VAIL — Making a movie is not easy. Making a movie on a low budget is even harder. Making a good movie on a low budget is perhaps the toughest task of all. Yet, many of the independent filmmakers showcasing their work at the Vail Film Festival this year have risen to the challenge, creating quality films with very limited funds. Chris Eska, writer and director of “The Retrieval”, thinks the key to getting an indie movie made is not asking for someone else to give you the green light.
“Just go out and make it with the budget you have,” Eska said. “I’m not into waiting around for several years trying to piece together financing.”
Eska’s first feature “August Evening” was made for only $35,000 dollars and went on to win an Independent Spirit Award and was released in theaters in 2008. While Eska had a much larger budget for “The Retrieval”, his most recent film, it’s set at the end of the Civil War, which brought new obstacles in finding locations, costumes and props that fit the time period.
“You can’t just go to Wal-Mart and buy a shovel,” Eska said. “You can’t just go the corner store to find food that the characters would be eating.”
The film follows a thirteen-year-old black boy, Will, who works for a white bounty hunter capturing wanted slaves. Eska often works with non-actors; Ashton Sanders, who plays Will, had never been on screen prior to starring in the movie.
“We didn’t have the funds to hire name actors so we cast unknowns, which I couldn’t be happier with,” Eska said. “I think it would have been a mistake to have name actors in this film.”
From shoestring to the big screen
Using unknown actors encourages viewers to get lost in the storytelling, but having a distinguished actor on board can also help an indie movie go from just a script to hearing the director say, “Action”.
This is what happened with “A Birders Guide to Everything”. The film is about David, a teenage boy who spends a summer in search of a rare duck with his friends, all of whom are members of the Young Birders Society. Sir Ben Kingsley plays a supporting role and the movie wouldn’t have gotten made without him, said writer and director Rob Meyer. Although Kingsley helped secure financing for the project, Meyer said making “A Birder’s Guide” was no easy flight.
“We only had 20 days to shoot it,” Meyer said. “At lunch everyday I would sit down with my DP (director of photography) and my AD (assistant director) and we weren’t sure how we were going to finish the day and get all the shots we (needed). But that was the exciting part. It gives you adrenaline pulling it off everyday.”
Once a film is in the can getting accepted into a film festival is only the first step. Finding a distributor can be just as difficult as getting a film financed in the first place. “A Birder’s Guide” is now in a limited theatrical release and available through Video On Demand. Meyer said the response for the movie at film festivals boosted its chance for distribution.
“People who go to film festivals are going with sensitive eyes,” Meyer said. “(They) watch films more carefully and are in a good state of mind to absorb more subtle or more challenging material. At film festivals, I find that audiences are attuned to the tone and sensitivity of (the movie).”
‘They crave movies with a story’
Garnering big laughs from the crowd is not the only way to sell a film through the festival route. Set in New Orleans, “Una Vida: A Fable of Music and the Mind” focuses on Dr. Alvaro Cruz, a neuroscientist studying Alzheimer’s disease who meets African-American jazz singer Una Vida, who also has Alzheimer’s. Cruz tries to uncover the mysteries locked in Vida’s mind that lie behind her music. Adapted from a novel of the same name, writer and director Richie Adams was drawn to making the film because there are so few depictions of life with Alzheimer’s on screen.
“The thing that grabbed me when I first read the novel was you were learning about this mysterious disease as seen through the lens of a scientist researching the disease, someone with Alzheimer’s and the caretaker looking after someone with that disease,” Adams said. Adams hopes the film’s focus on Alzheimer’s will create a need for the public to see it beyond the festival circuit.
“I think it’s a film that audiences will want to see because there’s not enough information about the disease out there,” Adams said.
Eska, Meyer and Adams all agreed that advances in digital film technology are making it easier for independent filmmakers to make quality films. But with so many movies being made, it’s still hard to get noticed among both the indies and the blockbusters. That’s why arenas like the Vail Film Festival are so vital in reaching the people that matter the most: the audience.
“My parents are baby boomers,” Adams said. “I’ve heard they crave movies with a story. They go to the movies and it’s just a slew of bigger blockbuster franchise films. That’s not necessarily what all of the film-going public is looking for.”
Hollywood may have the movie stars and special effects, but independent filmmakers have a few advantages of their own.
“(Money) is completely irrelevant in terms of the emotions and whether or not the film is going to be any good,” Eska said. “I know I can’t compete with a Hollywood budget, but what everyone can compete with Hollywood on is story. They’re a little bit bankrupt in terms of story nowadays.”
For independent filmmakers, maybe being number one at the box office isn’t the most important thing. Just getting the chance to tell your story and having people respond to it in a powerful way can be more rewarding than any financing or distribution deal.
“Someone recently came up to me and said they felt their heart get bigger after watching the film,” Meyer said. “I’m so glad we have the chance to connect (with viewers) and get it out to as many people as we can.”
The festival audience may be small, but what it lacks in numbers it makes up for in passion and big hearts that love watching independent films.
“The Retrieval” screens at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday; “A Birder’s Guide to Everything” has its second weekend showing Saturday at 7 p.m.; “Una Vida: A Fable of Music and the Mind” has its second festival screening at 1 p.m. Saturday. For a full list of films playing at this weekend’s Vail Film Festival, visit www.vailfilmfestival.com.