SURVival guide for aging independents

JON JOST might be considered the epitome of the aging, alienated and aggrieved independent film director. He is sitting in a borrowed New York apartment in hand-me-down clothes, doesnt have a place to live and has no visible means of support, other than a coming arts residency at the University of Nebraska. (NYT 1 Oct)Most people from my generation became teachers long ago, Mr. Jost said.

For the past four decades Mr. Jost, 63, has been making films on shoestring budgets with no-name casts that almost nobody outside of European film festivals ever sees. Perhaps the closest he has come to popular awareness was All the Vermeers in New York (1990). Since then he spent a decade in Europe toiling away in relative obscurity and then moved to Montana, where for four years he scrounged from garbage cans and lived with a single mother and her daughter in one room with no heat or running water.

His latest address was Portland, Ore., where he stayed at the house of one of the actresses he cast in his most recent film, Homecoming, which he is still trying to find a festival home for domestically forget about distribution. His income, such as it is, comes principally from selling DVDs of his work on the Internet.

I cant say Im happy not making a living after 40 years in the business, Mr. Jost said. Im not independently wealthy. Im independently poor.

Mr. Josts plight and perseverance constitute an extreme version of the mostly sideways career path followed by many of the generation of independent filmmakers who made a splash in the late 1980s and early 90s. When these directors, mostly now in their 40s and 50s, got started, the indie business was full of mom-and-pop operations with nickel-and-dime aspirations. Now the corner stores have been edged out by studio specialty divisions with far larger appetites and needs. Geoffrey Gilmore, the director of the Sundance Film Festival, said that in the early 90s an independent film was considered a hit if it grossed $1 million. Now its $25 million.

These elevated expectations have proved to be a problem for many (though not all) of the filmmakers who chose to stay close to their indie roots, as opposed to, say, Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects to X-Men) and Christopher Nolan (Memento to Batman Begins).

Today, to keep working, these filmmakers need stars.

The biggest change has been the casting, said Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol), 49. We had a free hand until Hollywood stars became interested. Its a huge problem. We used to be able to draw from a large pool.

The producer Ted Hope (American Splendor) seconded that notion. Just to get above $2 million you have to cast certain names, he said. Ten or 15 years ago you could make a film for $1 million and get a release. Specialized distribution has now become a science. Theyre not looking for singles.

Mr. Hope added that singles hitters like Hal Hartley (The Unbelievable Truth) and Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Doll House) have also had a hard time because their audiences have dropped away, though both have films coming up (Hartleys is Fay Grim, Solondzs is untitled). They might be stars in the indie world, Mr. Hope said, but audiences just wont flock to a Jim Jarmusch film for an anomie fix or to a Solondz movie for a dose of discomfort (or disorientation).

If I were starting out now, I would be a producer for the Internet, Mr. Hope said.

As he suggested, its tough for longtime producers of indie films too. Christine Vachon, who has worked for years with indie filmmakers like Mr. Solondz, Ms. Harron and Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven), said the struggle to get money for three of her most recent films, Mr. Hayness Im Not There, Tommy OHavers American Crime and Tom Kalins Savage Grace, was soul deadening. She said that some of this agony is a consequence of a conservative cultural climate that resists experimentation, a thesis she elaborates on in her new book, A Killer Life: How an Independent Film Producer Survives Deals and Disasters in Hollywood and Beyond.

Comparing the landscape now with the 90s, she said, it feels like a different cultural environment.

The director Finn Taylor (The Darwin Awards) pointed to a new aesthetic conformity. I feel like the indie genre has developed the same predictable subgroups that the studios have, he said. Screenwriters play it structurally safe: interconnectivity of stories, time shifts, following quirky characters.

Of course the movie business, no matter what the scale, is inherently unstable, and so are the people in it. Mr. Gilmore said that there is an indie equivalent of box office poison, a person who takes a script that has sex appeal and turns it into something marginal, esoteric.

Its also true that a directors interests change as he or she gets older; audiences may or may not follow, but the filmmakers vision is almost always guaranteed to require a larger canvas and more money.

If youre in your 40s, youre going to do a movie thats more expensive than what you made in your 20s, said Mr. Taylor, who is 48. The story you want to tell is bigger.

In some ways, then, independent filmmaking may be a young persons game. It is certainly easier when there is no family to support. And pulling together projects can be debilitating, especially now that budgetary thresholds, casting requirements and narrative norms must be met. Mr. Taylor said that one reason he has never had a family is that these demands are so all consuming.

Ive been engaged, had long-term girlfriends, he said. But making films has taken a lot of my time. Its hard to maintain a relationship. For me it would have been difficult to pull off the nuclear-family thing. My crew is my family.

Mr. Jost said, It precludes you from having a life so that you can make movies that might be of interest.

Mr. Taylor said he had managed to get by between projects with money he has been given by studios to develop scripts. The indie-film godfather John Sayles (Return of the Secaucus Seven) takes frequent jobs as a script doctor for other peoples films, just because they pay the bills. Other filmmakers, like the documentarian D. A. Pennebaker, eke out a living from the royalties on their earlier work. Mr. Pennebaker said that he and his partner Richard Leacock for years lived off the proceeds of their music documentaries Dont Look Back and Monterey Pop.

They kept us in business, said Mr. Pennebaker, now 81. Still do. How we made it through the 70s is a mystery to me. I dont know how we survived.

Some filmmakers have managed to find work between work, notably on cable. Alan Poul, a Six Feet Under producer, used to troll Sundance for quirky talent, and has hired, among others, Ms. Harron, Lisa Cholodenko, Rose Troche, Michael Cuesta, Miguel Arteta and Nicole Holofcener. The producer Tom Fontana has cherry-picked indie filmmakers for his television projects, including Homicide: Life on the Street and Oz.

I like doing television, said Ms. Harron, who added that she didnt know where she would be without it. Ive learned so much from it technically. I enjoy doing something that isnt mine. And its only a month.
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Hal Hartley (The Unbelievable Truth).
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Ms. Harron, who has directed Oz as well as The L Word and Big Love for cable television, said she enjoyed the process. Working within established aesthetic parameters, with actors who know their characters better than she does, is, she says, a corrective for directors ego.

Another filmmaker who has found both a lucrative and technically satisfying way to make a living outside his chosen profession is the documentarian Errol Morris. Over the past decade, in addition to winning a best documentary Oscar for The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara, he became what he describes as an unlikely avatar of American business. In other words he directs commercials for Apple, Toyota, AT&T and Miller Brewing while making movies about mole-rat specialists and Holocaust deniers.

Its indeed shocking, said Mr. Morris, 58. I only wish Id discovered advertising years earlier. Ive gotten into financial trouble over the years.

Mr. Morris is one of the few independent filmmakers who have benefited from the turns the business has taken over the past two decades. When he first started out, in the late 70s, there was hardly an audience for documentaries and very few theatrical distributors of them. At one point he stayed afloat by working as a private detective in New York. Now of course, in part because of the success of his films (The Thin Blue Line), documentaries are the darlings of the indie world.

Still, they wont make Mr. Morris rich. Advertising may. It has also contributed to his skill set and the content of his films. On a Reebok commercial he got to indulge his interest in shooting the world at alternate speeds by playing with a high-speed digital camera.

Will I use that in my next movie? he asked. You betcha.

Mr. Morris is also not above using locations required by his advertising work to further his documentary aims. He said that for The Fog of War he needed to shoot a B-29. The only one available was appearing at an air show in Rockford, Ill., so he asked his agent to get him a commercial in nearby Chicago. He did, for Quaker Oats, and the company has since become a steady client.

Some indie filmmakers also find advertising work in new media: Mr. Gilmore said he knew independent filmmakers who direct clips for cellphones and the Internet. Of course the indie business tends to attract the kind of people who do what they do precisely because they despise commercial filmmaking of any sort.

I have thus far resisted taking jobs in those venues, the 57-year-old director Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World) said via e-mail. Directing something that is to appear on a cellphone or MP3 player? he continued. I would be hard pressed to come up with something more hateful.

Almost none of these filmmakers, no matter how hard up they are, are willing to be a hired gun on a studio project. Unlike actors, who can spend a few months on a film and then move on, a director must remain committed for years, and many indie filmmakers believe life is too short for that. At the same time, the 40-something director John Curran (We Dont Live Here Anymore, the coming Painted Veil) conceded that as you get older, your definition of selling out changes. He added, Its nobodys ambition to remain independent. Its to work with a major studio while keeping your project intact.

Obviously the ideal would be to make a big score on a small movie. Ms. Vachon, perhaps reflecting the view of many of her filmmakers, is looking for that score, but on her own terms. In the meantime she and Mr. Hope and others like them provide constant motion, as she puts it, for aging filmmakers too stubborn, too proud and too passionate to give up.

Ive spent my life being left out, Mr. Jost said. Id like to stop, but its what I do.