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8 Established Filmmakers Who Reinvented Themselves With Risky Low-Budget Efforts

8 Established Filmmakers Who Reinvented Themselves With Risky Low-Budget Efforts

This Friday will see the VOD release of Paul Schrader‘s much talked about “The Canyons,” a film both inspired by and conceived for the post-theatrical era (though it will receive a limited theatrical run starting out in NYC and Toronto). The film revolves around the toxic relationship between a producer (adult star James Deen) and his girlfriend (Lindsay Lohan) and is a collaboration between “American Psycho” author/enfant terrible Bret Easton Ellis and “Taxi Driver” scribe Schrader, whose directorial career includes “American Gigolo” and “Affliction.” After the duo failed to get a studio-financed shark movie off the ground, they decided to pursue something on a smaller scale that would require fewer gatekeepers. Schrader emailed Ellis with a mission statement, “Enough of this. Let’s just do something ourselves. The economics are right. You write it, I’ll direct it, we’ll pay for it, and we’ll make cinema for the post-theatrical era.” And so “The Canyons” was born.

Since the rights for all of Ellis’ published works were already tied up at various studios, he came up with an original story of “beautiful people doing bad things in nice rooms,” which could be filmed around LA for little money. Before “Veronica Mars” and Zach Braff stormed Kickstarter (and raised the ire of critics), Schrader and Ellis took to the crowd-funding platform last summer and raised nearly $160,000 without much backlash at all. The pair kicked in an additional $60,000 of their own money and set out to make their film with virtually no one to answer to. It wasn’t all smooth sailing—a NY Times piece detailed the myriad problems with the indie production—but despite these setbacks, you get the feeling that Schrader wouldn’t have it any other way. Just compare the freedom he had on this “troubled production” to his experiences just a few years back, toiling away on a studio movie that was completely shelved and reshot in its entirety by another director.

With digital equipment lowering the barrier for entry, not just for burgeoning directors but also for established auteurs, the last decade has seen a wave of filmmakers retreating from the comforts of the major studios into much lower-budgeted efforts that offer them the opportunity to do things differently. For some, it’s just a temporary pit stop between more traditional fare, but for others, it’s a chance to completely reinvent themselves. Recently Spike Lee made headlines by attempting to crowd source his next feature and though Lee is the latest, he certainly won’t be the last celebrated filmmaker looking to get back to his indie roots. Here are eight notable films from established directors who reinvented themselves in the aughts with modestly budgeted efforts that allowed them the freedom to break out of their comfort zone.

1. “Bubble” – Steven Soderbergh (2005)
Budget: 1.6 million
How Was Their Career Doing? Though his unprecedented hot streak ran from 1998 to 2001—from “Out Of Sight” to “Ocean’s 11” with his double-Best Director nominated films “Traffic” and “Erin Brockovich” coming in between—in 2005, Steven Soderbergh was arguably still at the peak of his career. Though he was coming off a pair of commercial disappointments (the misunderstood “Solaris” and “Full Frontal“), an experiment in TV (HBO‘s short-lived series “K Street“) and contributed a little-seen short to the anthology “Eros,” he had also just scored the second biggest hit of his career with “Ocean’s Twelve.”
Did They Take Advantage Of Their Freedom? No filmmaker in the aughts (or maybe ever) took advantage of the one-for-them, one-for-me model quite as well as Soderbergh. It’s worth noting that he had already rebooted his career once with the arty head-scratcher “Schizopolis” and after a string of hits that defied the genres he was working in, he decided to push even further into the extremes with his subsequent features. Soderbergh knew that if his risks didn’t pan out, he could always make another ‘Ocean’s’ sequel to get him back into the studio’s good graces (which he did, twice). But he realized that even his lower budgeted efforts like “Full Frontal” came with their own set of expectations and in order for him to really get his freak on, he’d need some outside help. In April of 2005 Soderbergh signed a pact with billionaire Mark Cuban‘s 2929 Entertainment to direct six low-budget digitally-shot features to be released day-and-date theatrically and on VOD over the next few years. (Keep in mind, at the time this was a pretty revolutionary concept.) For Cuban, he had only had to invest around $10m for a half dozen features by an Oscar-winning filmmaker and for Soderbergh, he had the creative freedom to make pretty much whatever the hell he wanted within a budget. The first film to emerge from this revolutionary deal was “Bubble,” a small town murder story featuring a cast of non-professional actors who improvised their dialogue based on an outline provided by writer Coleman Hough (“Full Frontal”). Soderbergh had such a great experience making the film that he had hoped to make the other five films in his deal much the same way: utilizing non-actors in different stories across the country forming what he called “a quilt of Americana.”
How Did It Fare & What Happened Next? Unfortunately for Soderbergh, this would never come to pass. After the excitement about the cross-platform release died down, the film grossed a meager $145k which led to just one more film in his six-film deal, “The Girlfriend Experience.” To help ensure its success, he cast porn star Sasha Grey to entice the VOD audience, but the film only did marginally better, still falling a million dollars short of covering its production budget. Soderbergh continued to bounce between larger and smaller efforts until his “retirement” earlier this year and the day-and-date model that Soderbergh and Cuban pioneered is now widespread with IFC Films, Magnolia, Radius and Sundance Selects all using it to roll out their indie efforts.

2. “Gerry” – Gus Van Sant (2002)
Budget: 1.5 million
How Was Their Career Doing? Though he had been primarily known for his indies, Gus Van Sant‘s career took a strange turn after the monster success of “Good Will Hunting.” He followed up that film with his shot-for-shot remake of “Psycho” (which actually holds up better today as a time capsule curio of 1998) and the limp ‘Will Hunting’ retread “Finding Forrester.” The former was critically eviscerated, the latter became a pop culture punchline (probably best remembered for spawning the meme YTMND) and Van Sant knew it was time to start over.
Did They Take Advantage Of Their Freedom? Though he had been attempting to alternate his studio projects with smaller films all along, the filmmaker credited his agent at the time with successfully scaring him away from them. Once his agent was out of the picture Van Sant was finally able to get one of those smaller projects off the ground. After ‘Forrester,’ Van Sant was offered a million dollars and carte blanche from a German financier which resulted in “Gerry,” a minimalist experiment featuring two guys (Casey Affleck and Matt Damon) who get lost in the desert. Van Sant had originally planned to shoot the film digitally (which still looked fairly crude at the time), but Affleck convinced him to shoot on 35mm, which Van Sant credited to altering the entire identity of the film. “Once we did that, everything changed, and we were no longer making the film I originally thought we were making. Along with that came other ideas when we were writing it together and committing to certain ways of shooting it. Everything started to roll in a certain direction.” Inspired by John Cassavetes and Bela Tarr (two disparate influences if there ever were) and featuring improvised dialogue and extremely long takes, the picture stands as perhaps Van Sant’s boldest work and arguably his most divisive too, as it tested the patience of even the most devout cinephiles.
How Did It Fare & What Happened Next? Though he would return to studio polish in recent years with “Milk” and “The Promised Land,” Van Sant spent most of the decade working in this stripped down mode with “Elephant,” “Paranoid Park” and “Last Days” all following the sparse naturalistic blueprint the filmmaker had laid out here. While none of these films exactly lit the box office on fire (“Elephant” was the only one to break $1m in grosses), they did re-establish Van Sant as a serious filmmaker not afraid to take risks.

3. “Inland Empire” – David Lynch (2006)
Budget: Unknown
How Was Their Career Doing? Though never exactly what you might call a mainstream filmmaker, in the ’90s, even an idiosyncratic director like David Lynch could find a way to work in the studio system. “Twin Peaks” had been an enormous hit for ABC, Disney financed “The Straight Story,” and even “Mulholland Drive” started out as a pilot for ABC. As the legend goes, the show was rejected but Lynch couldn’t let it go and decided to go back with independently-raised financing to “finish” the story as a standalone film which turned into possibly his most well regarded film ever.
Did They Take Advantage Of Their Freedom? During the early 2000’s, Lynch became fascinated with digital technology, using it to film various shorts he released directly to his website (whose members paid a fee to join) and eventually decided to make another feature which turned into the epic, nightmarish “Inland Empire.” Instead of doing things the traditional way, Lynch went about making the film in much the same way he had been doing his shorts: with cheap consumer-grade digital cameras and a skeleton crew who aided the director in following his muse right down the rabbit hole of his own subconscious. Lynch reunited with his former muse Laura Dern (who he had not worked with since 1990) for a dark tale about “a woman in trouble,” which featured harrowing imagery, choreographed ’60s dance numbers, talking rabbits and a tour de force performance by Dern. The 3-hour film supposedly took 2 ½ years to complete, with Lynch writing the script as he filmed and watching it is as close as you’re going to get to peering into Lynch’s subconscious. Though fans are still trying to work out what it all means (this piece is about as good of a reading on the film as we’ve come across), Lynch as usual has no intentions of filling anyone in.
How Did It Fare & What Happened Next? Since it had been 5 years since ‘Mulholland’ anticipation for a
follow-up was feverish but the reception for his labyrinthine vision
divided his fans and mostly baffled critics. Though the film was listed by Sight & Sound as one of the best features of the ’00s, its reputation is mostly as a disappointment (many of the themes of ‘Mulholland’ are repeated here but to lesser effect). Many criticized the digital look as being ugly, but Lynch remains undeterred. “There were no cons. Only pros. The con would be that the quality is, in some ways, less than film. It’s for sure less than film-quality, but it has its own qualities. But all the pros added to that are phenomenal. It’s a whole new way to go through shooting where you don’t get bogged down in massive amounts of weight and huge loss of time, huge loss of energy, where you’re killing scenes because of the slowness and heaviness and oppression.” The auteur has said recently he’s been starting to think about his next feature and judging from his feelings about ‘Inland,’ it seems likely that he’ll be using many of the same methods to create it.

4. “Youth Without Youth” – Francis Ford Coppola (2007)

Budget: $5 million
How Was Their Career Doing? Though he had reinvented himself as a one-man-studio before with his production company Zoetrope (“One From The Heart“), Francis Ford Coppola had retreated back to the studio system in the ’90s, becoming a director-for-hire on horror (“Bram Stoker’s Dracula“), children’s movies (“Jack”) and John Grisham adaptations (“The Rainmaker“). After trying for a decade to get his ambitious sci-fi tale “Megalopolis” off the ground, he eventually accepted defeat, and inspired by his daughter Sofia‘s success with her modestly budgeted efforts, decided to go back to his roots. Few could really comprehend just how far beyond the reservation Coppola would go, however, taking a full decade off from filmmaking, give or take some ghost-directing on 2000’s forgotten “Supernova.”
Did They Take Advantage Of Their Freedom? Unlike his buddy George Lucas who has been threatening to do so for decades, you have to hand it to Coppola for actually following through. Partially funded with the earnings from his vineyards, “Youth Without Youth” is something like an arthouse X-Men movie, with Tim Roth reacting to a lightning strike with newfound powers and suddenly de-aging thirty years. It’s an elegiac, unusually delicate film for such an outlandish story, one that involves Nazis and shady government officials, and one that reveals Coppola’s interest in aging and relevance, particularly considering how those topics emerged during Coppola’s ill-fated “Jack.” Coppola had credited self-financing as the reason why “Youth Without Youth” was his most focused and unusual picture in decades.
How Did It Fare & What Happened Next? Coppola would continue to self-finance his pictures, following “Youth Without Youth” with the melodramatic nostalgia of “Tetro” and the avant-garde genre approach of “Twixt.” Unfortunately, critics haven’t been overly kind to these off-the-beaten-path pictures, and the grosses have been underwhelming, leading to “Twixt” being dumped onto DVD despite a planned 3D run.

5. “Rachel Getting Married” – Jonathan Demme (2008)
Budget: $12 million
How Was Their Career Doing? Jonathan Demme enjoyed a brief period of tremendous prosperity in the ’90s with the one-two punch of “The Silence of The Lambs” and “Philadelphia.” This allowed the filmmaker to explore a legion of other niche topics through documentaries and shorts, though his last big film in the decade was the poorly-received “Beloved.” Demme licked his wounds by playing the studio game, having his cake and eating it too: he got in the chair for two remakes of iconic, unforgettable classics. “The Manchurian Candidate” was a nervy, political thriller that respectfully transferred the paranoia of the original into a contemporary worldview, though it was an underperformer at the box office. And “The Truth about Charlie” was an ill-advised redo of “Charade,” with Mark Wahlberg dubiously stepping into the shoes of Cary Grant. Demme stepped out of that world once again to helm documentaries on Neil Young and Jimmy Carter, but made his triumphant return into narrative film with “Rachel Getting Married,” an improv-style indie about the chaos suffered by a dysfunctional family during a multi-cultural wedding.
Did They Take Advantage Of Their Freedom? To hear it from Demme, it was his work with documentaries that gave him the ability to scale down his approach. “The difference between that and the previous fiction film I did, which was ‘The Manchurian Candidate,’ was just amazing,” he told the AV Club. “It was like a skeleton crew, but that said, there were a lot of people on the crew. There is a lot of help there. That was a procedural change. The fun there was to shoot a fiction while pretending we were shooting a documentary. That meant no rehearsal, no planned shots… You can only say “action” without any planned shot at all when you’ve got Declan Quinn‘s eye on the eyepiece, because he’s going to do something great in the moment.” The result is a film that bathes in emotional immediacy, observing the delicate balance of peace and tragedy, particularly between the ecstatic title character (Rosemarie Dewitt) and her self-destructive cannonball of a sister (Anne Hathaway).
How Did It Fare & What Happened Next? Demme’s avoided the big screen for the most part, continuing to shoot documentaries while moving into television, directing episodes of “The Killing” and “Enlightened.” His next feature “Fear Of Falling,” a Wallace Shawn adaptation of a Henrik Ibsen play, looks to be of a similarly small scale, reflecting his restless creative energy through his late-career flirtation with Dogme 95 aesthetics. “Rachel Getting Married” was his most significant artistic statement since the ’90s, though it’s likely his interests will continue to evolve years into an adventurous, unpredictable career.

6. “28 Days Later” – Danny Boyle (2002)
Budget: $8 million
How Was Their Career Doing? The late career of Steven Soderbergh proved that there was only so much flexibility a filmmaker had by genre-hopping, and that the budgets had to be diversified too. When “Trainspotting” helmer Danny Boyle found high profile back-to-back failures with genre mashup “A Life Less Ordinary” and the moody “The Beach,” he found it was necessary to retreat to more lo-fi filmmaking.
Did They Take Advantage Of Their Freedom? Returning to England, he became one of the first filmmakers to embrace the cheap aesthetic of digital filmmaking with what may be the last truly great serious zombie film ever, “28 Days Later.” The film was a massive hit stateside and abroad, bringing Boyle a whole new outlook and creative approach, raising his profile as a still-viable voice in mainstream filmmaking. Like Soderbergh, Boyle is a filmmaker not boxed in by any one genre or style and he has spent the decade since mixing it up with projects large (“Sunshine“) and small (“Millions“). The films that have fared best (“Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours“) seem to be the ones that have fused the looseness of his intimate projects with the scale of his larger budgeted work. With a cast of mostly unknowns, Boyle pulled some favors to clear out entire sections of London, giving “28 Days Later” its strong hook, and creating a classic of the genre.
How Did It Fare & What Happened Next? Easily his biggest hit thus far, Boyle could have gone on to cash a hefty Hollywood paycheck. Instead, he did a 180, and moved on to direct the low-key kids film “Millions” before re-teaming with “28 Days Later” writer Alex Garland for the sci-fi picture “Sunshine.” He even had a heavy influence with “28 Weeks Later,” a sequel that upped the ante under his influence as producer. Creatively he was re-energized, but sadly, it didn’t pay off financially; “Millions” was mostly ignored, and “Sunshine” was poorly marketed and barely released stateside. He headed far east for “Slumdog Millionaire,” a film with an initial profile so meager that when purchased by the now-defunct Warner Independent Pictures, the studio had planned a direct-to-DVD release, one that may have permanently grounded Boyle’s career. It was Fox Searchlight who realized that the eclectic styles and visuals of “Slumdog Millionaire” were the work of a filmmaker who had been restlessly experimenting, gambling on low budgets and creating a new experience each time. A few Oscars later, Boyle was at the peak of his career. Tellingly, his big Oscar follow-ups were a low-fi true-life survival story (“127 Hours”) and a shifty, unpredictable noir mystery (“Trance“); neither of these lit the box office on fire, which means we’re only a movie or two away from Boyle’s next reinvention.

7. “Redacted” – Brian De Palma (2007)
Budget: $5 million
How Was Their Career Doing? Once upon a time, Brian De Palma was rightly considered one of the great American filmmakers of his time. That time had long passed by the aughts, where his elaborately staged thrillers became increasingly difficult to market, the filmmaker delving further into his house of mirrors. As such, his work became boutique items, with “The Black Dahlia” laughed out of theaters after “Femme Fatale” barely reached an audience. The mainstream goodwill he had earned from helming the first “Mission: Impossible” had long been spent, and De Palma was facing his twilight years in the industry, and not by choice.
Did They Take Advantage Of Their Freedom? The reinvention was swift and startling: Da Palma’s films always had a smidge of political cynicism, but no one was prepared for the incendiary “Redacted.” In the midst of the modern Iraq war, De Palma melded his shifting, questioning perspective with the more contemporary found-footage aesthetic to produce an angry picture about soldiers involved in a violent assault, the recollection of which only produces more questions to those who require answers. The film audaciously takes a stance against the morality of the US Army and their presence overseas, provoking intense reactions from both sides of the political spectrum.
How Did It Fare & What Happened Next? The question is whether De Palma’s skill-set translated over to this format, and sadly the answer is no. “Redacted” is a fascinating film, one that will be observed and discussed in the future, but possibly more as a curio than as the filmmaker’s finest hour. The camera work stretches the incredulity of the found-footage format, and the performances, from unknown and inexperienced actors, range from unconvincing to awful. De Palma needed to make something to stay in the game, and even with its low budget it was a massive disappointment. De Palma clearly needed to say something with the film, however, and the signal got out: a closing montage of photos of actual victims of military violence was censored by the government, ensuring that “Redacted” would ironically feature actually-redacted material. That controversy kept De Palma off screens for five years, before he returned with “Passion,” a throwback project harkening to his early days. While “Passion” successfully melded his shifting perspectives and twisty, silly murder mysteries to a story involving newer technologies, the initial festival reception suggested critics may be done with De Palma for now.

8. “Bug” – William Friedkin (2006)
Budget: $4 million
How Was Their Career Doing? Like many of his peers, William Friedkin found himself becoming a go-to guy for middlebrow programmers, as if there was no way to accommodate their visions, and the industry was doing them a favor, putting the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Altman in charge of John Grisham novels. So it was for Friedkin, who saw modest success with military actioners “Rules Of Engagement” and “The Hunted,” both of which feature excellent performances trapped in pedestrian pictures.
Did They Take Advantage Of Their Freedom? To stay vital, sometimes a filmmaker needs to find a younger kindred spirit, and Friedkin’s just happened to be playwright Tracy Letts. Letts adapted the play “Bug” for Friedkin to direct, and surprisingly much of the source material is preserved. No longer the reckless stylist of his youth, the formerly outspoken and sometimes self-destructive Friedkin simply got out of the way of the material, essaying a tense, horrific two-hander where paranoid war vet Michael Shannon convinces Ashley Judd that there are external forces out to get them, some belonging to the government, some belonging to aliens.
How Did It Fare & What Happened Next? “Bug” actually gained a mainstream release, becoming one of the weirdest films ever to debut nationwide. While it didn’t set the world on fire, it kickstarted Shannon’s reputation as a terrifying scene-stealer and gave an extra lease on life to Judd’s career. The picture revealed a Friedkin that some thought was gone, a button-pusher who could vault the most mundane material into gothic horror territory. Friedkin didn’t mess with success, opting to re-team with Letts on another adaptation, the play “Killer Joe.” Friedkin’s blackly humorous version of the story, which earned a surprisingly rare NC-17 rating from the MPAA, won him even more fans, and placed one of the last mavericks of the ’70s back on the radar, hopefully for good.

Honorable Mention: Earlier this year Joss Whedon spent 12 days with friends shooting the black-and-white Shakespeare adaptation “Much Ado About Nothing,” which was maybe less of a new direction and more of a palette cleanser between ‘Avengers‘ movies. One could make a case for “Pan’s Labyrinth” putting Guillermo del Toro back on track just as “The Wrestler” saw Darren Aronofsky peeling away at many of the stylistic tics that had become his trademark. Sam Raimi took a stab at returning to his horror roots with the funhouse ride “Drag Me To Hell” (though it was marred by the more modern CGI). Michael Mann was one of the first big-budget film makers to fully embrace the shift to digital with his sharp thriller “Collateral.” David Gordon Green was an indie filmmaker who went the reverse route reinventing himself as a director of studio comedies (“Pineapple Express,” “Your Highness“), though he’s recently headed back in the other direction. Richard Linklater similarly went from super small to studio and back by following “Bad News Bears” with “A Scanner Darkly” and “Fast Food Nation” and hasn’t looked back yet. After a few years lost in the studio wilderness, Kathryn Bigelow has rightfully been enjoying a successful second act to her career since “The Hurt Locker” took home Best Picture. A little earlier, Lars von Trier‘s career certainly took a sharp left turn when he joined the Dogme 95 movement and abandoned visually stylish 35mm for grainy digital video with “The Idiots.” Who are we missing? Are there any other recent films by established directors that really took them out of their comfort zone? Sound off in the comments.

— Cory Everett and Gabe Toro

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