INTERVIEW: Psychosis and Self-Distribution; Tim McCann Starts A "Revolution #9"
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE: 11.11.02) — As an emerging filmmaker, you can’t do much better than to have Jonathan Demme and Barbet Schroeder go to bat for you. OK, how about Roger Ebert? Or Variety? Or programmers at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals? New York-based writer-director Tim McCann has enjoyed support from all the above, but it hasn’t made his job any easier. As a new American filmmaker with a bracing singular vision, reflected in his 1995 debut “Desolation Angels” and his latest “Revolution #9,” McCann faces the obstacles of an industry that doesn’t look kindly on edgy, uncompromising tales of masculine angst and mental health neglect. McCann self-distributed “Angels” and will do the same on “Revolution #9,” a paranoid verite portrait of a young man’s schizophrenic break, starring newcomer Michael Risley and Adrienne Shelly. The film opens Friday in New York and Chicago.
A graduate of SUNY Purchase, once home to indie stalwarts Hal Hartley and Nick Gomez, McCann continues to set himself apart from the Hollywood-bound helmers that have defined most of U.S. indie film of late. While he’d certainly like more than $50,000 to make another film, it doesn’t stop him from pushing forward. (He’s already made a third feature, “Nowhere Man.”) After spending some time with McCann, it’s not difficult to discern where his intensity of vision derives. He is a passionate consumer of film, citing influences as diverse as Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni to B-movie mavens of the ’50s like Phil Karlson, Samuel Fuller, and Joseph H. Lewis, and has an acute sense of visuals, having served as DP for his films and others.
“If our culture is a pond,” McCann notes, “then it’s frozen over with corporate brain death.” It’s comments like these — part wry, part tragically true — that further distinguish McCann from the pack. indieWIRE contributor Anthony Kaufman spoke with the filmmaker about his process, psychosis, and the practicalities of self-distribution.
indieWIRE: So how is it that you managed to do everything on “Revolution #9” and remain sane?
Tim McCann: Because I can’t afford to pay anybody else who is better than me. And I love to shoot. It’s just pure fun for me. Also, being that it was a low budget production, you can’t have any element stand out and try to jump hierarchy, whether it’s the production designer spending too much or the DP spending too much time and trying to run the show, because it jerks around the whole production. So I was able to keep the priorities straight.
iW: In Nantucket, did you say that you were a better director than a writer?
McCann: People enjoy different parts of the process. I think it’s often what you enjoy most is what you end up developing. Writing is the most difficult part of the process. It’s not a social part. You’re using the creative side of your brain where all those depressive emotions sit, so you’re activating them and you’re banging your head against the wall and opening up to this void. And then you open it up to people and generally what you get is criticism. Writers kill themselves all the time; it’s not the healthiest part of the process. Writing a script is like cutting pieces of your skin off. It can get tough sometimes.
iW: Do you use a lot from the actors and improvisation?
McCann: Most of the improvisation on “Revolution #9” was limited to simple re-phrasings of the script. But those can really spice up the writing. In rehearsals, Michael and Adrienne and I had completely thrown away the script and done improvs, and I would tape-record them and listen to them and rewrite them, so a one-page scene would turn into a three-page scene. And we shot some of those. But in the editing room, the scenes had grown somewhat out of proportion with the rest of the film. So in the excitement of improving, we had taken our eye off the ball, so the scenes had to be cut out.
iW: Why do you think there aren’t more young directors like you who are willing to shoot something risky on a low-budget and just keep going to the next one?
McCann: Because there are not so many people as dumb and unlucky as I am. I read a quote from Soderbergh recently: “This is the easiest time to make a film and the hardest time to get a film distributed.” I teach at a program at SUNY Purchase, and I think the people there end up having more energy to go further, more tenacity, and more at stake in making a feature film than one might have if they had gone to a larger, more prestigious school with a larger student body. You’re very impressionable when you’re in college. So I guess it has something to do with that early brainwashing when I was at SUNY that stuck with me.
iW: What sort of advice do you give to your students about directing actors?
McCann: Not to become too involved with the actor. I think actors all want attention from the director and they all try to suck you into their web of psychodrama. If you get into a friendship with your actor, it can throw you off balance. Rehearsal is extremely important, but after that, on set, just a little coaching. That’s all you really have time for, a little steering here and there, making suggestions and not being confrontational.
iW: One of the reasons why I like the film is that there is this paranoid thriller aspect to it, but in many ways, it’s really a serious indictment of the current state of the mental health industry. How did you balance those two sides?
McCann: The first versions of the film had the conspiracy elements coming to life much more. I didn’t see “A Beautiful Mind,” but I imagine they were there, with these extra characters. I also had that kind of thing, so the audience would have been more thrown off more. But I figured that it would be best to suggest the metaphor of a schizophrenic’s mind relating to this corporate media assault that all of us undergo. I just wanted to keep the conspiracy elements as the subtext of the film, particularly because of the means that I had and particularly to avoid being corny.
iW: So you have become a distributor as well as a filmmaker?
McCann: Yeah, as a lot of filmmakers do.
iW: How frustrated are you that you have to do this again?
McCann: I’m thrilled to have made another film. I’m thrilled that there’s digital video out there and I’ve made a third film. My frustration is more in the changing of the culture, and in theaters being given over to 19-year-olds with 95 IQs. I think the homogenization of the culture creates a huge disconnect between the material that’s being sold to its audience. In order for people to flourish, there needs to be a connection with people and the media. My hope is that the Internet will eventually deliver on that wish. Because it’s not going to be Time Warner. Or Walt Disney.
iW: What’s the new film?
McCann: “Nowhere Man.” It’s similar to “Desolation Angels,” in that it’s about the self-destructive impulse of the male ego, but it’s a comedy. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be funny; otherwise, people will run me out of town. It was a 12-day shoot and it was shot on DV, with an Ikegami 7W. I have to admit it didn’t speed up the process too much. If everybody is in synch, a film camera doesn’t really slow you down too much.
iW: So why did you choose to shoot this one in DV?
McCann: This was a micro-budget film. Plus, it was kind of fun, and it will be fun when I color correct and manipulate it. I will have a lot more leeway now than if I had done it on film. It was basically the cost, roughly under $50,000, with a lot of borrowed services. My first film was for made like $27,000, so something’s going wrong.
iW: Do you have another film in the works?
McCann: Maybe a horror film. I’m developing a slate with Tim Perell [from Process]. I’ll be directing one and I’ll be involved with the others.
iW: Any new lessons learned about self-distribution?
McCann: Not really. Just the same old ones learned over and over again. As for the nuts and bolts of self-distribution, I’d say, if you do it yourself, a decent New York opening can be had for about $35,000. This would include the two full page/contest deals in the Voice or Time Out NY, postering, postcards, a publicist, press screenings, precious little New York Times ad space — it’s too expensive for an indie — and various other grassroots ploys. A trailer is up to you. If you can’t make a good one, don’t give viewers an excuse not to see your film. Two other keys: make your poster art big and bold, and try your damnedest to get the critics to a screening instead of having them see it on tape.
iW: Do you have any expectations around the release?
McCann: Personally, I’m hoping the reviews provide a little redemption. I think Risley really deserves notice. It’s his first lead, it’s a difficult role, and I think he is a revelation. It’s certainly one of Adrienne’s best performances, and much different from her other roles. And Spalding Gray is funny as hell. As for box office, of course, I’m hoping for a little bit of a run, but New York City is becoming so provincial — although still less provincial than the “independent film industry” — that I don’t know if it’s entirely possible to create a success born of word of mouth. And that’s even true now with big films. “Pretty Woman,” which made only $2 million or something on opening weekend, and went on to make over $100 million, I don’t think would survive today. Films live or die on the anticipation they create, not on the audience reactions. And this attitude trickles down and infects even the lowliest indie distributor.
I’ve talked to Hollywood directors who over the last 20 years or so have seen a tremendous change in test audience reactions. In the ’70s there was an adventurousness, an ability to accept something new and think about it. Now, if it’s unusual, then it’s wrong. It’s a knee-jerk reaction. If our culture is a pond, then it’s frozen over with corporate brain death. I wonder if the intelligentsia, or counter culture, can ever again find their way up for air. That’s why I’m only doing genre stuff from now on. Unfortunately, any indie filmmaker who makes a film about something they truly care about may be setting themselves up; you’d probably be better off doing a disingenuous romantic comedy, or a kitschy horror film. Or something with the word “wedding” in the title. That stuff has a much more familiar smell.