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.
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.
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.
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."
One of Prediger’s old Nerve colleagues, the Chicago-based Joe Swanberg, has pumped out 14 microbudget movies in the last seven years, serving as a link between the New York community and the so-called mumblecore movement that was led by the Mark and Jay Duplass and Lynn Shelton in the mid-2000s, which many of the new breed cite as an inspiration.
Swanberg's next and most star-studded project could bring him the mainstream success that the Duplass brothers and friends have enjoyed during the past few years. Drinking Buddies, one of his two movies films slated for this year, stars Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick and New Girl’s Jake Johnson. It premiered at SXSW to positive reviews, with THR's John DeFore praising its "appealing cast and fine-tuned sexual tension." The film sold to Magnolia Pictures soon after its premiere.
Last year, Ry Russo-Young (who had a role in The Color Wheel) gained some notice for directing John Krasinski, Olivia Thirlby and Rosemarie DeWitt in Nobody Walks, a film written by Dunham. A small domestic drama about a filmmaker engaged in an affair with his assistant, it employed plenty of long stares and realistic dialogue.
These successes couldn’t come any sooner, as the system has left many of the main players far from secure, working restaurant and freelance gigs to cobble together rent in the country’s most expensive city. Many go without health insurance, tempting fate in a town of taxicab fender benders and germ-filled subway poles.
Yet the advances in the food chain present a fundamental tension, something with which each and every filmmaker in the scene (and cinema's century-plus history) struggles to some degree. It comes up over and over again: Is there a happy medium between raging against the machine and adopting some of its tried-and-true rules? As they describe the bare-bones shoots, which they both love and dread, and ponder the opportunities that more fame can offer, they debate the definition of integrity. How far can they buy into the system before selling out?
For now, one of the biggest distributors of the group’s work is Tribeca Film, a branch of the growing downtown organization that also puts on the Tribeca Film Festival each spring. Their newest release, Somebody Up There Likes Me, is directed by Bob Byington and stars Keith Poulson, both of whom have cameos in Color Wheel; Sheil plays a small role in their film. Jess Weixler, another New Yorker in the thick of the scene, co-stars, as does Parks and Recreation's Nick Offerman, who served as an executive producer.
Tribeca puts the movies into limited release -- sometimes in just a few theaters -- and leans heavily on the emerging instant-video market. The hard reality is that few people have seen these movies, and few have turned a profit. Another prominent distributor is Matt Grady's Factory 25, which put out Color Wheel, and Green and next will release Sun Don't Shine, a film starring Sheil and directed by Amy Seimetz. The movie won a special jury prize at last year's SXSW.
Perry's friend recently sent him a geeky teenage podcast that focused on The Color Wheel, which he found both surprising and thrilling. Yes, he'll take Hollywood's money, but it won't come in exchange for his soul.
With eyes fixed on that north star, he's willing to wade into the system. The game plan is to leverage any upcoming fame to finance those passion projects. Perry is more than happy to write and consult on big-budget studio screenplays and do publicity, both because he loves working and it makes the more artistic endeavors easier to afford. He admits that those projects might never find an audience larger than nerdy podcasters and festival goers -- though The Color Wheel did have a bush with A-list fame, with a clip played for a star-packed room at the Indie Spirits.
On the other end of the spectrum, more than perhaps anyone else, Levine fears that bigger budgets, audiences and notoriety will come at the cost of creative acuity and compromise his message. Levine recalls an encounter with a ranting homeless man on the subway a day earlier: "He said if he sees a Hollywood star, he’s going to kill them -- even though they’re already dead inside. … He made me think about what I'm trying to do."
He turns this existential point over again and again, thinking out loud and struggling to stake out just where he stands on the question of publicity and conventional measures of success. He cites the ’70s and ’80s punk and no wave movement in the city, which was strenuously anti-commercial but also strived to be famous. When his next movie goes into production April 8 in Brooklyn, it'll have scene successes Kim Sherman (the producer behind Sun Don't Shine and the Prediger-starring festival hit A Teacher) and McCabe Walsh (SXSW's Burma, which starred Girls' Christopher Abbott) helping guide the way.
Practical financial concerns also come into play. Says Levine: "You’re afraid of being like, 'I’ve spent 20 years making movies and I’ve made x amount of money, and if I want to have a family, that’s not gonna cut it. What am I gonna do?' "
He adds: "It’s obviously a labor of love for me. There have been a lot of more lucrative, less difficult career choices that I could have chosen."
Perry actually is planning on making use of those concerns this summer -- though in a not-totally sympathetic way.
After the pilot, his next project will be a film "about how horrible it is to live in the creative strata in New York." From the basic sketch, the idea seems destined to either burn his bridges or be an on-point satire that his friends will grudgingly love. "It'll be about the difficulty people face living in a bubble of creative minds and creative personalities and the pain and jealousy and confusion and phony behavior that sort of percolates around those sorts of personalities, and … those being my impressions of New York, and my impressions of anywhere creative people are valued unnecessarily strongly."
Onur Tukel, another Red Flag co-star, is undaunted by the bumps his path promises. He made his 2012 ensemble comedy Richard’s Wedding for $10,000; the city’s streets, subways and parks served as sets, while the movie's producers doubled as production assistants -- which at a Hollywood studio would only happen during an episode of Undercover Boss. And yet, he revels in that close-quarters creativity.
"It’s kind of like crack," he offers. "I’ve never done crack, but it’s the same -- I’m addicted."
For now, he scrapes by with work as a freelance graphic designer and writing children’s books as his distributor is hoping to turn such tiny films into a viable business.
Whether this group changes the entertainment landscape or becomes just another footnote remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: These filmmakers have nothing to lose.
"I’m at this point where I just really want to do this and I want to make it happen, and there’s that saying that, if you have something to fall back on, you will. And so I’m just trying fall forward," says Prediger, who next star alongside Sheil in the film Pollywogs. "It’s not a great sustainable model if you want to get married and have kids on a certain schedule, but they say, if you want to be an actor, make sure there’s nothing else you can do first. And I feel like there’s nothing else I can do."