Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Future is Now


     I have seen the future of American independent film and it's called Bellflower.  Evan Glodell's no-budget feature debut is a precursor of the new paradigm in indie filmmaking. 
     As Hollywood concentrates more and more on event films based on tried-and-true properties enhanced by 3-D digital effects and other sensory gimmicks, independently created and produced films are being knocked out of the cineplexes and into a shrinking number of art houses. Irrepressible indie filmmakers are seeking new ways to be seen and heard, leading the way in innovation through the use of streaming media, social media, crowd funding, and new breakthroughs yet to be seen.
     During our interview in May, filmmaker John Sayles predicted that indie films in the future will be made by "film bums," people who have the compelling drive to make film but do not have access to conventional sources of finance and distribution.  Their projects will be completed with the support of friends motivated entirely by passion, and their process will be fueled by ingenuity in place of the resources they lack the money to buy. 
     Broke-ass Evan Glodell is the poster child for this new generation of filmmaker.  His process for the creation of Bellflower took over 8 years from script to screen.  Instead of digital effects, the gadgets and props were invented and handmade by Glodell and crew, including the actual cameras used to film the project (see Coatwolf Model II), as well as the Medusa car and the flame-thrower.  It took Glodell 90 long days of trial and error to film Bellflower, something that would have taken an experienced filmmaker only 2-3 weeks to accomplish.  During the Q&A at the Los Angeles premiere, Glodell talked about the lack of funding that plagued the project, as well as the constant fear of being one technical glitch away from complete failure over the months and years that led up to completion of the project. 
     It was not even a foregone conclusion that he would spend the money to enter Sundance, but it was indeed fortunate that he rolled that dice, given the subsequent attention he received for Bellflower, instead of a possible alternate future in which nobody but those who were involved in the project would ever get to see the completed film. 

Jessie Wiseman & Evan Glodell

    During the opening minutes of Bellflower, I began to wonder why I actually paid to see the sold-out premiere screening at the Los Angeles Nuart.  The production quality was unexceptional, the story and shot choices appeared amateurish, and the part-scripted/ part-improved dialogue sounded like speeches in which all the "ums" and "ahs" had been left in.  I actually toyed with the idea of walking out of the film. 
     That would have been a huge mistake.  A few minutes more and you could not have pried me out of that seat with a crowbar. 
     Bellflower is the story of Woodrow (Glodell), a young man whose subsistence existence is made tolerable by a scheme hatched with best friend, Aiden (Tyler Dawson), to build a flame-throwing muscle car called the Medusa.  Inspired by The Road Warrior, they dream of a post-apocalyptic world in which the Medusa will give them the power to rule over the surviving minions of the desert. Woodrow imagines that he is the Humungus, the powerful leader of his desert tribe, a man who does as he pleases and answers to no one. 
     Then Woodrow meets Milly (Jessie Wiseman) and falls completely in love with her, but Milly has her own issues, and she warns Woodrow not to fall in love with her, because she is destined to break his heart.  Of course, Woodrow follows his heart and not his rational mind, and Milly does exactly what she warned him she would do, sending him into a downward spiral that wrecks both of their lives and the lives of those closest to them.  The romantic break-up escalates from emotional pain to violence, building to an inevitable cataclysmic conclusion. 

     When it comes right down to it, none of this film's technical flaws, amateurish values or quality issues amount to anything in light of its compelling storyline.  The emotional power comes from Glodell's own devastating romantic break-up years ago, and writing the first draft of the script was his emotional catharsis.  His is the irrepressible voice of the indie filmmaker that appreciative audiences at Sundance and SXSW, and currently in theaters in Los Angeles and New York, are hearing loud and clear. 
     Glodell's story draws on the shared experience of young love and heartbreak, something most members of the audience understand intimately well.  They readily identify with Woodrow's heartbreak, pain and desire for vengeance, Milly's almost cold-hearted fear of intimacy, or the collateral damage they inflict on their best friends, Aiden and Courtney (Rebekah Brandes).  We all recognize the gap between the Humungus, the invincible being we desire to be, and the complex reality of emotional pain and anguish that really defines who we are.  The actors did a wonderful job of bringing that emotional angst alive in their characters. 
     There was no red carpet at the no-budget Los Angeles premiere.  In fact there was no carpet outside the theater at all, although it seemed that every member of the cast and crew was in attendance--dressed in Target and Ross street clothes instead of expensive designer creations.  There was no security in evidence--certainly not the off-duty police or highly-trained men-in-black one often sees at red carpet premieres. 
     I was pleasantly surprised to find my old friend, Emily Lu, present as the Bellflower publicist.  She is now part of Brigade Marketing, a recently formed Hollywood public relations and marketing firm with the ambitious mission to pioneer new film marketing models for the digital age. 
     As film goers from the Nuart poured out of the theater following the Q&A at the film's conclusion, Glodell pulled the Medusa car up front for a full-on demonstration of the car's working flame-thrower for the enthusiastic crowd.  As the Medusa belched flame high into the air on busy Santa Monica Blvd., I waited for what I thought would be the inevitable arrival of LA's finest to shut down the show and send everyone home.  They didn't appear while I was there. 

     The part of me that is a trained, professional risk manager was appalled by the apparently uncontrolled mob scene, including the spectacle of poor 5-foot-nothing Emily frantically pressing the crowd back onto the sidewalk, out of the busy street and away from the flame-belching car, with the help of a few good Samaritans who came to the rescue. 
     As I stood there at the front of the crowd, nearly choking on the fumes from burning fuel, I felt like a kid again.  I had the same big smile everyone else had at that moment.  It smelled like indie spirit. 

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