'Equate Being a Director with Being a Producer': 4 Indie Filmmakers Share Survival Secrets
How do you survive as an indie filmmaker? We heard it from the greats.
At NYFF 2016, a panel of accomplished independent filmmakers came together to share both personal challenges and keys to survival. It was a great mix: director Roger Ross Williams (Life Animated), cinematographer Ellen Kuras (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), director Ira Sachs (Little Men), and actor-turned-director Rose McGowan (Dawn). Each one of these artists is fiercely independent; each one of them has had to fight hard to survive. All value their own original voice far more than money or fame.
So how do they survive in the indie world? A mix of difficulties overcome—part harrowing, part exhilarating—and wisdom gained. By the end of the panel, one thing was clear: none of these artists would trade creative freedom for the studio system, and all of them had advice for aspiring filmmakers. Below are the high points of their advice.
Roger Ross Williams: "Be passionate"
When asked what keeps him moving forward, Roger Ross Williams was insistent: "For me, it has to be a story that is so deeply personal, and so painful to make, that you have to do it. That’s what will carry you through the long journey as a filmmaker.."
Take it from a man whose passion has gotten him far. Williams was not only the first African-American to win an Academy Award for a documentary short (Music by Prudence, 2010), but also the first African-American director to win for producing a film, short, or feature. He has since directed two independent feature-length documentaries, God Loves Uganda (2013) and Life, Animated (2016), both of which were nominated for and won numerous awards on the festival circuit.
Williams started off in mainstream media as a journalist and producer for TV Nation, ABC News, NBC News, CNN, PBS, Comedy Central, and the Sundance Channel. He was miserable. "I like to say I’m a recovering journalist because I hated it," he said. "I was frustrated working for the man."
He recalled covering the Sundance Film Festival in the late ‘90s and interviewing all the filmmakers in competition: Neil LaBute for In The Company of Men (1997) and Darren Aronofsky for Pi (1998), among others. This was a turning point. "I was so inspired and blown away by interviewing all these filmmakers that I told myself that one day I would be on the other side of the camera," said Williams. "So I quit, took whatever I had in the bank and went to Africa because I’d never been. I just dove in."
"I had a really negative experience with my first Oscar win."
"When I started Music by Prudence, it was such freedom. My second day in Africa I was interviewing Prudence, and I was thinking to myself, 'This is the greatest story of my life.'" Prudence, a severely disabled African native, grew up in a world in which everyone believed she’d been cursed by witchcraft. She rose above it to play music. "There was just such raw, emotional beauty in what she was saying," said Williams. "I came back from Zimbabwe and showed it to Sheila Nevins at HBO. She said, 'This is gonna win the Oscar.' And she was right."
But even after the Oscar win, life wasn’t easy for Williams. "You think, 'I’m gonna get all these calls, all this money,'" he recalled, "but no one called me. No agents. My phone did not ring, and I still had to struggle to make my next film. Had to apply for grants, get rejected. And on top of that, I got 'Kanye’d at the Oscars': an executive ran up and stole the moment from me. It’s on YouTube. So I had a really negative experience with my first Oscar win."
Even so, Williams kept at it—and persistence paid off. First came a feature-length doc, God Loves Uganda. "In the process of making my next film, I met my producer Julie Goldman," Williams said. "I realized if you have a real producer and real team behind you, you can do this. It was a struggle, but we got it done. It was a success, and that made it possible to make my third film, Life, Animated. I got fully funded by A&E, so I could actually make this complex film."
Life, Animated is complex on multiple levels. The film tells the story of Owen Suskind, an autistic boy who loses his ability to speak at an early age and relearns it through his favorite Disney cartoons. But the animation goes beyond Disney: throughout the film, a series of original animated sequences pump up Owen's story with imaginative energy, helping the audience feel the same exuberance that summoned Owen’s inner voice forth.
In a sense, this parallels Williams’ own journey struggling to be heard as a filmmaker: it has a happy ending. "The whole entire process was a joy to do," Williams recounted, "because I finally had the backing of a studio to do it." The funding made the animation possible—and, according to Williams, that made all the difference. He got to work with the MacGuff visual effects studio in Paris, "an incredible company of young animators who rendered Owen’s story beautifully in animated reality."
Yes, funding helps, but that’s not all it takes. Williams has learned that docs are especially hard to fund, and take a long time to make. “Anyone can pick up the camera, but you also have to understand and respect the craft," he said. In his eyes, that doesn’t happen enough. "I’m now the Governor of the Documentary branch of the Academy, and we get about 150 docs every year, all hoping to win an Oscar. Most of them are made without passion and aren’t great. The ones that rise to the top are ones that filmmakers have dedicated sometimes six to 10 years of their lives to... stories they’d stop at nothing to tell."
Williams paused, then reassured his audience: "If you have that passion, you’re gonna be fine."
Ellen Kuras: "Do the project you need to do"
Like Williams, Kuras knew she was an outlier right from the start: women are still very much a minority in the industry, especially in the world of cinematography. But through her career, she's learned that if you can hold on to your passion and refuse to give up, you may well beat the odds.
Kuras was the first woman to win multiple awards at Sundance Film Festival, and first to win the “Best Dramatic Cinematography” award— three separate times. Now considered one of the best cinematographers working today, Kuras has collaborated with Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Sam Mendes, Rebecca Miller, and Martin Scorsese, to name a few.
How did all this unfold? "I was trying to break into three very different worlds: the indie world, the doc world, and the studio world," she said. "It was unusual for a woman at that time, and especially for someone in the indie world. And it was really hard to make a living with docs. But it wasn’t about the money. It was about the ideas and what I wanted to do."
Kuras is best known, perhaps, for her collaboration with director Michel Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman on the cult classic, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). But, like Williams, even after initial success, life was tough.
Kuras recalled the challenges that followed. "Ten years ago, right after I did Eternal Sunshine, there were a whole lot of people clamoring for me to shoot their movies," she said. "But my very close friend and collaborator Tom Kalin wanted to do Savage Grace (2007), and I’d promised we’d do a second film together [After Swoon (1992), which won Kuras one of her Sundance awards]." So she turned down 10 movies—films with several million-dollar budgets. "My agent thought I was absolutely out of my fucking mind," she said. "And then, unfortunately, Tom’s fell through. I kept myself busy with other projects and a lot of commercials, and then Tom’s film came up again the following year. Again I waited, but it still didn’t happen—that’s how the movie industry goes."
While Kalin’s film did end up getting made, it was not in the cards for Kuras. But instead of letting the disappointment get to her, she used it as a life lesson. "Do the project you need to do," she said.
That following year, she resolved to finish her thesis project after 20 years of neglect. "It was hanging over me," Kuras explained. The film, which she had started as a grad student at NYU in the early ‘80s, was a documentary about a Laotian family in America called Nerakhoon (2008), Laotian for "betrayal."
"The film was about what happens to the people whom we get to fight our wars for us overseas," Kuras elaborated. "Because the war in Iraq was so hot and heavy at the time, I thought, 'We’re doing the same thing [to the Iraquis] that we did to those people in Southeast Asia.' I decided I had to finish that film... I couldn’t do any other films, for my own peace of mind."
"Don’t worry about being too personal; there will be a certain universality that people will be able to identify with."
This was Kuras’s directorial debut. "It was really tough to put that film out because people knew my work as a cinematographer," she said. "It was the first time my own voice was being heard, and I had to ask myself, 'What am I saying to the world?'"
It turned out that Kuras was right to trust her instincts: the film was nominated for a Primetime Emmy. "The message? It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been working on a project," said Kuras. "Don’t give up on it, because that’s your original idea, and it’s never too late. When you have a story to tell, we wanna hear it! Remember where you come from. And don’t worry about being too personal; there will be a certain universality that people will be able to identify with, that will touch them."
"But most important of all," she warned, "keep your passion there in front of you. That’s the driving force in the independent world. Remember that when you lose all hope, the way I did. I paid a lot for my own film, but I knew it had to get out there, so I took out a big loan against my own house. That’s what it takes."
"Not recommended—don’t take a loan out like that," Williams interjected. "There are better ways to keep it personal."
Ira Sachs: "Love your peers; you'll need each other"
Narrative feature director Ira Sachs, whose film Little Men premiered at this year’s Sundance, agreed with both Williams and Kuras, then added a few rules of his own.
"First, make a community for yourself," he said. "Devote yourself to other people who are making movies. You should care about them because, eventually, you will all need each other."
"Second, don’t go into this ahistorically; watch a lot of movies," he contiued. "And third, make it happen. The big moment for me was when I recognized that it’s very important to equate being a director with being a producer. To not expect anyone else to be your parent, to take care of you. Once I understood that deeply, that was when I had an agency to make movies."
"Equate being a director with being a producer. [Don't] expect anyone else to be your parent, to take care of you."
Sachs recalled applying to NYU, USC, and UCLA grad schools his senior year of college, and getting rejected by all three. At the time, he felt like a failure. But as he sees it now, the rejection turned out to be some kind of "grace," because it got him to move to New York, "where being a filmmaker meant being an artist. There was a history here of people making extremely personal films—we took ourselves seriously without knowing where that was going. It was a totally different attitude, the opposite of the industry."
After Sachs finished his first feature, The Delta, in 1996, he hit a wall. "It took me nine years to make my next film," he admitted. But he figured it out: "You have to make films about things you care about, things you know more about than anyone else."
His timing was excellent: during the economic follies of the Bush era, there was an influx of money in the indie film sphere. "It was a lot like real estate: individuals were investing huge amounts of money in film," remembered Sachs. "I was able to make Forty Shades of Blue in 2005, and relatively quickly got Married Life off the ground in 2006.
But then came the “Big Short” of the indie film history—inflated investments and, suddenly, no returns. "In 2008, I was working on a film with Oren Moverman, which had Kirsten Dunst, Michael Shannon, Anton Yelchin, Liv Tyler, Melanie Griffith, Eddie Clarkson, and Ben Foster… and we couldn’t raise one dollar for that film," he said. "Everything changed. Of the people I started out with, 90% are not doing it anymore. It was a big loss to American cinema, both economically and creatively."
"That was also the time of the Writers’ Strike," Kuras chimed in. "That was a pivotal moment in the whole of cinema history." As studios were looking for new ways to make money, TV took over—first reality, then episodic. Studios then co-opted the indie world by creating their own boutique sidebars. "Studios looked at indie film and saw films made with relatively low budgets making lots of money, so they decided to establish their own ‘independent’ branches," explained Kuras. "So the whole landscape has changed now."
Sachs concurred. "Independent film has become mainstream," he said. "It’s now a genre within a larger subset of Hollywood cinema, and that means that truly independent voices are being stifled. An independent voice is not easy to sell, and therefore not easy to make. I came here in ‘88 thinking I was gonna be one in a group of peers who were artists making things, that’s become harder than anyone imagined."
How have they coped? This past year, Kuras was one of the cinematographers for HBO’s hit miniseries, The Night Of. And Sachs turned to films with lower budgets.
"I made an 8-minute documentary film, Last Address, about a group of NYC artists who died of AIDS," he said. "I couldn’t raise three million dollars but I raised three thousand dollars, and I made a film from my own voice—as a gay man—a film able to speak to a community. It was also strategic because I was able to find financing and support within a particular culture."
Rose McGowan: "Find pants that fit"
These are questions that preoccupy Rose McGowan as well. A self-described maverick who has spent most of her career as an actress (Scream, The Black Dahlia, Charmed), McGowan felt her voice was being stifled by Hollywood.
"I loved the totality of film, telling a story,” she said, "but my stories were just at a very different taste level than the people I was working for. I wound up in some ridiculous movies, but at least I was able to make deep performance art on someone else’s budget and time. I did as much weird stuff as I could."
As she sees it now, she spent far too much time working on impersonal projects—ones she wasn’t passionate about. "Everyone was always telling me how lucky I was, but I couldn’t understand it," she continued. "I was very uncomfortable my whole entire career, like wearing wet pants that don’t fit."
Like Williams, McGowan felt oppressed by "the man," both figuratively and literally. "Men made up 96% of the DGA," she explained, "and they didn’t pay attention to all the departments; they didn’t have a deep grasp of filmmaking."
McGowan blamed it on hubris and misogyny. "I was working with a lot of very misogynistic men that were nasty, abusive directors," she said. "I was leaving my own brain and body to become a 1.5-dimensional character for their pleasure. For me, it became not living an authentic life. I began to hate acting."
"Put one foot in front of the other and keep going, even if it’s one step forward for every five steps back."
McGowan wanted to make her own films, but for a long time, that wasn’t an option. "In 2007-2008, that crash wiped out so many projects, and the industry was decimated," said McGowan. "It shrank tremendously. Everybody was struggling." She shrugged. What choice did she have? "I couldn’t make films because I had to make money. I had seven brothers and sisters, and most of my career was used to put them through school."
So McGowan kept acting. But by 2014, the economy had improved. She finally found a way to break free: directing the 17-minute short Dawn, a critically-acclaimed film that premiered at Sundance and can now be seen on YouTube.
The secret to her success? "I learned what not to do," she said, "from the misogynistic men I worked with. I learned on their time. I learned on days I wasn’t working as an actress. I would work with every department and really sink into it." She took what she learned and applied it to Dawn. "Having my own voice has been profoundly important," she said. "I had very specific ideas about things. I did the set design, for example. Then Dawn was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, qualified for the Oscar, and it was amazing. I finally felt like, 'Oh, my pants fit right.'"
Directing hasn’t made her rich, but she’s happy. And she’s about to make her next film. "I just sold a script to Amazon that I’ll be directing," she said. "We’re in the development stage right now. But it’s not the money that matters. For me, it’s about having a voice. I don’t need another Marvel movie; I need thought."
As for advice for young filmmakers: "Put one foot in front of the other and keep going, even if it’s one step forward for every five steps back," McGowan said. "Lean into the wind, and most importantly, do it well. Consider every aspect of filmmaking. Consider yourself as a storyteller that is responsible for what you put out into the world, and make it good. It’s just as hard to make Bikini Car Wash 3, so you might as well not. And be curious about every character, their inner lives and what they want to say... especially about women characters!"
To put it more simply: Keep it personal. Trust your instincts. Hold on to that passion. And don’t give up.