INDUSTRY SPOTLIGHT: DV Approaches the Mainstream; InDigEnt's Gary Winick on the Digital Evolution
by Matthew Ross
“Cinema has always been marriage of technology and human talent,” said Francis Ford Coppola at his Lincoln Center gala tribute earlier this year. “And that will continue.”
(indieWIRE: 07.31.02) — Gary Winick couldn’t agree more with that assessment. The producer/director is one of the founders of Independent Digital Entertainment (InDigEnt), the New York-based digital production outfit that in the past two years has helped commercial potential for inexpensive DV films. At the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, Winick picked up best director honors and a $5 million sale to Miramax for “Tadpole” (currently in theaters) while another InDigEnt project, Rebecca Miller‘s “Personal Velocity,” took home the grand jury and cinematography prizes as well as a distribution deal with United Artists (which will release the film this fall).
InDigEnt, which was created in 1999 by Winick, attorney John Sloss and IFC Productions‘ Jonathan Sehring and Caroline Kaplan, has used a pared-down model of quick shooting schedules and low six-figure budgets to produce new work at an impressive clip. In addition to “Tadpole” and “Personal Velocity,” the company is currently in post-production on Alan Taylor‘s “Kill the Poor” and Peter Hedges‘ “Pieces of April.” For his monthly industry spotlight column, indieWIRE senior editor Matthew Ross caught up with Winick at InDigEnt’s Chelsea headquarters during the Tribeca Film Festival in May.
indieWIRE: Having had a great deal of experience shooting bigger 35mm films, then going to DV, what do you feel has been the biggest benefit to you from DV? What has it afforded you, and what is it lacking?
Gary Winick: There’s always been this idea that you don’t finish films, you just stop. And with DV, it’s just really hard to stop because you don’t have to. “Tadpole” is an excellent example of that. Because the equipment is portable, and I own it, the actors are so accessible, and I shot it in New York. I was constantly reworking stuff. And that’s really a wonderful way to work as an artist, but it really will drive you out of your mind. I obviously can’t do that in 35mm., I can’t just shoot something and then two weeks later decide I want to rework it because I won’t be able to.
iW: Have you been able to do that a lot at InDigEnt?
Winick: Yeah, I do that all the time. “Tadpole,” like I said, was shown at Sundance, and since Sundance I reworked a lot of stuff because now I’m going to negative, and once I go to film negative I know I can’t rework it. So I had this little window to just keep shooting some more stuff, and I did.
iW: When you started InDigEnt in 1999, DV was this new technology that had aesthetic and philosophical values associated with it. Since that time, how do you feel digital has changed, both in terms of its technical capabilities as well as how it’s perceived?
Winick: It’s an interesting question. Obviously the technology changes so rapidly so the quality becomes better. Just look at what George Lucas is doing. I wanted this movement to be like the French New Wave, in which directors told different types of stories and used the language of cinema a little differently, with smaller cameras on real locations. I got inspired by the Dogme 95 movement because I felt they were starting to tell the types of stories and tell stories in a different way, and I was hoping at InDigEnt we would do that.
I think we have done things in an experimental way that’s been successful. I think we are pushing the medium. But is it out there in the mainstream? Not yet, because obviously these stories unfortunately don’t lend themselves to a big market. But I think for filmmakers and people who go to films and want to see something different, we have definitely achieved that goal. I think DV has accomplished that with a lot of other films, not just the projects InDigEnt has made.
In terms of the industry’s approach to the commercial aspect of DV, I’m not sure what will happen. I don’t know if “Tadpole” will make the breakthrough. I mean, certainly in terms of the sale, we did that. Our little movie that was made for a couple hundred thousand dollars sold for $5 million, and that proved to people that DV can be treated like any other film sale. And that’s been a hopefully good thing for DV. But in terms of box office, we’ll see. “Anniversary Party” for me was a big achievement because it was the first film where you had movie stars in a DV film, and I think audiences really didn’t distinguish between DV and 35mm, and I think the film did really well. I don’t know if it became a box-office hit, but I think for the type of film it was, it did really well at the box office. I think it’s just a matter of what type of story you tell on DV that will determine its crossover.
iW: “Tadpole” has a more commercial tone than the Dogme movies. It seems to me that you could have raised the money to shoot this on film. Did you ever consider doing that?
Winick: Well, InDigEnt is my company. I was allowed to direct one film at InDigEnt, so this film was designed for InDigEnt. And I guess you are right, I don’t think it was designed for DV, the medium, so much. I had been wracking my brain with the writers trying to come up with a story that would be perfect for the medium. And then finally we sort of threw up our hands and said, look, this is the story we want to tell, and since it’s totally character-driven based on the actors and the writing, that shooting it on DV won’t necessarily hurt the film. It might even enhance it with the intimacy of the performances. I could have shot “Tadpole” on 35mm, and would it have been a better film? I don’t know. Would I have gotten that cast? I don’t know. Part of the reasons for the cast wanting to be in the film, besides the material, was that they were all interested in working in DV, which I presented it to them as this hybrid between the theater and film. And also, I only need you for two weeks and not two months.
iW: I’ve never heard DV described as a hybrid of theater and film.
Winick: Actually it was Sigourney Weaver who inspired me to phrase it that way. But I think it’s well-put for a couple of reasons. One is that you can let the scene keep rolling; you can let the scene unfold like you would in theater. The actors can just perform. In certain scenes, I have multiple cameras going where actually the scene is done once they perform in it and I don’t have to go around for additional shots or anything like that, so it would just unfold like it would in theater. And then the other thing is, because you don’t have the heat of the lights and the stands and the crew people and everyone sort of navigating around a set, you really are in a natural setting, a set like you would be in theater where you’re not obstructed by apple boxes and c-stands as you are trying to do your scene. I haven’t directed enough theater to know the intimacy that is created there, but obviously it’s wonderful. Cassavetes was doing it with the small cameras and an ensemble of actors.
iW: Is Cassavetes a big influence on you?
Winick: Yeah, definitely. And when InDigEnt was started, it after we all saw [Thomas Vinterberg‘s Dogme 95 film] “Celebration.” When “Celebration” came out, we were all inspired by the honesty and the intimacy and didn’t care how it looked. And remember, it was a one-chip camera at the time. And then I thought about Cassavetes, how he would have approached his films if DV were around, and how he was trying to do that back then in his way. So that’s where the InDigEnt came from.
iW: The DV films being produced and released now vary quite a bit in terms of the approach to the image. What do you feel the best DV cinematographers have figured out?
Winick: It’s the attitude. It’s the attitude of everyone making that film, but the cinematographer has to go in with the attitude of “Hey, with these cameras, I have to work harder than I would work on a 35mm film because I have less control. Because these are cameras I can buy at The Wiz that basically want to do everything for me. So I always have to make sure that the focus is on manual, that the shutter is on manual, that everything is on manual each time.” You know, you have the camera on standby for two minutes and it turns off. It’s programmed to be idiot-proof and user-friendly for everyone, for our grandparents. So when a cinematographer comes on board, he or she has the hardest job out of anyone making a DV movie, because the images are harder to control on DV, not only because of the video elements, meaning that the exposure, the latitude, and what it does with light, but also from the fact that we’re using “pro-sumer” cameras. That’s why cinematographers that come from a documentary background have an easier time with DV because there’s less crew. There’s this idea that they have to deal with the camerawork and all of the stuff that documentary filmmakers deal with, and they bring that and it goes well.
iW: Do you think that now that digital has gotten a bit more of a firm footing in the industry, filmmakers are changing the way they look at individual projects, that maybe people are going to be making films they wouldn’t try to get financed on film?
Winick: That’s the big problem. With that said, the camera metaphor is a perfect example because it’s so easy to go out and shoot and press that button on and off, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get a good image. So the cinematographer has to work harder to get the good image. It’s the same thing with the filmmaker. Because it is so easy to go out and make a movie, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should just go out and make movies. You should be more prepared with DV than you are with 35mm film. You should be more prepared than if you were making a $50 million movie.
You have to be more disciplined because you have more freedom. And with that discipline, you can get freed up to try things and to do the stuff I was talking about earlier. But if I went in there and said, “Well, I’ll just wing it, it is DV, it doesn’t really matter. We can just walk in this location, they don’t care. And the actors can do it 100 different ways because it’s DV so they don’t have to work on the script.” Bullshit. That’s why I go after experienced filmmakers. Because of that discipline.