January 2004

The Independent Spirit


Director Michael Apted

The simplest definition of an independent movie is one made outside the studio system. Yet, I've just been on one such film where I felt a whole lot less independent than on any studio project I've ever done. I spent over a year working with an excellent writer, Jeff Vlaming, on a script and getting actors to commit to the material and to my passion. I used the package to try and raise finance as fast as I could before they had to take paying jobs. I did very well. Four world-class actors — Juliette Binoche, Laurence Fishburne, Gary Sinise and Sam Ball — were up for it and stuck by me for months and months. Some money came in; enough to move the process forward — do a budget ($13 million), find locations, design sets, choose costumes and even get in a week's rehearsal.

The film started to come to life and at one point we thought we'd found the Holy Grail — an American distribution deal. We packed our bags and I was en route to London to finish pre-production and begin shooting when the whole thing fell apart. The distribution deal wasn't a deal; it was smoke and mirrors. There was no real money. Our first investor stopped investing and we spent a month like puppets on a string, money in, money out, money in, money out before we were finally put out of our misery and the project laid to rest. It was heartbreaking but I'm pretty sure there are plenty of stories like this. The causes are complex but in the end less about finding distribution deals than a breakdown in the foreign pre-sales markets. They were the financial tent poles of today's independent film, and when they collapsed the genre took a serious hit.

But I refuse to believe that this is the end of the story. It seems more likely that the indies of the last decade have been a chapter in something much bigger. Independent filmmaking is a state of mind, which reveals itself to each generation in different forms. The influences in my working life are a case in point, for it was the constantly changing face of independent films that inspired, educated and formed me.

I fell in love with movies when I was 16 after I wandered into a screening of Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries. A light went on in my head. Up until then, movies had been social events, a Saturday night out, but now something powerful and precious came into my life. Bergman showed me that film didn't only entertain, but could also engage the mind and the emotions.

There was no shortage of inspiration after that, for once the appetite was created there was plenty to feast on: Truffaut, Godard, Resnais, Fellini, Antonioni, Olmi, Buñuel, Renoir, Ray, Kurosawa, Ozu. The list went on and on. Each of these filmmakers had a distinctive voice and nothing was allowed to get in the way of it.

My parents had wanted me to be a family lawyer, so to keep them quiet I got a law degree. Much as I dreaded having to do it for a living, studying law awakened an interest in matters of justice and injustice, of fairness and unfairness, and of social issues. My taste in movies became more specific and I was drawn to the Italian neorealists. Theirs were the dramas of ordinary, everyday life, films by Rossellini, De Sica, Visconti and Pasolini, powerful fusions of drama and documentary. About this time I started in the business as a trainee at Granada Television based in the North of England.

My first assignment was as a researcher on a documentary about the British class system as seen through the eyes of a group of 7 year olds. That first job was to become the cornerstone of my whole career — the Up series, seven yearly visits to the same group and in 2005 I go back for the seventh film, 49 Up.

Apted (left) with cast and crew on the set of 35 Up

Granada was small, very independent, and mercifully free of bureaucracy so it was "on the job" training — news, magazine shows, sport, religion, cooking, rock and roll and soap opera. The sheer range and variety of that apprenticeship set me on course for a double-barreled career, fiction and nonfiction.

Europeans gave me the inspiration to make movies, but it was Americans who showed me how to do it. As I was starting my career, American cinema of the '70s became the great influence. Here was a new spirit of independence — work done within the studio system but every bit as original and daring as the films of my youth. There was one big difference — lines around the block. Filmmakers were talking to people and the studios were part of the equation, a creative fusion of art and commerce. The vision of directors, writers and actors was given free rein. Take a look at the lists of Academy nominations from that period and weep at how good it all was.

I wanted a piece of all this and eventually got to America. My first film Coal Miner's Daughter fitted the bill but the timing was off. Things had started to change, the studios got greedy and bloated and the visionaries lost their way. Budgets and fees were out of control; the financial risks became so great that courage all but went out the window. But you couldn't keep that independent spirit quiet for long and sure enough, up popped Sundance, sex, lies, & videotape, Miramax and a new generation of "indie" films.

Nowadays, these films have the best and worst of everything. You choose and control your material without the strictures of the studio system, have a real say in casting and cutting, and are central to every decision, but, in the midst of all the heavy lifting, it's easy to find yourself in confusing and chaotic battles with flaky distribution and treacherous finance. The ground gets sucked from underneath you.

Studio movies aren't necessarily walks in the park either. It's a joy to have corporate marketing skills working for you, and there's no feeling quite like knowing that your movie is playing somewhere in the world every minute of the day. There are people of vision within the system, who want to see good work, but the burdens are familiar — budget pressures, micro management, excessive previews and the specter of the opening weekend box-office tally. When those pressures come hurtling along, I hanker for the open road and the documentary life.

Going back and forth between the structured world of narrative and nosing around in other people's lives dramatized the independent vs. studio issue for me. When you do a documentary there's no script, just an idea or an outline and you never know what you've got until you've finished getting it. You have to be light on your feet and learn to develop a sixth sense of when to push on and when to cut and run. You define and shape the material, and you're pretty much out there on your own. I vividly recall the culture shock of going straight from a crew of six making 42 Up to 900 for my James Bond film, The World Is Not Enough. There's a real sense of freedom when you're in a tiny group — camera, sound, electrics and researcher traveling around in a van, knocking on doors, hoping to be in the right place at the right time.

Sometimes, though, being as free as a bird isn't all it's cut out to be, and you need the sort of infrastructure that comes with a studio movie. I learned that lesson when I did a documentary and a movie about exactly the same subject — the battles between the American Indian Movement and the FBI on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in the early '70s. The documentary, Incident at Oglala, was quite dangerous as I was opening up all sorts of old wounds from a violent past. I needed the support systems from ADs, UPMs and studio management that you take for granted, and without it the film suffered. The shoot was chaotic; nobody trusted us, we were spread too thin and didn't have the wherewithal to win people over. The movie Thunderheart was a different story. I had many more tools to work with and the locals responded to the organization because they felt they were dealing with something substantial and real. The simple fact that we could pay people for their time and labor helped somewhat!

But there's a twist on that tale. We can skip the details but it involved being told to cut nearly 25% of this movie for television. It was at that point that my real love affair with the DGA started. I'd joined with Coal Miner's Daughter in '79 and valued the opportunities to meet other directors. It was reassuring and empowering to know that we all go through versions of the same strength-sapping dramas. But with Thunderheart I saw the Guild was made of sterner stuff. The staff and creative rights group came to my rescue, took on the studio that was mangling the movie, won the arbitration and all the appeals up to the 9th Circuit. It was an impressive and sustained show of power to protect my rights as a filmmaker. After this I became involved in all aspects of the Guild, and the rest is history.

Whatever the issues, whatever the circumstances, whatever the genre of film, it was the indie spirit that lit my fire. I grew up with the best of it, inside and outside America, and treasure its inspiration and fear for its current health. Will it find fresh blood in the theatrical arms of cable companies, or in a new bond with the studios and their "classic" division, or in some new alchemy that's just a gleam in the eye?
Be assured, as long as there are people out there who want to be challenged by movies, that independent spirit will never be far away.

Independent Voice

Profiles of independent directors sharing their visions and methods of making movies.