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by Anthony Kaufman
January 11, 2011 7:14 AM
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O "Brother Tied," Where Art Thou? "Blue Valentine" Team Seeks to Reclaim Derek Cianfrance's Debut

"Blue Valentine" director Derek Cianfrance at the Filmmaker's Lounge in Toronto. [Photo by Brian Brooks]

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.

A scene from Derek Cianfrance's "Blue Valentine." [Image courtesy of TWC]

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."

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9 Comments

  • Ross McElwain | January 24, 2011 3:35 AMReply

    Dear Paul - I would dearly love to see this film, any chance you could make a copy of the VHS screener for me?

  • Todd Campbell | January 12, 2011 4:14 AMReply

    Thanks for the VERY kind words Bob...those were the days indeed...

    Hello Marcus & Paul!

  • Jonathan Fine | January 12, 2011 12:31 AMReply

    "Something's got to give." That was the somewhat overwrought tagline for Brother Tied, which I worked on after Derek and I went through film school together. It would be great to see it released in some fashion, though the issue of music rights is a serious one. Some of the scenes were painstakingly cut to specific songs, so I can't imagine that replacing or removing those tracks is an option.

    As for flatbed vs. digital editing, while we made our student films on Steenbecks and Moviolas, Derek cut Brother Tied with Avid software. There's one scene in particular, cut to Louis Jordan's song "Beans and Cornbread," that contains an unholy number of edits. Like, several per second.

    And as for Derek being a helluva guy who deserves all the success in the world with Blue Valentine, I heartily concur.

  • bob hawk | January 11, 2011 11:40 AMReply

    Yes, Gene, this would be very interesting to study and explore. One of the best editors of indie films I know started working in the era of flatbeds, with work prints. Although she made the adjustment to the new technologies, she said it goes too fast and adjustments/decisions can be made by a click. She misses the thinking, contemplative time that the mechanics of splicing and taping necessitated -- and that you thought more about each decision because it took longer to execute each one.

  • Paul Marchant | January 11, 2011 11:33 AMReply

    dear marcus & bob, i still have the VHS screener from Kudzu submission...

  • Gabe Wardell | January 11, 2011 10:15 AMReply

    Perhaps the greatest benefit of the digital revolution is that films will no longer languish in finishing lab limbo. The fact that DuArt Film Lab VP Steve Blakely says. “There’s a lot of film here that is older than that" makes one wonder if any other prospective gems in the rough are suffering a similar fate.

    As a projectionist at Slamdance in the early years, I can recall at least one account of surrendering a release print to a lab rep directly from the booth immediately following a screening.

    Perhaps there's a reality show in here somewhere, akin to STORAGE WARS, where companies looking for VOD content buy these hocked films (sight unseen) from the lab in hopes of discovering a lost masterpiece.

    It would be interesting to contrast the pace, shot selection, tone, performances etc... of these "lost" films with the current wave of digital productions considering the difference in approach to shooting (and editing) on film in the pre-digital age.

  • bob hawk | January 11, 2011 9:16 AMReply

    This brings back fond memories of a memorable long weekend in Athens, Georgia, in 1998, where I was on a jury that gave first prize to Cianfrance's BROTHER TIED at the sort-lived but feisty Kudzu Film Festival. My fellow jurors included Eugene Hernandez (already with IndieWIRE), Strand Releasing's Marcus Hu, filmmaker Linda Tadic (who ran the Peabody collection at the University of Georgia), and James Herbert, who taught at the University while also turning out artful erotic features and R.E.M. music videos. The Southern hospitality was awesome, we went every night to the 40 Watt Club, where we heard all these great unknown bands, and the town was extra wild because it was also having a big college football game. There was one gay bar, divided into two rooms --one for dancing, with a disco ball and a drag queen hostess, the other with a pool table and a lot of macho guys in flannel shirts and jeans. Those were the days!

    Only disappointment, if memory serves, was that Derek was not there to accept his award. And he's been working on BLUE VALENTINE ever since. I'm sure his next feature will come sooner.

  • Lori Bandazian | January 11, 2011 8:34 AMReply

    I also remember this film fondly from the Florida Film Festival in Orlando in 1998. I was on the dramatic jury with Thomas Ethan Harris and Jerry Tokofsky and we were all incredibly moved and impressed by this film by young Derek Cianfrance. We were also able to spend time and party with this gracious, humble, talented young man and happily presented him with a Special Jury Award for Bold Original Expression.

    Shortly thereafter, Derek came to NY and we went to some Gen Art parties. He was such a nice, down to earth guy. He then sent me the script for Blue Valentine while I was at October Films. I sent it out for coverage and honestly can't remember the feedback but I'm thrilled that he stuck with it and has had such huge success.

    I hope Brother Tied gets to see the light of day soon! I personally would love to see it again and I'm sure all of Derek's new fans would appreciate it too. Although I haven't spoken to him in years (we ran into each other at the Gotham Awards in 2003ish), I'm so incredibly proud of Derek and his accomplishments!

  • Marcus Hu | January 11, 2011 7:51 AMReply

    wow! I almost forgot that! amazing and would love to see it again!