Tournament of Books 2015

Saturday, November 5th, 2005


Declaration of Independent Filmmaking (05 Edition)

by Mark Polish

A review by Chris Bolton

The downside of how-to-make-a-movie books is their tendency to become outdated as quickly as a pop culture riff in a bad Tarantino rip-off. Robert Rodriguez's Rebel without a Crew is a fun, energetic primer for how to make a film under $7,000... in the early '90s. Today the technology has changed so dramatically that Rodriguez's methods hardly even apply.

The Declaration of Independent Filmmaking isn't loaded with the latest news on the most up-to-date desktop editing methods, reviews of hardware and software, or the best film resources on the Web. Considering how long it takes a book to reach publication, any attempt to write a definitive text on these topics would be old news by the time it hit shelves. What Declaration offers, instead, is anecdotal information on the nuts and bolts of actually making an independent feature.

The Polish brothers, Mark and Michael, got their start in the late '90s with a debut feature, Twin Falls Idaho, that received some acclaim and led to two more low-budget films, Jackpot and Northfork. (They're best known to me as actors, having played the Irish twins in Neil Jordan's terrific underrated thriller The Good Thief, starring Nick Nolte.) They made all three films without studio money, in one case wooing a Texas millionaire all night long to raise financing, which ultimately resulted in their receiving a $100,000 charge card. Whatever you think of the end result (I, for one, turned off the overly affected Northfork halfway through), there's no denying the originality of the brothers' vision.

They also learned quite a few lessons the hard way. In addition to a helpful glossary of the various functions of a film crew (if you've ever wondered what a gaffer or first A.D. does, this is your book), Declaration presents the Polish brothers' experience of making their films, passing on some of their hard-won wisdom.

Independent filmmaking can be a difficult, life-energy-sapping ordeal, and sometimes it helps just to know that even professional filmmakers have endured many of the same trials, if not worse. Whereas Rebel likely inspired a legion of armchair filmmakers to get up and shoot their own features -- only to discover, in the pre-digital era, that even Rodriguez couldn't really make a finished film for $7,000 (Columbia Pictures spent $100,000 on sound before releasing El Mariachi to theaters) -- the Polish brothers make no bones about the difficulty and expense of the endeavor.

They are also aware, as anyone who tries to "make it" in the film industry quickly learns, that it's next to impossible to get in through the front door. A lucky few sell their first screenplay after a chance encounter with a producer, who then decides to let the novice direct the film. That does happen, just as some people blow their paycheck on lotto tickets and win the jackpot -- but no sane person would recommend relying on either outcome. As the Polish brothers write in their introduction, "The only one you can count on to get your film made is you. Left to chance and other people, your screenplay will likely collect dust and your film may never get made."

While more seasoned film students may want to skip rudimentary chapters on, for instance, the (very) basics of screenwriting, the sections devoted to "Pricing Your Film" and "Designing a Screenplay Presentation" (for potential investors) offer invaluable advice. Declaration also provides examples of breakdown sheets, SAG contracts, call sheets, and shooting schedules. These are the less glamorous aspects of filmmaking, the details one doesn't get from glossy Premiere magazine articles. Beyond the (mostly imaginary) glamour, before the red carpet premiere, when the dream of a huge Sundance deal hasn't yet been soured by the reality of market demands, filmmaking is a job. "If you hear yourself saying, 'No one wants to make my movie,'" the brothers note, "make sure that 'no one' doesn't include you."

The Polish brothers have done their work, know it well, and can offer much to people who are serious filmmakers, willing to do the work, not just chase the big payday. The Declaration of Independent Filmmaking won't tell you how to handle lunch with executives, parties with movie stars, and which mansion will make you the envy of the other millionaires. What it will tell you is how to find financing, how to assemble your barebones crew, what to look for when casting, what you'll actually do on your first day of shooting on location... in other words, the sorts of practical considerations most film textbooks don't even touch on.

Best of all, the Polish brothers aren't unproduced film teachers or some obscure (well, not completely obscure) directors you've never heard of, whose advice you might never follow if you actually saw how their films turned out. If you haven't seen one of their films, you can rent them almost anywhere and decide for yourself if their advice is worth a damn.

For my money, it is. While I can't say I'm a fan of their work, I appreciate its technical competence and the fact that the Polish brothers have survived, if not actually thrived, in a cruel and unforgiving industry that has mercilessly thrown aside many a lesser (and, arguably, better) filmmaker. Theirs is a Declaration well worth signing on to.

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