The Sundance Kids

For alumni of America's most prestigious film festival, winning is less than half the battle.

Sundance 2007

Park City, Utah

One morning, Gary Walkow was suddenly transformed into a successful Hollywood filmmaker. Gone were the hat-in-hand searches for financing, the deferred salaries, the long shooting days with undermanned crews, and the months upon years spent touring the festival circuit while seeking a distribution deal. For a moment, he was taking calls by the dozen instead of waiting for the phone to ring. Producers happy to fund whatever project he desired were making a beeline to his door.

And then, as abruptly as someone yelling "Cut!" Walkow awoke to find himself still seated at the desk of his broom-closet-size office at the Santa Monica Airport, where he comes every day to write, a stopwatch close by. The stopwatch is there to ensure that Walkow writes for his self-prescribed minimum of two hours per day. If something interrupts, Walkow stops the clock. "The frustration with filmmaking is that it takes such an enormous effort to practice it, whereas writing I can practice on a daily basis," he says. "I'm ridiculously organized and anal about it."

Back in the mid-'80s, when Bob and Harvey Weinstein were still a couple of scrappy up-and-comers and nobody much knew what an independent film was except for those who were making them, Walkow pulled together $200,000 to make a 35mm feature called The Trouble With Dick, a clever amalgam of farce and hothouse melodrama about a blocked sci-fi writer who unwisely enters into a ménage à trois with his wanton landlady and her equally hormonal teenage daughter. Walkow submitted the film to something called the United States Film Festival (then in its fourth year and soon to be rechristened as Sundance), where it was selected for the competition and ended up winning the Grand Jury Prize.

Never heard of it? Most haven't. That's because FilmDallas, the small independent distribution company that bought Dick in the wake of its festival win, folded before it got around to releasing the film. In fact, so few people ever saw Dick that former FilmDallas marketing head Bob Berney (now the president of Picturehouse) recently suggested to Walkow that he think about revisiting the material. Walkow did just that, and the result is Crashing, Walkow's fourth independent feature and the first-ever sequel to a Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner. Now, exactly 20 years after his first Park City premiere, Walkow has taken Crashing to Slamdance, the 13-year-old alterna-festival that offered Crashing a slot after Sundance gave it a pass.

As it happens, Walkow's career is littered with such twists of fate. After all the trouble with The Trouble With Dick and a few years spent directing for network television (including the cult Sledge Hammer! series), Walkow ventured back to Sundance in 1996 with an ingenious modern-day adaptation of Notes From Underground that immediately drew the interest of Fine Line Features President Mark Ordesky, who promised to return for a later screening with more studio brass in tow.

"It was like Raging Bull," Walkow recalls. "That was going to be my night, my shot at the title." But as luck would (or, rather, wouldn't) have it, the main event the night of Walkow's screening turned out to be the now-legendary Main Street tussle between Harvey Weinstein and New Line CEO Bob Shaye over their competing bids to purchase the movie Shine. Nobody from Fine Line or New Line showed up to see Notes From Underground (which was eventually released, two years later, by the small, Massachusetts-based Northern Arts Entertainment). "There were heavy snows that year, and the last day, when we were leaving Park City, I felt like I was Napoleon retreating from Russia," Walkow remembers, only half-jokingly.

How fitting, then, that the very subject of Crashing turns out to be artistic perseverance, as another blocked writer (Campbell Scott), who once wrote a best-seller called The Trouble With Dick (the plot of which mirrors Walkow's earlier film), is cast out by his actress wife and takes up residence on the sofa of a couple of nubile coeds -- aspiring authoresses both -- who get his creative (and hormonal) juices flowing. In outline, the movie sounds like the kind of middle-aged male fantasy better suited to a therapy session than a movie screen, but Walkow is much smarter than that, and as Crashing plays out, it subverts our expectations at nearly every turn. It is, I think, the best thing Walkow has done -- funny and sexy, but also honest and lived-in and knowing of the way writers draw upon (and sometimes exploit) the people around them for inspiration. It's also, unlike a great deal of what passes for "independent" filmmaking nowadays, a movie independent not just in its financing, but in its thinking -- a highly personal vision expressed without a second thought given to box office, audience expectations, or career advancement.

"Look, it would be really depressing if, 20 years later, I couldn't make a better film," Walkow says when I tell him I like the movie. But in a way, what's most remarkable about Crashing is that, after 20 years, Walkow is still making films at all, given the odds that are stacked against him. Of the 290 dramatic features that played at Sundance between 1984 and 2002 (the last year it seemed prudent to include in this survey, given the amount of time it can take to set up an indie film), 156 of their directors have gone on to make zero or, at the most, one additional dramatic feature. Some, like Jill Godmilow, whose Waiting for the Moon shared the 1987 Grand Jury Prize with The Trouble With Dick, hailed from, and returned to, the world of nonfiction filmmaking. Others, like Joyce Chopra (1985 Grand Jury Prize winner for Smooth Talk), flirted briefly with the Hollywood studios before segueing into successful television careers. Still others, like Wendell B. Harris Jr. (whose 1991 Grand Jury Prize winner Chameleon Street remains one of the most original film debuts of the '90s), seem to have vanished into a moviemaking black hole. All are a reminder that for every Tarantino- or Soderbergh-size Sundance Cinderella story, there are dozens of others for whom life as an independent filmmaker more closely resembles Hans Christian Andersen's tale of The Little Match Girl.

"To survive on the fringes making these films, I'm basically a miser," says Walkow, who shot Crashing for $7,500, on DV, with a five-person crew. "I'm pretty non-materialistic. I think objects own you; you don't own objects. And I'm just real sensitive to the fact that our lifespan is shockingly brief. So, what do you want to do with your pitiful few years on Earth? Do you want to be a lawyer and do contracts all day? That's great if you enjoy that. To me, making art is the most engaging thing to do. It's sensual; it engages every aspect of my being. I would rather live simply and be able to come to a little office and do that every day than live on some grandiose scale and not be able to do that. And I think that's possible in our culture."

The way Jill Godmilow sees it, that utopian artist's life may not be so possible, at least for the next crop of aspiring filmmakers. "I have students graduating with $90,000 in debt," she tells me over morning coffee at her Tribeca apartment, a few days before she's due back at the University of Notre Dame (where she has taught film production since 1992). Her demeanor is stern, but caring, and strands of her long, graying blond hair fall around her face as she speaks. "I have wept with my students when they realize what that means," she goes on to say. "You've basically got to walk into a cubicle the day you graduate and start paying that debt off until you're 45. What it takes to be an artist, the kind of time you need -- you can't do that and be paying off $90,000. That's why the revolution won't start in this country."

Like Walkow, Godmilow pinched her pennies in the years after Waiting for the Moon, a lyrical and bittersweet portrait of the relationship between the writer Gertrude Stein and her lover/muse Alice B. Toklas. Living in New York on as little as $20,000 a year, she applied for grant money and tried to parlay her Sundance success into a second dramatic feature. "I wanted to make more," she says. "I thought I was a rank beginner when I made that film, and I wanted to do better. It wasn't because I had to be a Hollywood director; in fact, I respected other kinds of cinema much more. But I had my shot, and I wanted to do it again. So I did develop three projects, and they were all good, and they all should have been made."

Of those projects, the one that came closest to fruition also proved the most stinging loss. As Godmilow was heading back from the Paris shoot of Waiting for the Moon, the expatriate American filmmaker Robert Kramer (Ice, Milestones) gave her a copy of Raymond Carver's short-story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. She was halfway across the Atlantic when she began to see the movie version in her head. "I figured out that even though the stories were about different characters, they were all stories from his life and that you could string them back like pearls, with blackouts in between," she says. "That way, the Carver would be preserved." Soon, Godmilow had a script, a partner in future Brokeback Mountain producer James Schamus, and $1.5 million of a projected $2 million budget. "There were 10,000 permutations. I had an agent by now. Everything looked good. We were in pre-production twice. James and I scouted locations. But we could never pull it off. We could never get that last $500,000."

Then, the death knell -- and a lesson that the independent filmmaking arena can be as cutthroat as the mainstream -- came in the form of the late Robert Altman. "Somebody gave him a book of Ray Carver stories," Godmilow recalls. "He then got ahold of our script -- he knew we had the option, that we were out there raising money everywhere -- and he just starts to raise money for the same material. He would call me up here and say things like, 'Look, just give me the rights. You're never going to make this film.' Eventually, the option ran out, and we didn't have the right to endlessly option the material. Ray, who loved our script, had now died; Tess Gallagher, his widow, was worried about how she was going to survive. I've never seen Short Cuts, and I never will."

It was that experience that chased Godmilow into the world of academia, where she has since managed to make three additional nonfiction films, including What Farocki Taught, her extraordinary 1997 "remake" of a 1969 film by the German documentarian Harun Farocki. Bruised but not defeated by her misadventures in the Hollywood trade, Godmilow today has few regrets. But like almost everyone I talked to for this story, she's understandably livid about a recent New York Times article titled "Survival Tips for the Aging Independent Filmmaker," which made a pathetic, pitiable figure out of the maverick American independent Jon Jost (who edited his best-known film, All the Vermeers in New York, in Godmilow's apartment) simply because his films play to small audiences and failed to bring him copious amounts of fame and wealth. "The people who write articles like that can't imagine that there's anything else to do in cinema, or that anyone would choose to do those other things. But [at the time of Waiting for the Moon] I had already made Far From Poland [1984], which was a breakthrough documentary shown all over the world. I didn't have to play games with Robert Altman in order to have a life."

The Sundance Film Festival experienced by Walkow and Godmilow two decades ago was a very different animal from the one that stalked the streets of Park City through January 28. As Walkow remembers it, "The hospitality suite for the festival was contained in the Moose Lodge, on the second floor of some building. They had a coffee urn and some rolls and stuff. It was that small. Saundra Saperstein, who was one of the festival publicists, also sold all the T-shirts and paraphernalia. When I came back in '96 with Notes From Underground, it was completely different. Look, Main Street basically doubled in length. In how many cities does Main Street become twice as long in the course of 10 years?"

Real estate development aside, however, Sundance festival director Geoff Gilmore feels that the mandate of the festival -- to showcase new work by emerging American independent filmmakers -- has remained elementally the same over the festival's 23 years. What's changed, he says, is that "the spectrum of independent film is so much broader today. You've got work now that can fully play in the mainstream, and you still have films that are as marginal and as esoteric as they were back then." And there may be no more compelling proof of Gilmore's point than the fact that one of the most acclaimed films from the 2006 edition of the festival, Little Miss Sunshine, has grossed north of $60 million at the U.S. box office and just nabbed a Best Picture Oscar nomination, while another, Kelly Reichardt's minimalist road movie Old Joy, has struggled to get to $200,000. (Even last year's combined winner of the festival's dramatic Grand Jury Prize and its Audience Award, Quinceañera, topped out at $1.6 million.) Whereas in the early 1990s a $1 million domestic gross was considered solid business for an indie release, for the indie films of today the potential rewards (for a hit) and risks (for a flop) have never been greater.

Part of the blame for that disparity lies with an overcrowded movie marketplace in which close to 600 films annually are now seeing some kind of domestic release and jockeying for their share of a diminishing theatrical audience. "I'll give you a case in point," says former producer representative John Pierson (who, with his Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes, literally wrote the book on the Amerindie film scene of the late '80s and early '90s). "One of the films from a much lighter releasing time that I had a hand in was called Living on Tokyo Time (1987) by a guy named Steven Okazaki, who has since gone on to win a documentary Oscar. Skouras Pictures bought that film for an advance of $215,000 -- it was a $100,000 film, so that was great for us. Then we were hopeful, we had our fingers crossed, and we were completely and utterly depressed when it grossed -- and keep in mind this is with much lower, 1987-style ticket prices -- somewhere around $450,000. We all wanted to shoot ourselves. But how many films from Sundance last year even made it to $450,000 in their theatrical releases?"

Pierson also has tough words for industry reporters who conflate box-office success with artistic merit and for what he sees as a herd mentality among some more serious-minded critics. "If you look at Sundance last year," he points out, "the narrative competition had a larger number of tougher films by lesser-known filmmakers than in quite a while, and they had a hard time getting attention. That's not Sundance's fault. It's the media's fault for turning Sundance into a situation where 92.3 percent of all the coverage winds up being about Little Miss Sunshine. My big issue across the board with non-studio filmmaking has always been: Why can't people make up their own minds? Why does there tend to be a bandwagon effect with critics and the media? Why have distributors decided that they can't even deal with films that don't get selected for Sundance in the first place? Again, that's not Sundance's fault: The power that has accrued to the festival has been ceded, not grabbed."

Gilmore agrees that the media often fail to see the bigger Sundance picture and that, this year alone, the festival has placed a greater emphasis than ever before on its sidebar of experimental and avant-garde films known as the New Frontier. "I was just talking to a critic about The Station Agent (2003), which made about $6 million, and this critic said, 'Well, it did OK for a film about a dwarf living in a railroad depot.' Now, is that absurd or what? To what degree does independent film, in all of its distinctive, fresh, and original sensibility, also have to play the mainstream? People don't make the kind of differentiations that they should between genre films that break out into the mainstream and work that is not genre-oriented in the first place."

So is there any hope that future generations of personal filmmakers -- the next Jill Godmilows and Gary Walkows -- will be able to reach audiences through the conventional channels of film distribution and exhibition? "I tell people they still need to think about that," advises Pierson, who now teaches an advanced producing class at the University of Texas at Austin. "For the moment, that's still the way to get the recognition that will achieve that other goal, which is making more movies and having a career. People still get to make feature films, basically, who have made a feature film. People don't get to make feature films because they had a popular video short on YouTube."

All of which is irrelevant if you can't get your film made in the first place. "I have a wonderful script that both Laura Dern and Treat Williams want to do with me," says Joyce Chopra of a potential reunion project for her Smooth Talk stars. "So I guess I'm producing it, but I'm having a heck of a time finding the funding, as is everybody else I know." Like many who came up through the indie film scene of the '80s and '90s, Chopra laments the loss of American Playhouse, the PBS anthology series that produced Smooth Talk and Waiting for the Moon and was one of several notable financial wellsprings for indie filmmakers (including the RCA/Columbia home-video subdivision responsible for sex, lies and videotape and Carl Franklin's One False Move) that have since run dry.

For her part, Godmilow, who's in postproduction on a new nonfiction film, seems happy to be shaping the filmmakers of tomorrow rather than putting in grueling hours on the set. "I'm too tired, I think," she says with a tinge of resignation. "It's for young people. I know what it means to stand up there for 60 days on no sleep and hold a film in your head and try to make it happen. It's the hardest thing in the world. The Buñuels and the Kurosawas -- how people are doing this in their 80s, I don't know."

Walkow, meanwhile, is living proof that where there's a moviemaking will, there's a way. In between projects, he has supported himself as a photographer, a novelist, and even a videogame developer. And in an industry where there are few certainties, it's a safe bet that, upon his return from Slamdance, Walkow will be back in his Santa Monica office with his legal pad and his stopwatch. "I think it was Marcel Duchamp who said he liked to create a work of art every day," he says. "He had a piece of rope he would drop on the ground, and that was his work of art. And I'm like that: I have my pieces of rope, I drop them, and that's OK."

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