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How to Make An American ‘Independent’ Film

February 23, 2012

Once upon a time, the term ‘American independent cinema’ designated an approach to filmmaking that was personal in outlook, regional in sensibility and European in aspiration. The goal of the movement was to learn from the European Art House movement of the 1960s and apply those lessons to films that looked beyond shoot-em-ups and courtroom dramas to what it really meant to be an American in the 20th Century. While the movement produced a wide array of different films, it is best known for its most successful work: Stephen Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989).

As Peter Biskind notes in Down and Dirty Pictures (2004), the astronomical amounts of money generated by Sex, Lies, and Videotape kicked off a boom period for American independent film. Suddenly, American indies were big business but in order for them to stay big business it was necessary to replicate that success over and over again. The film industry has always reacted to unexpected success by repetition and the success of American independent films were no exception to this and so a template began to emerge allowing studios to keep making the same films for the same audience over and over again.

Here is my guide to creating an American independent film:

Begin by creating a character with a number of positive and negative personality traits. By possessing both positive and negative traits, the character will come across as being complex whereas in fact he is simply competently written. These traits should be extreme enough that exploring them creates feelings of both extreme sympathy (in the case of positive characteristics) and utter disgust (in the case of negative characteristics.

The ambiguity of the character is to be reflected in the ambiguity of the film’s tone. Despite dealing with the unravelling of someone’s life, it is important to occasionally lighten the tone with jokes about the character. This way the audience know not to take things too seriously and will most likely be impressed by the courage of a script that makes jokes about the unravelling of someone’s life.

Then, cast a well-liked character actor as this central character. This type of casting kills two birds with one stone as it ensures both that the audience will be well disposed towards the character and that the actor will have sufficient acting talent to explore the character’s negative personality traits without ever completely jettisoning the feelings of sympathy that bind the character to the audience.

Set the character in a quirky and visually distinctive region of America. Even if the character begins the film living in a large city, it is imperative that the bulk of the action takes place outside the city so as to pander to the audience’s patronising belief that non-city dwellers are somehow more emotionally authentic than the people who live in cities.

Surround the primary character with an array of secondary characters who exist purely in order to service either the plot or the psychological unravelling of the primary character. For example, it is wise to consider casting a physically attractive actor as the love interest as their attractiveness will prompt the primary character to take a long hard look at their life. After all, attractive people never date people with problems and the only reason anyone would ever confront their demons is on the off chance that they will get a shag out of it. Another useful secondary character is the friend who possesses the same negative personality traits as the primary character. The obvious negativity of that secondary character’s personality traits will thereby help the audience to realise that, no matter how badly the primary character behaves, they are not necessarily ‘all that bad’.

Begin the film by emphasising the primary character’s positive personality traits whilst only hinting at the negative traits that are also present in their personality. As the film progresses, the negative personality traits are to become more and more obvious until the character becomes nothing less than a complete monster. Once the audience’s disgust is at maximum, insert a beautifully shot sequence in which the character wanders around in a manner that suggests that they are either drunk, high or clinically depressed. Once rock bottom is hit, the character is forced to confront what they have become and begin the healing process.

If an up-beat ending is required, then it is wise to show the character learning from his lessons and improving himself. This can also be achieved via a scene set an indeterminate amount of time after the character hits rock bottom, this scene will reveal that the character has become what it is that he always feared but he’s okay with that as it means that his life is back on track. This scene will emphasise the positive personality traits explored at the beginning of the film. If a thought provoking ending is required, then it is wise to refrain from showing what happens after the character hits rock bottom. One solution is to have the character simply wander off at the end of the film, another solution is to have the film end mid-scene with an image of the character that hints at some of their positive personality traits. Either way, by failing to spell out the end of the story, the film is inviting the audience to make up their own ending. This generally makes the audience feel smart and if the audience feels smart at the end of the film then they are more likely to conclude that the film is smart regardless of the ideas explored in the film.

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This guide has already produced such successful films as Sideways (2004), Up In the Air (2009), About Schmidt (2002), Barney’s Version (2010), Win Win (2011) and The Descendants (2011). All of these films adhere by the strict standards of what must now be considered a cinematic genre and because of this, audiences are beginning to notice the re-emergence of certain key tropes. Clearly concerned for its bottom line, Hollywood has reacted to the growing awareness of the genre by producing films that draw attention to the tropes that it so studiously adheres to.

Jason Reitman’s Young Adult (2011) is an excellent example of an attempt to re-invigorate the genre by drawing attention to the boundaries of the genre that the film operates in. The film involves an ambiguous character played by the likeable character actor Charlize Theron whose character is a) naïve (positive), romantic (positive), and devoted to getting her life back on track (positive) as well as b) bitter (negative), deluded (negative), entitled (negative) and a raging alcoholic (negative). The film begins in a big city but Theron’s character leaves the city in order to return to her hometown where she attempts to seduce her old high school boyfriend. As the film progresses, the character’s naïvely romantic worldview reveals itself as a toxic and deluded sense of entitlement.

This toxicity is neatly reflected in that of the character played by Patton Oswalt who is even more of an embittered drunk than Theron’s character because he was crippled by a pair of drunken jocks who mistakenly believed him to be gay. The relationship between the two characters allows the film to explore the exact nature of the bitterness that engulfs the primary character. Similarly useful is the radical difference between Theron’s character and that of her ex-boyfriend’s wife who is almost impossibly noble and forgiving, thereby highlighting the wretchedness of Theron’s character but also under-cutting it on the grounds that Theron’s character must possess some potential for growth is someone as noble as her ex-boyfriend’s wife is willing to forgive her.

The film ends with Theron’s character hitting rock bottom and having sex with the character of Patton Oswalt. Upon waking up, the character wanders into the kitchen where she encounters the sister of Patton Oswalt’s character who tells her that, far from having to fix her life, Theron’s character is already far happier and far more special than anyone in her hometown. This suggests that Theron’s character will not learn from her mistakes but the film ends before we can see the issue resolved thereby making it more ambiguous and more ‘thought provoking’.

While Young Adult is just as formulaic as any successful American independent film, it does try to move beyond the boundaries of its formula by acknowledging their existence. The film makes this acknowledgement by having Theron’s character comment on the events of her life through the medium of a young adult novel she is writing. As the film progresses, the plot of the novel switches between a variety of different clichés as Theron’s character struggles to square her life away using the lens of genre fiction.  For example, when Theron’s character seems about to triumph, her Mary sue stands poised to win the man of her dreams. When Theron’s character winds up failing in her mission to seduce a married man, the Mary sue realises that she never loved the man of her dreams and needs to make it on her own. The problem is that while Theron’s character does indeed draw attention to the conceits of genre and the way in which stock plotlines can provide a sense of comfort, it is interesting to note that the genre that Theron’s character clings to is not American Independent Film but rather that of boarding school novels aimed at teenage girls. Why should seeing the world through the lens of young adult fiction be any less deluded and simplistic than seeing the world through the lens of American independent film? Making a film that critiques genre literature is a wasted opportunity because nobody expects young adult boarding school novels to be anything other than reductive and psychologically puerile. Had Charlize Theron’s character been a screenwriter working on a film starring Paul Giamatti then Young Adult might have had some bite. Instead, Young Adult directs its satirical edge outwards resulting in a film which, though entertainingly bleak, is really nothing that we have not seen before.

3 Comments
  1. February 23, 2012 5:27 pm

    Spot-on. We need to restore the Seinfeld mantra: No Hugging. No Learning.

  2. February 26, 2012 11:14 am

    The template you set out for independent films works for pretty much every American film made with a budget, the only difference is that in something like Tranformers the final resolution is always a positive one. In fact I would go a step further and that template works for almost all fiction. It is a well trodden path but it is rare that any narrative break out of that mold. Hardly fair to expect Indie films to work outside of that framework when everyone else is using it. Sure you have films like Waking Life that step outside that but those are far and few between.

    Also, the attack seems to be more about shitting on Sideways, which I am happy with as the film was deathly dull and I found none of the characters remotely likable.

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