April 19–26, 2001
cover story|the festival of independents
This year’s FestIndies boasts three feature-length debuts. Making them was no easy feat.
"But what I really want to do is — direct."
By this point in the early 21st century, the phrase has become a punchline so corny Jay Leno would balk at it. But while everybody and his second cousin’s niece may fancy themselves budding Buñuels, it takes more than freeze-framing Inside the Actors Studio or letting audio commentaries play while you fold your laundry to pick up the finer points of making a movie. It’s become almost comically easy to pick up a camera, but crafting an interesting shot — let alone stringing a few of them together into a coherent narrative — takes talent. And the step from figuring that out to making a feature-length film is even greater.
So it says something about the maturity of the local filmmaking community that nearly a fifth of the over 100 entries for this year’s Festival of Independents were feature-length films, and three of them (as well as 21 shorts) were selected for inclusion in the festival, which runs April 29 through May 4. The annual showcase for local film actually predates the Festival of World Cinema, but has run in conjunction with the PFWC since its inception.
This year, as with the PFWC as a whole, FestIndies is a little bit different. Coordinated by City Paper and independently curated by Rich Goldberg and a panel of judges, FestIndies has, like the PFWC, added a competitive element, with awards being presented in six categories — Best Documentary Film, Best Narrative Film, Outstanding Achievement in Animation, Best Feature-Length Film, Best Experimental Film and Technical Excellence — at the Trocadero May 4 at 9 p.m.
The three features selected for the festival are American Chai, directed by Anurag Mehta (April 29, 7:15; May 1, 12:30 p.m., Ritz East); Everything for a Reason, directed by Vlas Parlapanides (May 4, 6:15 p.m., Ritz at the Bourse); and Something’s Happening to Robin Stark, directed by Gage Johnston (May 3, 9:30 p.m., International House). Though to a certain extent these low-budget learning experiences look like what they are, each benefits from having a well-informed hand on the tiller. There are plenty of mistakes you can make the first time out, and each of these directors will tell you all the things they’ll do better next time. (And they’re all planning on a next time.) But more important are all the things they got right.
The first question, of course, is where do you start? Although all three studied film in one degree or another, only Johnston went to film school, and she did that at 30, after building a career in Philadelphia theater. (She formerly ran the Red Heel and Simply Classic companies.) Mehta and Parlapanides studied production at Rutgers and Villanova respectively, but neither of their films betrays the cloistered, referential sensibility that often betrays a film school education.
While the movie industry’s still hungry for early-20s wünderkinder (though not as much as it used to be), all three took the time to learn the ropes before setting out on the long, hard road to featuredom. Mehta, 28, originally from Cherry Hill, interned at James Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment, then spent "four or five years" learning the ropes as a production assistant and script developer. The 28-year-old Parlapanides, a native of Seaside Park, NJ, detoured to Wall Street for two years, then set to work financing and shooting the short Across the Sea before turning in his pinstripes, shifting to odd jobs while honing his screenwriting skills. And Johnston, a 35-year-old Fairmount resident, augmented her theatrical directing skills by learning the production manager’s logistical craft on other people’s projects, and also directed the short Edward, Stella and the Machine.
Directing, Mehta recalls by cell phone from Los Angeles, "was something I always figured I could do. But I figured I’d better learn more before I actually did it. I worked on other people’s movies, and I worked on the business side of things, and I was constantly writing the whole time. Of course, as much as I thought I knew, there was, like, five times as much I didn’t know. But that’s always the case, I think. Once you’ve decided to go for it, then you just kinda roll with the things that come at you."
The next step, of course, is the script. Given that Mehta’s film tells the story of an Indian student at a New Jersey college who’s torn between his parents’ traditionalism and his devotion to his art (music), and Parlapanides’ is about an aimless 20-something balancing romantic anxiety with his attempts to write a screenplay, it’s clear both followed the maxim to write what you know. Robin Stark, on the other hand, is a surreal black comedy about a terminally ill woman (Jennifer Childs) whose weasely husband (Peter Pryor) cuts a bargain with Death to spare his own life at the expense of his wife’s. It is not, one might presume, autobiographical. But even Johnston has a confessional script filed in a drawer somewhere. Over sodas at the Griffin Café, she winces as she recalls: "I worked at Random House right out of school, and I wrote this script about this young idealist in the publishing industry. Oh, it was so obvious."
Next comes financing. Parlapanides called on friends, family, even fraternity brothers, also cashing in some relationships from his Wall Street days. Mehta turned to more straightforward investment types, benefiting from the late-’90s boom. "I went to a couple of people who had done really well in the stock market," he recalls, "and they kind of opened me up to their whole world. You seek out a few people you think you can go to, and more likely than not, they’ll be able to lead you to other people."
But neither benefited quite as much from the market’s upswing as did Johnston and company. Several months shy of shooting, after throwing fundraising parties and scraping together investments, Johnston still found herself short of the minimum necessary to pull the film off. (The final total was, she says with emphasis, "hundreds of thousands of dollars.") So she and her team simply plunged the film’s budget into the stock market and cashed in their chips when it was time to start shooting; given that this was the first half of 1999, they actually ended up with more than they thought they needed. Of course, this Dow-centric advice isn’t much good just at the moment. "I talked to some of the investors," Mehta admits, "and they told me, If you’d asked us now, we would have said no.’"
All three raised enough money (though still in the "microbudget" sub-$1 million range) to book a solid block of shooting time, ranging from Everything’s 19 shooting days to Robin Stark’s 32. But more important than securing that block of time is knowing how to use it; all three attest to the fact that a rigorous planning process is what makes a successful low-budget feature. "The one thing you have with an independent film is time," Parlapanides explains by phone from New York, "but only in the preproduction. You don’t have time when you’re shooting, because time costs money. But in the preproduction part, we spent some time, and really were prepared when we started shooting."
Of course, the necessary regimentation can make a filmmaker yearn for more carefree days. "With [my short], there was, like, one location, and we would hang out," Johnston sighs. "It was like, When we’re bored of being inside, we’ll go outside.’ You have to be so much more organized with a feature. Everything was locked down, because we had time constraints on every single thing."
The payoff, though, is right there on the screen. From Everything for a Reason’s elegant cross-cutting to American Chai’s slick, appealing 35mm visuals to Something’s Happening to Robin Stark’s feverish dream sequences, these are films that make much of their minuscule budgets. Of course, the directors speak in pained tones of the compromises they made, like Parlapanides, who rehearsed his actors for four weeks, regretting that he could sometimes only give them one or two takes on film. Or Mehta, recounting how they whisked their costly Steadicam from scene to scene to disguise the fact that they could only rent it for a day.
But if a successful film is one that establishes a sensibility, or gets right more than it gets wrong, they’re all successful films. And that’s not counting the fact that American Chai won the Audience Award at this year’s Slamdance (continuing the Philadelphia/ South Jersey dominance of that event), or that Everything for a Reason has won the support of Shooting Gallery head Larry Meistrich and noted indie-film angel Bob Hawk and may be on its way to a limited release, or that Johnston’s well on the road to financing her next project. Of course, next time out, each of them plans on a slightly less arduous budget, but that carries its own burdens as well. "The first one’s hard, but it’s easy as well," Mehta explains. "You don’t have to think about Is that kind of film really the best move for me?’ You just do it."