Fast, Cheap and Indie: The Rise of New York's Next Big Filmmakers

9:06 AM PST 03/26/2013 by Jordan Zakarin
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From Left: Sophia Takal, Lawrence Levine, Caroline White, Alex Karpovsky, Jennifer Predger, Onur Tukel, Alex Ross Perry

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.

The list of participants is sprawling, like an in-progress three-dimensional web with threads connecting actors, filmmakers, projects and friends that is being endlessly spun, names falling off the list as others are added; some are in the thick of it, others more peripheral players. Prediger estimates there are four dozen to six dozen people in her immediate and peripheral professional orbit at the moment, a tenuous count that could change in a month.

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The combinations of collaborators are endless, in part because the group has produced films in a bulk that suggests they might just be assembly-line robots disguised in thrift shop chic. Takal and Levine pitch their friends’ work as part of an effort to project faces, bodies and points of view -- especially feminist perspectives -- that otherwise might get shunned by perfection-obsessed Hollywood. Green, Takal's directorial debut, won several festival awards, including the emerging woman prize at 2012's SXSW.

When Levine and Takal made Gabi on the Roof in July several years earlier, their actors were so unemployed that they could spend six months developing a script together for free.

"In some ways, I was living a dream," Levine says.

Given their charitable dedication, the cast and crew weren’t exactly thrilled to find that craft services was being supplied by dumpster diving behind bagel stores. (“It was its own bag of garbage; there was nothing else in it, and they put the expiration dates on them,” Takal assures). Eventually, despite the film’s minimal budget, the couple began ordering burritos every day to quell any vocal displeasure, sticking the tab on a credit card.

That would be unthinkable to the actors in Schechter's next film.

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He just wrapped production on his adaptation of Elmore Leonard's book The Switch, which he wrote on spec five years ago. The book is the first in the series that inspired Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. That should make for both extra publicity and nervous comparisons, but the good news is that while Robert De Niro and Samuel L. Jackson headlined Tarantino’s 1997 film, Schechter’s cast is just as starry: Jennifer Aniston, Tim Robbins, John Hawkes and Will Forte take the leading roles.

The project, a genre piece set in the ’70s, just completed shooting in Connecticut on a $12 million budget. To a director coming off a bare-bones $60,000 production shot largely in apartments and public spaces, that's like being handed the keys to Disney World. To put in perspective the film industry’s economic disparity, a major financial jump for Schechter is still a "little" film to his stars, who venture into the indie world for its promise of creative freedom.

On Supporting Characters, "I didn't have a props department or special effects department or huge art department," he says, contrasting that last production with his most recent. "I didn't know what a lot of those jobs really were. It sounds great, it looks great, there were no takes that weren't usable because the focus was soft or the sound was messed up. When you're working with expert people, it's all down to you."

Among other things, he marvels at the on-site chefs and fresh food provided on set every day.

While there was some comfort in being able to hide behind the inevitable faults of working on a low-budget film with friends, Schechter says he was prepared for the jump, even if he was at first apprehensive about giving notes to his A-listers. Luckily, there weren't many of those required; in particular, he raves about Aniston, who plays the film's centerpiece, Mickey Dawson, an unhappy housewife with an abusive husband (Robbins).

"It's the best work she's ever done, and she’ll blow people away," Schechter enthuses. "She's so talented and I was crying while watching it. … It's just what people want to see [Aniston] do."

Prediger was gobsmacked by her time in Connecticut with the film; she has a small part in the Aniston-led movie, as the assistant to Forte’s character.

"I’ve had to do my own wardrobe and my own hair and own makeup in everything I’ve done before," she says with a laugh. "I got to the set, and they walked me to a trailer and I was like, horrified. I didn’t feel comfortable, and I was like, 'I can’t go in there.' And they said, ‘Do you want to go back to the trailer and change your clothes?’ when I was getting my hair and makeup done. And I said, 'No, no, no, I’ll just do it right here."

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