Tall, lanky, a tad shy, Dan Casey seems your typical college student, and the CCS senior’s apartment in Detroit’s Cass Corridor bears all the trappings of your typical college bachelor pad: piles of laundry, the occasional battered movie poster, a coffee table full of cookie crumbs. In Casey’s bedroom, a rumpled mattress on the floor sits directly across from an elaborate computer console, the screen filled with frozen images.
This is Casey’s film studio. At the tender age of 22, Casey is an independent filmmaker with four feature films under his belt — and he just snagged national distribution for the fourth, a crime thriller called The Passage.
Across the country, a legion of young filmmakers, in living rooms and bedrooms just like this, are cutting their teeth as filmmakers. Many produce subpar work that will never see the light of day, and even much of the good work may be doomed to obscurity. But some filmmakers, like Casey, seem to be poised on the brink of major success.
The signs of the boom are on theater marquees. Last week The Brewster Project, a local indie film starring music figures such as Paradime and Regina Belle, screened at the State Theatre. The Second Coming, another Detroit production, recently screened at the Masonic Temple. One local theater manager reported that some months she receives up to 20 screening queries. Film festivals are happening regularly, among them Detroit Docs (for documentaries), Planet Ant’s festival, the Michigan Independent Film Festival and the Motor City Film Festival (Aug. 12-16).
What is propelling this activity? The recent advent of cheap and readily available digital video (DV) cameras and the accompanying editing software.
Welcome to the new millennium of independent filmmaking — where you can make your own feature film for less than a grand, and edit it at home in your underwear. These days, everybody and his brother can make a film — and they are — but will it be any good?
The digital future
Independent films are nothing new; they’ve been pushing the envelope and shaking up screens as early as 1969’s low-budget instant classic Easy Rider. But in the 1990s, a handful of groundbreaking filmmakers proved again that independent films can cross over and cash in.
Robert Rodriguez managed to channel the success of his micro-budget revenge tale El Mariachi (1992) into a big-budget Hollywood remake, Desperado, starring Antonio Banderas. The title of the filmmaker’s memoir says it all: Rebel without a Crew: How a 23-year-old Filmmaker with $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player.
Kevin Smith filmed Clerks. (1994) for a mere $24,000; it netted more than $3 million in the box office alone, and turned the New Jersey native into an idol for eager, young and poor filmmakers everywhere. And 1999’s crowning glory, The Blair Witch Project, cost $30,000, grossed $141 million domestically and became a bona fide sensation.
The inspiration was there — but it can be tough for a twentysomething kid to dig up the dough to make rent — never mind collecting upward of $20,000 to make a film.
Enter the blessings of the modern age. Within the last five years, advances in DV technology have helped lower the cost of a low-budget film to as little as $5,000 — or even less, if you’re really crafty.
DV cameras are high-tech, cost-efficient tools dubbed pro-sumer — professional quality equipment available to the consumer. With a DV camera, cumbersome and expensive film reels are replaced with a mini DV tape, which is both compact and cheap, running $4 to $10 for a one-hour tape.
Most pro-sumer DV cameras cost from $2,500 to $5,000 — popular models include the Sony PD 150, Cannon XL1S and Panasonic DVX 100. While the initial investment in equipment can pack a punch, future costs are minimal — whereas with film, the budget begins to rocket as the filmmaker enters the editing process.
And where traditional film requires a large space for expensive editing equipment, a DV can be edited from a computer with the proper software — just pop in the tape and go.
Up until a few years ago, all video cameras shot 30 frames per second, but the look of the final product was noticeably different than traditional film, which shoots at 24 frames per second (the difference is either better or worse, depending on the personal preference of the filmmaker). A DV camera that shoots 24 frames per second was soon introduced to the market, and this new technology allowed filmmakers to approximate the look of film, at a fraction of the cost — also making it increasingly harder to visually distinguish between video and film.
In the last few years, a tidal wave of new DV films has been released — this includes the good, the bad and the ugly.
“When you go digital, it lowers the bar to an extent,” says Casey, who works in digital, but says he’s occasionally been snubbed when approaching major distributors who’ve seen too many bad DV movies.
“It really gets annoying when you get lumped in with the bad stuff, to have people scoff at you just because you’re digital,” says Casey. “You do have to recognize there’s a lot of bad stuff on digital — but who do you get mad at, the people scoffing, or the ones making really bad films? Just because you can shoot a film doesn’t mean you should — it’s a lot of responsibility.
“I guess I can’t blame people for shunning digital to a certain degree. It allows you to create a film much easier, and a lot of time there’s simply not as much thought put into it. … When you’re using film that costs hundreds of dollars, you’re not going to screw around.”
When asked how much a traditional film camera costs, Casey blinks. “Jeez, I have no idea. I never even considered buying one.” (They can run anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000, depending on the format.)
As more filmmakers pick up digital, there seems to be a rift emerging: DV versus the film purists.
“That’s what divides most filmmakers,” says Casey.
Bob Anderson, founder of the Detroit Film Center (DFC), points out that many filmmakers still shoot on film and then transfer to digital in the editing process.
“Now, hardly anybody is working on film all the way through,” says Anderson, “It’s incredibly expensive, and it just doesn’t make sense.”
Jack Cronin, a film instructor at Wayne State University, CCS and the DFC, also works in both mediums, but is particularly fond of the old school.
“There’s still something to be said for film,” says Cronin, “and sometimes the limitations of film can be more exciting. You have to really think about what you’re shooting. With digital, there’s a tendency to just shoot endlessly and shoot junk. … There’s definitely a lot more offhanded stuff that people make now.”
Filmmaker Anthony Morrow, former executive director of the DFC, says although he’s seen a wealth of good material in Detroit, he’s recently come across some DV films that “lack a solid story.”
“I think that’s the problem: the mentality of ‘Hey, we’ve got a camera, let’s shoot a film!’” Morrow muses. “And that’s happening everywhere, the dumbing down of cinema with technology.”
Many filmmakers feel torn by the benefits and drawbacks of this new digital millennium.
“It’s hard to weigh things in terms of good and bad,” says Casey. “The digital boom, if anything, it’s shaken things up. It’s something new. The good stuff will float to the surface, and the bad stuff will stay bad. Good films will always be good films. It’s just a matter of letting the dust settle on the digital explosion.”
In early June, at the cusp of the summer movie slam, Michigan native filmmakers pulled a one-two punch at the box office. Spider-Man 2 landed at No. 1, grossing a whopping $180 million in its first week; the splashy big-budget sequel, like the original, is directed by Birmingham native Sam Raimi. The No. 2 slot was filled by Flint-born Michael Moore’s controversial documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. From Roger and Me to Bowling for Columbine, Moore has evolved into something of a documentary hero.
Raimi is also a distinguished figure to indie filmmakers in the Detroit area and beyond; before he hit it big in Hollywood, Raimi was heralded for his Evil Dead trilogy, a series of low-budget horror films starring Bruce Campbell, now a cult icon, who first hooked up with Raimi in high school drama class. The first Evil Dead was shot in rural Michigan in the late ’70s on a modest budget. Through hard work, both Campbell and Raimi barreled forward into successful Hollywood careers.
“In Michigan, there’s a tendency for a lot of indie filmmakers to do horror, and that’s because of Evil Dead,” says Casey, who co-directed a campy low-budget horror romp, Dead/Undead, along with several of his filmmaking buddies. He considers Raimi, Campbell and others involved with Evil Dead to be hometown heroes.
As Casey explains in a behind-the-scenes documentary on Dead/Undead, which was released in 2002, he and friends Mark Elliot, Brett Pierce and Richard Ferrando were hit with the sudden inspiration to make the film while on a road trip. They cast their friend Fox Valade as a drug dealer (without first informing him) and conned him into writing the script.
Despite the cheesy script and admittedly campy tone, Dead/Undead displays a strong directorial style, including innovative camera angles and lighting. Plus, Casey and company poke fun at themselves in the behind-the-scenes peek: They describe the birth of the film using descriptors like “Dude!” and “Sweet!” Valade explains he hosted the first meeting for the film “because I was the only one of the filmmakers who wasn’t still living at home.” The latest DVD release of the film — which includes the documentary and blooper reels — bears a sarcastic endorsement from Bruce Campbell: “It didn’t suck as bad as I expected.”
“I have no enthusiasm for going to film school,” says Elliot. “Mostly because of what I’ve heard from Dan,” he adds with a laugh. Elliot also worked with Casey on Secrets of Fenville, which screened at Royal Oak’s Main Art Theatre, and The Passage, Casey’s thriller that just snagged national distribution — in a straight to DVD format — and won numerous film festival awards and accolades.
“I’m really just doing it so I can meet people,” says Casey of his film studies at CCS. “I don’t think you need a degree. It’s more about who you know … hard work and who you know.”
“Basically, the group of us, we learn from watching films,” says Elliot. “We don’t want to be told what a good film is.”
And Elliot has seen his share of bad films — including his own. When asked about his movie High End, which screened at the Main Art, he blithely responds “Oh, I didn’t like that one very much.”
“I’ve made lots of movies I don’t like, but that’s the point,” says Elliot. “If you don’t see your own faults, you won’t know how to correct them. I’ve made lots of crap. When I look at a movie I made, I try to understand what’s bad, and hopefully I won’t make the same mistake.”
“You have to admire Dan Casey and his group of friends,” says Chene Koppitz, manager of the Main Art Theatre. “They’ve legitimately made what amounts to a film a year, and they were in high school when they started. I have my betting money on that group of people.”
So does filmmaker Michael Kallio, whose first horror film, Hatred of a Minute, was produced by Campbell (“Campbell’s Kid,” Metro Times, May 14, 2003). During a whopping 12 years of filming and producing the movie, Campbell took Kallio under his wing, joking once that he was Kallio’s “mentor … or rather, tormentor.”
Kallio, in turn, inflicted the same sort of guidance and loving abuse on Casey and his crew.
“I guess you could say I’m his tormentor,” says Kallio, who has a feature film project in the works with Casey. “But Dan and those guys don’t need a mentor — they’re talented all on their own.”
“Mike was doing it when nobody else was,” says Casey. “He was one of the first real indie filmmakers to come out of Detroit.”
“I learned all my bitterness and cynicism from Mike,” jokes Elliot. “I’ve learned every bit of my hatred of movies from him. I mean, man, right now we’re doing sound editing, and sometimes you wish you had a double-barreled shotgun.
“Most of the time I don’t look at filmmaking as art,” continues Elliot. “A lot of people get really pissed at that, but filmmaking is mostly a craft. When you spend two hours moving around one sound effect, that’s a craft. I think part of the problem is people don’t understand it’s all technical.”
Kallio, who writes, directs and produces his films, recently fled Detroit for Los Angeles.
“The technology is changing so rapidly,” says Kallio via phone, on location at a shoot. “Now you can buy a DV camera … but when I started that wasn’t available and I shot on film. Now I’m switching over. I’m still a film purist, but it’s a means to an end when you’re short on money.”
Kallio is currently shooting a feature film in Los Angeles, and was able to leap into the project without first drumming up large sums of money — thanks to the affordability of DV.
“I just moved here and I’m shooting a feature right now, and not a lot of people can say that.”
Yet he too acknowledges the pitfalls of DV.
“The market has become even more saturated. Distributors are getting bombarded with stuff, including the bad stuff.”
“I’m a hard judge of good and bad movies,” says Kallio, “but I can always find some redeemable quality in a movie, whether it’s a multimillion dollar project or a $2,500 cheapie.”
Despite his new residence in Los Angeles, land of the blockbuster epic, Kallio has little interest in entering the big-budget realm of Hollywood, for fear of losing creative control of his films.
“A lot of the stuff that’s ‘independent’ out here is actually backed by studios,” he says. “Independent film is like ‘alternative music’ right now — it’s a catchphrase that doesn’t really mean anything anymore. To be a truly independent film, it has to be people raising the money themselves, and making it themselves, with no outside interference — that’s complete creative control.”
Show me the money
The unavoidable bottom line in filmmaking: Even with the cost-saving advent of DV, making a movie still requires more than pocket money. Aside from the cost of the camera and editing equipment, filmmakers must pay for a cast and crew, provide them with food, rent shooting locations, acquire props and costumes, and so forth.
Crafty filmmakers barter, call in favors, and write out IOUs to keep the budget down. Director Patrick McCarthy and the other folks behind Crazy Luck managed to pull off a clever, original, Clerks.-style comedy for less than $10,000. Friends worked free of charge; actors worked for the experience in lieu of pay. Similarly, Dead/Undead was shot for just $1,000, thanks to the kindness and gullibility of friends and family.
Some filmmakers also promise their actors and crew a percentage of the movie’s profits — if there are any profits.
Fundraising techniques can range from bumming cash off mom and dad to approaching major businesses as investors.
Consider The Second Coming, a dramatic thriller from writer-director Darren Campbell and producer-cinematographer Christos Moisides. The pair shot the film for about $100,000 and spent a total of $300,000 on the entire project.
Moisides says the duo raised all of their money in the Detroit area, particularly from the Greek community, where Moisides has many ties. “It was all private equity,” he says. “We just hit as many people as possible.”
While Detroit isn’t yet known nationally for its filmmaking scene, it is flourishing in one particular niche — music videos. Given Detroit’s status as indie garage rock capital of the nation, what better place for an independent music video director to be?
Recently, director Anthony Garth shut down a block of Congress Street to shoot a video for the Detroit Cobras. Garth, along with friend J.B. Carlin, are prolific music video directors in Detroit. Garth directed the videos for the White Stripes’ “Hotel Yorba” and “We’re Gonna Be Friends” which made it to MTV; Carlin directed the video for “Picture,” the notorious Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow duet.
Unlike cities such as San Francisco and San Antonio, Detroit has yet to develop a cohesive film community. Here filmmakers primarily work on their own, collaborating with just a handful of friends.
The self-sufficiency of DV is a probable culprit.
“There’s a lot of people doing specific things on their own,” says Kallio. “With digital, you can shoot and edit a movie with just three or four people, or you can just do the whole thing yourself. Film requires more people, a bigger crew.”
“In Detroit, nobody seems to know what everybody else is doing,” says Casey. One bright spot, he notes, is the Detroit Film Center, a nonprofit organization that offers workshops, classes and screening rooms. But Casey laments that there aren’t more groups like the DFC.
“I haven’t really felt a strong sense of community here,” agrees filmmaker Kelly Parker. “The DFC is probably the strongest network. There are a lot of people out there, but it seems like they’re doing it on their own.”
Parker is one of only a handful of female filmmakers in the Detroit area. Filmmakers of color seem to be sparse as well.
The year Parker graduated from CCS’s animation and digital media program, she was one of just three women in her graduating class of 34 students.
“Something like 4 percent of all directors are women,” says Parker. “It’s definitely a boys club.”
Parker was thrilled last year when first-time director Patty Jenkins received heaps of critical praise for Monster, her biopic film on serial killer Aileen Wuornos. “She had a very distinctive women’s voice in that film, and it was exciting to see that appreciated,” Parker says of Jenkins.
“Like a lot of other careers and fields, it’s male-dominated,” says filmmaker Kristine Trever, who just debuted As the Lights Dim, her tongue-in-cheek take on soap operas, at the DFC.
While Trever mostly writes and directs her own work, she’s irritated that she can’t get a technical position working on a feature film, because of her petite stature.
“To do a big feature, you have to be in a union, and to be in a union, you have to be able to lift 50 pounds. I can’t do that, so I don’t fit their physical criteria.”
L.A. or Bust?
It’s a question all Detroit filmmakers must eventually face: Should I stay or go to Los Angeles?
Detroit certainly has its advantages. For one, it’s cheap.
“If I had closed that street down in Los Angeles, that would have cost thousands of dollars,” says Garth, “and they did it for very little here just to see money and work come into the city.”
Karen Dumas, the city’s top cultural affairs honcho and director of the Detroit Film Office, says filmmakers are among those eligible for mini-grants through a city arts program, and wants the film office to do more for the independent film community.
“We’re planning a film forum, so we can get input from filmmakers in the area: What do they need? What do they want?” says Dumas. “We’d like for them to be able to shape the kind of department that’s beneficial to their interests.”
And while a group of Michigan lawmakers recently proposed tax credits and incentives for filmmakers, these would only apply to those spending at least $250,000 in the state — i.e. the big-budget Hollywood guys.
Tony Smith is the director of Paintcans and Politics, a forthcoming documentary on the TRTL graffiti artist. A lifelong Detroiter, Smith says he loves his hometown, but the seedy shooting locations were sometimes a cause for concern.
“I think it can be dangerous to do films in Detroit. There’s been a lot of times when I came across dangerous situations. People will come and try to jack you for your stuff. … The other day I was out filming and someone tried to dump a cup of piss on me.”
Similarly, the cast and crew of After April, a dark story of revenge, reported some uncomfortable situations during filming.
“We were shooting toward the Six Mile area, and there were a couple of times when prostitutes were upset that we were on the territory,” says screenwriter Ryan Farley. “We were definitely in a sketchy area, there were garages burning a block away; we’d randomly hear gunshots … but it was a good experience”
While the city offers a unique — and, at times, authentically gritty — landscape, it lacks the money machines of Los Angeles.
“Detroit has that cool backdrop, and it’s multi-ethnic. It’s not a black and white city, and the music scene is eclectic as well,” says Moisides. “It’s a good thing for visuals, but a bad thing for financing. L.A. is the mecca of filmmaking, and it’s all business there, but here you have more passion.”
Moisides, who got his start doing car commercials in Detroit, has been stationed in Los Angeles for the past eight years, but continues to bounce back and forth between the two cities.
Kallio plans to follow the same pattern.
“I left because I felt I couldn’t do anything else [in Detroit] and I had to come out here to play the game and find backing and get more projects going,” says Kallio. “I’d like to bounce back and forth because I have friends and family there, but this is where I do business. I love Michigan … but they make movies in L.A., they make cars in Michigan. Plus, it was too damn cold.”
Casey is still undecided.
“You can be a big fish in a small pond here, or you can go out to L.A. and be a guppy,” he says. “I guess I don’t mind L.A., but I really like Detroit.”
And thanks to the new technology, some feel it’s simply not necessary to be stationed out West anymore.
“Ultimately I’ll make Detroit my home base,” says Garth, “but with technology things have kind of changed and it doesn’t really matter where you live.”