producers and a Director in his own right: Sydney was the reason we did the  film… everyone wants to make a movie – what makes you get behind someone enough to give up 6 months of your life to make a movie for no money? If you see her film Hoverboard, what you see in that, from a film perspective, is her ability on the one hand, to execute the physical manifestation of storytelling, in a very organic way… in a Navajo/Déné, sort of approach to storytelling… but having this very refined sensibility about modern cinema.  If you feel an obligation to produce a work, that has an authenticity, about the place from where you came, the question still is can you entertain. I think Sydney has the potential to make mainstream commercially successful features in the future.

Harry Yoon, the film’s editor, described working with Sydney: Sydney went into it with this very collaborative attitude and tremendous courage for a first time feature director. When you come in, on your first film, generally everything is precious… it’s taken you so long to script and it’s so hard to shoot. It’s really hard to let go of anything. She saw things from a real editor’s viewpoint, so I was very impressed with her.

And the DP, Peter A. Holland put it this way: Without a doubt Sydney’s got the potential for a strong career – she’s great, a wonderful director… great presence… understands the production process far more than most directors.

Lest we forget, executive producer Redford has worked with some pretty good directors in his time… Sidney Pollack, Michael Apted, Barry Levinson, George Roy Hill, Arthur Penn, Richard Attenborough, Lasse Hallstrom, Tony Scott, Michael Ritchie, Errol MorrisWalter Salles on the last film, he executive produced in 2004… and he has had a notable directing career of his own. It’s safe to say he must see real promise, in Sidney, or he wouldn’t have signed on.

THE SCRIPT

What was it that inspired this particular story?

Sydney: Well growing up on the rez, I never saw anybody I knew like my family, my friends… you never saw them on film… the flip side of that, in growing up, on the reservation – filmmaking isn’t something that people do. Pottery, silversmithing, painting and weaving, that’s what artists do on the reservation.  It wasn’t something I could even fathom that… wow, you could make a living making movies. But after going to school, I understood that film is just another medium to work in, and you could actually make money at it.  And then they tell you in film school that you should write what you know, and I started thinking of telling a story, which had the people, and the places, that I knew growing up and representing them on film.

Was there ever a feature that was about people in the Navajo tribe?

Sydney: Not really. The thing with native films is everything you see is like all out of time… you know Last of the Mohicans… basically pre-20th century.

Chris Eyre’s Smoke Signals being a notable exception.

Sydney: Yeah Smoke Signals is probably the main example of something different from all that.

The concept of a 3rd and 4th gender – what led you to this?  How did that influence your mindset in writing Drunktown’s Finest?

Sydney: The rez is essentially very conservative but you have these parts, of the tradition, like that in Navajo culture. Specifically there’s this concept of a third and a fourth gender and I wasn’t aware of this growing up. It wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco that I met a trans-woman who, when she found out I was Navajo, goes “oh, wow your culture must be like this paradise for LGBT people” and I said “what are you talking about?” So I did some research and looked into it so I could learn about my own culture.

Well, San Francisco would definitely be the place… and that helped inspire the idea of the transsexual character – Felixia?

Sydney: Yes. Because the other thing about the script was I wanted to show how it played out on the reservation. In an earlier draft, it was like can I do this with one character, and show all the different communities on the rez, but it turned into three characters representing all the extremes. So through these three characters you could see how all these different layers interact – from the macho to the LGBT to the traditional side.

So after school in AZ and SF, and working in LA you go back to the rez 10 years later and you have this script?

Sydney:  I had done a couple drafts of Drunktown’s Finest in LA but there were certain scenes where it was kind of hard, to put myself back in that place… so I felt it would be helpful to go back to the reservation and stay there and write while I was on the rez. You know for example like you hit kind of a block, in the middle of a scene, and you’re not quite sure… well you might write something a character might do and then you think okay well, it feels like… crazy. Then I go to the local Wal-Mart, and go walk around, and I go wow… that scene that seemed crazy is out. I need to go in the opposite direction. It was like getting little influences –local color– and putting that back into the script, giving it a sense of authenticity.

You mean like the real way people speak both in Navajo and English and the actual landmarks, institutions and businesses etc.?

Sydney:  Definitely… but on a broader level, I feel there are misconceptions about Native Americans. .. like, how we are usually represented on screen as two types of characters – the wise elder or the angry youth or that we are all drunks and asking for government handouts.  Although it’s true the dry laws of Native American reservations force locals to head to Gallup, for their drinking, and there are many poorer people, who get government assistance, there are a lot, of other people, who are totally different. The main impetus behind the title was taking the idea of “Drunktown” and trying to flip it on its head. That’s where the title Drunktown’s Finest came from.

THE LABS

When did you meet Bird Runningwater?

Sydney:  I met Bird (N. Bird Runningwater) in 2009. I had sent a script in, which he liked, but he asked if I had anything else, so I sent the first draft of Drunktown’s Finest -171 pages at the time. He invited me to submit for the Native Lab. I got in and then worked my way up through the labs – Native, Screenwriters, Directors and then the Producers Summit.

How would you characterize your Lab experiences?

Sydney: The labs are this little bubble of artists giving this amazing creative feedback. They changed my perspective, in my development as a filmmaker. For example, I went to the Writers’ Lab with a plot-based approach, trying to fit in the characters. But I learned to let the characters influence plot. One of my screenwriting advisors was Joan Tewkesbury and she wrote Nashville.

Nashville was a groundbreaking film in its structure.

Sydney: Yeah, multiple storylines, multiple characters going back and forth. So to it was great to get this feedback, when I’m working on this story, with multiple storylines and characters, from someone who knows how to do that, and knows how to do that successfully. In the Directors Lab, I came in thinking about storyboarding and shot-listing everything, but I learned to focus more on performance, rather than attempting to capture individual shots. In the Directors Lab you could bring in actors and have them do work from your script, so in 2010 Carmen Moore (who plays Felixia) came out and she looked beautiful and right for the part, but working on the rough draft, I found out she could act as well… part of her role was being able to tap into experiences she had been through but still there are parts of the film that required… you know, acting… and in my opinion she was able to, as well as anybody. That’s where the Sundance labs were so valuable. So in the end, I wrote a script that was character-based, and tried to direct a film that was performance based.

Another benefit of the labs resulted from the contacts Sydney made including the film’s editor, composer Mark Orton, lead producer Chad Burris, Kiowa Gordon, who played a supporting role in the film and ultimately executive producer Robert Redford, who somehow keeps tabs on things at the labs.

Harry: I’ve been an editor at the labs for 2 years and they keep a roster of editors who have been there to recommend to producers or past Sundance fellows who are looking for editors… so she called me and we really hit it off, and I really liked her script. Also I had been an editor on, Mosquita Y Mari, a Sundance feature three years ago, which Sydney liked, that Chad had produced.

Mark: I was a composer fellow at Sundance Institute, at the same time that Sydney was a director fellow, and they paired us at the Institute. I worked with her on the earliest version of the film, when she had just a few scenes shot, and was still developing the script in late 2010. When she got funding, she got in touch.

Sydney: Kiowa was in a film called The Lesser Blessed and Bird Runningwater passed along some of his scenes from that film. I thought Kiowa did an amazing job in that film and I thought he would be a good fit for “Drunktown.”

THE PRODUCERS

Sydney had two “amazing producers” in Chad Burris (Splinter, The Killer Inside Me, Mosquita y Mari) and Mateo Frazier (Delia, Torcida). Together they made Blaze You Out which Mateo directed in 2012 and Lions Gate picked up, after a bit of a festival run (the film is sold in DVD format at retailers and Amazon, downloads on Netflix and can be rented from Redbox).

Barking WaterSo your first film, a short, got in to Sundance?

Chad: That was 2005 and so far all of the films I produced have got in to the fest – 7 to date. Nearly every Native film I’ve done has also played at the Native Fest at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, which was a great one – unfortunately a victim of the sequester. I’ve produced or executive produced about 13 in total. I produced my first short and then 2 features with Sterlin Harjo. We will be putting a new narrative film into production, probably in April.  He’s got another larger narrative script, he’s finishing on the heels of that, and we’re looking at opportunities for television.

How did you first connect to the project?

Chad: The film was being developed in the Native Lab and Sterlin Harjo was working as an advisor one year and had read the script. He called me and said “you should take a look at this – it’s got a Navajo transsexual character in it and it’s really fresh.

It’ll sell in New York then?

Chad: Yeah (laughs). That’s right… so that was my introduction to it, but I didn’t do anything with it then and it kind of sat out there for a while… then I was working on getting another film off the ground, about three years ago, and the financing led to an approach of diversifying, with a package of a few films, which led me back to this one.

Wild Salvation FINAL -halfresWill you and Mateo be doing other stuff?

Chad: Absolutely. I’m doing a couple films with Mateo including producing a new film (Wild Salvation) he’ll direct.

How did you meet Sydney and why did you decide to do this project?

Mateo: I met Sydney a few years ago, when she had a NM New Visions grant to try to get the film off the ground, and I was teaching film at Northern New Mexico College. I lent her a camera package, which I could do because the production used an intern who would learn about the filmmaking process. This was in 2010 but Sydney’s been working on it for a long time… I look at Cinema from the perspective that it’s a structure of looking at the world, that is very Eurocentric in its storytelling approach… and then you have Native culture that’s really invested in storytelling… that’s across indigenous cultures because that’s their history… stories… their history is oral history. I think Sydney has a special ability to straddle the gap between both approaches. At the time she had work shopped the script, for several months, but it was still 125 pages – totally untenable.

Sydney_Freeland_StoryBoardBut she’s got a 3 part story.

Mateo: Yeah that’s the beauty of it… I have this great picture of Syd sitting, by this wall where she has 3X5 cards, up on the wall, and they’re kind of arranged like a lot of writers do, to try to show the visual flow of a story, but I’ve never seen anyone do it quite like she did… it was almost like they were weaved together… weavings are a big part of Navajo culture… these 3X5 cards, of a log line, manifested themselves in an order that looked like that, on a wall!… and I just decided – we’re doing this. This movie has to be made.

With the addition of the “Sundance Kid” in her corner – as executive producer, a role he hasn’t taken, on a narrative feature, since 2004’s Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle DiariesFreeland ended up with a real producing “dream team” that participated solely on the basis of the strength of her story, their belief in her vision, and confidence in her ability to bring it to fruition.

Why do you think Robert Redford decided to become personally involved with the film?

Sydney: Well, he lives in Santa Fe and he’s become a major supporter of independent film, in New Mexico, and has a long history of involvement with the Navajo people… and he has gone to the Reservation many times and knows the locations and people on the rez intimately.  He spoke with me about small Reservation towns that nobody else would even know about. He really had an interest in the story and its characters.  

Robert-Redford-to-executive-produce-New-Mexico-Film-500x281

Executive Producer Robert Redford

Mateo: My understanding is… we had a letter from Syd after the Director’s Lab… Redford had somehow become familiar with the project and he wrote a letter of commitment to her that he was interested in supporting the project… because it was kind of what he started Sundance for… so there was a commitment from Redford or his people at that time…  and then the film didn’t get off the ground…  so after some time went by someone from Sundance, I think Bird Runningwater, contacted Chad who had recently been at the fest, with the Sterling Harjo film, to try to help get the film moving. We got the project into production and then Chad came in, with a firm Redford commitment, just as we were starting to shoot.

Frazier on location

James Junes, Mateo Frazier, Ernie Tsosie

Mateo: We really didn’t. We were lucky enough to get ARRI to give us an Alexa camera package and Clairmont Camera came up with our ancillary stuff, lenses etc… It would have been impossible otherwise… and then I did my part… what I love to do best – went back to NM and kind of preached till I got people bought into it, and excited about the film. Once we had it in the can, we did the KickStarter campaign, and around the same time we got the grant, from Tunnel, to do most of the finishing. In the end, we didn’t finish the film until the day before Sundance!

So how did you convince Bob to put money into the film – I’ve heard he’s pretty tight with a buck?

Chad: Well he didn’t actually put money into the film. He’s not an investor. He came on board as executive producer to show his support for the project. He wanted to see it get produced… so he lent his name. Sundance is not just Bob… there’s some other people around him who were very helpful… they kind of put us in touch with individuals… not in the way of financing – just resources.   

Well that was a shot in the arm anyway. 

Chad: Definitely.

What did that bring to you?

Chad: It brings credibility to the project… you know a film that’s all about Indians, no name talent… first time writer/director… that’s what it brings. If a guy like Redford attaches his name, it shows there’s something in it. It helped with getting everything going.                                    

It’ll probably help in the long run with the curatorial gatekeepers.

Chad: Yeah. I think so… we’ll benefit in some capacity, for sure, and I’m not sure exactly in what ways yet.

THE FINANCING

Jokingly Sydney told us that, her budget was less than Avatar… but the lead producers – whose job was to secure funding, acknowledged that they raised enough for a way too small budget… thinking the film should have cost something over $2 million… but it was done well under the cut-off maximum for the movie’s SAG Indie low budget agreement.

Several timely infusions plus cutting a number, of out of pocket costs, plus highly efficient low budget production tactics, and a creative shooting strategy, all added up to just get them over the hump.

For one thing, Chad and Sydney received a $50,000 goods and services grant from Film Independent in Los Angeles. There were also grants from her 2014 Sundance Institute Time Warner Native Producer Fellowship and a 2014 Film Independent Wildfire Post-Production Sound Grant.

They raised $30,000 Post Production dollars on KickStarter, tugging at their supporter’s heartstrings, by promising to right the injustice, Gallup, NM suffered from the “Drunktown” label. On the KickStarter page her statement was: “This film is my effort to defy that judgment of my community. With your support, my film will show the world that label was wrong, and that my community has complexity, dimension and hope.

Burris and Frazier did their job and raised a reasonable amount of cash, from formal investors – in the classic executive producer way of actually laying cash down – like devoted first time Executive Producer Dennis Mykytyn and any number of Mateo’s NM supporters, who donated small but unknown sums.

Then there was the 25% NM cash incentive best described in Chad’s words, “there’s a 25% credit and your discounted net comes in at around 18% maybe 20% if you’re good. So yeah, 20% coming back in the form of a free lunch is a big boost.

SYD 1 GMarks-DrunktownsFinest-EugeneHouse-08SYD 1 GMarks-DrunktownsFinest-EugeneHouse-08Shooting in a film friendly state:

Chad: NM is a good place to make a movie. In NM everybody has got a car or a truck … it’s wide open … it’s not a lot of hassle – they’re familiar with film. You don’t have to explain anything – there’s not a learning curve… It’s easy and when you’re working on a limited budget. Or any budget really… it’s a much more efficient process to get things done in a timely manner and quickly… there’s not a lot of red tape… I’ve got 3 or 4 films coming up, all to be done in NM.  It’s a really solid incentive program – they’re well funded, well organized and efficient.

Mateo:  The NM component  of shooting there – Syd and I both had a lot of experience making film in Santa Fe and Northern NM – how to get things done without spending too much money… and the social capital in terms of people we knew like getting locations, or the production office, very inexpensively, if not free…  Also the trade union (the 480) really has made some special rate arrangements available for low budget films.

The cost cutting:

The whole process was really quick because of the limited budget – an economy of coverage and shot design, employing the use of one set-up. The production employed approximately 20 New Mexico crew members and 30 principals and background talent – all of whom worked very cheaply. Some of the background talent – the extras, appeared for nothing. Mateo’s wife was the Set Decorator/Production Design Assistant. Chad’s wife, Julie, was the Production Coordinator. (One hopes they paid them something). The main camera was donated by ARRI for the shoot and Clairmont Camera lent them a full range of top drawer lenses.

Sydney, being a working camera operator, couldn’t help herself from shooting a little B-Roll, for the film. There were people doing two different jobs. Peter Holland also shot production stills. Harry Yoon doubled as post production supervisor. Composer, Mark Orton, also mixed the score. Chee Ho, the line producer, filled the location manager slot as well. Ryan Begay the Second Assistant Camera, acted in the film too.  One can safely assume they couldn’t have pulled it off without nearly complete backend deferred, producer, director, and screenplay fees.

BELOW THE LINE

SYD 6 Drunktown on set_by Fred Hayes_600What were your challenges during production and then post?

Sydney: For me, it was the time pressure. During the shoot, collaboration  was critical. We only had 15 days to shoot the film so I depended a lot on my crew. Everyone had a job to do and it was only by working together that we were able to make this film. It was very much a bonding experience.  After that, we had eight weeks to edit and get it done in time for Sundance. It was a tight turnaround.

Mateo: The filmmaking had a devotion and passion like a family… everyone who worked on the film moved as fast as they could trying to get as much as possible with 1 setup – everyone just wanted to do this film, despite not making much money… Harry and Peter were very committed true champions of the film… we got lucky when you consider the synergy of it… and how people got attached to it emotionally… and after you’re in, you say “oh hell let’s just keep going.

Harry: These projects are done collaboratively, for example Peter’s contribution is pretty significant… that they could even shoot a feature at that level was quite a remarkable accomplishment. The project was a real family effort… people worked on it not only because it was an opportunity to work on a high profile project, but because they believed in the story, Sydney was trying to tell… and everybody looked upon the project as not just a paycheck, but to collaborate as a family to help Sydney achieve her vision… even people in the NM community chipped in, for example, our cutting room in Gallup was a donated conference room, in a car dealership… they were like -this story needs to be told and we’re going to help to make this happen. It felt very much like a home grown effort to support local artists and it made everybody work that much harder, through the long hours and, the budget being such that no one was making any real money off it… and as we were getting the footage in, we noticed that there were some special things going on, and moving things that were happening – even people in front of the camera were putting in the effort.

Mateo:  We didn’t even have a post production supervisor…  Harry Yoon… he sort of acted as our post supervisor… he cut Newsroom too… when I heard that he did that, we had to use him. Besides Newsroom, on which Yoon was visual effects editor, he worked on Zero Dark Thirty, as an assistant editor and then on Hunger Games.

Harry: I go back and forth between editing indie films (6 features to date) and as assistant editor on larger studio projects. Doing a project as lead editor, with a talented first time feature director like Sydney, is ideal for me, in allowing me, to start relationships with producers and directors beginning careers and hopefully do further work together. Being Post Supervisor was an opportunity for me to help guide Sydney through the post process, since though she had a lot of editing experience, she hadn’t done features and they don’t have a post-production lab at Sundance yet. Having been an assistant editor, I know a lot of the technical aspects of finishing projects. I know how cutting rooms interface with labs and sound houses… you know, what files need to go where and when you need to do testing… so it was pretty natural to help Sydney think through each of those steps. One of the things we grappled with was that we had a couple of non–professional actors in different roles, and in figuring out how to shape the performances, so they didn’t get in the way of some of the stronger performances. Is this working or is this getting in the way? This particular scene that was really hard to shoot – how is that working in terms of the context of the story? How necessary is it? Even if it’s not getting in the way, is it absolutely necessary for the overall pacing?

What were the challenges of the 3 part storyline?

Harry: Initially it was getting a sense of whether the film as a whole was working out… particular scenes were working, as we were putting the movie together… but getting a sense that we were balancing the stories… that each of the stories were  developing so that they were interesting to the audience. Nizhoni”s story (Morningstar Angeline) was the greatest challenge during the process. I think that Sickboy’s (Jeremiah Bitsui) story had some obvious dramatic  elements that made it easy to follow and Jeremiah’s performance was fantastic and so in sync with his character…  so you understand his conflict right away… and the same thing for Felixia (Carmen Moore) who gave a very naturalistic performance and again it’s easy to see the conflict – you know exactly what this transsexual girl wants and that she’s definitely going to get into trouble the way she is… but Nizhoni’s story is so interior and so much about how she’s feeling and her identity… so it’s not as dramatic, as the other two, and trying to craft its interest to the audience… and beat by beat trying to balance her screen time with the other two. Also, Sickboy and Felixia interact early in the story while Nizhoni doesn’t meet up with them until much later.

Because they were shooting so fast with different backgrounds in close proximity how did you deal with “crossing the line” challenges?

Harry: Well, Peter was on guard for that much more than most DPs are, and Sydney created an economy of coverage and shot design so, even as they were moving so fast, it was obvious that Sydney and Peter had really thought through what shots they needed. Only a couple of things like entrances and exits could have helped us from a pacing standpoint. But for the most part, even the moving masters were done, with a lot of forethought, of how much of the coverage was necessary for the scene – they just basically cut their shot list to the bone… the economy of coverage also mitigated some of the downside of working with inexperienced actors.

There were other digital cameras besides the Alexa – how did you take advantage of them?

Harry:  Most of the film was shot on the Alexa but we had an opening montage where you really get a sense of place, and obviously we couldn’t take the Alexa out, on multiple days, to do B-roll and atmosphere shots and documentary style shooting – those cameras came in very handy then. Also, because it was such an accelerated shoot, we couldn’t take the time to get inserts, or establishing shots… all the little things that help orient an audience, whether it’s in a scene or between scenes… so those second unit cameras were absolutely essential in giving us those little pieces.

Alexa 6470648-11514103-thumbnailSo you made a DCP?

Harry: We did our color-correction at Tunnel Post in Santa Monica. They gave us a sort of soup to nuts finishing deal, where they gave us a DCP to use for our screening master, and did or subbed out the visual and optical effects we had. They did all of our finishing conversion and helped with the process. They also did our mix layback after the mix was completed at Wildfire Post. Before our off-line edit, we used Black Magic’s Resolve Lite to trans-code all our footage (ARRI Alexa, Red, and Canon DSLR) to our off-line codec – Avid DNxHD36.

Mark Orton was originally a New Yorker who grew up in Stonybrook, L.I.  He ran the Knitting Factory on Houston St. for several years as an engineer. He then had a band that got signed and he played with Zorn and toured with Tom Waits and Willie Nelson as well as other great acts. Orton studied classical composition and then crossed over to jazz but always played in bands doing ‘weirder stuff.’  He had a film premiering at this year’s SXSW that has Harry Loyd from Game of Thrones called Big Significant Thing. Orton did the music for Nebraska as well.  Alexander Payne was a fan of his music and his music editor was using a lot of his stuff, while working on early versions of the film, and he fell in love with it and hired him on – Payne’s vision was that he was making a film that was like “Italian Cinema on the plains” and was trying to avoid overt “Americana.” Coming up he’s doing the music for a film, with Kevin Kline in NYC, directed by famous theatre director, Israel Horowitz (The Indian takes the Bronx), whose son Adam leads the Beastie Boys. The movie is titled My Old Lady and also features Maggie Smith.

What was your overall approach to the sound?

Mark: I worked with a co-composer named Joel Pickard, who plays pedal steel guitar, which is one of the textures Sydney really liked and tied into the desert landscapes there. I then created related ambient sound from guitars so they didn’t sound ‘guitarish’ to create the sense of place she was looking for. The approach to the sound on the rez was, to actually avoid traditional Navajo music and, to reflect modern times on the rez-Sydney specifically said no drums, no flutes… none of that… that’s not what she was looking for. This is a contemporary story – I think of it as kind of Raymond Carver on the rez – intersecting stories, intersecting lives… my score was reflecting place as well as the growth of the characters.

Peter A. Holland was Director of Photography for several films opening in 2014. Besides Drunktown’s Finest, he worked on Kid Cannibis, his third feature with director John Stockwell  – to be released in April  and a TV movie with Stockwell, Cat Run II. Another film, The Boys of Abu Ghraib, a one man show is also set for April release. Some of his feature credits include Gabriel (2007) and Gabriel Behind the Madness (2008) – the making of Documentary, Belfast Story (2013), Complicity (2013), Falling For Sahara (2011), Mother Fish (2010) and Nothing Men (2010) – which may well have been the first feature shot with the Red camera.

What was the look you were trying to achieve?

Peter: Originally Sidney had a idea that was somewhat agitated… a lot of handheld… she referenced Amores Perrosand I felt it was more sit back and be studious, observational  and quieter rather than… be in there… but It varied by the characters. Jeremiah was trying to break out so he needed more active coverage and the framing, a lot of times, was done so he’s trying to push out of the right side of the frame.

And because you shot handheld, but a more elegant handheld that doesn’t call attention to itself, made it easier to assure you didn’t lose him?

Peter: You could say that… Felixia had a strong duality and we used every opportunity we could to show reflection… or I shot her with a shallow depth of field, particularly in the casino interiors… Nizhoni was much more formal… more traditional master shots.

Crossing the line… a problem that Mateo was worried about because of the fast shooting and adjacent backgrounds – the editor, Harry Yoon said you anticipated these potential pitfalls incredibly well.

Peter: It’s basically dealing with transitions, so you want the character’s moves – one scene to another – to be fluid. Also for example, I might take an action at the end of one scene, in a close up, and then frame the beginning of the next scene, in the same way. It’s a little trick of the edit, so when you cut it you think you’re in the original scene… or we might make the look of the shot very similar to that of the next scene… can’t make it too tricky so the audience might feel tricked… you have to do it in a subtle and hidden way so they go “oh that’s nice.

In terms of the place – say the look of Gallup vs. the Rez?

Peter: Gallup felt like a place where people pass through – anonymous – there’s a huge highway that runs through it and all the time it’s in transit… I wanted to translate a feeling that it was kind of a place that time forgot, with the world swirling around it… kind of in obscurity.

Like Route 66 that’s been bypassed by the super highways?

Peter:  Yeah, quite.

What about the Reservation, on the other hand?

Peter:  It had a life… trees… grounded… relationships and families with a connection between the heritage and the land… and then there’s the desolation of the desert.

What were your shooting challenges?

Peter: Well the budget was so low. I’ve never been on a shoot where they couldn’t insure all the lenses… the smallest crew ever, like a documentary crew – one grip, one gaffer and a guy who helped… well, I didn’t really do it for the money but because the line producer Chee Ho was an old friend I’d worked with in Santa Fe, and something about the way Sydney asked me to do the film… I couldn’t say no.

Arri Fujinon Alura Lens 5What were you shooting with and what picture format did you record?

Peter:  ARRI donated the Alexa 2K camera and Clairmont came to the party and donated everything needed to make it work… we recorded to ProRes HQ 4444… a nice Cooke lens, 4 primes, 200mm telephoto with doubler and 2 ARRI Fujinon Aluras which were fantastic. We shot 1080P on Alexa with good lenses and looked very good vs. 4K – It’s not always the K – there are a lot of ingredients that go into the bowl.

The lenses trump the resolution sometimes?

Peter: Without a doubt – resolution isn’t everything. With Gabriel, we had a $200,000 budget yet it grossed over $50mil and it was shot with JVC Prosumer cameras.

THE CAST

Geoff Gilmore, who ran Sundance (when the odds for getting into Sundance were only about 60 to 1) for a number of years, before ‘defecting’ to Tribeca, 3 or 4 years ago, used to say that where most Indie Films faltered, assuming the screenplay worked, resulted from the use of non-professional actors. Sydney took a huge gamble and ignored that advice, with “Drunktown.”  That produced an authentic look to the film’s characters, and made sure the Navajo dialogue needed was spoken properly. Navajo is a very difficult language – just ask the Germans, still alive from World War II, who tried to break the allies’ radio codes, heavily infused with Navajo, provided by the “Codetalkers,” fictionally depicted, in the film, Enigma. It also places Drunktown’s Finest amongst a small group, of features, that have rejected the Hollywood style where actors who wouldn’t realistically be speaking English, recite some sort of accented version of Anglo.… The Third Man being one, of the best examples, to make dramatic use of literal dialogue to its advantage. Thirty-three of the Thirty-seven speaking parts in “Drunktown” were played by Native people – 18 were Navajo.

drunktown 14Fel and grandmaSo 18 of 33 Natives were Navajo and the other 15 looked Navajo enough so they could pass? My research shows that all three of the leads are Navajo/Déné. How many of the 37 had prior professional acting experience?

Sydney: About a dozen I believe. Jeremiah is probably the most experienced of our cast… his being both SAG and local residency, and casting local generally, qualified us for tax rebates. When I’ve watched films with Natives, I’ve always seen this hodgepodge of different tribes… I wanted the look and the feel to be more real. The non-natives in the film are Debrianna Mansini, Mark Siversten, James Burnett, and Luis Bordonada.

So following, in the tradition, of say De Sica or John Sayles, you chose people who weren’t actors, but were able to do the parts and look natural?

Sydney: Yeah but I’ve also learned, that sometimes they look right for the part but, if they can’t act their way out of a paper bag, it doesn’t matter.

There seems to be a method to Sydney’s fine madness in casting and shooting this three threaded narrative scene structure with 37 parts and 71 extras, in 15 days with a small crew.  By weaving in 12 pros – a few of whom who have substantial credits – mixed in with the 25 less experienced players… she anchored the secondary roles, in order  to concentrate on directing the three leads – the Macho character, Jeremiah Bitsui… the LGBT character, Carmen Moore…  the Traditional character, MorningStar Angeline.   Each of these roles had their own special dynamics.

Felixia , the LGBT character, is a transgendered girl who lives on the rez with understanding grandparents, who are fully cognizant and accepting, of the concept of the two gendered person, in traditional Navajo culture. Physically very attractive but just as promiscuous, she wants to become a model, and enters the annual Women of the Navajo calendar contest, but she also turns tricks for cash, often getting ‘clients’  from the casinos, and is quite socially and emotionally challenged.

How did you decide on Carmen Moore for Felixia?

drunktown 2

Carmen Moore as Felixia

Sydney: While working on the draft, I had a idea of what the TS character would look like… and so I was doing a search on YouTube for Navajos + transsexuals and you know, when you watch a video… it will recommend other videos and I linked to one, where someone was interviewing her (Carmen), and I felt that’s Felixia – that’s the character!

You actually found her on YouTube – you just saw a video and there she was? 

Sydney: Yeah, so I tracked her down and she read the script, she responded well to it, and came on board. For the role of Felixia, it was very important that we cast someone who was transgendered.  I was very fortunate to have found Carmen Moore, who is both trans and Navajo.

But she hadn’t acted before?

Sydney: Not in a narrative feature film, but I auditioned her at the labs. I felt she could do it.

Carmen: I was born and raised on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona. Drunktown’s Finest was my first Indie film, but I’ve worked for awhile in adult movies, so I had no problem being in front of the camera. I felt confident that I could bring a real lot to the part. Wanting to leave the rez, and go out into the world were real feelings I’ve had before… and I felt I could bring the character to life… that no one could’ve done a better job than me… but I hadn’t been back to the rez in years… I recognized places I’d been… it was very emotional… and hard bringing up some of the memories.. Sydney is such a great director, she kept at me, saying “You’ve been there before, remember what it was like and how you reacted”… and she brought it all out of me.

Luther “Sick Boy” Maryboy, the Macho character, has had a background of alcoholism and violence and is struggling growing up, and becoming a productive member of society. He’s trying to figure out how best to provide for his pregnant girlfriend… joining the army, perhaps being his best option, if only he can stay sober enough and keep out of trouble…  crossing paths with Felixia, early in the story, despite trying to stay away from the ‘wild side.’

drunktown 10

Jeremiah Bitsui as Luther “Sick Boy” Maryboy

Sydney: We knew we wanted Jeremiah for the part early on because the part is so intense and required serious acting technique. He had also worked in Blaze You Out which Chad produced and Mateo directed… plus of course, his work in Breaking Bad.

Jeremiah: Drunktown’s Finest  allowed me to play a role where I’m not a Bad Guy… a Bad Ass… someone who has a little bit of hope and redemption. I’m hoping it opens up the opportunity to play softer characters – characters that aren’t so hard and brazen… I like playing roles that are edgy but I’d like to be able to show some of my comedic side too… play some regular Joe guys and show my range… but if a really good role shows up and it’s a lot like Victor (his character for eight episodes in Breaking Bad)… a Bad Ass… I’m not going to walk away from it. At the end of the day, it’s about telling good stories.  “Drunktown” is a very modern story, about people who have issues with identity, and its multi-threaded structure attracted me – Crash being one of my favorite movies.

You are a member of the Navajo Nation and lived on the rez. Had you been to Gallup before?

Jeremiah: I’ve  been to Gallup many times, since a lot of family live around there and it’s the closest border town. I lived on the rez and then in the area around it until I was 9 and then I moved to ALBQ, till I was about 18.

I read that you are writing scripts and someday would like to be behind the camera, as a director. And you’ve had the chance to work with some pretty good directors like Oliver Stone, Clint Eastwood, Jim Sheridan and Chris Eyre?

Jeremiah: My first American film was Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. I was about 12 years old – It was really a great experience for me… it really inspired me and my whole journey… being a part of it with my Uncle Russell Means, introducing me to the project… and Oliver and Woody Harrelson… it was awesome because of the hard reality of my world… but I saw you could still grow up and have a life, where you’re playing pretend, and creating and having fun and it’s an industry… it made me very excited about getting to know, how the whole process works – storytelling and filmmaking.

drunktown 15

Magdalena Begay as Max Maryboy

Jeremiah: I quit acting and didn’t come back to it for another 10 years… then by chance an old friend invited me to work on Lords of Dogtown (2004)… which was followed a bit later with a call from Chris Eyre who asked me to be a part of his project, A Thousand Roads (2005), that went to Sundance and all over. Since then I’ve had a good flow of work. I got to work with Clint Eastwood on Flags of our Fathers (2006). I read for a larger role (but didn’t get it) and went in for a callback and his casting dir. really liked me and called me a week later, and said that Clint actually created a little cameo role for me – it was a huge compliment, so I took the role, even though it was very small… I had maybe 4 lines but working with him was amazing… he’s been with his crew so long – they know each others’ moves so well that when he was ready… he never says ACTION… everything just went silent… it was just very smooth… he actually makes it very easy for the actors… once we got into it I felt very much at home, and free to create.

What do you think of Sidney’s directing style?

Jeremiah: It was great working with Sydney. She has a great eye for getting what she wants, and is trying to accomplish. She was really strong at getting people, who hadn’t acted before, to give her good performances… and for me it was kind of rewarding, as well as refreshing, to work with them.

A lot of Indie Filmmakers are starting to do TV. Breaking Bad seems to have a filmic quality.

Jeremiah: Breaking Bad was a TV show that was shot like a film… like kind of controlled Independent Filmmaking… but you can approach the story line in much more than two hours… you are able to expand it. I have a television show coming out, in the spring, called Night Shift.  It’s by one of the producers, from Breaking Bad, about a group of Afghanistan War veterans. They’re actually MedEvacs who, treated people on the battlefield, then come home to San Antonio and work in an ER.

Nizhoni, the traditional character, lives a sheltered life, outside the reservation, with her adopted white parents, but looks to reunite with her birth family. She is a girl, on a spiritual journey, seeking to reconnect with her Native American roots. While doing volunteer work on the rez, she finds clues about her biological family, which ultimately connect her to Felixia. The movie culminates, in Nizhoni’s participation, in the traditional Navajo rite of passage to womanhood.

How did you find MorningStar and what made you think as a non-actor she could do the part?

Sydney: MorningStar is actually my sister. That being said, we had her go through the audition process just like everyone else. It came down to her and one other girl. The other girl had more experience, but MorningStar brought an authenticity, to the character, that ultimately led to the choice in her casting.

A rather interesting choice but, in this writer’s opinion, quite savvy… MorningStar Angeline practiced theater throughout her childhood and later in high school. Sydney was very cognizant of this as she watched her sister grow up. MorningStar also has worked as a photographer, shooting behind the scenes photography for production companies – giving her familiarity with the production process. Sydney would presumably have had tremendous access, to her, to go over the role, if needed, as well. Plus, MorningStar knows the locations and social/cultural aspects of the story thoroughly.

But it goes much deeper than that. In an extremely perceptive interview, that MorningStar granted to Indian Country Today Media Network, (an excellent publication to read for a different perspective from mainstream and a lot of so-called ‘alternative’ media outlets), Angeline described her feelings about the film as follows:

drunktown 1I think this film has the capability to touch anyone. These are “typical” teens that are trying to cross the bridge from childhood to adulthood but, none of them have been too well equipped, up to this point. It is in their reflection, for what is in their best interest, that they look to their culture for support and guidance. No matter what race you are or background you have, you can relate to not being happy with where you are in life, and feeling unequipped to change it. At the same time, it addresses an issue that has been ignored by America – that is that Native American youth are struggling to balance Western ideals, with the culture of their tribe. I strongly believe it gives hope to young Natives, who are having a hard time balancing… and instead feel like it is one or the other. Although I did not realize it when I initially accepted the part, Nizhoni’s journey has a lot of parallels to my own. Nizhoni Smiles lost her parents in a car accident, when she was fairly young, and was then adopted into a Christian home. Her biological family struggled with alcoholism and because of that, her adopted family decided to stop communication with them, for the sake of Nizhoni’s future.  It was in that, that I emotionally realized just how similar our stories are. My biological father passed away when I was two months old and struggled with alcoholism immensely. It was also a severe problem, within his family, and thus is a source of a lot of hardship for me. Stepping into Nizhoni’s shoes is a bit like walking in my own.

And, most likely, for Sydney, as well…   

The rest of the cast:

Kiowa Gordon

Kiowa Gordon

Kiowa Gordon – Kiowa’s mother, Camille, is Native American, the First Nation Descendant of the Hualapai Nation and his father is Caucasian. He recently won best supporting actor at the 2013 American Indian Film Festival, in San Francisco, for his role, in the indie film The Lesser Blessed. In, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, he appears as Embry. He reprised this role in the film, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. He recently finished shooting, the series regular role of Junior, in Sundance Channel’s new series, entitled The Red Road. He has two film projects upcoming: The Projectionist and Into the Darkness.

Shauna Baker – Shauna is a Canadian actress, model and spokesperson better known with her twin sister, Shannon as The Baker Twins. The Baker Twins were born, in the Stellat’en First Nation Reservation, as part of the Carrier Déné Tribe. Along with Shannon, she started off with modeling and soon transitioned into acting. The twins have been featured in several print and marketing campaigns including magazine covers and editorial spreads, as well as modeling on the runway. They have guest starred in several hit TV series including, the CW’s Smallville, SPIKE TV’s Blue Mountain State and the SciFi TV movie Tin Man. They have appeared in several feature films including Battle-B-Boy, Western Confidential, Hopelessly in June, Dominent Gene and Sharp as Marbles. They have also appeared as special guests on The Tyra Banks Show talking about, the stereotypes put on Native Americans/First Nations People and, the lack of representation in the media. Without stereotyping them, the Baker Twins are exceedingly beautiful.

Luis Bordonada – Luis had a large role in The Book Of Eli, a Hughes Brothers film starring Denzel Washington. In 2011, he won the best actor award at the Naperville Independent Film Festival in Chicago, for his portrayal of a migrant worker turned coyote, in the feature film, Ilegales (Illegal). His years of military experience have allowed him to bring honesty and realism, to his portrayal of soldiers, such as his role of SPC.  Diaz,in the upcoming feature film, Fort Bliss, and his role of Sgt. Martinez, in Drunktown’s Finest.

Elizabeth Frances – Elizabeth Frances plays Angela Maryboy, the mother of Sickboy’s child. Frances’ mother was from the Philippines, and her father was Cherokee and Caucasian. She appeared in a play at the Autry Theater’s Native Voices series, where she was seen by Freeland, who cast her in Drunktown’s Finest. Her film credits include Ghost Forest, Feeding Mr. Baldwin and Hunting (Cannes 2012 short film corner selection). Ms. Frances has performed at various theaters including Center Theater Group, La Jolla Playhouse, Los Angeles Theater Center, Shakespeare Santa Cruz, Native Voices, and The Kirk Douglas Theater. Recently, she has co-written the play Hummingbirds, which has been work shopped at the Wells Fargo Theater with Native Voices at the Autry in combination with UCLA and LATC.

Debrianna Mansini – Santa Fe actress Debrianna Mansini played the role of Phoebe Smiles, who is the adoptive mother to Nizhoni. She has an upcoming role in Awakening in Taos. The film is being done by PBS and is narrated by Ali MacGraw and features the voice of Marsha Mason. She has appeared in several features including Persecuted, Periphery and Crazy Heart and in TV guest roles such as Breaking Bad, Cyphers and In Plain Sight. She also has a role in Boys of Abu Ghraib, which was shot by Drunktown DP, Peter A. Holland.

Mark Siversten  – Mark plays Nizhoni’s adoptive father. After starting as a stuntman, he crossed over to acting in the mid 1980’s and has extensive TV credits and several features under his belt.  Notable TV shows, he has appeared in, include: Criminal Minds, Necessary Roughness, Cyphers, Breaking Bad, In Plain Sight, Monk, NCIS, CSI: Miami, ER, Moloney, The Lazarus Man, Who’s the Boss?, Santa Barbara, Hunter and Highway to Heaven. He has a role in the upcoming The Night Shift.

Richard Ray Whitman – Whitman plays Harmon John, Felixia’s grandfather.  Drunktown’s Finest is the 11th Native American feature he has appeared in.  Among them – Barking Water and Four Sheets to the Wind – both produced by Chad Burris.

Ryan Begay – Ryan, who also writes and directs, has been in Breaking Bad, Mateo Frazier’s Blaze You Out and Sydney Freeland’s Hoverboard  – besides his other acting work.

Magdalena Begay – Magdalena began her acting career in Freeland’s Hoverboard, in 2012, and has since been in 2 more shorts and on the TV series Longmire.

James Burnett – Burnett has appeared on the TV series’ Longmire and In Plain Sight.  He has also been in 3 other recent features: The Last Stand, Transcendence and Jane Got a Gun.

James Junes – Drunktown’s Finest is only his third credit but he HAS been in More Than Frybread (2011). Perhaps frybread movies can ultimately become a sub-genre.

DISTRIBUTION & SALES

On Jan. 16, the Sundance Film Festival opened for business and so did the 2014 Indie Film circuit. As has become the tradition, a press conference, attended by all the major movie media, is held with Redford holding court. Every year, since the start of this century, the state of the Indie Film Industry quickly becomes the main agenda, despite the Festival’s best intentioned attempts to steer the focus towards, the films themselves as Independent Cinema – a futile effort as it’s been a dozen years since Redford, himself, acknowledged that Sundance had become a market. It being the thirtieth anniversary, of the Fest’s founding, a sense of retrospection colored the tone of the dialogue. In looking at its roots and original intentions the festival’s spokespeople, and Redford particularly, have realized, and are constantly prodded by the trade media, that in certain ways, they have become victims of their own success – and so has Indie Film. Thirty years ago it was rare to see and hard to find films with, pure artistic intent, non-mainstream viewpoints, alternative and eccentric visions, politically and sexually daring subject matter… films that didn’t come from Hollywood or big media… that were made by minorities with minority actors… women, black, Latino, Asian, Native American Directors… documentaries about all sorts of subjects, many formerly taboo… music films… gay films… all kinds of niche content. Now there’s a glut of everything including ways to see the stuff – TV channels, cable channels, satellite… VOD, internet streams and downloads home video multiplexes, IMAX, micro-cinemas, traditional movie theatres and arthouses… film festivals in the thousands… tools and resources for making films… cheap digital production gear…hundreds of film schools… filmmaking support organizations… film and movie websites… massive quantities of how-to information on the subject… contests and competitions and thousands of festivals to enter. But the audience isn’t much bigger than it ever was and it’s fragmented, distracted, a little jaded and there’s so much other new content as well – games, online, social media, reality shows, cooking shows, sports coverage, networks for every niche one can think of. Well, so what – what’s wrong with a surfeit of entertaining or informative material to watch? What’s wrong with so many more talents, voices and viewpoints with the opportunity to make films and other media – nothing, unless you happen to be a filmmaker looking for distribution.

So, box office returns, for indies have dropped and it’s not clear if the decline is being offset, by the growing number of distribution platforms. The trade media needs to write about the health of Independent Film, so who do they ask, but Redford. Still, it’s a press conference and not a film class so they need to be provocative. Sundance spearheaded the growth of Indie Film (implying that logically it contributed to the glut?) so what is it doing to help solve the distribution problem. Demonstrating a lack of understanding of the problems of producers and filmmakers and having minimal information on VOD revenue numbers, they asked the wrong person – kind of like asking Eli Whitney to solve an over surplus of cotton. Sounding defensive as he set them straight, according to Variety, Redford said, “It’s not the responsibility of the fest to provide distribution for independent cinema. We try to be a launch pad for filmmakers. We have nothing to do with distribution. It’s our hope. It’s not our business.

Two days later, Drunktown’s Finest launched at Sundance. Five days after that they had their first sale, to AMC/Sundance Channel Global, along with 5 other films at the fest. The announcement read as follows: “AMC/Sundance Channel Global, the international division of AMC Networks (NASDAQ: AMCX), has announced numerous acquisitions from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival to premiere exclusively on Sundance Channel internationally shortly after the festival this spring. Bruce Tuchman, President of AMC/Sundance Channel Global, said the company is celebrating its biggest year of growth across its international television networks and video-on-demand (VOD) services. The company has acquired six independent films from the Festival. The Disobedient, Liar’s Dice, Memphis and This May Be the Last Time, have been acquired, for all international territories where Sundance Channel is seen. Drunktown’s Finest has been acquired for Asia (excluding Malaysia), Benelux, Eastern Europe, France, Iberia and Latin America. AMC/Sundance Channel Global delivers worldwide in multiple languages through locally tailored programming services and subscription television platforms. The division’s flagship channels include Sundance Channel and WE tv.”

At first glance that would appear to be very positive news for “Drunktown,” considering that AMC Networks Inc. owns and operates several of the most popular brands in North American cable television including: AMC, IFC, Sundance Channel, and IFC Films. However on close examination, things don’t seem quite so rosy.

So you sold international rights for TV & VOD in 2 territories to AMC/ Sundance Channel Global but won’t they want to run it in the U.S. on Sundance channel?

Chad: We will only be on TV internationally. Sundance International is operated separate from Domestic… the thing with the Sundance channel is… like a lot of channels here now, it’s more interested in series content than one-off films anymore… just telling you what I’ve been told… a lot of the films they do run are basically from existing licenses… we will reach out to them but Sundance Global was there and they like to pre-buy a lot of stuff at the festival… we tried to limit our territories so that we kept some of the bigger ones for more opportunity downstream.                                                                                                   

So Drunktown’s Finest  would still have TV/DVD/VOD/Theatrical rights unsold and available for UK, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Holland, Scandinavia, other smaller Western European countries, North America, Africa, Middle East, Australia/NZ and they’ve left your theatrical window open?

Chad: That’s essentially correct.

Having sold some TV and VOD to AMC/Sundance Channel Global, you still have North American theatrical and you have some interest from buyers.  So if you were to do a theatrical release your best window would be next winter, which would allow for additional Festival exposure. Yes?

Mateo: Yeah next winter if we’re doing theatrical. We had discussions, with some pre-sales agents interested, in the fall, before even finishing the film, but I’m not absolutely confident about our domestic chances.

So you’re looking for a distributor theatrically but are more inclined to nail VOD & Home Video sales, as of the moment, will you milk the festival circuit under that scenario?

Chad: We will hit the Fest Circuit very hard – our sales agent is actually handling the festivals… they’ve become such a part of indie films’ sales strategy now in monetizing the life of film, in the fest circuit out there – so not only can you get great exposure, for your film, but your release can be better monetized.

*This interview was conducted in mid – February.  As of today’s March 21 IndieNYC.com posting date, Drunktown’s Finest has now been accepted to the upcoming Ashland Independent Film Festival, Visionmaker Film festival, New Mexico Film and Media Experience, Voices Women’s Film Festival Denver and Sundance’s London, UK screenings in late April… with more to come, no doubt.*

That sales agent, Andrew Herwitz and The Film Sales Company, brings another strong resource to Freeland’s movie. Herwitz, a graduate of Columbia Business School and Harvard Law School, ran the Acquisitions department at Miramax for six years prior to establishing the Company. Since 2002, the Film Sales Company has sold over 175 films (from narrative features such as Serious Moonlight, Kontrol, Computer Chess and The Poker House to Docs. like Born Into Brothels, Let the Fire Burn and Farenheit 911), for domestic and international distribution, and has raised financing, for numerous fiction and documentary projects.

Considering that a big part of Redford’s impetus in starting Sundance was how the studios messed up the distribution of his film Downhill Racer, and he felt filmmakers needed more control over their destinies; at least the theatrical window is still open and he doesn’t have to worry the film will likely run on Sundance Channel or IFC and hurt the opportunities, for sale of theatrical rights, the theatrical chances of the movie, or produce any conflict of interest with channels he partly owns. On the downside, as of this moment, North American rights remain unsold and harsh market reality may have set in. Being a Navajo themed and populated feature, this unique distinction could have pigeonholed the film, as a small niche theatrically challenged “product,” particularly in today’s oversaturated market.

VARIETY‘s review assessed the film’s distribution chances like this:  “…appears destined for niche play, though it could find a receptive audience via streaming and specialty cable services.

The Hollywood Reporter’s review put it this way: “Commercial prospects beyond Native American communities and urban art houses may be limited, but on video the film should rank as one of the more effective in its subgenre.

One wonders how many potential suitors these large circulation Industry rags may have chased away. What subgenre are they referring to? What’s a subgenre anyway and why do we need the term at all?

4 sheets to the windChad: You know there’s no market for Native films and Native filmmakers – besides from Chris Eyre’s films. I’ve had a difficult time finding an audience. Even the Native audience is not necessarily an easy grasp and, with a mainstream audience, people think they’re only unique to Indians, and they can’t reach a broad appeal with it… the themes and characters don’t have a ubiquitous kind of statement… that’s relatable across multiple races and cultures. I produced a film called Four Sheets to the Wind  directed by Serling Harjo… it went through the Writer and Director Labs. It had an Annenberg Award. He had a lot of stuff with that film and we got it into Sundance competition and I had a few distribution people look at it… and a lot of times you just don’t get a response but I actually had several people call me and tell me how much they enjoyed the film – “but we just don’t know how to market it”… and my response to that was “Why? It’s a coming of age story about a young man trying to find his way in life. How can you not know how to market the movie?”… They said, “Well we just had a lot of meetings with our marketing department and we just don’t know how we can go out and sell this.” Every time I produce these films with Indians, they really love them but they seem to have a hard time figuring out how to leverage the mainstream market. My first feature was shot in 2006-2007 and in 2007 there was a huge amount of films getting sold at Sundance, but in 2008 everything just shut down… so I’ve spent several years trying to figure out where the new revenue streams are and what’s next for any film.

Mateo: Blaze You Out was  picked up for DVD by Lions Gate in 2012. We  had a lot of talented actors but no big names… these are such weird times for distribution… it’s always been hard but now it’s even more unclear… fortunately it’s easier  to work with these great new tools and, the cost of those tools and the accessibility of those tools, have opened up possibilities, for making films, to a whole new group of people… not just the traditional NYU, UCLA  approach… which has liberated us but at same time, there’s this weird dichotomy with distribution in that  nobody really knows where that’s going… and the fear around all that and how to monetize it … plus there’s this glut of really shitty stuff… I mean like at Sundance you’ve got like 12,000 submissions and like 132 taken. At the end of the day who has the time to watch 12,000 films?  I’m sure there’s some good stuff, even great, not selected but, at the same time, what’s the cost of really distributing that? Nothing really – you can distribute it cheaply enough but will you get eyeballs and how do you market it? That’s the dilemma right now.

Mateo’s right on the same wavelength here with fest programmer John Cooper who said, at the press conference, that  the increased number of distribution platforms, including VOD and digital streaming, is giving films a greater opportunity to be seen.

Well, it’s great to get exposure for your film but, a filmmaker should know… where’s the money coming from, how much is coming in and who’s getting it?

Can you see, in terms of numbers, anything to tell what is actually going on with VOD right now?

Mateo: I don’t and you know it’s really frustrating… I have no idea… you know the leverage is in favor of the folks who can distribute you and have those agreements in place – the distribution stream… like I have a film with Redbox which is daily rentals but I have no idea what I get from that. I can go to numbers.com to see the theatrical numbers exactly – why can’t I see the VOD and other figures like that?

blaze 1You can’t do that with DVDs either…. after 15 years since they came out can you?

Mateo: Not really… there are some numbers – nothing consistent, but as a filmmaker, I’d like to know if say my film got picked up by Netflix today and it’s out there and it’s been watched 1200 times… but that info would probably be in favor of the filmmaker so, until they’re obliged to do it, they say why share it. They’re running scared from the other direction, like net neutrality and broadband, and trying to figure out all that stuff. The last thing they’re going to do is kowtow to the artists.

Well with nearly 90% media consolidation, at least they should let us see the damn numbers.

Do you think the fact that there are so many different tribes creates a fragmented audience?  

Mateo: Yeah, there’s this assumption about Indians… and it’s similar to Latinos… so when people say Latino it’s such a non-specific term. What does a Hispano from northern NM… you know 10 generations – Spanish folk, European… have in common with say a Puerto Rican woman in Queens? They share a language and a religion in a general way but the stories are different. Everyone says they want to attack this trillion dollar Latino market but it’s not like one size fits all… it’s like saying we’re going to attack this trillion dollar European market… but there’s so many little tribes beyond the Navajos (in the northeast and in CA and the pueblos in NM)… different languages… dialects… creation myths.

On the other hand, I think there is a hunger for films like “Drunktown” in their authenticity… calmness, stillness… and is really about a place and not adulterated, and from a fresh storyteller. But there’s so much stuff out there. How do you get people to pay attention? That’s why we’re so happy about being picked up by Sundance International, because that’s going to get eyes on it internationally. Our model, in making films for under $3 million, is all about leveraging international, because they are buying and expanding… plus the pace of growth in those rural areas and far out places.

Kind of like internet radio – aggregating a lot of small audiences around the world into one of significant size?

Mateo: Exactly.

Sydney: There ARE universal issues, on a broad level, anybody can identify with… wanting to leave their small home town and then, with Natives whether you’re Lakota from South Dakota or say Cherokee from OK, and you grew up on a Reservation – there are certain things you can definitely understand even with the regional differences.

So do you think “Drunktown” would make a good TV show?

Mateo: I do. A lot of indie filmmakers are looking at TV now… thinking about the long form in terms of developing characters… and in some ways there’s a better chance for distribution of dramas… (plus – there are actual jobs for people above and below the line) Amazon is making a series, Netflix… Sundance is even doing a Native show. I saw them promoting it at the festival, about life on a rez called The Red Road – Kiowa Gordon, who plays Julius in “Drunktown,”  has a part in it. Also, NM has increased the rebate from 25 to 30% for episodic TV because of the success, of Breaking Bad.

None of the self doubt, about Native Film’s small niche in a glutted market, fazes Sydney – she’ll likely be one, of the female filmmakers coming up, who will assure that the infamous glass-ceiling, will be long gone, by the time she’s done shooting. Her feelings on the new distribution platforms for films:

Sydney: I think things like the Internet and VOD are a great opportunity. Now everyone can tell their story, but this makes you need to stand out, and tell a really good story. This gives truly original content a good chance to be successful.

At the press conference, Redford said. “Our job and our role are to create a space and platform to bring new voices to the world.” Chad and Mateo have been to that space and taken well advantage of the platform before and, with Andrew Herwitz’s Film Sales Company, in their corner, Drunktown’s Finest will surely sell into all the territories, and screen in all the theatres, and platforms it should. Don’t sweat the Oscar Snub, Mr. Redford, by enabling Drunktown’s Finest and creating the Native Cinema support program, you’ve done a man’s job.

THE STATE OF NATIVE AMERICAN FILMMAKING

Native filmmaking – what’s going on these days?

Sydney: There are filmmakers working like Harjo from OK, like Navajo Blackhorse LowAndrew MacLean from N. Alaska… and then there’s digital filmmaking that’s starting to creep on to the rez and rural Communities – I’ve  seen stuff that middle schooler’ s and high schooler’s are doing with film – they have a much better grasp of the media… so digital cinema levels the playing field a little bit more. I could see a lot more happening in the near future.

NATIV 1 sterlin-harjo-sundance--providedWho are some other Native filmmakers we should look out for, beside yourself, a member of the Chikasaw Nation?

Chad:  Well there’s Sterlin Harjo of course. There’s my buddy Blackhorse Low – a Navajo guy, he’s here in NM, really talented.

How about Randy Redroad?  

Chad: He’s making movies with Heather Rae (who directed Trudell and was a former head of the Native Program at Sundance – she also produced a film that was at SXSW this year, ‘I Believe in Unicorns’). I think he just directed a film down in FL maybe six months ago… he kind of went away, but I know he was writing, and now I think he’s working with Heather and her husband. Randy Redroad’s a very talented filmmaker.

NATIV 2 what-we-do-in-the-shadowsIn your mind who are the Native film luminaries today?

Mateo: Well, just hanging out, at Bird Runningwater’s, was Taika Waititi, whose Boy was a standout at the 2010 Sundance Fest – his film was the largest grossing film of all time in New Zealand and it’s just a little Indie… he’s Maori and actor Jemaine Clement, familiar to American audiences from the HBO series Flight of the Conchords, starred in Waititi’s vampire film at this year’s fest…  Sterlin Harjo had one there and there’s Chris Eyre… still the most successful of Native Auteurs… and for over a year now, he’s been the chair of the Moving Image Department, at the Santa Fe University of Art & Design (formerly College of Santa Fe until a few years ago). One upcoming younger director Ryan Begay is Déné, who’s also an actor with a small role in the movie, and he just wants to make action/horror films, with non-native themes.

There were 4 Native films at Sundance in 2014 – Freeland’s Drunktown’s Finest, This May Be the Last Time, a documentary by director Sterlin Harjo, whose film Barking Water  was a 2009 Sundance selection. In This May Be the Last Time, Harjo starts out investigating his grandfather’s mysterious 1962 disappearance, and ends up on a journey through history, as documented, in the songs the Seminole people sang, on the Trail of Tears, and continue to sing today. What We Do in the Shadows, a vampire comedy, brought a New Zealand and Maori element to the Native and Indigenous Program. Another film from Turte Island, Wakening, was a short about a Cree wanderer, set in a post-apocalyptic near-future, by Canadian Cree/Metis director Denis Goulet.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary and rooted in, the recognition of a rich tradition of storytelling and artistic expression, by Native American and Indigenous peoples, Sundance Institute’s Native American and Indigenous Program- Bird Runningwater(Mescalero Apache) Director- operates the Native Forum, at Sundance Film Festival, as well as the Native Lab Film Fellowship and the Native Producers Fellowship, established for emerging Native American/Alaska Native/Native Hawaiian filmmakers. The program has also established filmmaker labs in New Zealand and Australia. Four projects are selected each year for the Fellowship program. Some past Sundance Institute Native American and Indigenous Program alumni include: Aurora Guerrero (Mosquito y Mari); Chad Burris (Barking Water); Sterlin Harjo (Four Sheets to the Wind) and Sydney Freeland (Drunktown’s Finest).

Smoke_SignalsSince its beginning, Native American filmmakers have been involved in the Institute, including Larry LittleBird (Taos Pueblo) and Chris SpottedEagle (Houmas Nation). Following President and Founder Robert Redford’s original vision, the Institute has remained committed to supporting Native American artists. From Sundance Institute’s first support of Greg Sarris(Coast Miwok) Grand Avenue, at the June Screenwriters Lab in 1992, to Andrew Okpeaha MacLean (Iñupiaq) winning the 2008 Sundance Film Festival’s Short Filmmaking Jury Prize for his film Sikumi, the Institute has established a rich legacy of work. Past filmmakers and their projects supported include Sterlin Harjo, director of the Spirit Award-nominated Four Sheets to the Wind and the follow-up film Barking Water; Academy Award-nominee Taika Waititi, who gained support for his feature debut Eagle Vs. Shark and his follow-up film Boy; Billy Luther‘s award-winning film Miss Navajo; and Blackhorse Lowe’s Shimasani. Over the course of its history, the Sundance Film Festival has showcased a range of work by Native and Indigenous filmmakers—including dramatic films like, Sherman Alexie’s The Business of Fancydancing, Chris Eyre’s Smoke Signals, Rachel PerkinsOne Night the Moon and Bran Nue Dae, documentaries like Heather Rae’s Trudell, and Merata Mita’s Hotere.  Forthcoming projects include Julianna Brannum’s Ladonna Harris: Indian 101, Andrew Okpeaha MacLean’s On the Ice, and Billy Luther’s Grab.

The annual Native Forum is a hub for the international Indigenous film community. It offers a program of panel discussions, filmmaker discussions, and networking events that provide opportunities, for Indigenous filmmakers to share their expertise and knowledge, with each other, and the larger independent film community. Sundance recently launched a new Native Producers Fellowship sponsored by Time Warner, which will identify two Fellows and support their attendance at the Film Festival in January, for the Native Forum, and at Sundance Institute’s Creative Producing Summit in the summer.

There are at least 20 highly credible working filmmakers listed above. There are at least 20 decent size Native tribes in the U.S. and the number of smaller tribes, on the North American continent, is at least a couple hundred – probably more. Rural population, in the world, is at least a billion. A disconnect between the size of this potential viewership and the quantity of content produced that tells their stories, clearly exists. Even for Black, White and assimilated Americans, the issues of out of control over development, the outdoors and environmental deterioration, are of critical importance. If all the world’s Reservations and Tribal Lands were left as mostly untouched, underdeveloped and rural land, forests, lakes, hills, deserts, etc… we would all breathe better.

chris eyre 2

Chris Eyre on-set

Redford and Sundance’s support of Native people and their storytelling resources resulted from far more than his huge bleeding heart…the relation between the lives and stories of Native and Indigenous peoples, the modern illogical destruction of our environment and all that can get in the way of senseless commercial development… nearly always to the benefit of wealthy and/or ruling elites… is one that is overwhelmingly symbiotic. In addition, these cultures and their stories offer a great deal of historical and alternative vistas plus unique and spiritual qualities, that can expand the range of knowledge and collective consciousness, of mainstream American experience,  and all the other so-called advanced developed societies, in the world today. It may well be a Western legend that, Redford took the first extra $500 he earned, in his late twenties, to buy a couple of pristine acres, in the mountains of Utah, with no intention of any serious development… but it is a fact, that he has often, by himself, fought well heeled and well connected Utah developers and their projects – and prevailed. It is also true that he had the cohunes to visit Leonard Peltier, in prison, in hopes of developing a way to get him released… and during the Indian turmoil of the 1970’s and 1980’s, he put both his own time and resources, into several film projects, confronting those controversial issues.

I hope that, the Sundance TV series The Red Road, will be produced with high production and artistic quality… and that the stories evidence truth and genuine integrity and, of course entertain… generating serious traction towards developing significant new audiences for these rarely seen stories… and that the series is not, yet another outlier. Personally, I intend to see every one, of the above listed projects, I can get my hands on.

In the interest, of ethnic background accuracy, and its impact, on this article’s perspective, H.S Bayer was born Jewish – a rather large, yet fairly widely dispersed Tribe… one frequently mislabeled as a very small Race – with a chip on its shoulder. Considering that racism is, nearly universally accepted as, the least politically correct behavior a person or group can exhibit… while tribal elimination probably doesn’t even make the top 50 on the list of politically incorrect activities… it is no wonder that my tribe, and our society in general, makes little effort to dispel this myth. Bayer is also the Editor and Publisher of Indie Film Reporter and its predecessor, Film Festival Reporter.

 

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