by Amanda N. Nanawa
In the '80s, the Dire Straits tune "Money For Nothing" signaled the
advent of a generation of music video junkies, as well as the use of
computer images to poke fun at what is now an overbudgeted medium. As
1998 inches closer to the end, another artform is making its stand once
again into music 's visual expression: short films.
Where the average price of a music video [$70,000 -- give or take a few
thousand] could easily put two to four short films in the can, shorts
are making a slow return to the public 's eye. ABC's "In Concert" will
tape and air a project that aims to inspire and lure viewers back to
short films and the art of musical exhibition.
The project entitled "Low Flame" is an effort comprised of three
collaborators. Adria Petty and Anna Gabriel share the directing credit,
while Howie Statland (along with and assist from New York Times rock
critic Neil Strauss) provide the music. "We made it look like a record
called 'Low Flame ' we did about a year ago," says Statland. "I wanted
to use the music to make the film from that record."
The filmmakers plan to present an art installation in which the audience
is able to watch the silent short film, while a live musical performance
runs concurrently in the foreground, offering a virtual experience where
you are living in the moment of the film. It harkens back to the days of
the storefront theaters or "dream palaces" where silent films played
along with music provided by a piano player. "Low Flame" is the 21st
"In Concert" will send in a crew and shoot the band performing live with
the short film rolling in the background. Producer David Saltz describes
it as a synchronized documentary of both the music and film, explaining,
"We 're still presenting music in the same way it was when 'In Concert'
aired in the mid-70s. I used to watch the show when I was in high
school. 'Okay, here 's a band...here 's another band ' and its all the
same kind of thing. It needed a departure from that."
"We move away from the whole idea of it being a music video, because its
developed very much into film and then story and a look inside this
character 's head," says Petty. The short film 's story structure
centers around the life of Alex (Will McCormick), a pathetic and lonely garbage
man who collects trash in order to build a family of characters,
replacing the family he lost as a child. He fantasizes about two women
who live and work on his street and through those two people, learns to
deal with reality. Gabriel and Petty go on to say that "Low Flame" is
not a conventional film, but rather a collaboration of all different
portions of filming story, music, and visuals.
Petty formerly worked for Jonathan Stack [who, with Liz Garbus, produced
the Sundance winner "The Farm"] at Gabriel Films (no relation to Anna)
where she learned what it took to produce a documentary. "When we got
off work, we would type the script in my office till midnight every
night," says Petty.
The project evolved from a curiosity Petty had for a garbage yard they
always drove past while commuting to Sarah Lawrence College, where they
were undergraduates. Petty is currently a student at NYU Graduate Film
Studies while Gabriel is a student at SVA (School of Visual Arts)
working for a graduate degree in photography.
Petty continues, "Anna and I would be riding up there and I 'd go,
'Anna? We gotta shoot in that garbage yard, man. I really want to make a movie
about a garbage man. What do you think...? ' And she 'd kinda go, 'You're
crazy..., ' you know. 'You have blue hair, I 'm from England. I 'm gonna
ignore you. ' And at the same time, kinda smile at me and be like, 'What
was that? Okay. Sure. '"
Guitarist Howie Statland of the RCA band Thin Lizard Dawn saw Petty and
Gabriel 's first short film, "The Gavel" at the Void in New York 's
lower Manhattan. He was intrigued with the live performance presentation and
expressed interest in helping put "Low Flame" on film.
Filming the project took less than a month. Initially, they were
thinking about shooting the project for under $6,000, but receiving
in-kind services and help from friends such as David Saltz, Executive
Producer of "In Concert," the estimated $6,000 dollar budget became a
$10,000 production. By the time the project was in the can and ready for
post, the budget rung up to the tune of $20,000, averaging $1,000 per
Petty describes Saltz 's involvement as an inspiration, pushing them to
go further in their pursuits. "We thought the condition of giving us
money would be to tone it down or to format it for television. And he 's
like, 'Live performance needs to be revamped. We 've heard it so many
times. ' We thought it would be great - the silent movie aspect of it -
is definitely always something that we wanted to play to the screen. He
was like, 'Create an environment when you do that and we 'll give you
the grant. '"
Once the film wrapped, Petty and Gabriel spent a week in California
showing the trailer for post-production funding and looking for a
soundtrack deal for the short. Their proposal to record companies is to
have them fund low-budget narrative films that feature the band 's
music, and to include it in the record or c.d. 's package. Gabriel says that
record companies spend more money on a music video that would otherwise
have a slim chance for airplay.
Petty concludes, "There are still quite a few good musicians, even
though we don 't hear them on the radio a lot. They get signed up, they
obviously can write songs, they 're baby bands, there 's no outlet for
them on MTV 'cause there 's no programming on MTV [for them]."
With "In Concert" involved, an entirely new window of opportunity will
open up for forthcoming music oriented projects. It means that a major
network, the mainstream market, gets to air projects that would
otherwise be found only on such cable networks as Sundance Channel, IFC,
HBO, MTV, or VH-1.
"We never had the opportunity to develop our own thing along these
lines," explains Saltz. "And I think its a step into the kind of things
I like to have music in the network.... Because we 're all in such a
difficult environment of small screen, small speaker and bad sound, we
want to try and make the experience as good as possible."
Many filmmakers will likely want the opportunity to work with "In
Concert." Will this pose an exodus from MTV Productions? Saltz doesn 't
think so. Instead, he hopes such networks as MTV will follow suit.
"We 've all been so blessed to be so endeared to music, let 's help keep
it alive in a new, interesting way. I 'm not trying to do anything that's
proprietary or have some authorship on it or is exclusive. I 'm trying
to do the opposite."
Saltz sees this as a seed that will bear fruit, giving other unique
projects a chance to be shown to the masses. Another point made by both
camps is that they hope to have "Low Flame" shown at film festivals.
Saltz concludes, "There will be more opportunities for people to do
things. And that 's what the industry should be about. It shouldn 't be
closed, it should be completely open."
The art installation of "Low Flame" will be shown early next year. ABC
plans to air the project shortly thereafter.
[Ideas, synopses, or treatments, can be sent to: David Saltz,
ABC Television, 157 Columbus Ave., New York, NY, 10023.]