Taika Waititi and Don Hertzfeldt have made Oscar-nominated films, so why are they now making shorts with budgets less than $100? Because Mike Plante bought them lunch and challenged them to make a film for the exact cost of the meal. Plante, best known as CineVegas's director of programming, has commissioned fifty Lunchfilms to date, with ten currently in production and scheduled to debut in 2010 and 2011. The roster of filmmakers who have accepted Plante's meal deal runs from A (Cory Arcangel) to Z (the Zellner Brothers). This year Lunchfilms have screened at the Sundance Film Festival and AFI Fest, in addition to a host of microcinemas and college campuses around the country. In Spring 2010, the program will go on an extended screening tour with stops in Bellingham, Chicago, Duluth, Portland, and Seattle.
After the November 2, 2009 AFI Fest screening, Mike Plante spoke to indieWIRE about the origin of this unique short film series and the rules for the next short film project he's launching.
Note: all Lunchfilms are officially titled by their restaurant bill amount, although some have alternate titles.
iW: Obviously most of the filmmakers who made Lunchfilms could have scraped together thirty-odd dollars to make a short. Do you think they just needed someone to say, "Here, do it"?
MP: A lot of these filmmakers were already busy working on things, or they had ideas they never got around to doing, or they had footage they hadn't done anything with. I gave them an impetus.
Jem Cohen had footage that he projected behind a band live, and I gave him an excuse to make a film out of it ("$11.30"). Sharon Lockhart gave me an excerpt she didn't use from her feature "Pine Flat," and now that footage gets to be seen ("$74.79"). James Benning gave me a color test roll from his feature "Ten Skies," a 16mm, forty-second version of his entire feature ("$74.78"). And Braden King made the film "$35.00" aka "Home Movie" because he and his wife had been talking about making that film for awhile as an acting and shooting experiment. It's him, his wife, and his two kids in this terribly personal family drama. Some people I just catch in midst of their flurry. Martha Colburn makes a film every month or two, and I sort of just jumped into the process ("$36.66," aka "Myth Labs").
Since I work in the exhibition field, filmmakers feel that if I commission something, it will actually get seen. So the motivation I give is partly financial, thirty bucks or whatever, but also if you make this, somebody will see it; it will go on tour.
iW: Who was the very first person you dined with?
MP: James Fotopoulos ("$30.40"). We were at the New York Underground Film Festival, eating at some place that didn't take credit cards. He didn't have any cash. Filmmakers never have cash - or money at all! We've known each other for a long time, and I knew that he churns stuff out really quickly. So I said, "I'll pay, but you don't owe me. Instead of giving me another thirty dollar lunch, give me a thirty dollar film." And he said, "I'll have it done next week!" And then we wrote something down on a napkin, mostly because I was messing with him. We had both been bitching about something we had seen, so I challenged him to make a film that wasn't like that. And he did. He made a twisted, weird, avant-garde film.
Cam Archer ("$33.12") was the second one because he knows me and Fotopoulos, and was like, "Dude, I'll make something for lunch!" That one was a kind of reverse commission, but since then I made sure I never picked the people. I kept it natural. That's why there's such a mix: some people who are known in the film world, some known in the art world, a lot of people who are just doing interesting things and maybe have only done one film. It happened that we had lunch, we talked about ideas, and it just worked out. Some filmmakers take the napkin rules and budget super-literally, and others don't care. What is written on the napkins is inspirational, but the only real rule is make a film. Sure, it would be great to commission these in a way that was more thought out, but that would ruin the fun.
iW: Can you give us a preview of those films you've commissioned for 2010/11?
MP: Cory Arcangel is making one. And his might be hard because on the napkin I said he had to make the film in less time than the film's running time. That's because he's an artist who is always reprogramming Nintendos and stuff, so I thought maybe he'd write a code that would make a film. Some of the others are Paul Chan, he's a real art star ("$27.59" - Napkin rule: "Keep the dream alive."). Don Hertzfeldt ("$78.58" - "Film must contain: the wily Capybara, the beauty of the loneliness of the broken toenail, the body cast, and the plastic bubble"), he's an animator, although I told him he didn't have to animate it. Matt McCormick is going to make one ("$40.00" - "dare a model to do something. no tug boats. water is ok."). Taika Waititi ("$35.77" - "film must: be about noodles. have kids cussing."). In total, there are ten more to be made.
iW: In the thirteen Lunchfilms that showed at the AFI Fest, three were working the home movie angle. There was Bobcat Goldthwait's rapid-fire funny "$26.79" aka "Goldthwait Family Home Movies (40th Anniversary Edition)", Naomi Uman and Lee Lynch's Kodachrome colorful "$41.32" aka "Tin Woodman's Home Movie #2," and Braden King's gripping black and white domestic drama "$35.00" aka "Home Movie." Other than that, the films didn't seem to have any common link. Do you think there's a theme that unites the collection?
MP: Some films are completely hardcore art - Sharon Lockhart's single-take, ten minutes of a girl carving her name into a tree, photographed beautifully. Then there's Bobcat Goldthwait's super-hilarious fake commentary track over his real home movies - with Tom Kenny, voice of SpongeBob. It's all good. As long as each film does what it sets out to do, it works with an audience.
iW: You're ending the series after the fiftieth commission - why?
MP: It started to get a little out of hand. Not that I can't buy lunch for people, but at one point there were far more films that weren't finished than were. I figured I'd let everyone catch up.
I'm moving on to other ideas, other series that aren't the lunch thing but are still a series of short film commissions that can tour. The next thing is going to be "Orbitfilms," commissioning filmmakers to make stuff from NASA footage. I'm doing it with Mark Rosenberg from Rooftop Films. We've got a group of filmmakers together to do a film about each planet. And that series will be G-rated!
iW: Can indieWIRE readers see the Lunchfilms online?
MP: There are all kinds of ideas for online/downloads, but I have to wait until all fifty are finished.
More information about the Lunchfilms screening schedule can be found here.