Independent Review: Independent Heart

I’ve recently been reading My First Movie: Take Two which interviews directors from around the globe about their first film, the story of how it got made, and how they ended up in a position to make a first feature film.  In past articles, I’ve discussed different techniques, equipment, and tricks for independent and low budget filmmakers to use in order to further their careers.  Today, after a few weeks away, I’m back to talk about the one thing any first time, young, or even experienced independent producers needs:  Passion.

The book interviews such directors as Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko), Takeshi Kitano (Violent Cop), and Sam Mendes (American Beauty) and it seems to me the main thing that got them through their first film experience was their passion for each project.  Kitano fell into directing after becoming a successful comedian in Japan.  Kelly came straight out of USC film school and made Donnie Darko at 24 years old. Mendes came out of the UK theater circuit where he started as a young man directing Dame Judy Dench.  The one common thread among all of these men when they were starting out was passion.   Each had an undying need to be the best in their field.  While all came from very different walks of life to the film medium, all have found great critical and financial success with their films.

So how exactly do a film student, a theater director and a Japanese comedian become some of the most celebrated directors worldwide?  The simple answer is passion.  In the field of independent films, nothing accomplishes more than simple passion.  Without it, everything is an uphill battle.  Even with passion, every turn in making an independent film is going to be an uphill battle.  Directors and producers can expect to have problems running out of money, time, daylight, equipment, or basically any resource that a filmmaker could ask for, thus making the jobs even more difficult than the first day of a shoot.

What can an independent filmmaker rely on to get them through these hurdles?  Passion.  Richard Kelly, talking about Donnie Darko, explained the rough patches he went through to get the film made.  First, he had made a very strange, but visually appealing short with his own money after being denied a budget while in USC’s intensive film study program.  The film looked great, but even Kelly admits the story was a mess, and later told people watching the short to “watch it with the sound off”.  Using this short film, Visceral Matter as his jumping off point, he sat and wrote the script for Donnie Darko and it quickly gained recognition around Hollywood as an inventive, smart script.  The biggest problem was Kelly’s age.  A recent USC graduate at 24 years old, no studio wanted to let him direct the script, but Kelly stuck to his guns, knowing that only his vision of Donnie Darko would successfully translate to screen.  He passed up numerous offers for sales, and wrote as a pen for hire in the meantime.  It wasn’t until his friend Sean McKittrick came on board the project that they were able to find independent financing for the film.   Based on the budget they came up with, Kelly and crew decided they couldn’t make the film for less than $4.5 million and the original producing company was only willing to offer up $2 million.

However, sticking to their plan with Kelly as director, they began to look for the finishing $2.5 million that would get the film made.  That’s when he crossed paths with Drew Berrymore, who loved the script, had an availability to do the film, so she was signed on to play the teacher in the film.  She also agreed to finish the funding of the film through her production company, bringing Kelly’s budget up to the requisite $4.5 million that they had been looking for all along.  By being passionate, and following his original vision for the film, Kelly was able to direct the film himself, and his interesting visual style, combined with the inventive script, has led Donnie Darko to become one of the biggest cult films of the past decade, more than doubling its budget on home video sales alone.  Since, Kelly has written the film Domino for Tony Scott, directed his second effort, the much maligned but ballsy film Southland Tales, and last year’s horror hit The Box, based on a classic Richard Matheson story called Button, Button.

Takeshi Kitano, known as part of the comedy team The Two Beats by the name Beat Takeshi, fell into directing, according to him.  After a successful comedy career, he started getting offers to play in different TV shows and some of them were cop dramas where he often played a villain.  When he lined up to play the lead in Violent Cop he was just recruited as an actor.  When the original director fell through on the project, the producer, who was familiar with Kitano’s work (he had directed some segments of the Two Beats act) he was offered the job as director.

He explains it was hard to win the trust of the crew and he had very little technical knowledge of film, but the language translated from comedy to drama just fine, because Kitano knew exactly what he wanted each scene to be like.  He had a vision for his film, and although it was his first, he says he was happy with production, even if he didn’t plan every single frame, he did have a very specific vision for the film.  In the years since, he has adapted to the technical aspects of making a film, but he says he feels it’s still a giant pain in the ass, and he generally doesn’t like to do it.  However, when he sets out to direct, he has a very specific vision, and he gets it accomplished by relishing the best of film, and putting everything he has into each one, making them unique films in the process.  His personal vision is reached only through his forward moving attitude, which never ceases.

Director Sam Mendes started out in the British theater scene at a young age, first directing Dame Judi Dench, and going on to direct numerous successful plays, earning Tony nominations for plays such as the revival of The Glass Menagerie, Cabaret (along with director Rob Marshall), The Blue Room starring Nicole Kidman, and various Shakespeare plays for The Royal Shakespeare company.  After so many Tony nominations, many people felt it was the perfect time for Mendes to step into directing films.  He was offered the script American Beauty by writer Alan Ball, and he jumped at the chance, despite the fact that he hadn’t been to America or was all that well versed in American cinema.  As he put it: “I hadn’t spent 2 days in America when I said ‘yes’ to American Beauty“.  Five Oscar nominations later, and not many people can argue that it was the wrong decision.

How was it that he was able to translate his stage directing talents into film directing talents?  Although both jobs have similar duties, there are vast differences to overcome, and not only did he overcome them, he has managed to make critically loved films nearly every time, following American Beauty with Road To Perdition, Jarhead, Revolutionary Road, and Away We Go.  The simple answer?  Passion.  He has a love and vision for his work that most directors can only dream of.  Talent, of course, plays a big part of the equation, but without passion, talent is all too often wasted.  Only true passion for creating art can consistently bring the quality to a film.

What does all of this mean to the young filmmaker?  One thing.  Raw talent is irreplaceable, but without passion, it will do nothing for you.  An independent production will always be fraught with obstacles, but with the proper amount of passion, any can be overcome.  Lack of money, resources, shooting days, anything really, can be overcome if you will it bad enough and never take no for an answer.  Now, always remember there is a vast chasm between stubbornness and passion, but a filmmaker with the right tools can see the difference and make an informed decision on which one they’re currently using at the time.  A good director will always know the difference, and their passion for their project is what will get it done.

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