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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

From Sundance: Creative Independence, and How to Keep It

Great panel this afternoon at the Yarrow Hotel on "Creative Independence." The panelists:

    - Todd Haynes (director, "Far from Heaven," "Velvet Goldmine")
    - Christine Vachon (producer, "Boys Don't Cry," "Happiness")
    - Effie Brown (producer, "Real Women Have Curves," "In the Cut")
    - Scott Macaulay (moderator, and editor, Filmmaker Magazine)
    - Ted Hope (producer, "21 Grams," "Friends with Money")
    - Alexander Payne (director, "Sideways," "Election")
    - Michael London (producer, "House of Sand and Fog," "The Family Stone")

Some notes (perhaps a bit disjointed)...

  • Michael London posited that one key to retaining creative control is figuring out "how...you hand over the project as late as possible to the financier." As soon as you take money, he said, you lose a little bit of the vision. "Try to put the whole thing together outside the system." When a financier can read the screenplay, see the actors who've committed, the locations where you plan to shoot it, there's a clearer sense that they want to make the same movie as you -- as opposed to starting from scratch and trying to come up with a unified vision.
  • "The money has a personality," Christine Vachon said. "You have to try to fit the personality of the project to the money. Sometimes we do it successfully." Other times, not.
  • Alexander Payne said that "the stupidest thing to do is to try to get paid to write," presumably by a studio or production company. He's a fan of writing on spec. But after making "Citizen Ruth," Payne and writing partner Jim Taylor "were broke." They liked the book "Election" and wanted to write a screenplay. "The studio was paying us." But, he cautioned, "every word you write, they own. `The.' They own that. They make you cast the biggest possible stars. It's a big fucking waste of time."
  • Haynes said he got paid to write his latest film, about the life of Bob Dylan. ("I'm Not Here.") But he had some leverage with the studio, since he'd already secured the rights from Dylan. The fact that his last film, "Far from Heaven," was a hit didn't hurt.
  • His new film will have some big stars in it: Richard Gere, Cate Blanchett, and Colin Farrell. "That's a big plus [as far as a studio is concerned]," Vachon said. (She's producing.) "But it's got ideas in it," Haynes quipped. "That's a big minus." (They'd originally been working with Paramount, but I think the movie is currently unattached...)
  • Michael London said there are two film economies that exist side-by-side. The retail economy, of studio pictures where everyone gets paid lots of money. And a "shadow economy," where films are made independently...everyone is happy to be doing good work...and movies are made for 1/3 or 1/4 the price, often with the same actors and crew members who also work in the "retail economy."
  • Vachon says that HBO was the only studio that would agree to let Mary Harron shoot "The Notorious Bettie Page" almost entirely in black-and-white. (Again, Vachon is a producer of that movie.)
  • Michael London said that "first look" deals with studios "can become less productive over time" and grow dysfunctional.
  • Todd Haynes asked his fellow panelists a question: given the recent box office slump, are studios more interested in working with independent productions, either through their "classics" division or the mainline studio. Ted Hope said, "I would try to avoid developing within the studio system as much as possible." But Effie Brown stood up for the studios: "It's good to have a place to go to to give you a little money on your option."
  • Vachon got a laugh when she observes that Warner Independent is "an oxymoron."
  • Alexander Payne said lots of people ask him, but he only executive produces films for friends. (And not even all his friends, he implied.) "I don't like talking to money people," he said. Payne thinks he adds the most value to films he produces in the editing room.
  • When studio marketing departments tell Payne they don't know how to sell a film of his, "I tell them, you should fire them and hire other people."
  • Haynes also griped about the marketing of his films. "That's the only way they can think - let's make it look exactly like some other movie that's out there, and blur the differences. It doesn't work."
  • There's lots of talk about how to get final cut on a film. Haynes said that Steven Soderbergh, a producer, had final cut on "Far From Heaven." He joked, "He pretty much directed it. I was tired." Haynes said he hasn't usually had final cut in his career thus far.
  • Payne said, "I have it now, and say don't leave home without it." He got it with "About Schmidt," and that became a precedent. "I compare it to a loaded gun. The safety is off. It's in a locked box. But it's under my bed. Knowing that, I'm so much friendlier to comments [from studio execs and others involved with the film.]"
  • He continued: final cut is "a principle that's taken for granted in Europe -- like George Bush is an asshole -- that here is under discussion." Big laugh.
  • "The reason you have final cut is to protect art over commerce," Payne said. He doesn't consent when studios try to "adjust" the meaning of final cut, saying, for instance, that if they produce a cut of the film that scores better with a test audiences, that's the cut that'll be released.
  • Vachon said, "You never get final cut with HBO. But they will engage in the conversation [about changes with a filmmaker] for as long as it takes."
  • Haynes said that digital technology can be "numbing of the creative spark. It almost creates too many choices."
  • Ted Hope was not optimistic about simultaneous release. "It'll be wonderful for an auteur director who is a brand name -- Sodebergh, Payne, Haynes -- but for an up-and-coming director who's here [at Sundance], the opportunities are going to be vastly reduced." He said it'll be hard for new directors to build a name if their stuff isn't seen in theaters -- and just gets lost in the landfill of content being produced.
  • There was some talk about titles, and whether they matter. Vachon said that "Boys Don't Cry" was originally titled "Take It Like a Man," a title she liked better. But New Line, it turned out, had acquired the rights to a Boy George autobiography with that same title. Michael London said that "Family Stone" had originally been called "Hating Her." Fox exec Tom Rothman told him that the title was a deal-breaker: "I'm not releasing a movie called `Hating Her.'" Hence the new title.