I had just finished my second year of college when I found myself sitting in a rare premier screening of a remarkable new independent film in my hometown of Columbia SC USA.
Whit Stillman's METROPOLITAN made me believe in the possibility for a writer-director type like me to pursue film from the outside, in. But the fact the film had been produced by a guy from South Carolina was electrifying.
Since that time, I've come to know Peter Wentworth. It is still a dream of mine to see his name as producer on one of my films.
CW: What was the first film you remember seeing as a young man that made you realize that film production was an actual job…something people (and maybe you) could do for a living?
PETER WENTWORTH: I always say Truffaut’s 400 BLOWS and Luis Bunuel’s SIMON OF THE DESERT were the films that made me want to pursue filmmaking. It was the late 1970’s and I saw both during a Film History Class by an amazing teacher Vivian Sobchak. The response wasn’t strictly from a production or vocational place, but rather — I wanted to be part of something that could be this magical. When I was in grad school at Columbia, it was the very beginning of the era when New York Independent Films began getting press and play dates. The theaters — the Bleeker Street Cinema, or Film Forum, The Quad, Cinema Village, were run down cinema sanctuaries. Films like SMITHEREENS, LIQUID SKY, VORTEX – and later STRANGER THAN PARADISE and SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT – were the exclusive domain of these hang-outs. It wasn’t until after grad school that I considered production – and then it was to help a friend, the Godfather of my middle son, to help make a feature from a script he had written. We managed to get Nancy Schreiber, to shoot a trailer for free – and she brought a whole crew of amazing people – who all worked for free in support of both her, and the project. It was then that I saw the amazing people who gravitate towards production and refocused again.
CW: Director, screenplay, or lead actor. As an independent producer…which of these three elements has to be *amazing* for you to believe in and commit to a new project?
PW: A combination of the script and a director. Both have to be — I don’t know, a way to look at something from a fresh point of view. It’s very difficult to find one of those two that stand completely alone.
CW: Social media, crowd-funding, and Internet film distribution has turned many a would-be film producer into a bona-fide, IMDB-listed auteur. How do you, as a respected and experienced film producer, discern which emerging filmmakers are worth betting on?
PW: I’d like to think I have the humility to realize that any decision is a bet and, keeping with the gambling metaphor – you look for the game that’s the most in your favor. This is a period where the exhibition is going through a lot of change. The “Art House Circuit” has hurt by the co-opting of the bread and butter bookings at the multiplexes. Fifteen years ears ago a film like THE PIANO could only be seen at an art house theater. When a film like that got eight Academy Award Nominations – it would stay on that screen for a couple of months – and carry the venue in the slow months and with the riskier fare. Today – THE PIANO would be playing at three multiplexes as well as the Art House Theater. Thus, the Art House Circuit has become increasingly mainstream – at least outside of the major cities. I have great hope for alternative distribution that can show independent films and documentaries in community centers, museums, on the side of an abandoned K-Mart Store – in places where there are theaters. However, I’ve found that young people, increasingly choose to watch alternate fare on Netflix, Vimeo, etc – and rarely go the theater to see anything other than big spectacle films. While Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and the numerous cable outlets are exciting new opportunities – none return much, if any revenue to the small Indy filmmaker. Secondly – great independent work is predicated on a community of people who attend, support and socialize – and that’s always been at an exhibition venue.
CW: Digital film distribution has made the storied juggernaut between new films and their audience sound like ancient history. If anyone in the world can see any film that any filmmaker anywhere has made, what makes a new independently-produced film special…worth more than just a passing glance?
PW: Well – I’d vote for – it has to give you a glimpse into the familiar from a completely different point of view – or a trip to the exotic – which would never registered on your GPS otherwise.
CW: Given the current cinema landscape, it seems that a director’s “debut feature” matters far less than his/her fifth or sixth. Do you agree? Does the current moment give film artists more time to grow and develop…or does it simply muddy the water with too many mediocre movies?
PW: Indie marketing has always utilized the exciting debut as a way to generate interest – but I’d have to agree there aren’t as many debuts as there were a decade ago. But I think this has to do with exhibition – unless its won the audience award at Sundance – most debuts can’t been seen in a theater outside of a major city. Those of us in the hinterlands read about those films we can’t see and put them on our Netflix queue. I think we’re creates of habit and we become accustomed to seeing independent work - if its not available anywhere else, on TV. We have a great little art house venue now in North Charleston – with some terrific programming. In many ways it reflects a coming of a full circle — a very modest setting but a great community. Except the community isn’t filmmakers, or aspiring filmmakers – its all grey haired baby boomers like myself who haven’t weaned off the art house theater experience.
CW: What’s more important for morale on a low budget film shoot: crew T-shirts, hot lunches, or sharing beers at wrap?
PW: Participation – you’ll find amazingly accomplished technicians and craftspeople joining because it offers them an opportunity to push themselves and their work – maybe jump up a position to a department head. But on the best shows their excitement to contribute artistically is palpable. Never overlook the fact that most technicians love what they do. Inclusion in the process is very important
CW: You can make an amazing feature for 100K these days. Why don’t rich and famous actors spend their own cash producing films they want to make with emerging directors, DPs, and/or designers?
PW: They do – but not without serious consideration. All creative people are in a precarious situation. If an actor makes a couple of duds – and a 100K feature is subject to innumerable challenges that make fully realizing the script difficult, their careers can be in serious jeopardy. A feature film is a long and exhausting process – and the number one came make in a year is limited – especially if an actor wants a personal life. I think character actors are the hidden gems for indie filmmakers. Often they get typecast and they’re dying to do something other than a psycho-hillbilly or the earnest, but simple minded homespun type, with killer cleavage. Two great character actors are a better gamble than one star: great performances come from an actor to play against.
CW: What one line of sage advice would you give to a 20 year-old, aspiring filmmaker? How about a 40 year-old aspiring filmmaker? 60 year-old?
PW: Be a champion of the obvious – Don’t obsess over the barriers, risks and challenges – embrace them. Be prepared to invest as much time and energy into the distribution as the production. Surround yourself with people you trust and respect.