Fast, Cheap and Indie: The Rise of New York's Next Big Filmmakers
From dumpster diving for craft services to making movies starring Jennifer Aniston, here's the inside story on the struggles and triumphs of a scene that extends far beyond Lena Dunham.
Lawrence Levine and Sophia Takal, a young married filmmaking team, sit in the corner of a Brooklyn speakeasy, nursing a pair of elaborate mixed drinks filled to the brim of martini glasses. The order was expensive, but they feel OK indulging here and there; after several years of struggle, things are looking up. Their next film, a genre whodunit called Wild Canaries, will be their most expensive and ambitious to date, and several friends and colleagues in their orbit are hitting it big -- especially a once-unknown actress they gave a bit part in a movie four years ago named Lena Dunham.
Dunham is part of a small underground group of filmmakers who are carving a place in New York's proud indie film tradition, which spans from Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma to Spike Lee and Darren Aronofsky. The city has invested billions in attracting big-budget productions, but this young, microbudget, art school community has used technology, pocket change and a willingness to do the dirty work to establish a sub-scene on its own.
The youth uprising has come without the support of deep-pocketed financiers or film studios, and now, like Dunham several years ago, many involved find themselves at what could be career-defining crossroads.
During his time as a film student at NYU and for several years after, Alex Ross Perry worked behind the counter at East Village indie retail haunt Kim's Video. For all the nation-high tuition payments he sent the downtown hub of higher learning, it was the film archive-like store where he got his true education. There, Perry met people who were making their own films, which countered the school's emphasis on climbing the traditional Hollywood ladder in "a permission-based system."
Inspired, Perry recruited a handful of co-workers to help him make his first film, a $15,000 farce called Impolex, which he shot on 16mm film. After earning slots at festivals and modest attention, he put together $25,000 to make last year's black-and-white road-trip dramedy The Color Wheel.
"I was the only on-set producer who had any clue about the schedule," he says, beginning to rattle off his jack-of-all-trades list of responsibilities on that film's production. "I was the AD; the on-set producer, dealing with locations; the line producer; the writer-director; the actor; and the hospitality coordinator for transportation and lodging."
Had it been a disaster, the young filmmaker says he might have given up the dream; instead, Color Wheel proved to be his big break. It looks its budget, slightly grainy and colorless, but the storytelling shined through, earning an Indie Spirit Award nomination and critical kudos. Now, still just 28, Perry is developing his own dramedy series for HBO called The Traditions, while plotting to film another feature this summer.
Perry and his Traditions co-creator Kate Lyn Sheil, will join at HBO not just Dunham but their shared friend Alex Karpovsky, who has emerged as a favorite featured player on Girls. He first met Dunham at SXSW in 2009 and starred soon after as the quasi-love interest in Tiny Furniture. Karpovsky also plays Takal’s fiance in Supporting Characters, a well-reviewed new comedy by Dan Schechter and Tarik Lowe about two film editors and their romantic foibles. Lowe plays one half of the duo, and Schechter says Karpovsky basically acts as his substitute in the movie, as they're both "tall, a bit lanky and Jewish."
Dunham also has a small role in Characters as Karpovsky's bumbling assistant.
"We all know each other, we all see each other at the same festivals every year," Karpovsky says. "Making movies isn’t necessarily cheap, and you need to rely on favors and friends to help you through the process. Many times I’ve helped boom people’s movies in order to get a free camera from them or for them to act in my movie for a day."
There is a meta, self-reflexive nature to many of the movies that came out of the scene during the past four years; lo-fi and made on shoestring budgets, protagonists often were lost (and sometimes unlikable) millennials, skewering perceptions of an emotionally stunted generation. The films zeroed in on the absurdities of everyday existence, human blemishes and sexual discomfort, seeking to both commiserate with and challenge the audience.
On occasion, the projects were more sketch than fully realized features. They don’t carry the overt political and social charge of their rabble-rousing NYC predecessors and, like even Dunham's hits, have been called out for their narcissism and navel-gazing, as well as less-than-stellar production values. In some instances, the topical criticism certainly wouldn’t be entirely unfair, depending on the film. Then again, few major Hollywood films seek to tackle bigger issues, either.
A writer-director himself, Karpovsky released two films in February. One was the semi-improvised road-trip comedy Red Flag, which was shot for $10,000 during a Southern swing for a screening tour the filmmaker was making to promote an earlier movie called Woodpecker. Nights were spent in fleabag motels that doubled as sets, and most tech work was done by castmembers, with plenty of snafus and post polish required. Red Flag and Karpovsky's other movie -- a drama called Rubberneck -- premiered at Lincoln Center, just a dozen blocks from the billboards touting bland big-budget studio adventures.
Red Flag, which earned solid critical reviews, also co-stars Schechter's girlfriend, Jennifer Prediger, as Karpovsky's slightly unhinged one-night stand. A former environmental journalist who turned to film after finding herself unable to handle working for George W. Bush’s USDA ("we visited a saw mill on Earth Day," she sighs), Prediger helped produce a 21-year-old Dunham’s first venture, a web series for Nerve.com back in 2007.