In any career path, we tend to look to the people who came before us, our heroes. As a writer or filmmaker in Hollywood, our heroes created films that resonated with us. For me it was Woody Allen, Kevin Smith, Spike Lee, Richard Linklater, John Cleese, and James Brooks.
How did they start? How did the break into a competitive field? What decisions did they make to survive, and ultimately, to thrive? Where can you find out?
You can read their stories. Learns from your heroes. How did they succeed, with only sheer will, passion and purpose, in creating their own careers in film out of almost nothing? I recommend these books:
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock-and-Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, (1998), by Peter Biskind.
Back in the seventies, there was a shift in the zeitgeist. Kids were growing their hair out, using drugs and protesting the Vietnam War. The Rock Hudson – Doris Day romantic comedies, the John Wayne Westerns, and Judy Garland musicals films didn’t resonate with the new crop of film buffs.
There were a handful of producers who saw the future. They wanted to make movies that played to the new audiences, that took more risks, and explored more culturally, and politically relevant themes.
Development executives started giving breaks to writers and directors with fresh new voices. A studio executive gave money to Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, and let them make a movie about what was actually going on in this country.
When Easy Rider won Awards at the Cannes Film Festival, movie people in Hollywood, and all over the world, took note.
After that, John Schlessinger, an accomplished gay director also decided to make films that told personal stories. He somehow convinced a studio to let him make Midnight Cowboy with Dustin Hoffman and John Voight.
When that film (about a male prostitute who befriends a dying conman in New York) won Best Picture, the town really started to open up to different voices in film.
An old school film-maker named Roger Corman was producing low-budget action films like Boxcar Bertha, kind of a cheesy precursor to Bonnie and Clyde.
Corman was known for giving directing jobs to young directors, right out of film school like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Movies like The Godfather, Raging Bull, and Taxi Driver became huge hits.
Some of the great films made during this era include Chinatown, written by Robert Town, The Exorcist, by William Freidkin, The Deerhunter, written and directed by Michael Cimino, and Rosemary’s Baby, directed by Roman Polanski.
Rebel Without A Crew: Or How A 23-Year Old Filmmaker with $7,000 Became A Hollywood Player, (1995) by Robert Rodriguez.
Robert Rodriguez kept a film diary, detailing how he managed to shoot El Mariachi, a story about how a lone guitar player who single-handedly takes on Cartel Drug Lords — for only $7,000.
The book also goes into Rodriguez’s childhood movie-making adventures. Using home-movie film equipment and improvising with friends as actors, he made short films with very little cash. He describes how he managed to somehow use two VCRs to edit his projects.
As a teenager, he was able to make some great short films, one of which, called Bedhead, won awards on the film festival circuit. After that success, he turned his attention to making what he called his first feature-length “practice movie”– El Mariachi.
He raised money as lab rat for Pharmco, a pharmaceutical institute, for thirty days. He went to a small town in Mexico, hired actors on the spot, used makeshift costumes, and improvised some of the scenes right on the spot.
El Mariachi became a big hit, drawing audiences partly because it was so done well, and partly because of Rodriguez’ own story – that a 23 year old guy from Texas could make a film that would cost the studios million, on his amazing shoestring budget.
The film also went on to win the Sundance Film Festival Award. It found distribution, and was released internationally, and was even re-made into a real big budget studio film (called Desperado) with a real movie star — Antonio Banderas.
The independent filmmaker’s route into Hollywood success is for the courageous and passionate writer-directors out there who are willing to put it all on the line and just do it themselves.
Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film, (2009). Also by Peter Biskind.
Another inspirational period in film-making, the Independent Film Era, extended from the mid-eighties into the late nineties. It became possible to shoot a movie for under $100,000 or even $10,000.
A lot of passionate filmmakers decided to forget about the studio notes, bypass the execs altogether and make exactly the movie they envisioned.
Steven Soderberg’s Sex, Lies and Videotapes is often credited with putting the Sundance Film festival on the map in 1989. The film which explored the dark sexual corners of our pyche, boasted a few rising, but largely unknown actors, and was made for a budget of about a million dollars. It won the Audience Award at Sundance, and the Palm D’or at Cannes.
After the success of Clerks, Kevin Smith made Chasing Amy, about a guy (played by Jason Lee) who becomes obsessed with a gorgeous, bi-sexual girl. The film was funny, sexy, and ultimately heartbreaking.
Larry Clark made Kids, a gritty explicitly sexual film about a couple of middle school kids experimenting with sex and drugs, then finding themselves HIV positive.
In Being John Malkovich, Spike Jonze directed Charlie Kaufman’s amazingly innovative and hilarious script about a group of people, led by John Cusack, who are able to live out their fantasy of being super-cool as Malkovich.
Probably the best known film to emerge from festivals in the early nineties is Reservoir Dogs. It tells the story of a group of badass street crooks in the bloody aftermath of a horribly botched jewelry store heist. Quentin
Tarantino’s first film, it spawned hundreds of copycats and wannabes.
Pulp Fiction, his second film went on to win the Palm D’Or at Cannes, and the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
A couple of other books I found inspiring; “Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes: A tour Across A Decade of American Independent Cinema” (1995) by John Peirson, and The Reel Truth: Everything You Didn’t Know You Need To Know About Making An independent Film, (2009) by Martin Reed.
If you’re just starting out as a writer, read a few of these books. They’ll inspire you. And if you’re struggling to write your way through a dry spell, read a few chapters. Watch the films. Go back to work. Your film heroes will motivate you to do your best work.