(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?
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.
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.
indieWIRE: Do you think that the actual aesthetics will be changing? That the shot inside the car, the standard 2-shot inside the car, will change. Soon, maybe in the next couple of years, people will put a pinhole DV camera and do something completely different aesthetically?
Jason Kliot: Yeah, the language of cinema is completely transforming because of this digital revolution and as much as it’s affecting the visual language, that’s just the beginning.
iW: I haven’t really quite seen it yet.
Kliot: No, but you have seen it because the 2-camera shots in “Chuck and Buck,” where we were cutting back and forth in real time, you heard, maybe for the first time in history, the true actors breathing while they’re in the middle of a scene; that’s a revolutionary gesture. To have the immediacy of the camera in “Celebration” is a revolutionary gesture. For Lars Von Trier to be able to edit his musical sequences the way he was in the most extraordinary mixture of actual realistic shots cut into a completely surreal rhythm to music is a revolutionary gesture. In “Series 7,” for Dan Minahan to emulate a TV network that doesn’t exist and to be able to channel that and make a political statement out of that is a revolutionary gesture. And I think it affects acting. It’s going to affect every single aspect of the filmmaking process.
Joana Vicente: And in the editing process, you can’t just look at the same frame for two minutes like you would do in film, because it can be just beautiful to watch and mean something. That doesn’t work in digital. So there’s a challenge to achieve the same effect another way and that’s going to be new. Also, all the films that we’ve done are short. They’re like 90 minutes or less because you tell the story in a more economical way. For instance, with Mattei’s film, we would first do the master shot and then cover on one and then the other, and then you would have room to try things. You would never get the time to try different coverage. They’d say, “That’s insane, there’s probably one cut, let’s just move on, you’ve got the scene.” And all the sudden it’s like okay now: “I’m gonna try this and I’m gonna try that and I’ll film it from above and I will do whatever.” And I think something’s gonna come out of it, you know, in the editing room to have all those choices.
Kliot: We’ve noticed directors experimenting in ways they wouldn’t have. Although more in performances than in anything else — and coverage.
Vicente: Yeah, I definitely see it in the performances. I think it’s the most obvious and palpable difference on these movies is that all of the sudden any dailies that we watch on these movies the performances are phenomenal. It’s not like the big kind of formal film set where there’s no intimacy. All of a sudden, they’re in this small room and they’re rehearsing and they’re workshopping.
Kliot: That’s very important. You’re talking about the actual affect on the film, but I think what also will be affecting the actual film you’re looking at will be the way we make the film, workshopping the film. I think what we’re seeing now is a much more repertory approach to filmmaking. I feel like the crew is smaller so they’re more of a close-knit family where everyone is responsible for their actions and you’ve lost that militaristic feel of larger shoots. You feel a calmness and a focus which I think leaves people open to experiment.
The other thing is that I really think that the director truly is the author of the film for the first time in the history of filmmaking, narrative filmmaking. Maybe we’ve had it in experimental. But I feel that this small repertory group is focused towards one goal and the director for the first time has everyone within earshot who makes all the decisions. It’s quieter in general on these sets. I feel that their vision is becoming more pronounced and less watered down. The director has a 15-person crew, he speaks a little louder and they all know what he’s doing. There’s none of that game of telephone that occurs when you have a four-block line up of trucks and person after assistant to assistant to assistant.
Vicente: Just another quick thing. I think color scheme is another thing. Now it’s really important to deal with color, because if you have a place with a lot of contrasts, with whites and other colors, then it’s not going to look as good as if you use more uniform tones. So then the choices become really important and I think you’re going to see, just looking at our films, I can feel like there’s a different palette of colors, a different texture that also has to do with the choice of the medium they were using. For “Series 7,” it had to look like TV. For “Chuck And Buck,” it was also a different choice.
Kliot: There’s another thing by the way. A really interesting example of what Joana is talking about is going to a lab and doing a timing on a feature. Because basically the film just rolls in front of you and you talk to a guy and you hope to God that he changes every single shot the way you want it. And I don’t know if you know this, but you can only do a fade out or a dissolve in half-second increments on film. That’s a huge difference between, you know, five frames or 10 frames, fade out or fade in or cross dissolve or whatever. You don’t have that in film.
Vicente: That’s actually very interesting because when you do timing with someone at a lab you have two or three sessions and you go through the answer prints and you do probably two or three if you have enough money. But now we spend two days doing color corrections. So we’re also putting far more thought on every single shot than we ever did.
Kliot: And on every shot you’re doing maybe 10-20 answer prints, if you think about it in film terms, because you’re going “Can I see it a little bit more green? A little bit more orange?” and you’re doing infinitely smaller differences. So it’s very interesting. Once again the technology is allowing the filmmaker to become an author in a way that they never were before.
But the most revolutionary aspect of the digital films is basically, Joana and I have a rule, which is that the amount of money being spent on a project is inversely proportional to the freedom of the filmmaker. The more money you have to spend the less freedom you have. The fact that we can make these digital films more cheaply means that for the first time in the history of narrative filmmaking again you have people who can be in total creative control and who can take more risks. Because no one is breathing down their necks. In our case, we’re able to set up a structure where no one is breathing down your neck saying if you screw up you’re in big trouble.
iW: I’m wondering for your own company and for yourselves as producers, what you are looking at going forward and what you hope to achieve in the next couple of years?
Kliot: We have our legs on the bows of two ships basically. One is bigger budget films with studios and the other are the digital films. Now we feel that when we’re making our bigger budget films, we want to be able to work on a larger palette, we want to be paid, but we know we have to give up some of our freedom for that. If we’re making our digital films, we want to protect our directors and give them absolute, total creative freedom. In the next few years, we want to be in a situation where we’re making both on the inexpensive level and on the larger level, movies that people are going to remember. Movies that are going to change the way people see the world. That for us is either aesthetically or politically or socially.
iW: How is that different from what you want to do now, or is it?
Vicente: It’s not that different. On a more practical level, we want to create a space that makes these projects economically viable, and take what we learn from these cheaper and better products on this low budget level, and start doing the same on the next level. So instead of spending the $7-$10 million, maybe you can spend three to four [million] and make the kind of films where you are not as limited by the means of production and where you can have access to a larger canvas and a bigger cast.
Kliot: One aim we have is to be totally free. I mean to be able to make the films we want to make and for those films not to be encumbered by financial issues. Meaning that if we want to make science fiction or action or whatever, that the new tools that will be available to us in the next 10 years will enable us to work with the freedom we have now and bring that freedom to the larger canvas.
I think we’re at a crossroads. I think this is a time where if this technology is used correctly — and it really has a lot to do with how we use the lever of this technology — we can make anything. We can make anything they could, but we don’t have to make it for as much money. So we don’t have to make movies by committee when we make a science fiction movie. We don’t have to make movies by committee when we make an action or a travel movie or anything like that. We can still keep that total independence. You sometimes saw it in very rare occasions in the ’70s in Hollywood films and I think we can bring that back because the technology will actually open up a wedge for us to do that. And we want to take as much advantage of that wedge as we can because that wedge means freedom.