Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bricolage, baby

These days, the term "indie" seems to connote a particular style of music, as much as (or maybe more) than a particular approach to (or strategy for) making music. But when I hear the word "indie," my first association is with filmmaker Roger Corman, who, as you may have heard, was just given an Academy Award.

Why that association? Well, Corman set the independent template, not so much by growing (or not growing) a beard, but by displaying a knack for cutting through the bullshit that attends corporatized art production. (And is there any artform more prone to corporatization than film?)

John Sayles:

When you're starting out, most screenwriters write a dozen things and two maybe get made. The important thing about Roger is that he makes movies -- he doesn't fuck around a lot. He just decides, "I'm going to pay somebody to write this movie and that means we are making it once the script is as good a shape as we can for the money and time I've set aside for it." I wrote three screenplays for Roger and all three got made into movies. That's why he is really so incredible. You get the learning, the writing, the story conferencing, and all that. But you also see the whole thing translated into a movie.

Because of the smallness and directness -- I mean, there was one boss, which was Roger -- you didn't go through a dozen subproducers to get to the guy who was going to say yes or no to a screenplay. With the studios, you're always campaigning for one guy so he'll hand it off to the next guy, and the other guy might actually respond very differently. So you never really know who your audience is. Five or six people will filter your script through, whereas at New World there was Roger and there was Frances and that was it. So right away you got to talk to the people who were responsible for making your movie.

I did so many fewer drafts working for Roger than for other places, and as far as I'm concerned the extra drafts didn't make for a better movie. It was just that other functionaries in the major studio process were getting to lift their leg up on your work along the way.

It's funny that I recently succumbed to the notion that sometimes you have to spend money to make money, because for so long I have assumed that my own meager attempts at excellence would have to be done on the cheap. I'm not sure Corman has ever been interested in excellence, per se (not that that has stopped me from loving his work), but he is notorious for not spending money (because you can't spend money you don't have), and getting stuff (a lot of stuff, in fact) done anyway. Which I suppose is why he has been one of my heroes.

Of course, everything is relative, as the man explains in his memoir, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood And Never Lost a Dime (from which all the quotes in this post are taken):

Part of why Hollywood studio features average $20 million [this was written in 1998] is the justifiable cost of making big pictures combined with supply and demand for huge box-office stars who command gigantic fees. But another part is simply inefficient or indulgent filmmaking. I can look at a movie with an ostensible $1 million budget and say whether the money was well spent or not. With a $30 million or $50 million picture, I have no frame of reference. Who can tell you what a $50 million picture is supposed to look like? Lucas's Star Wars money was brilliantly spent. It was on the screen. The fortunes spent on Heaven's Gate or Ishtar, for example, clearly were not.


Let's consider this a slightly different way. It seems like there are two approaches to making art (and maybe the healthiest thing any artist can do is to figure out how to navigate between them as the situation demands). One can start any given project with a clear but unyielding concept of what the end result should be, laying down the law in advance, and then finding, come hell or high water, the means to execute that vision to a "T."

Or, one can start with a rough idea of what the end result should be, and then adapt to the resources at hand (not to mention the inevitable things that will go wrong) with all the suppleness and aplomb and quick-thinking intelligence of the best jazz improvisors.

You probably know where my sympathies lie. Corman, again:

I remember shooting Atlas in Greece almost thirty years ago when I was staging the climactic battle in which Atlas leads the troops of Praximedes against the walled city of Thenis. I'd promised a contribution to the Greek Army Charity Fund in return for its providing five hundred soldiers for the battle. On the appointed day only fifty appeared. Possibly someone had misplaced a decimal point. The script called for Praximedes to overwhelm the outnumbered defenders with the size of his army. The only thing I could think of was to abandon my plans for large-scale panoramic shots and shoot the battle in a series of close action shots to hide the size of the army with a flurry of action on the screen. Before shooting I quickly wrote some new dialogue in which Atlas asked Praximedes how he hoped to conquer the city with such a small number of soldiers. Praximedes replied that in his theory of warfare a small band of efficient, dedicated, highly trained warriors could defeat any number of rabble.

That's my theory of filmmaking.

Again, yes, to both the example of on-the-fly adaptation and the lesson Corman drew from it.

(And though I'm going to be trying out some different approaches soon, deep down, that's also my theory of music-making. Bricolage, baby.)


Chris Kelsey said...

It's the wave of both the present and future, Andrew!

Jason Crane said...

This is a great post. Although I've heard of Corman, I don't think I've ever seen one of his movies. Time to learn more!

Andrew Durkin... said...

Thanks for reading, guys!

Lid said...

Thanks for reminding me of those movies - 'Masque of the Red Death' and 'Pit and Pendulum' are going on my Netflix queue right now. I read Glenn Branca in the NY Times on 'The End of Music' or whatever, then your post here, and I like yours a lot better.

Andrew Durkin... said...

No problem, Lid, thanks for checking out (and writing about) the post. I actually just saw "The Pit and the Pendulum" again. Great flick -- I usually don't think of Vincent Price as someone with a lot of range, but "Pit" lets him stretch out a little.

I saw that Branca piece too. I thought it was kind of silly, but then I haven't had much faith in the NYT lately...

Thanks for your comment!