The world of independent films

In a nation built with independent spirit, we have a fondness for independent films. But what, exactly, is indie filmmaking?

"It's finding yourself on the phone at strange hours, begging relatives for money," said Nicholas Pallos, who made the short, "Neither Here Nor There."

Patrick VandeBussche, who made the short "Six Impossible Things," has an alternate definition: "Any movie that leaves the crew and director in pain all the time is independent filmmaking."

Or maybe that's too easy. Chopper Bernet -- who has ranged from acting in "Terminator 3" to producing, directing and starring in "The Twenty" -- assures us that life is fair: "I've worked on $200 million movies and there's a lot of pain and suffering there, too."

They happened to be talking at the East Lansing Film Festival, but their comments could apply to any film fest anywhere. (For a visit to another kind of film, please check my previous blog on Sean Astin and "The Color of Magic," which reaches TV on Sunday, March 22.)

There are huge problems involved with working on a limited budget. That's true whether you're talking about Josh Lowman's witty, $7,000 short, "We Are Crossan'wich," or Tim Kirlman's "Loggerheads," a $500,000 character drama with Bonnie Hunt, Tess Harper and Chris Sarandon in supporting roles.

Still, there's a joy to being in control of the final project. "You can say, 'I want that wall yellow, now," Lowman said.

Adds Kirkman: "You can kill anyone, just like that. And you can give birth."

You can make a movie that has the joy of individual creativity. But can you then get people to see it?

In a high-tech world, it's easier and cheaper to make films -- for good or bad. "Every moron is making a movie now and most of them are terrible," said Timothy Jeffrey, who wrote and directed the movie "You Are Here."

Those technical changes can make it easier in some ways. Filmmakers use the Internet to enter dozens of festivals at once. And to get their films to Web sites and bloggers who do serious reviews. And to tease and advertise, dangling bits of their films onto YouTube and other Web sites.

Still, they are competing in a Web world that sometimes specializes in cute kittens and babies. "YouTube was great at first," said Ken Gayton, who made the comedy "The Truth About Average Guys."

The Web is still helpful if you use it right, said Lowman, who deals with such things in his day job in advertising. "I'm on Twitter and Facebook and I have a Web site for my film ... but I have no idea where this is headed ... It's just like the wild West right now."

It is, at least, a world where individual artistry can thrive. Things are worse in the big-studio world.

Jeffrey recalls one studio executive who chastised him for writing the script for a small movie, saying "I need you to write a $70 million film."

VandeBussche sees many things wrong with the studio world: "Hollywood is run by old white guys ... They're a bunch of sexist white guys who don't like women and have their heads in the 20s."

Then again, there are inequities that are difficult to explain. This 13-person panel of independent filmmakers included 11 white guys, an Asian guy and a black guy; life can be oddly out-of-balance.

For all of the complexities, however, there is a pay-off. People end up with real movies -- individual, idiosyncratic, interesting.

Lowman spent a year crafting a quirky short that he hoped was funny. "Then you show it in front of 150 people and hear all that laughter." The pain of filmmaking suddenly becomes worth it.











Sean Astin, fantasy hero

The fantasy world has special status for former Hobbits.
New roles appear; new opportunities beckon. Just ask Sean Astin, who played Samwise Gamgee in the "Lord of the Rings" movies.
Astin currently stars in "The Color of Magic," an interesting oddity that airs from 7-11 p.m. Sunday (March 22) on the network called Ion. He had already met its witty author, Terry Pratchett, four years ago.
That was when Astin was in one of his favorite places, New Zealand, to film the mini-series "Hercules." Paul Telfer, who played Herc, began talking about how Pratchett was coming to Auckland for a book-signing.
"Paul said, 'You've got to meet this guy; he's an amazing writer,'" Astin recalled. "We went down there and stood in line."
That's when word got to Pratchett. "He got so excited that there was a Hobbit in line," Astin said.
They had a long talk; then Astin began digging into Pratchett's "Discworld" novels.
His reaction: "The feeling just came through my spirit right away: 'They're going to make a movie about this. It's going to be an English production and I won't get to be in it.'"
For a while, he was right: The first "Discworld" film (the Christmas-themed "Hogfather") had no role for Astin. The second, however, has the perfect one.
Astin plays Twoflower, the first and only tourist in Discworld. He arrives with enthusiasm, camera and a trunk full of gold coins.
That gold -- worth very little in his own land -- seems to attract a lot of attention. Fortunately, the trunk has a mind (and legs) of its own.
Soon, Twoflower is being guided by Rincewind (David Jason), who has flunked out after 40 years in wizardry school. This happens just as the world is being menaced by the ambitious Trymon (Tim Curry).
This is fantasy that kids will savor, but it's done with a wink to grown-ups. That's the Pratchett style, Astin said. "He's looking at the audience and saying, 'I know what you know.'"
Working on "Magic" or "Rings" put him alongside classic talent. "Most of the English actors have such strong theater experience," Astin said.
He asks them a lot of questions; occasionally, he's surprised to be asked something about his own films. "If someone is in his 40's, chances are he's seem 'The Goonies' at some time."
When that movie came out, Astin was only 14, descended from Hollywood elite. His mother, Patty Duke, is an Oscar-winner and a former Screen Actors Guild president.
He's also descended from fantasy elite: His de facto father, John Astin, was the witty "Addams Family" star.
The real break came with "Lord of the Rings"; his oldest daughter, now 12, spent much of her pre-school time amid the beauty of New Zealand.
More sci-fi has followed -- "Jermiah," "Masters of Science Fiction," "Hercules," "The Color of Magic." The latter two were produced by Robert Halmi, now in his mid-80s. "Halmi's just a down-to-Earth guy, very serious, who has built up this amazing library of films."
Shooting "Magic" felt like "Rings," with one key difference. "I weighed 198 pounds then," Astin said. "Now I'm 165."
Astin, 5-foot-6, had put on the extra weight to play the chubby Samwise. It was a small sacrifice, to be able to spend the rest of his life as a former Hobbit.

Just a thought

Do you realize that tonight (Thursday, March 19), Jay Leno has Barack Obama AND Garth Brooks? What, Brad Pitt, Bruce Springsteen and Jerry Seinfeld weren't available?

"Idol": For guys only?

I really do like females, you know. I like the way they sing, the way they look, maybe even the way they smell. So this year's "American Idol" is getting tougher for me.

The finals started with eight men and only five women. Since then, it has shed Jorge Nunez, Jasmine Murray and now Alexis Grace; that makes it 7-3 and way out of kilter.

I expected Jasmine to go last week, but Alexis was a jolt. Tiny (not quite 5-foot and 100 pounds), she has a big, bluesy voice that's been molded in her years in Memphis. She's a real talent, sort of Kristen Bell without the acting.

Alas, for country week she chose "Jolene," a terrific Dolly Parton song that doesn't give much extra room for the singer to show off. Her version Tuesday was too muted; on Wednesday -- going for a reprieve by the judges -- she gave it a gutsy, gritty, passionate try.

The circumstances were perfect -- singing "I'm begging you please" to judges who could spare her. They didn't.

Here are a few other comments; please add yours:

1) It was logical to see Michael Sarver at second from the bottom. He's a likable guy and a good singer, but the jet-paced song he chose offered no opportunity for individual initiative. All you can do is grab the song at full gallop and hope you don't fall off.

2) It was disturbing, though, to see Allison Iraheta as the next-lowest. She belted powerfully; this is a tough year for women.

3) Sometimes you hear that a song is kinda-country. Well, make note of this: "I Told You So" -- the song Carrie Underwood and Randy Travis sang tonight -- is WAY country. All the ghosts of "Grand Ole Opry" could cheer that one.

4) The show keeps jerking around with people's emotions. This time, it made Sarver think he was safe, then sent him to the bottom three.

5) Sarver shouldn't have told that story about his 3-year-old daughter wanting him home. Next week, viewers will feel no guilt about skipping him.

6) Next week, incidentally, could be a good one for Matt Giraud of Kalamazoo. The shows -- pushed back to Wednesday and Thursday, because of a presidential speech Tuesday -- feature Motown music, something he grew up on.

7) Motown? I hope Lil Rounds and Iraheta unleash the best Gladys Knight songs around. (Aretha Franklin, alas, hasn't recorded for Motown.) We can't afford to lose any more good women.



For once, Simon is wrong, wrong wrong

Until tonight, Simon Cowell was having a great year. Time after time, his comments have been strong, to the point and correct.

Now, alas, he's been terribly, brutally wrong. In particular, his Adam Lambert comments were the exact opposite of the truth.

Sure, we're used to the Johnny Cash version of "Ring of Fire." But when you listen to the words, you realize that Lambert's version fits. Cash sang of mild discomfort, Lambert sang of writhing, Hellish pain; both served the words beautifully.

Cowell was way off when he called it "indulgent rubbish" and "really horrendous." He was also wrong when he assumed that "Lil" is short for "Little." (I assumed that, too, but I asked her; she explained that "Lil" is her complete first name since birth.) He was also wrong in not remembering to change into one of his going-out-in-public T-shirts.

 Here are a few other comments and my should-go, will-go. Please add your comments; also, please check my previous blogs on "Idol," basketball and St. Patrick's Day:

1) It's tough to sing a story song in 80 seconds. Lil Rounds, a great singer, got nowhere with "Independence Day," a great song. There simply wasn't time to set it up.

2) Danny Gokey also chose poorly with "Jesus Take the Wheel." The first half was quite bad; the second half saved the song and Danny. Also, there was subtle brilliance to the notion of dressing him in a pure-white jacket and bathing the stage in white; sub-consciously, it looked and felt like a one-man choir.

3) Speaking of attire, Allison Iraheta looks wonderful in leather. And she sings powerfully. This is how Elvis would have done it, if Elvis came back as a tiny Latina teen-ager. Maybe he did.

4) What a strange group this is, when all of the great ballads were sung by guys, none by women. Anoop Desai, Kris Allen and Matt Giraud each sang beautifully.

5) I didn't particularly like Scott MacIntyre's performance and I hated Megan Joy Corkrey's performance, but I'm under no illusion that either will be voted out. Megan gets most of the sympathy votes this time, including a hospital trip and missing the run-through.

6) My should-go, based strictly on tonight: Megan Joy, followed by Michael Sarver, then Lil Rounds, then Scott MacIntyre.

7) My will-go -- Michael Sarver. He tackled a song that doesn't really show off the singer. This isn't a spelling bee; no one wins for showing a good memory. There's an outside chance, though, that Alexis Grace or Lil Rounds will go. I hope not; they're terrific singers who had adequate nights.