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Interview

How to Make a Sundance Indie Film

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How to Make a Sundance Indie Film
Photo Source: Matt Doyle

Sitting with the creative team behind new indie “The One I Love,” genial actor-producer-writer-director-cool-guy Mark Duplass says of his breakthrough film, “My first movie [‘The Puffy Chair’] was shot on VHS-C with a dead pixel in the middle of it, and it looked and sounded like shit, but it went to Sundance because of the spirit. Get the best people you know who won’t desert you at the 12th hour.”

Director of “The One I Love” Charlie McDowell pipes up after staring past Duplass at two men across the room. “I’m sorry, there were two men very sensually dancing and holding each other while you were giving that really good answer,” he says. “I think they found their team—what they lack in technical acumen, they get on the floor!”

Made up of McDowell, Duplass, writer Justin Lader, and producer Mel Eslyn, as well as actor Elisabeth Moss, the team behind “The One I Love” had all of the acumen with none of the faltering when they nailed the dance of getting an indie film made:

Step 1: Have (barely) a kernel of an idea for a movie and send it to friends with whom you’d like to work.

Step 2: “Chew on it” and then hire actors to chew on it with you.

Step 3: Meet your producer on Thanksgiving so you can start preproduction five weeks later.

Step 4: Shoot your sci-fi-fantasy-romantic-dramedy in 15 days and premiere at Sundance.

Step 5: Secure theatrical and VOD distribution.

This is not a sure-fire way to get your film made and distributed, but it’s a good blueprint for the modern-day indie filmmaker: Gather people you trust and then make something.

The group started prepping to shoot “The One I Love” in the amount of time it typically takes an agent to pick up a script and read it. “I remember when we first did that 10-page [treatment] and we sent it off to Mark. I was like, ‘OK, I’m thinking maybe I’ll head off to Florida,’ ” says Lader, “and Charlie was like, ‘No, Mark’s calling us tomorrow at noon.’ We were not used to that.”

The goal from the beginning was to make something quick and cheap that focused on interpersonal relationship dynamics. Without spoiling the big surprise that makes the film what it is, “The One I Love” stars Duplass and Moss as a married couple who have hit a relationship slump. When they take the advice of their therapist (Ted Danson) to go on a weekend getaway and reconnect, things get “Twilight Zone” weird.

“The final product was more odd and strange than I thought it would be and yet more relatable at its core,” says Duplass. “I was wondering, like, ‘OK, is this something that’s more of a couple-relatable movie? Or is the weird shit that happens [in the film] just going to make this movie some fuckin’ David Lynchean madness?’ But it maintains itself as this relationship study and it really shot out to Mars at the same time, so it was cool to see that duality exist.”

Being able to pivot between those dualities was the perfect reason to take the indie route; it guaranteed the film would be made in the way they wanted, with no one to answer to but themselves.

“[Indie film] allows for every single one of us to be insanely hands-on and to have this collaborative nature,” says Eslyn, who sat down with Duplass, Lader, McDowell, and Moss to hash out the mostly improvised characters. “It’s something I don’t experience unless I’m working at this budget level; handpicking the crew and the cast and the people who come on—every single one of them is a collaborator. We’d be rolling on a scene and the boom op would be like, ‘I think you should try this,’ and we’d try it.”

“I don’t know if the boom op ever weighed in,” says McDowell, starting a back-and-forth rehash. “Yeah, ’cause we’d be like, ‘Fuck you, boom op,’ ” Duplass chimes in, jokingly. “Let’s say sound mixer then,” says Eslyn.

When asked what the role of today’s indie producer is, Lader accentuates the plurality of the role before Eslyn can respond. “It’s something she won’t say, but it was like summer camp,” he says. “Rooms that we shot in were rooms that people were sleeping in…. I always think about Mel’s job as one of those cartoons where you’re balancing a bunch of dishes on a stick.”

Eslyn’s figurative stick included serving as line producer, creative liaison for McDowell’s vision (somewhere between a Spike Jonze flick and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), and Porta-Potty organizer, as well as meeting everyone’s dietary restrictions and knowing “when to hug someone and when to tell a dick joke,” Eslyn says.

“I think it was the brilliant Taylor Dayne who said it best: ‘I’m a bitch, I’m a lover, I’m a child, I’m a mother...’ I’m an independent film producer,” says Duplass. Eslyn quickly replies, “Who the fuck quotes Taylor Dayne?” (Apologies to Taylor Dayne, but it was actually singer-songwriter Meredith Brooks who provided the world with that wisdom.) There’s a clear comfort among the collaborators, who all agree: The amount of fun they had on set made them wonder if they had tricked themselves and the movie was actually horrible.

McDowell was initially worried about the tight shooting schedule and said any other producer probably would have buckled and added a few days. But the trust in Eslyn’s and Duplass’ experiences outweighed his doubt, and the film’s production went off without a hitch.

“You really have to build the movie for what its limitations are,” says Duplass. “We set aside a certain amount of money that we could make this for, that we felt that even if the movie wasn’t a huge success it would make that money back. That’s what we made it for, so we were safe and we could take risks. There were essentially no sacrifices, no cutting back. There was only, ‘This is what we have available.’ ”

“In saying that, though, we pushed it really far,” says McDowell, laughing. Working within those limitations allowed for more creative freedom than they could have imagined. And so the dance became balancing the tension of the indie film budget with the fluidity of the current indie film market.

When asked how they feel the landscape has changed, accessibility to both distribution and content lead the conversation.

“I’m really excited about it from a purely economic standpoint,” says indie vet Duplass. “The VOD platforms are allowing these independent film distribution companies to monetize [on them]. That’s what keeps them in business, that’s what keeps them buying our movies and keeps us showing up at Sundance making them because they will get purchased.

“In a world where we’re not seeing them as much in the theaters, it’s a revenue stream that’s keeping the whole thing afloat…. A lot of times you’ll hear, ‘I’m gonna take my movie to Sundance and I’m going to rape that fucking distributor for as much money as I can get.’ You have to keep in mind that we’re in an ecosystem here! If the coral goes away, then the fish are gonna die, too.”

Despite occasionally having to sacrifice the big screen, VOD provides a safety net for nonmainstream films, such as “The One I Love,” that can get the word out for $10,000 and have it spread like wildfire on the Web. This film had the luxury of both.

“It’s a really interesting thing to see,” says McDowell, who’s coming of age as a director in the midst of it all. “I’m in the middle about it—I’m a theater guy and I want people to see it in the theater, but then again, the more eyes on this film the better.”

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