The Aggro Indies

From the moment I wake up in the morning, I live in a world fraught with danger. Is this going to be the day that some disgruntled reader mails me a toxic substance? It happened once, in the 1980s—a gram of odorless dung in the kind of tiny plastic bindle dealers use for meth, with an unsigned letter reading “Have some dialectical materialism! The Kremlin dishes it out every day!”

If the readers don’t get me, the neighbors might. I live in one of the California’s most hair-raising craptowns, with an awe-inspiring murder rate considering its small size. Me and the wife hide behind our doors when the sun goes down, and pray that some cutthroat doesn’t break in and execute us just for the thrill of it.

But I’m tough. I’ve come a long way from the bad side of LA’s Pico Boulevard. No one survives twenty-five years in the bloody-knuckled world of weekly journalism if they’re a pink powder puff. This is the life I chose. And it could be worse. I could be an independent filmmaker.

The cover of the book Either You’re In or You’re In the Way (2009) depicts a pair of red-headed bruisers. Arms folded to flatter their biceps, standing against a scratched-up, scrawled-on urban wall, they are the authors who inside recount their struggle to make a film. Identical twins Logan and Noah Miller play characters thinly based on themselves in the indie movie Touching Home, which they wrote, produced, and directed, and which came and went this year. The jacket of the Millers’ book serves us what’s described as “a modern day Horatio Alger on steroids.” The presumption may be that Alger wrote autobiography.

If you think the cover is imposing, check Touching Home’s coming attractions trailer. Co-star Ed Harris Mount Rushmores it side by side with the two game-faced filmmakers. All three inform us of how Touching Home was based on the life and death of the Millers’ father, a traumatized alcoholic Korea War vet who died in the Marin county jail.

The actual film, which is pretty bad, is almost immaterial to the deal-quest. The movie itself is distilled Sundance: a tale of a dysfunctional family trying to knit itself up in picturesque rural surroundings. It’d take phenomenal talent to make West Marin look ugly: it’s rolling country full of portly cows and fine Victorian ranch houses, irradiated with the Pacific gloaming, kept from insipidness by stark volcanic outcroppings and groves of redwoods. Here and there are cozy looking roadhouses glowing with neon, serving cold pitchers of what made Lagunitas famous. Unfortunately, the cast keeps getting in the way of the scenery: a round of aimless driving, squabbling, fistfighting, re-bonding.

The Millers were once minor league baseball players, so the movie is pumped up with loads of exercise montages. That goes double for their book. Chapter headlines like “An Army of Two” contains asides about staying in training during the search: “We worked out at Gold’s Gym Venice Wednesday evening, after dinner. It was our third workout of the day: a run in the morning at 5:30 AM, a pile of pushups and pull-ups mid day.” Later: “We hit the iron hard in our friend Julio’s garage, throwing weights around in a 105-degree mechanics shop, breathing in the gasoline and oil fumes. We blasted Judas Priest.” The tableau needs sparks from a grinder flying around to perfect it as a male version of Flashdance.

Similarly, Either You’re In . . . stresses the physical side of beating the bushes for movie-making money. “Selling a product is a war of attrition,” they write. And Part One of their book is titled “Holly-War.” Even something as quotidian as buying a beater car to be used in a driving scene is suffused with potential violence. “We brought our pistola,” the Millers write. (The weapon is elsewhere described as “a .40 caliber HK automatic.”) They should have brought their gat to deal meetings, since overcautious investors also get on the brothers’ nerves: “We didn’t come here to fucking barbecue!… we don’t know how to play the nickel and dime tables, it’s not our style.”

Clearly, these mavericks are in armed opposition to the powers that be in Hollywood: they write up a playlet of how they dealt with Ed Harris’s schedule conflicts. There’s a fantasy scene of Harris’s agent unable to block the handshake deal the Millers made with the star; the agent howling “noooooooo!” like a thwarted villain just before his hollow volcano blows up. The moral is plain, so the authors re-emphasize it: “To those who no longer believe in the American dream, read this and say otherwise.”

The Millers’ Chevy-tough dream encompasses two different aims, though. One was to fulfill a deathbed promise to Dad to become filmmakers, so they could tell the dead father’s story honestly. The other was what the Millers characterize as the American dream: to become players, in the position to make a commercial-looking movie with name stars, crane shots and perfect Skywalker Ranch sound, with the two of them making their acting debuts starring in the leads.

It’s not that I’m mocking the hunger of the artists. For that matter, baseball isn’t a bad preparation for filmmaking. Buster Keaton used to think up strategies while playing a few innings. And Ron Shelton, writer-director of Bull Durham, played with the O’s farm team. The meditative state induced by The Pastime has for years inspired artists. But Millers’ implicit threat, the line they draw in the sand—the pose that says “finance our film or we’ll kick your ass” . . . that’s something new.

Two 1990s fiascos predicted this aggro method of indie film financing. One is recorded in producer John Pierson’s book Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes (1996); the other is the subject of Tony Montana and Mark Brian Smith’s documentary Overnight (2004). Pierson’s book, on the beginning of the indie film bubble, tells of his disenchantment with a client: Rob Weiss, first-time director of the film Amongst Friends. This was a crime film, set in the leafier suburbs of Long Island. Weiss was careful to play his tale as first-hand experience. Shortly before Amongst Friends made it to 1993’s Sundance Film Festival, he told a Premiere magazine reporter that he would neither confirm or deny having killed someone during his wilder years as a young man. (Sensibly, Weiss told the New York Observer in 2007 that he’d been misquoted.)

Meanwhile Pierson (who later denounced Weiss and his producers at length) tried to find the perfect way to give Weiss street cred in the poster. Pierson even considered the following tag line: “They grew up/in a suburban world of big houses/nice cars and nice families/they wanted something money couldn’t buy./Danger.” In the end, it was the investors who took the danger, when the film opened to shrugs and mutual recriminations.

Overnight, which debuted at Sundance ’04, is the documentary saga of Troy Duffy. Duffy is seen writing and directing the Irish gangster film The Boondock Saints while sizzling in the torments of development hell. He’d seemingly got the dream deal: $300,000 for his script, a $15 mil budget, final cut—“It’s like something out of the movies,” USA Today crowed, when announcing the signing on the front page; here again was the implication that the deal for a major motion picture was more important than the subject itself. Sadly, the deal soon dissolved after it had made its splash, and Duffy and his colleagues made it worse by badmouthing dealmaker Harvey Weinstein to various cameras.   

The drift of Overnight is prejudicially, if succinctly, summed up by one commentator at IMBD: “There is nothing more enjoyable than watching a very mean and terrible person getting what he deserves.” The person in question, according to the commentator, is not Harvey Weinstein. Duffy later described Montana and Smith’s Hard Copy-ish documentary as “a back stab.” If only he hadn’t had the cameras following him for years, Duffy could have claimed he was misquoted.

Watching Overnight, one develops a grain of sympathy for Duffy, even as he weathered his temporary fame laying drunk on sidewalks, stiffing his brother, and cackling over the topless sunbathers at Cannes. Despite the evidence of what’s on screen in Boondock Saints, Duffy must have had some professionalism that drew people to him—in Overnight, we see worthwhile actors like Billy Connelly and Willem Dafoe taking Duffy’s direction without protest.

Was this because Duffy had experience with ultraviolence from things he’d seen on the street, man? Weiss had been a club promoter. Duffy, like the Miller Brothers, had been a bar bouncer. Duffy’s line to a producer: “I’m just a poor kid from Boston who never had anything in his life,” insisting on that million-to-one shot that the movies dote on.

Happy endings all around: eventually, Weiss became a regular producer and writer on Entourage. And Duffy released the sequel to Boondock Saints last October, after the original became a cult favorite in minimum-security prisons and frat houses nationwide. The sequel Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day got similar reviews to the first one, though the typically easy-going A. O. Scott gave it a pass. Not that it matters. As a Boondock Saints fave-raver named Ashley Pratt summed up at Cinematical.com: “Screw the critics. I never listen to them. Movie (sic) are a form of art.”

While the Millers were blitzing the Bay Area media with Touching Home, after I’d received my second free copy of their memoir in the mail, I came across Michael Tully’s “Take Back” Manifesto online. In excerpt it read: “We realize that bringing any film into fruition, however great or small the budget, is an outrageously difficult task. We realize this, and yet we don’t care . . . From this point forth, we are only interested in the film itself. By marketing your marketing, you are only alienating us.”

Tully is a filmmaker, not a critic. When I got in touch with him, I was astonished to find out that he’d never heard of the Millers or Either You’re In Or You’re In the Way. Tully told me his manifesto was the direct result of attending too many panels regarding financing, crowd-sourcing and the use of Twitter to flog indie films. At panels, for a few hundred bucks a pop, striving filmmakers can hear the latest thoughts on how to form an audience for a movie with no stars and no advertising.

Response to the “Take Back” manifesto came thick and fast on the Internet. Journalist Courtney Sheehan suggested that what Tully the blogger proposed was a gag order prohibiting filmmakers from publicizing their films over social media and panels. Social media may be the future for the struggling no-budget filmmaker. But isn’t the larger implication of Tully’s manifesto unignorable? Isn’t he arguing, sensibly, that it’s the art of the movie that counts, not the art of the deal?

Critics have been all too guilty in building up the mystique of the renegade deal-maker. Ever since the 1990s we listened, heads nodding like bobblehead dolls, passing on the hagiography of the Indie Film Revolution. Robert Rodriguez—sometimes an intrepid maker of lowbrow entertainments, sometimes a profoundly commercial filmmaker whose Spy Kids films are one box of Trix short of a cereal commercial—flogged the tale of how he submitted himself to medical experiments to raise the money for his movies. Spike Lee used his MasterCard as the master’s tool to dismantle the master’s house. TV’s Project Greenlight, the first reality/contest show making a competitive sport out of filmmaking, urged us that the real action was in the deal memo. The nut-cutting and telephone-screaming were far more urgent than the actual films developed from the show: Stolen Summer, The Battle of Shaker Heights, and Feast. Remember them?

Of course deprivation could conceivably make a filmmaker more sensitive as opposed to more desperately aggro. Consider writers like Dickens and Zola, or filmmakers like Chaplin, Capra, Jean Vigo, Bill Douglas, Mizoguchi and Naruse, deprived artists who turned their poverty into soul, instead of using that tough past to flaunt their gats and pose as “the biggest hard-on in the room,” in Duffy’s phrase in Overnight.

Toughness is like sensitivity—it’s never a good idea to boast you’ve got it. The supplicant filmmaker, like the hospital intern, like the new recruit at boot camp, has to be pressured to show that he won’t crack under the strain. But it’s not the pressure process that’s interesting; it’s the grace under the pressure. And of course, it’s the cracks that are interesting too. As that Leonard Cohen verse goes, the cracks are where the light comes through.

Why ultimately worry about first-timers like the Millers? Simple. It’s because of what will inevitably come next. Stories of sacrifice were always good copy, so naturally they’ll be topped by far more pugnacious filmmakers in the years to come. If one budding director jumps off the roof to promote his film, why wouldn’t another one jump off of a cliff? And the long violin sonata, from the first pitch meeting to the last interviews, makes it all too easy for the public to laugh. It encourages the sadistic fantasy of saying, “I don’t know how hard your film was to make, but I can tell you how hard it was to watch.”

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