Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Eugene Hernandez and Anthony Kaufman
January 8, 2001 2:00 AM
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FUTURE 1: Jason Kliot and Joana Vicente, Open City Films/Blow Up Pictures

(indieWIRE/ 1.8.01) --"The cinema is an invention without a future," wrote early filmmaker Louis Lumiere in 1899. More than a century later, the quote -- and its eerie foresight -- reappears as the mantra for Blow Up Pictures, the digital production arm of Open City Films. Announced at the Sundance Film Festival in 1999, just a week after Peter Broderick's Next Wave Films announced its own DV division called Agenda 2000, Blow Up -- and its founders Jason Kliot and Joana Vicente -- have been at the forefront of the digital filmmaking movement ever since.

While Open City has recently produced such celluloid titles as Tony Bui's "Three Seasons," Miramax's teen flick "Down to You," and the upcoming "Love the Hard Way," Blow Up's resume includes such intriguing films as Miguel Arteta's "Chuck and Buck," Daniel Minahan's upcoming Sundance premiere, "Series 7," Alan Wade's "The Pornographer," and the recently shot "Nine Scenes About Love," directed by Peter Mattei. When speaking with Kliot and Vicente, though, one gets the sense that Blow Up is where the true excitement lies, evoking the spirit of Cassavetes and Godard for a new millennium, where -- as Blow Up's web site declares -- "the revolution will be digitized." But lets not forget Roberto Rossellini either, whose 1946 neo-realist classic "Open City" forms the inspiration for Vicente and Kliot's mainstay company.

The producing team -- who got their start as associate producers on "Welcome to the Dollhouse" -- have bridged the gap between Indiewood and digi-indies in just a few years. Where they -- and the industry will go next -- is anybody's guess. Kliot and Vicente spoke to indieWIRE's Eugene Hernandez and Anthony Kaufman about their fears and hopes for the future of independent film, and the evolution of aesthetics, crews, and the role of the director.

indieWIRE: So where do you two think independent film and specialty film are going as we enter this new decade?

"If you don't have distribution and you're not part of the cultural economy and you can't go toe to toe with the big boys, then you don't have an impact on the culture."

Jason Kliot: I think I have a utopic and a dystopic view of two possible forks in the road. My dystopic view, my fear, is that independent film will become a medium that people make cheaply and watch cheaply, that independent movies -- since they aren't the grand spectacle of large Hollywood movies which could become larger spectacles -- are going to be relegated to people beaming them to their computers, beaming them to their homes, watching them because they have a specific interest in a subject.

So I have this real fear of independent film becoming marginalized and becoming dot com-ized and becoming specialized to such a degree that it's basically where video art was 10 years ago. And people say, "Why are you spending half a million or a million dollars or $5 million on a digital movie or an independent movie? You can make them for $100,000 now." It becomes a hobby, because if you don't have distribution and you're not part of the cultural economy and you can't go toe to toe with the big boys, then you don't have an impact on the culture. And I'm very nervous about that. Now I don't really think that's going happen. I hope it's not going happen, I'm fighting as hard as I can. And Joana and I talk about this all the time for it not to happen. And I think the key there is to keep our sights large, to be saying to ourselves we are making movies for everybody; whether they choose to go or not is their problem. But we are making movies to be distributed theatrically, to be cultural events, movies that are part of the landscape of American culture.

In my utopic view, there is space for that. You have more and more film series like the Shooting Gallery Film Series that are showing across the country. You still have movies like "Blair Witch" or any breakthrough movie can take hold of American society for good or bad reasons and become part of the culture. And the plethora of digital distribution systems will only increase the number of audiences we have. So in a way, I'm saying two things. Where do I think and hope it's going go? I hope it goes towards the utopia view.

But I'm very concerned, because Joana and I keep feeling that the digital revolution, which we're clearly part of, is cheapening films. People are thinking of films as a project of theirs, a pet project. They're inexpensive; they're things that we do. And what happens when you start doing that is you start losing an economy of people who do this professionally. You can't sustain people. You know, if you make a movie for no money the first thing that goes is salary. And then you don't have professionals who know how to work on these movies anymore because they all have to go to Hollywood where they can make a real living. And you also have people who say, "Well, I'll make my real movies in film and my digital movies will be my little experimental works of art and we're back to the video art scheme. I'm very, very concerned about that, because that's one reason that we really focused with Blow Up and thought very very hard before we started the model of the company that we were going to pay people real salaries, not extraordinary salaries, but very solid, and we were going to work with professionals as much as we could and sometimes amateurs. But not because we want professionalism, far from it, but because we want the movies to be good.

iW: Joana, how do you keep the films, and the filmmakers I guess, from thinking small and thinking cheaply in the greater meaning of the word?

Joana Vicente: I think that's our primary concern. And basically, they [filmmakers] almost never even see the budget. They can wish for the moon and we'll try to get the moon if it makes sense for the movie. But what I think that's incredible with the digital medium is that we are doing much better films and more professional films than we would be doing, you know, like first films in 35 mm. It helps that we can convince people that are very experienced cinematographers or production designers to be working on these films. We were just doing two movies at the same time: this $600,000 movie that Peter Mattei was directing, and this $7 million "Love The Hard Way." We would go from one set to the other and every time we would get to "Love The Hard Way," every scene seemed like this is all a waste of money. There was no reason why we had three trucks of equipment. There was absolutely no reason why there were like a crew of 60 or 70.

"The way we're working with these small crews enables a filmmaker to work on as broad a canvas as any Hollywood filmmaker, and that wasn't ever available before."

We'd see all the money and everything that went into building the set and then we would have the exact same kind of set built, the exact same kind of professionalism going on, the same level of DPs, of production designers, of actors, and you had a crew of like 12 people that were incredibly focused on what they were doing, you had Peter with room to talk to everybody to let everybody in all the decisions that he was making. And it was like everybody was making the film, everybody was giving 200% to make the film happen. The actors had time to act. They were like, "When do we get a break?" So I feel like the good thing is that all of the sudden we can do these films for below $1 million or below $2 million and we have the luxury that Hollywood has. We can work with the actors until it's right, we can edit the movie and feel that the end is not right or something is not working and we can do re-shoots like Woody Allen has.

Kliot: But talking about the future, the way we're working with these small crews enables a filmmaker to work on as broad a canvas as any Hollywood filmmaker, and that wasn't ever available before. So we have to keep thinking on that broad canvas. You know these little tools have to now be levers to attain another level of filmmaking that we never had before and they can be used for that.

Vicente: When you're doing a below $1 million film, 35 mm, and you have car shots, for example, everyone will be saying, "It's a big deal," and "It'll take 3 hours," and "We need the camera car," and, "Let's cut the sequences from the movie." And then all the sudden, you have a small camera and you really can do whatever you want. You can be inside the car, outside the car, put the camera on the hood of the car in five minutes. So in a sense it enables filmmakers in a way that normally they couldn't do on their budget.

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