Kelley Baker Talks The Angry Filmmaker Survival Guide

Becoming more involved in the local film scene here in Portland, Oregon, which has become a hot spot for both television and film productions with the aggressive tax incentives offered by the state, I had heard Kelley Baker’s name mentioned numerous times but had never met him even though we were operating in the same circles.

I knew he was a veteran sound designer who worked with fellow Portland resident Gus Van Sant on My Own Private Idaho, Finding Forrester, Good Will Hunting, and the Psycho redux and that he had also worked on the acclaimed Todd Haynes film Far From Heaven. I also knew he was a filmmaker in his own right, having written and directed three feature films – Birddog, Kicking Bird and Gas Cafe – as well as several award-winning short films.

But what I really wanted to know about was all this “Angry Filmmaker” business I kept hearing about. What the hell was he angry about? And why, with all of his Hollywood connections, would he rather make his films the hard way – raising his own cash, struggling to procure every dime, using his own money to self-distribute – when it would be so much easier to use that network of colleagues to nail down financing for higher budgets and wider distribution deals?

So, when I heard he was giving a lecture at the Northwest Film Center School of Film about his self-distribution model, which sounded like a perfect lecture for an independent horror filmmaker such as myself to attend, I was interested to meet Kelley and find out what his deal was.

As I was heading to the event, I had pretty much made up my mind he was going to turn out to be one of the local artsy fartsy pukes that litter the Portland film scene. The kind that only finds cinematic value in esoteric films about society’s injustices. The kind that think Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers is a fucking masterpiece, then turn their nose up when you mention Lucio Fulci, Mario Bava or Juan Piquer Simon’s Pieces.

Yeah… that’s surely who this Kelley Baker guy was going to be.

And then I met him… and was proven completely wrong. Instead of the art house guy reeking of patchouli and b.o., I met a genuine filmmaker who has a passion for film, the filmmaking process, and a sincere desire to help other independent filmmakers bring their dreams to fruition. Not dreams of making it in Hollywood mind you, but rather the dream of actually making your movie.

After the lecture, I knew right away this was someone whose ideas I had to bring to the independent filmmakers in the horror community. His advice is sound, his ideas proven through his own track record of success, and his low budget filmmaking and distribution model, detailed in his book The Angry Filmmaker Survival Guide: Part I – Making the Extreme No Budget Film (review here), is one that lends itself perfectly to the independent horror film – a genre with a built-in fan base that is always willing to watch the works of independent filmmakers since it’s from the ranks of independent cinema a lot of the films we consider to be classics have come from.

After reading his book, I asked Kelley to sit down and share his thoughts on independent filmmaking, the status of the independent film and how no budget horror filmmakers can benefit from his model.

Dread Central: While there have been some good books on writing and filmmaking by people like Sydney Lumet and William Goldman – people with proven track records – there are an awful lot of them written by people who haven’t really had success in what they’re writing about. Syd Field is one that comes to mind —

Kelley Baker Talks The Angry Filmmaker Survival GuideKelley Baker: Syd’s never made a movie!

DC: Right! And there are a lot of others I could name. So, my question is, you’ve actually had success as a filmmaker, you’ve worked on some big films, you’re making your movies – why write the book?

KB: I think I was really, really frustrated with what’s happened in the so-called independent film world. When I saw a lot of the shit that was really going down, I realized a lot of people don’t really know a lot about it. And I thought “You know what? I’m an insider and people need to know what’s going on.” When I made Birddog the biggest knock against it, and why nobody wanted to distribute it, was because there was nobody famous in it. Fuck that. It was a good story. And ten years ago, they would have snapped-up independent movies with a good story in a minute. But now the independent film world is star driven. And it’s bullshit. True independent filmmakers can’t afford name actors. So there’s no bitterness and no whining, but there’s anger about what’s happened. And I think so many people live with the idea – “I’m going to make a movie that’s going to get into Sundance and then all my troubles are over.” And that ain’t gonna’ happen. And I just thought look, you’ve got all this experience, you’ve been doing this for years – write it down. And a number of my friends had been bothering me for a long time to write it down. We had all sorts of optional titles, but this was the cleanest one we could come up with.

DC: The book definitely has an anti-Hollywood slant to it, to put it lightly, but you’ve been the benefactor of having worked on some rather successful Hollywood movies. Isn’t that kind of biting the hand that feeds you? Have you given-up on Hollywood?

KB: There’s a big difference between Hollywood and the independent film scene. I don’t have a problem with Hollywood, per se’, I have a problem with a few filmmakers there because they’re empty. You know – Cameron, Michael Bay, they’ve got nothing to say. But, Hollywood has never ever claimed to be more than what it says it is. It’s a business. It’s not show-art it’s show business. The only difference between a town like LA and Detroit, is that in Detroit they build stuff we can actually use. But they’re both factory towns. Because that’s their mentality in the film business down there. We’re cranking out television series, we’re cranking out movies to get to the theaters. So I don’t have much of a problem with Hollywood as I do with the so-called independent film scene. Because when you have the Miramaxes, the Fine Lines and the Weinsteins and all that shit – those are people who want to be Hollywood. And I get tired of those people who play at the five or six million dollar “little indie” films that already have distribution lined-up with a major or a mini-major. And being involved in some of those films in the past I saw a lot of decisions being made that were not necessarily in the best interest of the film. But it was all what the filmmakers were being told by the studios or the higher-ups who were paying for it. Everyone always talks about having “final cut”. Do you know what “final cut” really means in the business? It means that, yes, the Director has final say over what this film is going to be – content and everything. But the Director does not have final say over the marketing or the publicity. And there are studios and studio people who say “We think you need to make these changes.” And you can stick to your guns and say “No. This is my vision, this is what’s going to happen.” And then they’ll say “You know, we’re having some financial problems here and your publicity and marketing budget is getting cut. And, actually, there’s probably going to be no premiere and we’re probably going to open in one theater in New York on a Tuesday. And there won’t be any ads either. Buuut, if you make these changes we still might be able to find some money. And if you don’ think that happens you are naïve. So, final cut doesn’t mean a whole hell of a lot. And I’ve had that explained to me by a few of the filmmakers I was working with over the years.

DC: A lot of the independent filmmakers who send us their movies to review are always hoping for a good review to help them get into the festival circuit. But you kind of lay into the festival circuit a bit in your book. Has the festival circuit simply become vanity showcases for “independent filmmakers” like Sophia Coppola, Steven Soderbergh, etc?’

KB: The big festivals absolutely. Sundance, South By Southwest. I was on a panel for South by Southwest and I still think it’s a joke. I’ve said for years that if Sundance is going to be an independent film festival like they say they are, they shouldn’t allow a film in that cost more than a hundred thousand dollars to make. Which is kind of an arbitrary figure, but not six million dollars. And most of those films are pre-selected anyway to get into Sundance. There are a lot of filmmakers who don’t even fill out the paperwork but send their money in before the deadline. But, I’ve been saying for years they shouldn’t allow films in that cost over one hundred thousand dollars, and a year ago they opened up a new section for films made under a hundred thousand. Now, I’m not going to say that I had anything to do with it, but for eight years I’ve been very outspoken about it, I’ve been writing about it, blogging about it, but I think that’s a positive thing for that festival. There’s still all the rest of the bullshit, but it’s a positive thing.

DC: What about the smaller festivals?

KB: There’s still a lot of great festivals out there. Small festivals run by people who love movies. And there might not be a lot of prizes but, if you want to hang out with a bunch of people who love movies, you find some of the smaller film festivals and they are a blast. They’re a blessing. D.C. Shorts in Washington D.C., I think it’s one of the best film festivals in the country. Jon Gann runs it. He’s a filmmaker. He made some of his movies, went out on the film festival circuit and nobody wanted to see him. Not the festival director, nobody. They were like “Why are you here?” He’d say “Well, you’re showing my movie can I do a Q&A afterward?” And they’d say “No. Just sit down and watch your movie.” So he created DC shorts for filmmakers. He throws parties for filmmakers only, so you can network, he gives out prizes at the end because he has great sponsors, and it’s all about the filmmakers for that weekend. And he sells out the shows. He’s in a multiplex theater in the middle of Washington D.C. and sells it out for the whole festival. It’s incredibly successful. So, there are some really good film festivals out there still. The problem is when a festival becomes more about making money rather than discovering new talent.

DC: One of the things I really liked about your book is that you spend a lot of time on prep, all the pre-production work.

KB: I could do a whole other book just on pre-production.

DC: One of the things that struck me though, was the line “ DO NOT use your credit cards for ANYTHING! ” Now, we’ve all heard about people like Robert Townsend finding success after using his credit cards to make Hollywood Shuffle and that’s obviously the exception rather than the rule. But, what was the reason you stressed it so boldly like that?

The Angry Filmmaker Survival GuideKB: For every person who has “successfully” financed their film on credit cards, I can conservatively guess there’s ten thousand other people who are working shitty jobs trying to pay off their credit cards and movies at thirty percent interest. It’s a bad investment. Have I done it? Of course I have. I lost my house to the IRS because of Birddog. Figure out how much money you can raise and make a film for that. Don’t go into debt at thirty percent. That’s loan sharking. Yeah, I’ve done it, I was eventually able to finally get out of it all, but I still owe a few dollars here and there. The odds are, realistically, and I’m not trying to be an asshole here, but the odds are your film will never find distribution and will never make money. So, why are you going into major debt for that? Figure out what you can truly afford and don’t spend money you don’t have. We made Gas Cafe for four grand. We didn’t go into debt. Kicking Bird was made for sixty-five hundred, roughly. We didn’t go into debt on that. And I think I’ve made pretty good movies. This myth that you can take your credit cards and – now I can’t say this for Townsend, but I can say this for Richard Rodriguez, and Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity – yeah those films were made for under a million dollars and a handful of magic beans, but once they were purchased by the distributors the studios put in almost a million dollars in fixing up those movies. Re-doing the sound, color correcting, adding titles. They spent a shit load of money to sell you movie that they say cost six grand. Or ten grand. You didn’t see the fifteen thousand dollar El Mariachi. What you saw was almost the million dollar version, but you were told it was made for fifteen thousand dollars. So, they weren’t lying, but they weren’t telling you the whole truth. So as a filmmaker you’re thinking “Oh, I could do that.” And you probably could do the fifteen thousand version you didn’t see. But you can’t do the one that was in the theaters.

DC: Explain, briefly, your self-distribution model which, I think, is something that fits perfectly for the independent horror filmmaker whose movies we review regularly.

KB: I’m a punk. Pure and simple. I’m influenced heavily by the punk bands of the seventies. Those guys couldn’t get record deals if they wanted to, but they didn’t want to anyway. They went into the studio, they made their records, and they went out on tour and they toured like mother fuckers. And they sold their stuff at all their shows. And they built-up a following. Comedians tour. Musicians tour. Actors tour. Why do filmmakers think they’re so fucking special they can sit at home and wait for people to come and discover them? My model is the punk model of the seventies. I make films inexpensively and I self-distribute them. I don’t trust distributors because the odds are, if you even land one, you won’t see any money. It’s the way contracts are written. It’s the reason a band can have two or three really successful albums then turn around and file bankruptcy. It ain’t drugs. It’s the management contracts they’ve got. It’s the record deal they have. And so, when I sell a DVD, when I sell a book, I know right where the money goes. It means I have to put up all the money to make this stuff, but it’s worth it to me. Nobody takes as good of care of your stuff, or promotes your stuff, as well as you do.

I think if filmmakers want to be successful, they need to forget distribution deals and they need to figure out their own models and paths to get their films out; internet, social networking.

DC: And it seems as though your model is a perfect fit for the horror filmmakers because it has a huge built-in audience base with so many conventions, with new ones popping up all the time.

KB: I think for horror filmmakers it’s a natural fit. The problem is though, and I’m gonna’ get in trouble for saying this, a lot of those films aren’t very good.

DC: I would have to agree with that. What I find most often is that a lot of these films are doomed from the start because they started with a really flawed script. And writing and rewriting the screenplay is something you stress in your book A LOT.

KB: Right. Absolutely.

DC: Why do you think so many low budget films suffer from bad scripts? Is it that talent for writing a strong story isn’t there? Or is it that they’re so anxious to start filming they rush through the writing process?

KB: Both. It’s both. People think they’re not making a movie unless they’re on the set. If you really work on a script, and if you really do everything in pre-production like I’m always screaming about, being on the set is a gas. And getting into the editing room is always a hoot. But, if you short change yourself on pre-production and writing? You might have fun on the set but you’re going to be in agony in the editing room. I teach a screenwriting class and I tell filmmakers all the time draft three isn’t good enough. Draft three still sucks. Draft four sometimes is getting to where it’s readable. The cheapest part of filmmaking is the writing and the rewriting. By the time I get around to casting I’m on draft thirteen. And I’ll rewrite through casting, through rehearsals and even on the set. You’ve only got one shot to get that story right when you shoot it.

DC: Something else you stress in your book quite heavily is sound quality. And I can’t tell you how glad I was when you did. Terrible sound is something that plagues a lot of the independent films we review.

KB: I hit people over the head with this. The audience will forgive bad camera work. They’ll forgive bad lighting. They will not forgive bad sound. One of the things I’ll do in my workshops now is I’ll go around the room and ask people “What’s your favorite camera? What do you like to shoot with?” And they’ll all give me the answers. Then I’ll go back to the same people and ask them “What’s your favorite microphone? What’s your favorite location mixer?” And they have no clue what I’m talking about. Filmmakers are so caught-up in technology, but it’s the wrong technology. Film is a visual medium to a point. If film was just a visual medium we’d still be watching silent movies. Film and sound work hand in hand and they should be equals. And in my mind, I actually defer to sound before I’ll defer to camera. Because I know if my dialogue is not clear and easy to understand – the audience is done. The moment anybody in the audience says “What’d they say?” You’ve just yanked four hundred people out of the movie. And now you’ve got to get them back. If you see a shot that’s under lit or out of focus, you’ll be straining to see but you won’t walk away. And that’s the difference. So, you had better hire a good location sound person. My new book is on sound and one of the biggest myths I hear out there, and I’m so fucking tired of hearing it, is when I ask people how much of the dialogue they think has been replaced, meaning recorded in a studio, they say at least ninety percent. Wrong. Ninety-nine percent of the movies you see in theaters are using ninety to ninety-five percent location dialogue. Very few actors are good at ADR dialogue replacement. Matt Damon? Fantastic. He looks at a line of dialogue and says “You know what? I think I can do that line better.” and does. But I’ve worked with a lot of big name people who come in and try really, really hard to match what they did on the set that day and they can’t do it. If you want good performances, get the dialogue right on the set and you’re in good shape.

DC: So, if independent filmmakers get one thing from your book, what would you like that to be?

KB: I hope that my book prevents someone from making the same mistakes that I’ve made; spending the money I didn’t have, all the other shit that I did. Falling for the dream. I hope the learn something from my experiences. Don’t believe all these people when they tell you they’re going to help and it’s going to be great and the whole Sundance thing. Make a film because you’ve got to make a film. Because you’re going to die if you don’t. That’s why you make movies. Be optimistic about it, but don’t be foolish about it.

To learn more about Kelley Baker, check out AngryFilmmaker.com.

Erik Van Der Wolf

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