There's many reasons why "Blue Valentine" director Derek Cianfrance's critically hailed first film, "Brother Tied," disappeared from view: a lack of finishing funds, no distribution offers. But he likens the situation to a story about a pet fish.
"When my sister-in-law was a teenager," Cianfrance says, "her fish died in her tank and she couldn't deal with it, so she put a towel over it. And there was always this fish bowl in the corner of the room with a towel over it. Several years later, she went to college and her mother finally took the towel off."
"Brother Tied," a highly stylized black-and-white account of sibling rivalry, premiered at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival when Cianfrance was just 24. Not unlike the dead fish, a 35mm print of the movie currently sits at the bottom of his father's basement. "It's like the secret buried in my father's house," he says. "I'm totally terrified to look at it."
But with the acclaim surrounding "Blue Valentine," Cianfrance's chronicle of a doomed relationship (superbly played by Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling), "Brother Tied" could warrant resurrection.
During its festival run, "Brother Tied" collected a handful of prizes and plenty of positive press clippings. New York Newsday critic John Anderson heralded "the emergence of a startling new talent." And citing a "fresh zeal to rival the combined forces of the French and American new waves," Scott Foundas, who went onto become a preeminent critic for Variety and the LA Weekly, was writing for USC's Daily Trojan when he declared, "'Brother Tied' makes you believe in movies again." (A website for the movie still works: http://www.fountainhead.com/films/brothertied/)
Like so many film-festival favorites, however, "Brother Tied" languished when it didn't meet distributors' commercial requirements; Cianfrance doesn't remember any offers coming in. And he says the ghost of "Brother Tied" haunted him when he was fighting to make "Blue Valentine," a film that he began writing shortly after Sundance 1998. "I would always dream about telling my investors that someday, if I made good enough, if I worked hard enough, and made films that people wanted to see, that there would be interest again in 'Brother Tied,' and that would give it a second chance."
These days, smaller, commercially dismissed independent films are more likely to find some sort of outlet, whether through VOD, the web or DVD sales via a filmmaker's website. But in 1998, in the earliest days of the digital revolution, Cianfrance had few viable alternatives.
He could have self-distributed, of course, but there was another big problem: The movie's soundtrack was comprised of 1950s doo-wop songs that Cianfrance estimates would have cost $300,000 to license — a sizable amount of cash that no one wanted to front. So, as Cianfrance says, "It just disappeared."
Jamie Patricof, who became Cianfrance's manager and a "Blue Valentine" producer, remembers friends and industry folks asking to see "Brother Tied," to no avail. "Then it got to the point where it became frustrating," says Patricof, who is now leading the charge with his Hunting Lane Films associates Katie McNeil and Jon Kanak to get the film's negative out of DuArt's vaults.
"Whether it's two years or 20 years, we're going to want the ability to have access to 'Brother Tied,'" says Patricof. "When we're doing a retrospective of Derek's work in the future, we don't want to only have a VHS copy. Maybe Derek will want to go back in and put some new music on it and we'll release it on iTunes. We just want to get the highest quality copy we can and then decide what we're going to do with it."
Patricof and Cianfrance will have to jump through some bureaucratic hoops at DuArt to retrieve the film. They'll need to prove ownership of the negative via some 12-year-old paperwork and will likely owe the lab money. "It could be $5,000 or it could be $200,000," says Patricof.
However, even DuArt Film Lab VP Steve Blakely believes there's no reason why they shouldn't be able to eventually get the negative back in their possession. "1998 is not that long ago," he says. "There's a lot of film here that is older than that."
The prospect of reviving "Brother Tied" is both embarrassing and exciting for Cianfrance, who recently watched a makeshift DVD of the film on a plane during the "Blue Valentine" publicity tour. "It's unbearable to watch, because it's trying so hard to be cinematic in a show-offy way," he says. "I was a little pretentious and I had a chip on my shoulder and I wanted to prove myself. But it marks a time in my life as a person and a filmmaker. It's like a tattoo or a scar. And as you grow as a filmmaker, your work represents where you are as a person.
"Maybe we'll be ready after 'Blue Valentine' or it'll take some more films, but it would be nice to get 'Brother Tied' out there in the world."