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.

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.

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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.

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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."

Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin

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