I could just be romanticizing it now that I’ve moved, but in New York all the filmmakers I knew seemed to be creating by any means necessary—from Super-8 shorts to animation on their laptops while fundraising for a summer-shoot, to staging readings for a work-in-progress in between compiling documentary footage. When I moved to Los Angeles last year, I found myself at a Honda dealership working out the details of my lease agreement with Amir, a fifty-year old Iranian who preferred talking about his script for a $70 million movie to discussing the details of my Honda Civic. Polanski was interested in directing, he told me, and it was looking likely that Amir would star, opposite Ben Affleck. When I went back for maintenance after my first 5,000 miles, Amir let me know that if they could just raise another fifteen mil, they could possibly get Brad to replace Ben. He then noted a scratch on my rear bumper in his paperwork, which he asked me to initial.
What crossed my mind during my drive home, in addition to thinking what a bizarre follow-up to The Pianist this was for Polanski, was if that’s what this guy’s up to, can there even be a real independent film scene in Los Angeles?
Q: What’s the best part of being an independent filmmaker in Los Angeles?
A: The weather.
Ha ha. That’s my new joke. And yet, three different filmmakers have recently given me that answer. But, you see, they were kidding—not that I knew that. Before I could see how independent filmmakers benefited from living in LA, before I could even understand "the scene," I first had to find it. It exists, it’s just not that easy to define and therefore not that easy to recognize right away.
As filmmaker Paul Tarantino (no relation to that other Tarantino, though, nevertheless, is currently finishing up his supernatural thriller Headhunter) explains, this could be "because [the independent scene] is far more integrated into the studio scene than independent film communities elsewhere." Where the two meet is a very fuzzy line with lots of overlapping, and this offers at least one tremendous benefit. Filmmakers often need employment, and the studios can provide jobs while also offering tons of experience within, and about, The Industry.
When Paul did time at Disney, he was well aware of the underground group of filmmakers on the lot, describing it as a sort of Fight Club. "If you’re working as an assistant to a creative exec., you may not be too keen on letting the word out on the street you’re a closet filmmaker working on the next mini-DV masterpiece," says Paul. "You keep it on the down low, siphon what you can from the studio in terms of connections, film stock, copies, and phone calls, and work toward your goals." One filmmaker I spoke to works as an editor, another produces specials for cable, and one guy I met has done it all—VIP Tours at Warner Bros, a mailroom stint at Disney, employee store clerk at Universal, assisted a well-known actor’s agent, and played a red ape in the Planet of the Apes remake. And this guy will actually be shooting his second feature this summer, which, from what I heard, sounds pretty fantastic.
Another reason an independent film scene wasn’t immediately obvious to me is that there isn’t just one—there are (due to the enormity of this city) several "scenes," like villages. One of these scenes, a particularly thriving one, is in Silver Lake (or the "East Side") and one of its key contributors is Nick McCarthy. When Nick moved here from Boston, he, too, thought he knew what it would be like, with the studio system creating an us-versus-them environment. "But there’s a great entrepreneurial spirit about the place and it attracts artists from all different backgrounds, many of whom are able to make a good living off the Hollywood machine." And of his job writing press material for a studio, Nick says, "It’s the best job I’ve ever had because I have a lot of free time to make films. This is a situation that’s much harder to have in New York."
While continuing to make his own films, Nick also acts as one of the heads of *Alpha 60, a film collective he co-created that challenges members each month to make their own five-minute short. As he explains, "You’re supposed to write a short script inspired by a word or phrase, and then trade in your script for someone else’s and make a movie of it. You’re given a month to make something and have a guaranteed screening, no matter what you end up with. It’s like a self-imposed film boot camp."
Over seventy-five filmmakers have by now created hundreds of films through *Alpha 60, many of which were screened last September at the Silver Lake Film Festival (www.silverlakefilmfestival.com). SLFF, currently in its fifth year, proudly sticks to showcasing the Silver Lake/East Side scene. Envoys of SLFF are quick to point out that before there was Hollywood there was the Silver Lake area, where past film pioneers (including D.W. Griffith and Walt Disney) built homes and studios, and where, it is entirely possible, our future film pioneers currently reside.
*Alpha 60’s monthly screenings take place at the Echo Park Film Center (www.echoparkfilmcenter.org), a truly remarkable and valuable resource, offering an intensive Super-8 filmmaking class ($75 for adults and free for kids; digital formats and Final Cut courses coming soon), a terrific screening series, and sales/repair for all types of film equipment. If the center screens your submitted film, you actually get money from the door, and if you’re a filmmaker on the road and stop in to speak and/or show your work, they’ll not only give you fifty percent of the door, they’ll find you a place to sleep. Not surprising that when I asked Nick McCarthy who inspired him, he was quick to say Paolo Davanzo, the center’s director.
|LA based filmmaker Paul Tarantino.|
So, you’ve had your camera repaired at the film center, honed your skills with a few months in *Alpha 60, and want to submit something new to SLFF in the fall. Time to make a movie. Still on the East Side, I turned to Silver Lake resident, Stefan Avalos. Stefan is one of the geniuses behind the breakthrough digital landmark The Last Broadcast, and his latest, The Ghosts of Edendale, is slated for video release this August. Having shot Edendale entirely in Silver Lake, Stefan brings a practical indie look at the shooting situation here in Los Angeles.
"Whatever you need film-wise, it’s here in LA. The coolest locations, props, tools, crews . . . You don’t have to cobble things together," says Stefan. "The downside to being in the movie town as an indie is you can’t use the novelty of movie making as a way to get certain things because here it isn’t a novelty. All that aforementioned convenience comes at a price. Here, everyone, and I mean everyone, is hip to the process. There is no cool factor to movie production and you’re not likely to get a location for that reason. On the contrary, you probably have to get a permit. Every ‘civilian’ in town knows what a pain in the ass production can be, what it costs, how much they should get paid for letting you shoot in front of their house. I think the biggest downside to being a filmmaker in LA is finding exterior locations for cheap. It’s tough, so don’t think you’re going to find a storefront, or woods, or a field, where somebody doesn’t want money, generally a lot of it."
Patrick Hasson (Waiting) moved to LA a few years ago and agrees with Stefan’s take. "Living in close proximity to Hollywood definitely has its advantages. It’s amazing the pool of talent you can harness for a no-budget project with an ad on Craigslist. Plus, being so close to film companies, studios, and rental houses greatly increases the odds of cutting deals during production." While teaching filmmaking to middle-schoolers through a non-profit after-school program, as well as being a writer, director, and editor for hire, Patrick continues to shoot his own movies—his short Dead Broke was invited to kick off Philly Fest this April. However, Patrick just relocated to Venice, the West Side, and I’m as curious as he is to see what he’ll find there. "The flip side," he is sure to remind me, "is that the LA scene seems to be a somewhat faceless entity with no true epicenter and a lack of centralized community."
For me, the West Side will have to wait. I’m going to explore the East Side a little longer. Next week I’m turning in my first five-page script at an *Alpha 60 meeting and will get another in return. The word-of-the-month is "phobic." And even though I still have another 800 miles to go before my next maintenance check-up, I know I’m going to pass the Honda lot on the way out to Silver Lake. Think I’ll stop in and check up on Amir, see if he wants to come along.