Director Jennifer Venditti‘s “Billy the Kid” is a humorous verite portrait of Billy, a 15 year-old outsider growing up in small-town Maine. In many ways, he’s a typical teenager who is into heavy metal music and dreams of being a rock star. But he’s also unique. A troubled past and ongoing behavioral issues have left him marked. But he’s unapologetic about his personality and refuses to be victimized. Billy is funny, sharp, strangely wise for hs age and remarkably candid. Audiences view life from his perspective — from intimate conversations with his mother, to being bullied at school to his fantasies of becoming a superhero. The audience also sees Billy pursue Heather, a shy 16 year-old waitress… “Billy the Kid” won the jury prizes at the 2007 SXSW Film Festival, Los Angeles Film Festival and Edinburgh Film Festival as well as an audience prize in Melbourne. Elephant Eye opens the film in limited release Wednesday, December 4.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved?
I was attracted to film by the storytelling aspect. I love filmmaking because I can create something out of ideas, characters, places, and experiences and share that with others who would take something completely different from it. When making “Billy the Kid,” I realized that as a director I could share with others the time I was lucky to have with Billy. The beauty of film to me is that a person watching it can have a completely different reaction than the person sitting next to them based on who they are in their own lives, which in turn creates a cultural dialogue between viewers. Feelings of love, sadness, hatred, and happiness can all stem from the same story. Film has allowed me to understand myself through other people’s stories, and being a director has allowed me to offer that to others.
How did the idea for “Billy the Kid” came about?
One of the things I do as a casting director is that I street scout and enter new environments and discover untold stories. I’ve been filming the people I cast for years. Whether I was dealing with “real” people, actors, or high fashion models I always knew there were stories beyond the faces and collected hundreds of tapes filled with interviews. It was a natural transition into filmmaking in that although it was inspiring to find these people and cast them in various projects, I knew there were “real” narratives just waiting to be told. I think I have a keen eye that spots something wonderful in the least obvious of places. My instinct is to challenge traditional notions of what we find to be beautiful and heroic.
However, when I thought about making a film, I was waiting for that perfect idea that would be something MAJOR and change the world. That kind of pressure is paralyzing! So I decided to start with something small to get my feet wet. The original idea was that I would make a short film about a few different “characters” I had found while street scouting across America. The first stop was Maine to visit Billy and the rest is history as they say.
This film came to me in a very organic way, and I didn’t understand at the time that it would ultimately be this film that held the impact and weight that I was looking for in a story.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project and finding distribution?
1. My first challenge was finding finishing funds to pay for all of the post production, as I was putting all of my own money and a bank loan into the pre production, filming and beginning stages of editing.
2. The next challenge was to find a sales rep. Everyone was interested in seeing the screener, but no one could figure out how to sell it as they all said it was “too personal a story and would not work internationally because it was too American.” We had the same response from every sales agent, until we won Best Documentary at SXSW. Dana O’Keefe from Cinetic who had supported the film the beginning then convinced his team to pick up the film.
3. We had great acceptance–awards, audience interest, press, but nothing would come through. We heard over and over again “Love the film, love the film, love the film. But we don’t know how to market it.” Ultimately I feel it was an extreme blessing in disguise because if we had been bought by a big distibutor my opinion would have been non-existent. Instead, I have learned about marketing, promotions, and what it means to put a film out there.
A film like “Billy the Kid” needs to be handled in a very personal way and I was forced to do something that I feel will the best for this film. I see how other films are distributed, and they tank because they are not handled with the care a small film needs to be put into the world. Instead we are releasing the film through Elephant Eye and I got to be a part of everything–the decisions were mine, and I did what I knew was right for “Billy the Kid” — everything from the trailer, to the poster, outreach, to new marketing ideas. I am grateful to have that experience. Ultimately I do want the film to be a success financially, but if the trade off is this experience it is worth it. I want to make films that people see, but will not follow a formula to do so. I will never compromise my vision to do that.
How did the financing for the film come together?
Pre production to the beginning of the post production came from a bank loan I took out. Then my co-producer, Chiemi Karasawa, sent a screener to a company called IndiePix. They wanted to be involved…initially it was more in exchange for in-kind services, but then their support became more multi-dimensional, a higher level of investment. They believed in us as filmmakers and the film and continue to support our efforts.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
I enjoy the marketing side as I am fascinated by what makes people tick. Why people respond to something, why people are drawn to certain films, and why some films are successful while others flop are all such captivating aspects of our culture. I began my career as a casting director and will always continue to do casting as I feel it’s one of the most important aspects to filmmaking.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
1. Believe in what you are doing. Be very clear on what your intentions are for the film. Everyone you meet and work with will challenge your ideas and you should know where you stand. You should be open to evolve and allow yourself to change along the way, but your intention from the beginning has to be very clear. If you are not sure about your vision, it will become someone else’s film.
2. You have to be your own advocate, but it’s important to find people in the film community that you connect with. Find the independent film world–at seminars, markets, festivals and universities. Try to connect yourself with people who can help execute your visions.
3. Trust yourself. Do not give up. Don’t take things personally.
4. Don’t look for validation from outside sources. It’s great to win awards and get good reviews, but the bottom line is that film is subjective and if you are looking for praise as validation it will be an emotional roller coaster ride. It is about making something you are proud of, and it may not always be recognized at the time you want it to be. Twenty people might say no to distributing it, but you cannot give up because that could change the next day. Your films better mean something to you, as they will be in your life for awhile. You have to want to be married to it for a long time.
Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of…
“Billy the Kid.” I am proud beyond words not only for the film itself, but for how it has opened me up to this world. I can now call myself a filmmaker and I know that for the rest of my life I will make films. It is beyond a gift for someone who has never studied film and never dreamt about being a filmmaker — “Billy the Kid” made me realize my unknown dream.