Most people in independent film know Dan Schoenbrun as Kickstarter’s Film Outreach Lead. A large part of his job is helping filmmakers learn more about crowdfunding and guiding them through how to run an effective campaign. Schoenbrun has a front row seat to what a long and grueling process independent filmmakers go through to get their films made and in 2014 he decided he wanted to experiment to see if there was a way he could free up some of his favorite filmmakers. The idea was to create a collaborative film where directors could sketch, play and experiment.
He asked five New York based filmmakers – Lily Baldwin ("Sleepover LA"), Frances Bodomo ("Afronauts"), Daniel Patrick Carbone ("Hide Your Smiling Faces"), Josephine Decker ("Thou Wast Mild and Lovely"), Lauren Wolkstein ("Social Butterfly") – to write down a brief description of one of their dreams and then have one of the directors in the group adapt it into a film. In the beginning, Schoenbrun didn’t even want to apply the pressure or expectation that the five resulting short films would be something that could be combined into a feature film. This summer though when the five directors shared their work with each other, it became clear there was enough connective tissue to weave a feature film together. The result is "collective:unconscious," which premieres tonight in the narrative competition section at the SXSW Film Festival.
Indiewire recently asked Schoenbrun and the five directors to reflect on the process and explain how this unique collaborative process actually worked.
Schoenbrun: For years I’ve wanted to do a collaborative project structured like this one — where I would curate a group of talented, like-minded filmmakers to work together on films that felt both episodic and cinematic. Framing it around dreams felt like a natural fit since so many of my favorite filmmakers dabble in surrealism.
The most important thing to me was to choose nice people. I’d worked in film long enough to see how stressful filmmaking tended to be at low budget levels, so I knew that this was going to only be a good experience if I brought together a group of generous, genuinely nice humans who were down for an adventure. Some of the filmmakers I asked to participated were people I knew quite well going in, and others I had just met once or twice. But I was careful to choose folks who exuded good energy and seemed like they would be good collaborators.
I also made sure to curate a group whose work towed the line between narrative and surrealism, and who made work that was somehow reminiscent of the dream state. Some of the filmmakers’ previous work is more grounded and less surrealist than others, but they all have such a strong grasp of tone, and an ephemeral, ambiguous quality to their storytelling that calls to mind a dream.
Finally, I thought it was important to curate a group of filmmakers who were all based in New York, so we could actually work together in person. That one didn’t work out so well, as I quickly learned that trying to corral five busy, working filmmakers into one place is a nearly impossible task. The six of us collaborated closely, but we only were actually all in the same room once.
Bodomo: I was just coming out of making a branded video for a big company with a big name involved. And the experience was disheartening. After making two passion projects in my "voice," it seemed the easy trajectory was to sell that "voice" to brands that care not for creativity. So when Dan came to me with the idea for “collective:unconscious,” it was easily an opportunity to experiment, and do it with filmmakers I respected.
Carbon: This idea from Dan came at a perfect time for me. I was in between projects and this kind of wildly creative and essentially risk-free experiment was exactly the kind of thing I was looking for.
I was completely thrilled. This idea of "dreamspace" gives me permission to play, push the edge of play without needing to stop myself AT ALL from being too weird, which I find myself doing more that I like to admit. It’s a space I’ve been exploring in my work already — and with "collective:unconscious" I felt like I could just go balls-to-the-walls with it, an unabashed dreamer twirling my baton.
Schoenbrun: When I first started asking the filmmakers to participate, it was really just that basic idea of adapting dreams. I knew that launching the Kickstarter campaign would suddenly make everything feel very real. We launched the Kickstarter in November, and used it as an opportunity to garner a lot of attention, both from the press, our friends, families, and the extended filmmaking community. So many filmmakers I respect backed the project on Kickstarter, and really seemed to connect with the idea of making weird stuff for the sake of making it. I like to brag about the fact that our average Kickstarter pledge is way below average, because our core support network was dirt-poor filmmakers.
The filmmakers and I purposefully didn’t discuss the dreams themselves until after the Kickstarter campaign was over. Since the Kickstarter helped determine the budget, I wanted the filmmakers to only start thinking about their adaptations once they knew the budget limitations they had to work with. That way they wouldn’t get too attached to any ideas that they wouldn’t be able to pull off financially.
The filmmakers received their budgets right after the Kickstarter campaign ended. And then in early 2015, I had each one send me a "dream statement," a reflection about a dream that they had had at some point in their life. I set a really small word count for the dream statements (200 characters, just longer than a tweet). I didn’t want the dream statements to feel too detailed or prescriptive, as I worried that would be limiting for the filmmakers. I wanted the dreams themselves to be jumping off point to something more expansive.
Decker: I write down my dreams every morning and it’s wild to write because as I write, I am also in the process of forgetting the dream, so each word captured is eliminating another word; in the time it takes to write one down, another is forgotten. My dream writings are often these unfinished memoirs– pointing at something that I can’t quite place. Lily’s dream, which I adapted, felt the same way– full of spaces in between for me to fill in and imagine.
Wolkstein: My initial reaction was that this is the most bizarre dream I have ever heard. Then, I sat on it for several weeks because I didn’t know how I could adapt it on such a miniscule budget; the dream involved a volcano that erupts during gym class! (Sorry, spoiler.) But once I freed myself from thinking of it on a literal level, I was able to adapt the dream of the volcanic eruption into what it means as a metaphor for our bodies changing in high school. Then, once I thought of it that way, I was able to build and create the two main characters, the Coach and the Student, from the description of the dream that I was given.
Carbon: Given the difficulty I had when choosing my own dream to submit, I had zero expectations of what I might be receiving back. I initially felt that my assignment was too fully-formed, with too much of a narrative baked-in. As I sat with it however, I was able to dig beneath the surface and pull out certain keywords that lead to themes and skeletons of characters that I could then work with in my own way. The resulting film is very far removed from that initial sentence, but I feel that the central theme and the core conflict are intact if you look hard enough.
Baldwin: I really wanted to take the gory aspect out of "parasite" (one of the words in the dream statement), and decided to treat it conceptually as a "swallowed truth that had been festering." I got pretty intense about researching parasite movement — lots of youtube rabbit holes of parasites coming out of heads and such — which I then used as physical impulses for the dancers (yikes) and the choreography. I asked myself — Can something horrifying and grotesque also be glorious and ornate? I wanted to prove this was possible — and that all are sides of the same coin.
The creative process for this particular project came from a very organic and raw form. I made the decision to just create something that was not logical in anyway but rather built on images and visceral emotions first and foremost. I wanted to see if a film that I originated purely from images and visual compositions would work for an audience, and have a lasting effect on them even though they don’t quite understand it on an intellectual level.
Carbon: Watching these films for the first time was thrilling. No two of these films are alike in any way, but the experience of watching them together somehow manages to feel cohesive.
Wolkstein: [When I first saw all the films, I thought] we have something really unique and original here, and all the films are connected in ways we never imagined or thought they would be. There was a natural flow from one film to the next upon viewing them all in a row, so we were determined to have the viewing experience a cohesive one, and in one sitting, in order to show the common themes and threads in all of our dreams.
Baldwin: It was thrilling. I felt like my mind stretched. Everyone was so damn rigorous and so distinctly different. When I saw my dream living through Josephine Decker’s film, it was pretty moving — because my dream no longer belonged to me, and I felt like something that started in me got to be reincarnated through someone else, and I like this kind of blurry digestive creative space — which is actually how I think life is. How’s that for a manifesto!
Carbon: The project was a much-needed reminder of why we all started making films in the first place. When you take away the need to appeal to a certain audience, or the unspeakable pressures that money bring, you are left with pure creativity. This project made it feel like we were all kids again running around with our friends. It was a real honor to be a part of such an amazing group of artists
Schoenbrun: The other big takeaway for me is that there is a real power in community in filmmaking. The amount of attention that this project has been able to garner because of its collaborative nature has been remarkable. There is a really potent feeling of excitement around the film that I don’t think would have existed if each short was presented separately. I hope that by working together we’ve been able to get our work out to a larger audience than each one of us would have been able to find in a vacuum.
And of course I hope that the filmmakers found this experiment therapeutic and empowering. Making art films in this country and finding audiences to watch them can be exhausting. There’s just not a lot of infrastructure out there to support the making of weird shit. But I want to watch weird shit, and I refuse to accept that I’m the only one who feels that way. Viva la weird shit!!
"collective:unconscious" premieres at 6:30 tonight in the Vimeo Theater in Austin, Texas.