There's been a massive explosion of independent film in the last few years... and by 'the last few years', I mean more like the last decade. There's a few reasons for this. The biggest reason is cheaper digital cameras that can rival 35mm quality and the next biggest reason is cheap, easy to use editing software. Digital technology and the web changed everything and we have yet to see where this is all going to take us. But, instead of looking forward, let's look back for a moment. Imagine a few years ago, when film was your only real option... you had to go buy expensive film stock and rent camera equipment. When you're shooting, you have to load the film in the mag, get the camera ready, measure out focal points, light the scene properly, adjust F stops, etc... then shoot. But, you're not done yet. Now, you take the film out of the mag, put it in the can, send it off for processing and color correction. Get it back, go through it... it goes on and on and on. That's not even mentioning the editing process and if you've ever edited on film, which I have, you'll know how brutal that can be. These days, for most indie filmmakers, it's point and shoot and what you see on the monitor is what you get. You dump your footage right into your PC and start editing.
Now, I don't mean to be negative on film. There's a distinct look and feel to 35mm film and I really feel that digital cameras can't perfectly emulate it... I mean, there's top notch digital cameras that do a damn good job, but it's almost as expensive to shoot on those as it is to shoot on film. So, when we're dealing with indie film, there tends to be a big jump between the quality of films shot on 35mm and DV. Because of that, films shot on 35mm are more marketable, therefore are taken more seriously by the distributors, festivals, etc. I mean, I'm so used to seeing indie films that are shot on DV, it's strange to see one that's shot on 35mm, but, however rare they are, they are out there. Recently, I had the opportunity to watch, "The Ante", from Max Perrier, and it's a classic example of a great indie film done on a low budget, but shot on 35mm.
From the first few frames of "The Ante", you forget the fact that you're watching an indie film. The brilliant cinematography gives it a look, feel and atmosphere that would rival anything that's studio backed. The screenplay, from Danek Kaus and James Chancellor, is extremely effective in that it's both simple and complex at the same time. There's twists and turns and it's all put together in a neat little package, directed and shot by Perrier. It's like they had an idea, flushed it out without ever over-thinking it, then the chips just fell in all the right places. The fact that it won the Gold Award for Feature Film at WorldFest Houston and screened at Slamdance is no shock... I can't say much more than it's just a fantastic indie film that will engage you from beginning to end, as it follows an innocent man that becomes the killer that everyone wants him to be when he gambles his freedom in order to save it. We had the pleasure of discussing the film with Max Perrier and he offers up a great interview.
First off, tell us a bit about yourself. What are your influences and what got you into filmmaking?
I got into filmmaking without thinking about it much, one thing let to another. I used to draw rough storyboards in elementary school; sketchy, flat 2D war and adventure stories with stick figures cartoon characters. Then later in college the family bough a small video camcorder. My brother had these ideas of sketches to shoot and since he acted in them too, I ended up framing and editing. What we did got people’s attention so we went on with more complex stories. I then discovered film format and got totally hooked, shot super-8mm, then 16mm. We found this cheap Russian-made 16mm camera on sale in NY so we drove down to buy it. We actually came back with a hand-cranked Bolex camera. I shot two short films with it, one of which was a festival hit. When this happens you’re motivated to do more. We ended up shooting music videos for the MTV equivalent here, did tons of small punk/rock bands. Budgets got bigger and I got to try 35mm, which was amazing. As for my influences, I can’t say I’m a fan of any specific director or genre. I tend to like films when they age, once they outshine the hot air created by the marketing at their release.
Film School: Yes or No?
I can’t say I went to film school. I attended some film courses at college, but most of them were on theory or history. Practical shooting experience wasn’t part of the program and openly discouraged. Then one I day I found a loophole in the system and got my hands on an Arriflex camera gathering dust on a shelf in the department’s storage room. That, plus being required to watch old films, taking photography classes, were the only school input. Most of what I learned was done the old-fashioned way, through practice in personal initiatives out of school. You could say that shooting tons of music videos on film with limited budget was a school of its own too, especially since they’d always intentionally be stories in them.
Where did the idea for "The Ante" come from and how did you get involved?
“The Ante” is based on “Traces”, a short story originally written by my brother Simon. It was intended as a bloody thriller. I was looking to shoot a feature with rock bottom resources; Valerie (co-producer) and I felt like the story was a good starting point, since it was set in exteriors with few characters. I originally wanted to adapt a James Cain novel called “Past All Dishonor”. She and I started writing a loose adaptation with the help of another writer. Then I had another writer flesh out a horror story I had in mind which I felt might fit this type of shoot. Turns out we used neither of them. I did the Traces story instead and had it fleshed out into a feature by writers James Chancellor and Danek S. Kaus. A main character was added, the poor sucker’s wife, to help thicken the plot. The script was actually never locked. A lot of lines were changed seconds before shooting. Some scenes were shot twice following different revisions, which was nuts considering the budget. My grandmother read all these murder mystery novels and my brother would say that someone who did that would be good at setting up the perfect murder. So he wrote this story of a guy getting perfectly framed for someone else’s killing. There’s also a vague connection with my godfather who was a state trooper in a rural area, he often had these madcap real-life criminal cases to recall. Production got under way when I teamed up with Valerie and a crew that wanted more feature experience, kind of a “create our own opportunity” thing.
We talk to a lot of indie filmmakers who end up producing their films out-of-pocket. However, this is obviously a slightly bigger production. Could you talk about the process of how the film got financed?
The film was also financed out-of-pocket. There were no outside investors, pre-sales, government money or rich relatives involved. We shot it “on spec” taking care to keep total expenses under what we could realistically expect as revenues though its future distribution. In other words, the idea was to maintain a low break even point. Cash went for the strict minimum: food, gas, film stock and the % of rental equipment and crew we couldn’t deal off. What helped was to keep the crew small, the shoot brief and the shooting ratio at rock bottom. No more than 3 takes were filmed for any single shot, most were double or even single takes. The idea is classic, when you don’t have much resources, make sure there in front of the camera, not behind. The intent was to create value, a good high value / low cost ratio.
Not only were you the director, you also served as producer and DP. Talk about creating the balance of having so many roles on the film.
I guess I was trained for it by shooting music videos & short films with tough budgets. It’s common to multitask when you just can’t afford to appoint anyone. This said, I share producer credit with Valerie Gagnon and DP credit with Maarten Kroonenburg who did a good half of the shoot. This said, I actually find it harder not to be DP and director at the same time. It helps me focus on where we’re going with the story. With a good camera assistant and a chief gaffer that can see art in lighting, handling cinematography yourself doesn’t necessarily prevent you from directing. As for producer’s work, a lot of key decisions are taken before principal photography. Valerie really took the lead once the set was started. Producing comes naturally when it’s you that initiates the project.
The film is about a down-on-his-luck guy, who takes wrong turn after wrong turn, so to speak. I thought the whole concept and idea was very timely, considering the current state of the economy. There were lots of themes and ideas that were very pertinent. Was this on purpose?
More or less, hard to say. Characters eating dirt is classic. Greed and self-induced fantasy leads people to absurd behaviors. The story follows three hungry, dumb wannabees that end up loosing everything. These characters make these brainless gambles thinking it’s the future; I guess there’s a casino-mentality that’s reminiscent of today’s economy, or the stock market at least… The connection is funny but I can’t say any of it was pre-meditated, it’s just human nature coming through.
The film really explored the darker sides of people, basically how far they would go when they thought 'a better life' was at stake. Talk about your directing style and creating that feeling of desperation, which I thought ran through the film.
I brutally used up the actors’ patience and energy until they got desperate for real! Main actor Paul Burke was covered with sticky red corn syrup in the summer heat for days and days… [laughs]. I’m joking. Seriously, I worked to create that impression by keeping the characters and the mood constantly on the edge of an abyss. Using characters’ instinctive reactions and gut responses helps create that feeling of desperation. Yelling, swearing, running away, breaking things, being violent, have the odds against you all the time; all this leads to building a sense of fear and anxiety. The environment just isn’t cooperating with the characters. There’s a loss of control and a lot of on-the-spot unpremeditated actions, like taking what you have in your immediate surrounding to serve an immediate purpose. One example is when Sam uses the shovel to knock off the crazy old farm wife. On top of this, the gloomy lighting, heavy use of ambient nature sounds and the dark, orchestral music were also key to setting this tone of impending doom. The setting too was also key to creating this idea of desperation. We made sure for example that the farm felt like it was coming out of the dust bowl.
I know you don't consider it a horror film, per se, but the film revolves around death and there was some violence. I thought Anastasia's death was particularly gruesome - talk about using violence and death in film.
People are animals like any other in a way, they’ll prey on others, or try to steal their lunches like scavengers; they try to take the easiest shortcut to satisfy their instincts. Violence was used as a character in itself, a kind of shadow that trails Sam from the start; from the dead turkey to the dead end he finds himself in (with the dead racoon along the way!). Sam carries death around him wherever he goes, like a burdening cross but also like a magnet for more deaths and ultimately to his own demise. The dead man he can’t get rid of is like a meal every vultures wants a piece of. Jan and the farmer’s wife are like scavenging hyenas, Sam is just like the unexpected predator trying to hide its kill. Just the visuals of a guy covered in blood walking around for so long sets a tone of shadowing death. The coldness in the violence and the characters’ deaths help build that horror undercurrent.
Tell us about some of the hurdles you overcame to get the film done. Any advice you can pass on to other indie filmmakers who might be just setting out to make a film?
The first hurdle is to get other people just as motivated as you are on board. At least one, that’s all it takes. And when I say motivated I mean stubborn and obsessed enough to stick it out for years. Energy and motivation is contagious and for such a long run, you need to be able to relay this energy. When you’re momentarily out of focus, out of solutions, in a slowdown, etc, chances are that other person(s) won’t be, long enough for you to refocus (and vice-versa). Crew psychology issues in tough conditions are another hurdle. It’s crucial to think of crew chemistry before the shoot; a feature means weeks on set, when things are rough all sorts of personality issues can pop up. Maintaining a motivated team is tougher under difficult shooting conditions. Another obstacle is to learn to appoint, let go certain key responsibilities and trust your people. It feels pretentious giving “advice” but one that comes to mind is to capitalize on people’s interest and motivations. Ambition drives people, if your project serves that ambition it will inherit that drive. Another thing I’d root for is aiming for production value. It’s not a bad idea to ask yourself if you’re creating value, if this piece of entertainment or art that you’re building will end up being worth more than the sum of its parts. Short-changing format quality or on-camera visuals to the benefit of leeway in directing or performance skills isn’t the best decision to make to create this added value. In a way, Indies have everything to prove and can’t afford being lukewarm; its gamble is risky by nature, something’s got to stand out.
You entered "The Ante" in a few festivals and won a few awards. Talk about the festival circuit and what it did for you and the film.
Festivals seem to come in five types, with some being odd mixes. There’s the truly independent, that doesn’t care about budget, glam or how artsy your film is. There’s the one that see independent film only as serious thought-provokers, geared towards actor performance; these are often allergic to the entertainment value or commercial-intent behind pictures. Then there’s the festival that equates independent film with foreign films, as if domestic films were intrinsically commercial in nature. There’s the red carpet festival propped up as a showcase venue for the odd “artistic” pictures from big established producers/studios. Then there’s the festival that specializes in a specific theme or genre. Understanding what type of festival you’re dealing with makes a huge difference in saving time and money when submitting. The Ante is meant as entertainment, yet feels more artistic than the typical commercial film; it doesn’t star established actors; feels like film noir, but also dark comedy, horror and even western. This novelty or “sitting on the fence” in genre and style made it a hard fit for festivals. Some committees probably found it too commercial; others too domestic (not foreign/ethnic enough); others still not politically correct enough or not sufficiently geared towards actor performance, etc. Competition is huge, slots are limited, submitting feels like playing the lottery. Once you get into one, it does make a difference, it spawns material for the film’s press kit. We met our distributors at festivals, got the media to talk about the film, etc. You also get to learn more about what you’ve made through audience and media reaction. Getting in a festival also contributes to our professional credential which helps for future projects.
Is the festival circuit something that you would recommend to all filmmakers?
Sure. Depends on how you target your festivals with what film. Some festivals can feel like total snobs, especially for genre films like horror. I guess that’s why these specialty festivals popped up, there was a need that wasn’t met. It’s like playing the lotto. It can get expensive submitting blindly every time a festival comes up. Average submission fee is around 50$ for a feature these days. If odds are only 1 out of 20 you get into one, picking them wisely is key to avoid wasting promo money. Festivals are a good, inexpensive mean of communication once you get in. Taken individually, they’re worth the time and investment. Then again, if a film is unlikely to fit any type of festivals and only good for straight commercial purposes, there’s no shame in that. On the contrary, I feel that in the end, it’s the broader audience that’s out there that has the final word, not a select few at a festival.
Tell us about the process of finding distribution. How did that go and what insight could you pass on to other filmmakers who are looking for distribution?
A soon as I had a rough DVD screener ready after editing, I started writing to distributors asking if they would like to watch the film. Since it was shot on 35mm, which is a marketable high res format, most took the inquiry seriously and asked to see it. Three or four took interest after seeing it but we waited until we got in a film festival, where we met a better distributor. Film festivals will often act as filters, a kind of pre-selection, focusing distributors’ attention to a selection of films. It suggests the film has some sort of appeal and at the very least will have something to write about for reviews, media coverage (however limited) which is a building block for future sales. We didn’t have the resources to set-up a screening in NY or LA and invite distributors so the festivals acted as a good substitute. In retrospect, it’s probably not a good idea to send DVD screeners to distributors if the film has the potential of getting into a festival. An organised, mediated screening goes a longer way, it fosters competitive biding and interest from distributors attending. You also get to meet and know early on who you’ll be dealing if you end up signing.
Where can people find out more about “The Ante”, check it out or get their hands on a copy?
People can find out more on these links:
If they want to see it and get a copy, they can contact Maureen Josephson at Panorama Entertainment (firstname.lastname@example.org or 914.937.1603). They cover North America.
Talk about the indie film scene and indie filmmaking. Where do you feel it is now and where do you see it going?
In a way, I think it’s healthier than ever. Professional tools and networks are more and more common as years go by. The only down side seems to be that an adverse effect was created at the same time; there are more and more films out there, which makes it harder for any single one to stand out. Independent filmmaking nevertheless remains a great source of new, unpredictable ideas and point of views. Considering how tough it is to pull through, it’s ironic how free it is creatively.
What’s next for you? Do you have any projects in the works?
I have several simmering on the stove top. I’m doing another “on spec” feature, a horror film set on a remote road at night, with ghosts and plenty blood (although not gore). I’m also developing a horror project set in Asia with a strong paranormal theme. In parallel, I’m working to kick-start a thriller based on a 50s film noir novel and a gritty urban drama set in the Bronx’s Hispanic community. Lately, I was also offered an action/horror project about martial arts enthusiasts hired to fight evil ninjas infesting a small town. Finally, Valerie Gagnon (producer) has this bloody bootlegger story set in the prohibition era she wants me to direct late next year. We’ll see what the future holds this time around.