The Head Trauma of Independent Filmmaking

[9 July 2007]

By Brian Holcomb

See also the DVD review, “Head Trauma”

This is both an exciting and frustrating time for independent filmmaking. On the one hand, digital technology has freed the precious tools from the elite and allowed virtually anyone to make a fairly polished-looking movie on a very low to virtually nil budget. On the other hand, gaining distribution for such movies is a nightmare. With the studios having swallowed up the indie niche through their medium-budget productions that corrupt the Sundance Film Festival every January, to the sheer volume of low-quality product that floods the DVD shelves, a well made, independent has to find another way to build an audience.

This is not exactly a new problem in light of fairly recent technology. In the late ‘70s, Francis Ford Coppola re-launched his dream factory Zoetrope Studios as an artist’s haven. He dreamed of a place where artists could come to work and create films that were not primarily designed for profit. To that end, he bought soundstages, cameras, lenses, and editing equipment, believing that owning the equipment equaled creative freedom. The problem was that while he could now create the films with total freedom, he was still imprisoned by a distribution system that the major studios control to this day.

The studios have the contracts with the owners of all the major theater chains and the financial muscle to be able to spend a cool 10-15 million dollars in advertising to make sure their product has a high profile and is available to be seen in all of the major markets. Much like Clear Channel’s power to decide what you will or will not hear on the radio, the major studios can shape pop culture at will.

Until now, if an independent filmmaker did not sell their film to a major studio / distributor, they would find out soon enough that they reached the end of the road. The film would be shelved and all investment lost. Today, there is another way, made possible once again by digital technology.

This is the concept of DIY distribution. Now that a filmmaker can bypass the need to make costly film prints, he or she can burn their finished film to DVD, screen it theatrically through digital projection, or make it available for download.  But still the question remains: How does an independent filmmaker compete in a very competitive marketplace?

Lance Weiler, along with his former partner Stefan Avalos, is one of the real pioneers of digital filmmaking and distribution. Their first film, The Last Broadcast, was produced using low-end video cameras and computer editing software back in 1998. This during the tail-end of the last century when the world still had one foot in the old analog universe. What’s even more startling is that they not only produced the film digitally, but they also distributed it that way. Even before George Lucas, Weiler and Avalos’ film was the very first to be digitally distributed via satellite to theaters across the country.

Weiler’s latest is the intense and puzzling psychological horror film, Head Trauma. It’s the story of George Walker, a drifter who returns to fix up his late grandmother’s house and save it from demolition, all the while being haunted by shocking visions of a hooded figure and murder. The film has been very well received and continues Weiler’s DIY approach with a personally supervised theatrical tour leading up to the DVD release.

Weiler very kindly took the time to answer my long list of questions regarding his films, the industry, and the future of digital filmmaking and distribution.

In 1998, when I first heard about The Last Broadcast, the independent film wave was in full swing with Sundance at it’s peak of respectability and filmmakers like Kevin Smith and Robert Rodriguez making a very loud splash. Peter Broderick, in his famous article in Filmmaker magazine, kind of laid out the whole “No Budget” breakdown that seemed to suggest that for $30,000 you could make a marketable feature film on 16mm. But it was at that moment that you and Stefan Avalos demonstrated something a bit different, that by using video and low-cost software, a very polished movie could be produced for much less, in the case of The Last Broadcast for a reputed $900. What was your background in filmmaking at that time and did you first consider making a feature on 16mm just like everyone else? How aware were you both at the time of how much this technology would change filmmaking?
Prior to making The Last Broadcast, I’d made seven short films on 16mm. I’d attempted to raise funds for a super 16mm sci-fi flick, but after only raising a couple thousand dollars I went back to the drawing board. At the time I was working as a camera assistant on commercial shoots. It was an excellent learning experience that paid well, and I was working with an amazing director of photography. One day while I was waiting to catch a train home, I picked up a computer magazine and while flipping through the pages I found an ad for an early editing board. I was familiar with high-end solutions like Avid, but this was the first time I’d ever seen something that would allow anyone with a PC to digitize and edit footage. That was a profound moment. I remember calling up Stefan because he was helping me with building a system. We built our own computers and then on a lark decided to see how little we could make a movie for. It’s funny because The Last Broadcast ended up being the start of a whole new model for filmmaking, one that can be seen everywhere.

The Last Broadcast remains fascinating to me in how much its content was wrapped up in its form, like some of the early films of Brian DePalma such as Hi, Mom!, or even Antonioni’s Blow-Up. It seemed as though the manner of production, the manipulation of images through digital editing and Photoshop, was very much a part of how both of you came up with the concept: A media project about how the media presents truth. Did the concept come first, followed by the means or did the means determine the content?
It was a mixture of both. Once Stefan and I decided to make The Last Broadcast, we sat down and thought about what we had around us. From that point we started working with an outline that became the movie. There were a number of factors that played into the story. The interest in how technology could effect the perception of truth. The OJ Simpson trial had played out publicly and you couldn’t escape it. We also shared a love of a number of docs David Holzman’s Diary, The Thin Blue Line, and Paradise Lost, to name a few. Not to mention, The Conversation and F for Fake.
 


The film is known to be the first to be theatrically released digitally, something that seemed crazy at the time but inevitable today. You also handled the theatrical release by yourselves rather than going with the standard distribution model. Was this something you both felt was necessary in order to keep the integrity of the film or did you find it hard to obtain distribution altogether?
We turned down studio offers for the distribution of The Last Broadcast. We did so for a number of reasons, most of which stemmed from the fact that the deal terms were weak. For instance, they wanted the rights to the world for 20-some years and they were offering $350k. We took a gamble, feeling that we could do better. To date The Last Broadcast has grossed over $4.5 million worldwide, and Stefan and I still own the rights. There was also the desire to keep the movie digital instead of paying out $30 to $40k for a film print. When I look back, it is amazing the path that The Last Broadcast took, considering that Stefan and I made it to see how little we could make a feature for. We initially thought it would be something that we watch with our friends and family. Making the film with Stefan was one of the wildest rides I’ve had in my life and I wouldn’t change a thing.

There was a period of years between The Last Broadcast and your new film, Head Trauma. Did the success of The Last Broadcast allow you to get your foot in the Hollywood door? Did this turn out to be a bad experience? On the DVD commentary for Head Trauma, you mention a particularly tough time creating a pilot for FOX.
I gave the system a try and it was a miserable experience. I learned a ton, but it was an incredible time suck. Between The Last Broadcast and Head Trauma, I was distributing Broadcast, directing commercials and music videos. What’s interesting is that I’m currently working in the system again, but this time things are very different. I have a better team working with me and, most importantly, I have the freedom to make whatever I want outside the system. It is a wonderful place to be, knowing that no matter what I can make and distribute my work.

You co-wrote the script for Head Trauma with Brian Majeska. Did the movie come pretty much fully formed, or was it a progression of drafts to arrive at it’s final shape?
We worked on a couple drafts prior to shooting. But once shooting started it didn’t feel right, so after shooting for two weeks I put the production on hold and went and re-wrote the script over a six-month period and then kept writing all the way through shooting. Stopping production to fix the script was one of the toughest decisions I’d ever made. It could have totally derailed the movie, but in the end it was the best thing I did during the making of the film. It was also a huge learning experience. It taught me to go with my gut and to challenge myself and not to be afraid to stray from the written word. Scripts are a great road map but sometimes you need to take a different route.

Vince Mola was really fantastic in a very difficult role as George Walker. Did you write the script with him in mind or was he cast via a standard audition process? How did you put together such a strong cast locally?
Vince did an amazing job. He brought George to life. He went the distance physically and mentally. He transformed himself into George. We shot the movie over a year and he kept the beard and grew his hair out for the part. He is normally clean-shaven. I couldn’t have made the movie without such a level of commitment on his part. I wrote the part for him and I have to admit that thought that the role of George would be good for him. He was going through a bitter divorce and was at the lowest point in his life. I felt like him mining that [experience] would make a strong character, and it did.
 


One of the appealing aspects of Head Trauma for me was its basis in regional filmmaking. We identify many of the great independent filmmakers with the regions they live(d) in and translate(d) onscreen. John Waters’ Baltimore, George Romero’s Pittsburgh, and even, in a broader sense, David Cronenberg’s Canada, all have a real presence in their work. Head Trauma is set within a very specific vision of Pennsylvania, one that seems to be trapped in George Walker’s mind. What is it about Pennsylvania that you find distinctive and how did you want to express it within the movie?
Pennsylvania is a beautiful state with a wide diversity of locations that you don’t often see on screen. It is also an amazing place to shoot for a variety of reasons. The Scranton area and the Pocono Mountains were perfect for Head Trauma. I wanted a Deer Hunter-type of feeling and Scranton and the surrounding Pocono Mountains fit the bill. I love the woods. They can be a dark and creepy place.

What do you find appealing about the horror genre?
Horror, like sci-fi, has a lot of room for subtext. I also think that it is a genre, which has room for growth. I’m interested in hybrid genres. I’m a fan of psychological horror. Humans are capable of some of dark and twisted things and I tend to enjoy horror that is routed in that.
 


Head Trauma has a very intense and singular mood that reminds me of how Poe believed stories should create a strong singular impression on the reader. Was it a challenge to keep the tone under control?
Setting a tone and holding it throughout the movie was very challenging. Not only did we have a small budget,  but also building a sense of tension that mounts over time and pacing that correctly is tough. It started on set with production designer Jennifer Nasal and director of photography Sam Levy. They worked with next to nothing, and helped to bring my vision for the film to life. Josh Cramer, my editor, and I worked for six-months cutting the film. Josh brought a lot to the process and it was wonderful to collaborate with him. Then sound designer Tim Nielson and composers Amy Morrissey and Brian McTear added an amazing score. Going in I knew I wanted to create a strong tone, and I feel like we did.

How did you raise financing for the film? Were the investors aware of your DIY distribution plan?
I raised all the money for Head Trauma from private investors. When I sat down with potential investors, I laid out a whole plan for the film. It included possible traditional and non-traditional paths. One thing that I’ve learned is that the industry and marketplace are constantly changing. You can’t mimic, you have to innovate. It’s about creating awareness and cutting through the static. So I laid out a detailed plan that not only explained what type of film I was making, but also how I intended to bring it to market.
Due to budget, or even a certain level of fear, most indie filmmakers try to wear all of the hats on their productions. I know you wore many hats, but it seems that you involved other creative personnel to help you make Head Trauma such as a cinematographer, production designer, and editor. How much creative freedom did you allow these collaborators, and did you find it a good experience to have a more objective view at these important positions?
I love the collaborative process of filmmaking. If you’re strong in your own vision and confident in what you want, working with others can be amazing. It all comes down to communication, and I was fortunate to have such a great group of people working with me. I encourage cast and crew to present ideas and I’ll listen to other people’s opinions and try things. Sometimes amazing things come from that process. But you need to have the structure and the vision of what you personally want or else it could become a jumbled mess.

The cinematography was excellent throughout Head Trauma, transcending most of what is normally expected of an independent film. How did you find Sam Levy and what did both of you do to achieve this sophisticated look? What camera did you use to shoot the movie and did you do much work in post to create the specific color scheme?
I met Sam when I was a camera assistant. I trained him to become a camera assistant and we worked together for a number of years. I went the director route, and Sam went the DP route. We have a similar sensibility towards shooting. We spent a lot of time developing the look of Head Trauma. We shot many tests and created our own filters. Our biggest inspiration for the color scheme came from Goya’s black paintings. We shot the movie with the (Panasonic)DVX 100 and 98 percent of the look was achieved on set.

You mentioned on the DVD commentary that you began editing the movie by yourself, but after finishing a cut, you decided to look for someone to help you fine-tune it. In what way did Josh Cramer help you refine the movie?
Working with an editor gave me distance and helped me to focus on the story and performances, which was key. When you wear too many hats, it is important to know when to let something go. To place it in better hands, per se. Josh is an amazing editor and collaborating with him was a great experience. We worked closely together and he brought a great sensibility to the movie. He cut it much tighter than I could have.

How did you come up with the idea to use comic books to help tell the story of Head Trauma? I thought that the way you weaved this element throughout the film was very audacious and exciting.
I’m a fan of comics and graphic novels. Often in films they are props more than an actual character or story device. I wanted to use them as foreshadowing elements in the case of Nothing but Grief, which is modeled after a Jack Chick tract-style comic. Julian’s drawings are intended to be a reflection of his character and how he interprets the story.

Did you contact comic book artist Stephen Bissette out of the blue or was he someone you knew already?
Stephen is a friend and also a fan of The Last Broadcast. Stephen and his son Danny inked the Nothing but Grief comic. It was a thrill to have Stephen work on the movie. I grew up reading his comics.

The abandoned house in Head Trauma was a fantastic location that seemed quite dangerous to work in. Did you find it a challenge to shoot there and how did you manage to control the logistics of power, food, cast and crew?
The abandoned house felt like a head trauma. It looked amazing on screen and in person, but it was one of the more difficult locations I’ve ever shot in. It was disgusting and creepy which was great for setting a tone . . . There was no power, no running water and it was at times dangerous. My co-producer John Stefanic did an excellent job of running the location and making sure things were safe. John and I scouted over 60 abandoned buildings before settling on the house we shot in. I know that the house was a challenge for Vince who played George. Since we shot over the course of a year most of the house interiors where shot in the winter, so Vince had to wear short sleeves and do scenes in his underwear. The scene at the end of the movie with him in the basement was shot in -3 degree weather. Ice cubes helped to cool his breath so you can’t see him exhale. But if you were to ask Vince what was the worst part of shooting in the house, it would have to be when he was floating in the flooded basement. The water was 48 degrees and we could only do a few takes and then pull him out, warm him up and repeat the process.

I noticed several people in the behind-the-scenes feature on the DVD and in the credits who I recalled were involved in The Last Broadcast. David Beard (whom I recognized instantly as the documentarian in Broadcast), and Rein Clabbers in particular. Are these people you’ve always worked with and have they made or do they intend to make their own features?
David Beard played the lead in The Last Broadcast as a favor to me. He’s not an actor. He’s actually a software engineer. On Head Trauma he was the prop master, and he and Joe Wicen (who also worked on Broadcast) were responsible for building the pool, blowing up the car, and designing the ring of fire. Rein Clabbers is a good friend and he is about to do a feature film called Trash Night. It’s a cool horror flick that he’s written. He’ll be shooting later this year. Rein and I met in film school and we’ve been working together ever since.

Among many other great filmmakers, I’ve read that you are a fan of Roman Polanski. He is a filmmaker with a rare command of both storytelling and that purely cinematic craft of creating atmosphere. Most films today, perhaps because of the ease of digital editing, seem to be what Polanski calls, “tossed salads”, nothing more than random images thrown together. Your work as a director seems to be contrary to this. I found Head Trauma to be a very well-crafted movie in the Polanski manner, in which much thought was given to each cut and each camera placement. Do you approach filmmaking like Polanski does, looking at each scene for a point of view and trying to find the exact framings and images to express this singular idea?
I’m a Polanski fan and I enjoy his films especially Knife in the WaterRepulsion, The Tenant,  and Chinatown. I do look for a POV within a scene and consider camera placements, blocking, and images based on what I think will best convey the scene. I tend to approach the work from a visual standpoint. I often see scenes in my head and then turn them out into shot lists. For instance, the ring of fire scene in Head Trauma plays out the way that I saw it in my head.

How important is sound design in horror filmmaking?
Sound design is huge within horror. But often horror uses sound design as a cheap scare and it can be formulaic. In Head Trauma, the sound design and music score blend seamlessly, which was my goal from the start. I tend to like experimental scores. What makes sound design stronger is when it compliments good story, acting, cinematography, production design, and editing.

Do you believe it’s important for an independent filmmaker to “brand” himself? Sticking to certain genres such as horror or pushing a style that is distinctive enough to garner a loyal fan base?
I think it is important to tell the stories that you feel strongest about. Since independent filmmaking takes years, I look for a concept that will keep me excited throughout the whole process. My feeling is that if you focus on the work and are true to that, an audience base will grow for the work. The biggest challenge is letting new fans know the work exists.

Do you wish to continue making films in Pennsylvania or is there a powerful call to move to Los Angeles like Stefan Avalos did in order to secure a career as a filmmaker? Is it easier in some ways to make films away from the busy production centers?
I enjoy shooting in PA. I also love living in Pennsylvania. I currently have an agent and manager in Los Angeles and I tend to do a lot of work in New York City. So for me, I’ve found a way to work within and outside the system. I like the freshness of shooting in locations outside of New York and Los Angeles. So I hope to continue to shoot in places that are the best for the stories that I want to tell.

What is the financial reality of low-budget filmmaking? Many filmmakers start out banging the indie drum only to sign up with a Hollywood studio at the first opportunity. Is there a real way for a filmmaker to stay independent and be productive without taking a second job to pay the bills?
I’m a strong believer in sustainability. I do think that advancements in technology along with building audiences for one’s work are a path that can lead to success for filmmakers. The power of the niche and the ability to make work inexpensively will enable filmmakers to create work that reaches audiences. The measurement of success will be different than the traditional system, but it can lead to true artistic freedom.

I am sure you are asked this basic question over and over again, but one more time: If someone has produced a movie on a very small budget and is looking to get it distributed, what they do to build interest and promote the work?
First and foremost, make the best film you can.  Don’t rush the process, and make sure to write and re-write. Think about who the audience is for your work, and think of how you can reach them. Build an active site that has a mailing list and a RSS feed. Identify the hooks that set your project apart from all the others in the marketplace. These hooks will help you build an audience and to generate press for your work. Don’t get discouraged. Believe in yourself and your film because if you don’t, how will anyone else? Lastly, talk with other filmmakers and share information. The sharing of information can save you tons of time and aggravation. In an effort to help with the sharing of information, I’ve established a free filmmaking resource called
WorkbookProject.com. The Workbook Project shares info on fundraising, production, and distribution. It attempts to bridge the gap between filmmaking and technology.

Heretic Films released Head Trauma to DVD, and David Lynch has a deal with Rhino Video to release Inland Empire to DVD. Both of these films were originally self-distributed theatrically. Is it a good idea to avoid self-distributing a DVD off your own website/Amazon.com and to strike a deal with a DVD company, instead?
Stefan and I created our own label for the release of The Last Broadcast and it took a ton of time to manage it. So this time out I wanted to find a partner to work with. Heretic is great to work with, very filmmaker-friendly. I think the value of physical media is eroding. The lack of shelf space, competing HD formats, and the promise of digital downloads are changing the industry. I’m excited by the prospect of digital downloads and I think those rights are valuable to hold on to. Keeping the rights for you to sell a DVD or digital download off your own sites is something that filmmakers should work into any traditional or hybrid distribution deal that they do.


We seem to be at a strange crossroads in the film industry, in which no one seems to know exactly what form it will take next. Mark Cuban seems to be committed to experimenting with his HDNET Films day and date concept of releasing films theatrically, to cable TV and DVD on the same day, while both you and David Lynch were high profile filmmakers testing the waters of DIY distribution. Did you find theatrical self distribution to be a viable model for independent filmmakers, or does it make more sense to focus on DVD and digital downloads? In a broader context, how do you see the film industry developing in the immediate future to capitalize on the emerging markets? How do you view the future in terms of new technology creating more opportunities for distribution?
That’s the big question of the moment. I think it’s a great time to be making work, but the reality is that there are so many films being made that the largest challenge facing all filmmakers both independent and the studios is finding the audience. The studio system uses large amounts of money to saturate traditional outlets but there are no guarantees. The Internet promises to level the playing field, and I think for truly independent film, the answer is in building audiences and then sharing those audiences between filmmakers. Digital rights are key, and I can’t stress enough the importance of retaining those rights. Day and date makes a lot of sense for smaller films and theatrical can be a great way to create awareness around a title. But I think there is more revenue potential in event driven screenings.

What is the remix version of Head Trauma?
The Head Trauma remix is a cinema ARG (alternate reality game) which plays out in the theater, online, and in the real world. I wanted to create a new type of horror experience. It’s a collision of movies, music, gaming, and theatrics. Musicians and DJs score the movie live, characters from the film emerge from the audience, and viewers can use their mobile phones to interact with the movie. We are taking the HT cinema ARG to New York City, Los Angeles, London, Montreal, and Italy.

In what way will remixing and mash-ups influence filmmaking? Is it a matter that user-generated content in a sharing environment will actually become the platform for indie distribution? How can the independent filmmaker utilize these remix sites to promote their work?
Media creation and consumption is changing everyday. The tools are accessible and anyone can create their own content in much the same way that musicians can record their own music. Remixing is exciting for a number of reasons. First off, it is an excellent way to comment on our culture and depending on how things shake out, it could end up sparking an interesting new revenue model for content creators. But a lot of the potential for remixing depends on what happens within the digital policy space. Future legislation around copyright, fair use, and the issue of net neutrality could aid or crush a remix culture. For information on these issues visit CreativeCommons.org or SaveTheInternet.org.

What can we expect from you next?
I’m working on two different psychological horror films. All I’ll say is that they are dark and twisted flicks and I can’t wait to get back behind the camera.

Thank you so much for your time, Lance, and I look forward to seeing whatever you choose to do next. Do you wish to add anything in conclusion?
Check out HeadTraumaMovie.com.  It’s a cool interactive comic with a number of things hidden below the surface. And thanks so much for the coverage!


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If you get a chance, also check out Lance Weiler’s Workbook Project. It’s a great open source website for all filmmakers that focuses on issues facing content creators in the digital age as well as a massive toolbox of resources to make the most of the Internet for promotion and distribution. Weiler interviews filmmakers, distributors, and provides downloadable tools to help filmmakers harness the latest technology to enhance and express creativity. There is nothing like it on the web and it is fast becoming indispensable.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/the-head-trauma-of-independent-filmmaking/