by Bob Freville
Trying to get a film off the ground can be a particularly Sisyphean task and, as French philosopher Albert Camus once famously said, “You think I could bum a dollar or a smoke? C’mon, man, I’m good for it.”
Making movies isn’t for the weak of resolve, but it may be for the feeble-minded. Considering the years it takes to see one to fruition and the additional years the production will inevitably tax off your life, it’s safe to say that it takes a special kind of fool to direct a motion picture and an even bigger one to stand up at that film’s premiere and demand money for another one.
Recently I had the questionable pleasure of watching 2008’s Poison Sweethearts, a micro-budget exploitation movie by the Campbell Brothers which, from the looks of it, cost about five dollars, two dime bags, one Fourth Meal and a dozen small favors.
The picture is really a collection of kitchen sink shorts shot in and around Cleveland, OH. Like my old film editor and co-conspirator James Neyman (director, The Demon’s Odyssey), the Campbells are Ohioans who know how to get people to work for free and put up with tough conditions for the sake of creating inventive exploitation cinema.
Poison Sweethearts is a hoot from its cheesy opening news segment, which looks like nothing so much as a mock-dramatic reenactment of John Waters in his long-haired pencil moustachioed youth, to its cringy attempts at dramatic sincerity via voice-over—this is a flick that smacks of passion. You can smell the sweat and soul and desperation oozing from its every knackered pore.
As I watched this one, I wondered how many others would endeavor to make something even half as authentic as it. Then I thought, how could they make something similar if it were to require any actual money to execute?
In the past, I’ve celebrated the warm blood pumping through so-called indie horror, but I’ve also recognized the difficulty in forging a career in the film industry if you’re an artist with a genuine vision.
One such genuine original is Amos Poe, a seminal figure in the New York no wave movement, a sub-genre defined by its DIY attitude and minimalist pro-amateur style. Co-creator of 1976’s Blank Generation, the earliest cinematic account of the punk rock scene at CBGB’s, Poe would go on to direct the defining work of no wave filmmaking with The Foreigner.
With its cast of notable punk musicians like Debbie Harry, The Foreigner paved the way for a lot of other voices, most notably the hipster favorite Jim Jarmusch who borrowed not only the film’s black-and-white look but also its lead actor, John Lurie (jazz musician, The Lounge Lizards), for his own breakthrough picture, Stranger Than Paradise.
Throughout the Eighties and Nineties, Poe continued to produce remarkable works of outsider art when he wasn’t directing the groundbreaking public access show TV Party, a program from which the famous Black Flag song got its name. In ’81, he gave us Subway Riders, a sort of unofficial spin-off or pseudo-sequel to The Foreigner, again featuring NYC perennial John Lurie, among others.
In ’85 he was tapped to direct a mob drama (Alphabet City) with a then-unknown cast including Jami Gertz (The Lost Boys, Less Than Zero) and Michael Winslow (Motormouth Jones from Police Academy). Once Poe got his fingers on the script, it became less of an ode to The Untouchables and more of a swan song to the New York City that existed prior to bourgeois gentrification.
In the years since then, his output has been sporadic and increasingly obscure. Nevertheless, rare retrospectives have helped to introduce his work to a new generation and Poe is eager to maintain a presence in underground film.
There’s only one problem: Amos Poe no longer owns the films to Amos Poe. As he put it on his GoFundMe page, “A few years ago I lost the copyrights to several of my films—Night Lunch, The Blank Generation, Unmade Beds, The Foreigner, Subway Riders and Empire II. At the time, I didn’t have the money to hire a lawyer, now I’m trying to get my films, my life’s work back. As well I’m fighting a stiff financial judgement which made me responsible for the other party’s exorbitant legal bills. I would be grateful for any support you could offer.”
As you can see, this crowdfunding page went up over eight months ago and in that time only three people have contributed to the $29,000 goal. The grand total of donations amounts to a mere $225. That’s less than eight percent of what the average film shoot spends on a single day of catering. It’s also just under the cost of two rolls of Super 16 film stock.
When I saw this it disgusted and confused me. Here is a bonafide pioneer of alternative cinema and he can’t manage to attract as many patrons as some YouTube mukbanger? It also begs the question, “Where are his proteges when he needs them?” What happened to one hand washes the other?
Jim Jarmusch, the self-proclaimed “amateur” auteur whose early successes were just slightly more disciplined simulacra of Poe’s earliest features, currently has an estimated net worth of $5 million plus to his name. And, yet, this “independent” filmmaker goes years without making movies until high profile production companies agree to finance his projects.
Why Jarmusch can’t take a page from the no-budget trash directors he’s admitted to emulating in the past is a question I’ll never get to ask (Jarmusch is notoriously hard to get in touch with…unless you’re a major publication that happens to be penciled in with his publicist during one of his theatrical launches). But the question that irks me the most is why someone like Jarmusch wouldn’t offer to throw Poe a bone.
Even more vexing is the notion that cinema’s finest living artists have to grovel on social media in order to raise enough wampum to either a) continue to expand their filmography or b) rescue their existing canon from obscurity.
Then you have someone like Rob Zombie, the metal maestro turned movie god behind The Devil’s Rejects and those cloyingly-worded Halloween remakes. Whereas Jarmusch’s $5 million is an amount that could only keep someone financially comfortable in the current economy for so long, the artist formerly known as Robert Cummings has an estimated net worth of over $40 million.
Despite this relative wealth, Zombie mounted crowdfunding campaigns when he was in pre-production on his clown film 31. This would seem a little tacky even without any further context, but what makes it truly irritating is the knowledge that production had already secured its financing through a partnership with five different production entities.
What this suggests is that Zombie was unhappy with the budget being offered to him and decided to ask his fans for a handout rather than reaching in his own chain wallet for additional post-production monies. Pretty hideous when one considers the amount of scrilla serious Zombie fans drop on assorted merchandise like Captain Spaulding bobble heads and Dr. Satan swag.
If I sound overly judgmental or unfair, I urge you to talk to the unsung heroes of outlaw cinema, those guys and girls who have sold their motorcycles, maxed out their credit cards or committed petty crime to secure the funds to make their movies.
Artist like Jon Moritsugu (Mod Fuck Explosion, Scumrock), Nick Zedd (Geek Maggot Bingo) and Alex Cox (Repo Man, Three Businessmen) have frequently moved to other countries in order to live a more affordable life that would allow for creative experimentation. Each of these artists has made sacrifices in order to bring their works to the screen and all of them have worked with what was on hand, often supporting their fellow artists even when they could not afford to.
Filmmaker Chad Ferrin has sold more than one automobile to finance his underground films and I wouldn’t be surprised if he did it again. Utah’s premier misfit, Trent Harris, puts whatever he can into making his projects a reality and he shows no signs of stopping.
Finally, even the uber-wealthy multi-hyphenate Kevin Smith (Red State, Tusk, Smodcast podcast, TV’s Supergirl) is prepared to do whatever it takes to see his visions through to the end. After writing the polarizing and weird horror film Tusk, Smith so believed in it that he was ready to sell his house if no one else would foot the bill.
If that doesn’t sound like a ballsy prospect, consider that Smith has an estimated net worth of $25 million which is just shy of half of what Zombie’s got in the bank. Fortunately for Smith, he got to hold on to his loot as production company Demarest Films stepped up and paid for the flick to be made.
This is all the proof one needs that “independent filmmaking” is rarely if ever truly independent, and it would seem that it’s less independent now than ever before. If the case of Amos Poe tells us anything about underground film in 2019 it’s that alternative cinema is on the verge of needing life support.
In a world where people can shoot film quality images on their smart phones, one would think that the tools to make a worthwhile motion picture would be fully democratized, but what the aforementioned crowdfunding campaigns show us is just how much money goes into securing the protection and longevity of one’s artistic work.
You and your friends can make a movie on your iPhones and you can upload it to YouTube, a platform that has made many people stars but produced few artists of true import and even fewer films worthy of induction into any cinematic library.
Nevertheless, you can throw it up there and hope that it reaches people on one of the most over-saturated platforms to ever cock block its creators with sadistic algorithms. But don’t hold your breath, Jack. You’d have better luck stuffing your face or performing some ill-advised stunt.
You can edit your iPhone feature on your laptop for little to no money, but then what? You’ll have to invest in getting it out there, whether you’re going to send it to a film festival, an “indie” distribution house or a sales rep.
Supposing your movie gets picked up by an acquisitions department and a contract is made, you’ll need to pay a lawyer to go over that contract. Otherwise you’ll likely end up getting fucked as raw as Mr. Poe did with the copyrights to his most important works.
This is not to dissuade anyone from making DIY movies, rather it is to illustrate just what a heinous skullfuck it is to make something independent in a medium that necessitates relying on others, especially at a time when the motion picture doesn’t attract the green in the same way television or YouTube content does.
I mentioned Camus earlier, but I think there’s something else he said which bears mentioning. While attending an orgy in the Sixth Arrondisement at which he performed a magic trick with his prick, he turned to a less than sober banker and said, “Men must live and create. Live to the point of tears.”
Clearly, Camus had never met a filmmaker, for if he had he would know that the men and women who toil in the film industry must live and create beyond the point of tears. We must live to the point of tearing our eyeballs out and going absolutely mad. And most of us have to do it for peanuts and pubic hair.