Susan Seidelman’s influential 1982 feature debut, “Smithereens,” has launched on iTunes and Amazon VOD this week. Later in her directing career, Seidelman went on to helm such acclaimed projects as Madonna’s big-screen debut, “Desperately Seeking Susan,” and the pilot episode for HBO’s “Sex and the City.” Recently, she directed the arthouse hit “Boynton Beach Club.” In honor of the digital re-release of “Smithereens,” Seidelman reflects on how her career began in downtown Manhattan.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
Back in the 1970s, I originally started college thinking I wanted to be a fashion or graphic designer. As a kid, I had always loved watching movies, but I never considered directing them as a serious possibility since there were no American female directors I was aware of. On a whim, I applied to NYU Grad Film School because film combined my interests in fashion, music and storytelling. Somehow I managed to get accepted. At that time, NYU Film was located in a funky building on 7th Street and 2nd Ave – a building it shared with a rock club, The Fillmore East.
As soon as I started making short films at NYU, everything clicked into place. Despite few female role models, except for some European filmmakers like Lina Wertmuller and Agnes Varda, I realized that this was something I felt passionate about pursuing after some of my student short films won awards. This gave me the confidence I needed to make a low-budget feature. After graduation I stayed in touch with my NYU classmates and we decided to pool our resources and make “Smithereens.”
Please discuss how the idea for this film came about.
The original idea for “Smithereens” came about because I was living in the East Village in the mid-late 70s – a time when there were a lot of colorful characters in the neighborhood. This was right after the NYC bankruptcy crisis and before Downtown became gentrified, so rent was cheap and aspiring artists could still afford to live and work there. I wanted to try to capture the feeling of that world and the people that inhabited it on film.
Please elaborate on your approach to making the film, including your influences (if any), as well as your overall goals for the project?
The movie I was most influenced by when making “Smithereens” was Federico Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria” (1957). I loved the gritty realism of that film: the post-war bombed-out landscapes, the colorful characters. But, there was also a theatricality about it that gave the film a heightened reality and an interesting style. I loved the main character, a street prostitute played by Giulietta Masina. This character managed to be desperate, funny and sympathetic, all at the same time. I knew people like that; girls who had escaped various boring suburbs across America and made their way to New York looking for a more interesting life – willing to live a scrappy existence to be a part of the energy and excitement of the punk scene.
“Smithereens” was made with a combination of young actors and non-actors, like Richard Hell, improvising variations of themselves. I think this gave the film a sense of reality that using actors alone would not have been able to do. Because the film was basically “scripted”, I was able to shape the story dramatically.
The film was initially made with $20,000, from money my grandmother left me when she died, to be used for my future wedding. After many stops and starts, due to various production problems (the lead actress broke her leg at one point), two years later in 1982, I was able to complete the film. The budget had ballooned up to $40,000 and I didn’t have enough money to make prints or even pay the DuArt lab bill – but I did have one 16mm Answer Print – which I was able to drop off at a midtown screening room where the Cannes Film Festival selection committee had convened to screen films. I was surprised when I got a call a few days later informing me that the film had been selected for Cannes and would be the first low budget, American indie film to be screened in the Official Competition section.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution?
The attention the film received at Cannes led directly to a distribution deal with New Line Cinema. That ultimately led to me getting an agent who eventually sent me the script for my next film, “Desperately Seeking Susan.”
When my NYU friends and I first decided to make “Smithereens” we had no specific plans or goals for the film – we just wanted to make it — so the fact that it got into Cannes, followed by national distribution came as a total surprise. I was pretty naïve about how the film business worked and didn’t realize how difficult getting a film distributed actually can be. Only later on in my career would I realize how complicated the process of financing, making, marketing and distributing a film often is.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking (either on the creative side or industry side etc.) that you would still like to explore?
Recently, I’ve become more interested and involved in producing and distributing my films, since I’m aware of how linked all these elements are. In the past, when I worked for larger film companies, I was unaware of how film financing was put together and the politics of distribution. As an independent filmmaker, financing and distribution are crucial to the success of your film, so I now feel it’s necessary to take a more hands-on approach.
In 2006, I made a low-budget film called “Boynton Beach Club,” about a group of senior citizens who meet at a bereavement club and eventually find themselves back in the dating game at a time in their lives when they thought that was behind them. Despite good reviews, the film couldn’t find a distributor because all the established indie distribution companies felt the film’s demographic was too old and there was no audience for the movie. I thought they were wrong.
With the help of my producing partners and a theater booker, we decided to raise some initial P & A money (about $150,000) and were able to get the film booked into ten theaters in South Florida. Opening week, the film made over $100,000 in those few theaters. Within two weeks the film expanded to 30 theaters in South Florida. Three months later, it was picked up for national distribution by Samuel Goldwyn and Roadside Attractions, who had passed on the film initially. Wearing a distributor’s hat, I had to prove to the distribution company what I had suspected all along – that there was a sizeable niche audience for this film — it just needed to be identified and targeted. The film went on to make about $3.2 million at the box office domestically. We held onto the International rights and so we were able to also sell those worldwide rights separately.
I never thought I would be interested in knowing the details of marketing and distribution, but as a filmmaker, I now realize how important it is not to lose control of your film and to learn how to get it out to its intended audience. Thankfully because of the influence of the internet it is a lot easier to do these days than it was 10 years ago.
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
I think things are constantly changing. When I first started making films, there were very few independent filmmakers in NYC and almost everyone knew each other. An independent film was one scraped together with small amounts of money and favors from friends, family and personal savings accounts – and the filmmaker maintained total creative control and owned the copyright. By the late 1980s things started to change as companies like Miramax redefined the term “independent film.” It now meant a non-studio film, but the filmmaker was relying on the distributor to provide financing, often through foreign pre-sales and thus giving up a certain amount of control in exchange. During the early 90s, once it became clear that “independent films” could make significant money and win major awards, all the major studios jumped onto the bandwagon with their own “independent” labels.
Although things have changed again in the last couple of years as many of these “mini-major” studios have closed and the impact of the internet as a means of distribution and marketing a film has taken hold. However, my definition of an “independent film” is still one in which the filmmakers maintain creative control over the film from conception, through production and marketing and (to some extent) distribution.
Because of digital filmmaking, once again all the rules are changing. Digital technology is allowing films to be made much less expensively. And using the internet, filmmakers can now figure out ways to directly connect with their intended audience. To some extent the playing field is being leveled — and that’s a good thing. However it is still as challenging as ever to tell an entertaining or meaningful story that has the power to move an audience. Just because it is cheaper to make and market films, doesn’t mean films have gotten any better, it just means that more people are vying for our attention.