busybody neighbor of mine on MacDougal Alley once went to see The Thin Blue Line just to report back to the block that I had nothing to do with it. Not only is my name not found above the title, it's never been anywhere in the head credits. Sometimes if you sit patiently to the very end of the end credits you just might find sketchy evidence in the alphabetical thank-yous that I exist. And that's as it should be.
My local Hudson Valley art exhibitor once introduced me as a "bag man" for independent movies. Now I've been called a lot of peculiar things in print - guru, dealmeister, scout, shaman, veteran angel, ferret, Johnny Appleseed, kingmaker, a filmmaker's best friend, icon - almost always preceded by the adjective "indie." I think of myself as a film lover who got married in a theater while showing the wedding guests a movie. But "bag man?" I guess I forgot about the secret cash deliveries to the set in the middle of the night.
I did write Spike Lee a check for $10,000 to finish She s Gotta Have It, close a $3 million deal with a major film studio for Michael Moore's documentary Roger & Me, help make Slacker a household word, unleash Quick Stop clerks and fishy lesbians on screens all over the world, and take fifteen films to the almighty Sundance Film Festival. But I doubt that you know my name.
This book is really about the two dozen first-time filmmakers I've helped make a name for themselves, and a hundred others whose success stories I've observed at close quarters, and a thousand more whose work may not have ever gotten too far beyond the VCR in my office. This is their story, warts and all.
But it's also my story, one pilgrim's progress from 1984's Stranger Than Paradise, a film that pushed many new directors into production, to 1994's Pulp Fiction. These two films frame a remarkable decade for the American independent low-budget film, a decade whose third benchmark, Steven Soderbergh's 1989 debut, sex, lies, and videotape, neatly divides things right down the middle. His debut radically and demonstrably changed the business for all newcomers. Where it had been the exception for a first timer to have follow-up opportunities, it became the rule for the door to swing wide open for anyone who made the smallest splash in places like Sundance.
Kevin Smith made a big splash with Clerks and a bit of a belly flop with his second studio feature, Mallrats. At the tender age of twentyfour, he is the voice of "the filmmaker" throughout this text. His forebears provided the dance steps, but he still has his own distinct sense of rhythm. After spending hour upon hour talking with him and enjoying every minute of it, I invited him to collaborate on audiotape between Thanksgiving 1994 and Easter 1995. He would mock me if I described him with phony catchphrases like "generational spokesperson" or "postmodern totem" of indie filmmaking. But he is very young, although wise for his years, in an era where the median age for new videophile filmmakers keeps dropping all the time. (How young? I recently got a handwritten note on a work sample that said, "My mom urged me to contact you.") And he did emerge at the tail end of this decade with an acute awareness of his predecessors. Seeing Slacker on the day he turned twenty-one changed his world.
This book is not a how to, it's a how come. Even having said that, I don't necessarily have all the answers. When avant-garde filmmaking giant Stan Brakhage taught at NYU in the summer of 1975, I loved to hear him talk although I often felt befuddled. Luckily I didn't interrupt his obscure flow. One day a foolish film student broke in with a question and Brakhage responded cryptically with one of his trademark 2000 Year Old Man-style etymologies. He pointed out that the roots of the word "question" were "quest" and "shun." Consequently, he suggested, if you ask one, you're shunning the quest-not to mention bugging him. Unlike the impatient Mr. Brakhage, I welcome queries, disagreements, and, above all else, dialogue.
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