Kelley Baker Talks The Angry Filmmaker Survival Guide
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?
KB: 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.
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