Interview: David Spaner – Shoot It!: Hollywood Inc. and the Rising of Independent Film @ Strand Bookstore – Sept. 19, 7:00 PM

Shoot It!: Hollywood Inc. and the Rising of Independent Film is a revealing history of how Hollywood, with its eye on the bot­tom line, lost its ability to support the work of creative filmmakers; it is also a passionate portrait of the independent filmmakers who have risen up to fill the void—the great movies being made outside the system. Scores of interviews include Mike Leigh, Gus Van Sant, Miranda July, Park Chan-Wook, Ken Loach, John Sayles, Sally Potter, Lili Taylor, Tom DiCillo, and Susan Seidelman.

While the studios envisage a generic universe, repressing local film cultures along the way, talented independents continue to tell local stories with universal appeal. This book is a celebration of those determined filmmakers who, despite it all, overcome every obstacle and just shoot it! In Shoot It!, they’re part of an anti-studio resistance that links 1920s union organizers, blacklist victims of the 1950s John Cassavetes, the French New Wave, the New Hollywood counter-culture, feminist directors, New York punk bohemians, method actors and international filmmakers.

Although the civil-rights movement was beginning its battle with segregation as Shadows was shot, the movie’s groundbreaking interracial relationships weren’t the ensemble’s focus of discussion, but seemed a natural extension of the characters under development. ‘Did I think people needed a lesson?’ recalled Goldoni. ‘I certainly did. Did I think the film was a lesson? I had no idea. I was, in a funny kind of way, too involved in the making of it.’ Shadows was set in the hipster milieu Goldoni was comfortable with, and she threw herself with abandon into making movies, Cassavetes-style.” – from Chapter Five, The Cassavetes Group

Author David Spaner discusses and signs Shoot It! : Hollywood Inc. and the Rising of Independent Film at STRAND BOOKSTORE (828 Broadway) on Wednesday, September 19 @ 7pm

– The event includes a screening of John Cassavetes’ Shadows; the film’s star Lelia Goldoni will join Spaner for the Q&A.
– More Information & Tickets – HERE

We managed to meet up with David Spaner to discuss the book, international filmmaking, the NEW New York City and how the word independent is so much more then just a means to describe financial backing

Steve: A quote from the beginning of the book struck me where you refer to independent film as “movies made outside of the studio system and with a non-commercial sensibility”.  What I take from this definition is, as opposed to talking about independent as solely a means of financial backing, but rather as more of a mindset or ideology.  Are you looking at independent film as more then simply a means of financing?

David: I think you pretty well captured what I was trying to do with the book.  It was interesting because as I was starting the book I was at Sundance where someone came up to me and said “you better write that book quickly because pretty soon every film is going to be independent”. Independent originally referred more to producers than directors and, over the years, the focus has evolved from who produced to who directed. Originally though, it was any film made outside the big 8 studio system but over the years, with the rise of digital filmmaking, more and more films are now made this way.  So calling films independent can be somewhat meaningless, unless you add the idea that besides being outside the studio system there is also a non-commercial sensibility.  Say someone makes a horror movie for commercial purposes, self financed outside the system, does that give the film any more value than a studio film?  To me, this book looks at films made outside the studio system, but also films made with that kind of attitude.  Independent films are made by independent human beings.  Someone who thinks for themselves and isn’t controlled by a financier or producer.

S:  You look at the film industry as more of an artistic free expression, as opposed to a sole focus on the bottom line, or what you call in the book a “global target audience”.  Does this come from a personal interest in the power and capabilities of film as an expressive medium?

D: I didn’t write this book because I don’t like movies.  I wrote this book because I love movies.  I grew up watching old Hollywood films, many of which were really great.  Everything from the Warner Bros. gangster films of the 30′s & 40′s to method acting movies of the 50′s.  So part of the motivation for writing Shoot It! was to answer the question, why had studio movies gotten so bad, and when you look into that you find yourself looking at corporate power. You look at the history of good filmmaking, it is a history of movies made outside the system or, at the very least, in conflict with the system.

There have been rare periods in which a lot of commercial films have been good films.  One period I would say is the pre-blacklist period. When talking pictures came in, there were no screenwriting symposiums or film schools.  What you had is the studio system seeing money in talkies and looking for talented people to write and direct these movies, so they turned to New York and brought out all these great writers to Hollywood.  A lot of them had written in the theater of the day and were progressive politically, which the studios didn’t mind as long as they were making money out of it.  Over the next 15-20 years, those people were involved in everything from ‘Casablanca’ to ‘The Wizard of Oz’ to ‘Citizen Kane’.  Then there was a major strike in Hollywood in 1945-46 which virtually shut the city down with major militant confrontations occurring at the studio lots.  At this point studio heads signed on to the blacklist.  It wasn’t because “these people were leftist or socialist” but it was more like “these people are affecting our bottom line”.  A lot of the people brought out to make the films in the 30′s, the studio’s turned on them and I don’t think the studio’s have ever completely recovered from that, in terms of progressive politics, creatively or quality as a whole.

S: I believe that, over time, a certain template is developed for success.  With the template for turning profit purely a business model, it is difficult to break away.  What do you say about entertainment value though?  Where do you believe this falls in this whole discussion?  We can talk about film being this freely expressive medium but at its core film is a medium which exists by providing escape.  I think that this is the only place in the studio vs. indie argument where a case can be made for the studio system.  Escape is desired by the consumer and one thing the studios are still good at is providing this mindless escape.  Do you think the debate of entertainment value is a valid one?

D: When I fell in love with movies as a kid it wasn’t because I was sitting and analyzing their social content.  It did have an affect on me, and later on I appreciated it, but the first experience I had was just being entertained and  falling in love with the movies.  That’s a huge part of it.  You could be the most progressive, enlightened person in the world in terms of your social views but if you are going to make a bad movie it’s going to be a bad movie.  What I’m talking about is movies that entertain, movies that are enjoyable but at the same time have some substance.  Movies that resonate with people because they actually touch people on a real emotional level.  For me now, part of the entertainment value of a movie is that it is real and it has characters that you can feel something for.  That isn’t separate from the film’s entertainment value.

S: I think that the most successful, well received and timeless films ultimately are the one’s which walk the balance between being entertaining/inviting/easily watchable, while also holding a message while straying from the norm.

D:  I agree. Take someone like Mike Leigh. He is a very socially conscious guy but his movies tend to be more about inter personal relationship.  He sees that as political in itself, so politics doesn’t necessarily have to be ‘Norma Rae’ standing on a table with a clenched fist, but it can also be Mike Leigh making movies about relationships that touch you and are great films.

S:  The book is broken into two sections with a very nice focus on international filmmaking.  On a personal level, I found it interesting that you talk about the Romanian New Wave.  There is a quote  which described the European filmmaking process as essentially being studio-less.  Can you explain a little about the filmmaking process in Europe in relation to the studio system in the US?  Would you consider their way more in tune with the independent sensibility or do you think it is an original entity, exclusive to international filmmaking?

D: To some extent it depends on how one defines independent.  If you look at the original definition of anything made outside the big 8 studios then virtually every movie in the world is an independent film.  There is nowhere (outside of Bollywood) that makes movies with such budgets and marketing anywhere else in the world.  The big difference between a European film, even one reasonably well funded, and a studio picture is that studios, because of their massive worldwide control of screens and worldwide distribution, a studio movie is going to get automatic distribution worldwide.  Where as an independent film is wondering how to get accepted to the Iowa City Film Festival.

I find it funny when the studios create these phoney “studio-indies” and call them independent when even those films have the same kind of worldwide marketing that the other studio films have.  So real independent films have to deal with that struggle and that includes European films.

It depends country by country.  There are some countries which have developed some great domestic film scenes with wonderful filmmakers and have access to a lot of theaters.  France is the best example of European filmmaking that has gotten considerable support from the government and has continually been successful over the years.  The interesting thing about France is that they have a plan where 11% of box office receipts goes back to local filmmaking.  This means that, for example, if you have ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ making $50-$100 million in domestic receipts, 11% of that number is reinvested into the filmmaking community.  Another example is Romania.  There are very few theaters there, but their filmmakers win awards at festivals around the world.

S:  I found it interesting that the Romanian marketing ploy was essentially going door to door, house to house screening these films with only word of mouth leading the way.  This has spread to the European and American film industries with all the new digital platforms where a filmmaker can bypass the conventional theatrical release route altogether.

D:  That brings us back to what you were saying about the book and how it is structured.  The first part is called “Why Are the Movies So Bad These Days?” which details the decline in the studio system and how as it becomes more corporate the quality of the output becomes worse.  I have a problem with the old moguls of Hollywood and a lot of their attitudes, but overall they at least loved the movies.  However, the corporate way studios evolved, they’re now small parts of giant conglomerates and are operated by business grads who only know that if they lose money they will lose their job, so if one blockbuster makes money then they will green light remakes, sequels, reboots to no end.

But this is not a negative book.  The second half of the book is called “And Why Are They So Good?”  The first half describes the history of the studios and their devolution but the second half points out that all over the world there are independent film communities rising up to fill the quality void and people proposing all sorts of solutions.  Digital production, people trying to create alternative theaters, people fighting for quota systems so that a certain number of local films have to be screened (as in South Korea).  People like Ken Loach have suggested some kind of nationalization of theaters which already exists in Norway to some extent.  I’m saying the positive side to the state of cinema is that the studios are in decline, making fewer movies with smaller audiences, and alternatively all the other forms of reaching people with independent ideas are growing.

S: That being said, what are your thoughts on the film model in emerging markets like China or India (outside of Bollywood) or South America where economies are growing exponentially and there is money which can be invested into artistic endeavors.  Do you think that these countries could become the next artistic centers by way of adopting the big budget studio model or are they still more inclined to go down the European route?

D: Their studios aren’t on the scale of the American studios, if they can even be called American now that in a lot of cases they aren’t even owned locally. There have been smaller studios in England, Italy, France and so on. In South Korea the industry is split between the local studios and the independent scene which is great there.  When I say that everything outside the American studio system, relative to the size of the American studio system, is in some ways independent, this doesn’t mean that people will not try and recreate the studio system in their own country, to make American style movies. It depends country by country but there are situations where a lot of the filmmaking in particular countries are bad imitations of already bad American movies.  Having said that, in all of those countries there is also independent filmmaking, with some countries independent scenes dominating their creative output.

You can’t say that it is just emerging in one way, but in terms of a worldwide pattern the films made outside the system are growing everywhere.  That’s what I’ve tried to do with the book.  You can look at Miranda July in Los Angeles, Joe Swanberg in Chicago, Andrew Bujalski in Austin, or Bruce Sweeney in Vancouver, Sam Fleischner and Susan Seidelman in New York, Hong Sangsoo and Kim Ki-duk in Korea, Mike Leigh and Sally Potter and Ken Loach in England.  Looking at these people individually they look isolated, but viewed as a group — which I try to do with my book — you see they share a sensibility that exists all over the world and they look like a movement.

S:  I think it has something to say, going back to the Romanian example, is that the social place in history works with the mindset of the people which ultimately dictates what strives more, the independent mindset or the “bottom line” specific one.  I know that in a place like Romania where there was a government controlled media for decades, once those kind of restrictions are lifted there really is no place to go but to talk about the things that couldn’t be talked about for so long.  That being said, I’m interested to see why you didn’t include a chapter on, for example, Danish Dogme filmmaking?

D:  There are about 25 countries which have really significant film scenes but I didn’t want to write an encyclopedia.  I didn’t want to do a book which included every independent filmmaker in the world and every country with an interesting scene, but what I did try and do is select seven countries which were representative of what is going on around the world.

S:  So let’s talk about your event at STRAND and filmmaking in New York City in general.  Now, I have not seen Cassavettes ‘Shadows’ but I wanted you to talk a little about the importance of ‘Shadows’ and why you chose this film to correspond with your book.  The way that I understand ‘Shadows’ is that the it combined the kick start to New Wave filmmaking techniques (permit-less, guerilla style, low budget, non professional actors, etc) with a progressive social message for the time (interracial relationships). Is this accurate in its description and how its sensibilities quickly spread to the French New Wave and so on?

D:  First of all, New York has always been the capital of independent film.  After the second world war, films like ‘On the Bowery’ and others started emerging out of the city and were wonderful.  New York has a vital connection to independent filmmaking for a lot of reasons, in particular its rich subcultures and progressive politics which has made it particularly receptive to outside-the-studios concepts beginning in the 1950s.

It was also the center of the method acting movement, which provided an acting pool that fit the raw, realistic, independent sensibility of the time.  People like Casavettes came from that acting tradition.  ‘Shadows’ was originally made when Cassavettes was teaching at his acting school and it was designed as a classroom exercise.  The students making it thought it was an exercise no one would ever see.  The star of the film Lelia Goldoni is shocked that it became a classic.  It was done completely outside the studio system, stealing shots all over the city.

The subject matter itself was revolutionary so it all added up to an amazing film and its production style became the template for independent film.  For many years, filmmakers had two routes, either studio or “Shadows’ style.  Anyone who hasn’t seen it and is interested in independent film should check ‘Shadows’ out.  It’s just a fascinating film to watch.

S:  One last question, I know you are based in Canada and I am not sure what your relation with modern New York City is, but you talk about its past as being such a center for diversity and progressive thought, sub cultures and things of that nature, but there still is no denying the fact that the construct of life in NYC at a day to day level has changed dramatically over the last decade+.  There was one quote in the book which described the $175 rents of the late 70s and how one could scrounge around for living expense while still maintaining the time and financial capability to engage in personal creative output.  In my view, making the time commitments towards these creative endeavors was more feasible in those days, as opposed to modern NYC.  The cost of living alone is so astronomical, do you find New York City, in the contemporary sense, as no longer being able to harbor true independent thought in filmmaking?  Do you think that the absurd financial obligations which have arisen directly hinders the pure artistic expression which made NYC a filmmaking center in the first place?

D:  As far as New York City goes, I have been sad to see the evolution of the West Village, for example.  It was not some nouveau hip neighborhood, but rather a century old place to escape to for rebels, poets, painters and everyone else who wanted to get away from straight laced, mainstream society.  The fact that it has become too expensive for bohemians and artists to live there is sad. Having said that, I still love New York City and too much of it is too great for developers to ruin overnight.  Even Manhattan still has wonderful enclaves.  Beyond Manhattan, there seems to be a lot of things going on in Brooklyn and even outside the boroughs.  My take on New York is that it is still magic to me and it still has enormous potential, drawing wonderful artist from all over the world to experience and create in.  I certainly would not count out New York.  Manhattan has changed but there are still all sorts of amazing things going on.  I mean, the whole Occupy movement began in New York City last year.  It’s not like the city is suddenly devoid of inspiring people all over the world.

I do have to say that, as a reflection of the whole online, digital age, artistic movements are becoming less centralized.  If you look at earlier filmmaking movements, they were always based in a city like New York or Paris, but if you look at the Mumblecore movement it had people in Seattle, Portland, Austin, Chicago, New York. Maybe the future of independent communities will be more decentralized, not as focused in a particular city as it was in the past, but a collection of people from all over who meet up at festivals or online.

One last thing, which ties into what you said about the commercial vs non-commercial movements around the world.  People go on about this genre and that genre, this kind of filmmaking and that, but filmmaking, like all art, really comes down to just two ways of doing it.  There are the people that do it for the money or people that are doing it for some larger reason.  That larger reason can be some social issue, or a personal emotional expression, any number of things, but it is those movies, done for the larger purpose, which have the potential to be great movies.

Purchase Shoot It! Hollywood Inc. and the Rising of Independent Film @ Amazon

 – Steve Rickinson


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