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Lifetime’s ‘Ring of Fire’ Director Allison Anders: How to Be An Indie Filmmaker in a TV World

Lifetime's 'Ring of Fire' Director Allison Anders: How to Be An Indie Filmmaker in a TV World

Lifetime Movie” brings connotations of rickety production values and hastily adapted true-crime subject matter like the Jodi Arias case (which will indeed be enacted on the channel in “Dirty Little Secret” — announced just a week after the verdict was handed down and set to air on June 22). But the network also makes periodic ventures into higher-end programming — 2009 found Bob Balaban directing Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons in ‘Georgia O’Keeffe,” Lindsay Lohan and Grant Bowler (ahem) got attention for last year’s “Liz & Dick” while Kenny Leon helmed an African-American remake of “Steel Magnolias,” and “American Psycho” filmmaker Mary Harron is attached to “Anna Nicole,” scheduled to air in June.

The director of “Ring of Fire,” the Lifetime original June Carter Cash biopic starring Jewel that’s set to premiere Monday, May 27 at 9pm, is another name that will be familiar to indie film fans — Allison Anders, a prominent figure in the independent scene of the late ’80s and early ’90s with features like “Border Radio,” “Gas Food Lodging” and “Mi Vida Loca,” as well as a segment in the Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino anthology film “Four Rooms.”

Anders is still making movies — she recently raised funds for her 2012 drama “Strutter,” written and directed with Kurt Voss, on Kickstarter. But like many other indie filmmakers, she’s found more work in television lately, directing episodes of “Southland,” “The Mentalist” and “The L Word” as well as Hallmark Channel movie “A Crush on You,” and landing a project called “Ashland” in development at AMC. Indiewire caught up with Anders by phone to talk about “Ring of Fire” and the changing realities of the indie film industry.

How did you get involved with “Ring of Fire”?

It’s really kind of banal. Basically, they talked with my agent, Lifetime did. The weird thing was… when my agent pitched it to me, I said, “I would normally not say I’m the right person for this job, but I’m absolutely the right person for this job,” because I was attached to another June Carter/Johnny Cash story before that never happened because “Walk the Line” happened. It was the only time ever I went in and got the job right there. Richard Friedenberg had written the script — he was my advisor at Sundance when I went for “Mi Vida Loca,” and actually changed the way that I structured it. He was a really solid mentor for me, so it was serendipitous that he wrote the script and I ended up directing the movie.

I know in the last few years you made “Strutter,” but you’ve also been directing a few TV episodes.

Needless to say, it’s been an interesting time with indie film. I haven’t not wanted to make movies — I’ve had a few things out there that were close to getting made. The very first TV show I ever directed was “Sex and the City,” and thank fucking God I did, because it continues to take care of me in residuals — and I only directed four episodes. You cannot make that kind of money in indie films. You can if you’re a huge director… which is only about five people.

During the ’90s, a lot of us in the indie film world were not making our money off our movies. We were screenwriters doing scripts for hire for studios. We weren’t directing TV necessarily, because that was before they were hiring feature directors like they do now, but we had some good steady jobs as writers and that’s how we lived between movies. You end up giving up half your salary every time you make a movie because you need the money to make the movie you have in your head.

Most indie filmmakers I came up with, once we had that strike, that changed the whole world. Something was necessary — we know that now — but with that changing, TV was really the root for me. In the early ’90s when the American independent movie started, it held personal vision as a premium. That was brilliant timing. I was fucking lucky. I stuck to my personal vision and I was rewarded for it. What happened with TV was similar — at the point I started directing and developing TV, AMC came along. I know everybody thinks HBO is the end-all for creative freedom, but AMC started with “Mad Men” and other original programming and it was where people really wanted a personal vision.

With cable, I think there’s a world now of characters, stories and personal vision that’s just tremendous. The reason it’s a little hard is because you still want to make a movie. Not everything you come up with is a TV series. Then what do you do? You do what we did. I’m still trying to get certain projects made traditionally, but with “Strutter,” [we knew] we weren’t going to be able to. Kickstarter was great. We raised the money. We finished the film. We made one sale to Japan. We had a great screening here that had great reviews. It’s harder to get distribution now for any of these movies, especially if you don’t have any stars in it. It’s hard to get people out to the theaters.

You’ve directed so many female-lead stories. Do you feel they’re harder to get made in film and TV?

Oh, for sure. The first thing I did for TV was a pilot for CBS. The one thing that’s completely out of your control is you don’t know who their sponsors are. That year they were trying to sell Hummers. My lead was a single mom who adopts a child along with her other two children. Her adopted kid is Latino, she’s white, she’s not married and she’s a probation officer. It didn’t test well with men, so guess what, I didn’t have a series, because their sponsorship was very male-driven. They picked up a bunch of cop shows that didn’t last.

If you have a female lead, they’re wondering where that male audience is going to be. It’s challenging. Always. I would love to see more actresses ask for a female director. There are a lot of big female stars who have never been directed by a woman. That’s kind of shameful. Helen Mirren came out and said that women should be directing more, and I though, “That’s great. Next time you do a movie, why not ask a woman to direct you?” That is a little bit tougher.

If you want to tell a story with a complex female character — and I don’t mean she’s kicking ass and going home and being a mom — say it’s an older woman, something about menopause. Good fucking luck doing that! It’s hard even though that the audience that’s still loyal to seeing movies in the theater are middle-aged audiences.

Lifetime as a network still has that “ripped from the headlines” association with its movies, though it seems like they’ve also been interested in being taken seriously lately. What was your experience going into “Ring of Fire”? Was that part of the conversation at all?

My executives at Lifetime were brought on to create this kind of premium, filmmaker-driven division. While they still have the Jodi Arias story and reality shows, they also have these really interesting things brewing. In doing a June Carter Cash movie — she was married to someone so phenomenally iconic, the problem was not to have her in the shadow of Johnny Cash. He’s a powerful image, as powerful as Elvis. How do you constantly steer it back to her point of view? Believe it or not, it’s really tough. We had to do it every step of the way: this is her point of view.

I’ve never done this before, where I’m constantly having to steer the story from a female point of view. Usually when I write my own stuff, it’s just there. With this, it was really interesting. One thing that was helpful to me was Philip Kaufman’s HBO movie “Hemingway & Gellhorn.” It was interesting to watch that because it was a similar thing — here’s this powerful woman with this iconic man in the picture. How do you keep it her point of view? Even with the music, we had to steer back to [her].

You mentioned that you were talking to Mary Harron about her experience directing her own Lifetime film.

She was working right after me, also in Atlanta. She wanted some tips, I just emailed back and forth with her about crews. I was talking with her before her production began, so I don’t really know how she fared. I’m sure it was the same experience. We were met with the challenges we’re all faced with.

You’ve developed shows at different networks. Have you found in the last few years that’s changed at all? I’m seeing a lot more indie filmmakers going into developing series as well as directing episodes.

It’s almost getting a little scary. You don’t want to be up against some of the really big filmmakers that carve their way into TV. But, at the same time, TV is kind of open in that way: “Well, we gotta see if this is gonna work. If it’s not going to work, then it kind of doesn’t matter if you’re famous or not.” Which is kind of great. They’re a lot more pragmatic than the film world in that regard, and it can have absolutely nothing to do with you.

That’s the beauty, but that’s also the scary part, since you’ll never know what that is exactly. With the casting, you have to be a little more fluid — you want to have a personal point of view, but they’ve been through so many experiences with so many actors that you don’t even know about that you can’t just throw a name out there. You have to move a little gingerly with that. You have to have ideas, but you can’t be too set in them. I love it. It’s kind of like what they used to do in the studio system, moving from one genre to another and learning new tricks.

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